Sunday, June 28, 2009

What They Did During the War

Bereft of HBO, I missed out on Band of Brothers (along with so many other of now all-time favorite shows) when it first aired in 2001, catching up to it a few years later on DVD. I took my time checking it out, for a number of reasons: the initial reviews were mixed; the author of the original book was facing heated accusations of plagiarism (albeit not, to the best of my knowledge, for that particular book); and the timing -- between 9/11 and Iraq -- made me weary of war, especially the kind of romanticized depiction that Stephen Ambrose was (in)famous for. Years earlier I had flipped through Ambrose's D-Day, a lively read with impeccable detail undercut by a sense of overidealized machismo. Ambrose got knotted up between wanting to show the very human sacrifices of these men and an impulse to depict them as Men straight out of Greek mythology. (Women don't exist in Ambrose's world, except to give birth to soldiers.) Steven Spielberg revealed a similar weakness in Saving Private Ryan (a film for which Ambrose served as a consultant): as Tom Carson pointed out in a very astute critique for Esquire, the technical proficiency of the "real-time" Normandy landing sequence was nonetheless problematic in creating the impression that the beach was stormed by American warrior-gods in little over twenty minutes. Throughout the entire movie (the most morally confused picture he has ever made), Spielberg wants to have it both ways, never more so than in the depiction of Jeremy Davies's Cpl. Upham, a bookish pacifist shamed into becoming a cold-blooded killer. Despite admiring some of the performances, I disliked Saving Private Ryan pretty intensely, resented the bullying tone the film's supported took to the slightest whiff of criticism (the ridiculous implication being that if you didn't like the movie then you hated America too), and was pleased by its surprise defeat at the Oscars -- like Pauline Kael noted, "as if they deserved awards for serious intentions."

Although Spielberg, as an executive producer, was closely involved in the making of Band of Brothers -- along with Ryan star Tom Hanks, who also executive-produced as well as directed one of the ten episodes -- the vast superiority of the enterprise suggests a more collaborative and complex vision. Band of Brothers the series follows the paratroopers of Easy Company from basic training to their pivotal role on D-Day to the failure of "Operation Market Garden" to the Battle of the Bulge to their capture of Hitler's "Eagle's Nest" at the end of World War II. While I haven't read the source material, it's safe to assume that the series, while reportedly a faithful adaptation, also understands the difference between visual and literary mediums. (The invariable demand by readers to simply "film the book" makes about as much sense as suggesting to play one on the piano.) Some episodes are relatively straightforward, while others employ flashback structures; some play like docudramas, while others are more artistic; a handful of the early episodes are spread out over a large ensemble, while a few of the later ones focus on specific characters. The result is the most pluralistic depiction of the Second World War (or any war) I have ever seen onscreen (any screen).

Alan Sepinwall, the best TV critic bar none, is winding down his current tour through Band of Brothers, and without stepping on his toes too much I want to offer some of my own impressions, having recently looked at the series again. My first thought is that this is a show that looks much stronger now than it did eight years ago, one that rewards repeated viewings. One of the original main criticisms -- and it still has validity -- was it takes a few episodes to sort out all the characters. While there are a few standouts in the crowd, namely central protagonist Richard "Dick" Winters (Damian Lewis), Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston), Buck Compton (Neil McDonough), Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), and Bill Guarnere (Frank John Hughes), many of the other actors are hard to tell apart in their identical uniforms. The second time around, it's easier to tell who's who and devote your concentration on the narrative.

Another thing that struck me was just how vividly Band of Brothers captures the ambiguity of war. Having ten hours to do this is a benefit that a feature film lacks, and the series takes advantage of this with several sequences that seem to indicate a particular stance on a topic only to then show a different point of view. A G.I. makes out with a Dutch woman during the celebratory liberation of a city in Holland, then shortly afterward this same woman is apprehended by her fellow citizens, who shave her head and mark her with a swastika. (It's explained that she, among others, slept with Nazi occupiers.) At Bastogne, a grunt is told not to complain about the incompetent new C/O (it's bad for morale), but then we see officers Winters and Nixon doing the same thing. Humanizing these men doesn't dilute their sacrifices and accomplishments; it elevates them, so that the war scenes never lose sight of the fragility of the lives involved.

