Do the “American Hustle”

Nifty film captures the feel of America in the mid to late ’70’s. A fictional story set in the midst of a notorious government investigation known as Abscam, the movie raises the same questions we are asking about our government today: at what point does the investigative end justify its means? Directed with wit and style reminiscent of the early Scorsese films, the characters seem to pop off the film as they move from one increasingly outrageous scam to the next, seducing the audience along the way.

Director David O. Russell has assembled what may be the start of his cinema entourage: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence from “Silver Linings Playbook”, Christian Bale and Amy Adams from “The Fighter”.  Cultivating an ensemble is not easy as it requires versatile actors who can slip seamlessly into any role regardless of the audiences’ expectations. The actors are obviously comfortable with each other and there’s chemistry between the couples that really draws you into the story. By the end I was sure that Mr. Russell had recorded the definitive version of the ABSCAM scandal, but nothing that outrageous could ever occur in our government. Correct?Image

*** */12 out of ****.

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Saving Mr. Banks: A worthwhile investment.

While a bit overly long, the dramatization of how Walt Disney secured the rights to P.L. Traver’s Mary Poppins in order to fulfill a 20-year promise to his daughter that he would bring the characters to the big screen, succeeds on the strength of its sharp writing and splendid acting.  Tom Hanks eerily captures the speech cadence and mannerisms of Walt Disney while Emma Thompson portrays a sharp-tongued if glamorized Miss Travers and both will most certainly be nominated for an Academy Award.  Paul Giamatti gives his usual wry performance as the chauffeur sent by the studio to shuttle Miss Travers to and from her Beverly Hills hotel, his attempts to engage her during the drive becoming more successful as the movie, and Miss Travers, progress. There is delicious repartee between Miss Travers (“Stop! Mary Poppins is not for sale! I won’t have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.”) and Walt Disney (“Says the woman who sent a flying nanny with a talking umbrella to save the children?”).  These exchanges are at the center of the film’s tension and are its most entertaining aspects. 

Where the film only partially succeeds is in its dramatization of Miss Travers’ childhood in Australia and the relationship with her father. Played by Colin Farrell, the free-spririted Travers Goff turns to alcohol to mediate his struggle with the discipline required to raise a young family and the fantasy world he imagines.  Told in flashback-style, these segment frequently interrupt the main story disrupting its pace without achieving the intended effect, which is to draw the connection between the Mr. Banks Mary Poppins character, Travers Goff, and ultimately Walt Disney himself. You see, if Ms. Travers forgave her father then she could forgive herself, letting go of the story’s characters and thus relinquishing the story rights to Walt Disney (and do I detect a bit of father-transference to Mr. Disney?). 

Whether or not Miss Travers really decided to assign the rights to Mary Poppins as the result of being convinced that Disney’s writers have “saved Mr. Banks” from being depicted on screen solely as a rarely-present, work-obssesed father as suggested by this film, or whether her artistic dilemma was resolved by the need to become financially solvent, we shall never know.  However, the film does suggest that there was little love lost between Walt Disney and Miss Travers; she was not invited to its premier and she attended anyway as a final tweak to Mr. Disney.  It has been reported that P.L. Travers ultimately loathed the film and anyone associated with it.  She refused to assign any further film rights to Disney and in fact forbade Cameron Macintosh from using anyone associated with the film for his 2004 theatrical adaptation. Thus, history seems to have undercut the basic premise that by “saving” the Mr. Banks character, Ms. Travers could thus be freed to let go of her literary creation.  All films of this type suffer from varying degrees of dramatic license which I can live with. For me, the question is does the film succeed in telling its story in the context of the world which it has created for itself? The answer is a qualified yes; if you cleave the early-childhood flashbacks from the main body of the film, what is left is approximately 90 minutes of a smartly-written, engaging story of the creative tension between two talented and strong-willed forces of nature, brought to life by two of the finest actors found in film today. And that’s a spoonful of sugar.

