Posted in Movie Reviews, Opera

The Opera House

There’s a special pleasure in seeing a film or taped footage of an event my younger self may have experienced several decades ago. “The Opera House,” director Susan Froemke’s new documentary of the conception, construction and finally the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 fits that bill to a T. It’s a fascinating saga of artistic, financial and civic cooperation, and definitely one of the most enjoyable films I’ve seen recently. A particularly refreshing aspect is its lack of villains; instead we see a cast of heroes, among whom are Met General Manager Rudolph Bing, Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller III, Lincoln Center Architect Wallace Harrison, Civic Planner Robert Moses, and, most memorably, Soprano Leontyne Price.

As the film rightly points out, the construction of New York’s Lincoln Center, and especially a new home for the Metropolitan Opera, was a national and indeed, an international event. It came at a time when opera claimed a more significant place in the American cultural consciousness than it does today. The exposure of the art form to the general public was then considerable: opera singers had frequently appeared in Hollywood films in the 1930’s and 40’s, and many had had their own radio programs. Later, when television entered the scene, opera singers were a staple on the numerous variety shows that aired; they regularly appeared on “The Tonight Show,” and Beverly Sills even filled in for host Johnny Carson when he was on vacation. The Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco for many years, were an institution. So even if you weren’t a fan, you were at least familiar with the name “Verdi,” and could probably hum the “Toreador Song” from “Carmen.”

I never attended a performance at the old Met at Broadway and 39th Street, but the footage of its auditorium, as Ms. Froemke shows, is breathtaking in its ornate red and gold. However, the house’s shortcomings as a theater were enormous: no room for modern stage equipment, the forced storage of scenery outdoors on Seventh Avenue due to lack of indoor space, few if any rehearsal areas (To further illustrate the point I would have liked Ms. Froemke to have contrasted the physical plant of the old Met by showing the state of the art facilities of a European opera house). As a result plans to build a new opera house were in the wind as early as 1908. A series of problems and crises, not to mention the Depression, intervened in the following decades, so it wasn’t until Robert Moses’ proposal of the cultural enclave that became Lincoln Center that a new opera house began to morph from dream to reality. However, Ms. Froemke doesn’t sugarcoat the human cost of this urban renewal; several former residents of the West Side neighborhood that was condemned and cleared for Lincoln Center express their opinions of their forced move.

A major highlight of “The Opera House” is footage of the groundbreaking ceremony at Lincoln Center in May, 1959, where a very dapper Leonard Bernstein opens the proceedings by leading the New York Philharmonic in Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” The event was deemed of such import that President Eisenhower attended; as he does the honors by sinking that first shovel in the earth, we hear the Julliard Choir sing out with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah.” Leading Met singers Risë Stevens and Leonard Warren also performed, and it’s shocking to remember that the latter would be gone in less than a year, dying of a massive heart attack on stage in the midst of a performance of “La Forza del Destino” at the old house.

Met General Manager Rudolph Bing is of course a major presence in “The Opera House.” At first he appears as almost impossibly imperious and formal, and stubbornly opposed to accommodating the “Save the Met” sentimentalists (Ms. Froemke should have provided some context for this controversy by referencing the public outcry at the significant loss of historic structures in New York City, especially Pennsylvania Station, during the late 50’s and early 60’s, and the fact that only a few years before, a public campaign had indeed saved Carnegie Hall from demolition). But in preparing to open the new house while still saying goodbye to the old, Bing emerges as a hero. What a difficult job this man had–mounting a new opera to inaugurate the Met’s new home (Samuel Barber’s “Antony and Cleopatra”), apprehensively eyeing Director Franco Zeffirelli’s creation of a massive extravaganza of a production that eventually broke the stage turntable and famously trapped Leontyne Price inside Cleopatra’s pyramid, overseeing nine new productions scheduled for that first season (four in the first week alone), and dealing with a looming strike by the orchestra musicians (though not mentioned in the film, Bing announced from the stage on Opening Night that a settlement had been reached). The tension as we see Bing deal with all of this is palpable, yet somehow he manages. Few could have handled all these crises as well.

But it’s Soprano Leontyne Price, whose career straddled the old and the new houses, who walks away with the film. At the age of 91 she’s sharply informative as well as a total hoot. I particularly enjoyed her account of what it was like to sing with Tenor Franco Corelli, with whom she made a joint debut at the Met (“We sang insane!!!,” as attested to by the recording of the “Il Trovatore” broadcast from that season), and her stories of the trials, tribulations and triumph of opening the new house as Cleopatra are terrific. As she proudly—and rightly—states, “Sometimes you sing so well you just want to kiss yourself, and I did that night.” When she breaks into the opening phrases of Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915” (“It has become the time of evening/When people sit on their porches/Rocking gently and talking gently…”) while reminiscing about their friendship, don’t be surprised if you find yourself tearing up as I did. As the possessor of the most beautiful soprano voice of my time, she remains a treasure.

“The Opera House’ will be screened once more as a Fathom event on January 17. Here’s hoping for a quick release of the DVD and a showing on PBS. It’s a marvelous film.

Posted in Movie Reviews

July 4th Roundup

“Yankee Doodle do or die!”

Has any biopic had a more visible reason for being than 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy”? This terrific movie, featuring the once-in-a-lifetime performance of James Cagney, may be one of the best World War II propaganda films Hollywood would produce.

