Sunday, March 28, 2010

Film Review | The Most Dangerous in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Text, lies and audiotape

by Thomas Delapa

He was called a traitor by some. A hero by many others. Henry Kissinger branded him “the most dangerous man in America.” Kissinger’s boss, Richard Nixon, was blunter, telling all the president’s men, “We’ve got to get that sonofabitch.”

An illuminating, Oscar-nominated flashback, The Most Dangerous in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers gets its subject all right, along with that long-running ‘60s and ‘70s show known as the Vietnam War. From the Pentagon Papers to the Watergate tapes, filmmakers Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith politically rarely play it safe.

A major, yet unlikely, figure in the epochal anti-war movement, Ellsberg began the 1960s as a high-level analyst at California’s Rand Corporation. When JFK’s Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara drafted him for a Pentagon job, Ellsberg had become one of the handful of “best and brightest” minds that served to escalate the war. An ex-Marine, the hawkish Ellsberg went so far as to fly to Vietnam and join the ground fight for a time.

Like many Americans, Ellsberg came to an about-face on the war, famously concluding that “we weren’t on the wrong side—we were the wrong side.” Ellsberg’s radicalization may have come partly through the influence of this second wife, Patricia, but at least as much through his discovery of a top-secret Rand report on the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict, dating back to the 1950s.

For Ellsberg—as well as for his “co-conspirator” Tony Russo—the 7000-page Pentagon Papers was a bombshell, spelling out a campaign of lies and deceptions that spanned both Republican and Democratic administrations. Ellsberg considered it his patriotic duty to make the papers public, even if it meant going to prison.

At its gripping best, The Most Dangerous Man unfolds like a spy novel, equal parts James Bond and Woodward and Bernstein. At one end of the power spectrum are two imperial presidents, Johnson and Nixon, who both sought to win—and justify—an unpopular war at all costs. LBJ went as far to blow up the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident into Remember the Maine proportions. Nixon privately told his inner circle that no “shit-ass little country” was going to beat the U.S. The resulting policy would be, in Ellsberg’s words, “the most ridiculously disproportionate bombing campaign in the history of the world.”

While clearly told from Ellsberg’s perspective, this documentary includes interviews with the likes of former Nixon aides John Dean and Bud Krough, one of the notorious Watergate “plumbers.” You won’t need to follow the money to see the slippery connection between Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers and the eventual Watergate debacle that would sink the Nixon presidency.

Equally comic and chilling, deftly selected excerpts from the once-secret Nixon White House tapes add another track to the compelling mix. Contemplating the use of nukes in North Vietnam, Nixon scolds Kissinger, “I want you to think big, Henry, for chrissakes,”

Among Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s gallery of heroes are the newspapers (starting with the New York Times) that refused to bow to the Nixon administration’s pressure, and went ahead and published the Pentagon Papers. How ironic that many of those same papers today have either folded or are fighting for their lives. Here’s a sad scoop: “Stop the presses” has taken on new meaning in the Internet era.

Today, at a spry 69, Ellsberg is as certain as ever of the moral and patriotic justifications for his actions. Over the decades, he’s been arrested over 70 times for his anti-war, pro-environmental protests. The one-time “most dangerous man” is still making waves. In a war that the U.S. lost (and cost the lives of over 2 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans), Ellsberg may be counted among the few who’ve attained a measure of both peace and honor.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Film Review | 2012

Blind Date

by Thomas Delapa

One more time, it’s the end of the world as we know it, and Roland Emmerich feels fine.

In 2012, the director of Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow calls in the ancient Mayan calendar, instead of alien invaders or global warming, as the portent of Earth’s doomsday. As the calamities pile up during Emmerich’s Apocalypse Soon (Redux), the only soul-searching question I had was, “Gee, why couldn’t the end be nearer?”

In place of previous regular guys Jeff Goldblum or Dennis Quaid, Emmerich plugs in John Cusack’s Jackson Curtis, a failed Los Angeles writer laboring as a limo driver for a porky Russian tycoon (Zlatko Buric). Estranged from his wife (Amanda Peet) and two kids, Curtis at least will have the chance to win back his fractured family, even while his world crumbles—literally—around him.

In the name of box-office internationalism, Emmerich and co-writer Harald Kloser span the globe for a U.N. of rice-paper-thin supporting roles, starting with a scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who discovers that the Earth is on the verge of a cataclysmic meltdown. It seems the sun’s neutrinos are heating up the planet’s core like a giant microwave. No scientist, not even Bill Nye, ever explains why the only the core is boiling over, somehow leaving the surface obliviously temperate.

