Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shaken and Stirred: A Closer Look at Casino Royale (Act III and Coda)

The name's Porlock. Man from Porlock. And welcome to Part Five, the final chapter of our series on Casino Royale.

Doing this mostly thematically has had its rewards, but it has also caused me to miss some elements in the film worth mentioning. So before we get to the final act, here are a few late additions:

The music: After the opening song, the music in Casino Royale consists of David Arnold's orchestrals, which employs different variations on an instantly recognizable score. Listen closely and you'll hear my favorite -- a beautifully lush version during the train sequence to Montenegro. Like everything else, the music in the movie is a beguiling mix of old and new, with the classic Bond theme used twice: first when Bond arrives in the Bahamas, then at the end. (More on this below.)

The humor: Casino Royale is a brutal movie, and both the film and Daniel Craig's performance would be intolerable if they weren't so funny. One line that got a big laugh in the theater is when a bartender asks a pissed-off Bond if he wants his drink shaken or stirred, and Bond replies, "Do I look like I give a damn?" It's a gag that relies on our prior knowledge of the character, yet it performs the miraculous feat of being self-referential without coming across as smirky. I'm not sure if Quentin Tarantino could have pulled that off, but Martin Campbell does it time and again.

The mother-figure: At the script level, one of the movie's weakest elements is the relationship between Bond and M. It seems a little unconvincing that Bond could go unpunished after shooting a suspect and destroying an embassy, only to then break into M's home and steal information off her computer. (This sort of thing gets even more implausible in Quantum of Solace. ) Yet this is often the difference between a movie that works and one that doesn't -- the former is so involving it makes you believe. It doesn't hurt that Dench sells a sense of maternalism, for the most part, on sheer force of personality alone; and I do like how M is wiley enough to use Bond for her own ends, yet also serves as a kind of moral compass. Ian Fleming's original novel closed with Bond saying, "The bitch is dead." This adaptation includes that line but also allows M a corrective.

Following the infamous torture scene, after Le Chiffre is killed by a shadowy figure, Casino Royale slows down for the love story between Bond and Vesper to bloom. This is the only stretch that drags a little, though it's clear enough that Campbell is subtly raising the emotional stakes before the climax. Even here, the rhythms of the film are unusual, lulling into a romantic interlude that typically occurs at the midway point. This creates an odd tension: We know we're near the end, and as the rapid pacing slows we're torn between what we're feeling by way of what's onscreen and our expectations for the genre. Something has to happen; but what, and when?

The movie also gets more confusing. As the couple sails to Venice and comes to face off against a new gang of thugs after Bond's winnings, we are introduced once again to Mr. White (who had had only one prior scene very early in the film) and encounter yet another villain with an eye problem. At first I thought this was somehow Le Chiffre again, but it's a brand new character -- never really a good idea to introduce near the end of a movie, but he's ultimately irrelevant.

What does matter at the climactic shoot-out -- which contains a doozy of an image: a building in Venice that collapses into the water -- is Vesper's death. The scene is vaguely similar to one in The Bourne Supremacy, which came out two years earlier; but the one in Bourne kicked off the hero's quest, whereas this one is Bond's culmination. It also recalls the tragic finale of On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), which featured Diana Rigg as a Bond Girl to rival Eva Green. George Lazenby, alas, was no Daniel Craig. The latter invests this character with so many layers, he makes you feel his failure to save the woman he loves. (The Paulettes would call this scene De Palmaesque -- and so would I, if I admired De Palma.)

Which brings us to the final scene, at the oceanside estate of the enigmatic Mr. White, who will resurface only to submerge again in Quantum of Solace. (They should rename him Badpenny if there's not going to be a Moneypenny.) The details of the scene -- right down to the return of Arnold's classic score -- coalesce to form such a perfect capper, I will let you experience, or re-experience, them for yourself.

These days it seems almost quaint when a movie offers any sort of payoff. Many films are busy being ironic, upending expectations, and denying pleasure -- some of them are even quite good. But Casino Royale, right down to its final image and closing line, taps into something so vital, it's a reminder of why I came to love movies in the first place. It's why I love this film.

If you've stuck it out this far, thanks for reading. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Shaken and Stirred: A Closer Look at Casino Royale (Act II)

Welcome to Part Four of our series, where we discuss Act II of Casino Royale -- the heart of the movie with plenty of goings-on.

The Poker Sequence
Gambling is a surprisingly cinematic activity. In classic films like The Sting, decent movies like Rounders and mediocrities like 21, card-playing scenes accomplish dual objectives: they generate suspense from the outcome of the games themselves; and they tell you something about the characters at the table. In Casino Royale, however, Campbell has his work cut out for him. The marathon poker game between James Bond, Le Chiffre and a handful of supporting players is the centerpiece of the film. To keep things from going static, Campbell has to build character, generate suspense, and, yes, raise the stakes.

All of these elements are deftly woven together, elevated by witty dialogue and broken up by tense action scenes. There's a brutal fight down a hotel staircase between Bond and the African thugs out to get the indebted Le Chiffre (whose scheme to make millions off the stock market by blowing up a new jumbo jet was thwarted by Bond in Act I). There is also a harrowing attempt by Le Chiffre's blonde bombshell to poison Bond during the game. A running gag develops every time Daniel Craig returns to the table, first with a new dress shirt (after his tux gets bloodied) then following his near-death escape.

We also meet a couple of important new characters, such as CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, capable of better things but always a welcome presence) and MI5's Montenegro operative Mathis (Giancarlo Giannini, once again shaping a complete character in a few swift scenes). Then there is the game itself, which is so involving that we barely notice Mathis's nonsensical if essential exposition. (He's always telling Eva Green how much is in the pot.) Earlier in the movie, Bond explains that poker isn't about chance, that it's a game of skill. By the game's climax, we understand what he means.

The Torture Scene
When Casino Royale first came out, I was at a colleague's party where all everybody could talk about was the scene where Le Chiffre tortures Bond, and that the film should have been rated "R" because of this. Looking back, I think this reaction is a good example of the kind of resistance that occurs when a movie truly gets under the skin. (It happens so rarely these days that the reaction may even be more intense.) Even by Bond torture standards, the scene comes as a shock: instead of Sean Connery strapped down while a laser slowly makes its way up to his private parts (the Austin Powers series has spoofed this kind of scene where the villain inexplicably leaves the room, allowing time for the hero to escape), Casino Royale gives us a stark naked James Bond tied to a chair while Le Chiffre thumps his balls.

