Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lemon Aid

Okay, so that wasn't the greatest episode of 30 Rock either. But if forced to choose between a pair of well-worn sitcom cliches -- the Liz-suspects-her-neighbor-is-a-terrorist plot or the Liz-dates-a-younger-guy plot -- I'll take the latter, because it's by far the better showcase for Tina Fey. Unconvincing as an idiot in the former episode, Fey this time addressed one of the show's central premises in Liz's low self-esteem, in how we see her is completely antithetical to how she sees herself. The twentysomething coffee guy's name already escapes me, but it doesn't matter, since he's a really a stand-in for us. His attraction to her was treated as perfectly natural (however Oedipal), and his calling her a "sexy librarian" couldn't have been a more perfect validation.

Of the two subplots, the little league team/Iraq War metaphor, while obvious, was funnier--though it was rather weird seeing baseball in late November. (On second thought, Bud Selig's still in charge, so never mind.) And I'm not sure what they were trying with Judah Freilander's character, other than a desperate stab at giving him something to do. But this was a Liz Lemon episode all the way, and for a few joyous minutes she almost tasted happiness. The poor girl needs all the help she can get.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Welles vs. Olivier

Reading Claudia Roth Pierpont's recent New Yorker essay (abstract available here) on the career trajectories of Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles reminded me of how embarrassingly short-changed I am on the works of both men. I am familiar mainly with a handful of films of Later Laurence (Sleuth, Marathon Man, The Boys from Brazil, and, ahem, Clash of the Titans); and I'm up to speed with Essential Orson (Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil, The Lady from Shanghai, even Mr. Arkadin). But Shakespeare? I've never seen Welles's Macbeth or Olivier's Hamlet or any of their other Bard-related roles that Pierpont covers in her piece, but now I desperately want to, if for no other reason but to get the hammy Kenneth Branaugh taste out of my mouth.

Of Shakespeare on-stage (where both Olivier and Welles cut their teeth) I'm even less informed, though I heard great things about Kevin Kline's King Lear from earlier this year. Near the top of my wish list is to see any theater performance by Kline. I'm delighted and envious about the current production of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, which starring only Kline would have been enough for me. They could have cast a coat rack (or Julia Roberts, same dif) as Roxane and their core audience would have gone along with it, but adding Jennifer Garner sounds like an inspired choice. She reminds me of a girl in our softball league last summer who had the physicality to slide hard into third base, then batted her eyelashes at the ump and got the call. A cutie-pie with spikes in her heels -- that's Garner. That's Roxane.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Links and De-Links

When David Edelstein, one of my favorite film critics, announced that he had started a new blog, I was excited, but regrettably I've decided to remove it from my links on the left side of this page. (David's deeply wounded, I'm sure.) One reason is that his last post occurred way back over Halloween; another is that the blog has been a disappointing bummer, the nadir being Edelstein's foolish post on Richard Corliss and Rush Limbaugh a month or so back. Edelstein's gossipy side has always been his least attractive quality, and it got him into hot water on this one. If he ever starts things up again and the quality improves, I will bring it back. Stay tuned.

For now, if it's thought-provoking reviews you want, you can't do any better than Fernando Croce. I don't really agree with his take on No Country for Old Men -- the film is too exhilarating to feel dead to me -- but I respect the hell out of him for taking a contrarian stance. Furthermore, dip into his archives and you'll uncover all sorts of surprises (nobody gets Tarantino more) and hilarious chestnuts, like a summation of Soderbergh's Ocean's Thirteen as "The Steven & George & Brad I Could Give a Fuck Special." That's a pithiness I envy.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Chasing Shadows

Jake Gyllenhaal plays obsessed about as well as Muqtada al-Sadr plays droll. In Zodiac, David Fincher's true crime thriller about the notorious Bay Area serial killer, Gyllenhaal is Robert Graysmith, political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle who went on to write a book about the subject on which the movie is based, and I didn't buy his performance for a minute--not as an amateur sleuth on the case, not as Chloe Sevigny's love interest, not as a family man concerned for the welfare of his son, and certainly not in the film's carefully rationed moments of terror, when Gyllenhaal goes all skittish and bug-eyed as though he were auditioning for the role of Victim #3 in Halloween.

