Friday, May 31, 2013

happy friday

So long, May. Here's to sunny days ahead.


Thursday, May 30, 2013


The animated film Epic is anything but, but it does have some nice things about it. Colin Farrell gives an engaging vocal performance as ... I can't really remember his character's name, not that it really matters. He plays a tough soldier, a "Leaf Man," and he gets to use his own Irish accent. I actually can't remember any of the character's names. It's a very ephemeral movie. It's undeniably sweet and pretty, but it's as fleeting as a summer's day. Maybe that's the point.

The animation is beautiful, set mostly in a magical forest. Comic relief comes in the form of Chris O'Dowd and Aziz Ansari, who are suitably amusing as a couple of snails — pardon me, that's a snail and a slug — who befriend young heroine Amanda Seyfried, who like Alice, gets magically miniaturized. Teenage Mary Katherine, or M.K., as she prefers to be called (I looked the character's name up on imdb) must help her new friends save the world from the evil Mandrake (Cristoph Waltz), who has cornered the bad guy market in recent films.

Less impressive are Beyoncé as a fairy queen and Josh Hutcherson as a smart-alecky teen. The movie shares some similarities to the other recent adaptation of a book by William Joyce, holiday fare Rise of the Guardians. Wise-cracking youth — check. Gorgeous animation — check. Extremely nasty villain — check. Fairy tale theme — check.

These are all actually great things to have in a kid's movie. I just wish that maybe the two young leads from different worlds, what's-her-name and who's-he-what, were just a tad more memorable characters. Still, considering that most of the multiplex fare is completely unsuitable to take the kid to, Epic is actually a fine and fun way to spend some time on rainy day.
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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

woody allen and actors

I have to admit that I stopped keeping up with Woody Allen's films on a regular basis in the mid- '90s. Deconstructing Harry was probably the last one I saw in a movie theater until the recent Midnight in Paris. I have seen a few of his more recent output — Match Point is a definite highlight, a modern morality play similar in theme to his earlier, very dark Crimes and Misdemeanors. Allen seems to be drawn to filming moral dilemmas (as well as repeating himself) as evidenced by two of his British-set films that I caught up with recently — Scoop and Cassandra's Dream. Both films use murder to move along their plots, but Allen isn't worried about the body count — he wants the audience to know how he and his characters feel about the inevitability of death.

Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson and Hugh Jackman in Scoop
Scoop tries to work as an old-school Allen comedy. It features his most recent muse, Scarlett Johansson, as Sondra, a student reporter who starts getting tips from a deceased crack reporter, Joe Strombel (Ian McShane), after volunteering in two-bit magician Sid's (Woody Allen) on-stage show. Strombel, even after death, is wild to break the story of the Tarot Card Killer, and he urges Sondra to follow his leads, which implicate handsome aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman). Sondra and Sid both start to see Strombel and team up to investigate Lyman. But Lyman soon charms the pants off of Sondra and she is falling fast. Is she falling in love with a serial killer? Does she even care? Scoop doesn't really work. Johannsen and Jackman have absolutely no chemistry. It's pretty unbelievable that he would be charmed, even moderately interested, in this gawkey, dopey girl. Allen is mildly amusing, and McShane is criminally underused. There is something too serious, too stilted to the pacing. The film and the comedy never take off. Maybe Allen couldn't shake off the mood of his previous film, Match Point.

Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman), "I just can't get the vision of you in your swimsuit out of my head."
Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), "Oh I'm glad you liked it! It was marked down!"
Sid Waterman (Woody Allen), "The man is a liar and a murderer, and I say that with all due respect."
Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor in Cassandra's Dream
Allen made the much more interesting Cassandra's Dream right after Scoop, and returned to a more serious-toned investigation of murder. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell play two brothers, Ian and Terry, who are faced with a dilemma. Terry (Farrell) owes a lot of money and is being threatened with harm unless he can come up with it. Enter their Uncle Howard (Tom Wilkinson), who will be happy to lend them the money and solve all their problems, if they can just do him one little favor — eliminate a pesky business rival. The brothers' different reactions to whether or not to do the crime and the resulting aftershock make up the rest of the movie. Both McGregor and Farrell are great — they seem to switch back and forth between who is the "good" brother and who is the "bad" one, leaving themselves and the audience hopelessly muddled in a gray area. The story itself isn't much; it's how the characters react to the choices (or lack of choices) they face.
Ian and Terry's Father (John Benfield), "Like the poet said: 'The only ship certain to come in has black sails.'"

Ian (Ewan McGregor), "He was right about one thing. Once you cross the line, there's no going back."
Supporting players in Cassandra's Dream include a lot of familiar, talented faces: John Benfield, Hayley Atwell, Sally Hawkins, and Jim Carter. Blink and you might miss some of them. Allen definitely likes the ensemble theater approach.

