Ficton: The Role of the Tiger in Contemporary America (2005)

Two stories that recently appeared in the news illustrate with striking clarity the chasm that exists between man and tiger.  As cynics will claim, it is possible that this gulf is, in part, a result of Mother Nature’s grand design.  But it has not always been so markedly divisive or indeed as violent as it now threatens to become.  Few will remember the status once held by tigers in everyday American life.  To the contemporary American, brought up on Reagan and Chee-tos and sarcasm, the fact that tigers amount to no more than neglected, dangerous fringe figures is simply another statistic for academics to froth over and for politicians to manipulate at will.  It will not seem incidental that Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his campaign for the governorship of California, stated emphatically that to grant driver’s licenses to tigers would constitute “a serious security issue.”  Tom McClintock, another Republican, agreed with Schwarzenegger, saying that to reward tigers (whom he characterized as “non-human interlopers”) for scheming their way into the California heartland would undermine state and federal law.  I’ll return to the subject of Republicans and tigers shortly.
The aforementioned “fringe” position currently occupied by American tigers is no accident.  It is the result of a deliberate and decades-long campaign of dehumanization against tigers that has driven them from the upper echelons of our society down into the depths in which they now are forced to survive.  How else to account for the fact that the most famous tigers of our day are either cartoon characters who lisp and/or sell high-sugar breakfast cereals, or are buffoons who caper about in a Las Vegas floorshow, led through hoops and onto large balls by two half-plastic men wearing excellent toupees and more rouge than the best-dressed corpse on Christopher Street?  How else to account for the fact that a man in Queens named Antoine Yates got away with “raising” a tiger from cubhood in his apartment (apparently by breast-feeding it himself) and forced it to cohabitate with an alligator?  Not only that: Yates also named the tiger Strom.  Is this kind of behavior toward tigers indicative of anything other than a bigoted attempt to turn these creatures into sub-mammalian sycophants on the order of Charlie Rose and James Lipton?
It is hardly coincidental that two tigers – almost a continent apart from one another – revolted against their “masters” in the same weekend.  After hearing the news, I immediately sensed that something larger was afoot.  The phrase “by any means necessary” rang through my brain.  I bolted into action, immediately ran out to the nearest shopping complex, and purchased a tape recorder, some glo-sticks, and several sets of false whiskers.  I am now in the midst of planning a long investigation, taking advantage of my contacts in the underground tiger culture – contacts I established when, as a boy, I worked the fair and carnival circuit as a Shit-Eater.  (Most of my readership will already know that I was the original inspiration for the term “shit-eating grin”; as much as I would like to have the distinction to myself, I must share it with Gore Vidal, who earned it under different circumstances.)
I’ve already spoken to a few of my tiger contacts on the telephone and via e-mail.  Duffy, a Bengal who lives in a zoo in Cincinnati, says, “I won’t tell you what will come next, but it’s not going to be pretty.”
(Just this morning, the Department of Homeland Security’s Tom Ridge announced at a press conference, over lightly-buttered toast, hot granola, and a mango parfait, “We’ve detected significantly increased chatter among organizations who we consider to be potentially violent, uh, militant, or you could say, ‘perturbed’ or ‘upset’ or ‘agitated’ or maybe ‘cheesed off,’ if y’all are trying to, uh, wordsmith these articles you’ll be writing.  Anyway, these are organizations made up primarily of tigers and tiger sympathizers.”)
I received this message (typed in Matisse ITC font, a typically charming tiger-like touch) from a contact of mine who works for Jack Hanna, “DON’T GO TO WORK ON NOVEMBER 7, 8, 9, OR 10.  YOU’LL KNOW WHAT I MEAN WHEN IT HAPPENS.”
And, there was a note left under my doormat yesterday that contained a detailed schematic of the Bronx Zoo, as well as a list of nuclear facilities within the zoo (there are eight).
But all of this can only be hearsay and speculation at this point.  Regardless of the reactions we may have to any real or perceived danger, it’s important to remember – and put into context – the history of tigers in the United States.
As I mentioned, it would surprise many of our young people, and probably a good number of our middle-aged as well, to know that tigers were once captains of industry, athletes, politicians, doctors and lawyers, even artists and writers.  Indeed, tigers had reached the very highest levels of acheivement in American life well before the turn of the twentieth century.  Andrew Carnegie was a tiger.  Clarence Darrow was a tiger.  Jack London was a tiger, although he was strongly disliked by other tigers thanks to his obvious (and, in light of his identity, somewhat perverse) predilection for canines.  Duke Ellington: tiger.  Ernest Hemingway was a tiger; in fact, one reason for the great writer’s madness and eventual demise was the realization that he had become so far removed from his kind that he actively sought to kill, stuff, and mount other tigers.  (This revelation is included in John Huston’s unpublished memoir, “Stiff Back, Small Genitals.”)  Marlene Dietrich was a tiger.  Dwight Eisenhower was a tiger, although he never knew this (not even on D-Day!) until the second term of his presidency.  Mamie van Doren was a tiger; Charles van Doren thought he was a tiger, but was not.  Orson Welles was a very vocal tiger.
These gifted and articulate tigers were not only legendarily successful during their lifetimes, but were – and are – beloved as iconic figures of our culture.
However, since Dwight Eisenhower left office, tigers have methodically been pushed from positions of prominence and prestige in our country.  Note that Orson Welles did not make a studio picture after 1958.  Note that Hemingway died in 1961, followed shortly by Faulkner (another tiger).  Note the rampant assassinations that took place throughout the 1960s: the victims were all tigers.
There is a simple and straightforward explanation for all of this.  Beginning in the early 1960s, catalyzed in part by Eisenhower’s farewell address (but also by social militancy, folk music, and Bob Denver’s growing fame), the American political system was hijacked by a previously-mysterious and little-known race of prehistoric wolf-like beings called lobophelps.  Lobophelps descended from Canada and sections of the American plains in a frenzy of bloodletting and fund-raising, charged up with energy following centuries of hibernation, ready to take America into an age darker than it had ever known.  The lobophelps’ agenda appeared to solidify with the ascension of Richard Nixon who, as a Senator in the 1940s and Vice President in the 1950s, had acted as the lobophelps’ sentinel, gaining an understanding of the practical side of politics, and establishing a reputation that made it easier for the lobophelps to sweep the nation when they all awoke.
Many think the Iroquois nation was responsible for the first representative government in the Americas; not true – it was the lobophelps who had it first, thousands of years ago, when all of North America was ruled from a single cave in what is now the Texas hill country.  Now, in the waning days of the American republic, through their insidious fund-raising talents and organizational skills, this species has been able to winnow tigers from the mainstream and reduce them to the embarassed shells of their formers selves that you see lately mugging for the cameras on television, or rooting around in dumpsters for their food, picking up the odd ten dollars at a craps table in Reno, or, in the case of those who have truly hit bottom, doing the Lindy hop for a couple of body-waxed Germans.
The strikes that took place this past weekend against Roy Horn and Antoine Yates in Las Vegas and New York, however, give us a little hope:  that tigers everywhere are coming together to rise up against the scheming, brutal lobophelps who have enslaved them and finally restore themselves, and our country, to some semblance of their former glory.  As for myself, I plan to follow all related developments and chronicle what may turn into the next great social – and perhaps, indeed, political – revolution of our nation’s history.  My investigation is just getting started.