Not that Fincher doesn't share some of the blame. He obviously saw Zodiac as an opportunity to return to the genre where he established himself (with Seven) while simultaneously stretching as an artist by making a social statement about the effect of terror on American culture. The best sequences in Zodiac work as a nifty crime procedural, a multi-pronged effort to nab the killer that involve an investigative reporter at the Chronicle (Robert Downey, Jr.) and a pair of 'Frisco homicide detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards). The leads and false-leads, myriadic interpretations of evidence, petty jealousies and professional rivalries are all tautly conveyed. Less of a fit are the scenes with the killer himself, where Fincher can't resist cheap shock effects, like firecrackers going off as a prelude to gun shots for no reason but to make the audience jump. Fincher does these scenes well, and he humanizes the victims as well as a technocrat can; but in an ambitious movie like this one they're the equivalent of a cat leaping out from the dark.

Nevertheless, Fincher's sense of atmosphere is almost without peer. It's probably unfair to compare the night visuals of Zodiac with the Coens' No Country for Old Men, but even on DVD the former film is enveloping to watch (particularly in a long overhead shot of a taxi cab). And other than the lead role, Fincher's knack for casting is terrific: Downey fits his dissolute journalist like a glove; and Ruffalo gives his bow-tied, animal-cracker munching detective the proper gravitas. He's a publicity hound who cares.

Both actors, in fact, are so good that they have the odd effect of picking up the slack from Gyllenhaal while also underscoring his ineptitude. I don't mean to imply that he's always a terrible actor: Gyllenhaal was effective in Donnie Darko, I think, because the demons he faced in that film were internal. When he takes a more active, externalized role --like in Brokeback Mountain (where he was outclassed by Heath Ledger) and now here -- he lacks drive and falls flat. I don't think I would have bought Zodiac's endorsement of Graysmith's thesis with a different actor any more than I swallowed Jim Garrison's theories in JFK. But however one feels about it, Oliver Stone's film was a self-proclaimed "countermyth" that used Kevin Costner as the iconic center for an entire arsenal of multimedia at the director's disposal, whereas Fincher lacks a leading man to convincingly sell his tale. The end result is a film where we can't tell the conscious ambiguities from the moments of unintended fuzziness. With Zodiac, Fincher wants to have his myth and debunk it too.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Mortal Coils, Part II (Or: The Movie So Nice, I Had to See It Twice)

Warning: Spoilers herein

On Thanksgiving Day, in the spirit of the holiday, I took my parents to see No Country for Old Men. It was my second viewing of the film, their first, and it had been exceedingly difficult to persuade them to go. Based on the previews, they had been under the impression that the movie was about a serial killer who traveled the country selecting his victims based on flipping a coin. ("Call it, friend-o," is his witty catchphrase.) Excitedly I envisioned the Hollywood thriller that could have come of this, including a montage of the killer's crime spree: ordering waffles at a diner ("Call it!"); nailing a job interview ("Call it!"); getting a physical from his proctologist ("Call it!); offering a toast a wedding reception ("Call it!"). Ultimately, though, my folks saw the movie they had hoped to see otherwise, which appears to be an odd reaction: judging by the tempest in a teapot over on the comments board at the Internet Movie Database, a considerable portion of the audience isn't even sure of what the hell exactly it saw.

Much as I would like to be smug, the truth is that I wanted to see No Country again because I myself was uncertain about key plot points (and unsatisfied with my initial review). One reason for this, I'm sure, is because I haven't read the book. Another is that the Coens make movies for themselves. One critic complained about The Big Lebowski that the Coen brothers speak in a hidden language. That grievance is not inaccurate, and it could be applied to their entire body of work. Like many viewers, I've found that you need to spend considerable time in the world they inhabit, to pick up the language and learn the customs.