Watching these two films made me think about Woody Allen and actors. He likes to populate his films with the most talented and current actors around, but they frequently operate as position holders in his filmic chess games. Maybe he has never really been overly interested in them. The exceptions come when the actor has such a strong personality or film identity that they are able to transcend or avoid Allen-itis. Some examples of successful avoiders and victims of Allen-itis:

Midnight in Paris — Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard are appealing people and we connect to their acting personas. Rachel McAdams fares not as well, playing a classic Allen demanding girlfriend, her character and dialogue is caught in the Allen-itis loop.

Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris
Celebrity — A complete mess. Watching (and listening to) Kenneth Branagh try to sound like Woody Allen is a painful experience.

Everyone Says I Love You — although almost all of the actors suffer from Allen-itis in this film, although it somehow manages to be less obnoxious because of the music (numbers performed by Edward Norton and Goldie Hawn especially) and light tone. Tim Roth's brilliant portrayal of an ex-con who temporarily sweeps Drew Barrymore off her feet transcends Allen-itis and the rest of the movie.

Husbands and Wives — one of Woody's best, thanks to Judy Davis, who is able to brilliantly channel Allen's need for a neurotic character into her own special, specific rhythms. Davis has worked with Woody many times (To Rome with Love, Celebrity, Deconstructing Harry, Husbands and Wives, Alice).

His movies with Mia Farrow — The Purple Rose of Cairo, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah and Her Sisters, etc. Farrow is such a wonderful, human actress that even when he had her try to approximate his patter she was able to transcend Allen-itis, especially charmingly in The Purple Rose of Cairo.

His movies with Diane Keaton — Annie Hall, Sleeper, Manhattan, etc. Keaton has such a distinct personality that it is likely that she helped shape Allen's oeuvre in the '70s more than vice-versa. In fact maybe Allen-itis is really and truly Keaton-itis ...

"I never work with actors, I just hire them. It's the truth. You know, I hire terrific people. Who have I worked with over the years: Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton, Judy Davis, Helen Hunt, Tracey Ullman, Goldie Hawn, Michael Caine, Kenneth Branagh. I mean I've worked with these wonderful people who were great before I knew them. They come in, they're great. They do their part great. I don't speak to them much. I have very little to say to them. And they go. And everybody thinks that I'm handling the actors. But I'm not. I'm saying, you know "Change the script. Do what you want. Wear want you want. Walk where you want". You know, and they're saying "Oh, thank you." — An interview with Woody Allen by Lucy Cooper 
"I never try to talk to them. There's no point. You have Anthony Hopkins. What am I going to say to him? I hire them to get out of their way. They've made great movie before me, they'll make great movies after me, and I just don't want to mess them up." — Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing By Bethany Rooney, Mary Lou Belli
“Woody doesn’t direct at all,” he told The Orange County Register. “Seriously, he says that all the time. He doesn’t know how to direct. He says he hires you to do your job, and then he fires you if you can’t. On Purple Rose of Cairo, he started with Michael Keaton, who worked for three weeks, and then he let him go. He couldn’t use any of it. Then Eric Roberts came in, and worked for 10 days, and then Woody let him go, too. A third actor came in, but I can’t remember who that was. And, finally, he got Jeff Daniels.”
“I had a different brother in Crimes and Misdemeanors for the first three days. Woody knows what he wants, but he doesn’t direct. He lets you completely on your own. He doesn’t want to talk about the movie. He’ll talk about the Knicks, about hockey, about anything. If the circus is in town, he’ll tell you how much he hates clowns. Anything to not talk about directing.” — Martin Landau on Working with Woody Allen and the Trouble with Writers: “They have all the characters speaking the same way” DailyActor

Maybe he doth protest too much? A Woody Allen movie is fun for the film buff, as one is sure to see some great and popular actors. Allen always works with top talent. He's an artist who knows what he wants. Like all artists, not every work is a masterpiece, but when he gets it right, he gets it very right, as evidenced by more recent films in his oeuvre, Midnight in Paris, Match Point and Cassandra's Dream. For a man who knocks out one film a year, it's pretty hard to argue with his method with actors.
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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

robert downey jr. and only you

Robert Downey Jr. has become associated with some iconic characters, real and fictional: Charlie Chaplin, Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man. But there was a period in his career (late '80s, mid '90s) when he was also doing fresh-faced romantic comedies, like The Pick-up Artist, Chances Are, Heart and Souls, and Only You.

Only You is mostly Marisa Tomei's film — until Downey shows up about halfway through and steals her heart and the audience's attention. Downey, even then, was always a bit of a fractious, acerbic presence on film. Undeniably attractive, he still couldn't play just a bland romantic lead. His character in the film, Peter Wright, must lie and trick his lady love into realizing that she has just met her, well, Mr. Right. This all takes place against the beautiful backdrops of Venice, Rome, and Positano, Italy.