It's an unusually intimate moment between Bond and a Bond Villain. Le Chiffre's vulnerability was demonstrated earlier when Obanno and his goons come looking for their money, and here he is in a full sweaty panic. But here's the main reason why I think audiences respond so strongly to this scene: it's eroticized. Gone is the customary detached violence of the Bond series; in Casino Royale, violence takes a toll on its characters, and as Le Chiffre tortures Bond it becomes turbocharged with something more, a dark undercurrent cut short as Le Chiffre meets a surprising end.

The Bad Good Girl
Has there been a greater Bond Girl than Eva Green? I certainly can't think of a better introduction for one than the scene on the train headed for Montenegro, when Green's Vesper Lynd -- a.k.a. "The Bad Good Girl" -- sits across from Bond and says, "I'm the money." As the financier for M's risky plan to prevent Le Chiffre from making off with funds for terrorist activities, Vesper is presented immediately as a character who is at once familiar and unknown. Her edgy conversation with Bond -- where they size each other up as orphans -- throws off sparks, to be sure; it also establishes the pair as equals. We're an hour into the movie, and yet Green's arrival creates the sensation that the story has just begun.

Purvis, Wade and Haggis's script achieves some marvelous emotional shorthand in their ensuing scenes, a few almost playing as screwball comedy as they pretend to be lovers only to gradually become them. (It doesn't hurt that the actors have chemistry.) Bond uses his actual name at a hotel, to Vesper's irritation; he claims this will help him learn something about Le Chiffre, while she retorts that it also shows his own recklessness. But the best moment comes right before the big poker match, when Bond gives Vesper a dress. (He tells her he wants every eye in the room focused on her rather than their cards -- hilariously, it is Bond himself who gets distracted.) Bond's smug self-satisfaction is deflated when he returns to his room to find a tailored suit waiting for him. ("I sized you up the moment we met," Vesper says.) A tux is to James Bond as a costume is to a comic book superhero, and the image of Daniel Craig donning one for the first time is the moment when Bond is truly born.

Coming Soon: The Bad Good Girl shows her dark side -- and Bond flirts with his -- in Act III, our final chapter....

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Shaken and Stirred: A Closer Look at Casino Royale (Act I)

Back to Bond! After a brief hiatus, welcome to Part III of our series.

Responding to the first installment, Ed Howard made the perceptive observation that a distinguishing characteristic of Casino Royale is its modular structure: "Most Bond films....have a single plot throughline that drives the film, and all the action proceeds in a straightforward manner from the initial premise. Not so with this film, which is instead broken down into segments, with the main thrust of the plot subtly shifting with each new segment." This is something that I don't like in some movies, that I shouldn't like in this one, and yet it works like gangbusters. I think this is because Casino Royale is fashioned as an "origins" tale, with each episode serving as a building block in the (re-)shaping of this protagonist, a character who -- as the opening credits allude -- we know and yet don't know very well at all.

Act I expands on this premise, introducing us to most of the supporting players in the film, not least of which the Bond Villain.

Le Chiffre
Immediately following the credits sequence, the movie proper begins. Switching to vibrant color, Campbell and Meheux treat us to the brisk globe-hopping -- Uganda, Madagascar, London, the Bahamas -- that has always made the series so much fun. (Never mind that some of these locations were filmed elsewhere -- the atmosphere is convincing.) It is in Uganda, our first stop, that we meet the principal villains of the piece: Mr. White (Jesper Christensen); Steven Obanno (Isaach de Bankole); and Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). All three actors have wonderfully expressive faces (good thing, since it's not exactly clear from the dialogue in this scene what's going on), but it is Mikkelsen's that we focus on, and not just because of his bleeding eye. Le Chiffre, a sponsor of terrorism for monetary rather than ideological value, is an interesting and risky choice for a villain. At first appearances he's a standard Bond heavy, cool and calculating, bent on world domination; but we come to learn that he's much like Bond himself, still finding his footing, somewhere in the middle of the food chain, aspiring to bigger things.

To one who hasn't read the book, what happens to Le Chiffre over the course of the plot is a surprise. (Not least of which his inhaler, of which much is made early on, yet nothing comes of it.) It's an important bit of deception to divert our attention to him -- and later on to his henchman Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian), who is dispatched surprisingly early -- and keep Mr. White on the sidelines. Le Chiffre isn't one of the all-time great Bond baddies, but Mikkelsen oozes charisma, menace, and ultimately vulnerability. Compared to the weenie in Quantum of Solace he's more than formidable.

The Good Bad Girl
Roger Ebert has noted that the female sex in the Bond franchise boils down to two archetypes -- The Good Bad Girl and The Bad Good Girl. The former is a bad girl who is actually good, while the latter is a good girl who is actually bad. We meet The Good Bad Girl first in Casino Royale, when Bond arrives in the Bahamas. Solange (Caterina Murino), a leggy, dark-skinned beauty whom he first spies riding a horse on the beach, is a "bad" girl only by association of her marriage to Dimitrios. After winning Dimitrios' car in a hotel poker game, Bond has a witty seduction scene where he picks up Solange for a drink and drives in a circle back to the hotel.

Bond is using Solange solely for information -- in other surprising twist, he doesn't even sleep with her but departs after she informs him of her husband's trip to Miami. The character's appearance is fleeting, but Murino makes enough of an impression that her demise has real pathos, an unusual feeling in a Bond movie.

Action Scenes
A pair of action sequences -- both sensational -- fill the bulk of Act I.

The second one, which I will discuss first, follows Bond from his dalliance with Solange to the airport, where he kills Dimitrios only to deal with the latter's associate, another terrorist who plans to blow up a new massive airplane being unveiled. (Le Chiffre plans on making millions off its stock collapse.) It's an exciting set-piece with a ghastly funny climax, a bomb detonation given an unexpected twist. Moreover, as the baton passes from one bad guy to another, the sequence further prepares us for the story's unpredictable modularity, and makes even the major villains expendable.