In recent years, the Coens have gone from filming strictly their own screenplays to adapting secondary source material: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? loosely updated The Odyssey to Depression-Era America; Intolerable Cruelty was based on an original script by the guys who went on to write the limp family comedy Man of the House (amusingly also starring Tommy Lee Jones); The Ladykillers was a remake of the Alec Guinness/Ealing Studios black comedy classic of the same name. Beyond Oh Brother's music, none of these films worked for me; but in retrospect they served as an important transitional phase to getting out of their own heads and living in other people's worlds. (Wes Anderson, take note.) By adapting McCarthy's novel, they appear to have found the perfect fit for their interests and gifts. The result is the most ferociously focused film I've seen since L. A. Confidential--though unlike Curtis Hanson's classic, which stirs its pot to a full boil, the final 20 minutes of this film's meticulously constructed plot quite deliberately falls apart.

After my first viewing, I had no trouble following that Moss had been killed, that the Mexicans were following his wife and her mother to track down the money, and that the mother had died of cancer after an unspecified amount of time had elapsed. It took two viewings for me to realize that Moss had been killed by the Mexicans and not Chigurh, as I'd initially thought (for some reason, I feel comforted by this), and that Chigurh had in fact gotten away with the money by the time he sees Moss's wife.

The scene that has arguably stirred the most debate--possibly even more than the ending--is one that I'd initially felt certain about: When Sheriff Bell returns to the hotel room after Moss has been killed. We see a reluctant Bell standing outside the door, which he sees has had its lock popped by Chigurh's air gun. Bell appears to see a reflection in the lock hole, and then there is a cut to Chigurh, who seems to be directly behind the door looking at Bell's reflection in the same hole. Bell takes a deep breath, draws his gun, and kicks the door open to an empty room. He inspects the window, then notices an air vent--which we already know must have been where Moss hid the money--and then screws and a dime on the floor, to imply that Chigurh had been there. But when was he there? The two shots of the window suggested to me that Chigurh had been in the room right before Bell entered, and that in the few seconds' pause he had made his getaway. But my mom speculated that perhaps Chigurh's presence had been entirely in Bell's imagination. (Validation of either of these theories or other suggestions welcome.)

Some of No Country's confusion may be the result of an audience's general inability to infer communication visually, but I think most of it is derives from two elements: the choice to kill the movie's protagonist offscreen; and the featuring of a villain who doesn't abide by the rules of nature. Regarding the former, a valid argument could be made--and David Edelstein has made one--on an obligation to give an audience closure, as Carl Franklin did with the climax of his masterful thriller One False Move. In terms of the latter, Chigurh is described at least once (by Bell) as "a ghost," and there is an air of unreality to him that disengages him somewhat from the rules of the narrative. (I still don't get how or why he was arrested in the first place, considering how easily he could have dispatched of the deputy before getting cuffed and taken to the police staton.) Yet Chigurh is just human enough (missing his aim at a pigeon on a bridge, getting shot in the leg by Moss) that the audience understandably applies the same laws of physics to him as everyone else: he didn't have enough time to open the window and escape, right? On the other hand, I didn't see how he could have escaped so quickly from Moss during their shootout on the street, so I can't help but wonder: did he elude Bell too?

The Coens can be charged for using the character to suit their means and justify their ends, but I don't think they're being smartasses and deliberately pissing people off. There's too much affection onscreen for Moss and his wife (their relationship beautifully subverts white-trash cliches) and in the gallery of supporting characters in sporting goods stores, at trailerparks, along roadsides and on border patrols who by turns help and hinder Moss and Chigurh's respective quests (some live, some don't) to indicate that the filmmakers are being condescending or just playing mindgames. Moreover, it is in their nature to build a film organically, even a story that originally wasn't theirs; and as a result there is a lot for viewers to process. By the end, when Sheriff Bell reveals his dream, the imagery of his father riding on horseback, lighting the way ahead, is so ambiguous it could be interpreted as hopeful or dark, I've heard convincing arguments both ways. I've no doubt the Coens have their own ideas, but it's a measure of their generosity with this film that they leave the door open for alternate interpretations. Heads or tails, is what I think they are saying in the end. Call it, friend-o.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mortal Coils

Whatever one thinks of the Coen Brothers -- and I've been on-again, off-again throughout their joint careers -- in any one of their movies you can count on at least a couple of memorable scenes involving interactions with the local townsfolk. Several of these scenes occur, one right after the other, in No Country for Old Men: some are amusing, as when Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), an unemployed Vietnam veteran who makes off with a case filled with two million dollars from a botched drug deal, encounters a droll boot salesman along the Texas-Mexico border; others chill to the bone, like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the murderous bounty hunter hot on Moss's trail, deciding the fate of a harmless gas station owner on the literal turn of a coin. The Coens are frequently accused of condescension in their depiction of middle America (usually by East Coast critics who have never lived there, as Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out in an interesting discussion of his excellent review) but I don't see the charges sticking this time. In No Country for Old Men, the people and their relationship with the landscape they inhabit are evoked more seriously, more pensively, than the contraptionist Coens have attempted before.