*** out of ****

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“Man of Steel” is not Superman

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Two weeks ago I fittingly streamed “Man of Steel” to Mr. HDTV.  Watching it was three hours of my life that I’ll never get back.  Note to Mr. Director, Zack Snyder. First of all, enough of this shaky, hand-held camera shit. We get it. Your breaking the fourth wall. We’re in the action.  Why can’t you learn from Ernest Dickerson, one of the great directors of “The Walking Dead” (and “Do The Right Thing”)?  Judicious choice of camera lenses, scene blocking, and old-fashioned acting is far more effective.    
Secondly, what happened to the script? Did you finally prove that if you put enough monkeys in a room with a MAC for a long enough period of time, they’ll be able to write Shakespeare? Ah-ha! I see the problem; you didn’t have enough monkeys and enough time so they wrote the script for “Man of Steel”!  Poor Amy Adams! She spends most of her time looking up in the air (probably at a blue-screen, in reality!). What a waste of talent.    
About midway through the movie, when the director truly has run out of original dialogue, we are forcefully submitted to watch an unrelenting steam of flying supermen, missiles, parts of buildings, cars, and various extra and terrestrial flotsam. The sound and the visual barrage is truly mind-numbing.  Oh. Were you under the impression that Superman follows kind-of-a superhero “Hippocratic Oath”, e.g. “first, do no harm”?  In “Man of Steel” there is so much civilian collateral damaged cause by both Superman and General Zod, it makes 9/11 look like a mild thunderstorm.    
The current trend to unmaking heroes into brooding “dark” anti-heroes works for characters like Batman who was portrayed as a buffoon on the mid-60’s TV show, but why reinvent Superman? Are there not already enough dark and brooding comic book characters to harvest? What next, “The Archie and Veronica You Never Knew”?    
The strongest parts of “Man of Steel” were when there was some actual storytelling going on, e.g. Clark Kent as a kid/teenage/young adult. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane’s performances as Clark’s earthly parent stood out against an otherwise dismal cast, their parts strongly written and acted.    
Some observers notes the Christ-like symbolism of the Superman character as they wrote about this movie. Metaphorically speaking this is a valid and interesting observation, as Superman comes from “heaven” with seemingly god-like supernatural powers, to defend humanity from evil both within and without. In Superman’s world, as in Jesus evil is real and can be personified in the incarnation of the Enemy and General Zod.  Unfortunately, this film does nothing to explore let alone exploit these similarities, but what a film it would make if it did!    
Well I can dream, can’t I?    
“Man of Steel” **1/2*
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Tabby at the Sheraton

November, 2007

My cat Tabby and I have been staying at the Sheraton in Tarrytown for a more than a week while my bathroom and bedroom are being renovated. It was advertised as “pet friendly.”

On late Friday afternoon I leave for two hours and when I return, I receive a message from (absent) management that my cat had attacked staff members and damaged the carpet in my room and I was liable for damages. I go up to my room and it looks like a tornado has hit it, with water and waterlogged dry cat food all over the floor, my bed completely undone and all the bedding (along with a filthy mop) on top of the other bed. Tabby had been confined to the bathroom and was OK. All the mess was obviously made by humans, not a cat. I call housekeeping and they say they’re not coming into the room unless the cat is caged. I manage to get Tabby in her cage and then I have to wait more than two hours for housekeeping service, cleaning up most of the mess myself.

On Saturday AM I meet with the front desk clerk and engineer who had been involved in the situation. I have them come up to the room to inspect it. There is no damage, just some remains of the mess. I’m upset and ask them what happened. They’re apologetic at this point and tell the story.  Soon after I had left on Friday,  a maid got spooked when she accidentally discovered Tabby in her hiding place on the floor by the bed, under the large comforter.  The maid hurried out and a staff member named Angel, a young  Hispanic man (if you know Fawlty Towers, think of Manuel) was told to come into my room and put Tabby in her cage.  She chased him out of the room and he reported to the front desk that a “big dangerous cat” was in my room.  The hotel management panicked.  The front desk clerk and engineer entered my room and tried to force Tabby back into her cage with a long mop. In the ensuing commotion, Tabby’s food and water dishes were knocked over, spilling water and dried food onto the floor. The dried food got  scattered all over the room, etc. They eventually managed to get Tabby back in her cage and were about to close it, but were distracted by a knock on the door. It was Angel.  When he entered the room, Tabby hissed, pushed open the cage, and Angel ran out of the room again. They finally managed to coax Tabby into the bathroom and closed the door. I was amazed by their story, all they had to do was stay out of the room. Anyway Tabby was cleared of all charges.