As Emmerich and Kloser recycle junk science, they also clone the usual sci-fi bad guys. Big governments East and West conspire to keep the earth-shaking inconvenient truth from their citizens. As the U.S. president’s chief-of-staff, a feverish Oliver Platt is the whipping boy for government’s autocratic double-dealings to keep the people out in the cold. Next to a weepy Obama-ish president (Danny Glover), Platt is a one-man Hurricane Katrina, leaving everyone else gasping for air.

A retro B-movie with above-average special effects, 2012 plunders from several decades of disaster flicks, from Earthquake to The Poseidon Adventure (even Jaws). In California, the “Big One” finally hits, sending L.A. cascading into the ocean. Emmerich dips into the computer-generated well with abandon, repeating cliffhanger escapes for Curtis and his family, who flee each catastrophe in airplanes piloted by a plastic surgeon (Thomas McCarthy)—and family usurper—who happens to have had a few flying lessons.

The movie (now on DVD) pays lip service to global populism, giving us sprawling crowd scenes served up with Riefenstahl-like relish. But just as quickly, Emmerich gets out his digital eraser and gleefully wipes the masses out. Of the blur of random supporting roles and zillions of victims—plucked from China, India and a Pacific ocean liner—Emmerich gushes his attention on one American nuclear family, come hell or high water.

When they’re not running for their lives, characters punctuate scenes with a drippy litany of exclamations, ranging from the trite to the meekly tongue-in-cheek (“Something like this could only happen in Hollywood”). In Yellowstone National Park, Woody Harrelson erupts regularly as a wild-eyed survivalist who’s discovered the government’s fishy, neo-biblical plans to save humanity.

Clock watchers take note that 2012 adds up to 145 minutes of lumbering, fatuous sci-fi. It’s not the end of the world, just another nail in the coffin of cinema as we used to know it.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Film review | Green Zone

Smart bomb?

by Thomas Delapa

Judging by the deadly initial returns, Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” might serve as the epitaph for Green Zone, director Paul Greengrass’ fictionalized Iraq War action-thriller about the U.S. search for fictional Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Perhaps it was an impossible mission that Greengrass volunteered for in this very loose adaptation of Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s 2006 best seller, Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Though Greengrass enlisted his Bourne Supremacy (and Ultimatum) star Matt Damon, he also got conscripted with a self-destructive script by Brian Helgeland, author of such duds as Man on Fire and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 remake. A few days ago, Greengrass optimistically told The Guardian that, “I’m going to see if I can bring the Bourne audience with me.”

Talk about bad intel.

From the opening shots, Green Zone recoils with a demoralizing déjà vu. We know now that the U.S.-led coalition forces never found any WMDs in Iraq, thus destroying a prime justification for the war. No chemical or biological weapons. Ditto on the notorious Nigerian “yellowcake” uranium.

In fact, what Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Damon) and his Army unit find is “nothing but toilet parts” in their 2003 sweep of a vanquished and bombed-out Baghdad. Despite repeated tips of hidden WMDs, Miller starts to suspect that something is rotten in the liberated state of Iraq, and it isn’t spoiled hummus.

In the seven-year itch since the Iraq invasion, Americans of all stripes have had ample opportunity to point fingers, and Greengrass rounds up some of the usual suspects in this conspiracy-movie throwback. Lining up front and center is a shifty Pentagon neocon (Greg Kinnear) who’ll go to any length to defuse allegations of disinformation or cover-up.

While the record shows that coalition forces lost the WMD battle, the liberal-minded Greengrass dispatches Damon on a quest that’s questionable in its own way: Embedded within the historical facts and documentary realism is a counter-intelligent Hollywood action vehicle. It’s notable that cinematographer Barry Ackroyd also shot the Oscar-winning Hurt Locker, a film that continually went AWOL from a believable reality. Green Zone’s techniques quickly speed off into the Greengrass Zone, where shaky cameras and furious editing ambush the storytelling.

What flashes of facts exist, they come in short bursts between the chaotic action scenes, topped by an interminable finale. As Miller, Damon hunkers down with the same sort of magnetic, steely determination that marked Jason Bourne. A loose cannon with a conscience, Miller goes rogue early, tracking down a missing Iraqi general (Yigal Naor) who may be the Sunni side of Deep Throat. Other sideline players include a skeptical CIA chief (Brendan Gleeson) and a Wall Street Journal reporter (Amy Ryan) who stands in for the duped American press.

