August 31, 2008

Smackdown 1966: and the winner is...

Another Supporting Actress Smackdown comes to a close at StinkyLulu's this morning, as the full panel of Smackdowners reports in with their thoughts on the 1966 field.

August 27, 2008

BOOKS: Frames, Loren D. Estleman (2008)

Valentino works in the film preservation department at UCLA as a historian and researcher. He's a detective, of sorts, trying to track down rare and lost films in hopes of saving them before their old silver nitrate film stock decays.

He's just purchased -- rather impulsively -- a run-down Hollywood movie palace, where he makes what may be the find of his career: Erich von Stroheim's Greed, the legendary lost silent film. Only two hours of what was reportedly a ten-hour epic have survived, and Val has found enough reels of film to make up the full ten hours.

Unfortunately, half of those reels are stored in a secret basement compartment, where Val has also found a human skeleton. That makes the place a crime scene, and it makes those film canisters evidence, which the LAPD wants to confiscate. Val knows that they won't have a clue how to properly store it to avoid destroying it (if, in fact, it's actually still intact to begin with); his only hope is to solve this 50-year-old murder himself, and fast.

Valentino -- just the one name; friends call him Val -- is a marvelously appealing character, witty and self-deprecating, and his sidekicks are just as likable. Professional mentor Dr. Broadhead is a cranky old film historian who prides himself on having been around campus long enough that he barely has to teach classes anymore; Fanta is a perky pre-law student, something of a flake, but capable of an occasional brilliant insight. Val's long-time secretary, Ruth, is a Thelma Ritter type who serves as comic relief. The police are represented by Harriet, a pretty forensic investigator who becomes a possible romantic interest for Val, and Sgt. Clifford, the detective in charge of the case (who is a tall redhead, so of course, Val and friends immediately nickname her "The Big Red Dog").

The mystery itself isn't all that compelling, and Estleman doesn't devote too much energy to it. What sells Frames are the charming characters and the snappy dialogue, which often has a hint of screwball comedy to it. For me, those elements were more than strong enough to make up for the book's weak plot. The title page carries the subtitle "A Valentino Mystery," suggesting that this is the first of a series; I hope so, because I enjoyed spending time with Val and his friends.

August 25, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1966: Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It's been a frustrating Smackdown, without a really exciting performance thus far. We've had the instantly forgettable, the blandly competent, the victim of a bad script, and the stunt performance. So thank the deity of your choice for Sandy Dennis, who is spectacularly good as Honey, a "mousy little type" who thinks she understands the games that George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) play, but quickly finds herself in over her head. It's interesting that we're never entirely sure whether "Honey" is her name or a term of endearment; neither George nor Martha ever refers to her by name, and each time husband Nick (George Segal) addresses her as "Honey," it's just ambiguous enough that we can't come to a clear conclusion.

Honey and Nick arrive at George and Martha's home sometime after 2 am, after a Friday night cocktail party on the college campus where George and Nick are professors. As flaky as Honey may seem, it's clear almost instantly that she's the more socially capable of the two. "Isn't this lovely," she says, looking around Martha's untidy living room; when Nick says nothing, she whacks him across the chest and he chimes in, "Yes, very handsome." He'll echo her small talk in similar fashion throughout the early scenes of the movie.

Honey doesn't much like to talk about herself, though she's perfectly happy to talk about others. She tells both George and Martha things about Nick that he might have preferred she not mention, and vice versa. Nothing we learn about Honey, on the other hand, comes from her directly; it's all from Nick.

Honey is quick to figure out that George and Martha's inappropriate behavior is a form of game playing; as Martha flirts with Nick on the sofa, we see Honey in the background of the scene watching them, and noddling slowly as she starts to put the pieces together. And she's eager to play, too; she starts chiming in, often echoing George or Martha ("When's the little bugger coming home?") in an attempt to help push someone's buttons. By contrast, Nick doesn't really understand what's happening until it's all over.

Even after things have escalated to the point where she really should know better, Honey continues to encourage George and Martha (especially George), clapping wildly and chanting "violence, violence" at the dance hall, or refusing to let George be stopped even as he recounts her and Nick's most personal secrets. ("I want to hear this story," she says.)