On DVD: Louie Bluie (Criterion Collection)

Three nights ago, I had the enormous pleasure of viewing Terry Zwigoff's debut film, Louie Bluie. Thanks to The Criterion Collection, it is now being released on DVD for the first time, a full twenty-five years after its original theatrical run. The film's eponymous subject - real name: Howard Armstrong (1909 - 2003) - was a multi-instrumentalist, a visual artist, an author, a dandy, a bon vivant, and a world-class raconteur. In short, he was perfectly suited to Zwigoff's eclectic tastes, and Louie Bluie is a hilarious, moving, and joyful tribute to this strange man whose genius mostly flew beneath the radar of mainstream American culture.

Zwigoff caught up with Armstrong in the early 1980s, living obscurely and alone in Detroit. The film takes Armstrong back to Chicago, where he was based during his musical heyday of the 1930s. There, he reunites with his former band mates to reminisce and perform a few dates in local clubs and coffeehouses. Zwigoff also follows Armstrong back to Tennessee, where he visits family and talks about developing his musical talent in the context of regional string bands.

Cutting together just an hour of footage featuring Armstrong in performance and in conversation, Zwigoff creates a loving, lively portrait of Armstrong as a man of boundless energy, limitless creativity, and accomplished virtuosity in every arena he chooses to tackle - music, art, and the spoken and written word. The musical moments are filled with ingenuity and an enthralled devotion to technique. Armstrong's artwork shows an intuitive grasp of craft and style. And his stories, told with an infectious verve and enormous wit, are both hilarious and mindful of the subtleties of word selection and timing. These stories make up the bulk of Louie Bluie, beginning with one that describes how Anderson came by his nickname - a name he recorded under in the '30s. More memorable are off-color memories of his youth, and a moment when he describes his artistic process and education to a young fan.

Zwigoff wisely allows Armstrong and his contemporaries speak for themselves; only rarely is the director heard as interviewer. The discussion is dominated by the generously verbose Armstrong. He does not provide us strictly with autobiographical information, but enough details accrue for us to understand something of his life's arc up to the early '80s. We learn about his youth and early musical career; we know he has been married and divorced twice; we are also treated to a guided personal tour of a book that he designed, wrote - in longhand, and illustrated: an inspired alphabetic survey of quasi-pornographic topics.

A one-hour film such as Louie Bluie doesn't lend itself to analysis or extensive description. It only cries out to be seen. There's nothing more inspiring than experiencing life through the eyes someone who has lived a long and storied one - and industriously enjoyed every minute of it. 

Read the full review here

In Theaters: Ramona and Beezus

Surprisingly, the release of Ramona and Beezus marks the first time that Beverly Cleary's hugely popular and beloved series of children's novels have been adapted for the big screen. Ramona Quimby, a precocious misfit who never seems to do the right thing in the eyes of others, is one of the indelible characters of children's literature - a young, tomboyish, imaginative girl, always concerned about the consequences of her actions. Most authors of children's books portray children as reverse extrapolations of adults - imbuing them with an uneasy pairing of infantile dialogue and unlikely levels of wisdom. Cleary has always been different. She has a true respect for her characters, treating them as whole, autonomous human beings who actually sound and act like children. This film adaptation retains that distinctive respect for children, and effectively captures the spirit of the novels.

Drawing story elements from several of Cleary's books, Ramona and Beezus finds eight-year-old Ramona Quimby (Joey King) and her older sister Beezus (Selena Gomez) awaiting a group of workers to "cut a hole" in their house. Their parents (played by John Corbett and Bridget Moynihan) have planned to add a new bedroom onto their Portland home to make room for a new arrival - the girls' new sister, Roberta. But everything comes to a screeching halt when Mr. Quimby loses his job; his long struggle to find a new position is not easy, and the strain is especially hard on Ramona, who winds up feeling responsible for much of their situation. Through ingenious and creative means, Ramona helps restore balance to the Quimby family household despite the economic hardship, with the romantic misadventures of Beezus (who can't make any progress with Henry Huggins) and the girls' Aunt Bea (Ginnifer Goodwin) (who can't resist the advances of a former flame) in the background. 

