Sunday, December 26, 2010

Middle Class Dreams & Hollywood

Today's New York Times has two key pieces on the "Middle Class": "Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?" by Frank Rich; and "Hollywood's Class Warfare" by A.O. Scott, shown below.  In the course of writing a screenplay, I've been studying It's a Wonderful Life, which epitomizes the quest for the middle class dream... it's becoming more and more illusive, which Hollywood is reflecting and reinforcing... Where is Frank Capra when you need him?

December 25, 2010

Who Killed the Disneyland Dream?

OF the many notable Americans we lost in 2010, three leap out as paragons of a certain optimistic American spirit that we also seemed to lose this year. Two you know: Theodore Sorensen, the speechwriter present at the creation of J.F.K.’s clarion call to “ask what you can do for your country,” and Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who brought peace to the killing fields of Bosnia in the 1990s. Holbrooke, who was my friend, came of age in the Kennedy years and exemplified its can-do idealism. He gave his life to the proposition that there was nothing an American couldn’t accomplish if he marshaled his energy and talents. His premature death — while heroically bearing the crushing burdens of Afghanistan and Pakistan — is tragic in more ways than many Americans yet realize.

But a third representative American optimist who died this year, at age 91, is a Connecticut man who was not a player in great events and whom I’d never heard of until I read his Times obituary: Robbins Barstow, an amateur filmmaker who for decades recorded his family’s doings in home movies of such novelty and quality that one of them, the 30-minute “Disneyland Dream,” was admitted to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress two years ago. That rare honor elevates Barstow’s filmmaking to a pantheon otherwise restricted mostly to Hollywood classics, from “Citizen Kane” to “Star Wars.”

“Disneyland Dream” was made in the summer of 1956, shortly before the dawn of the Kennedy era. You can watch it on line at or on YouTube. Its narrative is simple. The young Barstow family of Wethersfield, Conn. — Robbins; his wife, Meg; and their three children aged 4 to 11 — enter a nationwide contest to win a free trip to Disneyland, then just a year old. The contest was sponsored by 3M, which asked contestants to submit imaginative encomiums to the wonders of its signature product. Danny, the 4-year-old, comes up with the winning testimonial, emblazoned on poster board: “I like ‘Scotch’ brand cellophane tape because when some things tear then I can just use it.”

Soon enough, the entire neighborhood is cheering the Barstows as they embark on their first visit to the golden land of Anaheim, Calif. As narrated by Robbins Barstow (he added his voiceover soundtrack to the silent Kodachrome film in 1995), every aspect of this pilgrimage is a joy, from the “giant TWA Super Constellation” propeller plane (seating 64) that crosses the country in a single day (with a refueling stop in St. Louis) to the home-made Davy Crockett jackets the family wears en route.

To watch “Disneyland Dream” now as a boomer inevitably sets off pangs of longing for a vanished childhood fantasyland: not just Walt Disney’s then-novel theme park but all the sunny idylls of 1950s pop culture. As it happens, Disney’s Davy Crockett, the actor Fess Parker, also died this year. So did Barbara Billingsley, matriarch of the sitcom “Leave It to Beaver,” whose fictional family, the Cleavers, first appeared in 1957 and could have lived next door to the Barstows. But the real power of this film is more subtle and pertinent than nostalgia.

When the Barstows finally arrive at the gates of Disneyland itself and enter its replica of Main Street, U.S.A. — “reconstructed as it might have been half a century earlier,” as the narration says — we realize that the America of “Disneyland Dream” is as many years distant from us as that picture-postcard Main Street was from this Connecticut family. The almost laughably low-tech primitivism of the original Disneyland, the futuristic Tomorrowland included, looks as antique in 2010 as Main Street’s horse-drawn buggies and penny-candy emporium looked to the Barstows.

Many of America’s more sweeping changes since 1956 are for the better. You can’t spot a nonwhite face among the family’s neighbors back home or at Disneyland. Indeed, according to Neal Gabler’s epic biography of Disney, civil rights activists were still pressuring the park to hire black employees as late as 1963, the same year that Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington and Betty Friedan’s “Feminine Mystique” started upending the Wonder Bread homogeneity that suffuses the America of “Disneyland Dream.”