La Bocca della Verità has played apart in many a movie romance
This beautiful white dress with cut-outs takes the film to another level

A very funny Bonnie Hunt and glammed-up Billy Zane both add to the proceedings as support staff for the romantic leads. Tomei has has never looked more doe-eyed. What also stands out about Only You is Marisa Tomei's fantastic wardrobe (designed by Milena Canonero) when she gets to Italy. She has three stand-out outfits, in red, white, and black that are as enchanting as the rest of the film. Between Marisa Tomei's gamine looks and flowing costumes and Robert Downey Jr.'s smart-alecky lover, Only You is one of the better romantic comedies out there.
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Monday, May 27, 2013

happy memorial day


Some of my dad's Coast Guard buddies

Sunday, May 26, 2013

enjoy the weekend ...

... wave the flag!

Ned & Mariette wave the flag
Ned & Mariette Cassels wave the flag, c. 1910

Saturday, May 25, 2013

happy birthday frank oz

Not only is Frank Oz the puppeteer and voice of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster, Bert, and Grover, but he has directed some of my favorite comic films. And of course he is the man behind Jedi Master Yoda. Sounds like it's time for a Frank Oz film fest, but which one to watch first?

Little Shop of Horrors is a hoot, with Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene an adorable couple, Audrey II as a very impressive space alien plant, and Steve Martin as a particularly creepy dentist.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels pits Steve Martin vs. Michael Caine as con men on the French Riviera, with a lovely Glenne Headley giving them both a run for her money.

Steve Martin and Michael Caine strike a pose
Bill Murray shows his support for his doctor, Richard Dreyfuss
What About Bob? may be Bill Murray's best film, as he unloads all of his neuroses on his shrink Richard Dreyfuss's doorstep, with of course, hilarious results.

Housesitter pairs Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn in a romance that is part comedy, part duel.

In and Out, is another funny funny film, featuring Kevin Kline as Howard Brackett's a high school English teacher who is outed by a former student at the Oscars played by Matt Dillon. Joan Cusack is amazing as Kline's fiancee and Tom Selleck is wonderful as a self-centered entertainment reporter who wants to get the scoop of Howard's coming-out party.

Joan Cusack and Kevin Kine watch the Oscars
Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy in Hollywood
Martin heads the cast again in Bowfinger, a wicked Hollywood farce that also stars Eddie Murphy in one of his best comic performances.

Although I love all of the films listed above I may have to start with Death at a Funeral, which I haven't yet seen. I've seen the pretty funny remake with Chris Rock, Martin Lawrence and Peter Dinklage, but Oz's film is set in England and it also features Dinklage. Maybe a double feature with Bowfinger ...
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Friday, May 24, 2013

the love of the last tycoon

F. Scott Fitzgerald was working on a novel about Hollywood, The Love of the Last Tycoon, when he died, of a heart attack, at the age of 44. The novel was unfinished — although he had sketched out the plot, he had only completed sixteen of his planned thirty-one chapters. It was originally published in 1941, a year after the author's death, as The Last Tycoon, compiled by Fitzgerald's friend, the literary critic Edmund Wilson, but in 1993 Fitzgerald scholar Matthew J. Bruccoli edited and compiled what is now considered to be the authorized text, and reverted to what is believed to be Fitzgerald's original desired title for the work, The Love of the Last Tycoon.

Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in 1937, where he not only wrote short stories to earn income, but also started working on film projects. He made (uncredited) script adjustments to Gone with the Wind and Madame Curie. Estranged from his wife Zelda, who had been in and out of mental institutions since the early 1930s, Fitzgerald met and fell in love with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham and lived with her in Hollywood until his death. Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, and was in fragile health:
Fitzgerald suffered two heart attacks in the late 1930s. After the first, in Schwab's Drug Store, he was ordered by his doctor to avoid strenuous exertion. He moved in with Sheilah Graham, who lived in Hollywood on North Hayworth Avenue, one block east of Fitzgerald's apartment on North Laurel Avenue. Fitzgerald had two flights of stairs to climb to his apartment; Graham's was on the ground floor. — Wikipedia
The hero of The Love of the Last Tycoon, Monroe Stahr, is a work-a-holic Hollywood producer, based on "Boy Wonder" Irving Thalberg, who Fitzgerald had worked with briefly and who also died young, at the age of 37. Like Fitzgerald and Thalberg, Stahr is in fragile health and has a doctor monitoring his heart on a regular basis. Stahr is a self-made man who has an innate understanding of how to get the best work out of people. His interest and influence touches all aspects of movie production, from choosing the appropriate director, to working with multiple screenwriters, to wrangling with union organizers. His whole life is work, until one night at the studio lot, after an earthquake, he catches sight of a young woman, Kathleen Moore, who reminds him of his dead wife. He is immediately smitten, and slowly starts to question how consumed he has allowed himself to become by his work.

