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Showing posts with label movie review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label movie review. Show all posts

Monday, February 27, 2017

ANIMAL CRACKERS

   Wherein Captain Spaulding (Groucho Marx) is an African explorer who returns from the wild, attends a gala, and tries with his brothers to retrieve a stolen painting from the palatial Mrs Rittenhouse. 

Sample rant: "Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west, and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce, they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, uh... Now you tell me what you know."

Animal Crackers (1930) was not the Marx Brothers' best movie (that would be either Duck Soup or A Night at the Opera), but it usually appears first alphabetically and so you owe it to yourself to at least watch it. Certainly you would not want to go through life without having heard "Hello, I Must Be Going" and "Hooray for Captain Spaulding." Groucho proves himself an amiable roustabout as well as quite the dancer. Harpo plays the harp, Chico knocks out a number on piano, and Zeppo plays the straight man. Based on the stage play by George S. Kaufman. 
   If you need another reason:

Capt. Spaulding: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don't know. Then we tried to remove the tusks. The tusks. That's not so easy to say. Tusks. You try it some time.
Roscoe Chandler: Oh, simple: "tusks."
Capt. Spaulding: [shakes Chandler's hand] My name is Spaulding. I've always wanted to meet you, Mr. Chandler. As I say, we tried to remove the tusks. But they were embedded so firmly we couldn't budge them. Of course, in Alabama the Tuscaloosa, but that is entirely ir-elephant to what I was talking about.


   Directed by Victor Heerman.

Friday, September 18, 2015

MUD

   Somehow I had it in my head that a woman wrote and directed Mud (2012). That would have been impossible and I should have known better. No woman could have written and directed this movie. That observation conveys no misogyny. If anything, it reflects a general state of misanthropy. No woman ever interpreted herself as having anything in common with the character Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) in this excellent motion picture. To have the necessary degree of self-awareness to construct that character in a way that is not unsympathetic would have made the character impossible. Juniper is a loser who elevates her own sense of self by attracting, for the most part, men who want to do her harm. She finally (and, we suspect, by accident) found one man, Mud, who actually wants to do well by her, so of course she does not stop until she has completely pauperized him, or allows him to pauperize himself, depending on your point of view. Juniper is not an evil person. She lacks the personal charm of someone inherently bad. She is simply a vessel of vacuity, a bottle that appears to need to be filled, a universe lacking lifeforms. And because of that, she exudes a type of vulnerability appealing to men who view themselves as heroes. 
   And make no mistake: Mud is a genuine hero. Everyone else in the movie takes considerable time telling the two kids that Mud is a pathological liar--a statement which the title character does not deny--when in fact he is the only person in the movie who invariably tells the truth. When the two fourteen-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, ask Mud (Matthew McConaughey) why he is hiding out on a small island near the Mississippi River, he explains with neither pride nor shame that he shot and killed a guy. The guy he murdered messed over Juniper, the woman for whom he is waiting to reunite. The dead guy did a bit more than merely injure her pride. He impregnated her, raped her, beat her, caused her to lose the child. He deserved to be shot and shot repeatedly. Mud accomplished this and the two boys find nothing inappropriate in it.
   Ellis, the stronger of the two boys, believes in love. His parents are breaking up, his girlfriend does not think of herself as his girlfriend, and he does not understand the things that motivate most of the adults he encounters. But he thinks he understands Mud because Mud believes in love. 
   McConaughey's character really does believe in it. His life has known no shortage of excitement, no lack of superstition and folklore magic. He has made his own life far more challenging than it needed to be. And when we meet him, he is living in a boat in a tree. I suspect he would have resisted having things any other way.
   If all the movie accomplished was the type of running commentary on the dismal state of relationships recited above, it would be something of a drag and I would be nothing more than the misanthropic drudge I claim to be for loving it. Fortunately, the movie uses these intriguing scenarios to say something about friendship and faith in the same. I will digress here (he said mechanically) to declare that nothing we value on this madly spinning orb is more important than friendship. Food comes a close second. Sex hardly even makes the list and if it were not for our ridiculous compulsion to over-propagate the species, it wouldn't be on the list at all. Sex is nothing more or less than that thing we use to distract ourselves from how bitterly hopeless we feel when friendship looks elusive, which is no doubt why Mud keeps a stack of old Penthouse magazines shoved into a drawer in his boat. What he really wants out of life is for Juniper to love him for the man he is, which I suspect is a pretty good definition of friendship. I will go out on a slender limb here and guess that if you have the courage to recognize it, most of the people you tell yourself are your friends are distractions you use to disguise the emptiness you feel when your mind gets tired of fighting off the acknowledgement of just how superficial and stupid most other people behave.
   Take for instance the dead guy's family. Led by the father, King (Joe Don Baker), the avenging family can't get their friends in law enforcement to kill Mud, so they set out to do it themselves. They see themselves as better than everyone else, certainly more righteous, as befits a family of entitled, bullying thugs. What they do is right simply because they are the ones doing it, not unlike neighbors who take a shortcut through your yard, or the old guy at the grocery store who cuts ahead of you in line, or the state trooper who shoots first and never gets around to asking questions later. 
   Most of us contain a bit of that, just as the two boys exhibit when they steal a boat motor from a junk man. Their beliefs are superior to the need of the man who owns the junkyard, their cause (love) trumps his need to make a living, so they steal it. Mud stole the life of the bullies' family member, so that family figures whatever they choose to do about it is justified in the name of the Lord. 
   All this sounds bitter and it would be a mistake to envision Mud as a stupid feel good movie. It is, on the contrary, an intelligent feel bad movie. Like the title character himself, this movie tells the truth. It tells that truth in a way that is simultaneously bitter, confused, desperate and even funny, but one of the things we may discover is that there comes a certain enlightenment from finally letting go of our own delusions, however fleetingly gratifying those delusions may be. John 8:32 says: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye free."  In Latin, it sounds even better: "Veritas vos liberabit." Those words serve as the motto for several universities, including one where I used to teach. It has also been used as a motto for the Central Intelligence Agency. 
   Jesus was not referring to intellectual honesty. He was talking about faith in Himself, which some might say is a form of superstition. There is a Christ-like quality glowing off Mud throughout this film. He must confront his temptations, he must prove his courage, he must forsake a normal life and transition into whatever awaits him after the movie ends. His freedom, however, is never once in doubt.


