Monday, December 26, 2011

Susy's Soup

Feature about Susy's Soup, a downtown Cleveland place that has since become a favorite of ours.

By Pamela Zoslov

“It is impossible to think of any good meal, no matter how plain or elegant, without soup or bread in it,” said the prominent food writer M.F.K. Fischer. That philosophy is fully embraced by Susy’s Soup & Deli, a casual downtown eatery that has been serving comforting, piping-hot homemade soups for nine years, the last two and a half at its present location Tower City. The house-made soups, along with specialty sandwiches on fresh-baked bread, fresh salads, chili and breakfast wraps, have customers lining up out the door –- and why not? It’s hard to imagine anything more satisfying than a bowl of chicken and wild rice, chicken paprikash, chicken dumpling, creamy tomato tortellini, black bean, Italian wedding, minestrone, lobster bisque or clam chowder. To a true soup lover, the very names are ambrosial.

Diners are drawn to Susy’s by the soup and sandwiches, but the attentive service, unusual for a casual lunch spot, keeps them coming back. After a customer picks up his soup, a member of the Susy’s team brings their sandwich or salad to the table. “We do everything with love,” says general manager Dave Long. “We want to be the best at what we do. We work hard, over a hot kettle all day. We use good-quality ingredients, and the bread is baked fresh every day.” The soup is made one kettle at a time, the flavor then locked in with a “quick chill” process. Healthy food is a priority; everything on the menu is made without MSG or preservatives, and vegetarian, fat-free and gluten-free options are available.

Susy’s was founded 12 years ago by Michael Sharpe, an owner of Cleveland’s popular Sharpy’s Subs in the 1980s. He wanted to shift his culinary focus to soups, and after searching for a name for the new venture, decided to christen it after his young daughter, whose name provided a nice alliteration and represented the restaurant’s “family” feeling. The first Susy’s Soups was in North Olmsted; the restaurant then took up residence in the Park Building on Public Square before accepting an offer to open on the fountain level of Tower City. (Susy’s also has an Express location in the Halle Building.) The long lunchtime lines attest to Susy’s success. “In a bad economy, we’ve had consistent growth,” Long says.

While soup is paramount, the salads, chili and sandwiches – corned beef, smoked turkey, Reubens, chicken salad — have a devoted following. “The most popular is our grilled cheese,” Long says. “People get addicted to it.” It’s made with provolone, cheddar and American cheese, melted on tasty fresh bread from the Western Reserve Bread Co. Susy’s also has a busy catering business, providing crock pot soups, deli trays, wrap trays and box lunches for events large and small. With all the changes happening in and around Public Square, Susy’s, currently open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., may also add dinner hours.

Susy’s is guided by a love of Cleveland and a strong belief in giving back to the community with extensive charitable work. “We don’t really publicize our charitable work,” Long says, but notes that the restaurant’s outreach efforts include a monthly feeding for Laura’s Home, the City Mission shelter for women and children in crisis, supporting St. Malachi’s, donating 40 gallons of soup to feed a youth group of 400 and participating in the annual Market Under Glass benefit for Harvest for Hunger. “That stuff is really fulfilling,” he says. “We see ourselves as part of the community, part of Cleveland’s rebirth,” Long says. “We’re trying to do something good.”

Fulfillment also comes from the simple everyday act of providing good food for people. “It’s the small things – knowing that we can make a small difference in people’s lives every day,” Long says. “We don’t like to call them customers. We call them ‘friends of Susy.’ We treat them as our friends.”

Phil the Fire

A profile of Phil Davis, owner of Phil the Fire restaurant in Cleveland.

By Pamela Zoslov

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” He clearly never imagined the determination of Phil Davis, founder and proprietor of Phil the Fire, the restaurant that introduced Cleveland to the Southern homestyle delicacy chicken and waffles –- a unique combination of golden-brown fried chicken atop thick, cinnamon-spiced Belgian waffle, topped with butter and syrup. Phil the Fire –- a nickname based on the Peabo Bryson song “Feel the Fire” –- took Davis from a dazzling rise to a devastating fall, followed by a seven-year sojourn in the desert of legal troubles and a low-paying job loading boxes in the middle of the night.

The journey began in 2001, when Davis began serving Sunday brunch in the basement of The Civic in Cleveland Heights. His chicken and waffles became a sensation, and Davis opened Phil the Fire restaurants at Shaker Square and downtown. Then, fatefully, he relied on the promises of an unscrupulous hedge fund manager, leading to the loss of millions of investor dollars and the closing of Phil the Fire in 2004, followed by a rash of lawsuits. “In January 2004, I was a local quasi-celebrity, and within a week went from being the toast of the town to the talk of the town,” he reflects. “That was very humbling, because when your fall from grace is very public, you have nowhere to hide.”

During those dark days, Davis underwent a period of personal growth. He worked out a plan to repay his debts and spent time caring for his daughter, Machiah, now 10, all the while keeping in mind a line from his mother’s favorite poem, "Invictus": “My head is bloody, but unbowed.” He spent endless hours in the kitchen perfecting his recipes, and drew upon his business-school training to launch new inventions -- including “the world’s smallest microwave” — and plan how he would do things better if he could reopen Phil the Fire.

Davis’ second act began in August, when he opened the new Phil the Fire restaurant at the Fairfield Inn in Beachwood, a warm, inviting space that serves up Davis’ signature “comfort food for the soul” – rich, flavorful dishes based on the Sunday brunches his parents, Alberta and Sherman, cooked when he was growing up in Cleveland. The location is one Davis had long been interested in. “I’d always been a big fan of this area, and when I walked in, it just felt like, this is it – this is the space I’ve been dreaming of.” The new restaurant enabled Davis to bring back two of the original Phil the Fire chefs, hire a savvy general manager and create 125 jobs. “That’s a great feeling,” he says.

When Phil the Fire reopened with an all-day Sunday brunch, it was as though it had never closed. People had been yearning for another taste of Phil’s chicken and waffles. “The support, love and warmth we’ve received have been overwhelming. We’ve had people drive in from Columbus, Ashtabula, Canton. We’ve served about 10,000 people in the first month. We’ve had people create special memories here – wedding anniversaries, birthdays — one man proposed to his fiancée in that room over there. It’s humbling and overwhelming. If I had to wait seven years for anything in life,” he says, “This would have been it.”

Davis made a conscious decision to limit the menu to “what we do best.” That means that aside from chicken and waffles, there are such mouthwatering favorites as the creamy Three Cheese Mac N Cheese, fresh collard greens, buttermilk pancakes, rotisserie chicken, fried salmon strips, broiled salmon and catfish (blackened, fried or broiled), as well as Phil’s signature desserts: Mom’s Famous Double Butter Peach or Apple Cobbler, Pecan and Sweet Potato Pie and Sweet Potato Pecan Pie. As the weather grows colder, the restaurant will offer hot gumbos and a fireplace for people to gather around.

Every dish has what Davis calls a “signature flavor,” and he is meticulous and demanding of his staff about achieving it. he says. “We cook everything from scratch. Everything is fresh, not frozen. We honor the food.”

But food is only one part of the Phil the Fire picture. “I asked the staff, what do we sell here? Memories. This food evokes memories, like the scene in the movie Ratatouille where the critic tastes the ratatouille and it takes him back to his childhood. This food is a daily reminder of the things I grew up on, and a way to honor the memories of my mother and father.”

The restaurant business is a tough taskmaster, but Davis says it’s addictive. “It’s hard to get out of your system. I’m here 20 hours a day, but this is easy. I love to cook, I love to serve. It’s a labor of love. I’m just having a ball.” The entrepreneurial Davis has plans to capitalize on his brand with a line of Phil the Fire prepared comfort foods and Phil the Fire restaurants in other cities.

After only one month back I business, Phil the Fire is already a destination spot. “People are saying, “Let’s meet at Phil’s,” he says. “This is something you can’t buy. Things like this keep me going.”

