Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hey, Peter Travers, Include Me Out

By Lars Trodson

Peter Travers, the movie critic from Rolling Stone, lets you know, right at the start of his review of the movie “No Country For Old Men”, that if you don’t like the movie you’re an idiot. But don’t let me misinterpret his words. Here’s his first paragraph:

“Misguided souls will tell you that “No Country for Old Men” is out for blood, focused on vengeance and unconcerned with the larger world outside a standard-issue suspense plot. Those people, of course, are deaf, dumb and blind to anything that isn't spelled out between commercials on dying TV networks. Joel and Ethan Coen's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 2005 novel is an indisputably great movie, at this point the year's very best. Set in 1980 in West Texas, where the chase is on for stolen drug money, the film — a new career peak for the Coen brothers, who share writing and directing credits — is a literate meditation (scary words for the Transformers crowd) on America's bloodlust for the easy fix. It's also as entertaining as hell, which tends to rile up elitists. What do the criminal acts of losers in a flyover state have to do with the life of the mind?”

What do they they have to do with a life of the mind? I couldn’t tell you, because the movie certainly doesn’t tell me. So I’m in trouble. I did not like this movie. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t think it was all that great. I guess I won’t be invited over to Peter Travers’ house for an evening of drinking beers and watching “Cheaters.”

Travers has written a perfectly circuitous argument; it ends at the same point it begins. If you didn’t like the movie, you didn’t get it. And if you didn’t get it, you’re an elitist snob. I love the fact that Travers obviously does not want you to consider him an elitist, but yet he says if you don’t love the Coens’ new movie you must be part of the great unwashed crowd that went to see “Transformers.” Which seems to me the statement of an elitist. Hmmm. How do I get out of this argument?

Peter Travers is obviously also on a higher intellectual plane than the rest of us, because “No Country” only managed to be a medium-sized hit (it made about $60 million at the domestic box office.) This poor dumb country of ours is just too stupid to appreciate this genius. This is no country in which to be a real artist.

I found “No Country For Old Men” tedious, attenuated. It had flourishes of brilliance -- Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn being chased down the river by the dog, the coin toss in the lonely old gas station -- but for me the movie traveled down long and dusty roads in oceans of terminal silence, with characters that did not motivate me toward any kind of feeling.

I had gone in with high expectations - always a mistake - because there is not a performer in the movie I don’t like. I had just come to know Josh Brolin from his terrific performance in “American Gangster”, so I was looking forward to more work from him. Tommy Lee Jones? A thrilling actor. Javier Bardem is also turning into a favorite. Woody Harrelson can almost do no wrong. And I have long since wondered when American filmmakers would get back to the American west - the terrain that fueled so many of my favorite movies (“Junior Bonner”, “The Getaway”) of the 1970s.

The Coen brothers have made some of the great movies in the past 25 years. I loved “O Brother, Where Art Thou” and “The Big Lebowski.” I wasn’t a huge fan of “Fargo”, but there is not a frame of “Miller’s Crossing” that is wrong. “Barton Fink” is fascinating to me, and I allow myself to be transported by the surreal whimsy of “The Hudsucker Proxy.” I love that movie.

But these attributes did not gel for me in “No Country For Old Men.” I do not know the Cormac McCarthy novel, so I don’t know if the movie sacrificed philosophy over plot, or plot over philosophy, because I didn’t get enough of either in the picture. Is “No Country For Old Men” trying to tell me that world is a ruthless place for people who get older? (Wow. This is deep, deep stuff that never occurred to me before. And how fascinating it must have been for Travers to find this out by watching the movie!) Does it mean to say that as mores and customs change, the world gets more confusing for the oldest generation? Is the Anton Ghigurh character -- played by Bardem -- a symbol of a kind of newer, modern, heartless violence? Is that opposed to the understandable, antique, more heartfelt violence of the past?

I was interested in Travers’ argument that the Coens could make a movie both intellectual and thrilling - it’s a thinking man’s noir, I guess. But check out the July 25, 2005 review of the novel in The New Yorker. The critic, James Wood, argues that while the book is entertaining, it doesn’t have very much interesting to say.