But, for all those inequities, economic equality seemed within reach in 1956, at least for the vast middle class. (Michael Harrington’s exposé of American poverty, “The Other America,” would not rock this complacency until 1962.) The sense that the American promise of social and economic mobility was attainable to anyone who sought it permeates “Disneyland Dream” from start to finish.

The Barstows exemplified that postwar middle class. Robbins Barstow’s day job was as a director of professional development for a state teachers’ union. His family wanted for nothing, but finances were tight. Once in California they cheerfully stretch their limited expense money ($300 for the week) by favoring picnics over restaurants. As they dive into the pool at the old Huntington Sheraton, the grand Pasadena hotel where they’re bivouacked, they marvel at its reminders of “bygone days of more leisurely and gentle upper-class style and elegance.”

The key word in that sentence is “bygone.” The Barstows accept as a birthright an egalitarian American capitalism where everyone has a crack at “upper class” luxury if they strive for it (or are clever enough to win it). It’s an America where great corporations like 3M can be counted upon to make innovative products, sustain an American work force, and reward their customers with a Cracker Jack prize now and then. The Barstows are delighted to discover that the restrooms in Fantasyland are marked “Prince” and “Princess.” In America, anyone can be royalty, even in the john.

“Disneyland Dream” is an irony-free zone. “For our particular family at that particular time, we agreed with Walt Disney that this was the happiest place on earth,” Barstow concludes at the film’s end, from his vantage point of 1995. He sees himself as part of “one of the most fortunate families in the world to have this marvelous dream actually come true” and is “forever grateful to Scotch brand cellophane tape for making all this possible for us.”

Only 15 months after the Barstows returned home, America’s faith in its own unbounded future, so palpable in “Disneyland Dream,” would be shaken by the Soviet launch of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. Could it be that America, for all its might, entrepreneurship and brainpower, was falling behind its cold war antagonist in the race to the future? It was in that shadow that John F. Kennedy promised a New Frontier that would reclaim America’s heroic destiny, and do so with shared sacrifice and a renewed commitment to the lower-case democratic values central to both the American and Disneyland dreams of families like the Barstows.

This month our own neo-Kennedy president — handed the torch by J.F.K.’s last brother and soon to face the first Congress without a Kennedy since 1947 — identified a new “Sputnik moment” for America. This time the jolt was provided by the mediocre performance of American high school students, who underperformed not just the Chinese but dozens of other countries in standardized tests of science, math and reading. In his speech on the subject, President Obama called for more spending on research and infrastructure, more educational reform and more clean energy technology. (All while reducing the deficit, mind you.) Worthy goals, but if you watch “Disneyland Dream,” you realize something more fundamental is missing from America now: the bedrock faith in the American way that J.F.K. could tap into during his era’s Sputnik moment.

How many middle-class Americans now believe that the sky is the limit if they work hard enough? How many trust capitalism to give them a fair shake? Middle-class income started to flatten in the 1970s and has stagnated ever since. While 3M has continued to prosper, many other companies that actually make things (and at times innovative things) have been devalued, looted or destroyed by a financial industry whose biggest innovation in 20 years, in the verdict of the former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, has been the cash machine.

It’s a measure of how rapidly our economic order has shifted that nearly a quarter of the 400 wealthiest people in America on this year’s Forbes list make their fortunes from financial services, more than three times as many as in the first Forbes 400 in 1982. Many of America’s best young minds now invent derivatives, not Disneylands, because that’s where the action has been, and still is, two years after the crash. In 2010, our system incentivizes high-stakes gambling — “this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place,” as Calvin Trillin memorably wrote last year — rather than the rebooting and rebuilding of America.

In last week’s exultant preholiday press conference, Obama called for a “thriving, booming middle class, where everybody’s got a shot at the American dream.” But it will take much more than rhetorical Scotch tape to bring that back. The Barstows of 1956 could not have fathomed the outrageous gap between this country’s upper class and the rest of us. America can’t move forward until we once again believe, as they did, that everyone can enter Frontierland if they try hard enough, and that no one will be denied a dream because a private party has rented out Tomorrowland.

December 22, 2010

Hollywood’s Class Warfare

THE idea of the universal middle class is a pervasive expression of American egalitarianism — and perhaps the only one left. In politics the middle has all but swallowed up the ends. Tax cuts aimed at the wealthy and social programs that largely benefit the poor must always be presented as, above all, good for the middle class, a group that thus seems to include nearly everyone. It is also a group that is, at least judging from the political rhetoric of the last 20 years, perennially in trouble: shrinking, forgotten, frustrated, afraid of falling down and scrambling to keep up.