Thursday, December 8, 2011

I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive (Je suis heureux que ma mère soit vivante)

Review by Pamela Zoslov

Nancy Verrier's book The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child caused a considerable stir when it was published in 1993. Verrier's thesis challenged the idea that loving and caring adoptive parents can overcome the trauma experienced by a child who is separated from his birth mothers and given up for adoption. According to Verrier, “the resultant experience of abandonment and loss is indelibly imprinted upon the unconscious minds of these children, causing that which I call the primal wound.”

Verrier's Freudian-derived thesis is vividly illustrated in I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive (Je suis heureaux que ma mère soit vivante), a 2009 film written and directed by Claude Miller, a veteran French director, and his cameraman son, Nathan. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Thomas Jouvet, a teenager who rebels against his well-meaning adoptive parents (Yves Verhoeven and Christine Citti) and searches for his birth mother. The movie toggles between the present day, as Thomas gets in trouble for fighting in school, and his harrowing early childhood, when he and his younger half-brother, Patrick, were left in the casually negligent care of their mother, Julie (Sophie Cattani). So careless a mother is Julie that she leaves 4-year-old Thomas in charge of his infant brother while she takes off for days with a friend. Not surprisingly, the authorities remove Thomas and Patrick from Julie's chaotic home, and she is compelled to give them up for adoption; Annie and Yves Jouvet adopt both boys, changing Patrick's name to François.

Despite the Jouvets' loving care, the primal wound remains unhealed in the teenage Thomas ( Maxine Renard), first seen on a beach holiday with his parents. Angry and resentful of the Jouvets (“You're not my real parents!”), he wrangles his birth mother's address from a reluctant registry official. He knocks on the door to Julie's suburban flat but runs away when she appears, newly married and happily pregnant.

At 20, Thomas (now played by Vincent Rottiers) is seemingly better adjusted and working as an auto mechanic. His relationship with his mother is improved; his brother, François (Olivier Guéritée), is a sanguine teenager with no interest in hearing about his birth mother. Thomas again visits his mother, now divorced from a wealthy man and raising her young son. He approaches her rather like a suitor, with chocolates and flowers in hand, a hallmark of the unusual, strangely sexualized relationship that develops between them (Julie is only 17 years older than her son). The play of emotions on Cattani's face as Julie searches for her feelings for her revenant son. – she doesn't even ask about Patrick/François, as Thomas chidingly reminds her -- is wonderfully subtle, and Rottiers' resentment of his mother's neglect and loving indulgence of her new son, feel quite real. Thomas, confused in an Oedipal way, tells his adoptive mother he has a “girlfriend,” and Julie uses Thomas as a convenient babysitter and a confidante, inflaming his ancient anger by telling him about men she's dating. His mother's sexuality is front and center in the mother-son relationship, replicating the fateful pattern of years ago.

The narrative's stark, almost documentary quality, makes the paroxysm of violence that erupts at the film's climax especially seem especially shocking, yet as inexorable as Greek tragedy. With strong, realistic writing and persuasive acting, the film elicits sympathy for all of the characters – the grievously wounded Thomas, the devoted but helpless adoptive mother and the father descending into dementia, and Julie, who could never be the mother Thomas needed.

The Man Nobody Knew

Review by Pamela Zoslov

The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby belongs to that category of documentary in which a son tries to make sense of the life of an ambiguous or emotionally distant father (Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect is another). Carl Colby, son of former CIA director William Colby and an experienced documentary filmmaker, has assembled a fascinating collection of interviews and historical footage to solve the mysteries left unsolved when the body of his father was found in 1996. Retired from the CIA, the 76-year-old Colby, a skilled boater, had apparently drowned in a canoe accident. An impressive roster of speakers, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Donald Rumsfeld, Brent Scowcroft and journalists Bob Woodward, Seymour Hersh lend insight into Colby, “The Company,” and the CIA's role in the world.
Some of the most interesting insight comes from the younger Colby's interviews with his mother, the classy and articulate Barbara Colby, who narrates the history of their family. We hear the story and see photos of Bill as a young World War II army officer, eager for action, and as an early recruit in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA. He was part of a select force that parachuted behind enemy lines, earning a Silver Star; he led a sabotage mission in Norway to thwart the Germans by destroying railway lines. Carl Colby says his father was “the coolest character I ever knew.” His father then graduated from Columbia Law School, practiced law in New York, then moved to Washington to work for the National Labor Relations Board.
Taciturn by nature, Colby was well suited to the spy game. The true nature of his work was unknown to his family, even his wife, who says she did not know when her husband moved from the NLRB to the CIA. Much of Carl's childhood was spent in Rome, where Colby was stationed in the 1950s, allegedly working for the State Department but actually directing covert operations to support the anti-Communist Christian Democrat party. A devoutly Catholic family, the Colbys reveled in their life in Rome and close connections with the Vatican.
They moved to Saigon in 1959, at the cusp of the civil war in Vietnam and the United States' involvement. Colby, under a State Department cover, was in charge of supporting the Diem government, and the family became close with the president, his brother and their families. Diem was an autocratic U.S.-installed Catholic leader known for persecuting Buddhists. Colby's mission was to help fortify Vietnamese citizens against the Viet Cong insurgency. The Colbys were shaken after Diem's assassination in an apparently U.S.-backed coup in 1963. After a relatively idyllic stay, the Colbys left Saigon.
Vietnam would continue to haunt Colby. On a return assignment in 1968, he headed the notorious Phoenix Program, a counter-terrorism effort that became a program of indiscriminate torture and murder of suspected terrorists (often just hapless people hauled in for a cash bounty). Under Phoenix, more than 40,000 Vietnamese – many of them women – were tortured and killed, and the details of the killings are quite grisly. In an article on Phoenix, Noam Chomsky quotes K. Baron Osborn, a veteran of a covert intelligence program in Vietnam: “I never knew an individual to be detained as a VC suspect who ever lived through an interrogation in a year and a half, and that included quite a number of individuals.” During confirmation hearings in 1971 for the CIA director position, Colby denied that Phoenix was an assassination program, and claimed that most of those killed were “members of military units or while fighting off arrest.” According to Chomsky, those claims are “contradicted by all nonofficial testimony on the subject.”
The movie suggests that Phoenix strayed from Colby's original intentions and became a monster; the claim deserves more objective examination. What is certain is that Colby remained troubled by the outcome in Vietnam. In Lost Victory, a book he wrote after retirement, he argued that South Vietnam could have survived if the U.S. had continued its support after the Paris Peace Accords.
This fascinating, richly detailed documentary is both a history of Colby's career and a psychological journey in which Carl tries to discover who his father was and what his culpability was for the bloodbath of Phoenix and for other dark exploits of American intelligence. “My father lived in a world of secrets,” Carl says in voice-over narration. Barbara Colby knew so little about her husband that his announcement that he wanted a divorce came as an utter shock. (Colby was later remarried, to a CIA colleague.) Carl's bitterness about his father is still evident. “I'm not sure he ever loved anyone,” he concludes. Bill Colby was a shadowy, inscrutable figure, even for a career spy.
Perhaps the most interesting chapter of Colby's life came during his rocky tenure as CIA chief was when he testified before Congressional investigative committees with unprecedented candor about the activities of the CIA – displaying the so-called “Family Jewels.” Colby was a devout Catholic, and the film speculates that his frankness was motivated by a desire to expiate his (and the Agency's) sins. His well-intended openness alarmed Washington's elites, and on the advice of Henry Kissinger, President Gerald Ford replaced Colby in 1975 with George H.W. Bush, a man who knew how to keep a secret.
Did Colby have a heart attack, as the coroner ruled, during that fatal canoe trip? There is speculation that he was murdered or committed suicide. Though not mentioned in the film, Carl Colby has said that a fortnight before his death, his dad called him to ask forgiveness for being an absent father to Carl's sickly sister, Catherine, who died in 1973. When Colby's body was found, he had a picture of Catherine in his pocket.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Anonymous: Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?

The latest salvo in the unending war between the Stratfordians, who believe William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was the true author of the Shakespeare plays, and the Oxfordians, who claim they were written by Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, comes from the unlikely hand of Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), a director better known for action than for literary history.