Ramona and Beezus features a good lead performance by Joey King as the put-upon, whimsical, inventive Ramona. She has a breezy naturalism that avoids the precocity of most "kid acting." Credit is also due to director Elizabeth Allen, not only for ably handling all the members of her juvenile cast (Jason Spevack is also good as Ramona's neighbor and friend Howie Kemp), but also for envisioning Ramona's many flights of fancy as Gondry-esque visual experiences that utilize a cut-out, school project aesthetic. However, one regret is that these fantasy sequences are used heavily in the first half of the picture, and are absent from the second half. Had they been more consistently distributed, it would have helped maintain this very important aspect of Ramona's character. Still, Allen keeps up an amiable tone throughout the movie while allowing the family's predicament (Mr. Quimby's joblessness) to retain a timely, topical edge that reminds us of the stakes they face.

In a couple of key roles, casting is an issue. Selena Gomez looks nothing like Joey King's sister, and although the older girl's performance is fine, her selection as Beezus is a little mystifying. Also, as Mrs. Quimby, Bridget Moynihan can't help but look like anything but a mother of three. Beyond her looks, she just doesn't evince much maternal warmth.

On balance, however, the rest of the cast is fine. Corbett converts his casual, beach-bum routine into a "cool dad" character who clearly loves his family. As Ramona's beloved Aunt Bea, Ginnifer Goodwin brings a good deal of sweetness and humor, and even Josh Duhamel - as Bea's love interest - manages to eke out some charm. The film's conclusion, while a bit too sugary and tidy, reinforces the film's themes - particularly the value of resilient individuality and dogged persistence. Ramona and Beezus wasn't made for 33-year-old male misanthropes, but it got through to me on a certain level nonetheless. For families with young children, it is solid, useful entertainment that does not pander to or infantilize its audience. Recommended.

Read the full review here

On DVD: Venice Revealed

The novelist, biographer, and cultural historian Peter Ackroyd is one of the most eclectic and prolific living authors. His many works embrace an extraordinary range of topics, and this new documentary (originally broadcast on Great Britain's Channel Four) tackles the enormous subject of Venice's influence on Western culture and society. Adapted from his own book, Venice Pure City (not yet published here in the US), Venice Revealed is a four-part documentary series that engrossingly examines the cultural history of the city from a perspective that winningly combines objective research with subjective interpretation and analysis. Ackroyd has a novelist's sensibility, and here it affords great insight rooted in curiosity and keen observation.

Marked by lovely photography, music, and an attention to the finer details of Venice's public places, Venice Revealed is divided into four thematically-organized episodes. Each explores one of Venice's cultural products, but Ackroyd's perspective is cross-disciplinary, with a view to the interplay of the one with the other three. He is not interested in compartmentalizing architects, painters, composers, and dramatists; he maintains a focus on how the creations of these figures have changed over time and affected the city and the world's perception of it. It's an invigorating approach that examines the impact of creative work in terms of its influence and continued importance.

Episode One - The City as Architecture: Part of Ackroyd's abiding interest in Venice stems from the fact that the city didn't grow from agrarian or commercial origins. It was planned as a city from its earliest beginnings. The buildings of Venice have foundations that rest on a submerged petrified forest - it really is, in a way, a floating city, built upon a large body of water. Its buildings comprise an irregular mixture of styles - from the earliest Byzantine and the high Gothic to the neo-classicism of the Renaissance, Venice's architecture is a hodgepodge of styles from many different eras. Some buildings have Byzantine origins, with Gothic ornamentation, and even later Renaissance additions. Ackroyd surveys the city's architectural history with the help of Venetian scholars.

Episode Two - The City as Art: Ackroyd looks at Venice through the eyes of its great home-grown painters, particularly Tintoretto and Canaletto. These artists were devoted to the city, representing it directly in ambitious cityscapes that established patterns of color that are now recognized as "Venetian," and indirectly in sacred works that used the city's layout and cultural hierarchy as templates for their design. Bellini, Tiepolo, and Bassano were also Venetians - some of these painters never left the city. Their work is of, by, and for Venice.

Episode Three - The City as Music: Venice was a great producer of music, particularly in the Renaissance and Classical periods. Monteverdi and Wagner lived out their last days in the city. Its most important native composer was Antonio Vivaldi, and Ackroyd explores his life and work through the lens of recent research conducted by Vivaldi biographer Micky White. She has uncovered information about an all-female musical ensemble that existed in Vivaldi's era, which has recently been reconstituted with the help of an Oxford choral scholar. In this way, the episode effectively uses Vivaldi's own music to bridge his time to our own.

Episode Four - The City as Theatre: In the most vague and loosely-constructed episode in the series, Ackroyd takes on the term "theater" in all its implications: not only is dramatic and operatic performance surveyed, but so is the concept of the entire city serving as a gigantic piece of living theater. Buildings are examined as contrived slabs of fakery; paintings are assessed as silent, theatrical "performance" pieces; and public events such as Carnival - and even executions - are considered for their dramatic, performative aspects. Throughout its history, Ackroyd suggests, Venice has not so much been revealed as concealed - by layer upon layer of artifice and contrivance. 

Read the full review here

On DVD: Repo Men

Repo Men is a broken sci-fi action film that suffers from unfocused direction and irregular shifts in tone. Despite a premise that could have produced either a solid thriller or a bitter pill of a satire, the film can't sustain its own ideas long enough for them to register in any significant or memorable way. Newcomer Miguel Sapochnik struggles to create a mood, but only succeeds in creating a visual rip-off of Blade Runner while mishandling his strong cast.

In a near-future extrapolation of our own society, a corporation called The Union offers its stricken customers artificial replacement organs, obviating long waits for human donors. Like many companies, The Union makes most of its money extending large lines of credit at high rates of interest to its customers, many of whom cannot afford the organs they so desperately need. Remy (Jude Law) and Jake (Forest Whitaker) are two of The Union's repo men, charged with forcibly extracting organs when customers default on their accounts. It's vile work, and Remy is looking to move into a sales job instead. On his final job as a repo man, Remy is injured, and winds up in a hospital with a new heart - one supplied by The Union. No longer able to perform his job, Remy leaves The Union and joins up with a singer named Beth (Alice Braga), who has multiple past-due artificial organs. Pursued by The Union, the pair embark on a mission to destroy the company and save themselves.