At some risk (and not just financially), Universal launched this $100 million twilight Zone, which should at least be saluted for setting the record straight in a major motion picture, even if it comes seven years too late. The problem may not just be in Greengrass’ hyped-up Bourne-again style. Maybe this time, it’s the audience, not Jason Bourne, that’s suffering from amnesia.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

Film Review | Alice in Wonderland

Alice in chains

by Thomas Delapa

Digital “3-D” is quickly multiplying into Hollywood’s latest high-tech rabbit hole. Even before the colossal (shall we say titanic?) success of James Cameron’s Avatar, the studios had been re-opening their eyes to the tantalizing box-office of 3-D filmmaking. But if ever the tail was wagging both the dog and Cheshire Cat, look no further than Alice in Wonderland, director Tim Burton’s shaggy adventure in one-dimensional storytelling.

You won’t need to lower your glasses to see this Alice as a fuzzy, pre-feminist pipe dream. In place of a Victorian little girl, Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton makeover Alice into a cheeky, corset-intolerant 19-year-old (Mia Wasikowska). On the verge of falling into an engagement with a dyspeptic fop (Leo Bill), our runaway heroine tails a scurrying white rabbit to a magical underworld that’s famously “curious and curiouser.”

Curious indeed is Burton and Disney’s looking-glass that reflects a knee-jerk need to turn Alice into a premature teen rebel. Perhaps more glaring is the charmless transformation of Lewis Carroll’s beloved, mind-bending fables into a shallow 3-D action film.

Not everything good in Carroll’s 1860s originals goes underground. In bulbous head and flaming hair, Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s wife) is delightfully imperious as the Red Queen, bellowing “Off with his head!” across her topsy-turvy realm. Burton and his techie wizards fluidly mix live action and digital effects, especially when Alice magically seesaws from tiny to giant before our eyes. Those rotund buddies, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, are another sizable addition to the gallery of oddballs.

While Bonham Carter and Wasikowska seem to have fallen down one rabbit hole, the American cast members hop to a different drum under Burton’s blustery direction. Speaking of big heads, there’s nothing wonderful in Johnny Depp’s inflated performance as the Mad Hatter. Accessorized in Bozo hair and bizarre, Bambi-sized green eyes, Depp comes off as neither quaint nor cute, only Willy Wonka weird.

Amid this flashy menagerie, it’s also a wonder why Burton cast such colorless co-stars as Anne Hathaway (as the White Queen) and Crispin Glover (as the Red Queen’s henchman) Both readily fade from the screen not unlike the Cheshire Cat, but neither leaves us with much of a smile.

Carroll’s paradoxical tales unfold with deliberate, almost mathematical precision, carrying adult-sized undercurrents on the multi-dimensional power of the imagination and the mind-numbing traps of growing up. Burton not only falls head-over-heels for the 3-D effects, but egregiously kicks in a battle climax pulled from the hat from C.S. Lewis, not Lewis Carroll.

In the Jefferson Airplane’s trippy “White Rabbit,” the Dormouse tells Alice to “feed your head.” Burton pays that prescription no mind and aims lower, streaming us a steady diet of eye candy.


Friday, March 12, 2010

Oscars on Second Thought: Back to Five Best-Pictures Nominees

By Steven Rosen
(From Cincinnati CityBeat 3-10-2010)

Here’s an early prediction on the Best Pictures nominees for next year’s Academy Awards: There will only be five.

The great experiment in “widening the playing field” — expanding the number of nominees to 10 this year — turned out to be a complete dud. It dragged down the three-plus-hour telecast. At times, when clips of the nominated films were introduced, it felt like a surreal intrusion on the plain hard truths of Oscars.

For instance, I liked District 9, a visceral science-fiction film/political parable about extraterrestrials confined by force to a South African slum. But the clip shown of monsters kicking earthling butt (and vice versa) made it clear this isn't the kind of film the Oscars are about. Not unless James Cameron directed it, and there was already one of his films in the running. It was embarrassing to watch everyone in attendance pretend to take the nomination seriously.

By the same token, the introduction of hopeless Best Picture nominee Up came after it had already won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Everyone knew that was as good as it was going to get for the Pixar film. The pretension of it being a bona fide Best Picture nominee was anticlimactic. And boring.

For the record, the 10 nominees were: winner The Hurt Locker, Avatar, Up in the Air, Precious: Based on a the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, Inglourious Basterds, The Blind Side, An Education, Up, District 9 and A Serious Man.