Ostensibly the life story of George M. Cohan, Broadway songsmith, playwright, producer and actor, whose career peaked before World War I, the movie is shot through with anachronistic exhortation to “get behind the man behind the gun,” as the film’s additional lyrics to “Grand Old Flag” urge. In similar fashion, so do the additional verses of Rodgers and Hart’s “Off the Record,” from 1937’s “I’d Rather Be Right,” tweaking Hitler and Japan. Was it any wonder? “Yankee Doodle Dandy” premiered only seven months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, at a time when war production and home front restrictions were gearing up. While a Cohan biopic had been a possibility for a number of years before then, the fortuitous match of current events and flag-waving subject resulted in one of the most memorable Hollywood films of that era. Watching it today, you can easily imagine audiences in 1942 responding when Cagney, during the World War I “Over There”scene, turns to the camera and proclaims “Everybody sing!”

In true biopic fashion, there’s a lot of editing and sanitizing with respect to Cohan. While depictions of real figures in his life—Sam Harris, Fay Templeton, the other members of the Four Cohans—appear in the film, both his marital history and his anti-union bias are scrubbed (His siding with Broadway producers rather than actors in the 1919 strike that lead to the creation of Actors Equity was the real reason for his split from producing partner Sam Harris). Yet “Yankee Doodle Dandy” features that wonderful Cohan song catalog, and best of all, James Cagney.

I can think of few other stars of that era for whom the description “There’s no one else like him” is more apt. Whether as Cohan or Tom Powers in the iconic “Public Enemy,” or the psychopathic Momma’s boy Cody Jarrett in “White Heat,” there’s not a moment you can—or even want—to take your eyes off him. His boundless energy, that cocky strut, the feeling that only he and the audience are in on the joke, all stand him in excellent stead in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” More than that, you sense he enjoyed every minute shooting the film, which makes for the happiest of viewing experiences. Yet he’s not just a sunny song and dance man: the scene he plays with the memorable Walter Huston as his dying father is one of the most poignant he ever shot. Rarely has a Best Actor Oscar been more deserved than the one awarded Mr. Cagney for his performance in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Long before Turner Classic Movies I grew up with “Million Dollar Movie,” featured on one of the local New York City stations. The program would run the same film every night for an entire week, and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” would show up regularly. Even though I can probably recite all the film’s dialogue by heart, I never tire of watching it. It’s so Warner Brothers—S.Z. Sakall as Schwab, the roped-in producer of Cohan’s first hit (“I pwomise, I pwomise”); George Tobias as tin-ear producer Dietz, spending his wife’s money; Irene Manning as Fay Templeton, actually playing the piano for “Forty-Five Minutes From Broadway;” the raucous, jalopy-riding teenagers who show up on Cohan’s front lawn (“Stix Nix Hix Pix”). And there’s Cagney, tapping down those White House stairs.

Long may it wave!

P.S.: In case you’re wondering, Cagney copied his “Yankee Doodle Dandy” dancing style directly from George M. himself, as is evident in a YouTube video from the 1932 film “The Phantom President” (Warning: Cohan appears in blackface for a good portion of the clip). While Cagney’s normal style did feature some “on his toes” tap work, his dancing more closely resembled that of a typical hoofer of that era. Check out the “Shanghai Lil” number from “Footlight Parade.”


Detecting Again: Olivia Coleman (DS Ellie Miller) and David Tennant (DI Alec Hardy), “Broadchurch”

Holidays are always the best time for binge-watching, and this July 4th is no exception. Somehow I missed that Season 3 of “Janet King” just dropped on Acorn TV, I’ve barely started the latest run of “Orange is the New Black” and I haven’t even touched “Glow” yet. Best of all, though, the latest, and unfortunately last, season of “Broadchurch” recently premiered on BBC America.

I was terrifically let down when I learned that “Broadchurch” will shortly end. However, after watching the first episode of the new season, I think I know where the show is headed. “Broadchurch” at its best is about the impact of crime—on the family and friends of the victim, on the community and on the police who investigate. This was starkly portrayed in the first season of the show which focused on the murder of 11 year-old Danny Latimer. The second season, while rich in character portrayal, meandered in plot. However, “Broadchurch” seems to be back at full throttle in its current episodes. Even after three years the repercussions of young Danny’s murder are still being felt, and a new crime threatens the community. Stunning in its detail, this episode walks us through the police and hospital response to a rape—the compassion and support offered to the victim and the painstaking efforts to obtain, catalog and preserve evidence of the crime. The tone of this sequence couldn’t be more fitting. Needless to say, we’re far beyond what “Law and Order: SVU” can depict.

On a happier note, I’m delighted to see the return of my favorite bickering (un)married couple, the detective partners Ellie Miller and Alec Hardy. The lapse of three years hasn’t spoiled their style or their differences. There’s added value this time around—it’s eye-opening to see Ellie having to instantly change gears from ace detective to exasperated single mother called to a meeting at school to discuss her 15 year-old son’s suspension for dealing porn. And it’s odd to see loner Alec Hardy parenting his teenage daughter. But unlike other shows, “Broadchurch” has a way of using issues outside crime and police work to illuminate rather than distract.

Looking forward to the next seven episodes.

Posted in Movie Reviews, Observations

Stranger Than


It’s that time of year.