Fitzgerald deftly sketches the 24-hour schedule of a studio boss, while also making him a thinking, feeling human being. The object of Stahr's desire, Kathleen, is a little less clearly drawn, but that seems deliberate, as she presents herself at first as a woman of mystery, to discourage Stahr's romantic pursuit. The story fluctuates between scenes involving Stahr in his daily life and the first-person observations of Cecilia Brady, the daughter of Stahr's studio rival, Pat Brady, who was modeled on Louis B. Mayer.

Director Elia Kazan made a movie version of the novel in 1976, starring Robert DeNiro in one of his most engaging performances as Monroe Stahr. It is ultimately a little unsatisfying, a little unfinished, like the novel, but it is enjoyable to watch, featuring some great actors like Jack Nicholson, Robert Mitchum and Theresa Russell in key roles. The best scene in the film is DeNiro acting out all of the parts in movie for an author (Donald Pleasence) who just can't understand how to write for Hollywood.

Stahr and his work, not just his potential romance, are so involving that it is truly tragic for the reader when the text stops abruptly. The very copious notes included in the volume clearly tell the reader where Fitzgerald was intending to take the story, but it is still frustrating to not be able to finish the journey with his winning prose. One wonders if his intentions would have played out as neatly as his notes suggest as Fitzgerald was known for re-writing and re-working.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Love of the Last Tycoon is that even in its truncated state it is still a wonderful novel. Monroe Stahr is an unforgettable character. And Fitzgerald's glimpse into the inner workings of Hollywood resonate even today. A truly great read.
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Thursday, May 23, 2013

cumberbatch into darkness

Warning: spoilers abound, for those of you who haven't already guessed, viewed, or Googled Benedict Cumberbatch's true identity in the film.

J.J. Abrams's second entry in his rebooted Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Into Darkness, warped into theaters last week and did pretty well — over $164 million worldwide earned at the box office so far. Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), Uhura (Zoe Saldana), and the rest of the gang were back, but there's no denying that what made Star Trek even more fun and fascinating this time around was the arch-villain played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Abrams & Co. are undoubtedly big fans of the original series and its subsequent films, as there were many shout-outs to fans peppered throughout the film.

Cumberbatch made a swell villain, and the film-mmakers definitely wanted to tweak the fans by revealing him to be ... Khan, but ... by making him Khan they have really messed with what had come before, both in the original series episode, "Space Seed," and the film, Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan with Ricardo Montalban playing the Indian Sikh super-warrior Khan Noonien Singh. It is undeniable that as gorgeous and kick-ass as Cumberbatch may look on the widescreen, he is quite the pale fellow. Khan's ethnicity and the series' historic nod to Genghis Khan went right out the window. Reportedly Benicio Del Toro was originally slated for the role, but Cumberbatch was great, one of the best things about the movie.

A super-man who can take out an entire army of Klingons? Yes, please!
Spock and Kirk work on their relationship
Uhura is not only fluent in Klingon, but can save her man at the end of the day
Having Kirk go into a radiation tube so that Zachary Quinto could yell, "KHAN!!!" after his friend had seemingly died, and then go after him for revenge was a nice switch. A cameo from original Spock Leonard Nimoy was also fun, although it smacked of not only deus ex machina, but that wacky LOST sideways universe, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Dr. Carol Marcus, (of Genesis project fame) played by Alice Eve, made an appearance, mostly so that we could see her in her underwear. Oddly, bra and panty design doesn't seem to have changed or improved much in the future. How a British-accented lassie could be the daughter of the very American Admiral Marcus, played by Peter Weller is anybody's guess.

There were definitely some great set-pieces:
The opening sequence on the planet Nibiru, was visually stunning and exciting, as Spock tried to save a primitive civilisation from an about-to-erupt volcano, while Kirk as usual, broke every rule in the book to save him from being blown up with the volcano.

The banter between Kirk and Spock, Kirk and Scotty (a very funny Simon Pegg), Spock and Uhura, Kirk and Khan — all great stuff. The relationships, as always, are the heart of these movies. The CGI pyrotechnics are just window dressing.

Kirk and Khan teaming up (temporarily) and hurtling through space together, to save the Enterprise and its crew was a great sequence.
The overall experience of watching the film was a fun one, but Star Trek Into Darkness was one of the noisiest damn movies ever. So many things exploding in space, with tons of gray metal junk flying all over the place. Whatever happened to no one being able to hear you scream in space? There will undoubtedly be a sequel, although which aspect of the Star Trek legacy the filmmakers will choose to plunder next time around remains uncertain. The fate of Khan and his companions wasn't left ambiguous enough to really register as clever, or a twist in storytelling. I wouldn't mind at all seeing Cumberbatch again, but is that really a story that needs to be (re) told?
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Wednesday, May 22, 2013

farewell, cedar tavern

I follow Jeremiah's Vanishing New York's posts on Facebook. It's sort of a love/hate experience to read them. I appreciate that he is a cry in the wilderness to a disappearing city, but I can't deny that it makes for a pretty depressing read most of the time, like a recent post about the death of Dojo's, one of my past favorite haunts. Au revoir Chicken sukiyaki salad with carrot ginger dressing.