In the movies, which exist partly to smooth over the rough patches in our collective life, the same basic picture takes on a more benign coloration. Middle-classness is a norm, an ideal and a default setting. For a long time most commercial entertainments not set in the distant past or in some science-fiction superhero fantasyland have taken place in a realm of generic ease and relative affluence. Everyone seems to have a cool job, a fabulous kitchen, great clothes and a nice car. Nothing too fancy or showy, of course, and also nothing too clearly marked with real-world signs of status or its absence.

The characters in, let’s say, a typical romantic comedy or family drama are blander, better-looking reflections of what the members of the audience are imagined to imagine themselves to be: hard workers and eager shoppers, neither greedy nor needy. Those airbrushed mirror images draw from a common well of (reasonable) aspirations and (mild) anxieties. The people on screen are ambitious but not obsessively so, educated but not snobbish about it. Mostly they want to be happy, and we want them to be happy because we want to be happy too.

Right at the moment, though, we may be feeling a little grumpy, and otherwise inoffensive movies (“How do You Know,” for instance, or “Love and Other Drugs”) can look more clueless than playful in their genial assumptions of material comfort and financial security. More than that, the cheery, harmonious universalism that Hollywood has promoted and relied upon for so long seems out of tune with the surrounding cacophony. And lo and behold, the screen suddenly bristles with something that looks like class consciousness.

Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” takes on the ultra-privileged Winklevoss twins. The real-life Micky Ward in “The Fighter” takes on the world and his own family, just like the fictitious protagonists of “Winter’s Bone” and “The Town.” Denzel Washington, a heroic working stiff in “Unstoppable,” takes on a mighty train (and the corporate fat cats more concerned with the bottom line than with public safety). A howl of anti-Wall Street rage sounds through Charles Ferguson’s documentary “Inside Job” and, more bombastically if less coherently, through Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” To the barricades!

But — if I may sloganize further — which side are you on? There is no doubt that in the past year, through seasons of economic malaise and political anger, there has seemed to be a lot more division than consensus in American life. And this friction is often articulated and analyzed in what sounds like the language of class. Not in the old European (or, God forbid, socialist) sense of the word. The history of the world might be, as Karl Marx said, the history of class struggle but the history of American exceptionalism insists otherwise. So we have instead, at this moment in history, a culture war, a battle between populism and elitism, a sectional conflict between the coasts and the heartland and ideological dispute between liberals and conservatives.

This confused Hobbesian state of belligerence, a prominent feature of the media and political landscape for at least the past decade (though rarely reflected in mass-marketed movies), is persuasively sketched in Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom,” surely the year’s most talked- and written-about novel. Its main characters are the members of a proudly, perhaps smugly, right-thinking — which is to say left-leaning — Minnesota family whose veneer of social responsibility and liberal niceness is shattered by external fissures and internal pressures. Walter and Patty Berglund are do-gooders and gentrifiers, nutritionally and environmentally conscious NPR listeners (and readers of The New York Times) who have a knack for inspiring rage and resentment in their neighbors and at least one of their children. If Walter and Patty are unable to refute the accusation that they think they’re better than everyone else, it’s partly because they do.

The sense of class conflict that ripples through Mr. Franzen’s novel is all the more invidious and unsettling because nearly all of it takes place among neighbors, friends and family members. Class warfare, in other words, is carried out as a civil war between segments of the same class, who are only slightly caricatured in the novel’s sympathetic satire. Rush Limbaugh on the radio in one house — the one with the big vinyl-sided addition and the S.U.V. in the driveway — versus Garrison Keillor in the other, a rehabbed old Victorian where the boxy old Volvo has recently been replaced by a Prius.

Maybe in much of America these warring clans don’t live in such immediate proximity, but neither are they as conveniently divided as we might sometimes suppose, or as a movie like “The Kids Are All Right” might make it seem. Nic and Jules, the lesbian parents played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore, are cut from the same cloth as the Berglunds, but they exist mainly in a world of the like-minded, spared the kind of hostility that Walter and Patty habitually inspire.

