Monday, June 27, 2011

Art at the Cinema: Summer 2011 Edition

Not usually do summer audiences watch films of depth in the midst of the heat and humidity. Sequels, comic book flicks, kiddie animated pics, gross-out comedies and blow-em-up extravaganzas are the norm. This year is no different: "Green Lantern," "Transformers 3," 'Cars 2," and "Bad Teacher" all bear witness to that. But beyond this standard fare, interesting small films are being released that speak to other aspects of the human condition told in thoughtful and innovative ways.

I cannot say Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" is an entertaining film. It is a ponderous and slow-moving film, which actually intercuts the story of a post-war American family with a pictorial representation of the world's evolution from the cellular level. Malick, whose reclusive life has become part and parcel of his image, has only directed five films. Some have been gorgeous depictions of relationships on the margins, such as "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," others have been lugubrious and dull retellings of episodes in American history, such as "Thin Red Line" and "A New World" (his version of the Pocahontas story). "Tree of Life" is almost two-and-a-half hours long, and at times the audience feels that length. There is minimal dialogue and little plot. It is heavy on imagery and symbolism, some of which seems fairly impenetrable.

Beyond these seeming drawbacks, the film is one of the most gorgeously shot movies to be shown in general release. Its tone of loss and mourning towards familial relationships helped garner the work the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Malick's camera lingers over his actors faces. While Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn have little to say, their faces communicate a great deal about their characters. Then we cut to a long shot over sunflowers and the shifting sands of the desert. And yes, there are even dinosaurs, but the film is cinematic art with scenes of such striking composition you feel that they should be featured in studies of modern art.

Malick makes a convincing case for the banalization of violence. The juxtaposition of images constructs a notion that cycles of aggressive behavior are learned and continue over time if traumatic experiences are not dealt with and resolved. In one key scene, a fight between a married couple transforms seamlessly into their child's marauding antics with his gang, torturing animals and committing property damage around their neighborhood. Clearly, the model of masculinity in practice in post-war America made belligerence seem a normal part of quotidian life.

On an opposite side of the spectrum in terms of tone, Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" has become the most commercially successful film of Allen's career since "Hannah and Her Sisters" (and that was back in 1986!). Critics have recognized Allen as a great American auteur since the 1970's, so a provocative film from him is to be expected, but such a warm and non-anxiety producing work such as this seems to be a shift in much of his direction. The film follows a screenwriter, Gil (played by the oh so likable Owen Wilson with the crooked nose), struggling with the existential conundrum of what to do with his life. Paris only exacerbates this quandary.

The City of Lights becomes a metaphor for the experience of tourism, bliss and even disillusionment with which succeeding generations of Americans have struggled since the days of Franklin and Jefferson (two of our earliest Francophiles). While Gil visits the French capital with his fiancée (played by Rachel McAdams in one of Allen's problematic portrayals of harpy women) and her conservative family, he explores the streets of the sprawling urban landscape to find the many layers of history that inhabit it.

(Note to readers: I am spoiling a huge plot point at this moment that many reviewers have not divulged, so if you have not seen it, I recommend to stop reading here). As the clock strikes midnight on a drunken sojourn, a 1920's-era Peugeot stops near Gil. He climbs into the car and he is delivered to a swanky party where a man is singing at a piano and a seemingly exotic group of expats and European are decked out in sparkly dresses and tuxes. Gil believes this to be an exhaustively researched theme party, but then discovers that it is Cole Porter at the piano and the blonde woman with whom he is conversing is Zelda Fitzgerald. He wanders around with his new friends only to see Josephine Baker dance, Hemingway slurs his words about sex and writing, Djuna Barnes lead him in a Charleston, Salvador Dali hold forth on rhinoceroses, and Gertrude Stein admonish Picasso for depicting "petit bourgeois morals."

"Midnight in Paris" has some rather profound things to say about nostalgia and our relation to the past. The landscape of Paris has served as a springboard for many Americans to imagine some golden age of creative wonder and insight and Allen has exposed some of the moral predicaments that come from such a position. There in Paris many of us feel at home, while others simply don't get it. Then again, maybe our nostalgic attachments are precluding us from seeing the insights of the present.