I guess everyone believes that their time in New York (or wherever they spent their heyday, usually in their 20s and 30s) was the best time. I grew up hearing about my dad's glory days in New York, so I had his vision of the city to compare with my own when I went there to go to art school in the '80s. My first year in the city I lived at Union Square West, which was just a few short blocks from school — Parsons School of Design.

I tentatively explored my new neighborhood, either alone or with roommates or classmates. We walked everywhere, ranging in the beginning only as far north as 23rd Street and as far south as Grand Street and Little Italy. As a young art student one of the first places I wanted to check out was the nearby Cedar Tavern, which was on University Place. The (I believed) former hang-out of the legendary Abstract Expressionists. A bunch of us would go there from time to time, trying to soak up some old Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline vibes from the worn, heavily lacquered, wooden tables.

The (second) Cedar Tavern
Franz Kline
Jeremiah's Vanishing New York recently pointed me to a New York Times article, "Bye-Bye Bohemia," by Lee Siegel, bemoaning the fate of the Tavern's location at 82 University Place — from fabled artist's dive to a "wax center." The Cedar Tavern apparently closed in 2006 (I left the city for good in 2000). As the article points out, the bar that Pollock and Co. used to frequent was actually originally on Eighth Street and University Place, and closed in the early '60s, so in the '80s we were actually chasing phantoms in a second location. But still, they were fun dreams to chase.

Nothing is sacred or lasts, one of the anti-perks and realizations of adulthood. Am I really upset that where I once tried to soak up some Ab-Ex art history will now be a waxing salon? Just a little bit. If there is anything that that endures about New York it is the fact of its constant state of change. What does seem to be a shame is that a little hole-in-the-wall bar, even if it wasn't even the "right" one, will never again be a destination for a young artist's pilgrimage. Where will people go if they want to try and recapture a sense of New York's painting past, of a '50s Bohemia? The grid endures. One might not be able to walk into the Cedar Tavern anymore, but you could stroll over to 46 East Eighth Street and imagine Pollock trying to stagger home after a long, alcohol-fueled night. At least until the area's leveled to make room for a Walmart or Ikea.
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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

the great gatsby: redford vs. dicaprio smackdown

Baz Luhrmann's version of The Great Gatsby is brash and loud and colorful, compared to the pastel-hued tones of Jack Clayton's 1974 version. But is it a better film? Yes and no. The real take-away as the credits began to roll was that F. Scott Fitzgerald's timeless tale had proved, once again, to be, while not exactly un-filmable, at least as elusive to capture as Gatsby's dream of a future life with Daisy proved to be.

Leonardo DiCaprio was effective and impressive as Jay Gatsby, the self-made (and re-made) man, a dreamer who wants to go back in time with the love of his life, Daisy Buchanan. DiCaprio was able to convey how much he cared for Daisy, and how deeply his small-town origins still hung about him, no matter how hard he tried to escape them. In 1974 Robert Redford captured the Gatsby facade, and wore the clothes (designer Theoni V. Aldredge won the Best Costume Oscar, but Ralph Lauren did the men's suits) with more ease and authority. Redford even made the phrase "old sport" sound almost natural and seemed more convincingly menacing as a man who may have been hiding some dark secrets. But DiCaprio was able to take the character to a more emotional place.

He wore it well: Robert Redford in one of Ralph Lauren's linen suits
Gatsby, looking good poolside
What really rankled in the 2013 version was how the women in the story all seemed to be relegated to the background. Daisy may have been Gatsby's focus and the impetus for all of his character's actions, but as played by Carey Mulligan she was just a bland, soft-voiced, Southern-drawling cipher. Luhrmann didn't even acknowledge Daisy's lack of mothering skills — until the last few moments of the film the audience, unless they were acquainted with the book or earlier film version, would hardly know she even has a child. As miscast as Mia Farrow might have been in the 1974 version, she at least was front and center throughout the story. Her Daisy was flighty and selfish and rather unlikable. Probably a litte too unlikable. But Daisy Buchanan, as Fitzgerald wrote her, is not, ultimately, a great person. Luhrmann tried to soft-pedal some of his heroine's faults at the end, which should annoy fans of the novel. Daisy also was dressed in impractical, busy summer frocks, designed by Catherine Martin (who is married to Luhrmann), and an unattractive bleach blond bob.

We have come to expect the character of Daisy to be un-castable, but there is no excuse for how poorly Jordan Baker and Myrtle Wilson were represented in this latest film version. Elizabeth Debicki started off promisingly as Jordan Baker, Daisy's professional golfer best friend, but then practically disappeared from the action, as Luhrmann chose to focus on narrator Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and Gatsby and Daisy. What happened to Nick and Jordan's romance, or Jordan's witty, wicked sense of humor? What happened to Fitzgerald's interesting, multifacted female characters? Gone.