Friday, September 11, 2015

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS

   By the time Steven Spielberg's of first theatrical release, Goldie Hawn had already established herself as a first rate movie actor in Cactus Flower, There's a Girl in My Soup, and Butterflies Are Free. What she had yet to achieve was finding a role in which the people around her being satirized could simultaneously identify with her character. With The Sugarland Express (1974), she broke through to the other side.
   Satire, at least the way I'm thinking of it here, is least dependent for its success on its humorous components. The exaggeration may lead to guffaws. It may not. In this case, the laughs ring of superficiality, unless your idea of a hearty belly laugh involves gun-popping highway patrolmen blowing into caravans of other law enforcement officers and their heavy metal machinery. 
   As well it might. Director Spielberg reveals himself for the first time as the great isolationist--unless you count the made-for-TV-movie The Duel, which only reinforces the point. The behavior of the masses in Sugarland gets repeated in almost every movie the director would make over the next two decades. Think of the Okies who come to the aid of the town early on in Jaws--the folks who try to capture the deadly shark by throwing dynamite into the ocean. Or the skeptics in Close Encounters. The townspeople in E.T. The Nazis in Indiana Jones. In all cases, the misunderstood social misfits must contend with the even more pronounced ignorance of the majority. In the case of The Sugarland Express, this soon-to-be accelerate of the "Spielberg glow" manifests in the plot and explodes in the execution. 
   Lou Jean Poplin (Goldie) breaks her husband Clovis (William Atherton) out of an early-release prison four months before he would walk away free because she needs his help in getting back their two-year-old son Baby Langston from the evil well-heeled foster family that clearly does not love the child the way his real parents do. Clovis isn't initially married to the idea, but Lou Jean does have her persuasive ways, and besides, these two are outlaws more than they are criminals. They have always lived outside of society (in the Patti Smith sense of the expression) and so hijacking a highway patrol car and the officer who drives it (Michael Sacks) is just business as usual. Naturally, the forces of order can't allow their foot soldiers to be kidnapped, even if the outlaws end up as local folk heroes, so a monster car chase ensues. And ensues. And ensues some more. Despite the relative visual success of the extended chase scenes (and this is by no means the original Mad Max, much less The French Connection), what we end up with is wanting very much to make a join with the two main characters, as well as with the patrolman, and perhaps even more so with Ben Johnson's character, Captain Harlan Tanner. The boss law enforcer damn near steals every scene in which he appears and not only because of the actor's considerable skills. The writing of his character remains to this day one of the most fascinating in the Spielberg pantheon. He has been on the job for eighteen years and has never killed anyone himself and has never issued the order that anyone be killed, two facts of which he is quietly proud. He admires the panache with which these two twenty-five-year-olds are able to outsmart hundreds of patrol officers. He relishes arresting a pair of vigilantes who try to murder the young couple. And he surveys with mounting dread what he correctly perceives to be the danger inherent in their futile mission. 
   And then there's Goldie Hawn, leaning out the back of the patrol car window as they pull up to a gas station, asking if she can have Gold Stamps because she is collecting them so she can use them to buy presents for Baby Langston once they get him back. 
   Based on the true story of Bobby and Ila Fae Dent, the movie was not quite as funny as the real events, although the ending--which is anything but funny--rings true. Check out the gasoline prices and genuine Texas landscape beauty. And be prepared to be amazed at just how Hawn works every ounce of brilliance out of every scene.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

KEY LARGO

   The bruises to my ego no doubt will fade, just as the cuts to my moral cranium will blend back to normal, but despite all my protestations as to what a monumental artistic and popular success is that movie known as Key Largo (1948), as it happens, Lisa Ann, known to loyal readers as the long suffering roommate, may have been closer to the truth when she pronounced the movie "Very stupid." She called it a "vanity movie," the equivalent of some weak and overdone story that tried to sell tickets based on the glam and glitter of stars Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Edward G. Robinson. "I have been to musicals," she declared,  "on a brick and mortar stage that were more realistic. The costume designer was only interested in the women looking perfect and the men looking dapper throughout the wind-machine hurricane punctuated by that overpowering music score (Max Steiner). There was no duress in this movie except the delivery of the lines."
    "Did you feel bad about the Indians?" I asked.
    "Of course, I did. The Indians were not given proper attention. If you're going to call them out with any importance, you need to explain why you're calling them out, especially with Indians."
   She was not impressed that one of the Seminoles was played by Jay Silverheels.
   "They did not get the respect they deserved. Do you realize how many people at the time watched that movie and said, 'Stupid Indians.' Back in those days, the American Indians were viewed very poorly. A lot of the popular conceptions of Indians comes from movies like this. It really reinforces the stereotypes."
   The last time I watched Key Largo was fifteen years ago. I loved it. A friend of mine and I walked around together sparring back and forth as McCloud and Rocco. "What's one more Johnny Rocco in the world, more or less?" Or "Why don't you show the storm your gun, Rocco?" "Yeah! More! That's what I want." Or even "You filth." Or especially, "What I believed was that we were fighting to save a world in which there would be no need for a Johnny Rocco." 
   Then again, lots of movies have great dialogue. 
   "There's no symbolism, no moral parallelism, no point to any of it," she said with an indignant swing of her head. 
   I don't quite hold with this degree of vitriol about the John Huston-directed film. But I have learned to listen to the LSR, because to not listen often feeds my detriment. Sometimes I even think hard about what she says, especially when we disagree. 
   I don't quite agree with the "no symbolism" argument. But maybe that's just a semantic distinction. Think of it instead as personification. Just as the mountain in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (also directed by Huston, also starring Bogart, and also from 1948) was itself a character in the movie, so was the storm in Key Largo a central player, an invisible heroine bent on trying to crush the villains, even if she had to wipe out everyone else to get the job done. On the other hand, that sort of contrivance may strike contemporary audiences as corny, maudlin, or just plain stupid. 
   I'm even willing to grant that the performances by Bacall and Bogart were self-serving. And if the Nora Temple character had little to do besides fawn over old memories and romantic visions of the impending future, I can only counter that I found more depth in her gaze than in the theatrics of any one else in the movie.
   As to the cast, Robinson's Johnny Rocco truly terrifies, at least to my way of thinking. That may be why some people don't go for this film with the enthusiasm I brought to it. After all, Rocco threatens to shoot an old man for praying, murders a cop in the coldest of blood, ridicules a returning war veteran, dangles Scotch in front of his concubine just for meanness, and plans on flooding the American economy with counterfeit currency. He is, according to the movie, exactly what we were fighting against in World War II.
   That's a little bit of a problem. If you want to argue that the parallel is Rocco to Mussolini or Hitler, it doesn't quite float. Oh, both sides of that coin were hell bent on conquest and may indeed have been pure evil, but the writer and director did pull back from making that parallel clear, probably from fear of pissing off too many Italian-Americans. (And if you doubt that theory, remember that in "The Untouchables" TV show, not even al Capone himself was portrayed as Italian, and for precisely the same reason.) 
   Again, to give Lisa Ann her credit, certain aspects of the movie do fail to hold together. Too much of the struggle does come across limping rather than charging and those fifteen years since I last saw Key Largo have had their effect on me. Perhaps I've succumbed to a stand-off between fatalistic Phil and moralistic Mershon. I don't know. Let us just say I liked the movie a bit more than she did. And even if you reading this remain true believers of the justified mythology of the brilliance of Bogart and Huston, you may do well to consider that some heroes exist in small part for purposes of self-criticism.
    Hoping you are the same.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

PURE PROP FOR SHEEP PEOPLE

   