But it's the first action scene, set in Madagascar, that is one of the all-time Bond classics. A chase on foot between Bond and an amazingly agile bombmaker (Sebastien Foucan) that begins in a fight pit (between a cobra and a mongoose) and ends at an embassy, this sequence is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, as the pursuit goes into a construction site, then with dizzying vertically scales above it, it becomes a vivid reminder of how exhilarating real stuntwork can be. (A terrific New Yorker piece describes in detail the parkour of this set-piece.) Second, the scene tells us more about Bond -- his determination, resourcefulness, and bull-headed obstinacy. (There's a priceless contrast between Foucan's effortless gliding and Daniel Craig's crashing through walls.)

It's a marvelous piece of character development between a pair whom M (Judi Dench) sums up afterward as, respectably, a "gun-for-hire" and a "blunt instrument." And it reinforces a theme of the film that will be brought to the fore: Can a killer maintain his humanity?

Coming Soon: beautiful Montenegro; high-stakes poker; and the Bad Good Girl -- all in Act II....

Friday, December 26, 2008

Hard-Knock Life

Sometimes all it takes is a moment for a movie to win me over. About halfway into Slumdog Millionaire, the Muslim orphan Jamal (played at as an early adolescent in the film by Tanay Chheda) and his brother Salim return to their home in Mumbai. Jamal is looking for Latika, the love of his life, and finds her dancing in a brothel. In a normal context, it's a scene that should be filled with squalor and despair; yet while she dances the camera pulls close to Jamal's face, filled with hope and wonder, until we see her reflection in his eye.

This moment (which oddly reminded me of Jennifer Connelly's introduction scene in Once Upon a Time in America) comes none too soon, as I found myself estranged for over the first hour of Slumdog Millionaire. Here Danny Boyle has the most evocative milieu of his filmmaking career, but his hyped-up style rarely pauses for the kind of lingering image like that eyeball shot. Early scenes depict Jamal's poverty-stricken childhood and go on to feature outhouses, religious riots, the death of his mother, and street urchins blinded by an Indian Fagin, but in Boyle's hands it's all a gloss, with the digital camera at first seeming to clash with his magical realist style.

Yet Boyle -- despite his reputation for dark material (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, etc.) is also a romantic, and this "rags to raja" tale begins to gain momentum as the older Jamal (Dev Patel) edges closer to winning the big prize on India's version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? As we see how the answer to each question comes from a defining moment in Jamal's life, the mystical essence of fate -- hard to capture in a movie, and Boyle has missed it before -- transcends the facile quality of the earlier passages.

In a previous post I wondered how the recent attacks in Mumbai would affect the experience of watching the movie. Surprisingly, Slumdog Millionaire brings that tragedy into focus as an event that is sadly commonplace in the fabric of its society. It makes Jamal's wide-eyed hopefulness all the more touching: unlike his brother, he is uncorrupted by the prospect of wealth and resists taking any means to achieve it. Well, maybe not any means: there's a funny sequence where he poses as tour guide for gullible tourists at the Taj Mahal; and a pointed moment where a western couple's rental car gets looted within a matter of minutes. ("You wanted to see the real India?" Jamal declares. "Here it is!") Boyle skillfully weaves the uneasy collusion and clash of capitalism into a traditional culture already beset with conflicts, most notably with the Millionaire game show and its host (an enjoyably smarmy Anil Kapoor).

The filmmakers would need to probe this theme more deeply for Slumdog Millionaire to be as resonantly Dickensian as Ebert claims, but neither is the movie as superficial as some detractors suggest. If it seems odd for an image -- like that iris shot -- to be unconsciously reminscent of Sergio Leone, it is odder still to hear a verbal motif ("It is written") recall the great moment in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia when Omar Sharif says, "Nothing is written except to those who write it." Jamal may have destiny, karma, lady luck on his side, but he also knows in whom to believe and whom not to trust. His guileless savvy is what leaves him open to fate, and his love for Latika is what ultimately makes the film work. This would come across as cynical Hollywood calculation if the character hadn't a kindred spirit behind the camera. Beneath Boyle's flash beats the heart of a true believer.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The 20: 10 Favorite Actresses (Contemporary)

And now the second half of my list of "20 Favorite Actresses." Last time I gave you the "Classics"; here then are the "Contemporaries":

Maria Bello
I first noticed Maria Bello the moment her swishing blonde ponytail appeared years ago on ER. The ponytail is no longer there but her other qualities -- namely a piercing intelligence, honest emotion, and genuine rapport with her fellow actors -- have only blossomed in her film career. She's superb as the conflicted wife of Viggo Mortensen in A History of Violence, but her greatest performance remains the cocktail waitress who falls in love with and brings luck to William H. Macy's sad sack in The Cooler. Not many actresses could hold their own in a brutal confrontation with Alec Baldwin; Bello does with fierce conviction.

Charlotte Gainsbourg
Todd Haynes's I'm Not There would be nothing more than the empty esoteric exercise its detractors claim if not for Gainsbourg's turn as the estranged wife of Heath Ledger's Dylan-the-actor. The scene when Gainsbourg and Ledger first meet in a coffee shop, walk down the street together, then run back to her apartment to make love is the precise moment when the film's heart starts beating.

Catherine Keener
I'll admit, she can be exasperating sometimes, going to the well with her sarcastic yuppie shtick more than once too often. Keener has more range than that -- namely a bright comic sensibility whenever she works for Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion). And she's exceptionally fine as Harper Lee in Capote. While Rachel Weisz took the Oscar for her typically shrill look-at-me-isms in The Constant Gardener, Keener blended into the physical and emotional landscape of her film. I know my bet for which role will be remembered longer.

Regina King
She doesn't usually get great parts, and those she does she chews the scenery with, but I love seeing Regina King in just about everything she's in. She was good as Cuba Gooding Jr.'s wife in Jerry Maguire, and a whirlwind as Margie Hendricks in Ray, portraying the volatile singer with all her talent, fire and self-destructiveness.

Jessica Lange
In my opinion, our greatest living American actress, heavy weather at times but so real playing it -- most famously in Frances as well as lesser known pictures like Rob Roy -- that it's hard to complain. And she's incredibly underrated in a comedy like Tootsie, which she makes believable and touching without grinding down the farce. I almost put Lange in the "Classic" category, as her best roles are likely behind her....but who knows, maybe she'll luck out with another winner.

Laura Linney
Her secret weapon is her laugh: simultaneously hearty and withering, Linney's guffaw has let the tension out of many potentially pretentious scenes. As "Meryl" in The Truman Show, she made the laugh effectively phony, coming out gritted teeth. And most recently, in John Adams, she found her best foil yet in Paul Giamatti, his double-takes always priceless in the face of her cackling rebukes.