But anyone interested enough in the Oscars to get as far as Sunday knew there were only five legitimate nominees — the Final Five, the ones that had also been nominated for Best Director — the first five in the paragraph above. Those two categories correlate so highly that expanding the nominees in one but not the other was doomed to be perceived as insincere. And the Academy’s director members, who nominate the Best Director candidates, would never have stood for their very important award to be watered down with 10 nominees.

Really, the Academy was fighting the Information Age in pretending it could sell the American public on the 10-nominee Best Picture category. Back when the Academy last had 10 nominees, from 1936 through 1943, the category was still in its formative years — the Oscars only started in 1927-28.

In this era of cable television and the Internet, the Oscars have been thoroughly demystified. We're all insiders. Nobody views them as High Artistic Pronouncements anymore.

Instead they're the result of a political-like campaigning process that we can watch evolve and develop. They are more like Congress than the Supreme Court.

Cable networks show important precursors like the Screen Actors Guild awards; the Internet lets us know on an hourly basis which nominees are gaining or losing traction. It’s hard enough for the Academy to maintain public interest in five serious nominees these days, so well informed is the public on the frontrunners by the time Oscar night comes around.

So rather than increasing Oscar-night excitement, having to sit through a telecast that treats films like An Education or A Serious Man as legitimate Best Picture nominees decreases it. Everyone knows these are films that, for whatever reason, weren’t able to make the real cut.

So why did the Academy do this? I like the term that Los Angeles Times television critic Mary McNamara used in criticizing the telecast: a “crisis in confidence.” Broadcast television has been fretting about the loss of a mass audience in this age of new media sources. In particular, it’s worried young people don’t have the reverence that Boomers had for the big awards shows — they’d rather text message or whatever.

Not helping things is that Academy voters have become more sophisticated in their tastes in nominated films, choosing auteurist indie productions with dark, troubling themes that aren’t really meant to be $100 million-plus blockbusters. The 2008 telecast, when the Best Picture competition primarily was between two such dark films, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, drew an all-time low of 32 million viewers, according to Variety. (The 1998 one, riding high on Cameron’s Titanic, drew 55 million.)

The idea of 10 Best Picture nominees, then, was a way to get some of the better popcorn movies — including an animated film and a feel-good populist hit or two — into the running. I’m sure the Academy also wished films like Star Trek or The Hangover would get in there. (It can’t control the actual nominations, which are voted on by its membership.)

The greatest irony, ultimately, is the Academy didn’t even need to embarrass itself. The balance issue took care of itself in the Top Five this year.

Cameron’s Avatar, his first feature since Titanic, became the biggest film of all time, revitalizing the 3-D process. Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was also a sizeable hit, a fantastical war movie with enough violence to satisfy action fans as well as art-house-level dialogue. The Final Five’s three other titles all had some degree of contemporary relevancy both on and off screen — winner The Hurt Locker, also a pretty riveting war film, had a female director, Kathryn Bigalow, aiming to become the first woman ever to direct a Best Picture.

Early indications are the Oscars attracted an audience of 41 million, according to Reuters the biggest audience in five years. It’s safe to say the balance and appeal of the real nominees were the reason. People watched despite the time taken up with the Bogus Five.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Film Review | The September Issue

Model behavior

by Thomas Delapa

Hold on to your designer hats, ladies. The title of “most powerful woman in the United States” belongs to neither Oprah Winfrey nor Nancy Pelosi.

Any fashionista will tell you that crown is worn by Anna Wintour, legendary editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, the woman who puts the haute (and haughty) in American haute couture. Without Wintour’s blessing, not even the devil would dare wear Prada.

Known to make famed designers shake and her staffers to unravel, Wintour is the reluctant cover girl in The September Issue, director R. J. Cutler’s chic and breezy documentary that takes us behind the scenes at one of the world’s most influential fashion rags. Perhaps in deference to the camera, surprisingly little fur flies behind these catwalks.

Smartly coiffed in a pageboy and partial to colorful prints and sunglasses, as a subject the guarded Wintour would make the sphinx proud. In her Manhattan offices, she lets her studious gaze do most of the talking. Publisher Tom Florio candidly admits that Wintour isn’t the “warm and friendly” type. But she lets her hair down at times with colleagues, and is given to a disarming giggle. On personal matters she zips up, enigmatically offering that her siblings are “amused” by her career. Cutler doesn’t probe, observing a decorum usually reserved for royalty.