John Orloff’s script, a bizarre mélange of Elizabethan politics, gossip and soap opera, posits that de Vere (Rhys Ifans), a literary genius and onetime lover of the now aged Queen Elizabeth (Vanessa Redgrave), was compelled by his noble station to conceal his splendid playwriting behind a “front.” A dodgy, functionally illiterate actor, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), accepts the offer, extorts a generous pension from de Vere and, in a nasty distortion of history, kills Christopher Marlowe when that playwright learns the truth.

There are some merits in the often laughable drama, particularly in the staging of the plays themselves, but the story descends into a fever dream of botched history, imagining, among other things, an Oedipal relationship between Oxford and Elizabeth. Its vituperative attitude toward the man from Stratford, portrayed as a drunken, whoring wastrel, does little to advance the cause of the Oxfordians. – Pamela Zoslov

(Originally published in Cleveland Scene.)

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness

By Pamela Zoslov

The Yiddish language, a fusion of German, Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages, is often dismissed as merely a source of folklore and colorful insults (my favorite among those my mother taught me translates to “You should grow like an onion, with your head in the ground”). Yet Yiddish, spoken by an ever-diminishing population, is, in linguist Dovid Katz’s words, “a language whose everyday words…continue to burn with ancient passion, humor, and psychic content that have come down the line of generation-to-generation language transmission, from antiquity into the 21st century.”

The history of Yiddish is an underlying theme of Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness, Joseph Dorman’s earnest documentary about the Yiddish-language author best known for the Tevye the Dairyman stories, which inspired the Broadway and Hollywood musical Fiddler on the Roof. Sholem Aleichem (“peace be upon you”), the pen name of Solomon Rabinowitz, was not, as the film implies, the first author to write popular fiction in Yiddish, but he was the most successful, elevating the often scorned “people’s language” of Eastern European Jews into a serious language of literature.

The film does what it can, using archival photographs, narration, academic talking heads and John Zorn music, to dramatize the life of the prolific author. But the story encounters two problems of translation. One is the difficulty of translating a life of letters into a movie – detailed analyses of the stories’ plots, as well as hammy readings by actors Peter Riegert and Rachel Dratch, create the unwelcome feeling of a classroom lecture. The other is that Aleichem’s stories translate poorly; the chief pleasure of his writing is its unbelievable linguistic invention. That is why his stories are remembered less for their biting wit than as gently humorous nostalgia pieces, personified by Topol yi-di-deedling “If I Were a Rich Man” (based on Aleichem’s “If I Were Rothschild”).

The film traces Aleichem’s tumultuous biography and the decline of Eastern European Jewish life, drawing parallels between his experiences and those of his characters. Born in a Ukrainian shtetl in 1859 to a prosperous merchant, he received, unlike most Jews, a secular Russian education. He married a wealthy landowner’s daughter, moved to Kiev and published articles in Hebrew and Russian before deciding to write in Yiddish and founding a Yiddish literary journal. He inhabited two worlds: that of the modern capitalist investor (like his hapless fortune-seeker Menákhem-Méndl) and the shtetl dweller (the Tevye stories). Pogroms and financial reversals sent him to America and Switzerland, and he succumbed to tuberculosis in 1915. Embraced as “the Jewish Mark Twain,” Aleichem had achieved worldwide acclaim; his funeral drew 100,000 mourners.

In his will, Sholem Aleichem directed family and friends to recite one of his stories (“one of the very merry ones”). He wrote, “Let my name be recalled with laughter, or not at all.” Although it can’t fully convey the tone and cadence of Aleichem’s prose, the film expresses the enduring humanity of his writing. It’s a fitting tribute to this sometimes underrated literary master, recalling him with laughter and affection.

Originally published in Cleveland Scene.

The Rum Diary

“The book is hopeless,” wrote Hunter S. Thompson to Alfred Kazin in 1961 of his semi-autobiographical novel The Rum Diary, which went unpublished until 1998. Even so, the multitalented Bruce Robinson’s zesty adaptation, with Hunter protégé Johnny Depp as journalist Paul Kemp, is by miles the best Thompson adaptation to hit the screen.

Kemp, a hard-drinking but idealistic newspaperman, lands at a failing San Juan daily, surrounded by a cynical editor (Richard Jenkins), greedy capitalists (including Aaron Eckhart) bent on exploiting Puerto Rico’s riches, eccentric, boozy colleagues (Michael Rispoli and Giovanni Ribisi) and an unattainable beauty (Amber Heard). The picaresque plot, involving Kemp’s narrow escape from shilling for shady developers and a jail sentence, is secondary to the impeccable design and cinematography reflecting San Juan’s “schizoid society” (squalid apartments juxtaposed with pristine beaches and gleaming ’50s cars), ebullient acting and Robinson’s script, which crackles with Thompsonian wit.

Most of the energy is expended in the first hour, after which the drinking, hallucinogens and cock fights become repetitive and Depp’s initially impressive Thompson imitation recedes, yet there’s enough to savor here that it hardly matters; the film so well captures Thompson’s spirit that you have the sense he would have approved. – Pamela Zoslov

Originally published in Cleveland Scene.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Last Mountain

By Pamela Zoslov

In his book about the hard life of coal miners in the industrial north of England, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote, “Our civilization…is founded on coal…the machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world, the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.”

Bill Haney’s passionate documentary, The Last Mountain, about the fight to protect the mountains and towns of Appalachia from the depredations of the coal industry, echoes this idea. “I don’t think people understand where electricity comes from,” says one person involved in the struggle. “They think it’s an entitlement.” Few people see the dirty, dangerous and destructive processes of coal mining, except when a major mining disaster places it in the media spotlight, but just about everything in modern life – including writing this article and watching a documentary film, depends on the electric power it produces. The movie notes that almost half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from the burning of coal, and 36% of that coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia.

The film chronicles the battle over Coal River Mountain, in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, where residents and environmental activists are struggling to stop Big Coal corporations – in particular the notorious Massey Energy and its now-retired CEO, Don Blankenship – from continuing the practice of mountaintop removal mining, which involves dynamiting the mountain’s top off to mine the coal within. Mountaintop removal mining, aside from the damage it inflicts on the landscape and those who love it, poisons the air and water with lead, arsenic and selenium, promotes cancer deaths and spreads pollution to other states. “You feel like you’re under attack, two or three ties a day” one resident says of the massive explosions.

Mountaintop removal, according to the film, has destroyed 500 Appalachian mountains, decimated a million acres of forest and buried 2,000 miles of streams. Massey, which does more mountaintop removal mining than any other U.S. company, committed more than 60,000 environmental violations, according to the EPA. Coal baron Blankenship, shown in the film heading a red-white-and-blue anti-union rally, makes a perfect villain for the film, which chronicles his long history of union-busting and brazenly defying environmental and safety regulations. Blankenship came before Congress after the massive 2009 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Kentucky killed 29 miners.

The Last Mountain vividly illustrates the human toll of coal production. Maria Gunnoe, a native of a valley in Boone County, West Virginia, who comes from a family of coal miners, became an environmental activist after her property was nearly drowned after mining blasts removing a ridge above her ancestral home. Jennifer Hall-Massey, of Pretnter, West Virginia, recounts the wrenching loss of her 29-year-old brother and five close neighbors to brain tumors. Their deaths have been linked to well water contaminated with lead, manganese and barium from coal sludge injected by coal companies. Chuck Nelson, a longtime coal miner, was spurred to take on West Virginia governor Joe Manchin – a valued “friend of coal”– when he learned his granddaughter and her schoolmates were falling ill from breathing coal dust from a nearby silo through their grade school’s ventilation system. “Gramps,” his granddaughter told him, “these coal mines are making us kids sick.”

The movement to stop mountaintop removal mining has a powerful advocate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the attorney and environmental activist whose lifelong commitment to protecting the planet is rooted in a childhood love of nature and a legacy inherited from his father, who fought stip mining. As a young boy, RFK Jr. lobbied his uncle, President John Kennedy, for stronger environmental laws. In the film, Kennedy speaks passionately and eloquently about the basis of environmental law in the Roman Justinian Code, which defined environmental rights – to the air, the flowing water and the sea – as basic human rights. “It was God who made these mountains, and Don Blankenship who is taking them down.”