“10 Best” lists are proliferating, movies are hashed and rehashed and opinions are flown with abandon (“You moron!” How could you not mention X!”). One of the more interesting inclusions in this year’s set isn’t a movie in the traditional sense, but a five-part, eight-hour documentary—director Ezra Edelman’s marathon, “O.J.: Made in America” (not to be confused with the FX docudrama, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson,” starring Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Courtney B. Vance). The plaudits are well-earned.

What makes “O.J.: Made in America” a singular experience is the context in which Edelman has us view not just the details of Simpson’s trial for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown, and Ron Goldman, but the nature of his life and celebrity. What gives the documentary its depth is Edelman’s juxtaposition of Simpson’s privileged existence with the long history of police abuse suffered by the African-American community of Los Angeles. “O.J.: Made in America” examines every thread that still exists in the social and political tapestry of America—Race. Celebrity worship, but more accurately, jock worship. The entitlement granted to athletes. Domestic violence. Media irresponsibility. The advantages the rich possess in dealing with the justice system. Jury bias.

Race is the primary theme of the documentary and rightly so, given the subject and the setting. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Simpson’s story is that a man who seemingly moved heaven and earth to present himself as devoid of color (his watchword was “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”) became a symbol of black oppression to the African-American community. We see how carefully Simpson constructed his image, and the lengths to which corporate America further encouraged that image (As several interview subjects note, O.J. was always surrounded and cheered on by whites, not blacks, in the commercials he did for Hertz and other products). We also see how Simpson cultivated a social and professional circle that was predominantly white at a time when the African-American community of Los Angeles suffered one outrage after another at the hands of the LAPD. The contrast couldn’t be greater.

Edelman doesn’t flinch when presenting Simpson’s abuse of Nicole Brown, his second wife (his first marriage, to a black woman, remains largely unexamined). The number of interviewees who admit they knew what was going on will make your blood boil; if it doesn’t, Simpson’s sports show interview subsequent to his arrest for domestic violence certainly will. Simpson is so full of “It was New Year’s Eve—we both had too much to drink and things got out of hand. The press is making a mountain out of molehill,” while Roy Firestone, his interviewer, drips sympathy. Then you see the photos of Nicole’s damaged face, and hear a cop describe yet another occasion when a beaten Nicole summoned help. This officer actually arrested Simpson, but his superiors swept the entire incident under the rug because “Hey man, it’s O.J.!” You wonder how many free passes he actually received—and whether those who knew but excused Simpson’s behavior were able to sleep at night after Nicole’s murder.

There’s no doubt that the manner in which these victims died reflects how personal these crimes were to the killer. The savagery of the wounds inflicted and their number speak volumes (Warning: Photos of the victims and the murder scene are displayed at length in Episode 4 as Assistant Prosecutor Bill Hodgson describes the probable sequence of events in graphic detail). Contrary to the defense’s theory, it’s inconceivable that this was the work of a gang or a hired killer, both of whom kill far more efficiently—and quickly. No stranger would have created a blood trail that led directly from the murder scene to Simpson’s Ford Bronco to his front door and then to his bedroom. If you weren’t convinced before, “O.J.: Made in America” leaves you with little doubt that Simpson committed these crimes.

Edelman presents a straightforward account of Simpson’s trial for murder, and doesn’t hesitate to point fingers at Judge Lance Ito’s weakness in controlling the proceedings or the mistakes of the prosecution and law enforcement, of which there were many: District Attorney Gil Garcetti’s politically correct decision to try the case in Central Los Angeles, which virtually guaranteed a jury pool unsympathetic to the police and the prosecution; the late addition of Chris Darden to the prosecution team and his role in the trial, which made him Uncle Tom incarnate in the eyes of a predominantly black jury; Marcia Clark’s unshakeable belief that she had exceptional communication skills with female African-American jury members, despite a consultant’s findings to the contrary (The consensus of test panels? “Marcia Clark = bitch”); the infamous request to have Simpson try on those gloves, leading to Johnnie Cochran’s refrain to the jury: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

However, Edelman also notes that the jury was not exactly free of bias. The prosecution’s jury consultant cites a high percentage of African-American women on his test panels who hated Nicole Brown and viewed her as a homewrecker, despite the fact that Simpson never for a moment remained faithful during his first marriage. Two of the Simpson jurors, both African-American women, are also interviewed; one firmly states: “Let me tell you something, I lose respect for a woman who takes an ass-whuppin’ when she doesn’t have to…Don’t stay in the water if it’s over your head. You’ll drown.” Add Mark Fuhrman’s racist remarks, errors in evidence-gathering at the crime scene, the long history between the LAPD and the black community, and the ungodly length of the trial for this sequestered jury, and the final result should not have been surprising.

The participants in “O.J.: Made in America” include some well-known faces: Gil Garcetti, Marcia Clark, F. Lee Bailey, Mark Fuhrman and friends and members of the Brown and Goldman families. However, far more interesting observations come from others. One stand-out is a childhood friend of Simpson who to this day believes in O.J.’s innocence, though every anecdote he relates only attests to how self-centered and slippery the man was, even as a young teenager. We also hear from Ron Shipp, a former football player turned cop and O.J.’s friend for many years, who, being thoroughly familiar with the extent of abuse inflicted on Nicole, ends up testifying for the prosecution. While the prosecution team more or less owns up to its mistakes, Edelman shrewdly lets the members of Simpson’s Dream Team of attorneys run on, thus allowing them to reveal themselves, and not always for the better. Carl E. Douglas boasts of more than one act of ethical flim-flammery, F. Lee Bailey (later disbarred, though Edelman doesn’t tell us that) unfurls his ego yet again, and Barry Scheck dodges and squirms when questioned about his trial conduct. And finally, Edelman pulls no punches when it comes to the press—there’s no doubt that their coverage, from the Ford Bronco chase to the acquittal, clearly shows the news establishment squandering whatever journalistic credibility it had only to end up as merely yet another vehicle for mass entertainment.