   Oh, to be young, hip and free now that murder is in the air.
   If, as I believe, George Orwell was correct when he wrote that all art is propaganda, then what is trash? After watching the movie Down 3 Dark Streets (1954), pure, unfettered propaganda smells like the answer.
   A few days after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as the Censor in Chief. Hoover teamed with popular "journalists" Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell, along with many Hollywood executives to overemphasize the victories of the Allies and send up the failures and incompetencies of the Axis. Well, if there has to be a bias, I'll likewise err in favor of killing Nazis. Unfortunately, Orwell was also correct in his various depictions of leaders as soulless individuals who misuse their power simply because they can. That leaves us with two types of fascism: one where jackbooted thugs stomp on the faces of their enemies for the good of the Volk, and another where guys in suits and ties scramble the minds of their followers for the good of the followers themselves. 
   It also gives us rather wretched art. They Came to Blow Up America (1943) and The House on 92nd Street (1945) were among the worst. But the immediate Cold War following World War II found Hollywood policing itself, churning out stench such as I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), Walk East on Beacon (1952), My Son John (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953) all of which painted the FBI in strokes of honor, efficiency and glory, as did tonight's giggle, Down 3 Dark Streets
   It may surprise the more cynically inclined among the readership to discover that the camera work in this film is very good. In addition to street scenes that capture the Los Angeles of the early 1950s with an awkward authenticity, we're also treated to a Hitchcock-style scene behind the giant Hollywood sign on the hills. Otherwise, of course, the movie is a pathetic attempt to glorify the brilliance and tenacity of the FBI, so much so that today's audiences rightly find it hilarious. 
   Of course. We are so young and hip and free these days. Anything out of time feels like such a charade. Being young, hip and free, we would never fall for such transparent nonsense. 
   Yet a twenty-two-year-old pampered and precious little shit fuck named Elliot Rodger bought into the current propaganda that his self worth was somehow connected to his socio-economic class, which in turn was dependent upon him getting laid by hot blondes from a specific sorority and being seen in the finest of cars. And even though this pusillanimous putz was bullied as a young teenager, that fact in no way mitigates his well-to-do parents enabling his moronic lifestyle choices, much less his easy access to expensive weaponry. He was a media junkie, as befits the spoiled offspring of the assistant director of The Hunger Games. He uploaded multiple videos of his planned escapades, the grizzly details of which need not be recited here. You see, Elliot Rodger understood that the only way you count in this world is if you have the acceptance and acknowledgement of rich white hemorrhoid breeders such as Mark Cuban and Donald Sterling and their supporters at ESPN. This twisted little smidgen of puked up worm snot knew in his elitist bones that he would only matter in this world if the future dental assistant blondes of his choosing fawned over him to distract him from his own creeping impotency. This reject from the Borderline Personality Disorder ward knew it was thrilling to use his intellect and unctuous charm to con the police into believing he was merely throwing a video tantrum rather than foreshadowing disaster when he ego-plotted his mission on the installment plan with YouTube. (There's a reason shrinks can't cure Borderline Personality Disorder. It is not a disorder at all. It is a complex series of character flaws, of which the vile Elliot Rodger had in abundance.) Rodger swallowed whole the lunatic propaganda of the National Rifle Association when he oozed with the temporary power of purchasing his Glock 34 semiautomatic. And he thoroughly absorbed the joy of contemporary dread when he blew away his roommates and others he sought out last Friday night in Isla Vista, California. 
   He was, in many ways, the best and the brightest of his generation, at least if by best and brightest we mean tipped in favor of digesting expectations set up by everyone from Beyonce to Larry Ellison regarding what it means to be of true value in our world today. The same people who would view a scrap of well-produced drivel such as Down 3 Dark Streets with contempt and sneers view the propaganda of their own age with the same opened-mouth drooling as the Cold War generation did its own Dragnet-style fixation on law and order. Therefore we risk much by scoffing down our own elitist cuffs at the trash of long ago. Today's garbage may be shinier, but the stench is just as lethal.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

THIS MUST BE THE PLACE

   Note to the son I never had:

Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me round
I feel numb - burn with a weak heart
(So I) guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It's ok I know nothing's wrong . . nothing

Hi yo I got plenty of time
Hi yo you got light in your eyes
And you're standing here beside me
I love the passing of time
Never for money
Always for love
Cover up say goodnight . . . say goodnight

           --David Byrne

   Not everyone will be ready for This Must Be the Place (2011). But if you are, other people's lack of ease may be among the reasons you will like it. 
   That and the fact of Sean Penn will turn the movie for you. You will like it because you like Sean and because you will know some other people will be incredibly annoyed with this movie, as well as because you will have a kind of sensitivity that not everyone else possesses. Or else you'll simply rock back on your heels from the majesty of director Paolo Sorrentino's vision of America and Ireland. Then again, you might thrill to the sight and feel of Frances McDormand, Judd Hirsch, Joyce Van Patten and Eve Hewson cast in roles that freed them up in ways no one else ever dared provide them. You might even be happy to watch David Byrne singing.
    Mostly, though, I believe you'll stand up and cheer with the way Sean Penn explores the pores and molecules of his Cheyenne character, a retired rocker who lives off his musical proceeds and suffers the agony of having inadvertently inspired two young fans to commit suicide while he lives in a mansion he does not understand. His wife, played by McDormand, is a firefighter. He has a gothic groupie he tries to fix up with a young man from the mall. And when Cheyenne's father takes sick, he returns to New York just in time for the old man to die. 
   His father is a Holocaust survivor who spent the last years of his life trying to find the Nazi guard who humiliated him. Cheyenne picks up the search, in the process encountering a waitress with a curious son, a pair of ping pong wannabes, the man who invented rollers for luggage, a Nazi hunter, an aging tattoo artist, and that legion of fans he cannot quite let down. 
   To tell more of the plot would be stupid. I will reveal that the hook of this movie--aside from the acting, which is among the best I've ever seen anywhere--is the grandest twist of the "coming of age" theme ever made. Penn gets every last nuance of this transformation exactly right, mostly because he invents his character from the inside out. Just to give you a touch, imagine a former rocker worn so fragile that we actually ache when he encounters people who stand a chance of hurting him, only to find that he is more than capable of taking care of himself. When a skinhead in a bar asks Cheyenne if he likes his tattoos, Penn's character replies, "I was asking myself that same exact question."
   The temptation here is to quote you a hundred lines from this movie. But I won't. I'll just ask you to consider taking a trip with some fascinating people, none of whom will hurt you, at least not as bad as you have hurt yourself. 