Although the film is not about Kennedy, as a side note it’s interesting to think about America’s most famous family and its members’ multigenerational commitment to public service. “I never thought I’d have a Kennedy in my house,” marvels an elderly West Virginian, one of the last holdouts in a town nearly decimated by coal mining. Miners and others opposed to the environmentalists’ crusade are less awed by Kennedy’s presence, shouting at him to go home.

As Kennedy engages in a coffee-shop debate with Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, the two men appear to occupy different universes. Kennedy speaks in broad, philosophical terms about protecting the planet, while Raney takes a practical line, arguing that the industry does everything it can to protect the environment while also safeguarding jobs and “making electricity for you.” Blankenship and his cronies demonize protesters as “environmental extremists,” and indeed mountaintop removal has inspired some extreme acts of non-violent protest. Grandmothers and grandfathers allow themselves to be hauled off to jail; one group of activists staged a tree-sit that for nine days halted blasting on Coal River.

As with all evils in today’s political landscape, the root of it is money. The powerful coal industry lobby has helped put many a coal-friendly politician in office, most notably George W. Bush, whose environmental policies – including gutting key sections of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, reducing EPA enforcement and approving mountaintop removal -- were a gifts to the coal and oil industries. (For his part, Barack Obama has touted the promise of “clean coal,” an aspirational industry slogan that one environmental attorney likened to “a healthy cigarette”).

Kennedy describes the political issue with ringing rhetoric: “We are living in a science-fiction nightmare where children are gasping for breath on bad-air days because somebody gave money to a politician. And my children, and the kids of millions of other Americans, can no longer go fishing and eat their catch, because somebody gave money to a politician.” The Appalachian mountains, Kennedy says, “the birthplace of American democracy, the landscapes where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone roamed, the source of our values, our virtues, our character as a people – are being cut to the ground so somebody can make money.”

What does the movie propose as an alternative to ruinous, toxic coal, a commodity on which so much of modern life depends? The final segment is devoted to the promise of wind farming, and it makes a strong case for the economic viability of this clean, renewable energy source.

What Orwell wrote in 1937 still applies to the dirty business of coal mining, whether from underground mines or mountaintop blasting. “On the whole we are never aware of it. We all know that ‘we must have coal,’ but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but Istill need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just 'coal' — something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it.”


This low-key, somewhat downbeat film, based on Michael Lewis’ book about Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s pioneering effort to build a winning team using statistical analysis, or sabermetrics, was fraught with directorial, casting, script and studio changes.

But, like the A’s, it emerges unexpectedly competitive, an engrossing view of the deals and clashing ideals of America’s pastime. Frustrated by losing to the deep-pocket Yankees, Beane (Brad Pitt) steals Yale-bred economics whiz Peter Brand (based on Paul DePodesta and superbly played by Jonah Hill) from the Cleveland Indians to help him draft a bargain-basement championship team.

The ragtag team’s initial losses baffle fans and alienate Oakland personnel, but eventually the A’s pull off a record-breaking 20-game winning streak. The emphasis is less on exciting on-field action than on the tensions and triumphs of back-office dealing. Flashbacks to Beane’s early career, when he passed up a Stanford scholarship to play for the Mets, suggest that his interest in statistical prediction is based on his own failure to live up to his early promise. The movie addresses an ongoing debate about this most stat-obsessed of games: is baseball about numbers, or about people? The answer seems to be that it is both. – Pamela Zoslov

Straw Dogs

It’s a good thing the famously embattled Sam Peckinpah is not alive to witness Rod Lurie’s wholly unnecessary remake of his 1971 Straw Dogs. It is not so much a remake as a desecration, stripped of Peckinpah’s literary themes and wallowing in redneck stereotypes. Peckinpah’s artfully choreographed violence, considered alarming in 1971, is transformed for the benumbed post-Saw audience into standard horror-film shock.

Peckinpah’s mathematician, David (James Marsden) is in this incarnation a screenwriter, married to comely actress Amy (Kate Bosworth), and the Cornwall village where the couple retreat becomes the most odious Southern backwater this side of Deliverance, populated by gun-toting primitives, including Amy’s ex-boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard), who covet Amy and detest David and his effete, Jaguar-driving Hollywood ways. Setting aside the film’s many absurdities (among them a ridiculously handsome half-wit and James Woods as a belligerent coach), whereas Peckinpah explored the conflict between science and religion and the irrelevancy of intellectualism in a primitive world, Lurie’s theme is tritely political, centering on the divide between liberals and God-and-guns Southern rustics.

In thrall to the thing he is defiling, ex-critic Lurie faithfully apes the original – the hanged cat, the rape, the apocalyptic bloodbath – but without style, artistry or significance. Pamela Zoslov

Friday, August 19, 2011

Crazy, Stupid Love

The trouble with Crazy, Stupid, Love. (aside from its title’s eccentric punctuation) is that there is so much of it. Though the romantic comedy, starring Steve Carell as a recently separated man, clocks in at a hair under two hours, watching it feels like a particularly long, meandering and aimless trip.

You can’t really fault the casting, which assembles stellar performers like Julianne Moore, Kevin Bacon, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, except to raise the obligatory objection to the leading-man status of Steve Carell, who doesn’t have the charisma casting directors seem to think he does, and whose character in this movie is not very sympathetic, though the audience is asked to sympathize with him nonetheless. Nor are the production values at fault, except for a particularly insistent pop soundtrack. The main culprit, as with most of today’s movies, is the script, which includes far too many stories, with jarring shifts of tone and lapses of coherence and taste. There are enough story threads in the movie to make up an entire season of a TV series, and the screenwriter ties them together in the clumsiest way imaginable.

The central story is about the breakup of the 25-year marriage of high school sweethearts Cal and Emily (Carell and Moore) when Emily announces she has slept with a co-worker and wants a divorce. Cal’s response is stony silence, followed by a sudden leap from the couple’s moving Volvo. Cal moves out of the family home, leaving behind his heartbroken children and moving into a bachelor pad. He spends his nights drinking at a cocktail lounge that seems to have been imported from an earlier, pre-AIDS decade, when singles’ bars were commonplace. Cal sits at the bar sipping his vodka and cranberry juice and loudly lamenting his wife’s unfaithfulness.

His pathetic display catches the attention of Jacob (Gosling), a slick young roué similarly imported from another era, who decides (à la Hitch or The Pickup Artist and probably a few movies I’ve never heard of) to take Cal under his tutelage and show him the manly art of seducing women. He throws Cal’s New Balance sneakers over a railing (“Are you in a fraternity?”), outfits him in a slick new wardrobe, and allows Cal to watch and learn as he seduces a different comely lady every night, using lines and techniques that would get him laughed out of a real singles’ bar.

Cal proves a willing pupil, eventually stumbling his way into a night of passion with a sexy teacher (Marisa Tomei), which opens the floodgates to his new avocation of womanizing (one wonders when he has time for his job). At the same time, Cal wants desperately to get back together with Emily, whose one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon, who plays the co-worker she cheated with, is proving to be less interesting than she thought. (Furthermore, Bacon is too much a movie star to convince as a nerdy accountant; maybe he should have swapped parts with Carell.)

When the movie promises to be about the education and re-education of a “pickup artist,” it is fairly witty and entertaining. But the movie wants to be too many things – a bittersweet divorce drama, a young adults’ love story (when Jacob falls in love with a young woman played by Emma Stone), an adolescents’ love story (when Cal’s son pursues an obsessive crush on the family babysitter, who in turn has an unhealthy crush on Cal).

A separate storyline involving recent law school graduate Hannah (Stone) and her romantic travails seems completely irrelevant, until the last act, where it’s tied in by way of an unconvincing coincidence, one of several in the movie.

It is as if, rather than two directors, the movie had two writers (if both housed in the person of Fogelman). Alongside many scenes of wit, taste and sensitivity (the jokey, affectionate conversations between Cal and Emily, the friendly intimacy between Hannah and Jacob), there are questionable lapses, such as young Robbie’s middle-school grade graduation speech — a rambling and irrelevant lament about how love stinks — and an inappropriate “graduation gift” he receives from babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) that the movie presents as cute, but that would in real life get her arrested for corrupting a minor.

