Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: There Will Be Blood

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia and Grandpafootsoldier

It's been oft-said there is a fine line between genius and insanity. In the 20th century, proof of this was borne out in famous, successful men who ultimately isolated themselves. William Randolph Hearst, Orson Welles (who ironically portrayed a thinly-veiled version of Mr. Hearst in his magnum opus, "Citizen Kane") and Howard Hughes come to mind as examples. The film "There Will Be Blood" offers us yet another similar anti-hero in the character of Daniel Plainview, as portrayed with chilling ardor by Daniel Day-Lewis.

I must confess that I had put off seeing this film because I'm not fond of violence. I have to share this with you, however: there are four deaths in this film and two are accidental. By 21st century American standards, that's not a lot, but it punctuates certain points in the film quite distinctly.

Plainview remains an enigma throughout the film. We first see him working alone, drilling for oil. He successfully finds it and assembles a small crew of men to work with him. We see one of the workmen sometimes carrying a small baby, and are startled to see a child so young in a place so unlikely. A few scenes later we see a little boy accompanying Plainview on a train ride, and learn it's his son, H.W., a bit older now, no longer a baby, and able to take a trip with his dad.

While traveling around the southwest, and making "pitches" to towns to buy their land and drill for oil, Plainview is approached one evening by a young man named Paul Sunday (actor Paul Dano). Paul tells him that for a sum of money, he'll reveal the location of an arid western town that seems to be replete with oil from all outward signs. Plainview and Paul Sunday strike a bargain, settle on a price, and Plainview tells Paul that if his information is false, he'll find Paul and kill him. Day-Lewis' acting skills convince everyone there's no doubt Plainview would do this easily.

Plainview and his son set out for the Sunday ranch in Little Boston, California. It proves to be everything Paul Sunday promised it would. In the guise of hunting, Plainview meets Paul's identical twin, Eli, who plans to follow in the footsteps of his preacher-father. H.W. Plainview finds a kindred spirit in the youngest of the Sunday children, Mary.

Events move quickly and Plainview establishes himself as an oilman in the area deftly and buys up several parcels of land. He assembles a large crew of men to work three producing wells. In a freak accidental explosion, H.W. is injured and becomes permanently deaf. A man named Henry, claiming to be Plainview's half-brother shows up. Eli Sunday and Plainview come to blows over H.W.'s treatment and money Eli claims he is owed by Plainview.

The film captures perfectly a hardscrabble working man's life, but also the single-minded ambition of a maniac. Day-Lewis has beautiful, long-fingered hands, but they're often filthy with oil and dirt in this film. The film was inspired by several sources, the chief among them, the Upton Sinclair book entitled "Oil!". The music, mostly classical, is amazing. At times there are wafting, sweet notes, other times staccato strings of a violin pierce the soundtrack in a stark wail.

If you're looking for a film that's light and frothy, this surely is not it. But if you don't mind gritty and determined, this film's for you.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Books And Other Arts Film Review: Good Night And Good Luck

Movie poster image courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures, Wikipedia and Quentin X


The 2005 film "Good Night And Good Luck" has largely been viewed as a George Clooney vehicle. With all due respect to Mr. Clooney, that's not quite an accurate assessment. Clooney did direct and (with Grant Heslov) co-write the screenplay and acted in the film. Based on events that transpired at the height of America's "red scare" of the 1950's, the film is told in flashback. When the film opens, it is a scene at an awards ceremony, a ceremony in which CBS producer Fred Friendly (portrayed by George Clooney) introduces the recipient of the award, the distinguished journalist, Edward R. Murrow (played to perfection by David Strathairn). The film "flashes back" to events in the early part of the decade and Murrow and Friendly's decision (and ultimately the decision of CBS) to "bring down" Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Senator who led the legislative arm of the American government into "witch hunting" Communists.

The film was made on shoestring for a mere $7.5 million, and by contemporary Hollywood standards, this is a scant sum. One of the reasons the film cost so little to make is that Clooney agreed to be paid the sum of $1 for each of his roles as actor, director, screenwriter, and producer. Because of an injury he incurred on the set of the film "Syriana", he was deemed uninsurable (ironically a practice that would now be illegal) so he mortgaged one of his homes to raise funds for the film. He and Strathairn make a terrific and utterly convincing team as Friendly and Murrow, two consummate journalism professionals who put their careers on the line to bring sense and an objective POV to the American people about "the red terror". Both of these men had families and homes and obvious concerns about their futures. Yet they risked being "targeted" by Sen. McCarthy, whose scruples and motives were less than the common good and what was best for the public interest. McCarthy didn't act alone, had aides and "plants" in the print media business and it's implied in the film that the "hounding" of CBS journalist Don Hollenbeck contributed to Hollenbeck's apparent suicide.