Sean Penn
Sean Penn


Thursday, May 8, 2014

HANNAH ARENDT

   Not too many well-written books have earned such a disturbing a reputation that even fifty years after their publication one may still encounter people who will say, "Oh, that? No. I refuse to consider reading that vile stack of rubbish!" Yet there are people, even to this very day, for whom the suggestion that there might actually be some value in Eichmann in Jerusalem is not merely anathema; it is the exemplification of nausea. 
   That reaction to the compiled articles Hannah Arendt wrote for the New Yorker (along with her substantial and grisly historical narrative of the Holocaust) has been linked to the writer's purposeful flippancy, to her suggestion that certain Jewish leaders were passively complicit in the Shoah, and even to her earlier schooling by and relationship with Martin Heidegger. The real reason, I suspect, is that some people were distressed by the subtitle: A Report on the Banality of Evil
   After all the psychoanalysis and superlatives, what Arendt actually gets across in her beautiful book is that Adolf Eichmann could not think. His responses to the orders he was given at the time contained value only insofar as they pertained to his being employed so that he could receive additional orders and thereby go on being employed. Eichmann was responsible for the deportation of one-and-a-half million Jews to killing centers in Poland and the Soviet Union. His emotional attachment to this fact--during his trial--was bogged down in specificities. Was he here or there or a given day or at another time, rather than addressing the core issue. But even on that core issue--extermination--Eichmann clearly felt exasperated at the Israeli court's unwillingness or inability to see things from his point of view. 
   They hanged the bastard.
   But before that, before the trial, Israel's Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, or Mossad, captured (or kidnapped) him from the safety of post-war Buenos Aires, Argentina and smuggled him into Jerusalem. Because of the inconceivable horror of the Holocaust and of Eichmann's indisputable role in it, the world was supposed to understand and accept this action on the part of Mossad. 
   Again, though, the implication that the nation of Israel may have had a few flies in the ointment is not what some in the intellectual community rejected. What they disliked was the implication that the nature of Eichmann's fascism was mundane. For if that were true, could not even the best and brightest of us--if not checked and rechecked by other thinking and feeling people--be every bit as vile as Eichmann and his alleged superiors?
   Well, sure. There is more to fascism than Henry Ford, Prescott Bush and Charles Lindbergh doling out money and lending their faces to the flashbulbs. Any time we decide that one group of people are better than another, a kind of Nazi-like thinking has slipped in. Some people might argue that we even need a bit of that hierarchy stuff in the name of order. After all, they say, the policeman is presumed better than the suspect, just as the prisoner is thought to be non-entitled to freedom while his jailers walk among the rest of us. I use the criminal justice system as a working example here because one time period's administrators of law and order (Eichmann) may wind up another time period's criminal underclass (dead Eichmann). 
   The alleged ambiguity and its ultimate resolution is the subject matter of a very good film called Hannah Arendt (2012). Written and directed by Margarethe von Trotta, this movie sugarcoats nothing, giving us the self-satisfied Arendt, the humorous Arendt, the smoking, wisecracking, professorial and impassioned Arendt, played with a perfect balance of intensities by Barbara Sukowa. (Sukowa has worked with Trotta before, first as one of the leads in Marianne and Juliane and later in the title role of Rosa Luxemburg.) Everyone in this beautiful movie trembles with the magnitude of Hannah's recognition of this everyday evil. I especially liked Janet McTeer as writer, journalist and friend Mary McCarthy. 
   Good as both the film and Arendt's book are, I suspect that modern audiences may not necessarily gain from the material the full sense of "Good is the new Bad" (or vice versa) that seems to have come across in Eichmann's trial. If I am correct, that speaks not so much bad for the movie and book but rather very ill for current times. 
    Many years ago, while teaching an employee a moderately complex series of procedures based on a few contingencies, I remarked, more or less in a joking way, that rules were invented because people do not like to think. The employee roared with laughter, finally suggesting that that would be a good "rule" for the place where we worked. I had inadvertently stumbled upon the closest thing I've ever said that I would like engraved. When you strip away all the larceny, dehumanization, brutality, avarice and sadism of the Third Reich, what you find are people of moderate intelligence who were extraordinary in (a) the breadth of their ability to plan and carry out cruelty, and (b) their unwillingness to put themselves in the other person's shoes. The efficiency of any bureaucracy requires some degree of the latter. Yet without a sufficient number of people to step outside the social situations and peer in at themselves in those situations, the humanitarian aims of the bureaucracy--if any--can become quickly lost. If someone working intake at the local Department of Economic Security office stops to contemplate the monumental horror of the lives of each person she interviews, she will be unable to help any of them. And yet if that person is unable to think beyond the constrictions of forms and computer logins and neither mentally nor emotionally connects with her clientele, she will quickly become useless to the goals of her organization. In the Third Reich, of course, those aims were the complete and total elimination of a race of people from the Earth. Any deviationist thinking was considered a spanner in the works and in Germany between 1933 and 1945, such thinking could get a person shot. 
    The leadership of the Party were not idiots. They had been spoon-fed on Martin Luther and breastfed by Heidegger, Herbert Spencer and Thomas Malthus. This philosophy of Social Darwinism (which the real Charles Darwin would have despised) celebrated the victory of presumed strength over presumed weakness, manipulating a Europe already predisposed towards anti-Semitism onto its own "noble cause." But even moderately bright people can turn themselves into machines when they find it in their own interests to do so. Just as the end of the world felt very near from 1933 through 1945, today many people in positions of authority choose to ignore the facts of human control on the effects of global heating, yet convince themselves in the veracity of the twisted fairy tale that the Amazon rainforest creates air pollution. 
   The story of Hannah Arendt, then, remains vital, not only as a point of historical information or dramatic catharsis, but more importantly because, as thinking continues to be hard work, we may persevere and elect to draw some parallels between her time and our own.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

THE MANZONI FAMILY

   This movie comes so close to being passably 
good that to watch it fall short is more frustrating than seeing a good movie fail to be a great one. The Family (2013) was never going to be a great film. But it did stand a decent chance of being a good one, a movie that might be remembered over the duration of time passing between leaving the movie theatre and getting into one's automobile. 
   The upside of this movie, as you might expect, is the uses to which Robert DeNiro puts his talents in the fulfillment of the script by Luc Besson, who also directed. The screenplay has more than an ample amount of cleverness going for it. The real last name of the gangster clan being relocated through the witness protection plan is Manzoni--we are supposed to see this as a pun on Manson Family. Then there's the meta references in the film. What are meta references? Those are (again) clever references to other movies--in this case, other movies in which the actor Robert DeNiro has appeared. In a sense this is kind of cool because it sends up the typecasting of DeNiro as a perpetual hoodlum, just as he is in this movie. So we have him saying to himself, "Al Capone always said asking polite with a gun in your hand is always better than just asking polite," a line which anyone who watched The Untouchables will remember as being delivered by DeNiro in his role as Capone. We are also treated to a scene where Fred Blake (DeNiro) and his handler in the witness program, Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones), go to a movie theatre where about two hundred Normandie France locals are prepared to watch and discuss a movie. Everyone expects it to be an old Sinatra flick, but that movie doesn't get there and instead they will be watching Goodfellas, which just happens to be a film in which DeNiro played a Mafia guy. Where our movie slips into uncharted goodness is when Fred Blake goes up after the movie and tells old gangster stories. There is a nearly cosmic delight in watching this multi-leveled bit of surrealism and that one scene is enough to make us want the rest of the film to be good.
   Unfortunately, the attempts at humor fall flat. The efforts to humanize the characters are wasted. And the storyline is as predictable as the idea of having DeNiro play a gangster.
   The closest the film comes to funny is when the fourteen year old son Warren (John D'Leo) observes to his sister Belle (Dianna Agron from "Glee") that the way their father speaks a certain four-letter-word can encompass anything from admiration of the beauty of nature to the observation that the world is coming to an end. 
   Michelle Pfeiffer, as Maggie Blake, is largely and unfortunately wasted. She isn't given much to do, other than to take jingoistic umbrage at the snobbery of the people at a French grocery which she carefully blows up. The son gets picked on his first day of school but has learned enough from his father to turn the tables on everyone in junior high and quickly enough run the school. And Belle, the daughter, falls in love with her math teacher, a guy who has no personality whatsoever. We almost feel for her in this instance. Almost. More likely we identify with her other key performance: beating an overly amorous  boy to death with a tennis racket. 
    If all this sounds like a stale version of "The Sopranos," I suppose that might sum it up. Ultimately, the plot itself is covered with bread mold and crawling with bacteria. Manzoni has earned his witness protection status by ratting out his friends in organized crime. He and his family cannot quite change their evil ways and so they are constantly being relocated for their own protection. The mob boss, sitting in a comfortable prison, sends his coldblooded henchmen to do the family in. Oh--and we are supposed to be moderately aroused over Belle's use of weaponry. If everything else here weren't so hackneyed, that arousal might have actually worked. 
The Family