Though Wintour plays it cool, Vogue creative director Grace Coddington gives the session its hot flashes. A former model (like Wintour), the Welsh-born Coddington speaks frankly on the arduous, sometimes frustrating process of working with la Wintour. “It gets harder and harder,” she sighs, particularly after her faux-1920s photo shoot gets executively cropped without her knowledge. Coddington seems to barely able to contain her disdain when it comes to the Wintour-led trend of putting the spotlight on movie stars for featured photo spreads.

For its plus-sized September 2007 issue (the annual fall preview is read by one of ten U.S. women), Vogue voguishly selected British actress Sienna Miller as its cover girl. After brushing off Miller’s natural hair as “lackluster,” the creative team puts her in a wig for a Rome photo session, then digitally touches up her teeth and neck to develop an image of radiant feminine perfection. Forget Susan Boyle (if you haven’t already). If a dish like Miller needs a makeover, what hope is there for the average off-the-rack woman today?

No, Keats’ ageless dictum that truth is beauty would surely end up on the cutting-room floor at Vogue, a citadel dedicated to illusion as much as beauty. Even Cutler’s cameraman falls victim to Wintour’s judgmental eye after he’s serendipitously asked to pose with a model for one of the September shots. Spying a telltale male paunch, Wintour cracks, “You need to go to the gym,” and prescribes an airbrushed weight loss.

Now on DVD, September Issue isn’t as glamorous—or as hefty—as its paperbound model. In fact, if you read between the lines you’ll uncover some noticeable blemishes amid all the gloss.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Oscar Wars | The Hurt Locker

I love the smell of roadside bombs in the morning

by Thomas Delapa

Should The Hurt Locker be awarded with an Oscar for Best Picture tonight, it will rank with The Departed as among the least deserving recent films to be decorated with Hollywood’s highest honor.

So here’s a big blue thumbs up to James Cameron’s Avatar—a.k.a. Bambi Goes to Outer Space—rather than ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow’s schlock-and-awe Baghdad action film. On second viewing, I still think Locker should be court-martialed for painfully impersonating the truth.

In the delayed trauma of the film’s stunning accolades (including Best Picture from the National Society of Film Critics), a backlash surge is deservedly underway, starting with Iraq War veterans. Their comments have ranged from “ridiculous” to “absolutely sensationalized.” In Iraq and Afghanistan, the movie has even coined a backhanded salute: To “go Hurt Locker” is to go emotionally ballistic, exaggerating the situation way above and beyond the call of duty.

Critics have been so vanquished by the film’s overblown dramatics, you have to wonder whether Colin Powell gave them the same pep talk he used to strong-arm the U.N. back in 2003. For the record, no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq. Not even in Saddam Hussein’s beard. And there’s nothing really explosive inside The Hurt Locker, except an endless string of made-in-Hollywood fireworks.

From the opening shots, Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal light their fuses and push the audience’s buttons with the zeal of a mad bomber. In the middle of a 2004 Iraq “kill zone” (actually shot in Jordan), an elite Army bomb-disposal squad suffers the loss of its team leader (Guy Pearce) in the first salvo of the manipulative set-pieces. In his place struts the cocksure and reckless Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), an adrenaline junkie equal parts John Wayne, George W. Bush and Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now.

Throughout her grade-B career (mined with several duds) since she switched from painting, Bigelow has always wanted to hang out with the boys, and has never let believable drama get in the way of kitschy machismo or juiced-up visuals. Instead of that bank-robbing Reagan mask from Point Break, James just picks up a helmet and transfers for a hitch with Bravo Company.

Setting aside the death-defying pyrotechnics, history and politics can be listed as among the film’s collateral damage. Just to make sure you’re always at attention, cinematographer Barry Ackroyd overloads the ersatz-documentary action with an onslaught of quick zooms, jump cuts and hand-held shots. While the good guys are marooned in this booby-trapped desert hellhole, suspicious, beady-eyed Iraqis jabber in Arabic and lurk inside buildings plotting their evil-doing plans.

For all its painful and reckless faults—including some of the worst war-movie dialogue since John Wayne’s The Green BeretsThe Hurt Locker does serve to remind us of a war every American wants to forget, even before it’s over. But if its gung-ho trifecta of paranoia, exploitation and xenophobia helps to explain its limited popularity, and if it conquers the Oscars, Bigelow and company will truly be able to march up to the podium and say, “Mission Accomplished.”