The film is black and white, which is perfect to portray a period in America in which everything seemed to be black and white---but wasn't. About every 20 minutes or so there's a musical interlude featuring jazz singer Dianne Reeves singing at least a few bars of a tune that fits into that particular element of the film. I won't give anything away by mentioning song titles, but I thought this aspect of the film was brilliant and not at all gimmicky.

A sub-plot involving Joe and Shirley Wershba (played by Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson) and the restrictions they endured due to company policies at CBS provides a little comic relief, although even that is portrayed with a fairly serious tone. It provides further historical perspective on how restrictive a time this era was in American history and society.

Everything about this film was absolutely pitch-perfect. Frank Langella and my "neighbor" Jeff Daniels turn in convincing performances as CBS "suits" William Paley and Sig Mickelson who ultimately must deal with fallout from advertisers, investors and viewers. It's a sad commentary that in his speech at the awards ceremony, which concludes the film, Murrow, in his acceptance speech, admonishes the networks for pandering to the viewers' and TV sponsors' clamoring for "entertainment" versus providing the public with actual news. This goes to show, too, that the old adage is, sadly, true: those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Books and Other Arts GUEST FILM REVIEW: Crazy Heart

Movie poster image courtesy of Wikimedia Foundation.

I am thrilled to announce that due to my hectic schedule as a temp, my dear friend C, (she of remarkably good taste, especially in cultural matters) volunteered to do another guest review on my behalf. This one is on the Academy-award nominated film, Crazy Heart, which garnered a "Best Actor" Academy Award for its star, Jeff Bridges. Thank you once again, C!

Crazy Heart

Directed by Scott Cooper
from the novel written by Scott Cooper and Thomas Cobb

Starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gylenhaall , Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell

I was surprised I liked this movie as much as I did.
I have never been a huge fan of country music, but I enjoyed listening to the music as much as I enjoyed watching the film.
Jeff Bridges sang all of his own songs, as did Colin Farrell and Robert Duval sings a little too. Everyone in the movie who performed was very good.

Jeff Bridges plays a falling down drunk country musician named "Bad" Blake. You first see him driving in his beat up old car on the way to performing at bowling alleys and bars. He did a very good job of portraying a chain smoking, alcoholic who manages to perform then be sick and pass out. He just misses being too disgusting to watch.

But the story becomes a sweet love story when Maggie Gylenhaal meets him, to interview him and the story goes on to seeing him try to straighten his life out for her, to get his career back the way it used to be and to not die from drinking and smoking. Maggie Gylenhaal was very good, as was everyone else in the film.

Even if you are not a fan of Country music, you will probably enjoy the soundtrack.
This is not a fast paced action packed film, it is slow and thoughtful and you find yourself hoping he doesn't fall back or break his promises.

I thought it was a satisfying ending and I think he definitely deserved to win the Oscar for his performance.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Books and Other Arts Book Review: GUEST REVIEW The Writing Class

Book jacket image courtesy of Macmillan Publishing
*************************************************************************************I am thrilled to announce today's book review was written by a good friend, for whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration. She is also a fun person, who is very stylish, and I am especially honored to feature her book review here because she, too, has her own blog.

This is the url for her blog:

Anyway, without further ado, here is the book review. (Thanks, C!)

Amy Gallup is a writer . When she was 22, her first book was published to high acclaim. She had a wonderful future ahead of her, but after a series of sad events and ultimately the loss of the will to write or do much of anything, she ends up teaching a writing workshop at the local university.

As you read , you get to know her students and more about Amy and her dog Alphonse and then the series of unsettling pranks, obscene phone calls and then a murder.
Amy and her students set out to solve the mystery themselves, bringing the reader along as they try to figure out which one of them is the killer, which one of them is not who they seem to be, which one of them will die next.

There is so much wit and suspense in this book, I hated to put it down.
I found it entertaining on so many levels. I love a good mystery and this contains a few. Amy is very likable as well as tragic and you really want something good to happen for her. And you get to like or dislike the various students and all through the book, you will laugh.