But ultimately, Honey overestimates her ability to keep up with George and Martha's level of game playing; she is, as Nick tells us, "frail." She wants desperately to stop George's final stroke of cruelty against Martha -- a stroke that she has indirectly inspired with her questions about the ringing bells -- but is powerless to do so. She fully understands the rules of the game by now, and follows them even when she'd rather not; the desolation in her voice when she is forced to hand the final victory to George by telling Martha that she saw him eat the telegram is crushing.

Honey's a complicated character, not merely the tipsy ditz she often seems. She's smarter and more worldly than anyone in the room realizes (Nick underestimates her more than anyone, I think), but still too innocent and naive to imagine just how far George and Martha will push their neverending series of games. She's often used as comic relief, but her pain and grief in the final moments is, in its own way, almost as devastating as Martha's.

It would be easy for the actress playing Honey to overemphasize one side of her personality to the extent where other aspects are unconvincing. Sandy Dennis gets them all just right; every aspect of Honey feels real, and as contradictory as they are, they all feel like the same person. It's an astonishingly assured performance, by far the best of the '66 nominees.

MOVIES: Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008)

This year's winner of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Upstate New York in December is a bleak place. The sky is gray more often than not, the snow doesn't stay white for long, and even the countless strings of colored Christmas lights can't lighten the mood very much.

Against that backdrop, we meet Ray (Melissa Leo), whose husband has just run off on her -- again -- this time, taking with him the money that was supposed to be the balloon payment on a new double-wide trailer. Ray is given until Christmas to come up with the money, or she'll not only lose the trailer, but her $1500 deposit as well.

Desperate for quick money, Ray teams up with Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk from the local reservation, who smuggles illegal immigrants across the Canadian border. They're not really breaking the law, says Lila, because they're just driving people around within the Mohawk reservation, which straddles the border. That's a pretty flimsy piece of rationalization, as Lila obviously realizes, or she wouldn't be hiding her passengers in her trunk and driving them across the frozen river to avoid detection.

The first half of the movie is a lovely character study, with superb performances from both Leo and Upham. Leo is a character actress who's been doing fine work in small roles and small movies for years, and (as with Richard Jenkins in The Visitor earlier this year) it's a joy to see her finally get a juicy lead role. She lets the audience feel every bit of Ray's exhaustion and frustration at having yet another obstacle placed in her way just when she thought she might be getting a handle on things.

The second half of the movie is perhaps slightly overstuffed with plot, as if trying to cram two hours worth of story into 45 minutes, and the final negotiation happens so quickly that it's not quite clear what's happened or why.

But those are minor quibbles; the movie as a whole is absolutely worth seeing. In addition to the two central performances, there's also fine work from Charlie McDermott as Ray's 15-year-old son, and gorgeous cinematography by Reed Morano.

Most impressive is the movie's complete lack of condescension to its characters. American movies don't often do well with portrayals of the working poor, but writer-director Courtney Hunt allows both women to be complicated, realistic people, and there's not a hint of mockery anywhere in the movie. Recommended with great enthusiasm.

August 24, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1966: Wendy Hiller, A Man for All Seasons

Here we have the Oscar-winning tale of Sir Thomas More, whose conscience prevented him from approving of Henry VIII's divorce, which eventually led to his conviction on charges of high treason, for which he was beheaded.

Wendy Hiller plays More's wife, Alice, who is utterly devoted to her husband. Thomas and Alice present, in a way, complementary forms of naivete. He is so devoted to his principles that he refuses to believe that anything bad will come of that devotion; even when he's been imprisoned in the Tower, he doesn't seem to realize that death is just around the corner. She, on the other hand, is absolutely clear about the consequences of his behavior, but incapable of understanding why he must stand on his principles.

From the beginning, it's clear that Thomas is right when he describes his wife as "a lion." She is far more ambitious for him than he is, encouraging him to maneuver himself into position to become Chancellor when Cardinal Wolsey dies. She is also capable of great anger; watch how furiously Alice challenges her husband during her visit to the Tower. (That anger's telegraphed in an earlier bit of physical business, when we see Alice taking out her frustration on an innocent piece of embroidery.)