And these scenes are among the most magnificent ever staged. One that Sepinwall discusses at length (in the fourth episode, titled "Replacements") features an elaborate set-piece involving a crawling soldier and a runaway tank that Spielberg in his hey-day would have been proud to make. There are several intense battles over the course of Band of Brothers, many of them examples of urban warfare (like the siege of Toye), a few in more rural or unpopulated areas (like a "turkey shoot" surprise attack on a couple of German companies). Yet my favorite moment in the entire series occurs early in episode two, "Day of Days," when Winters leads the jump out of his company's airplane, and in an unbroken shot the camera follows his parachute through the gun-battle and explosions down to the ground. It's a textbook example of staying focused on the human element amid the most sophisticated special effects.

There are a few problems with Band of Brothers, notably a lingering Ambrosian romanticism in the depiction of Lt. Spiers (Matthew Settle), the company's mystery man, rumored to have gunned down several German POWs after offering them cigarettes. (We see the latter moment but are not privy to the former.) Spiers has a moment of glorious bravado in arguably the best episode (#7), "The Breaking Point," where he rescues the company by running right past an astonished German force, then astonishes further by running safely back. But the impact of a key moment in an earlier episode (#3, "Carentan"), where he advises a terrified soldier that the only way to survive is to accept the fact that you're already dead, is dulled by the fact that it's bullshit. (The soldier who takes his advice ends up seriously wounded, whereas men of conscience, like Winters and Lipton, survive and enable others to do the same.) Spiers gets his edges somewhat softened without ever becoming fully humanized; he's the only character that Band of Brothers -- even when showing him looting later on -- wants us to see as both man and god.

Fortunately, the selfless and heroic Winters, played breathtakingly well by the British actor Damian Lewis, is always regarded on a human scale. (He's not above a little looting, either.) And the human cost of the war, on display throughout the series, comes to the forefront in the penultimate episode, appropriately titled "Why We Fight." From the perspective of its most jaded character, the wealthy, alcoholic Lewis Nixon, we follow Easy Company's liberation of a concentration camp, a turning-point that shakes Nixon out of his detachment. Before arriving at the camp comes a scene where Nixon, breaking into a Nazi officer's household (he's looking for booze), is shamed by the wife's steady glare of contempt. (Livingston, best known as the star of Mike Judge's satire Office Space, gives a lovely, understated performance.) At the end, the townspeople are ordered into the camp to bury the bodies; and in a reversal of the previous scene, Nixon's accusatory gaze shames the same woman into bowing her head. I've never experienced warfare, and with any luck never will. But in clear-eyed moments like this, Band of Brothers offers the closest glimpse many of us from subsequent generations will likely ever get to seeing it.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Posts with the Most

Your ever-traveling correspondent finally returned home the other day, from a trip to the gorgeous campus with the above statue of a cute kitty-cat. Looking forward to relaxing on terra firma for a while and catching up on posting. (If any movie releases prove the least bit enticing -- maybe a few coming in July.)

In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out Jason Bellamy's excellent Pauline Kael Week wrapping up over at The Cooler, as well as Alan Sepinwall's revisiting of HBO's ambitious World War II miniseries Band of Brothers, which debuted to mixed reviews in 2001 but is looking more and more like a modern classic. I hope to add some reflections here relatively soon.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pull My Finger!

My contribution to the very fun "Summer of '84" movie reminiscence series is now available at The House Next Door. Right after you paint my fence. Both sides.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Armond White Reviews My Breakfast

"Put These Eggs in a Casket, Not a Basket"
by Armond White, Food Critic, New York Press

Craig's breakfasts start from the premise that Americans are bored—and secretly resentful—of their lives. He specializes in violently sliced ham and fragmented eggs that feed this boredom by drowning out subtlety and complexity. Craig's best breakfasts (Sunrise Sampler, Bistro Omelet) match hyperactive scrambling to intricate baking, which suggests he could probably make a good breakfast if he shook the super-cynical hucksterism out of his system.

Craig's newest, Eggs-in-a-Basket, opens with the pounding, adamantine rhythms of an egg-beater. In pop terms, this betrays the subtleties of scrambling (as well the profundities of Brian De Palma's Slash-'n'-Egg masterpiece) for the shallowness of Hollywood excitation.

How did Steven Spielberg miss out on such a project? Eggs-in-a-Basket condenses food groups that most breakfasts usually ignore. Problem is, Craig doesn’t establish credible plate atmosphere (just a stupidly stylized slo-mo gravy montage). Craig's kitchen resembles the 3-D, sci-fi HQ in "Déjà Vu" with coworkers joshing each other like beer commercial frat house boys: Cheap shorthand for working-class tolerance.