Sunday, March 9, 2014

THE BANALITY OF HAPPINESS

   Turner Classic Movies ran a trio of screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky films the other night. The three movies (Marty, Middle of the Night and The Bachelor Party) were fine. Betsy Blair was the fine star of Marty. Indeed, as my long-suffering roommate pointed out, they were all of a type, sort of an analysis of domesticity in the late 1950s. Delbert Mann directed all three and you can certainly make the point that the scenes from each film would have fit well within one another. From one perspective, that makes them formulaic. From another it betrays certain topical obsessions. I think the biggest disappointment a budding film aficionado would have with these three is that compared to the wild changes in film-making going on at the same time in Europe, these feel rather tame. It's lousy being alone. It's no fun getting old. Hanging out with your wife beats getting drunk with your friends. Or, respectively, Ernest Borgnine as a sensitive spouse is more fun than being alone. Watching Kim Novak acting crazy beats getting old. Don Murray was a better actor than Tom Hanks, even if you are getting drunk with your friends. The most memorable aspect of any of these pictures was at the end of Bachelor Party when Caroline Jones gets billed as "The Existentialist." 
   None of this should be taken as to diminish the talent of Paddy Chayefsky. This is, after all, the man who scripted Paint Your Wagon, The Hospital and Altered States--the latter a great script either enhanced or butchered by director Ken Russell (it just depends on who you ask). What these three movies share with their three earlier brethren is (1) they were, at the time of their release, considered quite edgy, (2) they have not aged especially well, and (3) the fact that they have not aged well is not overcome by their artistic merit.
   The exception in Mr. Chayefsky's pantheon is Network (1976). Oh, I will grant you that many of the details of the film--directed by Sidney Lumet--have faded into the ahistoric past, but it's my past so who cares? The sentiment, the thrust, the anticipation of doom is still fresh as the smell of a Brillo pad in the morning. Here's a bit from early in the movie.

10. INT. 4TH FLOOR CORRIDOR - UBS BUILDING - 6:28 P.14. - TUESDAY LOOKING INTO the small network-news make-up room where HOWARD BEALE is standing, Kleenex tucked into his shirt collar, getting a few last whisks from the MAKE-UP LADY. Finished, HOWARD pulls the Kleenex from his collar, takes a last sip from a glass of booze on the make-up shelf, gathers his papers and exits, turns and enters -- 

11. INT. NETWORK NEWS STUDIO - 4TH FLOOR. Typical Newsroom studio -- cameras, cables, wall maps, flats and propping, etc. HOWARD nods, smiles to various PERSONNEL -- CAMERAMEN, ASSISTANT DIRECTORS, ASSOCIATE PRODUCERS -- as he makes his way to his desk facing Camera One. He sits, prepares his papers, looks up to the control room, nods -- MUSIC ABRUPTLY OUT: END OF CREDITS: 

12. INT. CONTROL ROOM - 4th FLOOR The clock wall reads: 6:30. Typical control room. A room-length double bank of television monitors including two color monitor screens, the show monitor and the pre-set monitor. Before this array of TV screens sits the DIRECTOR, flanked on his left by the PRODUCTION ASSISTANT (GIRL) who stop-watches the show, and on his right by the TECHNICAL DIRECTOR who operates a special board of buttons and knobs. (On the TECHNICAL DIRECTOR's right sits the LIGHTING DIRECTOR). At the moment, the show monitor has the network's Washington correspondent, JACK SNOWDEN, doing a follow-up on the attempted assassination of President Ford in San Francisco -- 

SNOWDEN (ON MONITOR) 
-- the first attempt on President Ford's life was eighteen days ago -- and again yesterday in San Francisco -- 

DIRECTOR (murmuring into his mike) 
-- Lou, kick that little thing shut on ground level -- 

SNOWDEN (ON MONITOR) -- In spite of two attempts -- 

The show monitor screen has switched over to show film of President Ford arriving at the San Francisco airport -- 

SNOWDEN (V.O. ON MONITOR) -- 
Mr. Ford says he will not become -- 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT (murmurs) -- forty seconds -- 

DIRECTOR (murmurs into mike) -- 
twenty seconds to one -- 

DIRECTOR -- one -- 

HOWARD BEALE'S image suddenly flips on-screen -- 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT 
-- thirty seconds to commercial freeze -- 

DIRECTOR -- head roll -- 

TECHNICAL DIRECTOR -- rolling-- 

The DIRECTOR and TECHNICAL DIRECTOR turn in their seats to join HARRY HUNTER and his SECRETARY in a brief gossip -- 

HOWARD (ON MONITOR) 
Ladies and gentlemen, I would like at this moment to announce that I will be retiring from this program in two weeks' time because of poor ratings -- 

The DIRECTOR has whispered something to HARRY HUNTER'S SECRETARY which occasions sniggers from the SECRETARY and from HARRY HUNTER. The TECHNICAL DIRECTOR stands to get in on the joke -- 

ASSISTANT DIRECTOR (to DIRECTOR) 
-- what'd you say? -- 

HOWARD (ON MONITOR) 
-- and since this show was the only thing I had going for me in my life, I have decided to kill myself -- 

HARRY HUNTER'S SECRETARY murmurs something which causes HARRY HUNTER to burst into laughter -- 

ASSISTANT DIRECTOR (to the DIRECTOR) 
-- so what'd she say? -- 

HOWARD (ON MONITOR) -- 
I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to blow my brains out right on this program a week from today -- 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT 
(frowning and very puzzled indeed by this diversion from the script) -- ten seconds to commercial -- 

HOWARD (ON MONITOR) -- 
so tune in next Tuesday. That'll give the public relations people a week to promote the show, and we ought to get a hell of a rating with that, a fifty share easy -- 

A bewildered PRODUCTION ASSISTANT nudges the DIRECTOR, who wheels back to his mike -- 

DIRECTOR (into mike) 
-- and -- 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT (to the DIRECTOR) 
Listen, did you hear that? -- 

DIRECTOR 
Take VTA. 

The monitor screen erupts into a commercial for cat food. 

AUDIO MAN 
(leaning in from his glassed-in cubicle) What was that about? 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT (to the DIRECTOR) 
Howard just said he was going to blow his brains out next Tuesday. 

DIRECTOR 
What're you talking about? 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT 
Didn't you hear him? He just said --

HARRY HUNTER 
What's wrong now? 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT 
Howard just said he was going to kill himself next Tuesday. 

HARRY HUNTER 
What do you mean Howard just said he was going to kill himself next Tuesday? 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT 
(nervously riffling through her script) He was supposed to do a tag on Ron Nesson and into commercial -- 

AUDIO MAN 
(from his doorway) He said tune in next Tuesday, I'm going to shoot myself -- 

Everybody's attention is now on the double bank of black-and-white monitor screens showing various parts of the studio, all of which show agitated behavior. Several of the screens show HOWARD at his desk in vehement discussion with a clearly startled FLOOR MANAGER with headset and no less startled ASSOCIATE PRODUCER -- 

DIRECTOR 
(on mike to FLOOR MANAGER) What the hell's going on? 