Simpson’s acquittal and the vociferous enthusiasm this met in the African-American community shocked white America. In retrospect neither is surprising given the racial history of this country. Those in the community who thought otherwise seem to have been pressured to keep silent. We hear from a black minister in Los Angeles who thought from the beginning that Simpson was guilty; his response when the verdict was announced? “I saw a rich guy get off.” Color trumped wealth in the eyes of many (“Now you know what it feels like,” says a community activist, even today), yet time has made some of the outspoken more thoughtful. The female juror quoted above, when asked how she feels about the verdict today, hesitates and her conflict is visible. She bails with “It was what it was,” but there’s no escaping that justice was denied for these victims.

Yet an acquittal does not an innocent person make, at least in the eyes of the public. It’s clear that Simpson evidently thought the verdict would reset the clock and he could return to his pre-trial life. Not so, and I’m not sure this was entirely due to race; one of F. Lee Bailey’s previous clients, Dr. Sam Sheppard, endured a similar professional and social decline following his ultimate acquittal. Having covered Simpson’s ascent, the documentary proceeds to cover his descent, culminating in his conviction and lengthy sentence for armed robbery and kidnapping stemming from a confrontation over stolen O.J. memorabilia.

Made in America indeed.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Some Like It Hot

Osgood (Joe E. Brown) and Daphne (Jack Lemmon)
Osgood (Joe E. Brown) and Daphne (Jack Lemmon)

The other day Turner Classic Movies caught me by surprise with a daytime showing of the 1959 classic, “Some Like It Hot.” Usually the cable channel reserves this for Billy Wilder, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis festivals, so it was a terrific excuse to drop the thousand and one things I needed to get done, and instead watch for the umpteenth time a film I’ve been touting for decades as the funniest movie ever. In fact, “Some Like It Hot” has been acknowledged as such by the American Film Institute.

If for some unfathomable reason you haven’t seen it, the plot is a simple one: Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Jack Lemmon), two down-on-their-luck musicians in 1929 Chicago, have the misfortune to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. They get out of town by disguising themselves as Josephine and Daphne, members of the all-girl band, Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters, on its way to Florida for a three-week gig. Among the band’s musicians is singer-ukelele player Sugar Kane Kowalcyk (Marilyn Monroe), who has a history of falling for saxophone players, which Joe is. A millionaire with a yacht, gangsters and hysteria ensue.

What makes this movie? For starters, it hasn’t aged a day. The comedy is as fresh as ever, perhaps more so now given the sexual politics of our time. The screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond never stops, which makes writing about “Some Like It Hot” a bit difficult—there’s an enormous temptation to leave analysis behind and just quote those terrific lines from the film. Nevertheless, few movies are blessed with so many other gifts. Among these are:

Its shrewd and economical take on gender and sexual fluidity. Unlike 1982’s “Tootsie,” which I do like, “Some Like It Hot” maintains a light touch. “Tootsie” uncomfortably lets us down with Dustin Hoffman’s too-earnest speech that being a woman has made him a better man. We’ve already seen him developing some awareness as Dorothy Michaels; telling rather than showing feels like overkill in such a finely played film. In contrast, “Some Like It Hot” takes a more effective approach via the succinct observation. After Daphne is pinched in the hotel elevator, Joe/Josephine notes: “Now you know how the other half lives.” Daphne protests “I’m not even pretty!” to which Josephine retorts “All it matters is that you’re wearing a skirt.” And as Joe, he/she should know. Point made.

The music. “Some Like It Hot” features a great tune selection from the 1920’s: “Running Wild” (“…lost control/Running wild/mighty bold”), “I’m Through With Love” and “I Wanna Be Loved By You” which interestingly is the only song with a 20’s style arrangement, notwithstanding Sugar’s ukelele—lots of staccato trumpets and cymbal chokes. “Stairway to the Stars,” used on the soundtrack during the Junior/Sugar scenes dates from 1934 (close enough), but this is memorably compensated for by “La Cumparsita,” (1916), as Osgood and Daphne tango the night away. Extra bonus: Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters actually look like a real orchestra—the violinists are properly bowing and fingering the strings with nary a moment of fake-looking “playing” in sight.

San Diego’s Victorian marvel, the Hotel Del Coronado, standing in for Miami’s Seminole Ritz (love the name). The atmosphere and palm trees couldn’t be better.

Joan Shawlee as Sweet Sue. She was one of the best character actors ever (among her other roles, she was tall Sandra in “From Here to Eternity,” towering over Frank Sinatra, and would later show up as the inimitable Sylvia in Wilder’s “The Apartment”). It’s hard to pick out her best moment (“Each and every one of my girls is a virtuoso—and I intend to keep it that way”), but my favorite is probably her expression of exquisite pain—and disbelief—at Josephine’s Lawrence Welk-style warbling on sax. She can’t yell for her manager enough—“Bienstock!”