Someone once said that there are no red states or blue states, just united states, which may be true except for the united part. That, at least, is Mr. Franzen’s insight: that disunion is a much more diffuse and intimate condition than our political expressions of it might lead us to suppose. (And this leads him back, eventually, to a quiet rediscovery of the basic truth that we’re all in this together.)

Or, to put it another way: Class is everywhere and nowhere. The feeling of class antagonism is what allows the Mark Zuckerberg of “The Social Network,” a child of suburban prosperity, a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and a student at Harvard, to feel that he is excluded from the highest reaches of social distinction, an underdog with something to prove. That same feeling percolates in Micky Ward’s Lowell, a few years and an hour’s drive from Zuckerberg’s Cambridge but a different world altogether. There Micky’s girlfriend, Charlene, is regarded by his sisters as superior and stuck-up — a virtual Berglund, even though what they call her is an “MTV skank” — because she briefly went to college and believes that Micky can rise above his hardscrabble circumstances.

Micky — like Ree Dolly, the Missouri teenager in “Winter’s Bone” — wants out, just as surely as Zuckerberg wants in. What they want into and out of are the closed systems defined by custom and kinship that demarcate the ends of the social spectrum. The special status of the Winklevoss twins, or of the shadowy bankers in “Wall Street” (or indeed of the couple in Jonathan Dee’s novel “The Privileges,” speaking of works of fiction by authors named Jonathan) is defined not only by wealth, but also by a vestigial mystique of aristocracy.

A countervailing mystique clings to the streets of Lowell — and Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood in “The Town” — and to the hollows of Appalachia and the Ozarks. The defining common trait of these places is not so much poverty or criminality, though these certainly flourish, as tribalism.

Family ties and longstanding traditions, which in the modern world of “Winter’s Bone” and “The Town” have come to include methamphetamine production and bank robbing, are what complicate and sometimes doom any effort to escape. Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly wants to join the Army. Ben Affleck’s Doug MacRay in “The Town” wants to run away with the pretty bank employee who was once his hostage. Mark Wahlberg’s Micky Ward wants a shot at the title.

What they all really want is entrée into the middle class, which is why these movies can set them up as objects of audience sympathy and identification. The people around them are variously scary, comical, noble and grotesque, to be pitied, feared and wondered at. But they are consistently exotic, always other.

This is not to say that they are unrecognizable or unrealistic, or that the long-overdue discovery of the white underclass on the part of filmmakers is not a welcome and interesting development. (It is also interesting that, in novels, in political coverage and in movies not starring Mr. Washington, race and class tend to be treated as mutually exclusive concepts, rather than as strands in the same contradictory knot.) But the implicit assumption that the viewer, whatever his or her actual social circumstances, belongs in the middle — where the most sympathetic characters also long to be — is stronger than the will of any particular writer or director.

And this same assumption is at work in movies — and, especially, television series — that explore the fear of dropping out of the middle class rather than the impulse to climb into it. In John Wells’s “Company Men,” a brutal chronicle of corporate downsizing, the characters face the loss of jobs, income and, much more frighteningly, the collapse of their identities. It may be possible to claw your way from the middle to the top, but it is not as if the comforts of family and locale that hold Ree Dolly and Micky Ward in place are waiting for anyone on the way down. The battered petty-bourgeois breadwinners in “Hung” and “Breaking Bad,” for instance, find their way into stereotypical professions of the underclass (sex work and drug dealing), but only as a desperate means of staying in place. They do not become part of a culture of poverty, but rather parodic, degraded specimens of suburban individualism.

Should we laugh, cry, or envy them? It’s hard to say. Back in the last Depression the class divide was also, characteristically, a genre divide: films about the poor were crime stories or melodramas, while comedy was the favored (though not exclusive) province of the rich. Think of James Cagney and his fellow scrappy slum kids on one hand, and the gowned and tuxedoed inhabitants of an Ernst Lubitsch society comedy (like “Design for Living”) on the other.

Dramas of poverty are more marginal than they used to be; they tend to occupy the art houses rather than the multiplexes. Comedies about the very rich are rarer, and are often camouflaged as stories about folks like us: “Sex and The City 2” is a notable recent example, since its luxury-swamped characters were not made to seem exotic at all, just blessed with taste, luck and money.

Which is not, at least in the movies, the same as class, since taste and money are things all of us can — and should, and surely want to — acquire. For the price of a movie ticket, perhaps.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Arthur Penn & Tony Curtis...