And unless the viewer is paying strict attention, it is possible that Tom Buchanan's (Joel Edgerton) lover, Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) might be completely missed. With Luhrmann's frenetic pacing of certain scenes it's altogether likely that not only would one not catch Myrtle's name, but also not realize at first that she was the person who tried to flag down Gatsby's yellow car as it whizzed by in a penultimate scene of the movie.

Daisy's husband Tom is a jerk and a racist and a bigot, but he actually does care for Myrtle. Their relationship in both the book and the 1974 filmed version is portrayed as something far beyond casual. Joel Edgerton tried hard to fill in the blanks left in Luhrmann's script. Bruce Dern may have been a strange casting choice as the rich, Old Money, hunky, athletic Tom in 1974, but he very ably portrayed the boor's love of both of his women, Daisy and Myrtle.

That's a lot of lace and flounces for a summer frock
Leo, as Gatsby, raises his glass in a welcoming toast
Quick takes, 1974:

The screenplay/adaptation was by Francis Ford Coppola (!)

The scene where Nick has dinner with Daisy and Tom and Jordan: we see Daisy get jealous of Tom taking Myrtle's phone call — she is definitely hurt, and we feel that she really loves him.

The close-up camerawork was a little disconcerting.

Extra scenes showing Gatsby and Daisy's affair once they become reacquainted make us believe that their love may have a chance.

The scene with Gatsby showing his shirts to impress Daisy really works, as does the scene featuring Gatsby's final swim in his pool.

Quick takes, 2013:

A real stand-out scene is the final confrontation at the Plaza Hotel, where DiCaprio lets Gatsby (finally) lose his cool.

The tea that Gatsby arranges at Nick's to (re)meet Daisy, with Gatsby over-filling his small cottage with flowers and cakes, his nervous anticipation and awe at seeing the love of his life after five years, is both funny and poignant to watch.

The first over-the-top party that Nick attends at Gatsby's is everything Luhrmann is known for — visual opulence, hip music, frenetic camerawork — and it's great fun to watch. Unfortunately the rest of the film can't quite keep up the pace.

Tobey Maguire's Nick Carraway was even more removed and diffident than Fitzgerald's. Not many could attend a drug and alcohol-fueled orgy and still remain uninvolved, but somehow he pulled it off. Luhrmann's framing device of having an alcoholic Carraway narrate the film from a sanitarium as he writes the story didn't quite work, either.

The hip-hop music used to "update" this Gatsby actually worked quite well, but like many of the other design elements, seemed to lessen or disappear as the film progressed. Why not truly update the story to modern times instead of keeping it in the '20s? That may have held this film back from being a truly modern version.

Mia Farrow and Robert Redford as Daisy and Gatsby
L-R: Nick, Gatsby, Daisy and Tom (Tobey Maguire, Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Joel Edgerton)
As much as this latest version of The Great Gatsby didn't quite live up to my expectations — its vaunted excess actually seemed to peter out about halfway through the film into straight melodrama — it's hard not to admire both Luhrmann's ambition and aspiration to film such a complex literary classic. When most multiplex movie fare involves superheroes who battle endless CGI explosions, or the latest entry in a franchise that features cars driving really, really fast, a film that ends with some of the most evocative words in American literature is something to applaud:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
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Monday, May 20, 2013

something to believe in — game of thrones

It is getting harder for readers of George R.R. Martin's epic Song of Ice and Fire series to watch events unfold on HBO's third season of Game of Thrones. Will this be the episode where ... well, I don't want to spoil it for you. But the show had upped the ante so much already, by building up some of the books' more minor characters, like Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer) and Gendry, that even a well-versed fan can't help but hope that something might go a little differently, a little better, a little less deadly for some of their beloved characters. And maybe a little more deadly for others.

As much as the show's creators have taken liberties with the original text, it is clear that this season, with only two episodes left to go, is building toward a bang-up conclusion. Fans of the books know that there is still so much more to come. Last night's episode, "Second Sons," moved around the Seven Kingdoms and beyond, catching up with various characters, while testing each one's faith and resolve. It opened with Arya (Maisie Williams) and The Hound. She has sworn to kill him (and all of her enemies), believing him to be a ruthless, unrepentant villain, but he surprised her many times over, by calmly telling her that he was not taking her back to Joffrey as a prisoner as she assumed, but to her mother and Robb, and that he had saved Sansa from being raped. Arya has been living so long praying for the death of the Hound and others who have wronged her and her family that her belief system was shaken to the core.

The happy couple on their special day
Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) met the Second Sons — possible adversaries or allies. One particularly disrespectful and nasty warrior was just begging to be killed. His very handsome partner, Daario Naharis (Ed Skrein), made that dream a reality and Daenerys gained a new army and an ardent admirer. Does he believe in her power as a leader, as a beautiful woman, or her dragons? Maybe all three.