Frances McDormand
She created one of the most beloved characters in movie history as Marge Gunderson in Fargo. McDormand is equally good in Laurel Canyon, playing the aging bohemian mother of Christian Bale. I found it hard to watch her in Burn After Reading, which may be a testament to her fearlessness. I'll have to see it again.

Chloe Sevigny
The first time I saw Shattered Glass, it was Peter Sarsgaard who made the strongest impression; then it was Hayden Christensen who seemed to command the screen. Now all I can think about is Chloe Sevigny's supporting turn as Caitlin Avey, the unwitting enabler to Stephen Glass. Despite her rep for playing freaks -- thanks mainly to Harmony Korine and Vincent Gallo -- Sevigny can be refreshingly down-to-earth, whether as the tragically naive girlfriend in Boys Don't Cry or showing infinite patience with Jake Gyllenhaal's unwaveringly misty-eyed lead in Zodiac.

Michelle Williams
I didn't even realize I liked her until a few days ago, when reading about her upcoming Wendy and Lucy, and then recalling her fine work in several varied performances: the sweet librarian in The Station Agent; the cuckolded wife in Brokeback Mountain; almost unrecognizable as the debutante in I'm Not There. It was the kind of epiphany that makes you say, "Wow, she's really good." I can't wait to see what she does next.

Kate Winslet
My recent piece on Winslet -- somewhere between a tribute and a character assassination -- may have obscured what I believe is an unassailable argument: She's terrific. Hopefully she's win her damn Oscar already, so she can keep expanding her range. I think it's limitless.

The 20: 10 Favorite Actresses (Classic)

I'm a little late with this -- it's so last week -- but who cares. Here's my list of 20 favorite actresses, complete with a gimmick: it's going to be divided into two separate posts. Consider this one the "Classic" list, with performers either no longer with us or whose body of work is more or less complete. Of course I hope I'm proven wrong....

Lauren Bacall
Not a great actress, and never as effective without Bogart around, but always a stunning presence and the only person onscreen who was truly a great actor's match.

Ingrid Bergman
Luminous, melancholy and brave, both tortured and torturer to onscreen partners like Grant and Bogart and directors like Hitchcock.

Ellen Burstyn
One of the best actresses of the 70s, often playing either a weak woman with inner strength or a strong woman with inner weakness.

Julie Christie
Still a major actress going on five decades, essentially unchangeable yet endlessly fascinating. A star seemingly indifferent to fame.

Claudia Cardinale
A powerfully sensual presence in some of the defining films of the 1960s, versatile enough for comedy (The Pink Panther), westerns (Once Upon a Time in the West), and historical epic (The Leopard), an actress who crossed genres and international boundaries.

Catherine Deneuve
Another striking presence, and among the most fearless actresses who ever lived, never more so than in Belle de Jour.

Audrey Hepburn
By turns funny and sad, a heartbreaker, and a triumph of charm over technique.

Katharine Hepburn
A grounded eccentric, an overwhelming personality who could be bizarrely subservient, she had a knack for both slapstick and pathos, and exposing her contradictions onscreen.

Shirley MacLaine
Multitalented oddball, witty in drama and serious in farce.

Barbara Stanwyck
Master of the double entendre, expert in screwball comedy, deep-dish soap opera and film noir, committed and captivating.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Holding On

Apologies for the delay on my Casino Royale series. Real-world items have intruded the last couple weeks, and not in an unpleasant way, but enough to divert my energies from obsessively cataloging the vast array of Casino-isms. Will return to the fun soon.

For now, a palette-cleanser on a pair of highly praised recent films I've finally caught up with. First, The Counterfeiters (2007), the true-story Best Foreign Film from last year's Academy Awards may, at a glance, fulfill Spike Lee's famous axiom (I'm paraphrasing): "About the Holocaust -- win the Oscar." It's a different spin on the topic though, a cross between The Lives of Others and Schindler's List starring Karl Markovics (who resembles Lives's Uhrich Muhe in both physicality and temperament) as Salomon Sorowitsch, an expert forger of passports and currency in 1930s Germany who is arrested by an unusually avuncular SS officer by the name of Herzog (Devid Striesow, doing a nifty Claude Rains) and tossed in the concentration camps. Sally -- as Sorowitsch prefers to go by -- is a career white-collar criminal with palpable contempt for his Jewish heritage. ("You know why Jews are hated?" he asks early on. "Because they refuse to adapt; it's not that hard.") Cunningly he rises through the camps by playing the sycophant, painting florid portraits of his commandants until he is recruited by Herzog to lead a massive counterfeiting operation on behalf of the Nazi war effort.

This is a great story for a movie, and The Counterfeiters is terrific for about three-quarters of the way. The relationship between Sally and Herzog has more than a few echoes of Rick and Renault in Casablanca, a pair of cynical crooks who eschew violence and ideology for self-preservation. Cinematically, I've complained about hand-held cameras in the recent past, but here we have a director, Stefan Ruzowitzky, who knows how to use them, with unobtrusive Altmanesque zooms and creating an overall atmosphere of immediacy.

Ruzowitzky also understands when to keep the camera still, and some of the best scenes in The Counterfeiters show Sally and his team sitting quietly in the sunshine, enjoying privileges that their brethren lack. The filmmakers skillfully imply that another kind of Holocaust film -- the kind we're more accustomed to -- is happening right behind the walls and across the fences of the concentration camp, and as the Nazi regime crumbles the stakes get raised as to whether the best chance for survival is by helping or hindering Herzog's scheme. Another major character, a stubborn Marxist ideologue named Burger (August Diehl), spends the last act sabotaging efforts to produce a successful counterfeit dollar, and the movie bogs down a bit with Sally's contrived conversion to Burger's perspective. (Not akin to Liam Neeson's "I could have done more" eye-roller at the end of Schindler's List, but jarring all the same.) Diehl gives Burger validity and dignity; but what sticks with me about The Counterfeiters are the moments that ring both odd and true, as when Herzog attempts to inspire motivation by giving his prisoners a ping-pong table. I'm sympathetic to Stuart Klawans' suggestion of a moratorium on Holocaust cinema, but scenes like this one show that there's still life in a subject so filled with death.