Arthur Penn and Tony Curtis died one day apart - on Tuesday, September 28 and Wednesday, September 29, respectively. But, while they were roughly the same age, they were from entirely different eras in filmmaking as this New York Times article illumines.

New York Times
October 2, 2010
How Arthur Penn Undid Tony Curtis

ON Tuesday, the director Arthur Penn died in New York City, the day after his 88th birthday.

On Wednesday, the actor Tony Curtis died in his home near Las Vegas. He was 85.

By conventional standards, these two important contributors to the American motion picture would be considered members of the same generation. Born in the 1920s, they were both sons of immigrants, and grew up in hardscrabble environments — Mr. Curtis in the Bronx, and Mr. Penn in a peripatetic childhood divided among New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia.

But in Hollywood terms, they stood on two sides of a great divide, between Old Hollywood and New. Mr. Curtis belonged to the last generation of stars discovered and developed under the studio system. Signed by Universal in 1948, he changed his name from Bernard Schwartz and began working his way up from bit roles in small films, allowing the studio to shape his image and manage his appearances in the fan magazines.

Mr. Penn came to movies late and reluctantly, after beginning his career in New York theater and live television. Hollywood remained an alien environment, a factory of empty escapism that he hoped to redeem by introducing Method acting and significant social themes.

For his part, Mr. Curtis was a happy camper, gamely working his way through whatever costume dramas and light comedies the studio assigned to him. In 1957, however, he broke away to make an independent film, “Sweet Smell of Success,” in which his performance as an eager-to-please press agent demonstrated true skill and led to his being cast in “The Defiant Ones,” a social allegory that spoke to the growing civil rights movement and earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor.

But he was soon back to comedies and light dramas, where his good looks were an asset rather than a distraction.

In the meantime, Mr. Penn was eagerly absorbing the lessons of the European New Wave directors, with their insistence on formal experimentation, sexual frankness and themes of alienation and revolt. Mr. Penn made the highly Europeanized art house movie “Mickey One” with the actor Warren Beatty, and when François Truffaut decided against directing Mr. Beatty’s first project as a producer, the gangster film “Bonnie and Clyde,” Mr. Beatty lured Mr. Penn with promises of autonomy and the rare privilege of the final cut.

Released in the summer of 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” developed into a bona fide success, supported by critics and audiences alike. It was as if Hollywood had given birth to a European art film, and its combination of sex, violence and anomie was thrillingly unlike almost anything American audiences had seen before.

Earlier in 1967, Mr. Curtis reunited with the director of “Sweet Smell of Success,” Alexander Mackendrick, to appear in the gently farcical “Don’t Make Waves.” Mr. Curtis played a New York tourist who wakes up on Malibu Beach to find himself surrounded by surfers, skydivers and diverse representatives of the rapidly emerging counterculture. By the end of 1967, “Don’t Make Waves” seemed like a quaint relic, and Mr. Curtis’s career as a leading man (despite the daring comeback attempt of “The Boston Strangler” in 1968) was effectively over.

Change does not happen overnight, even in an industry as volatile as motion pictures, and for a few more years the two Hollywoods continued to exist side by side. The years 1966 and 1967 also saw the release of Howard Hawks’s last great Western, “El Dorado,” starring John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, and Charles Chaplin’s last film, “A Countess from Hong Kong,” in which the legendary silent comedian unsuccessfully attempted to graft his genius onto Marlon Brando.

“Bonnie and Clyde” did not destroy Tony Curtis, but it did pull the rug from under him: the calculating company man, the eager assimilationist, the striving outsider — all aspects of his screen personality that filmgoers of the ’50s and early ’60s found appealing were suddenly in doubt, subsumed by Clyde Barrow’s nihilistic hedonism and the quivering sensitivity of Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.”

Today, even that period seems remote: The paternalistic producers of Old Hollywood have disappeared, but in their place are the marketing executives of the new — probably not what Arthur Penn had in mind when he struck his first blow for cinematic freedom. Even in the dream factory, be careful what you wish for.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Tony Curtis...

Tony Curtis, a wonderful American actor, whose formal schooling included mostly the "school of hard knocks," left us on September 29, at the age of 85, on the heels of Arthur Penn's passing the day before...

Debbie Reynolds told Larry King that Curtis "loved life" and that, what made him a great star is, "he had the 'it' thing... he had 'it'."