The screenplay by Eric Garcia (author of the Anonymous Rex series of novels) and Garrett Lerner (of House, M.D. and other TV work) holds the seeds of an interesting, timely story. Its premise is sufficiently plausible, particularly in view of the economic context in which it is set. There is something interesting in here about the way we live now, the lengths to which we are forced to go in order to survive, and the self-defeating aspects of our economic system. This could have been a gritty, character-oriented piece with some meaty ideas and punchy pieces of action. But the script's thematic core is mostly cast aside by director Sapochnik, who is overly concerned with visuals and gore.

The result is a choppy mess. Some scenes go for laughs, with a clever self-aware wit and comically-staged visuals. Others are Verhoeven-esque gross-outs, with gouged flesh and flying blood. The tonal chaos of it all takes us from satirical comedy to dire noir-ish desperation, leaving us unable to make head or tail of the characters in the midst of it all. Despite decent work by Law, Whitaker, Braga, and Liev Schreiber as the repo men's boss at The Union, these characters feel shapeless, tossed about willy-nilly by a director who hasn't taken the time to sort them out for himself. Some films are carefully planned in advance, with a very specific script, storyboards, and extensive rehearsal. Others are "created" in the editing room, shaping shot footage into a cohesive whole, despite the fact that the final product may conflict with the film as it was scripted. Repo Men falls into neither category. It's a movie that suggests a lack of vision at all stages of production. It's a sloppy mess that is barely passable as a weeknight's entertainment.


In Theaters: Inception

There is a lot to admire about Inception, and the movie is an unquestionable must-see. Christopher Nolan's epic has a massive conceptual scope, a varied and talented cast, startling visuals, and it exhibits the mastery of filmmaking craft that Nolan has become known for. The movie moves along at a fast pace - perhaps a little too fast, which is the same criticism I had of Nolan's otherwise outstanding The Dark Knight - and delivers a thrilling narrative that is tightly constructed and carefully delivered. But plot is heavily favored here, to the point that the opening hour amounts to an assault of information, an extraordinarily detailed setup that is unquestionably ambitious, but borders on the numbing. The exclusive focus on exposition in the first half is detrimental to this otherwise absorbing picture in two ways: it prevents substantial character development, and is too transparently a justification of the film's second half.

I'll keep the plot summary brief in order to avoid spoilers, and because everyone and their grandmother is going to go see this movie anyway. Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play Dom and Arthur, respectively, a pair of professionals who specialize in securing - and/or stealing - the thoughts of their clients. They access intellectual capital by entering their subjects' dreams, where they can manipulate or extract information, depending upon the nature of the job. On the run from their corporate employer, the two are hired by their one-time subject, Saito (Ken Watanabe), to perform an "inception" - planting a thought or idea in the mind of another. They accept, and go about assembling a team to design and execute the dream, a multi-layered affair containing dreams-within-dreams. However, Dom's personal demons - guilt over his relationship with his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and her unwelcome intrusions into his own dream-world - put the entire mission, and the lives of his team, at risk.

A thrilling opening sequence grabs us by the short and curlies, and tosses us headfirst into the film's roiling, sensory-intensive universe. But shortly thereafter things quickly devolve into a long and long-winded tour of The Rules of Dreamland - how dreams are accessed, how they can be manipulated, how the members of the team should and should not behave while inside a subject's dream, and so on. Of course, no film that operates in a realm of fantasy can or should try to avoid setting up its own rules - they fundamentally establish narrative credibility and help the film engage with the audience in an honest way. But Inception largely sets aside the ambitions of its own story while taking a full hour to explain its concept in plain terms, and mostly through expository dialogue, which is one of filmdom's easiest storytelling cheats - and one that is always in danger of losing an audience. Film is a visual medium, and Nolan's over-dependence on bald-faced exposition flattens his otherwise ingenious concept.

Once DiCaprio's "dream team" (himself, Gordon-Levitt, and four others) enters the dreams of their subject (a business executive played by Cillian Murphy), the film takes off just as we know it should. The different layers of the dream take place, respectively, in a version of New York City, inside an opulent hotel, and at a snow-bound mountain fortress worthy of SPECTRE. (Kudos to Nolan for gun battle on skis, especially now that the Bond franchise is in limbo.) The dream's nested narratives in themselves represent a filmmaking challenge like nothing else in big-budget Hollywood cinema. Which brings me to what will potentially - and hopefully - be the most salient and lasting thing about Inception: if the film succeeds, it may awaken Hollywood's awareness of the market for intelligent blockbusters. Although it's not perfect, this film proves the potential of significant cinematic resources in the hands of an auteur with a vision, as opposed to being entrusted to a bunch of suits topped by fat-filled skulls.

Despite a plot-packed script that scrimps a bit on character development, the uniformly excellent cast makes the most of their varied roles. DiCaprio is given little to do with the exception of a handful of scenes - especially toward the climax - that, despite their emotional appeal, are rushed by the demands of the detail-driven plot. Tiny Ellen Page is strong as the dream "architect," a university student who also uncovers the extent to which DiCaprio has unwittingly endangered the entire crew. Cotillard is commanding as Mal; it's a John Locke-type role in that it calls for difficult shadings to suggest a potentially sinister other-ness. And Tom Berenger (!) shows up - his presence somehow cheered me, even though he seems to have taken the Mickey Rourke route and donned a mask of his own face.

Christopher Nolan continues to grow and excel as a filmmaker with a consummate sense of craft, a bold vision, and the balls to execute it with great skill. From a technical perspective, Inception is flawless. The writer-director is aided here by many members of his Batman team: photographer Wally Pfister, editor Lee Smith, and composer Hans Zimmer - all of whom deliver stellar work. They are joined by production designer Guy Dyas, who is charged with the task of designing a broad variety of fictional locations, and succeeds wonderfully. Although Nolan unwisely front-loads Inception with an inordinate quantity of detail, the film is recommended.