For that matter, all the other actors in “Some Like It Hot,” from George Raft (Spats Columbo, with his bone breakers “lawyers”—“All Harvard men”), George E. Stone (Toothpick Charlie), Pat O’Brien (Detective Mulligan) and Nehemiah Persoff (Little Bonaparte) to Dave Barry (Bienstock) and Beverly Wills (Dolores, she of one-legged jockey joke fame). While I’m not a big fan, Marilyn Monroe manages to bring just the right amount of bruised innocence to Sugar, and Tony Curtis is best as Shell-Oil Junior. Pride of place, though, goes to Joe E. Brown as Osgood Fielding III, millionaire on the make, who loves a shapely ankle. He’s so wonderfully besotted with Daphne that he turns farce into a Cinderella tale. And who can forget the one and only Sig Poliakoff, played by Billy Gray? No, this isn’t the young actor from “Father Knows Best.” This Billy Gray (real name: William Victor Giventer) was a sometime actor, comic and owner of The Band Box, a comedy club in Los Angeles. In one of my favorite scenes from “Some Like It Hot,” Sig and Sweet Sue try to come up with replacements for the band’s saxophone and bass players, subtracted by elopement and pregnancy, respectively:

"Bessie let her hair grow, now she's playing with Stokowski." "Black Bottom Bessie?!?" "Spiels auch mit die Philharmonic!"
“Bessie let her hair grow, now she’s playing with Stokowski.” “Black Bottom Bessie?!?” “Spiels auch mit die Philharmonic!”

Jack Lemmon, who brings down the house as Daphne, intoxicated with his engagement to Osgood (“I’m engaged.” “Who’s the lucky girl?” “I am.”) Billy Wilder shrewdly anticipated how movie audiences would react—he supplied Lemmon with a pair of maracas so the responsive laughter would sound over their shaking instead of drowning out the actors’ lines. Lemmon seems to be having a ball in drag, unlike Tony Curtis, who is rather dour, though he is after all stuck with being Daphne’s straight man (later he has a lot more fun imitating Cary Grant). In the Chicago scenes we see Jerry continually put-upon by Joe; there’s a sense that creating and being Daphne has liberated his spirit, and he takes the audience right along with him. Watch his expression during Daphne’s first conversation with Osgood, at the hotel elevators. Osgood’s talking about his last wife, an acrobatic dancer who could smoke a cigarette held between her toes, though his mother ended the marriage. Why? “She doesn’t approve of girls who smoke.” Daphne, narrowing her eyes and pursing her lips, mulls this over for a beat, then shows us her only thought without a word: “Is this guy for real?” It’s fleeting, but one of the funniest moments in the film.

"Well...nobody's perfect."
“Well…nobody’s perfect.”

No final line in any film has been so celebrated, and rightly so. Daphne may not be perfect, but “Some Like It Hot” comes awfully close. What a delight.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Up In The Air



2009’s “Up in the Air,” currently making the rounds on cable channels, seems to be one of the most effortless movies ever made. It’s one of my favorites among recent films despite several plot inconsistencies. But the pluses so outweigh the minuses that the worth of the journey is never in dispute.


Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is a top gun with CTC, a consulting firm specializing in career transitions, i.e., its reps do the corporate lay-offs for their downsizing clients. Needless to say, this entails a lot of face-to-face blow-off from the newly unemployed, played here by both actors and recently laid-off civilians. But Ryan seems to love his work. He knows the best rib joint and hotel in every city in the country, and, as he proudly tells us in voice-over, he’s on the road, or more accurately, “up in the air,” 300 days of the year. It’s only when he touches the ground at his corporate home in Omaha that life, if you can call it that, becomes complicated. But the bubble Ryan lives in is shortly to be punctured by two different women: Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow corporate nomad he meets in a hotel bar, and Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a hot-shot Cornell Business School grad hired by the head of CTC (Jason Bateman) to revolutionize the company’s methods. When his boss insists he take Natalie on his next road trip to show her the nuts and bolts of the firm’s operations, Ryan’s reluctant compliance really gets the film underway.

Fortunately “Up in The Air” is more than just a take on the recent Depression recession. It has within its running time one of the subtlest, funniest and most charming movie scenes in recent memory. A bit of background: Natalie has just been dumped by her boyfriend via text message. Ryan and Alex try to comfort her, but a great deal more is going on. The scene provides us with a lovely moment of insight into each of these characters, courtesy of  wonderful writing by Jason Reitman (who also directed) and Sheldon Turner, and expert performances by all three actors. It’s not surprising that each of them received an Oscar nomination: Clooney for Best Actor and both women for Best Supporting Actress.