Ironically, Jamie Lee Curtis spoke with Joy Behar about her father three weeks before his death. She said while he didn't raise her, that was no strike against him -- it's how it was done in those years after a couple separated. Her mother Janet Leigh and her father divorced, in 1962, when she was 3. And, before that he was away making one film after another. But, she said, "we've repaired it and we're good."

Right now, Turner Classic Movies is airing The Defiant Ones, a rare treat in which his serious, dramatic side was on full display... one of Tony's many films which TCM has been airing today in this moving 24 hour memorial tribute to him...

Until I get around to writing more about Tony, as a placeholder, here's the IMDb bio ... as well as the New York Times summary of his remarkable life... ...
and some video clips of his most memorable films such as Some Like It Hot, Sweet Smell of Success, The Defiant Ones, and on the list goes...

And, now, time to get down to the serious business of watching The Defiant Ones, which I never had the pleasure of seeing...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Arthur Penn... and Patricia Neal...

RIP, Arthur Penn, film and theater directing genius... Here's the Wall Street Journal's blog# ... and the New York Times' obit... ... ...

Amazingly, Penn died on Tuesday, September 28, the day after he turned 88...

Coincidentally, I just happened to be reading the chapter in Patricia Neal's book, As I Am, about her experience with Arthur Penn, last night about the time Penn died ...

"It was April in 1959," she opens, "when I heard from Arthur Penn, the director. He was casting William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, about the young Helen Keller. Everyone knew it was bound to be one of the biggest hits of the season and the vehicle of a lifetime for the actress who played Annie Sullivan, Helen's teacher... The only problem was, Arthur was not offering me that part... We were in rehearsal only a few days when Anne (Bancroft) and Arthur invited me for a drink. Arthur asked me quite candidly if I resented not playing the star role. I was equally candid. I admitted that I did, indeed, find it tough to step down, but I was trying my damnedest to do it graciously. They breathed sighs of relief. Both of them thanked me for being honest and assured me they knew how difficult it was. I can truthfully say that the fact that I adored Anne and Arthur helped..."

Patricia Neal, herself, died on August 8, 2010 at the age of 84... so, now they can continue the conversation!

See IMDbPro for complete list of his film & TV credits...

"He directed 8 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances: Patty Duke, Anne Bancroft, Estelle Parsons, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, Michael J. Pollard and Chief Dan George. Duke, Bancroft and Parsons won Oscars for their performances in one of Penn's movies. Won Broadway's 1960 Tony Award as Best Director (Dramatic) for The Miracle Worker. He was also Tony-nominated two other times: in 1958 as Best Director for Two for the Seesaw and in 1961 as Best Director (Dramatic) for All the Way Home." IMDb

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"The Blind Side"...

A quick note about The Blind Side, which I happened to see on Friday, July 30, at Bethesda's Annual Summer Film Fest, "Stars on the Avenue," in the heart of this marvelous town, boasting the most restaurants per square feet of any locale in the country. It's an appropriate town to screen The Blind Side since, besides its progressive leanings, the father of the film's featured family was a successful restaurateur!

The film is based on a heartwarming true story about a family -- the Tuohy's from the Republican part of Memphis -- that adopts "Big Mike" (i.e., Mike Oher) from the Memphis projects and how, building on what his mother put into him, Michael is gradually transformed with education, encouragement and love, into a football star. This amazingly inspiring film is based on the book by Michael Lewis. And now I know why it won an Oscar (i.e., "Best Actress" for Sandra Bullock's performance as Leigh Anne Tuohy, who rescues Michael).

Last winter when I was getting friends together for Run-up to the Oscars movie get-togethers -- a tradition I began in 2003, when I organized the first one to cheer up a filmloving friend, suffering from Lou Gehrig's, who has since died -- we decided to see Crazy Heart, the film starring Jeff Bridges, instead of The Blind Side. Bridges, mirroring Bullock, was receiving all the awards for Best Actor (Golden Globes, SAG, etc.) And, now the picture is complete!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Letters to Juliet"...

What an amazing little film "Letters to Juliet" is.

It's about an American girl on vacation in Italy with her fiance, who finds an unanswered "letter to Juliet" -- one of thousands left at the fictional lovers' Verona courtyard, typically answered by "secretaries of Juliet." When she sets out to find the lovers referenced in the letter, the story unfolds in unimaginably satisfying ways.