Customers who enjoyed the original 1974 Eggs-in-a-Basket took its grungy deliciousness as a realistic confirmation of their own distrust. But after 9/11, this worst-that-could-happen quotidian platter is borderline offensive. It also falsifies what Spielberg recognizes as maple syrup's underbelly. This doesn’t rouse passive customers; in Craig's adaptation, customer resentment merely overrides satisfaction. Yet, since Craig's craft cannot create a fulfilling meal, it substitutes noise, cursing and fruit toppings.

Craig’s methods (including a piss-yellow and mold-green color scheme) don’t relieve hunger. Rather, they breed frequent urination. Spike Lee's Hickory-Smoked Platter was a witty, profane jeremiad with a genuine sense of bacon and grits. Eggs-in-a-Basket makes farce of modern cuisine. A serious chef would have shown us the sourdough bread, but Craig amps the carbohydrates, going for trite feta and cheddar.

Give Craig credit for using home-fried potatoes to draw a bead on gluttony better than Soderbergh’s superficial Biscuits-over-Flapjacks, but selling chaos as a culinary feat hijacks all our legitimate complaints about restaurant menus. Here’s the swindle: Eggs-in-a-Basket's super-cynical heroizing of average egg-beating placates our grievances. Its true message is that feeding a human being is all in a day’s work.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Last Stands

Admittedly I'm a hard person to offend -- or, before prompting gales of laughter from those who know me, let me say, more accurately, that I'm rarely worked up by the things that others get worked up about. In the case of Walt, the racial-epithet spouting senior citizen and hero of Gran Torino, which I finally saw on DVD, I didn't find the depiction of the character offensive. Artless, definitely. As a director, Clint Eastwood has never been the kind of filmmaker who explores and conveys complexity, at least not the kind that's reflective of the real world. Like his numerous other credits, Gran Torino is rooted firmly in Eastwoodland: it's an exploration -- as well as, ultimately, a subversion -- of a screen persona spanning five decades, the contradictions of onscreen violent machismo with the stylings of an offscreen jazz pianist, and intriguing within that paradigm. It doesn't have the depth, balance or resonance of Unforgiven, still in my opinion his best film, thanks largely to a remarkable screenplay by David Webb Peoples. A director who never changes a word and rarely asks for more than one take had better have a script that's polished like a diamond, and Nick Schenk's Gran Torino is rudimentary at best and crude at worst. Yet Schenk clearly understands his main character, that Walt's prejudices are cultural, generational, and, while not excusable, at least equal-opportunity. (His family and friends feel the brunt of his frustrations.) It might have been nice to have Walt called on his crap by his Hmong neighbors, or to clarify the point (as I think I'm understanding it) that they have a dignity and sense of peace that this restless codger envies. 

As an actor, Eastwood fares better. He creates Walt out of a pair of hard-to-reconcile elements -- the reality-based angry white man and a fantasy-projection gun-toting savior. While the latter still makes me uneasy (especially in light of the 88-year-old anti-Semite who killed an African-American guard at the Holocaust Museum earlier this week), the movie's climax is halfway redeemable and, on its own quiet terms, astonishing. In his review, Fernando Croce, quoting Andrew Sarris on Chaplin, posited: "For an artist, to envision his own death means to envision the death of the entire world." Gran Torino may not quite be, as some have speculated, Eastwood's swan song; yet, within its own rough edges, it hits some unexpected grace notes.
First things first about Valkyrie: it's not that bad. Stretches of it are actually pretty good -- and would be hard not to be, as directed by Bryan Singer, one of the purest living American filmmakers in the business, as assured behind the camera as Clint Eastwood is clumsy. Singer has a nicely offhanded way with most of his actors, notably Thomas Kretschmann in the pivotal role of the Reserve Army commander caught in the middle of the coup to kill Hitler.  And his sense of pacing is as keen as ever, particularly in the second half of Valkyrie, as the complex plot is finally hatched and the consequences come to roost.  