The authors sense of humor comes through and keeps the story light and entertaining, right to the very last page.This book has been called a " Mystery book written for book lovers " and I agree.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Books and Other Arts Film Review: Into the Wild

The film "Into the Wild" is based on the true, tragic story of Chris McCandless. However, the film and the book on which it was based have been the center of controversy. More about that later. The film takes place in the early 1990's.

Opening with narration by Chris McCandless' younger sister, Carine (Jena Malone), she chronicles the events unfolding this particular day and for a few months afterward. Chris is graduating from Emory University in Georgia. His family lived in an affluent suburb of Washington, DC. His parents were in business together in an aerospace/telecommunications field, his father having served as an antenna specialist at NASA.

We soon learn that Chris (Emile Hirsch) was always a bit of a daredevil, but we also see through his undergraduate experience, he was a brilliant, compassionate student, who eschewed a lot of social conventions. He lived in a small apartment on campus, but had no telephone. At dinner at a restaurant to celebrate his graduation, Chris informs his parents he thinks his grades will be good enough to get him into Harvard Law School. His parents had given him a college fund, and he had $24,500 left in it on the day of his graduation. After his high school graduation, he purchased a beat-up Datsun and drove across the country. Clearly this young man yearns for the open road.

After his family leaves, however, Chris sets about on realizing a dream of traveling to Alaska. We see him destroying his ID and credit cards (this is controversial, because there's evidence it didn't actually happen), and mailing a cashier's check off to Oxfam for a $24,000 donation. He loads up his backpack into the Datsun and drives off. He decides to adopt the name Alex Supertramp.

In his first adventure, Chris parks the Datsun one night too close to the shoreline and his car is hit by crashing waves. He abandons the car, takes his backpack, removes the license plate from the car and we also see him burning some cash. (It's questionable as to whether he burned the cash.) He hits the road by hitchhiking.

The film flips back and forth in time, and we do see Chris in winter in Alaska, hiking by himself, and finding, like a magical castle, what he refers to in his journal as "The Magic Bus". The bus was originally a transit bus in Fairbanks, but somehow ended up abandoned in the woods. It's outfitted with a bed and a a wood-burning stove, a few utensils, a table, a chair and some windows, both broken and intact. It is here he reads by the light of candles or a kerosene lamp, here he writes in his journal, cooks and consumes his meals.

In flashbacks prior to his arrival in Alaska, we see Chris being temporarily "adopted" by a hippie couple, Jan and Rainey, and learns that Jan is plagued by memories of her son, who hit the road when he was even younger than Chris is, not to be seen again by Jan for some years. Jan and Rainey travel the roads in a small, ancient RV, and sell paperback books and goods Jan has crocheted or knitted. Whenever and wherever weather permits, however, they sleep in a tent outdoors.

These same flashbacks show Chris near Lake Phoenix Arizona. He purchases a kayak at one point and discovers when he asks a sheriff about kayaking down a river that he can't do it unless he applies for a permit and there aren't available permits for the next 12 years! The sheriff explains the other alternative would be to join a licensed group that does tours on the river. Always enthused by nature, and with what he feels is a healthy irreverence for laws, particularly laws that prevent people from enjoying the beauty of nature, we next see Chris kayaking down the river. He hears music at one point, and sees a young couple, singing and dancing, the young man on shore, his female friend in the water. They spy Chris, and wave him over and invite him to join them for a meal. They're from Copenhagen and enjoying a trip to America, telling Chris they've been to L.A. and Las Vegas, and cooking hot dogs on a hibachi, they ask him where he's going. The guy tells Chris he could actually kayak all the way down to Mexico and together they consult a map. Suddenly they hear a siren from the river patrol, and Chris gives the couple his hurried thanks and apologies, and bolts off into his kayak, paddling energetically to elude the long arm of the law.

Chris does manage to kayak into Mexico, but then has problems re-entering the United States without identification. (Again, there's some evidence he actually had identification, so this part of the film apparently was fictionalized.) He uses trains to "hobo" into parts of America, until he is brutally beaten one night by an employee of the railroad.