With two such appealing and thoughtful works, maybe Hollywood will make more such films geared towards audiences who crave something a bit more profound than "Transformers 3." Since films, such as 'Thor," "Green Lantern," and "X-men 25" have disappointed at the box office the studios may just shift to cheaper and more intelligent fare. We can only hope.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Ethics and Government: The Arrogance of Power

The Anthony Weiner scandal demonstrated little we did not already know about politicians: they have a habit of lying to the public, they have a customary and laissez-faire attitude to infidelity, and they come under media firestorms for what becomes an amusing set of peccadillos. The New York Post had a field day with this brouhaha, creating a series of rather tongue-in-cheek headlines: "The Rise and Fall of Weiner," "Weiner Limps Out," "Weiner Pulls Out," "Weiner Roast," and my particular favorite, "Obama Beats Weiner."

Of course, the great irony is that  the Weiner sex scandal had little to no sex (as far we presently know). Apparently, he got off on providing pictures of his pectoral muscles to women across the country and talking dirty to them, usually involving rather ludicrous exchanges involving "stupid" Republicans. No evidence exists at the moment that he ever met and performed physical, sexual relations with these women.

Weiner's biggest mistake was appearing on every news outlet to state that he was hacked. Unfortunately, this tactic of attempting to take control of the situation and wrench control away from the conservative blogosphere of figures, like Andrew Breitbart, backfired because of his inability to think through his story. The story was leakier than a sieve, and comments such as "I cannot say with certitude that that is not me" began to show that there was a shaky foundation to his tale.

Weiner fought the impending resignation with vigor, but ultimately the story was so salacious and hilarious that everyone from Leno to Kimmel to Letterman and Access Hollywood picked up the story. When you have every comedian roasting you on late night, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep office.

The stream of pictures featuring Weiner half-naked buried him. This is in contrast to David Vitter, the Republican Senator from Louisiana, whose name appeared numerous times on the call logs of the DC Madam. Even though it is clear that he broke the law by engaging in the solicitation of prostitutes, he has remained in office, even being re-elected with little issue. He admitted to committing a "serious sin," but perhaps he did not face the uproar we saw unleashed on Weiner or Clinton or Larry Craig simply because there was no humor in the story and no incriminating photos, stories or even phone messages (a la O'Reilly with his shower falafel).

What politicians should be wary of is going on any cable news network and decrying the behavior of a colleague and demanding his resignation. Demanding it forthwith! Humans err, and placing oneself in a position of moral superiority will always look hypocritical when one's own peccadillos emerge. Oh and they will. Larry Craig's inanity emerged after his toe-tapping disaster in an airport bathroom, which exposed a series of rumors emanating from DC and his penchant for young boys, in stark contrast to his voting record against gay rights. Bill Clinton's impeachment turned into a circus when Bob Livingston resigned because he too had been carrying out perfidious relations with other women. And we all know about Newt Gingrich's uncaring ways to the women he has loved.

With every John Edwards, who commits scandalous wrongs and get caught in a series of fibs that spin out of control, there is another stream of ethical violations occurring in every level of government. These strings of wrongdoings involve money, lobbyists, and a flagrant disregard for their constituents and the rules of their governing institutions. Tom Delay has been convicted for being involved in the far-reaching Abramoff scandal, where a lobbyist was pocketing massive amounts of money from clients for whom he lobbied and bought the votes of senators and congressmen. John Ensign's affair with a staffer crossed the line of sexual infamy into moral corruption when he paid off his staff members by funneling money through his parents.

No one called for Ensign's resignation, and no one called for Vitter's. It may be best for everyone to call for an investigation, which will then censure and fine the accused or even indict the criminal, if such legal meanderings can be prosecuted.