The Help

The movie version of Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, The Help, avoids one of the book’s main problems: Stockett’s inartful use of dialect in depicting the first-person narratives of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. To some readers’ dismay, the book is rife with “Law have mercys” and “Don’t you go sassing this white lady like you done the other.” Unless you are William Faulkner or Truman Capote or Flannery O’Connor, Southern black dialect is probably a thing you should avoid.

The movie, however, adapted and directed by Tate Taylor, places the dialogue in the mouths of some fine actresses, and the effect is much more natural than Stockett’s clunky prose on the page. The film gets more directly to the heart of the story, which is about the uncomfortable and often dangerous pre-civil rights relations between the races, focusing especially on the black women who cook, clean and raise the children of white women who treat them like chattel -- and sometimes like disease-carrying aliens.

Some of the maids have raised generations of children, whose children grow up to be just like them – heirs to a corrupt system of white privilege and de facto slavery. Stockett, a native of Jackson, based the book on her own childhood experiences of being largely raised by a kindly and supportive black maid.

In the story, Stockett’s stand-in is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone, an inspired casting choice but not the least Southern), a recent college graduate with ambitions to be a novelist. She lands a job at a daily newspaper answering housekeeping questions, a subject that leads her to consult with the various maids employed by her “society” friends.

Skeeter has a special affinity for “the help”; her childhood confidante and comforter was her family’s maid, Constantine (the redoubtable Cicely Tyson), who left the family’s employ while Skeeter was away at school. Skeeter’s childhood chum Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the meanest white lady in town, tries to enlist Skeeter in a repulsive campaign to pass a law requiring maids to use outhouses rather than sully the bathrooms of their white employers. Skeeter will have none of it.

Skeeter interests a New York editor (Mary Steenburgen) in a book written from the perspective of black maids, and enlists the reluctant Aibileen (Viola Davis), the feisty Minny (Octavia Spencer) and a dozen other maids to tell their stories of their lives and their work in the service of white people, a truth-telling endeavor that is dangerous in early-‘60s Mississippi – the state condemned for its racist cruelty in songs by Phil Ochs and Nina Simone (“Mississippi Goddam”). The film effectively surrounds the personal stories with socio-historical context; we see police harassment of black people, maids accused of stealing, and a group of black household servants solemnly watching the news of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, prompting Skeeter’s mother (Allison Janney) to angrily turn off the television (“Don’t encourage them!”). Skeeter’s research acquaints her with some of the more absurd segregationist legislation on the books; Minny teaches her daughter, who was forced to quit school and work as a maid, to set the coffee down when serving it to the white people, because “your hands can never touch.”

The movie’s emotional center is Hackett’s sympathy for the unique relationships between black women and the white children they raise, a circumstance still prevalent today. One of Skeeter’s first questions of Aibileen is, “How does it feel to raise white people’s children while your own children are being looked after by someone else?” (Studs Terkel’s books offer African American women’s real-life narratives about this experience.) The movie is at its best when dramatizing these emotional bonds: Abileen teaching her charge, a chubby, neglected toddler she calls Baby Girl, the empowering mantra: “You is kind, you is smart, you is important,” and the little girl crying piteously when Aibileen – her “real” mama -- is banished from the house. Equally agonizing is Skeeter’s discovery of the reason Constantine left her mother’s employ, an act of thoughtless bigotry that can never be rectified.

While it attains great emotional heights, Stockett’s storytelling also plumbs the depths of taste. As the aforementioned toilet story suggests, the author has an unfortunate predilection for bathroom themes, not all of which make it into the movie. Here, from the book, is one maid’s perspective on “Gone With the Wind”: “If I’d played Mammy, I’d of told Scarlett to stick those green draperies up her white little pooper. Make her own damn man-catching dress.” It’s emblematic of the author’s style that the movie’s climax (spoiler alert) involves an act of revenge using a pie baked with human feces, a plot device that is more psychotic than humorous, and does nothing to enhance the dignity of the characters.

The movie bears the hallmark of its Disney origins, with a slick faux period style reminiscent of a TV miniseries. In attempting to squeeze an entire novel into a film – even at the numbing length of 137 minutes – some plot elements and characters (like Hilly’s mother, played by Sissy Spacek) are merely sketched in. Others are caricatures, like Hilly, who can’t be just a racist but must also be an absolute monster, a tendency to exaggerate that afflicts many movies about race made by white people (see also The Color Purple and Precious). While the movie has a superb cast and contains many deeply moving scenes, these qualities are undermined by cartoonishness and Stockett’s inexplicable latrine fixation.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Bad Teacher

As if to fill the void in summer raunch left by the disappointing Hangover sequel, Bad Teacher, directed by Jake Kasdan, brings us Cameron Diaz as the sleaziest middle-school teacher in the history of education.

There is a certain wicked pleasure in beholding Diaz’s unregenerate misanthrope, whose character is mildly reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa in its twisting of traditional expectations. How, and why, did this woman ever become a teacher? The character, Elizabeth Halsey, edging over the hill but still gorgeous, stalks the corridors of the Illinois school where she scarcely works, wearing five-inch slides and tight skirts, hung over from booze and bonging, dozing while she feeds her students – whose names she can’t be bothered to learn -- a pedagogical diet of school-themed movies (Stand and Deliver, Lean on Me). She is crass, profane and callous to other people who aren’t wealthy, eligible men. Her plans to leave her hated job for marriage are foiled when her opera-obsessed fiancé dumps her after his mother discovers she’s spent tens of thousands of his dollars.

The engagement ended, and Elizabeth demoted from a Mercedes Benz to a cheap compact car, she angrily returns to the school for another year, determined to continue her indifferent teaching until she finds a rich guy to take care of her. Her sole problem, she determines, is that her breasts are too small, so she does everything she can to scrounge money for a breast job (it’s illustrative of the movie’s style that she saves the money in a jar labeled “NEW TITS”).

The schemes include accepting bribes from ambitious parents for “supplies” and “special tutoring,” pocketing the proceeds from a seventh-grade car wash – enhanced by her appearance in MTV-model halter and shorts, which drives men and boys mad and sends police cruisers a-crashing. She also sets her sights on nerdy but well-born substitute teacher Scott (Justin Timberlake, a former Diaz paramour, for those who follow such things). Like many things in this movie, Timberlake’s character is a little underdeveloped, but he has a great moment performing a hilariously bad love song he penned with the movie’s writers, Gene Stupinsky and Lee Eisenberg.

Elizabeth’s rival for Scott’s affections, as well as for a lucrative teacher’s bonus for student performance on a statewide test, is the hyper-cheerful, amusingly named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). With the promise of a $7,500 check, Elizabeth transforms herself into the world’s most demanding teacher, catechizing students on To Kill a Mockingbird by throwing gym balls at their faces when they give the wrong answers. While scheming to outwit Amy and win Scott and the cash bonus, Elizabeth manipulates her introverted, overweight colleague Lynn (Phyllis Smith) and rebuffs the attentions of gym teacher Russell (Jason Segel), the only person in the school who’s wise to her ways and likes her anyway. Segel, familiar from Judd Apatow’s Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You Man, brings a welcome touch of affable, Apatovian sardonicism, like when he gently suggests Elizabeth might be better suited to another profession: “Like, any other job in the entire world.”

In a scene that represents wish fulfillment for many a teacher, Elizabeth marks her browbeaten students’ papers in large red letters: “Stupid,” and “Are you fucking kidding me?” The Bad Teacher script earns higher marks, though it does suffers from a certain lack of cohesion and consistency. Ideas and characters are introduced, like the family of a sensitive, poetic student (including Molly Shannon as his mom), that serve no discernible purpose, and the humor is sporadic and not always of the highest quality. But it does have a shaggy, dark tone that is very appealing during the superhero-cum-cartoon summer season, a well-chosen soundtrack (Judas Priest aptly captures Elizabeth’s attitude), and Diaz, whose zesty performance gives the finger to the mindless Web chatter about her being “past it” (at 38!).