We see Chris learning to steer a huge combine across wheat fields in South Dakota. Here he befriends a group of men working the wheat harvest and also develops an appreciation of the land. The crew chief, Wayne (Vince Vaughn) finds Chris hard-working and bright, but also quite an enigma, and can't fathom why Chris wants to pretty much abandon society of any and all kinds for a life in the wilds of Alaska. Wayne introduces Chris to Kevin, however, an avid hunter and fisherman, who teaches Chris about killing and butchering wild animals.

Eventually Chris is befriended by an older gentleman, a recovering alcoholic named Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook) who gives him a ride one day back to his temporary campsite in California. Ron takes Chris home, they share a meal, and Chris does his laundry and takes a shower there. Ron tells Chris his story, which is that while serving abroad in the armed forces, one New Year's Eve his wife and young son were killed by a drunken or sleeping driver. The accident was the impetus for Ron's alcoholism. However, he realized life as an alcoholic would not be what his wife would want for him, so he went "cold turkey" into a life of sobriety. Ron teaches Chris how to work with leather, in a workshop on his property, and Chris proves to be very skilled in the craft. Ron apparently manufactures belts, purses, hats, all kinds of things "on spec" for people, and this supplements his income. Eventually Ron realizes Chris is going to leave for Alaska, after Chris tells Ron that Ron needs to engage more actively with the world, and travel. Ron puts together a box of supplies for Chris, composed of a machete, a retractable fishing reel and some other odds and ends. Saying a poignant goodbye to Chris, Ron asks if he could "adopt" him as a grandson. Chris asks "Can we talk about this when I get back from Alaska?", and Ron nods in the affirmative, trying to hold back his tears.

In Alaska we see Chris chopping wood, killing a moose (and failing to properly butcher it, so he leaves it for wolves to eat), shooting, roasting and consuming fowl, and identifying plants. His provisions dwindling (he had a 10-pound bag of rice in his backpack), Chris is unable to find animals easily and begins to starve; his emaciated frame serves as ample evidence that things have become dire. (Emile Hirsch lost 40 pounds for the portrayal of this part of the film, and his gaunt face looks as though it would scarcely support the beard growing on it.) Pulling out a book on wild plants, he goes foraging, finds some plants he harvests and brings them back to the bus, where he consumes them. Belatedly he discovers he erred and ate something poisonous. We see him write a "farewell note" and in his sleeping bag, he peacefully passes away.

The controversial aspect of the film comes not only from certain fictionalized components already discussed here, but from Chris' speculated motives for abandoning society. Chris' parents Billie (Marcia Gay Harden) and Walt (William Hurt) have a terrible, tempestuous marriage, punctuated by loud fights and threats of divorce, terrifying Chris and Carine. The family realizes at the end of summer, when there's been no word from Chris, that he's "taken off", and in September the police force notifies them about Chris' abandoned Datsun. They also discover his Oxfam donation. In a pivotal scene, Walt runs out into the street where his suburban home is situated, screaming, mourning the surrender of his son to "the wild". However, there are other accounts that state Walt and Chris argued more or less as much as any average father and son would. The screenplay was written by Sean Penn, who waited years to film the movie, not wanting to tread on "fresh grief" of friends and family, and he supposedly also wanted to have the complete permission of the McCandless family. Also, autopsy results reveal that Chris did not suffer from any form of poisoning, but starved to death. Sean Penn did not incorporate into the film an "S.O.S. note" that Chris had affixed to the exterior of the bus. It stated he was injured and implored whoever saw the note to either help him or go for help. It's been speculated that while already emaciated, he incurred some type of shoulder injury which at least partially immobilized him and subsequently he was unable to fish, hunt or forage for plants due to the impediment, and this contributed to his death.

Sean Penn also directed the film and did a wonderful job bringing his vision to the screen. Every scene was shot on location, in the actual locations except the bus itself. Penn has said he felt that would have been disrespectful to Chris' memory. In order to capture the changing of seasons, the filming took more than a year for exterior shots. Billie and Walt are depicted as a cliché of suburban success, but Gay Harden and Hurt manage to turn in decent performances. Emile Hirsch is astounding and makes Chris likeable and troubled simultaneously. Hal Holbrook has also done an admirable job in portraying a lonely old man, not quite able to understand Chris, but who longs to maintain the connection to him. Catherine Keener's Jan is wistful and wise and knowing. While the whole "parental" motivation for Chris McCandless' actions are somewhat plausible, I'm still doubtful it fully explains why such a bright, promising young man would literally be consumed by a need to be alone in the wilderness.