A new scandal seems to be looming on the horizon, this time involving Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas, with fellow justices Alito, Roberts, and Scalia, has become the forceful conservative side of the Court. He has provided votes in numerous cases such as Citizens United (2009) that have rewritten laws regarding campaign finance law. His role in these decisions, however, is now under dispute. It appears that his close relationship with the Texan real-estate magnate, Harlan Crow, may have been a decisive influence on certain votes, including one vote that ruled against the American Enterprise Institute, a board on which Crow sits, with Thomas as the SOLE dissenting vote in the opinion.

In fact, Citizens United, who had produced a film about Hillary Clinton, helped during Thomas' confirmation hearings by creating ads that attacked Senators who supported Anita Hill during those salacious congressional sessions. Citizens United has in fact proven to be very useful to someone close to Thomas: his wife. Virginia Thomas created a tea-party PAC, called Liberty Central Inc., which benefits from the Citizens United decision, by now being able to contribute exorbitant sums of money to political campaigns with little oversight from regulators.

Supreme court Justices are not beholden to any code of ethics, unlike Federal Court judges or appellate level ones. The House can initiate impeachment hearings against a Justice for crimes and misdemeanors but that seems an unlikely possibility under the Boehner regime (even Pelosi would be reticent to undertake such actions, which hold little precedent).

Because there is no sex involved in cases involving corruption, it is highly improbable that Thomas' quandaries involving his judicial decisions will ever appear on Extra or Leno. The only Supreme court Justice to resign from possible corruption was an LBJ appointee, Abe Fortas, who took money from business interests for advising them, in 1969. Apparently, taking money from lobbying groups and finding in their favor is less offensive than sending pics of your penis to women who follow your twitter. Are our priorities out of whack?

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Republican Field: Has it come to this?

The Republicans running for president appears to be a mess. No coalescing forces have managed to appear around any single (or even a pair of candidates). Granted, it is early and at this point in the 2008 general election, we did not have nominees decided yet. However, the lack of even a decisive pair to be the main stumpers may be a distressing point to many Republicans, and a heartening boost to a troubled Obama.

Mitt Romney has the look of a president, but within his own party he has not proven particularly popular. Some tea-party groups have stated that they will fight him, if he wins the nomination, with their own candidate. Most Republicans realize that three-person race would be equal to handing a second-term to Obama on the proverbial silver platter. (Other tea-partiers have vowed that they would support Romney). Romney's largest weakness is that his state-wide helath reform bill in Massachusetts was the model for the reviled Obamacare that many conservatives see as their number-one issue in the 2012 election. As Michelle Bachmann has grandiosely stated, "I will not rest until we have repealed Obamacare."

This brings us to Bachmann, who it appears is entering this race in order to hopefully garner a Vice-Presidential appointment by the winning Republican. Bachmann must realize that she is not the surest bet  for the nomination: her experience is weak and her hard-right views are divisive to many.  She is crafting an image of the Sarah Palin of 2012 (who has yet to announce whether she will run or not), but her desire to be roguish may deter a Republican from choosing her to be his (notice how I refrain from saying hers here, the Republicans still haven't found viable women to run in their party) running mate. The run, however, could garner her more support in Congress and even some key committee appointments.

The clown of this circus is certainly Newt Gingrich. His run has seemingly imploded. Much of his staff who were directing the campaign in key primary states, such as New Hampshire and Iowa, recently quit, citing that they seemed more committed to his quest for office than the candidate himself. A two-week cruise to the Mediterranean was the breaking point: as his staff slaved away, their boss felt no need to match their productivity level or commitment.   Even the conservative pundit, George Will, had stated that Gingrich's campaign "was not a serious run." Other commentators have stated that his appearance in this race is simply a way to maintain his face in the media spotlight and make more money selling books and DVD's from his numerous companies.