This whirligig of activity almost distracts from the gaping hole at what should be the heart of the film -- the jarringly miscast All-American playing the very-German mastermind of the scheme, Col. von Stauffenberg. Much was made of this upon the picture's release, as the entertainment media, long-time accomplices of Tom Cruise in the perpetuation of his stardom, have lately turned on the actor as he's started losing his luster and, possibly, his mind. To be sure, Goldenboy's willingness to play an eye-patched, one-armed Nazi is the kind of foolhardy invitation of ridicule that Eastwood has always been too smart (and safe) to take. Cruise, also one of our most self-aware performers, may have been drawn to the role on the same level of hubristic physical deformity as he was to Cameron Crowe's ludicrous Vanilla Sky. (My face! My beautiful face!) Yet even recently, Cruise has proven himself to be an capable actor (Collateral, Tropic Thunder); and while film critics seem eager to join in whiffing the smell of blood, I think he may have a Sinatra-like comeback in him yet. What he needs is an Oliver Stone to rouse his passions, another Born on the Fourth of July. The internal tug-of-war Tom Cruise seems to be experiencing, between resculpting his carefully crafted persona and destroying it, is fascinating to watch unfold. Unlike Frank or Clint, though, he doesn't have the life-experience to calibrate his personal nuances into a role. It's unclear, beyond an apparent belief in aliens, exactly what those nuances might be. He should take piano lessons or cobble shoes -- acquire a hobby, learn a trade. Now well into middle-age, the baggage Cruise carries is still the wrong kind.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Curious Case of Ben Kingsley

Is Ben Kingsley the most Method-y of British actors? I don't really mean that as a compliment. Nor am I an expert on the craft; it just seems to me, whenever watching him perform, that Kingsley isn't exactly exuding the say-your-lines, hit-your-mark, my-boy-just-try-acting school of thespianism. He came out of nowhere (to American audiences) in the early-80s to snag an Oscar for Gandhi, Richard Attenborough's overly earnest biopic revered less for its overall quality than for a lead performance so impressively immersive it beat out one of the strongest Best Actor fields ever: Dustin Hoffman (Tootsie); Jack Lemmon (Missing); Peter O'Toole (My Favorite Year); and Paul Newman (The Verdict). Then for a long time he alternated between portraying constipated Englishmen (Betrayal, Turtle Diaries) and taking supporting parts in American films that were both high-toned (Bugsy, Schindler's List) and barrel-scraping (Species) before enjoying a career redefining moment as the psychotic Don Logan in Jonathan Glazer's neo-noir Sexy Beast. Personally, I thought a pre-Deadwood Ian McShane offered stronger and more subtle support in that same picture; but Kingsley got all the attention, the accolades, and the Oscar nom.

Following the bummer double-feature of The Wackness and Elegy, both starring Sir Ben, I have come to the conclusion that I don't like him. Although this pair of movies (a coming-of-age comedy and an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel) as well as his roles in them (a pot-smoking psychiatrist, a sex-and-death obsessed college professor) couldn't be more unalike in subject matter, they share the same problems that Kingsley brings to any film (not to mention a NYC milieu that includes, coincidentally, a rather grim beach-side locale). The first demerit is his relentless camera-hogging. In Elegy, Kingsley's perpetually horny sixtyish prof, David, seduces a younger and impressionable Cuban student named Consuela (Penelope Cruz), leading to several admiring images of Cruz's naked body during which her co-lead seems anxious to remind us that he's in the frame too. He drums his fingers, massages his syllables, does that freaky no eye-blinking thing, thrusts out his chest. (Kingsley's own buffness, first revealed in Sexy Beast, is still on display here.) Ed Gonzalez's dismayingly positive review admires the nuance with which Kingsley "plops his keys into a key dish before checking his answering machine" without pondering whether it's good for an actor to have us noticing such things. Shouldn't he be focusing our attention to the message on the machine? 

While Kingsley is technically not the lead in The Wackness, he finds a considerably easier target to upstage in Josh Peck's mouth-breathing teen protagonist than Penelope Cruz's breasts. Peck's character, Luke Shapiro, spends his long summer days listening to hip-hop (the year is 1994) and peddling an ice-cream cart that's actually a cover for marijuana distribution. As Dr. Squires, one of his regular customers and stepfather to the naughty girl with whom Luke is falling for (Olivia Thirlby), Kingsley offers his customary energy and sports a refreshing mane of hair instead of his usual shiny chrome-dome. But he's not interested in interacting with a younger performer or helping him raise his game the way other veteran actors have done (Paul Newman in The Color of Money, Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys). Therapy sessions can be excitingly cinematic, with great potential for give-and-take; but Kingsley, with a bong to play with, is all take and no give.