Subtitlitis notwithstanding, American audiences would probably find The Counterfeiters infinitely more accessible than the acclaimed American indie Old Joy (2006), which I checked out partly because of an interest in the director Kelly Reichardt's newest film, the Michelle Williams/labrador retriever saga Wendy and Lucy. James Wolcott has also lavished praise on Old Joy as "a marvel of Hemingway/Carver iceberg-tip unspoken implication where the emotion seeps through the minimalism and produces an epiphany muffled in enigma." Heady stuff for a camping trip that climaxes with a back rub.

Confession: while I'm not averse to minimalist moviemaking with obscure intentions, I do find I need a degree of accessibility to fully engage with a narrative -- The Station Agent comes to mind. On the surface, Old Joy carries a whiff of familiarity: a pair of buddies (Daniel London and Will Oldham) mull over their estranged friendship on a weekend hike through the woods. It's the kind of movie that draws praise for Leaving Things Unsaid, but for me Reichardt shows a knack for opening up the wrong spaces, removing us from the central relationship while overstating the sociopolitical environment with "Air America" radio broadcasts (somewhat reminiscent of the narration in Y Tu Mama Tambien, only without the deadpan satirical edge). Old Joy isn't pretentious; it's best moments are sharply observed vignettes between two men on diverging paths -- as when the bearded Oldham, playing an aging hippie vagabond, notes how there are trees in the city and trash in the woods. He has a nice rapport with the soft-spoken London, who conveys his character's grounded decency along with a lingering sense that he feels like a sell-out.

Overall though, Old Joy is maddeningly remote, not least of which the aforementioned massage with all its cosmic implications, which I think add up to less than what has been speculated. I know I'm supposed to marvel at the exquisitely timed moment when Reichardt cuts away from the tension to scenic images of lush foliage and a flowing river; but all I could see was a director tripping over her own symbolism, and found myself half-expecting/half-hoping for a shot of a train barreling through a tunnel a la The Lady Eve.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shaken and Stirred: A Closer Look at Casino Royale (Opening Credits and Theme)

Welcome to Part II of our series. Originally I'd intended to analyze the opening credits and Act I together, but I'm putting off the latter for next time. That leaves us with, um, the entire post, really? Absolutely, when the sequence is as justifiably famous as the Bond series' has always been, and when it conveys information as skillfully as the one in Casino Royale.

Perhaps a reader with a better sense of Bond lore can either confirm or correct me, but I believe the first true credit sequence in the franchise began with Goldfinger. At the least, that's the one everybody remembers. The splashy 60s animation, the dancing girls, the pop hit -- Goldfinger had all the elements that have been staples ever since. Most of them blur together or else have been forgettable, the exceptions being "You Only Live Twice" and "For Your Eyes Only," songs more memorable that the movies they precede.

You Know My Name
For all the many theme songs in Bond history, nearly all of them revolve around a basic motif -- living, or dying, or living and dying, or living let dying, or dying let living. Casino Royale's theme, sung by Chris Cornell and appropriately titled "You Know My Name," is a pretty good one, not quite great (it loses me during the bridge) but better than the Alicia Keys atrocity that kicks off Quantum of Solace. The lyrics by Cornell and composer David Arnold are no great shakes (though I do like the verse "I've seen this diamond cut through harder men"), but the melody has a drive and focus to match Daniel Craig's James Bond, to whom we've recently been introduced in the startling prologue. And the song is enhanced considerably by the visuals of this sequence, which do more than tell us the names of the people who made the picture; they also tell a story.

Recurring ingeniously throughout Casino Royale is a mix of the old and the new. In the prologue, Campbell subverted our expectations by delaying the reveal of that iconic gun barrel, so that when it finally came -- within the narrative rather than disjointedly at the start of it -- the image was exhilarating. This blending and subverting continues through the opening credits, which features the expected animation but no dancing girls. Instead, we get a pair of simple visual motifs -- playing cards and crosshairs -- that are repeated with increasingly invention and complexity. These are, of course, the two sides of James Bond: the sophisticate and the killer, both of which will be on display in Casino Royale, both of which Bond will need to survive. Yet it's the violence that's emphasized here, as the cards are used as weapons, like Chinese throwing stars, at one point lodging into the torsos of animated bad guys as cartoon blood oozes out of the wounds.

There are too many striking visuals in this three-minute sequence to mention. My favorite -- blink and you'll miss it -- occurs when a pair of crosshairs casually glides over the Queen of Spades to almost subliminally reveal the face of Eva Green (who will become known to us later in the film as Vesper Lynd -- or, as Roger Ebert would call her, "The Bad Good Girl"). But narratively the most important moment occurs when a pair of bullet holes hit a 7-card that morphs into a computer screen informing us: "007 status confirmed," thereby saving us an entire scene of exposition.

And what about Daniel Craig? He's omnipresent in this sequence too -- or rather more "omni" than "present." Campbell introduces this Bond while resisting telling us everything about him right away. By ending the sequence with Craig's blond visage fading in and out of a dark silhouette (the final image has the top and bottom of Bond's face wittily darkened to resemble a ninja), the filmmakers are underlining the song's meaning more than the lyrics: We know his name, but this Bond still has to earn our respect. He's going to discover who he is, as will we.

(Coming Soon: Act I....)

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Shaken and Stirred: A Closer Look at Casino Royale (Prologue)

There is often much hullaballoo over whether a good movie is actually bad or a bad movie is actually good. Less discussed is whether an almost universally praised movie is even better than its admirers originally believed. When I first saw Casino Royale two years ago, I was so stunned I could barely formulate a response. Here was the latest entry in an increasingly passe franchise, helmed by a competent director-for-hire who had never made anything special, starring a character actor untested in a major role -- and it was amazing. While I was tongue-tied, and my colleagues were busy yammering over whether or not the torture sequence should have earned the film an an "R" rating (oh, please), there was one critic, Owen Gleiberman, who had the balls (if you'll pardon the expression) to rank Casino Royale as the best movie of the year.

Only two years later, I'd say he more than got it right. Casino Royale is holding up as one of the defining films of the decade; every time, I see it, I see something new. And rarely can I watch it from start to finish. I have to break down the experience into segments, such as I'm about to do here.

One of the great pleasures of the Bond series has been its opening prologues. Usually they have little or nothing to do with the main feature, but are instead stand-alone short films depicting the end of a previous adventure. Spielberg and Lucas would later using this template in the Indiana Jones series, employing the climax-as-introduction in order to give the audience a boost going into the movie.