Monday morning the hotel manger, a middle-aged woman, comes up to my room along with a manager in training, a young tall black guy. They are highly apologetic and want to hear about everything that took place. I tell the whole story and the trainee is earnestly taking notes. The manager is very critical of their staff’s handling of the situation, saying it was totally unnecessary. I mention how important customer service is for hotels these days, with customers posting reviews at web sites, and that I will post a review at a “pet friendly hotel” web site.  They say they hope I can recommend them and give me a certificate for a free dinner at the restaurant.  (The name of the restaurant is Basil’s, if you can believe that, Fawlty Tower fans.)

That night at the restaurant I’m ordering my (expensive) free dinner with wine while two waiters and the hostess fawn all over me.  The head waiter pushes the other one aside, insisting that he wait on me.  Angel is his friend and had told him how there’s a big cat in my room, the most beautiful he’d ever seen, and no way he was going to mess with that cat.  The waiter said he’d gone up to peek at her in my bathroom.  A waitress who had brought me room service a couple of nights before comes over and says she wants to come up to my room to visit Tabby again.
After dinner as I leave the restaurant, a curvaceous beautiful black woman behind the front desk calls me to come over.  Her name is Jacqueline. The first night of my stay I had tried to engage her with stimulating conversation like: “Do you like to go by Jacqueline or Jackie ?” (either, she said) and “My 8 year old niece is named Jacqueline, she likes to play softball” (really, she said). Now she has me come over and says: “Mr. Burke, how is your cat ?” She’d just been outside and has her coat on, buttoned all the way up. It was chilly right there but she says: “I’ll take it off” and slowly unbuttons her coat while staring at me, then suddenly flings it open with both arms and a dramatic thrust of her upper body that nearly pops the top button off her low cut blouse.  I stagger away, managing to say:  “Keep warm.”

Tuesday morning the manager in training stops by with a gift for Tabby from the manager, who enclosed a note. It was a windup mouse with catnip inside, of course a big hit with Tabby.  At night I order room service and two cute Latina waitresses (including the one who said she’d visit) deliver my meal. Rather than saying “Here’s the food” they say “Where’s the cat ?” They come in to look at Tabby and talk for a while, I let the meal get cold.

Next stop for me and Tabby: Las Vegas !

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Last night I watched the classic 1935 film musical Roberta, which is set in Paris.  The romantic leads are played by Irene Dunn and Randolph Scott.  The secondary romantic  couple is played by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Ginger Rogers is hilarious early in the film, masquerading – with a faux French accent – as a wealthy countess and a Parisian woman of very high fashion.   She and Fred meet by accident in Paris. Back in Indiana they were a song and dance team, and of course they pick up where they left off.

A beautiful Lucille Ball plays one of the many fashion models in the movie.  Speaking of Lucy, William Frawley (better known as Fred Mertz), plays a bartender.

It’s a beloved musical because of its songs,  written by Jerome Kern, and the dance routines.  In particular Irene Dunn sings Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, accompanied by an orchestra of  balalaikas.  Later Fred and Ginger dance to an instrumental version.

See  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkQU-VQkhGw  for all of that.

Jerome Kern, a great songwriter, also wrote Ol’ Man River and The Way You Look Tonight, a Sinatra staple that Kern wrote for Fred Astaire to sing to Ginger in Shall We Dance.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes is one of the great popular songs of the 20th century, and continues to have an impact on American popular culture.  A remarkable, long and eclectic list of singers and groups have done a rendition of the song (some listed below).

The Platters recorded the most commercially successful version of the song in 1952.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H2di83WAOhU

A favorite version of mine is sung by Dinah Washington:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_OkmVtUaA0

Here’s a version by Jerry Garcia, with the lovely Ashley Judd sitting next to him, from the movie Smoke.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DEuJqlrfEZ0

Jerry Garcia was named after Jerome Kern.

The song has been central to many movies and books (a list of both in Wikipedia).

In the climax of The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield comes to terms with reality while watching his 6 year old sister Phoebe on the carousel as it plays Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.

The song title still pervades American popular culture.  “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is the title of the pilot episode of the AMC TV series Mad Men (airdate July 19, 2007).