In Theaters: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

In a summer already mired in dreck, The Sorcerer's Apprentice stands high atop the unshakable pedestal of mindless Hollywood palaver built during the last three decades by Jerry Bruckheimer. Combining the worst elements of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and Michael Bay's cinematic catastrophes, the increasingly numbing (and shoddy) commercial instincts of the Disney company bring us The Sorcerer's Apprentice, two hours of narrative chaos edited with the kind of care you might expect from a drunken roustabout armed with a rusty wood-chipper.

Under the none-too-skilled guidance of Jon Turteltaub, this film is loud, over-bearing, confusing, and bizarre. It is incoherent, visually garish, and derivative. It hurtles over gaping narrative chasms and uses special effects to achieve bombastic visual non-sequiturs. There are gigantic steel eagles for some reason, and at one point, a pentagram of fire is inscribed over the New York City skyline. The film doesn't even understand the geography of its own setting: at one point, Nicolas Cage's character steps out of the Dakota (on the Upper West Side) and looks down the street to see the Chrysler Building, which is actually located in east Midtown at 42nd and Lexington. Credited to three screenwriters, The Sorcerer's Apprentice was clearly written by no one at all; no doubt corporate stooges in producer costumes used the same process to make the film that Mickey Mouse used in the animated short of the same title - chopping up bigger and better films into unrecognizable bits, each bit growing into a far more lethal, disjointed, and monstrous thing than it was in its original form.

The story, such as it is, opens with a wholly incomprehensible prologue, in which medieval sorcerers fight over something or other. In brief, we see ancient versions of the characters played by Nicolas Cage, Alfred Molina, Monica Bellucci, and Alice Krige battling it out in a castle. Merlin is killed, and the others are fighting over who is to be his heir, or something.

Flash forward, to the year 2000 in New York City. Ten-year-old Dave Stutler (Jake Cherry) gets lost on a field trip. He wanders into a strange shop, where he meets Balthazar Blake (Cage) and, shortly thereafter, his nemesis Maxim Horvath (Molina). Dave is given a special ring before trapping Blake and Horvath together in a magical urn. Flash forward, again, to the present. Dave is now a college student, played by Jay Baruchel. He has nearly forgotten about his encounter with the ageless sorcerers, when the ten-year curse keeping Blake and Horvath bottled up lifts, releasing them into the city. Blake locates Dave, and convinces him that he demonstrates the promise of a great sorcerer. They join forces to defeat Horvath and his conspirators...and there's a girl, too, of course, played by Teresa Palmer.

Take my word for it that the above description is both more coherent and more enjoyable than what actually plays out over the course of the movie. Cage restrains his usual scenery-chewing, but it's still hard to take him seriously as a source of great wisdom and power. Baruchel hams it up like an indie rock Jerry Lewis, over-playing his nerdy thing beyond acceptable limits. Alfred Molina makes the most of his villainous role, bringing moments of wit and menace to a character who could easily have been forgettable. Still, on balance, it's evident that the actors are trying, against enormous odds, to bring some kind of coherence to their work.

But anyone playing these roles would have encountered the same challenges, because what really plagues The Sorcerer's Apprentice is a horrifically spastic approach to storytelling. The movie is a pure hack job, with scene trims obvious at every turn, as the result of either a script constantly in flux, the effort to secure a PG rating, or some other more nefarious or incompetent chain of events. Things are constantly happening for no apparent reason, which is especially noteworthy since the "magic" at the center of the story is never explained - not once, not even a little bit. We never find out who the sorcerers are, where they come from, or why they exist. Their command of "magic" is a license to do just about anything, without limitation or handicap - which makes a major car chase scene even more absurd than your average poorly-staged action sequence. Why in the world would two sorcerers, with limitless power over time and space, use automobiles to pursue one another? This question, which will occur to anyone over the age of five, apparently never came up in a story meeting - another indication that no actual writers were ever engaged to work on a screenplay.

The Sorcerer's Apprentice, while rarely outright offensive, is a prime example of Hollywood filmmaking as a slaughterhouse of ideas. It is a failure from the perspective of each of the many creative endeavors that go into the making of a movie. Skip it.

Read the full review here

On DVD: Greenberg

Noah Baumbach has a knack for extremely well-written portrayals of unpleasant characters who find themselves in transformative situations. Beyond his enjoyable collaborations with Wes Anderson, Baumbach's own films (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding) are noteworthy for their novelistic approach to character and a fine understanding of interpersonal dynamics. While Baumbach's newest film, Greenberg, carries these hallmarks, but in a watered-down form, and it does not develop its characters as richly and respectfully as we have come to expect. Anchored by an outstanding performance by Ben Stiller, Greenberg succeeds as a study of a deeply flawed man, but it fails to reach beyond that to credibly and fully portray the impact of this terrifyingly off-putting person on the people around him.

Roger Greenberg (Stiller) has just been released from a stay in a New York mental hospital, and arrives in LA for some R&R at his brother's mansion while the brother and his family vacation in Vietnam. While in Los Angeles, Roger reconnects with his old friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans), with whom he once led a promising rock band, and begins a tentative, hurtful affair with his brother's assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig). Both relationships are damaged by Roger's inability to communicate directly and honestly. In a turn of events that sounds like something out of The Journey of Natty Gann, his brother's sick dog serves as the catalyst by which Roger gains at least a little understanding of the limitations of his own personality.

As usual, Baumbach excels at developing characters with fundamental flaws who may or may not be beyond redemption or rehabilitation - and who may or may not be capable of what we'd consider "healthy" relationships. With Ben Stiller's help, Roger Greenberg may be the filmmaker's most indelibly unpleasant creation - a self-hating, self-destructive, obsessive, passive-aggressive, sneaky, sad loner who thwarts his own instincts and is incapable of behaving in a manner considerate of others. Roger is a well-crafted and generally unique personage, and Stiller breathes a restrained, dryly witty life into him.