Witchy woman Melisandre brought lamb to the slaughter Gendry back with her to Dragonstone. Ser Davos tried to convince Stannis not to "sacrifice" his nephew. "I think mothers and fathers made up the gods because they wanted their children to sleep through the night." But Stannis, at least at present, still believes in Melisandre's Lord of Light. He did, however want to release Davos from his prison cell. Melisandre has her own plans. First up was climbing on top of not-so-little lamb Gendry. King's blood in the fire. But will they use him as a source for dark magic, or will he go out in a blaze of glory?

The highlight of the episode was Sansa and Tyrion's (Peter Dinklage) wedding. Brocade and leather abounded. Everyone was up in arms. Angry and jealous Shae. Nasty Joffrey, who gave the bride away ("Your father's dead.") Hateful Cersei, who shrugged off Margaery's attempt at friendship ("If you ever call me sister again I'll have you strangled in your sleep.") Dopey Sansa, who had to be told to kneel down so that Tyrion could put a wedding cloak upon her back. Tyrion told Sansa to drink up, but who could keep up with him? Tywin (Charles Dance), for once, seemed protective of his youngest son, telling a furious Joffrey to back off when Tyrion said something insulting to the young king. Tyrion and Sansa's wedding night was just as it was on paper, but I couldn't help but wish it had gone a little differently, that Sansa could at least understand that her husband is a kind man. She's just been too beaten down by the Lannisters to trust any of them. She can't believe in him or anyone.

The final scene was a good one. Sam and Gilly and the baby, who stil has no name, found themselves in the middle of a cold wood, in a deserted cabin, trying to start a fire. The sense of dread mounted as crows gathered and cawed above them, filling the trees outside. A white walker, coming for the baby, broke Sam's sword as if it was nothing. Sam was thrown, and then jumped up to protect Gilly and the baby, with his dragon stone (obsidian) dagger to destroy the monster. Whew.

Keep it coming, Game of Thrones, keep it coming.
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Sunday, May 19, 2013

spring has sprung

I know this is Florida, so the change of seasons are more relative than actual, but there have been a lot of pretty blooms of late ...


Saturday, May 18, 2013

ponytail girl

She's getting so big, so fast, and another school year's almost over, I thought I better take a photographic record of my beautiful (now not so little) girl.



Friday, May 17, 2013

the great gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is considered one of the great American novels. It is certainly great, and quintessentially American. It can practically be read in one sitting, but that doesn't limit the effectiveness of Fitzgerald's economic prose. The story, set during a hot Long Island summer in 1922, is part love story, part morality tale, while also reflecting the post-World War I excesses of the priveleged set.

Jay Gatsby may be the focus of the novel, but the hero is its narrator, Nick Carraway, a 29 year-old man who has been drifting through life since the end of the war. Originally from the Midwest, he, like many, heads east to New York in search of direction — and something else — thrills, love, purpose? He isn't quite sure. He gets pulled into the orbit of his wealthy cousin, Daisy Buchanan, and her philandering, polo-playing husband Tom. They try to pair him off with Daisy's professional golfer friend, the "incurably dishonest," Jordan Baker, who leads him to his most significant friendship of the summer — his mysterious and exceedingly wealthy next-door neighbor, Jay Gatsby, who throws extravagant parties that he never seems to attend.

As Nick gets to know Gatsby he learns that he and Daisy were once very well-acquainted. In fact, Daisy promised to wait for Gatsby when he went off to the War in 1917, but then turned around and married the more suitable (and monied) Tom Buchanan (who attended Yale with Nick) two years later. When the war was over a heartbroken Gatsby devoted his life to amassing a suitable fortune to both impress Daisy and launch him into the society he has always so desperately wanted to be a part of. But the New Egg and Old Egg where Gatsby and the Buchanans reside are strictly divided — new money and old money. Old money may attend new money's lavish parties, but will never really accept them as one of their own, as Tom Buchanan effectively sneers when Gatsby claims that he and Daisy are going to run off together, "I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that's the idea you can count me out ..."

Fitzgerald's Gatsby is not just a romantic dreamer, but a personal embodiment of the American Dream. He is a self-made man, although the source of his income is shown to be through underworld connections. Gatsby has reinvented himself, from his low origins as James Gatz, a poor farmer's son. His go-getter attitude garnered him connections to powerful men who wanted to help him — first a millionaire named Dan Cody, and later New Yorker Meyer Wolfshiem.
"Meyer Wolfshiem? No, he's a gambler." Gatsby hesitated, then added coolly: "He's the man who fixed the World's Series back in 1919."

"Fixed the World's Series?" I repeated. […] "Why isn't he in jail?"