A partial list of who else has recorded a version of the song, along with some links:

Kathryn Grayson (from Lovely to Look At, a 1952 remake of Roberta)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0C3OxlpoIRI

Judy Garland on The Judy Garland Show

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xz68KvMtHOA

Nat King Cole  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6Je0rHIal4

Barbara Streisand

Louis Armstrong

Johnny Mathis

Harry Belafonte

Sarah Vaughn

Billie Holiday

Tommy Dorsey

Glenn Miller

Benny Goodman

Cannonball Adderly

Thelonius Monk

Sonny Rollins

Charlie Parker

‪Ray Conniff‬

Al Jolson

Edith Piaf

Cher

Zoot and Rowlf from the Muppet Show

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ygnnPWvC9c

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Musings on the enigmatic ending to “Taxi Driver”

Hey Mike,
Are you talking to ME?
Oh yeah I guess you were.
I’m here in the Peanaught Gallery and glad that you caught Taxi Driver on the tele last night.  It is a great movie. Not the definitive Scorsese movie, but Martin working feverishly as a rising director still testing the limits of his creativity.  It is notable for absolutely capturing the state of Manhattan in ’76, which Mean Streets failed to do convincingly (most of MS was shot in LA, which becomes apparent after repeated viewings).  Only Woody Allen has done equivalent work in capturing the feel of The City, post-1960’s.
Each and every character is memorable, from the guy playing the drums (I remember him in real life) on the street, to Wizard (Peter Boyle), through Betsy, Pallentine, and of course Travis and Violet. So much could be said about each character but I don’t think I could add much more insight to what’s already been said. Of course,  Scorsese had an excellent production team and a lot of the film’s success has to do with the taut screenplay by Paul Schrader.
As you pointed out, the most controversial aspect of Taxi Driver is its ending. To my surprise, Scorsese has said the that the ending is not a fantasy; Travis did survive and become a hero.  This seems odd to us looking back from a 21st century vantage point.  But we have to consider the cultural context in which the film was made.  This was NYC pre-Son of Sam, post Ford to City: “Drop Dead”,  when Abe Beam was mayor and Manhattan was every bit the cesspool that Travis said it was. Bernhard Goetz, the NYC “Subway Vigilante” is still 8 years from unloading his revolver into those four young men. Disco was still a year or two away from glamorizing The City (Studio 54 did not open until 1977), hookers had spread beyond their Time Square locus to the Rockefeller Center and so did the $10 “massage” parlors. I know ’cause I worked in the area at INCOTERM from the Fall of ’76 through Summer of ’78,  in the Time-Life building.  People were “Waiting for Superman” to arrive (or was it Batman?) to clean up the city.  So Travis pretty much spoke to New Yorkers who were fed up with a political system and city institutions that seemed to have broken down.  It is also interesting to note that Woody Allen did not make any films about NYC during this era; it wasn’t until 1977 that he released Annie Hall, and this did not overly romanticize the City the way his Manhattan did a year later.
Thus I assert Travis to be the fantasy character that many working-class New Yorkers identified with: someone who had the guts to stand up for what he believes in, confront a corrupt and uncaring political system and take on the rampant sex-slave traffic (which in reality fueled all those massage parlors).  Betsy represents Travis’ attempt to fit in with the upwardly mobile crowd which seemed to be unaffected by the miserable conditions the City had fallen in to. In a larger sense, she also symbolizes the corrupt political institutions which exist to ensure their survival and not that of their constituency. In reality she is not a very interesting character and actually is written rather shallowly in the screenplay.
Now to move on to the ending.  I too first concluded that the ending was total fantasy; Travis hadn’t survived or if he did sustained massive injuries. I thought that his return to life as a taxi driver was a dream and reconnecting with Betsy just another episode in it.  But  there was always something disconcerting about that conclusion, some tension that is unresolved by the time the final credits role.  While not resolving the dissonance, it can be placed into a more satisfying context if the following is considered. Travis does indeed survive the shooting, is hailed as a vigilante hero and that Shallow Betsy and Travis do indeed meet up in one of those serendipitous moments so characteristic of life in New York City.  In this way the tension is moved, though not relieved, from the pathos of a dream/fantasy that cannot possibly be fulfilled to Travis’ survival and anointment as a hero, despite what appears to be violence he helped to provoke. In real life this tension is usually resolved by holding the vigilante accountable for his actions: e.g., Bernhard Goetz in the 80’s, George Zimmerman in the present.  In Taxi Driver, Scorsese leaves this tension unresolved, hence creating a striking, controversial, if not enigmatic bit of film making.
Andy
“anytime, anyplace”
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