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Film Review | Up in the Air

Ups and Downs

by Thomas Delapa

Meet Ryan Bingham (George Clooney). He’s a professional terminator. No relation to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bingham jets around the U.S. methodically firing employees at the behest of their craven employers. Suave and impersonal, Bingham loves his job. And in today’s Great Recession, he’s never short of good work.

An undercapitalized satire of corporate downsizing, Up in the Air is tough and lofty on the outside, soft and squishy on the inside. You keep hoping for a first-class social comedy out of director Jason Reitman, but he settles for coach.

There’s nothing awry with Reitman’s opening takeoff on Walter Kirn’s 2002 novel. Under the credits, we’re serenaded with a pop version of Woody Guthrie’s populist “This Land is Your Land” as we see sky-high views of cities across the U.S. Back on Earth, Ryan’s boss (Jason Bateman) gloats, “This is one of the worst times for America ...This is our moment.” For a company that specializes in doing the dirty business of business, happy days are here again.

As Bingham, Clooney is a pin-sharp hatchet man in suit and tie. Bingham not only relishes his job, but loves his nonstop rootless existence. A moonlighting motivational speaker, “Moving is living” is his slogan. He’s no more at home than he is on the road, a chilly-blue blur of airports, motor hotels and rental cars. His sublime goal in life is neither family nor fame; instead he’s aiming to be only the seventh person to ascend to 10 million frequent-flyer miles.

When playing it slick and confident, Clooney stays on course—and so does Reitman. In quick documentary-like montages, Bingham coolly dismisses a parade of devastated employees, many asking him in parting, “How do you live with yourself?” In an age where corporate-worker loyalty has gone the way of the adding machine, employees can be downsized, outsourced and red-slipped in a stock tick, even while inept Wall Street barons are bailed out with federally-stitched golden parachutes.

But Reitman (Juno) does his own bailing out, leaving audiences suspended mid-air while he comically humanizes Bingham and company. Heady after another round of firings, Bingham is called back to his Omaha headquarters and teamed with Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a fresh-faced “efficiency expert” who thinks his face-to-face methods are obsolete. While superficially a hard egg, Natalie is just a soft-boiled romantic under her shell. Inefficiently cast as Bingham’s conscience, Kendrick shrinks on the screen, coming off as high-heeled Munchkin, not steely corporate henchman.

By dwelling on Ryan’s and Natalie’s petty troubles, Reitman downsizes the satire to practically nothing. During one of his last trips, Bingham takes a detour to mid-America Wisconsin for his sister’s wedding, taking along Alex (Vera Farmiga), seemingly his ideal merger partner in libido and credit cards. Up in Wisconsin, Up in the Air takes another nose dive, landing in an exquisitely (and unironically) banal wedding party that is meant to teach Bingham the glories of homespun family life. Taken together, Clooney—one of Hollywood’s most stratospheric men—and this bunch is a cheesy, airsick-inducing combination of Brie and Velveeta.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Films of Paul Mazursky

By Steven Rosen

Whenever the 1970s is mentioned as the last golden era of Hollywood filmmaking—which is often—the usual “easy riders, raging bulls” get named as its brilliant auteurist directors. Scorsese, Altman, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Polanski, Malick, Spielberg, Lucas, etc.

Paul Mazursky rarely is listed in the first or even second tier of that decade’s great filmmaking talents. Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, only gives him two short mentions. Yet has anyone else noticed how well his 1970s films have aged?

I’ve recently watched four Mazursky films from that decade (or just before it) that have been released in the past couple years on DVD -- 1969’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (co-written by Mazursky and Larry Tucker), 1974’s Harry and Tonto (co-written by Mazursky and Josh Greenfeld), 1976’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village and 1978’s An Unmarried Woman (both written by Mazursky unassisted).

These DVDs have been issued with the director’s commentary and -- in Bob & Carol’s case -- a short interview with Mazursky filmed at Los Angeles’ Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. Yet they’ve been put out with surprisingly little fanfare. No boxed sets or special editions. That’s a shame.

Mazursky was no film-school rebel when the 1970s started. Born in Brooklyn in 1930, he had already carved out a career as an actor (Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, 1953’s Fear and Desire, and 1955’s Blackboard Jungle), a stand-up comic, and a writer for television (The Monkees). He made worthwhile films throughout the 1980s, and remains active today, although his theatrical releases have since become few and far between.

Bob & Carol, Mazursky’s first directorial effort, observes with sometimes rowdy humor and compassion as two upper-middle-class California couples struggle with the new sexual freedom of the times. Harry and Tonto, his fourth film, is a gentle look at a lonely New York widower who takes a road trip across a changing America with his closest friend, his pet cat. (In between came Alex in Wonderland and Blume in Love.)