Although great care has been afforded the film's titular character, less attention has been allotted to the dynamic relationships that move the film forward and, at least ostensibly, result in the maturation of Roger's character arc. His friend Ivan is experiencing his own rough patch: he is in the middle of a trial separation from his wife, and this is a strain upon his relationship with his young son. Ifans, as Ivan, evinces a quiet suffering that serves as an effective counterpoint to Roger's obnoxious self-loathing, and in a scene toward the film's end, he forces Roger to confront the ways in which they have grown apart - and the enormous chasm that separates the ways in which they choose to deal with life's less fortunate moments. It's an effective scene, but it ends on a less-than-satisfying note, with Roger shouting a bunch of unearned, self-serving nonsense back at Ivan. I wanted Ivan's speech to have a greater impact upon Roger's perception of himself, but the script allows him to backslide into defensive justification.

More crucial to the ultimately dissatisfying experience of Greenberg is the role of Florence. Greta Gerwig has received broad acclaim for her performance, and I won't say that her portrayal is devoid of charm. It is, however, somewhat baffling. For the first half-hour or so of the movie, I thought Florence was supposed to be developmentally disabled in some way. Something about Gerwig's delivery and manner makes her seem... slow; there's also a moment early in the film when she is at a party with a friend who seems a little overly-protective, as if Florence required an extra-watchful eye. But even more confusing is why Florence is drawn, against all sane reason, to Roger, even after he repeatedly goes out of his way to render any sort of "real" relationship impossible. At one point, Florence tells Roger, "You like me so much more than you think you do," which comes across as one of the most idiotic lines of dialogue in recent memory and one that could only be written by someone who has spent way too much time in either Brooklyn or Silver Lake. In the context of the film's story, they are the words of extraordinary delusion - nobody, sane or otherwise, would want to enter into a relationship with the poisonous Roger Greenberg, and Florence's unwavering soft spot for him is never explored.

Greenberg is not a bad movie. But Noah Baumbach has made better films - and will no doubt make better ones in the future, too. Greenberg fails to live up to his key strengths as a filmmaker, however, which revolve around his strongly novelistic approach to dynamic relationships between characters. Despite an excellent and absorbing performance by Ben Stiller, Greenberg's world seems incomplete, sketchy, and unfulfilling. 

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On DVD: Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics II

Sony Home Entertainment has done noir fans another favor with this release, a collection of five features that follows last year's release of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics I. This new set is missing the snap, crackle and pop of the earlier release; the movies, overall, are a notch or two less impressive here, and this set lacks commentaries and pares back the new video introductions for each film from a total of five to three. Still, I wouldn't go so far as to call the new set a disappointment. Of the five films here, at least three are well worth a look, even if the other two are pretty much paint-by-numbers '50s B pictures. 

Human Desire (1954) reunites three of the key players from the previous year's The Big Heat: director Fritz Lang and stars Gloria Grahame and Glenn Ford. Though adapted from Emile Zola's classic novel La Bête Humaine, the film's characters are nowhere near as compelling as those in the trio's earlier film. 

Ford is bland as railroad engineer Jeff Warren, just back from the Korean War, who crosses paths with colleague Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford) and his wife Vicki (Grahame), both of whom are implicated in the murder of Vicki's suspected lover. As always, Graham excels as Vicki, a femme fatale who may or may not be truly "fatale." Carl maintains a hold on Vicki, even as she and Warren engage in a reckless affair, in the form of an incriminating handwritten note. Things heat up a little in the third act, but somehow the stakes never feel high enough. Despite able direction by Lang, the script maintains a slow pace, and despite strong work by Grahame and Crawford, too much is left to the listless Ford, who doesn't convince us that his character is ever in danger of doing the wrong thing. 

Pushover (1954) is a short, predictable film that takes forever to reach its predictable conclusion. Notable for another decent noir performance of increasing desperation by the capable Fred MacMurray, and for the debut of Kim Novak (aged 21 here), Pushover is otherwise a slow, one-note story devoid of much suspense. 

Undercover detective Paul Sheridan (MacMurray) is assigned to "get close" to gangster's moll Lona McLane (Novak). Their brief romantic relationship flourishes into something beyond the call of duty, however, complicating Sheridan's investigation of her former lover, a bank robber named Wheeler. A stakeout in McLane's building creates numerous opportunities for the revelation of Sheridan and McLane's liaison to Sheridan's colleagues on the police force. Finally, McLane convinces Sheridan to help her kill Wheeler and run away with the money he stole. 

Good work by MacMurray as Sheridan, who knows damn well what he's doing and does it anyway, results in at least a modicum of tension, despite the story's lack of credible twists. The film also suffers from MacMurray and Novak's inability to strike sparks. Their scenes together, especially the earlier ones, are laughable in their overheated dynamics and groan-worthy dialogue. At a mere 88 minutes, Pushover is nonetheless far too long, trapping its audience in a cycle of unfulfilling repetition. 

The Brothers Rico (1957) is the first solid picture in this set. Starring Richard Conte as a former mob accountant now running a legitimate business in Miami, this crime picture takes both a serious look at guilt and a harsher, more realistic view of organized crime that was typical in the pre-RICO era. Working from a story by Georges Simenon (co-scripted by Dalton Trumbo), director Phil Karlson elicits a fine lead performance from Conte in this portrait of a family torn apart by betrayed loyalties. 

Eddie Rico (Conte) is called from the comfort and safety of the straight life in Miami by his former boss, Sid Kubik (Larry Gates) to look for his brother Johnny, who, he is told, is in danger and must flee the country. But Kubik is only using Eddie, and has his own reasons for locating Johnny. 