(Originally posted at Cleveland Movie Blog.)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jumping the Broom

By Pamela Zoslov

Having reviewed my share of ethnic wedding comedies – including, memorably, one about the clash between a Latino family and an African American family that featured a priapic goat running around trying to mate with guests – I cannot fail to commend Jumping the Broom for its taste and humanity.

Few new wineskins are available for the old wine of matrimonial farce, whose basic premise has future in-laws converging for a wedding and clashing comedically, but director Salim Akil (TV’s The Game, Girlfriends) handles Elizabeth Hunter and Arlene Gibbs’ thoughtful screenplay with poise and a fine visual sense. Whereas too many comedies made for African American audiences resort to over-the-top slapstick, Jumping the Broom manages to weave cultural, historical, linguistic, economic and religious issues into an otherwise commonplace formula.

The betrothed couple “meet cute” after pretty Sabrina (Paula Patton) knocks over Jason (Laz Alonso) with her car. Sabrina, a successful lawyer, has made a bargain with God: she will stop sleeping with inappropriate men if He sends along her soulmate, so she believes Jason is the answer to her prayers. Sabrina’s job offer in China prompts Jason to hastily propose, and a wedding is scheduled at her parents’ sprawling estate on Martha’s Vineyard, a chunk of realty that rivals the Kennedy compound, complete with traditional, Kennedyesque touch football games.

Sabrina, whose character aptly shares the name of Audrey Hepburn’s pampered princess in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina, has lived a privileged life of top schools, servants and swimming pools. Her parents, the Watsons (Brian Stokes Mitchell and Angela Bassett) drink Bellinis and sprinkle their conversation with casual French. Their wealthy idyll is not all it seems, of course; implications of infidelity, financial problems and long-buried family secrets loom over their genteel paradise.

The appearance of Jason’s widowed mother, Pam, played by the reliably divine Loretta Devine, suggests some promising contrast to the dull, denatured universe of the wealthy Watsons, though the comedic potential of her character is not fully realized. Pam, a feisty Brooklyn postal clerk, has anger management issues, and her future daughter-in-law’s eager attempts to befriend her only irritate her (“She sent me a text message! Strike one!”). With her best friend (Tasha Smith), brother-in-law (the ubiquitous and amusing Mike Epps) and Jason’s friends, Pam alights at the estate for the wedding, already loaded for bear. Manipulative and possessive, Pam complains about everything from the cold shrimp (“It’s supposed to be cold, Ma,” explains her exasperated son) to the couple’s unwillingness to perform the family tradition of “jumping the broom,” a nod to the marriage ritual of slave days. (It turns out that the Watsons’ progenitors, unlike the Taylors’, were not slaves, but slave owners).

When Pam become privy to ­the scandalous Watson family secret, she can’t help but blurt out the long-buried truth, nearly derailing the wedding. With this development, the movie takes an unfortunate turn from light culture-clash comedy to Peyton Place melodrama, and yet the interactions and relationships are sensitively written and acted, making the movie more absorbing than you might expect. It’s regrettable that Pam, who reads her Bible to justify her hateful actions, is made so villainous, since Devine is the funniest member of the cast. Besides, Pam’s resentment of her son’s snobbish future in-laws is somewhat justified. They are a colossal bore.

As written, the engaged couple are a fairly bland pair, but the friends and family members who orbit around them are variously interesting: fortyish Tasha, with her long braids and sanguine demeanor, contemplating whether to give a pint-sized 20-year-old admirer a tumble; haughty maid of honor Blythe (Megan Goode), finding herself attracted to the Chef (exotically handsome Gary Dourdan), a man completely different from her usual, affluent beaus; Jason’s cousin Malcolm (DeRay Davis), hurt because his envy of Jason has cost him an invitation to be best man; Sabrina’s free-living Aunt Geneva (Valerie Pettiford), embarrassing the bride’s mother by singing a sultry “Sexual Healing” at the rehearsal dinner. A formula comedy-drama it may be, but one with some genuinely affecting moments, punctuated at the end by the plaintive tenor of the late Curtis Mayfield.

It’s not as though the outcome of the story is ever in doubt, but the pathway, threaded with ideas about class divisions, marital commitment, family loyalty, friendship, and the meaning of prayer and forgiveness, is a fairly rewarding one.

Something Borrowed

By Pamela Zoslov

One of my favorite childhood pastimes was playing a board game called “Barbie, Queen of the Prom.” The object was to get to the prom first, with the prettiest dress and the handsomest date. We girls would roll the dice to win one of four boyfriends, the most desirable of whom was Ken, a perfect, chiseled WASP of a fellow, on whose arm we would presumably spark the envy of all the other girls. Honestly, readers, this game and its questionable values messed me up for years.

I was reminded of this while watching Something Borrowed, a romantic comedy in which two women compete for the love of a man named Dex, played by the impossibly good-looking Colin Egglesfield, late of Melrose Place and All My Children. Aside from being a nice guy who will lend a law school classmate his only pen, Dex’s chief virtue is his underwear-model handsomeness. He is also alarmingly passive, an object tossed about by two women and his parents, a helpless cork bobbing about in a sea of other people’s desires.

The movie is directed by Luke Greenfield and based on a best-selling novel by Emily Giffin, one of those lightweight, pink-covered books popularly classified as “chick lit.” It is clearly aimed at women who came of age in the ’80s, sprinkled as it is with references to such cultural talismans as Who’s The Boss and Growing Pains. The novel is narrated by Rachel, an associate at a New York law firm associate who is turning 30 and still single (gasp!). After her surprise birthday party, Rachel winds up drunkenly sleeping with her best friend’s fiancé, the aforementioned Dex, for whom she has harbored a secret crush since they were law school classmates. Like a girl playing the Barbie game, Rachel never believed she could win anyone as handsome as Dex, so she fixed him up with her prettier, flirtier best friend, Darcy. As it happens, Dex has been in love with Rachel for years. (In the Barbie game, Rachel would have ended up with the redheaded, freckle-faced nerd named Poindexter.)

The movie version of this story emphasizes its shallowest elements – the romance, the bridal gowns, the Chanel handbags, the shoes, the weekends in the Hamptons, the girls’ dance duet to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” and the drinking (lots of drinking). The book, though far from great literature, contains some insight about the problems of young urban professionals. Here is the book’s Rachel, lamenting her unrewarding job: “I work excruciating hours for a mean-spirited, anal-retentive partner, doing mostly tedious tasks, and that sort of hatred for what you do for a living begins to chip away at you.” Movie Rachel (Ginnifer Goodwin) disposes of this with a single line (“I hate my job”). Book Darcy has a glamorous PR job; movie Darcy (Kate Hudson) seems to do little but shop. (The movie’s conception of NYU law school is also a bit strange; a flashback to a law school class has Rachel and Dex’s torts professor discussing tortious interference, pronouncing it “tor-tee-ous,” as though lecturing on land-dwelling reptiles. Were I Rachel, I might look into Columbia.)

None of these details would matter if the movie were funnier, but Jennie Snyder’s wit-challenged screenplay leaves the capable cast, which also includes John Krasinski as Ethan, Rachel’s confidante and secret admirer and Steve Howey as Marcus, a goofy womanizer who pursues both Rachel and Darcy, reciting lines that are supposed to be amusing but aren’t. It doesn’t help that the leading characters are so lacking in charisma. Goodwin, something of a specialist in lovelorn single-girl roles (He’s Just Not That Into You), is mannered and annoying, and Hudson’s Darcy is a shallow, self-centered vulgarian, making it hard to fathom why Rachel loves her so much and why Dex ever wanted to marry her (and further, why his uptight millionaire parents are so fond of her). The romantic triangle, which troubles the waters during an entire summer of weekends in the Hamptons, is resolved in a way that is all too convenient, so no one needs to bother about the moral implications.