23 year-old Natalie begins her lament thusly: “When I was 16 I thought I’d be married by now, maybe have a kid, corner office by day, entertaining at night…”, followed by an itemization of how her now-ex “fit the bill,” ending her list of virtues with “a nice smile.” Sensing that Alex may think that needing a man in her life may be retro, she tries to regain ground with “I don’t want to sound anti-feminist. I mean, I really appreciate everything your generation’s done for me.” Alex’s smiling, non-sarcastic rejoinder, “It was our pleasure,” cracks me up every time. But what makes this scene so memorable is her response to Natalie’s question of what she–Alex–thinks the perfect man would be like. Vera Farmiga strikes exactly the right note—her expression and delivery are perfect as she shows us wistfulness combined with hard-earned wisdom: “You secretly pray that he’d be taller than you…not an asshole…enjoys my company…comes from a good family. You don’t think about that when you’re younger. Likes kids. Wants kids. Is healthy enough to play with his kids…And please, let him earn more money than I do…You may not understand that now, but believe me, you will one day. Otherwise that’s a recipe for disaster [Ryan chuckles in recognition]. That he have some hair on his head, though that’s not a deal breaker these days…And [smiling at Ryan] yeah, a nice smile. A nice smile just might do it.”

Natalie ends this reverie with “Wow, that’s depressing. I should just date women.” Watch George Clooney’s reactions to Alex’s quick response: “Tried it [He shoots her a look]. We’re no picnic ourselves” [His expression? Priceless]. But the payoff comes with Alex’s reply to Natalie’s “I just don’t want to settle.” Alex: “You’re young. Right now you see settling as some sort of a failure…By the time someone is right for you, it won’t feel like settling. And the only person left to judge you will be the 23 year-old girl with a target on your back.” It’s a wonderful moment. Vera Farmiga’s amusement never for an instant tips over into condescension. It’s as if she’s affectionately bucking up her younger self.

Emotional journeys are as much in play in “Up in The Air” as physical ones. Super-efficient Natalie, advocate of firing people via Skype in order to eliminate huge corporate travel budgets, loses some of that assurance when confronted with the end reality of what she does for a living. On her learning tour with Ryan, she’s left gasping in panic when the first employee she fires in person declines career counseling because “There’s a nice bridge near my house. I’m going to jump off it.” Being dumped by her fiancé provides another life lesson. Ultimately it’s satisfying to see Natalie practice what she preaches to Ryan as she heads for a job in San Francisco, her original employment destination before she followed the boyfriend to Omaha. Though we don’t learn who her new employer is, we hope it’s in a more humane business than CTC. Natalie’s earned it.

Ryan’s journey is something of a paradox. The man who won’t buy when he demands Natalie “Sell me marriage” during a debate on relationships steps up to do exactly that when his sister’s fiancé gets cold feet on their wedding day. The man who evidently lives on a diet of random hook-ups and encounters with an obliging neighbor finally wants to be with someone more than anything he’s valued in the past, whether it’s hitting that mark of 10 million air miles or speaking at the most exclusive motivational conference in the country. The scene in which Ryan and Alex have a phone conversation after he learns she’s got a husband and family should be required viewing for anyone who thinks George Clooney can’t act. He listens so quietly yet the sense of betrayal is enormous—it’s all in his eyes. For a man who makes his living essentially reading other people, that betrayal sounds on both personal and professional levels.

Despite its excellence, “Up in The Air” does have a few nagging faults. How did Ryan know where Alex lived? Did she give him her address? That’s pretty chancy, given her situation. And how does a married woman shake off spending a weekend with her husband and two kids to go away for a wedding as her boyfriend’s plus one? (She must be the breadwinner and he’s a stay-at-home dad, maybe? We never find out.)

Some clues to Alex may be found in the extras on the “Up in The Air” DVD. There’s some Ryan/Alex dialog that was cut which seems to indicate that Alex is not only falling for Ryan but is somewhat torn about it. It’s a shame this was excised, because it makes her later remark to Ryan,”You were a parenthesis” ice-cold indeed, and seemingly coming out of nowhere. But all things considered, a relatively minor issue in a film that’s one of the smartest in the last ten years.

Posted in Movie Reviews


Rooney Mara, Cate Blanchett: “Carol”

There’s a scene in Todd Haynes’ “Carol” that could serve as a master class on film acting. Cate Blanchett, as the title character, and Sarah Paulson as Abby, her best friend and former lover, are sitting in a booth at a bar. They’re talking as friends do when they catch up, in this case discussing Carol’s infatuation with the younger Therese and her problems with her estranged husband Harge, and Abby’s crush on a Rita Hayworth-type redhead. But what’s so arresting about their conversation is not what they say, it’s how they relate to each other. With minimal effort, Blanchett and Paulson manage to convey the depth and length of their friendship and not just the love but the regard each has for the other. After the movie’s exceptionally slow beginning, this scene is so welcoming it’s ridiculous. It jumps right off the screen.

Too bad the rest of “Carol” isn’t as consistently engaging or as expertly done.

Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel, “The Price of Salt,” “Carol,” with a screenplay by Phyllis Nagy, is centered on the relationship of a soon-to-be-divorced woman (Blanchett) and the younger Therese (Rooney Mara), a budding photographer working in a department store to pay the bills. Set in 1952, it’s definitely “the love that dare not speak its name” territory. The crowded room across which the ladies first lock eyes is the toy department during Christmas shopping season. Therese sells Carol an expensive train set as a present for the latter’s four year-old daughter, Carol (accidentally?) leaves her gloves on the counter, Therese mails them to her, Carol invites her to lunch and….we’re off.

But not really, because this is the slowest film I’ve seen in a very long time. As in “Far From Heaven,” his earlier foray into the 1950’s, director Todd Haynes is obsessed with details of setting, props and decor. Unfortunately they’re not substitutes for pacing and story details (Though I will say I loved Carol’s tank of a car—I knew immediately it was a Packard—and recognized its ’50’s New Jersey license plate as the type my family’s Chevy once sported).