 Gingrich's abrupt 180-degree turns on matters of policy have been bewildering even to his most vocal supporters. One day he stated that if he were Obama, he would have directed military actions into Libya days before, "exercising a no-fly zone." When Obama directed such action with the compliance of NATO allies, Gingrich backtracked and said he "would not have intervened." This psychological game of wanting it both ways was exacerbated when he was on NBC's "Meet the Press" and told host David Gregory that Paul Ryan's budget plan was "right-wing social engineering." The next day he suffered backlash from conservative congressmen, such as Eric Cantor. In the most ludicrous moment of what will most likely be a short run, Gingrich then went on Fox News to state that anyone who quoted him (quoted him!) was committing a falsehood! This Kafkaesque moment was a nail in the coffin; the liquidation of his staff will be the final one.

The other men in this field have a litany of defects in their campaigns. Herman Cain, the purveyor of a Godfather-themed pizzeria, is virtually unknown and has never won an election in his life. Tim Pawlenty was boring before, but after a lackluster performance in the New Hampshire debate last week, he appears to be spineless and inarticulate as well. Jon Huntsman, the other Mormon, has not been able to raise his profile and he may have an uphill battle since he was appointed ambassador to China under Obama, pointing perhaps to some collusion with Obama. Rick Perry is being bandied about as a late entry into the race, but his time as governor has been problematic and a statement saying Texas "could secede" if relations with the federal government could render him un-electable among independents (who actually elect presidents).

More troubling is the fact that no Republican candidate has crafted a policy that would create jobs, invigorate the economy and reduce the deficit and the debt. The common slogan of lowering taxes does not in fact create jobs or spur on the economy. The Ryan plan which advocates Medicare "reform," which in fact effectively ends the program by giving vouchers to seniors does nothing to reduce health-care costs over the long-term. Cutting taxes and federal spending cuts jobs and will not spur the private sector to create new jobs. The lack of credit extensions will have to be dealt with, but few have provided any viable solutions to that issue.

Serious contenders have pulled out, such as Mitch Daniels. Others such as Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Jeb Bush have vowed not to run. It is possible that Romney or Huntsman will pull himself together and become a force to beat, but at this moment, Obama may have something to smile about. Now, if he only he could get unemployment under 8%.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Feminist cinema and "Bridesmaids"

When I first saw the commercial for "Bridesmaids," I shook my head and sighed. Here is Hollywood engaging in another misogynist piece, I said to myself, in order to rein in some profits. The trailer appeared like a horrid rip-off of "The Hangover,"but NOW with women!! Yes, women were supposed to flock to this piece to see their foibles put on screen and laugh along with comedic actresses Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. This was going to be an unmitigated disaster.

I was, very fortunately, wrong. The film blew away my expectations and even the prognostications of Hollywood. The producers hoped the film would be able to gross over $80 million, but has now blown past $125 million with some stellar holds from weekend to weekend. It was expected to make $17 million its opening weekend and instead made over $26 million--a rather huge disparity in this day of precise measurements regarding box-office receipts.

How did this film become a break-out success and one of the most successful comedies of the year?

Kristen Wiig plays the largest role in the film's accomplishments. She stars as the hapless maid of honor who cannot get anything right for her childhood best friend's wedding, played by Rudolph. Wiig cowrote the screenplay with Annie Mumolo, and the earnest and witty dialogue make the movie shine. Wiig has become a star in the last few years thanks to SNL and now she is a bona fide screen star, something that doesn't normally happen to women older than 35.

Judd Apatow, the mastermind behind "The 40-year-old Virgin" and "Knocked Up," has followed up his earlier successes with this one. Unlike Apatow's earlier work, "Bridesmaids" features female characters who are not mere caricatures and scenery for his more subtle and complicated male characters. In this film only one man has any significant screen time, an impressive rarity in cinema. (However, male only cinema is easy to do, think of "Glengarry Glen Ross"). Here women of a certain age (considered old by most Hollywood standards) are flawed and human, with qualities that still make them touching.

With the able direction of Paul Feig, best known for television work, such as "Freaks and Geeks," the film navigates between the most scatological of humor to a character study of two women negotiating changes in their lives and the concomitant stressors to their seemingly strong relationship. A film about a wedding, especially a comedy, often focuses on the bride and groom and the disasters leading to the day of matrimonial bliss, but in this one the groom is rarely seen, instead we focus on the women. I can think only of "Father of the Bride" (and its remake and sequels) that takes such a different approach to marriages. For the first time, we have a movie about what is widely considered in Western culture as the pinnacle of a woman's life narrated and centered solely on the women involved. Quite a brilliant move.