The success of a romantic comedy depends largely on good writing and likeable characters, whose fate the audience needs to care about. This entry falls short in both areas, with flaccid pacing that makes it seem even longer than its 110-minute running time. It is not without its virtues, including pretty people and New York settings to look at, glowing cinematography by Charles Minsky, and a pop soundtrack designed to appeal to young women whose tastes were formed in the ’80s. These are the women who presumably have read Giffin’s book and will try to drag reluctant boyfriends to the movie. A warning to those young gentlemen: a post-credits scene promises a sequel, probably based on Giffin’s Something Blue.

Everything Must Go

By Pamela Zoslov

Writer-director Dan Rush has taken a short story by Raymond Carver, the influential minimalist author, and created a lovely, mournful little film about an alcoholic on a downward spiral. Though not the first Carver film adaptation, or even the first adaptation of “Why Don’t You Dance?” (an Australian short was called Everything Goes), it may be the most expansive treatment a seven-page story has ever received. The story serves as a skeleton upon which Rush drapes a thoughtfully written, fully realized drama.

Will Ferrell, a non-intuitive casting choice, again demonstrates his capability for dramatic acting as Nick, a salesman who is fired for chronic alcoholism and arrives home to find his wife gone, locks changed and all his possessions — from his ski machine to his father’s LP collection — on the lawn. Camped outside on his recliner and chugging endless Pabst cans, Nick enlists the help of Kenny (Christopher Jordan Wallace), a neglected neighborhood kid, in conducting the yard sale of his life.

Although many things happen – Nick teaches Kenny salesmanship and baseball, befriends a pregnant neighbor (Rebecca Hall) and reconnects with a high school admirer (Laura Dern) – the film remains quiet and relatively static, staying true to Carver’s brevity and theme of lonely alcoholic desperation.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Fate is cruel to those who tell the truth. There are few better illustrations of this than the short life of Phil Ochs, the folk singer — he preferred “topical singer” — whose incisive songs, sung in his plangent tenor, are indelible anthems to the tumultuous ‘60s and early ’70s: the JFK assassination (“Crucifixion”), the Civil Rights movement (“The Ballad of Medgar Evars,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”) Vietnam (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore” “Draft Dodger Rag”), the lies of Lyndon Johnson (“We Seek No Wider War”), the hypocrisy of liberals (“Love Me, I’m a Liberal”). Disillusioned by the failure of his ideals to change the world, drinking heavily and suffering from bipolar disorder, Ochs hanged himself at his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, New York, on April 9, 1976. He was 35.

Unlike Bob Dylan, with whom Ochs had a friendly but rather heartbreaking rivalry (he desperately wanted Dylan’s approval), the brilliant and prophetic Ochs is remembered, except by leftists and diehard folkies, as a musical footnote. “It must have been hard to be Marlowe in the time of Shakespeare,” remarked director Kenneth Bowser at a screening of his new documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune. But while Dylan’s music was more wide-ranging, it was the activist Ochs who was the genuine heir to Woody Guthrie, a crown Dylan coveted as he sat at the ailing Guthrie’s hospital bedside. Bowser’s film, an expert collage of archival footage, photographs, music and interviews with friends, contemporaries and family members, will bring renewed recognition to Ochs, who was sometimes described as “Tom Paine with a guitar.” (Paine, too, died alone in obscurity in New York.)

Through interviews with people like Peter Yarrow, Van Dyke Parks, Billy Bragg, Tom Hayden, singer Judy Henske, Pete Seeger, the late Abbie Hoffman, and Ochs’ former wife, brother, sister and daughter, a biographical portrait emerges of a young man, born in Texas who took refuge from family problems in music — not folk music, which he would discover later, but country artists like Lefty Frizell — and the movies, idolizing heroic Americans and imagining himself, throughout his life, the hero of his own movie.

At Ohio State University, his roommate introduced him to left-wing politics and the Weavers, and Phil devoted himself to writing songs, singing and playing guitar, moving to New York City to join other musicians who believed they could make a difference. The songs, based on the headlines of the day, poured out of him, forthright, honest, ironic and idealistic. He was singing songs against the Vietnam War as early as 1962, years before most Americans were even aware of the burgeoning conflict.

His songs illuminated hard truths; unlike those of Peter Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio, they couldn’t be sung holding hands and sitting around a campfire, which is a likely reason the fame he craved eluded him. Unlike Dylan’s more obscurant songs, like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Ochs’ songs got directly to the heart of the matter, with insights into issues that remain unchanged today, like the corporate interests that drive the wars that are sold as defending freedom. “Now the labor leader’s screamin’/When they close the missile plants/United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore/Call it Peace or call it Treason/Call it Love or call it Reason/But I ain’t marchin’ anymore/No, I ain’t marchin’ anymore.” He didn’t just write songs about the issues he cared about; he was committed to change, and performed at countless benefits, routinely passing up a paid gig to play at a labor rally for miners.

Though he sang of events of the day, he was no mere singing journalist; he was capable of a soaring poeticism. Listen to the haunting “The Highwayman,” based on Alfred Noyes’ narrative poem, the lovely “Changes,” or “When I’m Gone,” so sad in retrospect, about a man’s determination to go on living (“Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone/Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone/“So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here”). That his songs are as relevant today as when he wrote them is evident in Jello Biafra’s statement that he scarcely had to change the lyrics for the Dead Kennedys’ 1980 cover of “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” As the President talks of sending CIA “analysts” into Libya as part of its latest bombing adventure, we realize how little things have changed since Ochs sang “But the boy in the swamp didn’t care that he was killed by advisers/So please be reassured, we seek no wider war.”

After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Phil, like many other activists, lost his way. “He stopped looking outward, and then he got sick,” says one friend, and a family history of manic depressive illness caught up with him. The “manic” side may have fueled his incredibly prolific songwriting, while the bottom end left him in a black fog, isolated and, at the end of his days, living with his sister, watching endless television and playing cards.

After Ochs’ death, it was discovered that the FBI had kept a nearly 500-page file on his activities. Ochs, often misspelled “Oakes” in Hoover’s files, was considered “potentially dangerous,” as are all public truth-tellers. This film suggests that negative responses to Ochs weren’t limited to the government; its lens reveals a surprising negativity, as friends recall the less flattering elements of the famously funny, smart Ochs’ personality: his ambition (“He really, really, really wanted to be famous,” says singer Judy Henske), his “ridiculousness” (never explained, as Ochs seems anything but ridiculous) and, of course, the “arrogance, drunkenness and recklessness” of his later years, which began with his ill-conceived onstage appearance in an Elvis-style gold-lamé suit (it was meant ironically, but elicited audience jeers) and included aimless travels to Haiti, Chile and Africa, where street robbers attacked him and strangled him, permanently damaging his vocal cords (Ochs, paranoid but not without reason, suspected CIA involvement). His friends were at a loss about what to do with Ochs, who was unraveling, wildly wandering, getting arrested.

The film suffers from certain omissions and oddities. The talking-heads approach, much favored by this director (who has made documentaries about movie directors Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and others), makes for elliptical narration and the elision of certain details, such as the ending of Ochs’ marriage. You might also question the inclusion of certain commentators (Christopher Hitchens?) and the absence of others (where is Ochs’ friend Tom Paxton, and his moving song of remembrance, “Phil”?) For all the talk, we come away feeling we never really got to know Phil Ochs. Nevertheless, it is a necessary and worthy tribute to the visionary Ochs, who would have preferred to be famous in life rather than in death.

Arthur Redux

By Pamela Zoslov

British comedian Russell Brand is known for his history of debauchery, chronicled in his memoir My Booky Wook. Having parlayed his dissolute persona into roles Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, Brand was a natural choice for a remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore hit Arthur, about a drunken libertine who is forced to change his lifestyle to avoid losing his inheritance. Setting aside whether a remake was necessary at all, a surprising level of creativity has gone into this remodel, directed by Jason Winer.