Of course, with a $30M budget, you expect quality. But, Director Gary Winick has turned out a real beauty, relatable for both young and not so young lovers alike.

Amanda Seyfried as "Sophie" and Christopher Egan as "Charlie" are wonderful actors with great chemistry. And, Vanessa Redgrave as "Claire" is a delight, with her husband playing a surprise role.

Two thumbs up for "Letters to Juliet"!

For more, see

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Hollywood and the "war on terror"...

The apolitical manner in which American film is creatively reflecting and interpreting the "war on terror" bespeaks ambivalence about the war, A.O. Scott argued recently in the New York Times (below).

Much of this ambivalence can be traced to new cultural attitudes that blossomed starting in the 1960s, in the wake of the Vietnam War - a theme the film The Divided, about which I wrote , explored. Here's the trailer: .

While it's a good thing that we think more critically about our nation's role in the world, it's a bad thing when trust is so eroded that suggesting heroic military acts are inspired by the desire to defend American freedoms and extend them to the world, is met with cynicism and even derision. But, the example set by our soldiers, whom Tom Brokaw calls the new greatest generation, is proving a powerful antidote, which filmmakers reflecting this phenomenon, apolitically or not, can't help but inject into the body politic.

February 5, 2010
Apolitics and the War Film
Last Tuesday, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences bestowed nine nominations on “The Hurt Locker,” Kathryn Bigelow’s nerve-racking, formally astonishing tour de force about a squad of United States Army bomb disposal specialists plying their hazardous trade in Baghdad.

After seven years in Iraq, eight in Afghanistan, and dozens of feature films touching — sometimes gingerly, sometimes allegorically — on both conflicts, this recognition seems both timely and overdue. At last, attention is being paid to a tough, uncompromising drama (which is also a doozy of an action movie) about the realities of combat on the ground.

Since its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008, “The Hurt Locker” has been praised by critics for many things, including, frequently, its apolitical approach to the war. In interview after interview, Ms. Bigelow and the screenwriter, Mark Boal, whose experience as an embedded journalist in Baghdad informs much of the story, have insisted that the movie takes no position on the American mission in Iraq, restricting its focus to the men carrying out that mission.

Whether or not “The Hurt Locker” sustains this neutrality may be arguable, but the film’s intentions to stay out of messy debates about the wisdom or effectiveness of American military policy is perhaps the least distinctive thing about it. When it comes to current military engagements on the Asian landmass, Karl von Clausewitz’s assertion that war is “the continuation of politics by other means” is one memo — and perhaps one of the few clichés — that American filmmakers have largely chosen to ignore.

A few days before the Oscar nominations were announced, a jury at the Sundance Film Festival awarded a grand prize to “Restrepo,” a documentary directed by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that follows an Army platoon through a dangerous year in a deadly part of Afghanistan. A directors’ statement on that film’s Web site, after noting that “the war in Afghanistan has become highly politicized,” defends the decision not to engage in political arguments in strong terms. The experiences of the soldiers, the directors write, “are important to understand, regardless of one’s political beliefs. Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality. This is reality.”

I have not seen “Restrepo,” and I am eager to encounter, in the safety of a screening room, the reality it depicts. But the claim that reality trumps any interpretation of it, and the implication that the unmediated, first-hand depiction of combat is the most authentic representation of war, are both debatable and familiar. The first important documentary about American troops in Iraq, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s “Gunner Palace” — filmed in 2003, at the beginning of the insurgency that dominates “The Hurt Locker” — was similarly forceful in favoring immediate experience over ideological debate. And nearly every other feature since, documentary and fictional, has followed suit.

Last year, “Brothers” and “The Messenger,” two well-reviewed dramas about soldiers coming home, turned the experiential gulf between those who have seen combat and those who have stayed home into psychological and domestic drama. But while these movies were candid in showing the traumatic effects of battle on soldiers and their families, they were typically reticent about the meanings and implications of that trauma, and the filmmakers were typically vocal in denying any political agenda.

There have been some exceptions to this rule. Brian de Palma’s “Redacted” and Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah,” released in fall 2007, questioned the war in Iraq, one in anger and the other in sorrow and both with emphasis on the effects of the fighting on men in the field. Other films from that year, like Robert Redford’s “Lions for Lambs” and Gavin Hood’s “Rendition,” tried to dramatize debates then unfolding in the public sphere about the justice or prudence of American policy. None of these movies were particularly successful, either with audiences or in their earnest, cautious attempts to frame the issues of post-9/11 geopolitics.