“McCarthy has never been much interested in consciousness and once declared that as far as he was concerned Henry James wasn’t literature. Alas, his new book, with its gleaming equipment of death, its mindless men and absent (but appropriately sentimentalized) women, its rigid, impacted prose, and its meaningless story, is perhaps the logical result of a literary hostility to Mind.”

Okay. Travers, in his quivering, arrogant review, is arguing that the movie version of McCarthy’s novel is precisely about “the life of the mind.” Wood went on to say in his review of the novel that the book was in fact “high-flown nonsense.” So who is right here? Travers, whose position is that the movie is a meditation on the meaning of life itself? Or Wood, who thinks of the novel as having an attribute he calls “metaphysical cheapness.”

And perhaps that’s why I was confused by the picture. It didn’t speak to me as a strict genre piece -- and I hope I am not a snob about movies -- nor did it have anything interesting to say. Or what it had to say didn’t enlist my attention.

And what about Bardem’s Academy Award-nominated performance? Is it “stupendous”, to use Travers’ description? I don’t know. He didn’t, and won’t, give me nightmares. Joe Pesci’s killer in “GoodFellas” gave me nightmares. So did Dean Stockwell as the Sandman in “Blue Velvet.” So does Norman Bates, and Robert Mitchum in “Night of the Hunter.” But not this guy. I mean, haven’t I seen this kind of glassy-eyed, calm-demeanored killer in the movies before?

Does Brolin really -- I mean, really -- rip into his role “like a man possessed” as Peter Travers’ says? Is the performance really that exciting? I thought the performance was fine. Brolin had a quiet masculinity. His character seemed to be reasonably smart, reasonably decent, but it was not a performance that seared itself into my memory.

To me, the stylization of both the Coen’s vision (in this particular film) and Travers’ opinion of it dovetail perfectly at the end of Travers’ review in Rolling Stone. You know a debator is in trouble when they, in the end, have to fall back on the “I have seen the enemy, and it is us” argument. That’s exactly where Travers ends up:

“Not since Robert Altman merged with the short stories of Raymond Carver in “Short Cuts” have filmmakers and author fused with such devastating impact as the Coens and McCarthy. Good and evil are tackled with a rigorous fix on the complexity involved. Recent movies about Iraq have pushed hard to show the growing dehumanization infecting our world. “No Country” doesn't have to preach or wave a flag — it carries in its bones the virus of what we've become. The Coens squeeze us without mercy in a vise of tension and suspense, but only to force us to look into an abyss of our own making.”

Oooh. I made this terrible world. We all did, you see, and the Coens’ are forcing us to watch the horror we have caused! Please. Leave me out of it. Think, for a second, of what this same argument sounds like when you transpose the plural to the singular: “‘No Country’ doesn’t have to preach or wave a flag - it carries in its bones the virus of what I’ve become. The Coens squeezed me without mercy in a vice of tension and suspense, and forced me to look into an abyss of my own making.”

Do you think anybody would write that about themselves? No, probably because they wouldn’t believe it and wouldn’t insult themselves that way. So please don’t insult me, thank you, or any of my friends. But because Travers has run out of things to say, he cloaks his ending in the royal “we.”

"No Country For Old Men” is highly stylized and maybe even beautiful, in parts, but it doesn’t have much more on its mind than entertainment. See you all at “Transformers 2.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thank You, Roy Scheider

By Lars Trodson

Roy Scheider starred in two bona fide American classics, “The French Connection” and “Jaws”, but it was not his presence that gave these pictures their stature. So, in a way, I start this essay seemingly negative, but only to make a point.

His acting in “Jaws” is far more substantial than it is in that esteemed New York crime flick, and he gave to his Chief Brody a nice, calm human element. He was also the actor who gave voice to a true American classic line, “You’re going to need a bigger boat”, but it was his rendering of another line that I always thought was more enjoyable. At one point in “Jaws”, when it seemed the hunt for the shark was a futile venture, Quint (Robert Shaw) says to his hapless crew that they were going to head back into shore.

“Thank Christ,” says Brody, and he says it with such defiant joy that every time I hear it I burst out laughing. It’s also a line that I repeat to this day. Every chance I get to agree with something that someone says or does, I say, “Thank Christ.” This is how movies sometimes actually shape who we are.