The movie is full of fine acting from Orson Welles, a young John Hurt, Oscar nominee Robert Shaw, and of course, Paul Scofield as Thomas More, who gives a performance so towering that you barely remember anyone else is even in the movie.

Amid all of those stellar performances, Hiller's work doesn't particularly linger in the memory. It's not a performance that leaps at you and demands to be noticed; it's a solid piece of work, certainly, and she's reasonably effective in her big confrontation scenes. Based on the nominees viewed thus far, 1966 was a weak year for supporting actresses; a good, solid piece of work was apparently all it took to land a nomination.

August 23, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1966: Vivien Merchant, Alfie

Alfie isn't the easiest movie to watch these days; the behavior of Michael Caine's title character towards his many women was surely obnoxious even in 1966, and it's nearly unbearable today. Caine's performance is a small miracle in that it makes Alfie, if not exactly likable, at least not quite hateful.

None of the women in the movie makes as much of an impact as Caine, but it's not really their fault. The women in the movie are seen through Alfie's eyes. Since he doesn't see them as full-fledged people -- they're just opportunities for sex -- we don't see them that way, either.

Vivien Merchant as Lily isn't the movie's best-developed female character, but she does get the most dramatic storyline, which is probably why the Oscars singled her out for attention. Alfie meets Lily during the months he spends at a sanitarium; she is the wife of a fellow patient. After Alfie's return to London, he and Lily have a single sexual encounter; she gets pregnant and has an illegal abortion.

Lily is a very quiet and timid woman, highly concerned with propriety (her first words: "Are you sure I should?" when she's invited to take a shortcut to her husband's bedside). Because Lily is so timid, Merchant's performance is largely about body language and facial expression, and she does have a few lovely moments.

Look, for instance, at her face after she has sex with Alfie, when you can read every emotion she's feeling -- pleasure, confusion, and above all guilt -- or when Alfie returns to the apartment after the abortion, when her face is hollow and frozen.

Merchant's finest moment, though, is her very last one, a lovely masterpiece of expressing character through body language. Alfie is about to drive her home after the abortion, and he tosses her a teddy bear as a gift for her youngest child. She catches it and instinctively grips it as if it were the child she's just lost, caressing it and patting its back as if burping it. It's the closest we ever see Lily come to expressing deep emotion. It's a chilling, heartbreaking moment, and it's the only moment in the movie when any of Alfie's women comes close to feeling like a full-fledged person.

Did Merchant deserve to win the Oscar? No, surely not. But the problems with her performance are not entirely her fault, and she manages, if only for an instant, to give Lily a depth that the script has no interest in providing, which surely makes her a deserving nominee.

August 22, 2008

BOOKS: American Nerd, Benjamin Nugent (2008)

Nugent gives us an entertaining social history of nerds in America, a group he understands well; the subtitle of this book is "The Story of My People."

What is a nerd? Nugent contends that nerds are disproportionately male, and that they are socially awkward, intellectual boys/men, often in ways that vaguely remind others of machines (speech that's more formal than usual, preference for logic over emotional confrontation, fondness for machines, and so on.)

There are hints of the nerd in literature going back two centuries or more. Nugent claims Victor Frankenstein as an ur-nerd, and offers Mary Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice) as a rare example of the female nerd in literature.

But the nerd as we know him doesn't really become a cultural icon until the twentieth century. In order to trace the history of the nerd, Nugent first offers a brief history of the jock; the nerd in his purest sense, after all, is an oppositional figure, and where there is no jock, there can be no nerd. The jock as we know him, in Nugent's telling, can be traced back to the "muscular Christianity" movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and to the "nineteenth-century Harry Potter," Tom Brown's School Days, a British boarding school novel whose hero was the prototype for generations of ultra-popular, athletic young men.

By the 1940s, the nerd was a stock character in radio shows like Our Miss Brooks; by the 1950s, he's such a common figure that he finally needs a name, and the word "nerd" is born.