Conte appears in almost every frame in The Brothers Rico, and pulls off an affable likability that later turns to extraordinary anguish. It's a wide-ranging and wholly believable performance that helps explain this underused actor's strong posthumous reputation. Phil Karlson keeps things moving, with Eddie bouncing from city to city and gathering clues as he searches for Johnny. Supporting characters are varied and colorful, particularly the sinister Kubik and his Southwestern enforcer LaMotta (Harry Bellaver). Italo-American stereotypes, so overstated in many films of the era, are less so here, and the screenwriters seem to have had a better-informed understanding of mob operations than usual. In the end, the film is carried by Conte as Eddie; when his loyalty is repaid with betrayal, we feel real rage and empathize with the frustrations encountered in a changing world. 

Nightfall (1957) was directed by the great Jacques Tourneur, and it showcases his flair for high-contrast black-and-white photography (here abetted by the accomplished director of photography Burnett Guffey). Aldo Ray, Brian Keith, and Anne Bancroft lead a solid cast in a story of justified paranoia. 

Ray plays Jim Vanning, hiding out in Los Angeles while waiting for the Wyoming snow to melt. The previous winter, Vanning and a friend were camping in the Tetons and encountered a pair of fleeing bank robbers led by John (Brian Keith). After killing Vanning's friend, the robbers fled, leaving their loot behind and believing Vanning to be dead. Now, John and Red (Rudy Bond) have tracked Vanning down, believing him to have taken their money. Vanning escapes from the pair, and the finale finds them in a race to recover the money, trapped in the receding Wyoming snowpack. 

Although the script occasionally moves the story in odd, lazy directions, the actors work hard to keep things focused. Ray is appealing as the put-upon Vanning; he evinces some interesting instincts as an actor, and a method-like relaxation into the rhythms of a scene. Keith is affably menacing as John, and Bancroft, as a fashion model drawn into the conflict (on Vanning's side), is strikingly vivacious and beautiful. Tourneur, as always, makes the most of his limited budget with moody lighting and photography. 

City of Fear (1959) features Vince Edwards as an escaped convict unwittingly carrying a lethal payload. This very effective thriller combines a true noir mood with Cold War-era paranoia, and borrows from Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) and the radioactive noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955). 

Vince Ryker (Edwards) has escaped from San Quentin with a steel canister of what he believes is pure uncut heroin; in fact, it contains a dangerous isotope: cobalt-60. Background information as to the origin of the canister is left somewhat vague by screenwriters Robert Dillon and Steven Ritch, but that hardly matters. As the police close in on Ryker and his world begins to shrink, City of Fear morphs into a sweaty portrait of a self-destructive character betrayed by a symbol of his own tendencies. Ryker believes that the canister of "heroin" is going to make him a rich and powerful man; in fact, its real contents will do just the opposite. The film explores a fascinating idea: that something we may believe to be our saving grace may turn out to be our undoing. 

The intense lead performance by Edwards is helped by the incredibly economical direction of Irving Lerner and a propulsive musical score by Jerry Goldsmith - his second feature film credit. (Schlock buffs will thrill to see Lyle Talbot as the police chief; that same year, 1959, Talbot also appeared in Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s Plan 9 from Outer Space.) City of Fear is a great example of Cold War noir, ratcheting up the paranoia throughout, until the inevitable existential conclusion.


On DVD: Date Night

Date Night is not a classic, but it is certainly a testament to good comic acting and the way in which brilliant instincts can overcome major built-in handicaps. Had lesser talent been cast in the leads, Date Night, directed by Shawn Levy from a script by Josh Klausner, could have easily been another in a string of big-budget, overblown, and totally forgettable comedies. But Steve Carell and Tina Fey do more than make the film watchable; they bring some real insight to their characters - and are often uproariously funny.

The premise of Date Night sounds extraordinarily tired: a busy but bored middle-class couple, Phil and Claire Foster (Carell and Fey) are on the verge of settling into a dry, sexless marriage, and have recently witnessed the unexpected break-up of close friends. Impelled to bring some excitement back into their relationship, they decide to take their weekly date night out of the safety of their suburban New Jersey environs and into Manhattan. Unable to secure a table at the city's hottest new restaurant, they hijack another couple's reservation. After enjoying dinner, a case of mistaken identity leads to a confrontation with a pair of thugs who are shortly revealed to be dirty cops moonlighting as enforcers for a major crime figure. This propels the Fosters through a series of screwball set pieces that range from the purely comical to straight action. The film proceeds at a rapid pace as the Fosters spend the late night and early morning hours jumping through hoop after hoop to resolve their situation and clear their names.

Josh Klausner's script is fairly tight - a face-paced comedy caper that keeps the leads firmly in place as a middle-class couple whose marital difficulties feel relatively realistic. Never are their problems "solved" by heroic gestures or over-the-top action-oriented stunts. Klausner makes time for the Fosters to actually discuss their problems, keeping them at the forefront of the more outlandish dilemmas they face throughout the course of the film. 

Despite the care that Klausner takes in avoiding cartoonishly silly characterizations, director Shawn Levy's graceless, wit-free style applies an unpleasant idiot-gloss over the whole project that threatens to doom it from the very first frame. Jokes are handled like wet dog shit; i.e., they are clumsily dropped without a second thought as to their optimum disposition. In its images, the film is utterly witless. Levy's visual sense is non-existent - beyond the decision to shoot the film in widescreen, Date Night looks like any recent Hollywood production, and its purely by-the-numbers style often threatens to subvert the performances due to thoughtless camera setups and editorial choices that bring the work of Ed Wood to mind.

Thankfully, Steve Carell and Tina Fey - in addition to some exceptional supporting performers - are here to bring back some of the humanity and wit from Klausner's script, as well add their own substantial comic sensibilities to the proceedings. As I watched Date Night, I began to hope that Carell and Fey would become our next Tracy and Hepburn, with an ongoing series of films still to come. They are ideally matched and display the kind of comic skill that can only come from great professional chemistry. Scenes that could have played incredibly flat - especially under Levy's unimaginative supervision - are brought to life with small moments of improvised (?) inspiration: reactions, double-takes, mumbled ad-libs. These small but important contributions add comic flesh to scenes would have otherwise been, in some cases, painfully predictable.