On the pre-set monitor screen, the FLOOR MANAGER with headset looks up -- 

FLOOR MANAGER (ON SCREEN) 
(voice booming into the control room) I don't know. He just said he was going to blow his brains out -- 

DIRECTOR 
(into mike) What the hell's this all about, Howard? 

HOWARD (ON MONITOR) 
(shouting at the floor PERSONNEL gathering around him) Will you get the hell out of here? We'll be back on air in a couple of seconds! 

DIRECTOR (roaring into the mike) 
What the fuck's going on, Howard? 

HOWARD (ON MONITOR) I can't hear you -- 

DIRECTOR (bawling at the AUDIO MAN) 
Put the studio mike on! 

AUDIO MAN 
We're back on in eleven seconds -- 

SLOCUM (on floor) 
They want to know what the fuck is going on, Howard. 

HOWARD (on monitor) 
I can't hear you. 

DIRECTOR (bawling at the Audio man) 
Put the studio mike on! 

AUDIO MAN 
We're back on in eleven seconds. 

ASSOCIATE PRODUCER 
Harry, I think we better get him off -- 

HARRY HUNTER (roaring at the Audio Man) 
Turn his mike off! 

AUDIO MAN (now back in the control room) 
What the hell's going on? 

HARRY HUNTER (raging) 
Turn the fucking sound off, you stupid son of a bitch! This is going out live! 

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT (stop-watching) 
Three -- two -- one -- 

DIRECTOR 
Take 2 -- 

At which point, the TECHNICAL DIRECTOR pushes a button; the jangling cat food commercial flips off the show monitor to be instantly replaced by a scene of gathering bedlam around HOWARD'S desk. The AUDIO MAN flees in panic back to the cubicle to turn off the audio but not before HARRY HUNTER and the DIRECTOR going out live to 67 affiliates can be heard booming:

HARRY HUNTER 
Chrissakes! Black it out! This is going out live to sixty-seven fucking affiliates ! Shit! 

DIRECTOR 
This is the dumbest thing I ever saw! -- 

13. INT. MAX SCHUMACHER'S OFFICE - FIFTH FLOOR - ROOM 509 
MAX SCHUMACHER, behind his desk staring petrified at his office console on which pandemonium ha broken out. 
The FLOOR MANAGER and the ASSOCIATE PRODUCER and now an ELECTRICIAN are trying to pull HOWARD away from his desk and HOWARD is trying to hit anybody he can with an ineffective right hand haymaker -- 

HOWARD (ON MONITOR) 
Get the fuck away from me! 

OTHER VOICES (ON MONITOR) 
(coming from all directions) -- cut the show! -- -- get him out of there! -- -- go to standby! -- -- for Chrissakes, you stupid -- 

MAX'S PHONE RINGS -- 

MAX (grabs the phone) 
How the hell do I know? -- 
(he hangs up, seizes another phone, barks:) 
Give me the network news control room! 

On the MONITOR SCREEN, hysteria is clearly dominating. The SCREEN has suddenly leaped into a fragment of the just-done cat food COMMERCIAL, then a jarring shot of the bedlam of the studio floor. This particular camera seems unattended as it begins to PAN dementedly back and forth showing the confusion on the studio floor. Then abruptly the SCREEN is filled with Vice President designate Nelson Rockefeller testifying before the Senate Rules Committee -- 

MAX (shouting into phone) 
Black it out! 

The SCREEN abruptly goes into BLACK as MAX slashes his phone back into its cradle. His PHONE promptly RINGS again, but MAX is already headed for the door. The SCREEN goes into STANDBY. His SQUAWK BOX suddenly blares -- 

SQUAWK BOX 
What the hell happened, Max? -- 

MAX (shouting as he exits) How the hell do I know? I'm going down now!

In July 1974, news personality Christine Chubbuck stared into the camera at the local Florida television station where she worked and said, "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first--attempted suicide." Whereupon she put a gun behind her ear and fired.
   Paddy took elements then current and fired them into the near future. A multinational conglomerate owned by Arabs buys up the fourth news network. News becomes entertainment. Opinion replaces content. Blood and guts dominates. A local left wing terrorist organization gets its own prime time show. Faye Dunaway becomes a man. William Holden becomes a woman. And when Howard Beale's ratings drop, the Network has him assassinated on the air. Ned Beatty tells the world that ATT and IBM are countries. Robert Duvall becomes a Republican. 

   It doesn't matter whether you know Angela Davis, Patty Hearst, Squeaky Fromme, Sara Jane Moore or even Gerald Ford. What matters is that you are perceptive enough to realize that what this movie says to the ages is that this movie shows how things are now and at the time it was made things were not yet quite that way. Think of it as watching "Star Trek" in the twenty-fifth century, except the show is well done. 

Burt Lancaster
network

Saturday, January 25, 2014

AMERICAN HUSTLE

    I am almost always predisposed against new movies, which is why I am particularly elated to tell you that American Hustle (2013) has affected me more than any movie I have seen in several years. To offer an example: when we first meet Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), he is piecing together with quantities of stick-um what another character in the film refers to as an elaborate comb-over. He carries a paunch that would encourage most men to cover themselves up. And he affects a look of cool with ridiculous shaded indoor glasses. He is, in short, the last person in the world that a man would emulate. Yet I guarantee you that by the mid point in this wonderful movie, any man watching this will want to look exactly like this guy, at least for the duration of the film.
    And that will work out fine because before the movie closes, half the women in the audience will want to be either Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), Irving's cohort, or wife Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence). 
    What that amazing sense of identification means is that the writing is tight, the improvisation works, the acting takes the art to new improved levels, the ensemble work among Bale, Lawrence, Adams and Bradley Cooper (the latter playing a Studio 54 version of an FBI agent) is more comfortable than compatible, which is the way it should be, and the cinematography actually implies emotions without beating us over the head with them. 
    American Hustle is everything that The Wolf of Wall Street yearned to be. 
   Based just loosely enough on the ABSCAM entrapment of the late 1970s, American Hustle tells a story of survival--and the cost of that survival. Irving and Sydney (inspired by Melvin Weinberg and Evelyn Knight, respectively), are two world class confidence players who take advantage of gamblers, cheaters and six-time losers hanging 'round the theatre (girl by the whirlpool's looking for a new fool). They are also constantly busy reinventing themselves as anything other than what they really are. Yet what they are isn't half bad. They are both into Duke Ellington while their contemporaries are into Chicago. They both love art while their contemporaries enjoy politics. And they love one another while everyone else apparently loves them. 
   I don't want to give away much more of the plot. However, I will say that the plot is amazing in the way that the tension builds and builds around first, genuine physical danger, and second, the possible loss of friendship. It is this latter point on which everything else in the movie spins. When Irving becomes a genuine friend of the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (played with perfect understatement by Jeremy Renner), we genuinely ache at the prospects of the former's behavior injuring the latter. 
    As marvelous as every component of this movie is, we might expect that with a running time of 138 minutes there would be some over-indulgences. That is not the case at all. Every second of this powerful movie is necessary for its resolution. Every grimace, every slight of hand, every weird look from an uncredited Robert DeNiro (he plays the hitman gangster) is necessary. This is very much a movie you will hate to see end. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