Nugent explores the role of the nerd in society, visiting meetings of the Society for Creative Anachronism and the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society; and examines his own nerdly past as a high-school debater and gamer (Dungeons and Dragons provided a social outlet for countless nerds). He considers the overlap between the behaviors we associate with nerds and those we associate with various disorders on the autism spectrum.

(I was particularly intrigued by a throwaway notion in this chapter. To what extent, Nugent wonders, is the rise in diagnosis of autism disorders in boys a reflection of our changing expectations for male behavior? One of the hallmarks of, for instance, Asperger's Syndrome is a difficulty in showing or expressing empathy. Fifty years ago, empathy was not necessarily an expected part of the male behavioral package; try, if you will, to conceive of any circumstance that would lead to Dwight Eisenhower uttering the words "I feel your pain." But today, men and boys are expected to be just as empathetic as girls and women, so when they're not, we notice it, and we diagnose it as an illness instead of writing it off as typical male behavior.)

American Nerd is a lively and entertaining book, in which Nugent lays his own nerdly flaws on the line, asking us (and himself) to consider whether they're really flaws at all. He has a keen ear for conversation, and a fine eye for the telling detail. Highly recommended.

August 18, 2008

BOOKS: The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Jennifer 8. Lee (2008)

Yes, the author's middle name is "8;" the number signifies prosperity in Chinese culture, as we all surely know by now after hearing the umptyzillionth explanation of why the Olympic opening ceremonies began at 8:08 pm on 8/8/08.

Lee's book began with her attempt to find the real origins of the fortune cookie, and broadened into an exploration of the Chinese restaurnt in America. Chinese food is popular here; there are more than 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the US, which is more than the combined number of McDonald's, Burger Kings, and KFCs.

As Lee quickly points out, though, what we get in most US Chinese restaurants isn't authentic Chinese food; most native Chinese wouldn't recognize it as such. (One of the book's funniest chapters has Lee traveling through China in search of the original General Tso's Chicken.) Lee calls it "American Chinese food," and it's taken on a life of its own to the extent that in traveling around the world, you're just as likely to find American Chinese restaurants as you are to find authentic Chinese food.

It's an entertaining book, though it doesn't add up to much more than a series of amusing stories and interesting bits of trivia. (Biggest day for marriages among Chinese-American families? Thanksgiving, the one day when US families don't order Chinese takeout and the restaurant can close without losing much money.) Lee meanders from one topic to the next -- the development of delivery in New York in the late 1970s, the hellish journey of illegal Chinese immigrants to the US, the great Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989, the debates over what can and cannot legally be called "soy sauce" -- telling her stories in amiable fashion, like a friend who happens to be unusually knowledgeable on the subject.

August 17, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1966: Jocelyne LaGarde, Hawaii

Hawaii isn't much watched these days, and I can't argue that it deserves to be. It's an overstuffed historical epic -- nearly 3 hours long -- about the arrival of white missionaries in Hawaii in the 1820s. The most interesting about it these days is spotting actors in small roles who would go on to bigger and better things (Carroll O'Connor and Gene Hackman chief among them). But the principals are badly miscast, especially Max von Sydow, who is utterly incapable of handling the comic moments he's given in the early scenes, and far too pompous and self-righteous even for the fire-and-brimstone preacher he becomes later in the movie.

I was surprised (and would imagine that audiences in 1966 must have been even more so) at how bluntly the movie points out that the arrival of white men was not, on the whole, a good thing for the native Hawaiians, and that the missionaries often used their influence and power in hypocritical, un-Christian fashion to line their own pockets.

But we are here primarily to discuss Oscar nominee Jocelyne LaGarde, who plays Malama, queen of Maui. This was the only movie LaGarde ever made; according to the Internet Movie Database, she remains the only actor ever to receive an Oscar nomination for her sole film.

It's an impossible performance to evaluate in conventional terms. LaGarde, a French-speaking Tahitian, spoke neither English nor Hawaiian, and learned all of her lines phonetically. When you're doing nothing but reciting strings of nonsense syllables, there is no room for spontaneity, creativity, discovery of something unexpected in the moment. There is, in short, no room for acting.