Rather than recasting Hobson, John Gielgud’s acerbic valet, the movie’s Hobson choice is the estimable Helen Mirren as manchild Arthur’s tart but loyal nanny, and the affection between them is touchingly conveyed in Peter Baynham’s script. In another smart departure, the ineffably charming Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) plays the quirky, working-class love interest of Arthur, whose tycoon mother (Geraldine James) is forcing him to marry a rapacious heiress (Jennifer Garner). The screenplay is nimble, with a good deal of Brand’s characteristic verbal wit, so it’s easy to forgive the sappy Hollywood-pop soundtrack, broad physical humor, and the fact that unlike the short and cuddly Dudley, Brand’s angular dishevelment makes him a rather unlikely object of affection.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review: Win Win

By Pamela Zoslov

In his excellent films The Station Agent, the Visitor and Up (for which he wrote the story), director, actor and screenwriter Thomas McCarthy displayed a flair for the finely detailed character study of a loner whose life is changed by the unexpected appearance of an outsider. McCarthy applies the theme to the story of a family man in Win Win, an enjoyable, if imperfect small comedy set in McCarthy’s native New Jersey.

The story centers on Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti), an attorney with a struggling practice and a family he’s having trouble supporting. His practice focuses on helping the elderly, and when he learns that his kind but increasingly confused client Leo (Burt Young) needs a legal guardian -- a post that pays a $1,500 monthly commission – Mike has himself appointed. Though he tells the court he’ll respect Leo’s wish to stay in his own house, he stashes the old man in a home for the aged and pockets the extra cash.

Things get complicated when Kyle (newcomer Alex Shaffer), a taciturn teenager with bleached-blond hair, shows up at his grandfather Leo’s doorstep. Mike and his wife, Jackie (the superb Amy Ryan, of Gone Baby Gone) take in the boy, initially labeled “Eminem” by the wary Jackie, integrate him into their family and enroll him in high school. Mike, who along with his CPA officemate Vigo (Jeffrey Tambor) moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, discover that in his native Ohio, Kyle was a championship wrestler (shades of The Blind Side or, in this case, The Blond Side; Shaffer is, in real life, a state champion high school wrestler). Kyle helps the foundering team win matches, and begins warming to life with the Flahertys, until his abusive mom (Melanie Lynskey) appears, fresh out of rehab and seeking her estranged son and father (or more precisely, her father’s money). Her return exposes Mike’s subterfuge, angering the unsuspecting Jackie and enraging Kyle, who had grown to trust him.

The movie suffers a little from “writer-director syndrome,” whereby director Thomas McCarthy is too faithful to the words of writer Thomas McCarthy, and fails to rein in his excesses. The movie is heavy on plot, but is never quite certain whether it’s a domestic comedy, a drama or a high-school sports movie. It also devotes a lot of screen time to characters of only marginal relevance, such as Mike’s friend Terry, though he’s played so vividly by Bobby Canaveral that he’s not unwelcome. A number of story elements strain credulity: Mike’s fraud upon the court and breach of duty seem to carry no major consequences (attention, New Jersey bar association), and Kyle’s violent behavior suggest more serious problems than a change of venue could resolve.

But the movie’s plot is not the main attraction of this earnest, well made film. McCarthy etches the characters with finely observed detail: Mike, under stress, habitually buying a pack of cigarettes, extracting one and tossing the rest of the pack away; Jackie, explaining to Kyle her “Jersey Girl” devotion to Jon Bon Jovi, down to her proudly displayed “JBJ” ankle tattoo; Kyle, quietly encouraging an awkward teammate to compete in a match. Giamatti is wonderfully naturalistic, far more persuasive as this beleaguered character than he was in the misbegotten Barney’s Version. Mike is misguided but essentially well-meaning -- much like this film, which, though flawed, has a lot to offer.

[Also posted at the Cleveland Movie Blog.]

Review: A Woman Like That

The 17th-century Italian Early Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652) has been embraced in recent years by a raft of novelists, filmmakers, playwrights and art historians who have pressed her into service as a feminist heroine. The first female painter to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence, Artemesia overcame numerous obstacles – including a rape by her tutor, which led to an infamous trial – and painted bold, Caravaggio-like canvases of strong women in Biblical and mythological settings, like Judith Beheading Holofernes, which depicts the Biblical decapitation in a bold and bloody manner unusual for its time. Her life story – what is known of it, as much of the biographical data is lost – has for many years inflamed feminine imaginations and inspired two novels, several plays by Sally Clark, elements of the Wendy Wasserstein play The Heidi Chronicles, and a 1997 film, Artemesia.

The story of Artemesia, who under her artist father’s tutelage began painting at 17, seems to have caused Ellen Weissbrod, an experienced documentary filmmaker (Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones), to completely take leave of her senses. Weissbrod’s Artemesia obsession, which began when she read about the artist, has resulted in A Woman Like That, a film that tries to parallel Weissbrod’s own experience, as a vaguely unsatisfied, insecure woman approaching 50, with that of Artemesia, who lived 400 years before her. In Weissbrod’s mind, their lives are so comparable that “What would Artemesia do?” is a useful mantra for everyday guidance. Pedaling her bicycle around town, Weissbrod muses about her I-Am-Woman determination to make a film about Artemesia. “I’m finally getting it together. I’m ready to go. I’m making it happen.” (She calls to mind Andrea Martin’s Libby Wolfson character on SCTV, with her play “"I'm Takin' My Own Head, Screwing it On Right, and No Guy's Gonna Tell Me it Ain't.”)

What she makes happen is less a film about Artemesia Gentileschi, painter, than a rather embarrassing diary about Ellen, filmmaker — a hodgepodge of shaky undercover camera work (after a St. Louis art museum, perhaps forewarned about Weissbrod, forbids her to film an exhibition of Artemesia’s paintings), travel footage of Italy, disorganized biographical nuggets from art historians, four-way split screen effects, home movies of Weissbrod as a child, dramatic readings of Artemesia’s letters that resemble nothing so much as a community-theater production of for colored girls, and costumed re-creations of the settings of Artemesia’s paintings by high school students in Paducah, Kentucky (seriously!).

Throughout the film, Weissbrod highlights phrases from Artemesia’s letters or spoken by the commentators that she considers useful in her personal journey of self-development, rendering them in graphic lettering in the style of an Infomercial or corporate recruitment video. From these selected phrases, Weissbrod extracts a manifesto for her life. “Artemesia wouldn’t take no for an answer. I’ve gotta find a way to be a woman like that.”

Actually, very little is known about what kind of woman Artemesia was, apart from the character projected on her by latter-day admirers. Her surviving letters, mostly routine business correspondence to commission clients and benefactors, suggest that she was acutely aware of the disadvantages she faced as an artist because of her sex, and her forthright testimony at the rape trial of Tassi, her attacker (some say seducer) suggests that she was nobody’s fool. Another life lesson for Weissbrod. “I would kill to write letters like Artemesia,” she gushes with adolescent enthusiasm.

The film devotes a lot of time to the rape case, which has been widely discussed and dramatized, chiefly because it’s the most thoroughly documented episode in Artemesia’s life (the trial transcripts, in crumbling ancient books, can be paged through by historians and obsessed American filmmakers). Following its lengthy disquisition on the rape, complete with dramatic readings of Artemesia’s explicit trial testimony, the film claims that Artemesia’s life was not defined by the rape. The rape is, however, what defines Artemesia’s legend. A chorus of voices, including several women filmed on the street, praise Artemesia for her “pluck,” her “courage,” her “guts.” The encomiums suggest, disturbingly, that some people derive a peculiar gratification from Artemesia’s graphic account of grabbing her attacker’s penis and yanking so hard it tore the flesh.

While there is some discussion of the qualities of Artemesia’s paintings (the only negative note being sounded by a man who pronounces it “second-rate Caravaggio”), Artemesia’s oeuvre, while undeniably accomplished, is not overwhelmingly exceptional for its time, save for the fact that it was created by a woman and depicts violence and female nudity forthrightly. “The real story is her painting,” says one art historian, but it seems that the legend of Artemesia is based less on her work — how many people today are genuinely excited by Baroque painting? -- than on the indelible symbol of castration in Artemesia’s life and paintings of vengeful women beheading their attackers. This film, and the latter-day legend of Artemesia, prompt the question of whether it’s the vicarious fantasy of physical violence — interpreted as “strength” and “heroism” — that really inspires her legion of contemporary admirers.

Also posted at the Cleveland Movie Blog.