Enjoyable support from Mark Wahlberg, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Taraji P. Henson, and Ray Liotta rounds out a varied and very able cast. Special mention must go to James Franco and Mila Kunis, who appear together in a single crucial and hilarious scene. Date Night is an enjoyable evening's-worth of comedy, made possible by a decent script saved by seriously talented actors. 

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On DVD: The Endless Summer (Director's Special Edition)

An opportunity to watch The Endless Summer again is never an unwelcome thing. Bruce Brown's knowing, witty paean to surfing retains all of its charm after more than forty years. With limited resources, Brown crafted a polished, exciting portrait of the sport, highlighted by bold photographic techniques and skilful editing that capture the thrill of surfing everything from Malibu's gentle but sturdy breakers to the legendary monster waves of Oahu's North Shore. Brown is not interested in the origins and culture of the sport, but in the specific skills and strengths of its key practitioners. Many of the great surfers of the mid-60s are featured here, and Brown carefully documents their achievements with great admiration.

The film's wraparound narrative concerns the globe-trotting adventures of two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, who embark on a trip around the world in search of the titular season and, of course, the perfect wave. They find both: the first, as a result of their sub-equatorial destinations, moving from west to east, and the second at a deserted (and desert-like) beach at Cape St. Francis, South Africa. The pristine and previously-undiscovered break at this site provides the most memorable surfing in the film: extraordinarily long breakers that maintain a consistent, smooth integrity such that rides easily last several minutes apiece.

Hynson and August surf in Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii. Brown's enthusiastic filmmaking invites us to experience the manifold rush of surfing, and educates us as to the varied nature of the surf itself. The Wedge at Newport Beach is a case in point; this bizarre (and dangerous) break features huge waves that crash directly onto a banked beach. It offers a tempting challenge to surfers (and bodysurfers) who must understand its peculiar features in order to avoid a broken neck.

Prior to The Endless Summer, Brown had made a number of shorter, silent documentaries about surfing, which he would tour roadshow-style at high schools and public auditoriums, providing live narration himself. The Endless Summer was his first "completed" feature, with music by The Sandals and recorded narration. It was shot on 16mm cameras and might be the most beautiful film ever made on that gauge. Although sharpness is accordingly reduced, Brown's feeling for color and composition easily overshadows any perceptible technical limitations. Although most of the photography is shot from the shore, Brown occasionally mounts a surfboard himself in order to capture the technique of his subjects up-close. Complementing the undeniable appeal of the images is a fluid editorial style that moves the narrative forward while allowing for the odd tangential sequence in Hawaii or Santa Cruz or Newport Beach.

Brown's narration showcases the filmmaker's intimate knowledge of the sport, the vagaries of the ocean and its behavior, and the hard work and consummate skill of his surfers. Since the film was shot without live sound, the music (by The Sandals) and narration make up the bulk of the soundtrack. Brown has a whimsical Californian sense of humor that prevents his delivery from ever being heavy-handed; his considerable expertise never comes across as elite.

It's plain that The Endless Summer remains enormously influential - a beautifully-filmed ode to a sport and its talented (and unfairly ridiculed) devotees. It maintains a keen appeal even as it ages. Brown is now recognized as one of the inventors of the sports documentary, but his skills as a filmmaker - regardless of genre - remain impressive, particularly given The Endless Summer's tiny budget. 

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On DVD: The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) is an intensely creepy portrait of a sick society - a rural village whose rotten core presages Germany's darkest hour. In the months immediately before the outbreak of World War I, a village at the center of a relatively prosperous baronial fiefdom grapples with felonious pranks, hidden incest, and deadly accidents, all of which baffle the community's leaders. As these minor disasters accrue, all signs slowly point in a direction that the village elders are unwilling to confront. By the film's end, there is a distinct suggestion that the village is a microcosmic representation of the rise of an evil generation in Germany, a generation born out of a misplaced trust in the outmoded mores of a decrepit social structure. Parents who believe in tenant farming, puritanical religious practice, and corporal punishment raise a crop of quietly vicious children who seem to be conspirators in an unknown plot to destroy the town, or worse.

The way that Haneke paces The White Ribbon, the way that characters are introduced "in action," with hardly a hint of expository dialogue, and his patient, sturdy camerawork suggest a director who has taken all of the lessons of Alfred Hitchcock and improved upon them. This is most noticeably achieved through a great confidence in actors; Haneke allows his amazing cast to shape characters that are remarkably diverse in their personalities. The slowness of The White Ribbon is counterbalanced by its unusual tension - the sense that something horrendous is afoot. Yet this is not once borne out through shock tactics, grotesque visuals, or acts of violence. Little of the horror that lurks beneath the film's surface is conveyed in simple visual terms. The insidious creeping evil is instead "discovered" as characters experience moments of seemingly minor revelation, or happen upon an incident that might otherwise be of little consequence. The aggregation of these things, however, amounts to a bone-chilling chain of evidence that threatens to rot the village from the inside out.

High-contrast black-and-white photography by Christian Berger helps portray this early twentieth century village as a place that is, in a way, outside of time. The location is fictional, and the visual style allows the story to play out in a way not overly beholden to a specific setting. The film is captured in long, static shots. There are few cuts, and composition is a far more prominent feature of the visual style than in most films.

The cast is uniformly excellent. As the schoolteacher, Christian Friedel lends a youthful, earnest energy as one of the few people in the village whose intentions appear genuinely honorable. Rainer Bock plays the doctor, whose riding accident sets the story in motion; he is one of the most memorably despicable characters in recent cinema. Also outstanding is Burghart Klaußner as the village pastor, a fearsomely committed zealot who forces one of his sons to admit to masturbation and punishes him by having his hands tied to his bed frame while he sleeps.

The White Ribbon succeeds as an anthropological investigation and an unorthodox mystery. There is also room for subtle political allegory amid the frightening mood. However one might wish to categorize it, it's a film that operates at the highest levels of cinematic storytelling and technical mastery. 

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