The director of Casino Royale -- Martin Campbell -- and his screenwriters -- Neal Purvis & Robert Wade and Paul Haggis -- knew going into this picture that they were in desperate need for a fresh start. Bond had gone stale, through no real fault of the last actor to portray him (Pierce Brosnan), but rather by clinging to an archaic formula: the suave, misogynistic, tuxedoed spy who kills and sleeps his way through each movie while barely breaking a sweat. Yet that formula was a large part of the franchise's appeal. If they veered too far away from the template, would the essence of Bond be lost?

Campbell puts his cards on the table right away in the beginning sequence, as audacious an opener as I can remember. We fade in to an exterior shot of a building in Prague, photographed in lustrous black-and-white by Campbell's usual cinematographer, Phil Meheux (who really outdoes himself here). In a sequence reminiscent of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, a trenchcoated man rides an elevator up the tower to his office, only to find Bond (Daniel Craig) waiting for him.

Unlike most Bond prologues, this one is quiet, economical, and dialogue driven. (It also doesn't start with the famous gun barrel POV, which, as David Edelstein noted, is "cunningly delayed.") The older spy in the trenchcoat, whose name is Dryden and is evidently a traitor, sits down and covertly opens a desk drawer, where we see a gun.

Dryden: Benefits of being section chief. I'd know if anyone had been promoted to double-oh status, wouldn't I? Your file shows no kills, and it takes...
James Bond: Two.

Astonishingly, Campbell then cuts to a flashback sequence, in even starker black-and-white footage, featuring Bond in a brutal struggle with Dryden's contact in a restroom. This is, we quickly understand, Bond's first kill, and it is fitting that Campbell and Meheux choose to overexpose the film, as if all the blood has been drained out of it.

After Dryden attempts to shoot Bond and discovers that the latter had already emptied the clip, their conversation reaches a climax.

Dryden: How did he die?
James Bond: Your contact? Not well.
[cut to Bond drowning the contact in the restroom sink]
Dryden: Made you feel it, did he? Well, you needn't worry. The second is...
[Bond shoots Dryden]
James Bond: Yes... considerably.

What a textbook way to write a scene; it's so much more effective with the right words left out (e.g., "The second kill is easier....") than leaving all of them in. But Campbell isn't through with us, yet. He cuts back one more time to the restroom, where Bond scoops up a gun off the floor. Suddenly the contact rises, and is then that Bond aims into the famous gun barrel. In seeing Bond's second kill first and his first kill second, it becomes clear that perhaps Quentin Tarantino, who made a highly publicized attempt to direct Casino Royale, had an impact on the movie after all. Cunningly delayed, indeed.

(Coming Soon: Opening Credits Sequence and Act I....)

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Eyes on the Prize

"Do I want to win an Oscar? You bet your fucking ass I do!"
-- Kate Winslet, in a recent interview with Vanity Fair

We know, Kate. That's been painfully obvious for a long time now. And if you play your cards right -- as I think you have -- this just might be your year.

But is winning really what it's all about? Kate, you just turned 33, the same age Jesus won his first Oscar, and already you've established a remarkable career which, if it continues along its current trajectory, might rank among the all-time greats. It's incongruous that an actress who conveys such confidence and little neediness on-screen should exhibit the insecurity and resentment that you do so baldly at every awards season. Perhaps some perspective is in order.

I first noticed you in Sense and Sensibility (1995), of which my natural aversion to Jane Austen was overruled by my admiration for the films of Ang Lee. The movie was tolerable, anchored by Emma Thompson's sensitive lead performance and her intelligently structured script. And you were a firecracker, playing Thompson's love-lorn younger sister, Marianne Dashwood. Actually, you were uncharacteristically needy in this picture, Kate, both in terms of character and in a few overly actorly sequences -- such as Marianne's feverish pit of despair after being dumped by one of Austen's archetypal rich cads -- where it was clear you were clamoring for attention. You've become more subtle since then. But it was clear you had presence and charisma and talent to burn, and you got a Best Supporting Actress nomination for your trouble.

It was soon after that I caught up on video with your performance that garnered critical attention only the year before, playing one-half of the homicidal pair of young female lovers in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (1994). That was a great performance, Kate, a showcase for your fearless eroticism. I hope that just because the Academy didn't bestow any laurels you don't now deem it unworthy.

You followed this and S&S with solid work in Michael Winterbottom's Jude and Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (both 1996). The former was a well-made downer of which not even your considerable efforts could energize. In the latter film, amid several embarrassingly miscast performers chewing on their every line, you played Ophelia with natural conviction.

Next came Titanic (1997). We all know what happened there, Kate. Yet what seems to be forgotten is how good you are in a part that must have been hell to play, with James Cameron's screaming fits and mocking your weight between takes. As Rose, the pawn in an arranged soon-to-be-marriage to the most ludicrous villain since the silent era, you made every single eye-rollingly terrible line of dialogue bearable. You were the hero of the movie, Kate, not young Leonardo DiCaprio. You were the conduit for zillions of teenage girls, never more so than in the scene where Jack paints you nude and you unashamedly hold his gaze. You deserved that first Best Actress nomination, Kate; not even the atrocious Gloria Stewart, playing your character at a later age, could snuff your lingering radiance.

You got a lot of attention for Titanic, Kate, perhaps too much. It's understandable why both you and Leo retreated, choosing parts as far away from magazine covers as possible. Like nearly everyone else, I never saw Hideous Kinky (1998), though you again received good notices. I did catch Holy Smoke (1999), another of Jane Campion's lunatic neofeminist ventures, where you play a woman brainwashed by a religious cult in India who then seduces and mind-fucks Harvey Keitel's deprogrammer. Perhaps your most impressive turn came next, in one of your worst movies, Philip Kaufman's Quills (2000). In this film, a wretched tale of the Marquis de Sade as allegory for the Lewinsky affair, you were smacked between the ham sandwich of Geoffrey Rush and Joaquin Phoenix. Yet you pulled off the daunting feat of keeping your dignity and staying real.