Although containing familiar elements from their body of work--the comic interplay of Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) and his dimwitted deputy (Deadwood's Garret Dillahunt) is particularly reminiscent of similar exchanges in Fargo--No Country for Old Men comes closest to reminding me of A Simple Plan, the 1998 Sam Raimi thriller starring Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as a pair of brothers who also stumble on a pile of cash. Both films depict the tragic consequences of decent people who go for the easy score and find themselves in over their heads with forces they are ill-prepared to contend with. A Simple Plan employed a wintry backdrop as a mise-en-scene that was used figuratively as cover for the lifelong resentments that can fester within families; No Country for Old Men uses its desert habitat to underscore the harsh, pitiless pursuit of Moss and the two-mil by Chigurh. (As photographed by Roger Deakins, night has never looked more beautifully ominous.)

As Moss, Josh Brolin, finally establishing himself as an actor, pulls off the difficult feat of appearing hardboiled and easygoing at once. As Chigurh (pronounced like "shih-gore," not, as I guessed, "chigger"), Javier Bardem is as terrifying as you've heard. Methodical and relentless, brandishing an unusual weapon of choice -- a pressurized gun with oxygen tank -- Chigurh joins Hannibal Lecter and DeNiro's Max Cady from Cape Fear on the pantheon of memorable modern villains. Though less flamboyant than the former and less tedious than the latter, he remains generally unrecognizable as a human being; but the individuals he encounters and usually destroys are all too human and real.

In outline, the movie is essentially an extended chase involving not only the two principals, but also a group of Mexicans, a second, more refined bounty hunter (Woody Harrelson, making the most of his three or four scenes) hired when Chigurh's sanity is called into question by his handler (a terrific Stephen Root, reminding us that he can play more than nebbishy parts), and finally Sheriff Bell himself, whose leisurely approach to the investigation is a mark of his fear. (It's a shock to see the normally cocksure Jones in a role that calls for him to be frail and tentative.) Along the way are a couple of scenes -- one involving a chase down river involving a pit bull, the other a shootout that starts in a motel room and spills into the street -- that rank with the most thrilling sequences in movie history. Yet true to their nature, the Coens confound expectations in the final act, refusing to tie up loose ends and killing off key characters offscreen, instead aiming for....something else, I guess. (Special thanks to the loud old lady who masterfully interpreted the ending to a grateful group of us standing in the aisle after it was over.)

Originally I had intended to write that the climax of No Country for Old Men is another example of the Coen Brothers denying audiences the closure they deserve, until I realized that a typical ending would have been an even greater letdown. There are other flaws: the Mexicans are, of course, never distinguished as individuals like the other characters; and I never understood how Chigurh is initially captured by a young cop clearly out of his depth. But this is still a great movie, a return to form following a run of crap work, an elegantly-devised contraption filled with real feeling. As is ironically often the case when auteur filmmakers finally get out of their own heads and start living in the worlds of others (in this case, adapting Cormac McCarthy's novel), their achievement here is a movie that feels entirely their own, rather than a facsimile laminated on classic films past.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


While certainly not the funniest year of The Office, this season has at least shaped into something odd and intriguing: a comedy about the pain of confronting the truth (which of course, with the writers' strike, we may not see pay off for a good long while). Last week, as I think somebody at Sepinwall's pointed out, Jim learned that having a love in your life doesn't automatically make you a better, wiser or more motivated person. This week's episode confirmed what I've suspected for a long time--that it's more compelling to push Michael's back against the wall than it is to unleash him on his environs. Confronted by a whole slew of secrets (the unexpected revelation of the journal was ingenious) while immobile in his chair and unable to flit around, he was forced out of his longterm denial and made much more sympathetic as a result. And with Jan's lawsuit, it also gave a shred of plausibility to Ryan/Dunder Mifflin's refusal to fire him, with the hint that perhaps they're just stringing him along. The trajectories of Michael and Jim will be interesting to see if and when this storyline continues. After all, Jan's evaluation of Michael--that he's an inept manager who would be better suited back in sales--was harsh, but it certainly wasn't wrong.