While I don’t think the film is the masterpiece some critics claim it to be, the framing of the story is beautifully realized. The movie begins as we follow a man from a train station to the dining room of a nearby hotel; he turns out to be a friend of Therese, who’s having tea with Carol. He invites her to a party and they depart; the film flashes back to the day Carol and Therese met and the story is then told chronologically until we’re once again at the hotel. Only this time the perspective is entirely different—we’re witness to Carol and Therese’s conversation and the nature of what’s at stake between them. Your realization that we’re back to where we were at the beginning is a mild shock, but an oddly enjoyable one.

What “Carol” does have going for it is some great acting. This is Rooney Mara’s film, hands down; it would not surprise me in the least if she takes the Oscar as Best Actress. The camera just loves her, and rightly so—there’s more than a suggestion of the young Audrey Hepburn and, if you know your ’50’s movies, Maggie McNamara (“Three Coins in the Fountain” is one of my guilty pleasures). Ms. Mara shows us there’s more to this young woman than what’s visible at first glance. She has enough strength to withstand her fiancé’s constant push that they marry and sail for France; she gives us the sense that she’s beginning to know what she wants out of life. Whatever Therese lacks she certainly acquires along the way. Her growth into a woman with some steel is readily apparent by the end of the film—that meeting of Therese and Carol over tea, post-breakup, is a wonderfully nuanced scene of emotional push/pull. It’s at that point you realize that these two could really be a worthy match for each other.

Maybe it’s the roles she’s been playing lately, but Cate Blanchett seems to be on the verge of becoming a Grand Lady, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. She’s more than a bit predatory at the beginning of “Carol,” and she’s not flattered by the ’50’s makeup which tended to make a woman look older than her years back in the day. While the character has a great many issues, there seems to be an awful lot of heavy lifting on Ms. Blanchett’s part, especially involving Carol’s relationship with her soon-to-be ex, Harge (Kyle Chandler is a wonderful actor, but he can’t seem to escape the stereotype of WASP-who-drinks here). Despite her love for Therese (and yes, the bedroom scene is hot), I really didn’t like the character all that much until she grew a backbone in the confrontation at the lawyer’s office. When she dictates her own custody terms as a “take it or leave it,” that’s when “Carol” finally blooms.

The ending is a wonderful pay-off. It reminds me a great deal of the scene in “Howards End” when Emma Thompson, after asking Anthony Hopkins for some time to consider his surprise marriage proposal, runs back up the stairs to kiss him. When I saw it at the local multiplex, the woman sitting behind me semi-whined “But we don’t know what she’ll answer.” To which her husband drily replied “She already did.”

At the end of “Carol,” Therese certainly does.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Too True

“Spotlight”: Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian D’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery

Two new films based on true events are figuring prominently this holiday season though both are far removed from Christmas cheer. One is something of a disappointment; the other, however, may well win the Oscar.

Let’s start with the good news first. “Spotlight,” a wonderfully double-edged title referring to the name of the Boston Globe Sunday magazine that threw a harsh light on the Catholic Church’s handling of its pedophile priests, is a taut story of investigative reporting. Given the subject matter, it’s a surprisingly quiet film–only Mark Ruffalo as reporter Mike Rezendes yells and bangs the table (in contrast, Stanley Tucci, as victims’ attorney Mitchell Garabedian, who should be among the noisiest, remains ruefully contained). While the acting ensemble is superb, what makes “Spotlight” so compelling is the manner in which the story is told (Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy wrote the screenplay; Mr. McCarthy also directed).

Without being didactic the film carefully limns the how of the abuse and the Church’s cover-up. The film is rich in the details of corruption, from the priests who groomed their child victims, to their superiors who pressured the parents to keep things quiet “for the good of the church,” to the attorneys on both sides who profited from the tragedy, to the higher-ups in the diocese who moved child molester priests like chess pieces from parish to parish or put them on “sick leave.” We see the reporters interviewing several victims, now adults, and learn how the predatory priests used classic techniques of victim selection–targeting boys from broken homes, those with alcoholic or abusive parents and boys with effeminate traits scorned by their peers. In essence these priests traded attention and acceptance for sex. As one victim explains to a “Spotlight” reporter, it starts with a priest telling a dirty joke to a boy, then showing him a porno magazine; it’s only then, with rapport established, that the touching begins, culminating in sexual contact. Although “Spotlight” refers to the fact that girls were victims, too, we don’t see them. But we do see the resulting wreckage in the adult survivors—Patrick, now a heroin addict; Joe, a recovering alcoholic; Phil Saviano, now a victim’s advocate but at first glance a seemingly unhinged nut job.