I never actually thought his performance in “The French Connection” was all that great, but maybe that was because he was sitting next to an actor, Gene Hackman, who gave one of the truly flawless acting jobs in any American movie.

But Scheider, who died this week at the age of 75, made one great movie even greater than it might have been, and that was in 1980s “All That Jazz.”

In it he plays Joe Gideon, the director/choreographer based solely on the director of that film, Bob Fosse. I like to think of one scene in particular, and it is when, in a quiet and reflective moment, he gives a dancing lesson to his daughter, and they talk about their lives together, and separately, and girlfriends and love. And all through the conversation Scheider is dancing with his daughter and he offers, in a totally natural way, advice on the techniques on how to be a better dancer. It’s a thrilling, joyous scene, and it is so because the writing is quite beautiful, and Scheider’s performance matches every beautiful word with his every beautiful move.

I have no idea if Scheider had any training as a dancer, and he didn’t seem like he was built like one, but he gave to me, in the audience, the sense that he was a dancer to the very core of his being. And while Joe Gideon had trouble communicating with everyone in his life, he opened up in the dance studio, the place where you knew he felt most comfortable and honest and at home. That’s what he brought to that role and that movie. I adore that scene, and so many more in that movie. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for that role, but sometimes that accolade seems paltry to the actual achievement.

It’s by no means a perfect film. The musical ending, the death of Gideon, goes on too long, tipping ever so slightly what should have been an exuberant finale into something bordering on self-reverence. I know people who have seen the film will think that’s being too generous, but I can’t help it if the film works so well for me. It’s something I can watch over and over, and part of that unending enjoyment is watching Roy Scheider, in an atypical role, shining, shining not just like a movie star, but also like a very great actor.

It may not seem like much, as it is in the shadows of “Jaws” and “The French Connection”, because everyone this week has been focused on those two films. But those classics were made, and belong, to other people. “All That Jazz” is, finally, Scheider’s own, and he owns every bit of it. It is nice to give him that, and it is even nicer that Roy Scheider gave that to us. His performance is the kind of gift American movies bestow upon us every once in a while.

Thank Christ.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Long Live The Tudors

Henry VIII and clan seize the pop culture throne ... again

By Gina Carbone

There are a lot of big titles on my small bookshelf: “Crime and Punishment,” “Anna Karenina,” “Catch-22,” “Nine Stories,” even some holdouts from my Ayn Rand phase. Nestled around these classics — and the only thing as dog-eared as the Harry Potters — is “The Other Boleyn Girl.”

Written by British author Philippa Gregory and published in 2002, “The Other Boleyn Girl” is historical fiction told from the perspective of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, who was King Henry VIII’s mistress before ol’ Greensleeves got to him. It’s a shamelessly trashy little bodice-ripper — and inaccurate on many points of Tudor history. But I love it. Love it. Eat it right up within a weekend every time I find myself returning to it. What would Dostoyevsky think if he knew he was sharing shelf space with someone who writes dialogue like, “She’s a Boleyn and a Howard. Underneath the great name, we’re all bitches on heat”? (At least it sits next to “The Idiot.”)

“The Other Boleyn Girl” was wildly popular beyond my shelf and it sparked something of a cottage industry for Gregory. She continued Tudor-era historical fiction with “The Queen’s Fool,” “The Virgin’s Lover,” “The Constant Princess” and “The Boleyn Inheritance.” None of them were as good. None of them had the story of Henry overthrowing the Catholic Church so he could get busy with his famous multi-marriage career. None of them had the necessary mix of sex, sibling rivalry, treachery, witchcraft, danger, betrayal and head-chopping.

Which is why the film adaptation of “The Other Boleyn Girl” starring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana, opening Feb. 22, will clean up at the box office. Yes, that’s two Americans and an Aussie retelling England’s history but the Brits had their shot with a TV adaptation back in 2003. Now it’s our turn to do it the Hollywood way.

The Tudors are fascinating. They always have been and Hollywood has obligingly shown its favor over the years.

In 1939, Bette Davis and Errol Flynn got dramatic as Elizabeth I and her ambitious lover in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.

In 1966, “A Man for All Seasons,” like “The Other Boleyn Girl,” approached the Tudors from the supporting side, focusing on Henry VIII's advisor, Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield).