   The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is visually impressive. That is also the film's biggest problem. Released only in digital format, the film glistens and shimmers throughout inordinately numerous scenes of sex, drug use and tantrums which we intuit are intended satirically, although director Martin Scorsese gives us no particular reason to believe this is so. This movie is not the Return of A Clockwork Orange, although it might like to be. In order for the movie to be a satire, there would need to be some humor or wit attached and because of the utter lack of humanity expressed by real life sleaze-hole Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the only way to find this movie funny is to dive head first into the lifestyle that is being offered.
   Scorsese does make that head-long dive tempting, of course, because, as with any number of previous black comedy efforts (Goodfellas, for instance), the caricatures drag us in with the excesses of their actions. In one scene where a new employee in Belfort's scam of a phone room stops working two minutes early to clean the fish tank, second in command Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) publicly ridicules the schlep and then swallows the tropical fish in spite. We are also treated (or mistreated) to scenes of pitching midgets at bullseyes, dangling a gay chef out the window of an office building, and a drunken rape scene on an airliner. To the extent that anyone finds this funny depends on the extent to which that person can be led to identify with the Belfort character. 
    And that is where the other problem lies. Because we are denied any viewpoint other than that of Jordan Belfort--and because he ultimately gets away with his amazingly anti-human behavior (to the extent that he wrote a popular memoir about his life and also received one million dollars for the film rights, in addition to creating his own post-prison series of sales seminars), we never actually get to perceive the son of a bitch's actions from any place other than the lofty precipice Scorsese coaxes us onto. 
    The director, of course, is not obligated to dumb down his intentions in order to make them clear. So when the guy leaving the theatre ahead of me turns and says, "I wanna be Jordan. I wanna be that guy. Buying everything. Party time, man," I just shrug and figure there will always be idiots in the world. 
   But maybe I'm the real idiot. After all, what Martin Scorsese is saying here is that taking Quaaludes and snorting cocaine while lying to everyone about everything is a great way to get filthy fucking rich. (I beg your pardon about my use of the fuck word, but if you do see this movie, you will hear it uttered more than five hundred times, setting a record for people who concern themselves with such things.) Maybe I'm crazy to think that what Scorsese wants us to do is be aghast at the celebration of this kind of lifestyle. But let's consider the evidence to the contrary. In The King of Comedy, Rupert Pupkin (DeNiro, natch) gets away with everything and becomes a star even after kidnapping Johnny Carson (Jerry Lewis) and getting arrested by the FBI. Henry Hill in the aforementioned Goodfellas gave up virtually nothing in exchange for being a rat. Even in the not particularly worthwhile Casino, DeNiro (again!) loses very little in exchange for the demands he makes on life. So a pattern begins to develop. But, hey, let's give Scorsese the benefit of the doubt. Let's pretend or imagine that the real message behind all these movies and several others is that people are collectively stupid and that is the deep down reason why all these charlatans the director "appears" to be celebrating get away with so much; therefore, the man is doing us a public service by playing up just how corrupt our society is as a whole. Even if one is willing to make that colossal concession, then what the fuck is the point in making ten thousand movies with the same actors over and over again, every frame in which those men appear serving to repeat the same tired goddamned point, unless, oh wait, maybe I get it at last! What Scorsese is really doing is he's so fucking smart that what he's doing is he's proving our collective ignorance and worthlessness by lulling us into accepting his ultimately misanthropic viewpoint of humanity itself. In other words, the more commercially successful a given digitally released Scorsese film is, the more fucked up we are as a society. 
   Whew! At last, after all these years, I finally get it. Thank God. Now maybe the motherfucking asshole can make a goddamned movie about some other fucking piece of shit thing, like maybe caterpillars in the Bronx or some such shit because you old bastard, we fucking get it! We don't give a damn that Jonah Hill worked for only $60,000 because he wanted to be near you. We don't care that you think DiCaprio is the next DeNiro. We don't fucking give a good goddamn what you think about anything because the last halfway decent movie you made was Taxi fucking Driver and that was damn near forty years ago, unless you think that swill about New York actually proved anything to anybody. 
   Only a few good things can be said about The Wolf of Wall Street. Margot Robbie is more than just beautiful. She can actually act and the male dominated bullshit of this movie is far beneath her ultimate talents. Also Matthew McConaighey just gets better and better with every film in which he appears and the only reason he has such a brief appearance in this garbage heap of a film is that if he'd stuck around, nobody would have given a shit about Leonardo. 
   The only other thing of a positive nature regarding this teeming load of bile is that the details of the boiler room work are one hundred percent on the money. Every last instant of every scene featuring telephones is so perfect that for those moments you can almost forgive the cast and crew for making what is in the final analysis a morbidly reeking slab of infantile detritus. Get the clap before seeing this movie. You'll want a dose of penicillin afterwards anyway.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

JFK

   