After the last hilarious episode of 30 Rock and a buoyant season so far, I'm not going to be too hard on tonight's dud--but really, Tina Fey should know better than to trot out a plot (Liz suspects her immigrant neighbor is a terrorist!) with only one yawningly obvious conclusion (oops, he wasn't). All three storylines dragged, in fact, with the main thread downright nonsensical: If the Middle Eastern gentleman knows that Liz is in the media and wants her to help him, then why does he act rudely toward her in the first place? I can't think of any other reason for this lapse in quality other than Fey's desire to score political points, for which I commend her as long as her teeth are sharp, but not at the expense of comedy. We've already had one Murphy Brown.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dangerous Minds

With Oscar Bait season upon us (best of luck to Sean, Jack, Meryl, Julia and all the other charter members), I finally caught up with a pair of films to befit the occasion--one that successfully copped the Best Actor prize last year, and another released earlier this year that may snag its female lead Best Actress. The fact that I couldn't care less about awardage doesn't alter the fact that I like both performances and admire both movies. I love one of them, in fact.

One wouldn't think of Idi Amin as an Oscar-winning role, but that's exactly who Forest Whitaker had to play (brilliantly, of course) to finally garner the attention he has long deserved. I remember first seeing Whitaker in The Color of Money, in a nifty scene where he hustled Paul Newman and established the persona--seemingly slow-witted yet actually devious--that he has kept fresh and varied in everything from The Crying Game to The Shield and now finally this film. The Last King of Scotland is riveting for much of the way. The director, Kevin Macdonald, uses hand-held cameras to keep the action intimate without overdoing the jitteriness; and James McAvoy plays his callow young doctor effectively: it's easy to see why being a dictator's personal physician appeals to him more than tending to the impoverished, and he generates sexual chemistry with actresses as diverse as Kerry Washington and Gillian Anderson. The movie started wearing on me a bit in the second half, beginning with a failed assassination attempt that's oversold as an explanation for Amin's growing paranoia. (Whitaker's performance had already suggested plenty of demons inside the man's head.) I think I'm also tired of the recent spate of whitey-abroad films in general. I dunno if the same story would be any more compelling from an African perspective (or if it would be budgeted), but I would like to see a creative filmmaker someday try.

I'm sorry I missed Away from Her when it appeared in theaters at the start of last summer. Having just caught up with it on DVD, I feel compelled to note a couple of things, hopefully without spoiling the film's surprises or unexpected bursts of humor: that Julie Christie, while in some ways miscast, brings so much genuine life to her role as a woman in the early stages of Alzehimer's Disease that she is immeasurably more moving than a cyborg like, say, Meryl Streep, would have offered the role; and that as a director Sarah Polley, at twenty-eight already one of my favorite actresses (The Claim, Guinevere, The Sweet Hereafter, etc.), proves that she is as authentic a presence behind the camera as she is in front of it. One scene, where the effects of Alzheimer's are conveyed metaphorically by the lights in a house going off one by one, is one of the most lyrical passages I've seen onscreen all year. Yet while Christie has received the spotlight, it is Gordon Pinsent, a veteran Canadian actor I don't recall ever seeing before, who anchors the film as Christie's husband, a retired professor who wonders if his wife is truly degenerating or if she's punishing him for his past transgressions. (The answer is, perhaps, both.) Polley is particularly lucky to have Pinsent to guide us through the early scenes, where she decides to juggle the timeframe (unnecessarily, I think) in the manner of her mentor, Atom Egoyan. And I can't decide if Polley's inability to resist an allusion to the Iraq War is out of place or not, but what the hell. This is a beautiful film.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Last Day for Laffs

Just a note that newcritics is wrapping up its comedy blogathon today, so if you're in need of a chuckle, a chortle, a titter or a snort, head on over and choose from a wide palette of offerings. I've particularly enjoyed Noel Vera's reminder of the wry pleasures of George Burns in Oh, God!. (Vera's site in general is excellent, with a unique slant toward Philippine cinema.) And I grinned all the way through a Lance Mannion piece that deftly combines Barnes & Noble, a shy sketch artist, a hot blonde, and Chekhovian dramatic structure, right up to a tragicomic denuouement I found discomfitingly familiar. Where were you when I've needed you, buddy?