Along with the broad comedy of Rudolph and Wiig, Rose Byrne adds a touch of subtle drama with her bitchy portrayal of a fellow bridesmaid, who manages to drive a wedge between the aforementioned women. She imbues this character with a desperate need for friendship and competition, making her heinous behavior psychologically palpable.

Hopefully, the success of Wiig, and her fellow SNL alum Tina Fey, will give Hollywood reason to make movies aimed at smart, discerning women, women who are not teenagers obsessed with Edward Cullen. There is enough money within studio budgets to allow this, and apparently there is even demand among consumers for such works. Such a welcome change. phew!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Good deal

You can download an MP3 of "Book of Mormon" today (and I think just today) for $1.99...

It is well worth it.

Go here.


"Book of Mormon" was expected to win Best Musical at the Tonys by so many people that even presenter Chris Rock said that the final award felt like "taking a hooker to dinner." The musical, a send-up of Mormon missionaries in Uganda (a country that recently passed a law criminalizing homosexuality, even going as far to place a penalty of death on some offenses), was the brainchild of "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Andrew Rannells gave a rousing rendition of  "I Believe" on the Tony telecast with an earnest charm, which seems to be the warm-heartedness that has impressed so many critics. Parker won in the categories of director, producer, score and book making him one of the most honored men in Tony history (I believe tied with Joshua Logan who won a slew of awards for "South Pacific" in 1949).

Unlike the last couple of years where Hollywood celebs, such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, Scarlett Johansson, Marcia Gay Harden, Liev Schreiber, David Hyde Pierce and Geoffrey Rush have walked off with top honors, this year the only film actor to win was Frances McDormand in Abaire's "Good People." The other top winners are widely known within the Broadway community, but virtually unknown outside of that hallowed cityscape. Sutton Foster, Mark Rylance and Norbert Leo Butz all won their second awards, probably to the general consternation of much of the television-watching audience. Butz's win may have been the most necessary of the night, since many pundits had stated that "Catch me if You Can: The Musical" would most likely close without a significant Tony win.

Surprisingly, as consumer confidence numbers are down, the stock market is shaky, and job reports are still largely dispiriting, Broadway has witnessed a strong season with 39 eligible shows for Tonys and strong box-office receipts for shows that would seem to be outside the purview of strong commercial returns. A play about a boy and his horse during World War I walked off with virtually all of the production awards and Best Play, while a tongue-in-cheek treatment of Mormons swept most of the musical awards. A revival of subtle and racially-problematic Cole Porter standard has wowed critics and proven to be profitable (a shock to everyone involved). Now many of these shows will get nationwide tours (even the now closed "Scottsboro Boys," the last collaboration of Kander and Ebb).  I guess if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.

Best Dressed of the Evening

Catherine Zeta-Jones

Ms. Zeta-Jones (Aka Mrs. Douglas) shined tonight in this shimmering gown. Her performance last year of "Send in the Clowns" may have been a bit more reminiscent of "Exorcist: the Musical," but she has sympathy on her side after her husband's health crisis and her recently publicized battles with Bipolar Disorder II. Well, you rocked this, madam. 


Frances McDormand won a Tony tonight for what has been called a great performance in David Lindsay Abaire's "Good People." However, her choice in dress and acceptance speech presentation were epic fails. In what looks like a Forever 21 jacket and an American Apparel striped dress, McDormand looks as if she wandered off the subway after a Sunday lounging in the Park. Her spaztastic acceptance speech may lead some commentators to think that she is partaking in some crystal meth (or at least Salvia with Miley Cyrus). Simply tragique!

PS I did not photoshop this. Ms Oscar-winning McDormand decided on her own accord to take pictures holding her Tony as if she were being photographed for intake by the NYPD.