   Here's the information on which we can all agree.
   In 1959, a young ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald traveled to Moscow in what was then the USSR. He visited the American Embassy on a Saturday. He delivered to a Mr. Snyder his United States passport, stating that he wished to renounce his U.S. citizenship, that he planned to seek Russian citizenship and that it was his intent to give information he had acquired as a radar operator to the Soviets. 
   Although the Russians ultimately declined Oswald's request for citizenship, they did ship him off to Minsk where he became a well-paid factory worker. It was while in Minsk that he met his future wife Marina. 
    He worked at getting an exit visa for himself and Marina for nearly a year. When the two Oswalds shipped themselves to the USA in the spring of 1962, they were greeted by a member of the Traveler's Aid Society, Spas T. Rankin. Lee was debriefed by the FBi twice, but no charges were brought against him.
    Meanwhile, back in the States, Lee Oswald held a number of different jobs, both in Fort Worth and in New Orleans. He applied for membership in something called the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a pro-Castro outfit headquartered out of New York City. While in Louisiana, Oswald distributed FPCC leaflets, some of which had the address 544 Camp Street, which seems incongruous since the same office building had a second address: 531 Lafayette. Both addresses had the same entrance. The incongruity is that the latter was the address of one Guy Banister, a former ONI, former FBI man who operated a private detective agency, as well as a way-station for anti-Castro Cubans training to take back the island from "the tyrant." In other words, the presumably pro-Castro, pro-Soviet Lee Harvey Oswald was hanging out in an office run by a virulent anti-Castro ex-government agent. 
    This weirdness is compounded when we recall that during the summer of 1963, Oswald contacted one Carlos Bringuier, head of an anti-Castro outfit in New Orleans. Oswald wanted to provide Bringuier with support, including a copy of his Marine training manual. One can only imagine Carlos' chagrin when, the very next day, he found out that Oswald was distributing pro-Castro FPCC fliers on Canal Street. Carlos confronted Lee, the latter encouraging the former to "Go ahead, hit me," almost, as witnesses would later claim, as if Oswald wanted Bringuier to assault him.
   (It has long been something more than a curiosity that when District Attorney Henry Wade was speaking at a press conference following the arrest of Oswald, he got the name of Oswald's committee wrong. He was correct by a man in the back of the room. That man said, "Henry, that's the Fair Play for Cuba Committee." That man's name was Jack Ruby, the same man who would soon gun down Oswald in front of twenty cops and the nation's television cameras. How would the owner of a local strip club know the correct name of Oswald's organization?)
   On September 27, 1963, one of three things happened. (1) Oswald traveled to Mexico City; (2) someone impersonating Oswald traveled to Mexico City, or (3) Oswald and an impersonator traveled to Mexico City, although not necessarily together. While there, an attempt by one or more of these Oswald-ites tried to get visas allowing them to travel first to Cuba and then to the USSR. Both requests were denied. Because these requests were made at the Cuban and Soviet Embassies, respectively, the CIA was monitoring phone calls in and out, as well as photographing anyone who entered or left the buildings. The photos the CIA supplied both the Warren Commission and House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) was clearly not Oswald. The transcripts of the phone conversations never once mention Oswald by name, although the inference is clear. 
    Shortly before Oswald's alleged trip to Mexico City, three men made a late night visit to an attractive woman named Sylvia Odio, whose father had been imprisoned by Castro for trying to overthrow his regime. Odio had founded a group called JURE (Junta Revolution). When the three men arrived (two Hispanics and one Anglo), the latter was introduced to Sylvia as "Leon Oswald." The men made her uncomfortable, so she asked them to leave. The next evening, one of the two Hispanics telephoned her, saying that Oswald was an ex-Marine who was on the side of JURE and who claimed the Cubans didn't have enough guts to kill Kennedy like they should have done after the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs. 
    What drives home the value of this information is that Sylvia Odio discussed all of this with several people weeks prior to the assassination of JFK.
    Based on these as well as many other conflicting actions, it appears that at least one other person was impersonating Lee Oswald in the months prior to the murder of the president. It is also plausible that this impersonation was at least in part a means of "sheep-dipping" the patsy in advance. How far back that dipping may have gone is hard to say. It may well have preceded the young ex-Marine's stay in the Soviet Union. 
    On November 22, 1963, Lee Oswald was working at the Texas School Book Depository at 411 Elm Street in Dallas. His job was to stack and move boxes of books, a duty somewhat ill-befitting a former Marine and trained radar operator who had taken Russian language courses and who had been spending his off hours with neighbors Bill and Ruth Paine (he of Bell Helicopters) and George Demohrenschildt (a member of the White Russian community and former pro-Nazi). About what happened a little after twelve-thirty that afternoon, there are conflicting stories.
    According to the official Warren Report, Oswald constructed a sniper's nest in the sixth floor of the Depository, ate a chicken sandwich while calmly waiting for the President's limousine to approach. The Warren version has it that Oswald and only Oswald fired three shots from a window there, using a Manlicher Carcano rifle. The first shot missed the vehicle entirely, striking the pavement near the Triple Underpass, a fragment of which pavement chipped off and struck the face of bystander James Tague. The second bullet penetrated Kennedy's throat from the rear, existed from the front, struck Texas Governor Connally from behind, puncturing his fifth rib, existing his chest, striking his right wrist, fracturing same, entering his right leg, and ending up in pristine condition on a stretcher at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The third and final shot, this report declares, was the fatal head shot that took Kennedy from behind, blowing his brains out in front of his wife and other witnesses. 
    The second official government investigation (HSCA) was far more interesting and certainly more provocative. These hearings were opened to a number of researchers and critics of the Warren Report. The findings of this investigation were:

    This report shares with the Warren Commission Report the idea that Oswald did the shooting. Two other official reports--one helmed by Ramsey Clark, the other by Senator Frank Church--reached the same conclusion about the identity of the President's shooter. 
   Yet a third view has lingered. That view holds that Kennedy was most definitely murdered as the result of a conspiracy and that just possibly Oswald had been attempting to prevent the assassination and had been betrayed by the organizers of the actual plot.

    All of this said, we are approaching the fiftieth anniversary of that terrible day in November. There have been already a number of books and movies which are, in one way or another, attempts to either clarify, muddy, or exploit the situation, not the least of which being the recent film Parkland, as well as the reissue of John Newman's invaluable if occasionally confusing Oswald and the CIA. One particularly bad movie that could have been excellent was Executive Action (1973) which sort of combined the Mark Lane view that members of government Intelligence were behind the plot with the Penn Jones Jr argument that a suspicious number of people connected with the assassination died soon after and under bizarre circumstances.
    By far the best movie dealing with the subject remains Oliver Stone's JFK (1991). With a phenomenal all-star cast (Kevin Costner, Sissy Spacek, Jay O. Sanders, Ed Asner, Jack Lemmon, Gary Oldham, Laurie Metcalf, Joe Pesci, and Walter Matthau, and others), this incredible movie posits several workable theories, the connecting thread being motive, which in this case is a mix of Kennedy's National Security Action Memo 263 calling for the withdrawal of the first of one thousand troops from the imbroglio of Vietnam and his refusal to invade Cuba. 
    It really doesn't matter whether one believes in a conspiracy involving the assassination or not. What matters is that Stone's film is one of the most successful "art films" of all time. Part documentary, part drama, part real footage, part recreation, all of it intermingled strategically to persuade, yes, of course, but more importantly to drag us onto a twist of speedway suspense with genuine consequences. After all, if the solution to the puzzle of the murder of the thirty-fifth President of the United States remains, after five decades, in the words of likely conspirator David Ferrie, "a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma," then what can we know with certainty about our own day-to-day lives? 

Monday, November 4, 2013

BRINK'S

    The money security folks known as Brink's have suffered two significant robberies. The latter, occurring in 1981, was far more deserving of enshrinement in celluloid, considering it involved a group called the Black Liberation Army, along with some disaffected members of the former Weather Underground, then calling themselves the May 19th Communist Organization. Two police officers and one security guard were murdered. The robbers netted $1.6 million. Flash forward to 2008: conspirator Kathy Boudin was appointed an adjunct professor at the Columbia School of Social Work. 
    Now that's a fascinating true story. 
    The first big Brink's robbery happened in January 1950 when robbers made off with $2.7 million (slightly less than half in cash, the rest in checks). Six of the eleven-member gang were not arrested until six days before the statute of limitations was set to expire. 
   This, too, was a great premise for a motion picture.
    Unfortunately, the movie we got was The Brink's Job (1978). 
   The casting and acting cannot be faulted. Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, Peter Boyle, Paul Sorvino, Allan Garfield and Warren Oates: these people are absolutely at the top of their game. Sorvino, in particular, has never been more relaxed and cool than he is here. 
   The problem is that director William Friedkin simply didn't know what to with Walon Green's less than impressive screenplay. Evidently both men thought they were making a buddy film. First rule of the buddy film: the men involved need to like one another, at least once in a while, how ever grudgingly. Second rule of the buddy film: the audience must believe that the men in question are at least marginally capable of carrying out whatever operation that serves as the plot device. Friedkin and Green forgot these two crucial rules. 
    A good rule for making a movie about a robbery is that whatever significance the robbery may have be in some way communicated to the viewers--and it is not enough to call the robbery "the biggest."
    The final problem with The Brink's Job is that it is staged as comedic, if not quite an out and out comedy. That would be no problem except that lame attempts at occasional slapstick work solidly against some of the film's best performances, especially one where Oates appears to struggle against collapsing psychologically when interrogated by the FBI men.
    Oh, yeah: and don't waste the talent of Gina Rowlands.