The autobiographical Greenwich Village, Mazursky’s follow-up to Harry and Tonto, provides a loving yet clear-headed evocation of the confusing bohemian outpost that the Village was in the early 1950s, when Mazursky was a young method actor.

His next film, An Unmarried Woman, set in the Woody Allen-ish world of sophisticated contemporary New Yorkers, combines wrenching drama, subtle comedy and tender romance as it follows a woman’s self-discovery after her marriage falls apart. It’s hard to imagine Sex and the City without this having occurred first, particularly in its use of a Greek chorus of female friends to comment on their times.

Overall, these four films’ subject matter remains prescient, their visual style enduringly naturalistic with touches of the poetic, their characters real, and their dialogue precise—funny conversations and eloquent monologues that give shape to vignettes with long-lasting, cumulative power.

And the acting is across-the-board superlative -- Dyan Cannon and Elliott Gould received Oscar nominations for their supporting work (as Ted and Alice) in Bob & Carol; Art Carney won as Best Actor for Harry and Tonto; Jill Clayburgh was nominated for Best Actress for her egoless, defiantly vulnerable turn in An Unmarried Woman. (Mazursky himself received Best Original Screenplay nominations for Bob & Carol, Harry and Tonto and An Unmarried Woman.)

Greenwich Village’s wonderful young cast -- Lenny Baker, Ellen Greene, Christopher Walken, Dori Brenner, Lois Smith, Antonio Fargas -- works together with the kind of ease that makes acting seem as seamless as a beautifully tailored suit. And Shelley Winters simply transcends acting -- she’s her own Big Bang theory as the anxious Brooklyn Jewish mother afraid to let her son (Baker) leave home for the Village of the 1950s.

All the films have satiric elements as well as delicate melancholy. And Mazursky is capable of writing frank, confessional sexual dialogue -- especially between his female characters and their therapists. Both Greenwich Village and An Unmarried Woman have remarkable discussions of abortion, considering how skittish Hollywood is of that topic today. He also has a flair for sexy bedroom farce, such as the give-and-take between a horny Gould and reluctant Cannon in Bob & Carol.

Then there is a weird sentimental streak that manifests itself in unusual ways, as in that film’s closing scene in which ambling strangers face each other, looking for a connection. Overall, these films are part of their time -- the post-1960s, Watergate-era age of disaffection -- but they avoid the youth-culture solipsism and genre deconstruction of too many films of the same era.

That may have worked to his disadvantage. The films of the period most rhapsodized about today are more macho and violent, sometimes nihilistically so, and feature New Hollywood’s superstar actors -- De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson, Hoffman, Beatty, Keitel, Jeff Bridges.

Ironically, a film from the 1970s that plays like a Mazursky movie, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, is probably better remembered than any of his precisely because its director, Martin Scorsese, also made Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull.

By comparison, Mazursky was a contrarian. He was comfortable with Old Hollywood -- his first film, Bob & Carol, featured the glamorous Natalie Wood and TV’s Robert Culp. He was sensitive to the elderly, especially in Harry & Tonto -- not always a fast ticket to hipness in the 1970s or now.

And not only was his eye and ear for his women characters feminist, but he often tried to blunt the toughness of his men. One of the most striking and shocking scenes in his movies comes in An Unmarried Woman when Clayburgh’s husband, played by Michael Murphy, announces he’s leaving. He cries like a child.

More than anything else, these four Mazursky films are humane. That’s a rare quality and it will keep them fresh for decades to come.

(This originally ran in Landmark Theatres' FLM Magazine in 2006.)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Blame Frank Capra For the Mess in Washington

Blame It on Capra
Is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to blame for current Senate gridlock?

By Steven Rosen
Cincinnati CityBeat, 2-24-10
. . . . . . .

As the latest issue of Time magazine spells out, our government is frozen because Senate Republicans are playing a game, blocking virtually all important bills that the Democratic majority wants to pass, especially much-needed health-care reform.

That such a political strategy is cruelly un-public-spirited in its refusal to work with a majority to solve problems is beside the point. As Time explains, the Republican policy of being the “party of no” worked during the Clinton administration — when it pioneered it — and could work again. The public tends to get frustrated “at Congress” and vote out the party in power.

In this case it would be Democrats, since President Obama took office with a 2008 electoral landslide and Democrats until recently had a 60-40 majority in the Senate. You can already see that kind of reaction reflected in Republican Scott Brown’s election to a vacant Senate seat from Massachusetts, which now gives Republicans 41 seats.