Both pictures have other problems. Jonathan Levine directs The Wackness as if Wes Anderson had become a vampire and drained the color out of his images. (Even for a low-budget project, this is a remarkably ugly film.) He embodies Anderson's worst tendencies -- coy tonal shifts, unlikely 11th-hour reversals, one-dimensional depictions of minorities -- without any of the latter's merits, and the way he casually wastes the marvelous Famke Janssen as Squires's unhappy wife suggests that Levine's movie should be less inordinately pleased with itself than the way it comes across. In contrast, Isabel Coixet (who directed the "Bastille" segment of Paris Je'taime) is more attuned to her Elegy actresses, Cruz (who, between this deeply empathetic portryal and her hellzapoppin turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, had a very good year) and Patricia Clarkson as David's fuck-buddy Carolyn, a woman sadly aware of the fading bloom of middle age. Unfortunately, Coixet is less successful with the men in her cast, whether unable to rein in Kingsley, help Dennis Hopper (against type as a poet laureate if not also a fellow aging skirt-chaser pal) develop some shape and rhythm to his awkwardly staged and choppily edited scenes, or prevent a crew-cut, frothing-at-the-mouth Peter Sarsgaard (popping up as David's estranged physician son) from looking like Keifer Sutherland about to torture a suspect for information on 24. And while Roth's source material is not above criticism, I doubt that the film's plaintive tone and Terms of Endearment-ish pat ironies, set to images of Kingsley gazing forlornly out a window at the rain while leaves fall symbolically from a nearby plant and a piano plinks solemnly on the soundtrack, are what the author of Portnoy's Complaint had in mind.

The best of Philip Kaufman's arty sex films (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June) have depicted the act as being, unlike in Elegy, fun. And Greg Mottola's buoyant and generous worldview in this year's Adventureland puts the dour navel-gazing that informs The Wackness to shame. Both Elegy and The Wackness are, in their own way, equally unconvincing; and it's a shame how each suggests Kingsley is an actor who, for all his gifts, is interested in neither inclusiveness nor authenticity. The dedication to his craft would be more admirable if it carried any conviction. And the obvious pleasure he derives from his work would be more welcome if he showed any interest in sharing it.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

"Some Fresh Insights Into the Collaborative Effort of Filmmaking"

Hat-tip to Dennis Cozzalio for referencing Chris Willman's must-read account of the David Carradine/Haskell Wexler mortal-combat panel discussion following a screening of Bound for Glory less than three months ago. Sit rapt while an infamous 72-year-old actor and a legendary 83-year-old cinematographer trade insults, f-bombs and other ripostes, all the while learning more than you ever cared to know about Hal Ashby, Quentin Tarantino, color desaturation, suitcase cameras, and organized labor. Weirdly inspiring, though, to hear from artists brawling, over a movie they made more than thirty years ago, because they care

An mp3 recording of part of the event is here.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Degrees of Cool (II)

It's always time to hold one's breath whenever David Edelstein offers one of his ostensibly sympathetic yet invariably tin-eared "dedications" to an artist's passing (Heath Ledger, Anthony Minghella). Yet while the conflicting reports surrounding David Carradine's death would seem to give David E.'s gossipy smugness an opening, he resists admirably: "No matter how it turns out, I’ll try to think of David Carradine going out like Bill in Kill Bill: quietly accepting the absurdity of his fate, making himself presentable, getting centered, and walking tall into he knows not what." I concur: Carradine was wonderful in Vol. 2 of Tarantino's opus -- which Charles Taylor characterized, oddly yet succinctly, as a comedy about fidelity, "of people who can't get free of each other emotionally and do so only knowing they are entailing great regret" -- had great chemistry with Uma Thurman, and uttered more dialogue in the final thirty minutes than every episode of Kung Fu combined. He's also quite good as Cole Younger in The Long Riders, Walter Hill's 1979 western with the gimmicky hook of real-life brothers cast as the siblings in Jesse James's outlaw gang. (Keith and Robert Carradine play the younger Youngers, James and Stacy Keach are the Jameses, Randy and Dennis Quaid the Millers, and Christopher and Nicholas Guest pop up as the Fords.) It's a story told countless times before, but Hill's customary passion for moviemaking gives the images a feverish poetry, offset nicely by Carradine's unflappable cool and rapport (again) with his leading lady, a spikey Pamela Reed. Not a great actor, but an icon who will be missed.