"They can't get him, old sport. He's a smart man."
As Nick gets to know more and more about Gatsby, his admiration for him is not tarnished, as it is with his party guests and even Tom and Daisy. If anything, he respects him more, as he tells him towards the end of the novel, "They're a rotten crowd ... You're worth the whole damn bunch put together"

Fitzgerald writes beautifully, and his dialogue is so alive that it seems not just modern, but contemporary. There are jarring notes, however, mostly in the form of racist comments made by Tom Buchanan. Ethnic stereotypes also abound, further alienating the reader from the "beautiful" Daisy and her crowd. Some of the recurrent imagery, although evocative, is a bit overdone. Although many like to point out the number of times Gatsby calls someone "old sport," I was bothered more by Fitzgerald's need to refer again and again to "the valley of ashes," and the omnipresent poster on the road to New York featuring the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.

Eckleburg aside, there are some wonderful visual references, most notably the green light that flashes at the end of Daisy's dock across the Sound from Gatsby. Gatsby sees it as a guiding light, bringing him back to his true love, and not for what it truly is, a siren's call. The scene with Gatsby's shirts, where he impresses Nick and Daisy with his extensive and expensive wardrobe, is a neat visual to tie in to the other overarching theme of the novel — money, and how it determines most of the characters' actions and motivations.
“'Her voice is full of money,' he said suddenly. That was it. I’d never understood it before. It was full of money — that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it ... High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl.”
Gatsby knows that money is what drives Daisy, but he also hopes that there is great love, too. Daisy may love Gatsby, in a way, as one loves their youth, but she also loves Tom, and not just for his wealth. It is clear how she reacts to his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, calling him at their home, that he can hurt her, which wouldn't be the case if she didn't care about him. Tom knows this, but Gatsby doesn't want to believe that Daisy can love both of them.
"I love you now — isn't that enough? I can't help what's past ... I did love him once — but I loved you too!"
The Great Gatsby is a classic and timeless tale which features (mostly) unlikable people. Gatsby is the most sympathetic, because as hopeless as it might be, he has a dream of the future. Nick can only observe and then retreat when life gets too real, too messy. And Daisy and Tom are just like all of those selfish people we read about every day, who think that the world only exists for their own entertainment. As Fitzgerald, through Nick, so eloquently states,
"They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
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Thursday, May 16, 2013

the case of the broken glass

The first year that I went to college, art school, Parsons School of Design in New York City, I lived in their "dorms," a few floors in a high-rise on Union Square. The understanding was that by the end of the year students would need to find other accommodations  to make room for next year's influx of art students. I looked at a few places over the summer, but nothing was working out, until I lucked into a place in Park Slope, sharing it with a girl who modeled in one of my art classes. The real bonus was that as nice as she was, she spent a lot of time at her boyfriend's place, so for the most part, although it sometimes got lonely, I had a large, railroad apartment to myself. During that sophomore year my roommate eventually moved out, and when one of my classmates found himself out of his latest digs I was more than willing to share my good fortune, telling him to come and stay until he found his own place.

I was a bit of a stray collector in those days. I never intended to have my classmate become my permanent roommate, but if that had worked out, I probably would have been fine with it. But that's not how things worked out. It's always hard to live with people. We all have our quirks. I had grown up with a brother, so I was used to hair left in the shower, or the toilet seat being up. Those really weren't  a big deal. But being sneaky or dishonest was a deal-breaker.

"A Broken Glass," by Kit Umscheid

So what happened? 

We were living in Brooklyn, but we both would also still go home and visit our families on the weekend from time-to-time; my family in New Jersey, his in upstate New York. I had returned from such a weekend to find a sink full of dishes — again, not exactly a big deal, just a small annoyance. I didn't have that many glasses or dishes, so would have to wash what was in the sink to be able to use them. I turned on the water and grabbed a sponge and some dish soap and started washing the plates and forks, my mind drifting. I then reached for a juice glass, putting the sponge inside, and turning it, twisting it, to get the suds over the inside of the glass. Suddenly I glanced down into the sink and wondered why it reminded me of the shower scene in Psycho. Blood was swirling down the drain. I looked from the bottom of the sink to the glass and my hand. My hand was bleeding, between the thumb and index finger. The glass had been broken, perfectly, horizontally, and then put back together. Put back into the sink. As if done by a three year old. Maybe she won't find out. She won't know that I did it. What a jerk. Luckily, the gash wasn't deep enough to warrant stitches, but I still have a scar.

I gave him until the end of the week. I never really got angry with him, or scolded him, or told the story (much), but we were never really friends after that incident. Understandably. A few months later, as I was going through some of my books in a bookcase I heard something drop down to the floor behind it. I fished out the object. It was my grandmother's pinking shears, broken, hidden behind some pieces of trimmed cardboard. He had used my seamstress grandmother's pinking shears to cut thick cardboard for some project. And then apparently broken them and hidden them. What sort of infantile behavior would do crap like this? Twice?

Things get broken. It happens. But every once in a while I have to wonder how and why this brand of sneakiness, something that I have dealt with on occasion with my daughter  who's nine years old  had extended into adulthood. Granted, twenty-somethings are not as grown-up as they think they are, but to put a broken glass back in a sink instead of just throwing it out. It still boggles my mind.
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