Another Supporting Actress nomination came for Iris (2001), then Best Actress again for the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Whereas your role in Iris as the younger version of Iris Murdoch (Judi Dench played the older Alzheimer's version) was typical Oscar bait, Eternal Sunshine was an unconventional surprise. Starring opposite Jim Carrey as the love he is desperate to forget, your Clementine is a character written as rather two-dimensional but who instead, fused by your personality, is a grounded eccentric, right down the changes of color in her hair. Your most recent nomination came as the female lead in Little Children (2007). That film, a mannered and artificically tragic satire of the suburbs, doesn't work, but your character certainly does: an unhappy housewife desperate to feel passion.

In one film after another, you have proven yourself as one of the finest actors on the planet. You convey intelligence, wit, vulnerability and warmth. Regardless of how many obscure art films to your credits, your predilection for copious nudity has earned you legions of fans from adolescence onward. Yet behind all of this has been a palpable and growing vanity -- your publicized on-again off-again weight loss and apparent plastic surgery (your face looks different now, more "perfect" yet less beautiful) the most transparent examples. You're still young, Kate. In the prime of your life. No need for Barbara Hershey-esque desperation just yet.

Even more disconcerting has been your conduct during the Academy Awards. Indeed, one of the highlights (or lowlights) of every Oscar telecast where you've been a nominee has been watching your face scrunch with rage when the winner's name is called. I can understand that five nominations without a win must be frustrating, especially when you keep losing to inferior American lightweights like Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite), Helen Hunt (As Good as it Gets), Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind), and Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby). To make matters worse, you turned down the plum role of Viola in Shakespeare in Love that then went to the Best Actress of that year, the insipid Brit-wannabe Gwyneth Paltrow (who's been on even more magazine covers than you have, always to remind us of how much she shuns celebrity). But your reaction when Helen Mirren took the stage for The Queen made you look petty, Kate. You really didn't expect to beat a sure thing, did you? Look how many years Paul Newman went without a gold statue, and you never saw him gnashing his teeth on live TV. Make some salad dressing. Show more class.

In recent years you've been upping the ante, gunning for the big prize, and with that there have been some miscalculations. Finding Neverland (2004) didn't fly. The Life of David Gale (2003), which on paper must have seemed like standard liberal Hollywood political sop to both you and Kevin Spacey -- the death penalty, huzzah! -- made several year-end worst lists instead. Even the lefties winced.

You've covered your bases this year, Kate, perhaps too well. You're playing a Holocaust-related character in The Reader and are re-teamed with DiCaprio in a feature directed by your already-Oscared husband Sam Mendes, Revolutionary Road. There is a worry you might cancel yourself out. Yet with The Reader generating little buzz, my money's on Revolutionary Road. You play another housewife in this one, Kate; but the pedigree of the film, a period piece based on a beloved novel, may just push you over the top.

Your ambitions, of course, would not be complete without an archnemesis to potentially impede them. Your principal competition over the next few years -- the only actress with a near-equal claim to the big prize -- is none other than the "Cate" with a C, Ms. Blanchett. Sure, she's already won playing Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator (opposite, ironically, your Leo), but that was a supporting turn, and you know as well as I do that Hollywood would love nothing more than to give her more recognition. Plus, unlike yourself, the lady exudes class and self-deprecating wit: remember last year's Oscars, after her clip for the misbegotten Elizabeth sequel, when Blanchett turned to the camera with a sheepish, apologetic half-grin, half-grimace? Great stuff. Onscreen Blanchett has a regal air, yet in real life she's married to an average shlub, as far away from the A-list as you probably can't even fathom. She doesn't seem to need anything, and consequently she seems to get everything. I imagine you with a dart board in your basement, aiming at her ethereal visage. Don't let your baser impulses get the better of you, Kate. Remember Tonya Harding.

With Blanchett's upcoming Benjamin Button unlikely to tap the Zeitgeist, I don't think you have much to fear this year. (The same can't be said for DiCaprio, alas, who will likely fall short, in a Tropic Thunder-like scenario, to either Clint Eastwood's racist codger or Sean Penn's gay-rights advocate.) And if your name is called, I can't imagine you "sputtering like a teapot," to paraphrase Jim Wolcott's memorable description of American actresses feigning surprise. I suspect you'll give a semi-eloquent speech without any pretense of humility. You're English, Kate; you'll sound good even if you're bad.

And maybe, after you've won, you can finally relax. Choose more comedic roles, only better than that Jack Black flick you were in recently. Take the stage, where I think you'd be a natural. Or retreat into motherhood. You can afford to take your time. Your eventual divorce from Mendes is at least a couple years away. Like Julie Christie, you're a survivor, and even if you drop off radar you'll return. But you could use a dash of Christie's unadorned self-possession: she's never given a fig about awards; she knows who she is. Keep that in mind if you emerge victorious. And remember, should you lose again, the difference between being a winner and acting like one.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Bollywood Ending: Tragedy, Art and Slumdog Millionaire

I have a confession to make. When I heard the news about the massacre in Mumbai, I felt sick to my stomach. I felt sorrow for the victims, and not just any Americans targeted in the attacks. I felt anger toward the perpetrators responsible for the death of innocents. And, of course, I felt a twinge of anxiety at the possibility that it could happen here. But if I'm being honest, I have to admit that none of these was my first reaction. When I heard the news, my first reaction was: "What's going to happen to Slumdog Millionaire"?

In what has been a dud year for movies, Slumdog Millionaire is the one -- The One -- that I have been looking forward to seeing the most. It's always hard to say what's going to capture my fancy, but it's usually an amalgam of elements. In this case, it was initially the title, both playful and oxymoronish. Then came word of the director attached to the project, the Brit Danny Boyle, a visually hyperactive yet emotionally engaged filmmaker who has made his share of interesting features and colossal embarrassments but seemed karmically poised for a huge success. This was followed by my methodical perusing of the early reviews, which combined knee-jerk raves from the likes of Roger Ebert to huzzahs from typically stingier folks like Scott Foundas, whose appealing description of the film -- "ridiculously ebullient" -- transcended the usual marquee blurbage. Finally, I was intrigued by the locale of Mumbai, India, an overflowing metropolis in a country once described by a globetrotting colleague as his favorite point of destination. "It's beautiful and frustrating and wonderful," he said of India, with a tantalizing suggestion that it's never quite clear where one quality ends and another begins.