It may be that movies, at least as they are currently made and consumed, can’t bridge the gulf between the theater of war and the arena of politics. It is also probably true that the soldiers who are the main characters in fictional and nonfictional war movies don’t talk much about the larger context in which they struggle to survive and get the job done. But in previous wars — in older war movies, that is — they could be a bit more forthcoming. Sailors and infantrymen in World War II combat pictures were known to wax eloquent about the pasting they were going to give Hitler and Tojo, while the grunts in the post-Vietnam Vietnam movies often gave voice to the cynicism and alienation that were part of that war’s actual and cinematic legacy.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different. They are being fought, for one thing, largely out of sight of the American public and largely by an army of professionals. And the respect afforded those professionals — an admiration that is the most pervasive and persuasive aspect of “The Hurt Locker” — extends across the political spectrum. At the same time, though, the political contention about the wars themselves has been vociferous and endless, even as it has involved a measure of ambivalence and, as the wars have gone on, a lot of position-changing and second guessing.

Perhaps the decision to stay out of these debates is a way of acknowledging this ambivalence. Or perhaps filmmakers, aware of the volatility of popular opinion, are leery of turning off potential ticket buyers on one side or another. Or maybe, in the end, the gap between beliefs about war and its reality is too wide for any single movie to capture. Politics finds its way into films like “In the Loop,” Armando Iannucci’s scabrous satire of diplomatic back-stabbing (nominated for an adapted screenplay Oscar), and “No End in Sight,” Charles Ferguson’s meticulous documentary on the disastrous early stages of the Iraqi war. But the disconnection between the policy players in those movies and the guys in “The Hurt Locker” and “Restrepo” seems absolute. That may say more about reality than about the movies.

A. O. Scott is a film critic for The Times.

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Monday, February 1, 2010

Mel Gibson, filmmaker...

All serious, consequential filmmakers have a consistent, animating theme and cinematic vision.

For Frank Capra, known for such gems as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life," it was the "importance of the individual," laced with humor to warm an audience to his core message. For Billy Wilder ("Double Indemnity," "Sunset Boulevard," etc.) it was human foibles, of which Hollywood is all too familiar, revealed through wit, cynicism and humor.

For Mel Gibson, his animating theme - despite, or perhaps because of, his personal foibles - is human suffering caused by injustice, alleviated through retribution, pursued with a vengeance.

As the New York Times' Neil Genzlinger writes in "The Cycle of Mel," Gibson has always been about "fighting injustice." Edge of Darkness, which opened Friday, January 22, "is no exception. In it he plays a detective who goes on a revenge-fueled hunt for whoever killed his daughter. It is a plot that bears a resemblance to the story line of Mad Max, his first significant film, 31 years ago, in which he played a police officer who goes after the motorcycle gang that killed his wife and son. For Mr. Gibson it has been a circular trip back to where he started, with plenty of wrongs righted and bad guys laid low along the way."

Let's hope he is just successful off screen!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

SAG Awards...

Congratulations to winners of the Screen Actor Guild (SAG) Awards last evening in Hollywood, including Sandra Bullock and Jeff Bridges, who won "Best Actor" for, respectively, their starring roles in The Blind Side and Crazy Heart, reprising their wins at the Golden Globes; and the actors in Quentin Tarantino's much-recognized film, Inglourious Basterds, who won the "Best Ensemble Cast" award.

Drew Barrymore, who won "Best Actress" in a television movie or miniseries for Grey Gardens, gave a stunning speech, reflecting on what an honor it is to continue in the footsteps of her famous Barrymore ancestors, including her great grandfather John, great uncle Lionel and great aunt Ethel, all of whom were present at the birth of SAG in 1931. While a little unsteady at first -- given her utter surprise at winning -- she ended on such a poignant note -- in that moment, looking the spitting image of great aunt Ethel.

Diamonds were in abundance at the SAG Awards. But, most important are the cinematic diamonds Hollywood has the potential to make. Sometimes, it realizes its potential marvelously well; but far too often it falls far too short.

For more about the 2010 Screen Actor Guild Awards, read .