But wait a minute. You might wonder why the Republicans can stall the Senate when the party only had 40 out of 100 seats. It’s because it can threaten at any moment to “go nuclear” — use the threat of a filibuster (non-stop talking on the Senate floor) to tie up any vote. Democrats must have at least 60 votes to stop it through cloture, which raises its own problems.

All in all, the use of the filibuster constitutes “democracy abuse” — historically, racist Southern Democrats shamefully invoked it for decades to block civil-rights legislation, even an anti-lynching law. (There are occasional cases of Progressives like Wayne Morse using it, too.)
So why doesn’t an incensed American public demand the Senate reform or eliminate filibuster use? It is not mandated by the Constitution.

I blame the movies. Specifically, I blame Frank Capra, Hollywood’s great populist director who won three Academy Awards for helming 1934’s It Happened One Night, 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You.

In 1939, he made a classic called Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was nominated for Best Director and Best Picture but lost to Gone With the Wind. Sidney Buchman and Lewis R. Foster wrote its screenplay, with assistance from Myles Connolly. In one of American cinema’s most famous performances, Jimmy Stewart plays a grown-up Boy Scout (an adult leader of the Boy Rangers, actually) named Jefferson Smith who is appointed to the Senate by a corrupt party organization in an unnamed state after the incumbent has died.

The governor’s kids push for him, and the state party thinks he’ll be too naïve to challenge its priorities. But he winds up filibustering its attempt to get a ruinous dam approved on the state site he wants for a boy’s camp. A vicious state party leader, a newspaper publisher, planned the dam.

In retrospect, by making the filibuster a symbol for good-guy-goes-it-alone heroism, Mr. Smith has been as ruinous to American politics as that damn dam would be to that state. But its reputation in the public mind is something different.

The title has become an enduring catchphrase, used to describe the experiences awaiting well-meaning Americans who try to make things better in the snake pit that is Washington. That presumes, of course, that all Washington is a snake pit — needing a good enema-like filibuster now and then to clear out the poisons.

As such, the film’s legacy is anti-intellectual — it fails to educate about how the Senate can be used and abused to serve various agendas, progressive and reactionary. Instead, it reduces all Washington to Smith (good) and Senate (bad).

The other senator from Smith’s state, the corrupt charmer Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), sums that view up succinctly when he confronts the newcomer: “You’ve been living in a boy’s world all your life. This is a man’s world. You’ve got to check your ideals outside the door, like your rubbers.”

No less a patron saint of American broadcast journalism than H.V. Kaltenborn, a radio broadcaster who courageously covered the Spanish Civil War for CBS, appears in Mr. Smith (playing himself) to cheer Smith on as the filibuster begins.

“Half of Washington is here to see democracy’s finest show, the filibuster, the right to talk your head off — the American privilege of free speech in its most dramatic form,” he tells his radio audience. In case that’s not enough hyperbole, he adds, “In the diplomatic gallery are envoys of two dictatorial powers. They have come here to see what they can’t see at home, democracy in action.”

Democracy in action? Give me a break!

The most famous filibusterer in the Senate up to 1939 had been Louisiana’s Huey Long, hardly the best case this country could make for profiles in political courage. And during the 1960s, it took a veritable revolution in the streets to finally break the Southern racists’ power, when the Senate managed to approve cloture and pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

At the time, it took two-thirds of the Senate to do that, and Republicans joined with non-Southern Democrats. In 1975, the Senate reduced the cloture requirement to a still-imposing three-fifths of membership. Today, the filibuster has become so ingrained as a tool of obstruction that the mere threat ties up the Senate. You don’t need an actual one to occur. It creates dysfunction, not free speech. Mr. Smith got it all wrong.

Further, Mr. Smith cheats. The movie’s conflict isn’t really about national politics at all, so its claim to American topicality is faux. The Senate in the film is merely background for an us-versus-them tale about an imaginary corrupt state. It’s not really daring for its time; it’s more an escape from Depression Era concerns than a confrontation of them. It’s no Sullivan’s Travels.

There is one unintentionally haunting scene, however. When pro-Smith citizens try to march in their state, the police — upholding the corrupt power structure — turn fire hoses on them. It’s an unintended reminder of how Americans had to stand up to the tyranny of the filibuster in the 1960s.
And it could foretell what might have to happen again, as long as Mr. Smith’s lie about the filibuster as “democracy in action” endures.