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Big Reveal

Never work with an Oscar winner shorter than the statue.--Larry Gelbart

Ah, but thank goodness Larry did, or he wouldn't have given me my purest comedy moment.

It wasn't just him, of course. Half the WGA is rumored to have worked on Tootsie--Gelbart, Elaine May and Barry Levinson among them. And Sydney Pollack, a director with a previously undetected sense of humor (the laughs of Random Hearts and Harrison Ford's stud earring came later), kept the pacing crisp and the camera jumping for the gag, as Pauline Kael put it. Add to that a phenomenal supporting ensemble--Jessica Lange, Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning, George Gaynes, Doris Belack, Bill Murray, Geena Davis, and Pollack himself--each actor at the top of his or her game. And last but not least, Dustin Hoffman himself, in one of the most astonishing magic acts of his career, playing essentially three characters: Michael Dorsey, boorish unemployed actor; Dorothy Michaels, charismatic soap-opera star; and Emily Kimberly, popular character on the soap whom Michael-as-Dorothy portrays.

Nothing against Judd Apatow's freewheeling, semi-improvised, eye-of-the-hurricane style, but Tootsie is the greatest modern showcase of the strengths of classical comedy structure. The transformation of Michael Dorsey into Dorothy Michaels, laboriously set-up and overexplained if had been made today, is streamlined through a funny, no-frills jumpcut early on. (The more implausible the scenario, the better it is to get through it quickly.) Jokes are set up in the first half of the film that pay off in the second. And the tension that tightens inexorably around Michael's keeping his secret identity as Dorothy comes to a catharisis in an ingenious moment of revelation.

The moment comes when the soap that Michael is on (and by this point, desperate to leave) is forced to shoot a major scene on live television--a dinner party in Emily Kimberly's honor--and he seizes the opportunity to break from his scripted lines and improvise his way to revealing Dorothy's true identity.

EMILY KIMBERLY: Well, I cannot tell you all how deeply moved I am. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would be the object of so much genuine affection. It makes it all the more difficult for me to say what I'm now going to say. Yes. I do feel it's time to set the record straight. You see, I didn't come here just as an administrator, Dr. Brewster; I came to this hospital to settle an old score.

The beauty of Michael's solution is that he reveals himself in character, by giving Emily a secret which, however absurd, works within the tradition of soap opera conventions. What makes it even funnier is that he hasn't thought it through in advance and so has to fumble his way forward, to the horror of cast and crew.

EMILY KIMBERLY: Now you all know that my father was a brilliant man; he built this hospital. What you don't know is that to his family, he was an unmerciful tyrant - a absolute dodo bird.

RON CARLISLE: (the show's director, played by Dabney Coleman, in the booth) Oh, no. Not live!

"Emily" continues with her tale, which develops into a convoluted backstory: how her father drove her mother to drink before she died in a tragic drunken horseback riding accident; how her parents had two children, a reclusive son named Edward and a daughter who got pregnant at fifteen, fled into exile, and raised the girl as her sister before dying of a hideous disease; how the girl's daughter came to work at the hospital, where she was despised for being a do-gooder.

EMILY KIMBERLY: But she was deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply loved by her brother. It was this brother who, on the day of her death, swore to the good Lord above that he would follow in her footsteps, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, and, just, just, just, just, just--

RITA MARSHALL: (the show's producer, played by Doris Belack, also in the booth) Now don't don't don't don't panic....

EMILY KIMBERLY: --just, just, just, just, just owe it all up to her. But on her terms!

RON CARLISLE: Oh, God, here come the terms.

By now the audience with which I first saw Tootsie on its initial release was laughing so hard you couldn't hear half the lines. And, the fact that I was only twelve years old, I didn't really understand everything that was happening either. But no matter: I laughed my ass off anyway. I crack up every time I see it. It's my favorite comic moment in a movie.