LaGarde's performance is an elaborate stunt which turns her into a cross between a life-sized prop and a trained parrot. I admire the relative grace with which the stunt is performed, but it would be both unkind and unfair to compare what LaGarde is doing with real acting.

August 10, 2008

MOVIES: Smackdown 1966: Geraldine Page, You're a Big Boy Now

Here we have one of those 60s movies that is wildly self-conscious in its attempt to capture the spirit of a New Generation. You're a Big Boy Now veers from in-your-face whimsy to overheated wackiness, with non-sequitur jokes and distracting visual effects crammed in at every opportunity. "We're HIP, damn it! Just look at how wild and crazy and free-spirited we are, 'cause it's a new era! Wow!," the movie screams at us. Needless to say, these movies have not dated well; all of that forced exuberance and zaniness leaves the modern viewer with a bad headache.

There's certainly lots of talent on hand; the writer/director is Francis Ford Coppola (this was his film school master's thesis), and the cast includes Elizabeth Hartman, Karen Black, Rip Torn, Julie Harris, and our Oscar nominee, Geraldine Page.

Page plays Marjory Chanticleer, the overbearing, protective harpy-mother of the movie's protagonist, 19-year-old Bernard. She's constantly critical of her son (her first words: "Why are you wearing your eyeglasses?") and absurdly possessive, to the point where she thinks she owns him (she demands at one point that Bernard's landlady "please give Bernard back to me immediately!").

It's an adequate performance, and it fits comfortably with the rest of the movie -- that is, Page is just as shrill, unpleasant, and loud as everyone else -- but there's not much to say about it, and it's puzzling to see how it could be an Oscar nominee. Sometimes, a mediocre performance will get nominated as part of a broader sweep for a movie; that's not the case here, as Page's is the only nomination the movie received. Perhaps it was simply that Page was an Oscar favorite; this was her fourth nomination, and her third in six years. Maybe 1966 was just a really weak year for supporting actresses. Whatever the explanation for the nomination, it's the most instantly forgettable nominee I've seen in my Smackdown history.

August 08, 2008

BOOKS: Obedience, Will Lavender (2008)

Winchester University, the first day of a new term, and the students in Professor Williams' Logic and Reasoning class are delighted to learn that they aren't going to be doing the boring textbook survey of Greek philosophers. Instead, Williams informs them that a young woman, Polly, has been kidnapped; he'll give them all the information they need to identify the culprit and find Polly before the class ends in six weeks. If they fail, Williams tells them, Polly will be murdered.

We focus on three of Williams' students. Dennis is the charming ladies' man, about to embark on a particularly reckless relationship; Mary is his ex, still not quite sure where their relationship went wrong; Brian is depressed, maybe even suicidal, after the recent death of his brother. As they attempt to solve the clues that Williams gives them, each is puzzled to find elements of the Polly story creeping into their real lives. When they discover that a local girl disappeared 20 years ago, and that her case (still unsolved) has its own creepy parallels to the Polly story, they begin to wonder what Williams is really up to.

Up until about the mid-way point, Lavender does a fine job of building suspense. But his plot twists gradually become more farfetched and harder to take seriously; by the climax, he's actually thrown the Polly story out the window completely, a slap in the face to the readers who have been playing along, trying to solve the mystery themselves. His characters' motives as explained in the final chapters are never convincing, and characters lose credibility by doing the stupidest thing possible on too many occasions.

The initial premise is compelling, and if Lavender had the faith to stick with it, this could have been a solid thriller. But the second half of the book takes so many bizarre leaps and twists that the initial mystery is barely recognizable by the time it's over. Not recommended, though it will be interesting to see what Lavender does next.

August 07, 2008

Smackdown 1966!