Yet, as new Boston Globe Editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) correctly insists, the real story is not just priestly pedophilia or Cardinal Law’s knowledge of it, but the Church as an institution that chose protection of these priests over the well-being of children and their families. In a city of such Catholic prominence, the Church almost callously played on the ties that bind community and family to ensure silence despite the enormity of this tragedy (The Globe’s “Spotlight” confirmed the Church’s reassignment of 78 abusive priests within the diocese). The film pulls no punches when it comes to how easily the status of clergy gave these men the authority to do what they did. As Attorney Garabedian notes, “You don’t question God.” So the excuses pile up: in Editor Baron’s introductory meeting with Cardinal Law and his attendance at a Catholic charities dinner, he’s continually reminded that the good the Church does should not be thrown away because of “a few bad apples” (“Spotlight” makes it clear that the Church’s apologists raised those damn apples so many times they practically had an orchard). But “Spotlight” also acknowledges that the Globe itself was at best a tarnished hero. It seems that at least five years before the magazine’s investigation got underway, two separate sources had approached Globe personnel who had either failed to grasp the extent of the abuse and the corruption that institutionalized its continuance, or perhaps lacked the courage to pursue the story.

The performances in “Spotlight” are first-rate; you never catch anyone acting. Michael Keaton as the magazine’s editor is astonishing; if you thought he was great in “Birdman,” wait until you see this. Liev Schreiber is memorably quiet in his character’s insistence; Rachel McAdams as the reporter who serves as conduit to the victims comes to mirror their pain as she begins to question her own faith. Stand-outs among the fine supporting cast include Paul Guilfoyle, the Church’s attorney who leans on Keaton to kill the story; Neal Huff as victims’ advocate Phil Saviano, Jamey Sheridan as another “It was my job!” Church attorney, and especially Billy Crudup as the smarmy victims’ attorney who in essence sold his clients out in favor of going along to get along.

This is one film I can’t wait to buy the DVD of.

Opposite Sides: Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)
Opposite Sides: Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston)

As someone who’s long been interested in the Blacklist Era, I’d been waiting for the release of “Trumbo,” the story of a prominent member of the Hollywood Ten summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in 1948. Ultimately I found the film somewhat disappointing; perhaps its biggest fault is that given the ground it covers, it should have been a short dramatic series on HBO or Showtime instead of a movie.

“Trumbo” spans about 16 years in the life of Dalton Trumbo, the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood during the 1940’s and an unapologetic Communist. Along with many others, he had found the appeal of the Party to his liking during the Great Depression of the Thirties; while his political beliefs remained unchanged, the national climate didn’t. In post-War America, with Eastern Europe coming under Communist sway, membership in the Communist Party, aka being a “Red,” though legal, was thought to be the hallmark of a Soviet agent. So HUAC, ostensibly investigating “Communist influence in Hollywood,” in essence conducted show trials over several years, ruining lives and careers. The Committee’s techniques and goals were of course later used by Senator Joseph McCarthy and various organizations that cleared politically “clean” talent to work on television. For a fee of course.

As you can see, this is a weighty subject spanning Trumbo’s long journey from success to jail (for contempt of Congress) to working under assumed names to reclaiming the fame and career that were rightfully his. Unfortunately “Trumbo” doesn’t rise to the occasion. While I realize this is a dramatic film and not a documentary, the filmmakers made some very strange choices. John Wayne and Hedda Hopper are singled out as Hollywood’s anti-Communist movers and shakers, though in reality most of the damage was done by the studio executives who joined together to fire and blacklist suspected Communists and fellow travelers, and numerous actors and other talent, including Ronald Reagan, Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor, who became friendly witnesses for HUAC. It’s one big clinker for the film to suggest that Trumbo’s career came to a halt because Hedda Hopper threatened Louis B. Mayer with the public unmasking of his Russian-Jewish roots (not a secret anyway), though I’m glad we see the anti-Semitism that underscored the Red-baiting years. And though the film suggests otherwise, Trumbo wasn’t the entire Hollywood Ten. I have to confess I miss Ring Lardner, Jr.’s famous response to HUAC’s demand that he name names: “I would, but I’d hate myself in the morning.”

“Trumbo” does much better after the screenwriter gets out of jail. The scenes with his family, and especially his fanatically working seven days a week under a host of pseudonyms for the cut-rate King Brothers while writing two Oscar-winning screenplays (one fronted by another writer who was himself later blacklisted; the other under a pseudonym), are among the best in the film.

While “Trumbo” has its failings, the performances do not. Helen Mirren gives nastiness much style as the Woman You Love to Hate—Hedda Hopper, failed actress turned gossip columnist and arch conservative (By the way, Hedda’s Navy son who’s so frequently referred to was Bill Hopper, later famous as Paul Drake in the “Perry Mason” TV series). David James Elliott and Dean O’Gorman are amusingly accurate as John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, respectively. Louis C.K. is quite sympathetic as screenwriter Arlen Hird (an invented character), who despite lung cancer seems to hang in there for an incredible length of time, and as you would expect, John Goodman is refreshingly pure id as schlock producer Frank King. Bryan Cranston manages to use the constant exposure to his advantage as Dalton Trumbo, and Diane Lane miraculously avoids cliché as his wife.

But the best performance in the film belongs to Michael Stuhlbarg as Edward G. Robinson, liberal Democrat and supporter of the Hollywood Ten. This is where we get some nuance after all the posturing. His sense of self-disgust after disowning his political position and naming names in front of HUAC is palpable as he sits awaiting clearance from John Wayne to be able to work again. I wish “Trumbo” had included more of this, for as the man himself acknowledged much later in life, to the fury of some members of the Hollywood Ten:

The blacklist was a time of evil…no one on either side who survived it came through untouched by evil…[Looking] back on this time…it will do no good to search for villains or heroes or saints or devils because there were none; there were only victims.