I still plan to see Slumdog Millionaire when it opens in mid-December in my neck of the woods, but the pall of reality has made me admittedly less eager. A sucker for box-office (as well as Oscar) sleepers, I'm also worried about its chances to connect with the public: will audiences enjoy the film -- also described, in more predictable blurbese, as a crowd-pleaser, the feel-good movie of the year -- or will the horrible bloodshed on the streets where it was filmed be their (our) only thought?

Sometimes the impact of tragedy on art is mere coincidence. When Hot Fuzz -- a sharp, funny spoof of cop movies, deliberately over-the-top with its violence -- was released a few days after the Virginia Tech shootings, a friend grimly quipped that the film just won the "Bad Timing Award." Indeed, box office was relatively tepid to what it might have been under ordinary circumstances; and while I enjoyed the picture and understood what Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and their accomplices were trying to do behind their barrage of gunplay, several of the laughs lodged uncomfortably in my throat.

In other instances, the consequences are more direct. Some years earlier, following the shocking murder of Phil Hartman, another friend and I were driving down the interstate when suddenly he exclaimed, "What's going to happen to The Simpsons"? He immediately expressed remorse for saying that, but he had a point: although Hartman was a semi-regular, his voicework -- spread across several characters, and which also could be called ridiculously ebullient -- was instrumental to the show's success.

It's easier for me now to laugh at Hot Fuzz than it is at The Simpsons. Freed of its untimely associations, Hot Fuzz holds up as a terrific comedy. The Simpsons, while still fitfully funny, hasn't aged well. This is because of several reasons that have nothing to do with Phil Hartman, but it still seems no coincidence that the series has never reached the same heights of creativity since.

Maybe, when it comes to art, I get angrier when it's comedy -- something that's supposed to make you laugh, forget your troubles, bond with your mates -- that suffers. I made the mistake of recommending sight-unseen what I'd thought would be lighthearted fare, Jonathan Demme's wedding-party crucible Rachel Getting Married, to a co-worker whose accompanying friend had previously lost a child -- not in the melodramatic manner of Anne Hathaway's Kym, but a terrible loss nonetheless. They ended up liking the movie more than I did, but my colleague admitted that afterward there had been a strain for conversation.

Escapism can be affected too, albeit less so when it's not entirely pure. On Thanksgiving Day, my parents and I went to see Quantum of Solace, the continuation of the Daniel-Craig-as-James-Bond saga following the astonishing Casino Royale. I haven't much to add to the negative reception of the latest Bond: the film is grinding and joyless, with set-pieces like an opera shootout that could have been classics in the hands of a great director (or even a good one like Casino's Martin Campbell) but with which Mark Forster reduces to hash. While watching the movie my thoughts drifted to Mumbai, and each time there was a change in locale (drab, uninspired vistas in Italy, Haiti, Bolivia) I kept hoping that India wouldn't be one of them. Turns out it wouldn't have mattered much. Quantum of Solace feints toward relevance, with a enviro-phony villain involved in something fittingly to do with oil and water: nothing meshes in this movie, an incomprehensible mess.

"Don't be so gloomy," Harry Lime, Orson Welles' blithe villain from The Third Man, advises Joseph Cotten's Holly Martins but could just as easily have said to James Bond, to Mumbai, to me. "Like the fella says, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love -- they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Certainly one could cite contemporary India -- no stranger to violence and upheaval, yet a leader in international cinema -- as further evidence of this.

Yet a provocative counterargument came last year courtesy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose brilliant three-part South Park episode "Imaginationland" was re-aired by Comedy Central (coincidentally or not) the day after the Mumbai attacks. In "Imaginationland," the U.S. Government discovers to its horror that Islamic terrorists have "hijacked our imagination," presented as an actual parallel universe where all the lovable fictional characters ever created (including Dorothy of Oz, Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and, um, Jesus) find their Utopian tranquility threatened by suicide bombers. For all of its hilarious bits (my favorite being when a military commander explains to M. Night Shyamalan the difference between an idea and a twist), "Imaginationland" casts vivid light on our current reality, where regular Americans wake up wondering if today will be the day al-Qaeda strikes all fifty state capitals in unison. While something, in some form, may or may not be coming, the question posited by South Park is the crux of the matter: Should we let our fears consume our lives?

Although Parker and Stone argue persuasively that good art is a byproduct of a healthy society, there remains the fact that a comedy golden age occurred during the Great Depression, that film noir surfaced from the shadowy depths of the Cold War, that the last great era of American movies came in the time of Vietnam and Watergate. Although Slumdog Millionaire was made before our current economic tailspin, the plot of the film, as I understand it, clearly has the potential to transcend cultural barriers and connect with American audiences. But will we go for it now as enthusiastically as we may have before the images of the Taj Hotel in flames?

I will file another report after seeing the movie, but already I am fascinated by -- and half-dreading -- this unexpected collision between fantasy and reality. "Boyle and his team....clearly believe that a city like Mumbai, with its shifting skyline and a population of more than fifteen million, is as ripe for storytelling as Dickens’s London, and they may be right; hence the need to get their lenses dirty on its clogged streets," writes Anthony Lane. "At the same time, the story they chose is sheer fantasy, not in its glancing details but in its emotional momentum." As reportedly Slumdog Millionaire closes with a splashy production number, I am inclined to envision this momentum as less dramatic than musical. And this just might be what saves the movie.

A former history professor, whom I will call "Dr. Z," once told me that his threadbare video collection contained no comedies, because once you know a joke is coming you're less likely to laugh at it, and definitely no dramas, but only musicals. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Dr. Z said, he and wife were depressed beyond repair until they decided to put on their copy of Oklahoma! and were cheered by the lyrics to the opening song: "O-k-l-a-h-o-m-a...." I find this oddly inspiring, even if it leaves me uncertain, like the "It Don't Worry Me" ditty that climaxes the assassination at the end of Robert Altman's Nashville, as to whether it's a means of ignoring tragedy or facing it head-on.

What I do know is that familiar axioms -- life is precious, time is short -- reveal their truth in difficult times. Filled with foreboding about Wall Street's impact on our culture, James Wolcott wisely notes that a "hunkered-down, bunkered-in period of cautious retrenchment smothers creative energies, and art is in what infuses life with meaning and pleasure, takes our minds off of death and paperwork." The events in Mumbai this week have brought death to the forefront again; some may argue that that is where it will always remain. So why is it that I see something hopeful in realms both fact and fiction -- from the startling image of birds in flight over the fiery Taj to my stubborn anticipation of a Bollywood ending?