At this point I will stop transcribing the scene and let you enjoy the rest of it yourself. Only note how each character has a distinct reaction to Dorothy's big reveal, how all of them are given their moment. Finally, I should add that the scene below cuts off before Julie's (Jessica Lange's) moment. I always hated William Goldman's dismissal in one of his books of Lange's performance. Far from a "little cameo," she creates the most genuine human being in the movie. She gives Tootsie its sweet embrace--but not before a slug to the stomach.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

To the Last Drop

Pity that Stanley Kubrick didn't live long enough to adapt Urinetown for the screen--the Master of the Bathroom Scene would have had a field day with the subject matter and its ultimately pessimistic, satirical edge. Such is life, I did catch my local university's stage version, and it holds up to a high standard of quality. Other recent productions--Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (helmed by guest director Vincent Dowling) and Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead--were wonderfully performed and imaginatively staged in our small interior theater-in-the-round, but both clocked in at just under three hours, a long time to be sitting in a squeaky chair. Urinetown, is, at approximately two hours, a swiftly paced account of a power struggle between the pees and the pee-nots in a town facing a twenty-year drought. (The former force the latter to pay to use regulated toilets.) While not particularly memorable, the musical numbers are lively and funny; and while not particularly deep, the characterization of the "revolutionaries" who attempt to overthrow the Draconian rule of the proprietors of the town's water supply is pretty biting. I'm a sucker for the kind of vaudeville humor in the scenes within archvillain Caldwell B. Cladwell's office. And I choked out a laugh during the final scene, when a dying-of-thirst old lady begs for a glass of water and the delusionally idealistic female protagonist smiles sweetly and replies, "There's a glass of water in your heart."

Delayed Gratification

I decided not to see American Gangster even before the tepid reviews, when I read that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe wouldn't be sharing any scenes together until the end, thereby continuing a trend in current cinema that annoys the hell out of me. If the Golden Age often paired movie stars together and affording us the pleasure of watching them butt heads for a couple hours (Bette & Joan! Bela and Boris!), many of today's movies keep their actors apart as long as possible, following the Sleepless in Seattle formula even when they're not Ephronian crap.

Excluding the Ocean's movies--which dilute the star pool by mashing a bunch of them together--the last time I can recall a film featuring two actors performing at the level of Washington and Crowe's game was Michael Mann's Heat (1995) starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro right before both started coasting on their estimable career laurels. There was a great deal of anticipation leading up to the movie's release followed by something of a letdown, with much carping aimed toward the fact that Pacino's homicide detective and DeNiro's bank robber shared only one major scene together. (More on that momentarily.) Watching Heat again the other night, I think the film holds up better now than it did then, its longuers fleshing out a whole panorama of characters and linking the two principals for the considerable amount of screen time that they're apart. I'm mixed about Mann's body of work, his style at times seeming to overcompensate for a lack of substance. But while Heat is in some ways his ultimate exploration of machismo, this is levened by the best ensemble of women he's ever had. Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd make vivid impressions as, respectively, the love interests of DeNiro and Val Kilmer's criminals, both showing the level of denial needed to stay with them (or the loyalty to let them go). And playing what could have been a stereotypical suffering wife of a cop, Diane Venona holds her own against Pacino (who gives one of his over-the-top performances, though I think mostly in character). Refusing to fade into the background, she may be the strongest onscreen partner he's ever had.

As for The Scene itself, it is no small measure of Mann's perversity that when he finally gets the legendary Godfather alumns together, about halfway into the film, it is over a cup of coffee. What's more, he shoots it over the shoulders of his actors, so that Pacino and DeNiro never actually share the same frame. (This has prompted rumors that they weren't even together on the day of the shooting, but the DVD's Special Features prove otherwise.) I would have been irked too if the sequence weren't so fascinating, with the pair subtly mimicking each other's body language, discussing bad dreams, and quietly vowing to take the other down. I'm not quite sure how, but Mann gets away with it. It's a great scene in a fine movie, weaving together the parallel paths of these two men and setting up the tragic grandeur of the climax that is to come.