Another month, another Supporting Actress Smackdown hosted by the inestimable StinkyLulu. This month, I'll be joining a team of Smackdowners to be named later in a review of the nominees from 1966:
  • Sandy Dennis, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
  • Wendy Hiller, A Man for All Seasons
  • Jocelyne LaGarde, Hawaii
  • Vivien Merchant, Alfie
  • Geraldine Page, You're a Big Boy Now

Dennis is the only one of the five I've seen, so it'll be an interesting month. A Man for All Seasons and Alfie are classics I haven't gotten to, and I look forward to seeing them. You're a Big Boy Now was Francis Ford Coppola's film school master's thesis, and the cast includes Karen Black, Rip Torn, and Julie Harris -- should at least have some good acting in it. And Hawaii, I am told, is legendarily difficult to sit through, with LaGarde, a Tahitian who didn't speak English, delivering her lines phonetically in her only acting role.

Let the Smackin' Down begin!

BOOKS: I Shall Not Want, Julia Spencer-Fleming (2008)

Sixth in the Clare Fergusson / Russ van Alstyne mystery series.

A series of murders of illegal immigrants hits the small town of Millers Kill, New York in Spencer-Fleming's latest. Most of the locals hadn't even realized that there were many illegal immigrants in the area, but farming in upstate New York is just as labor intensive as it is anywhere, and where there's a need for cheap labor, there will be men willing to do it.

The ongoing personal story between Clare and Russ finally gets to take a few steps forward, now that Russ has been conveniently widowed, and Spencer-Fleming doesn't quite seem to know what to do with that story. She was much better at the forbidden-love stuff in the earlier volumes than she is with the progression of an actual romance; the Clare/Russ scenes are too often mawkish and gooey. Russ, in particular, doesn't seem quite himself.

The murder mystery is a good one, with an array of intriguing suspects and motives; the final action sequence (a trademark of this series) in which the heroes confront the villains is skillfully done, with an unexpected layer of humor that is very effective.

The police side of the story focuses largely on Hadley Knox, Millers Kill's newest, and first ever female, police officer. She's still struggling with the job, with her own fears that she's in way over her head, and with the challenges of juggling career and single motherhood. Her insecurities get a bit tiring after a while, and I hope that she'll be -- as the other members of the police force have always been -- a supporting character only in future volumes.

The book's final plot twist has been inevitable since the final plot twist of the previous volume, so it doesn't have quite the dramatic impact that Spencer-Fleming was surely hoping for. Still, it's a development that can't help but shake things up, and perhaps it will shake the author out of the rut she seems to be slipping into with this volume. It's not a terrible book, and fans of the series will certainly want to read it, but it's the weakest installment yet, with the gooey personal stories overshadowing the mystery.

August 02, 2008

How does a librarian deal with a patron complaint about a children's book on the subject of same-sex marriage? Well, if he's an unusually thoughtful librarian, he deals with it like this. It's far and away the best such response I've ever seen, and serves as a model for librarians dealing with patron complaints on any topic.

(via The Tin Man)

August 01, 2008

BOOKS: The Art of Breaking Glass, Matthew Hall (1997)

Terrific thriller, well worth hunting down at the library or the used book store.

Hall dives right into the action with a tense ten-page set piece. We follow Bill Kaiser as he attempts to break into a New York senator's apartment. When he nearly gets caught, he does what he always does in this situation: pretends to be crazy. Far better to go to a psych ward than prison, and far easier to break out.

Especially when you've got a nurse as gullible as Sharon Blautner. Sharon finds herself fascinated by the new patient, who seems significantly brighter than most of her patients. It's not long before she's let herself be manipulated into helping Bill break out.

The problem is that Bill is also fascinated by Sharon, and feels it his duty to help remedy some of the wrongs in her life; when people who've caused her trouble begin to turn up dead, the FBI is suddenly less willing to believe that she was an unwitting accomplice.

So Sharon's trying to catch Bill on her own (because she doesn't trust the FBI), Bill's continuing to "help" her and to work on his own plans (remember that Senator's apartment?), and there's a corporate tycoon who's played a key role in both of their lives.

The story moves at breakneck speed, and if Sharon's transformation from gullible dupe to superagent is a bit implausible, well, that goes with the territory. Other than that, the characters are vividly drawn and never less than convincing.

One caveat: Those who are bothered by scenes involving children in peril may wish to avoid this one.