In 1969, Genevieve Bujold wore the necklace with B for Boleyn in “Anne of a Thousand Days.”

In 1972, Vanessa Redgrave told the racy story of Elizabeth I’s cousin and chief rival “Mary, Queen of Scots.

More than 25 years later, in 1998, Shekhar Kapur brought the Tudors back to the Oscar table with a newcomer called Cate Blanchett as “Elizabeth.”

After that it was only a matter of keeping the ball in play. The Brits got back in the game in 2003 when Ray Winstone played a rough-tempered (think modern football hooligan) monarch in the “Henry VIII” miniseries co-starring Helena Bonham Carter as Anne Boleyn and a young Emily Blunt as his fifth wife (second beheaded), Catherine Howard.

In 2005 HBO produced Helen Mirren and a boatload of awards with its own miniseries, “Elizabeth I.” Suddenly the ante had been upped.

Last year Showtime — which is becoming the new HBO — launched “The Tudors,” a sexed-up MTV version of history starring hot young Irishman Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Henry and hot young Brit Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn. It’s more “O.C.” than Merchant Ivory but it’s still popular in its second season and Sam Neill and Jeremy Northam add a touch of class.

But last year also gave us a major Tudor turkey — “Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” Shekhar Kapur’s disastrous follow-up to the 1998 masterpiece. Cate Blanchett may be the first woman ever to be nominated for an Oscar for playing the same character twice, but it wasn’t worth having to suffer through wooden, high-school level puffery from the normally fetching Clive Owen.

Soon “The Other Boleyn Girl” is heading to your local theater. Later this year filming should begin on another “Mary Queen of Scots,” this one starring Tudor veteran Scarlett Johansson (who is completely right as Mary Boleyn and completely wrong as Mary Stuart).

What’s the attraction with this little sliver of history? And why return to it now?

Well, from a dramatic standpoint, history doesn’t get much better. It all started with The War of the Roses between the Yorks and the Lancasters, which ended with Henry VII — the first Tudor — in power. Then HenryVIII (1491-1547) shows up and marries his dead brother’s widow. He has a daughter; dumps the wife and the Catholic Church in one fell swoop; marries a woman he later declares a witch and beheads but not before having another girl — conceived before the wedding; marries another young girl who has the son he wants, she dies, he has an arranged marriage to a foreign woman he finds repulsive and divorces within days; marries a teenager who cheats on him and he then beheads; then marries a woman who had been married twice before him and once again after he dies.

His son ends up dying as a teenager, leaving his first daughter — Bloody Mary — leading a Catholic rampage, only to be replaced by his unwanted second daughter Elizabeth, a Protestant who turns out to be the greatest monarch in the nation’s history.

On top of that is Elizabeth’s own decades-long pissing contest with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots — a more beautiful and passionate scandal-maker — which ends in Mary’s beheading. (They are the cover girls of “Great Feuds in History,” which also lives on my bookshelf.)

It’s the best soap opera ever and it’s true!

Why now? Because royals are hot business. Here in America we think paying kings and queens just to be kings and queens is silly, but we’ve been weaned on Disney princess films and we’re enraptured by the aristocracy.

When Princess Diana died in 1997 the entire world went into mourning, yet feverishly followed the gossip. When “Elizabeth” came along in 1998 it was devoured by an audience hungry for more real-life royal intrigue. The Windsors probably made it easier for “The Other Boleyn Girl” to get published and for “Elizabeth I” and “The Tudors” to get green lights. Each new story about Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, Harry and Chelsea or any other randy royal makes the Tudors that much more marketable. It’s today’s headlines, but with the safe distance of history.

And I love it. Can’t get enough. A newcomer to my bookshelf is “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War That Saved England,” which was published in 2006. It’s no “In Cold Blood” but it keeps my Tudor fixation sated until “The Other Boleyn Girl” film comes out. If I’m lucky they’ll make a film version of “Spymaster” with Geoffrey Rush reprising his “Elizabeth” character. If I’m not, I’ll just reread the books. I have a shelf of them.

Gina Carbone likes how Henry VIII wanted a son to secure England but ended up with a daughter who outruled him and let the bloodline die. History is fun, kids.