Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Missions of Mia

Long before celebrities were faces in mass circulation representing the adoptive parent, Mia Farrow adopted her children quietly. She has raised fifteen children altogether. Four of them she gave birth to, the other eleven she adopted. Her tendency towards nurturing was never a matter of developing a persona, growing up, or gaining notoriety. It was simply an inclination to provide safe haven for others. I can summarize Mia Farrow's willingness to give of herself in a simplistic way: people didn't read about her children on a daily basis in magazines, or even know about them, several of whom had or have had disabilities. I'm sad to say that one of her children has even passed on. The fathers (to some) of her children are Andre Previn and Woody Allen. Six of them were adopted by Mia alone. 

I read Mia Farrow's lovely memoir, 'What Falls Away' many years ago. In it, she communicates her life story in a way that's emblematic of her pure and transcendent spirit. I highly recommend it.

Mia Farrow, the UNICEF goodwill ambassador, the mother and the actress, has also lived her life as a 20th/21st century Siddharta of sorts. She's been a child of Hollywood –– her mother and father, both, had been successful in the business –– then she became the young ingenue, out of necessity. She was the responsible bread winner of her family when her father passed on. She had religious inclinations growing up, as well as a clear sense of duty to others. She's always been one to give of herself to those in need. 

Back in the earlier days of her decades-long acting career, she befriended Dali, married Sinatra and was a muse and partner to Woody Allen. But all the while she was quietly protecting her growing family at home –– and her family out in the world. Because aside from all the glamour, adventures and any accolades she received for her work... the movie business simply provided her with the means to offer her compassionate spirit to those in need. Her ability to care has always been astounding and entirely authentic.

Mia Farrow's 21-day (or as long as her health allows) hunger strike for Darfur is now in effect. This is yet another instance where she is being her kind and sacrificial self for the sake of those who are suffering. She has also lived for weeks on end in villages in places like Darfur among the very people she aims to help throughout her years working for UNICEF. I applaud her for being aware of the potential impact this hunger strike could have, and I hope she remains relevant enough for others to take notice. I applaud her for carrying on in the ways of other peaceful advocates. Mia Farrow is the genuine and absolute real deal on that front, and has been for her entire life.

Update: May 8, 2009 - After 12 days, Mia Farrow had to end her fast due to health concerns. But she has since passed the duty to Sir Richard Branson, who has said he is 'honored' to carry on the fast. His planned duration will be for three days. Kudos to them, and perhaps the relay tactic will eventually work for the cause.


Monday, April 27, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Retro Active Critique #4

Two distinctive sides with their own agendas. Two vastly different men, so linked in their desperation they can actually relate to one another. A duel with much at stake wherein only one will ultimately prevail. A worthy critique of "Frost/Nixon" will need to be as textured as the film itself. To do it any justice is what I hope to achieve, as daunting a feat as when Americans in 1974 hoped for a confession or an apology from a Ford-pardoned Richard Nixon. Luminous is the story, as are the performances and the film's execution by director Ron Howard. With it's strong script having been a successful stage play, this is a film that could have been great no matter what. But in taking on "Frost/Nixon" as a film, Howard and his team have elevated the stage play to the realm of art. 
As the story gets underway, Richard Nixon (the astonishing Frank Langella) has just become the first and only president of the United States to resign from office, following the Watergate scandal. Shortly afterwards, he is pardoned by Gerald Ford, his successor, and the disappointed people in the United States feel that he has "gone out the back door." No admittance of guilt, no confession, no trial. Many are angered and further disillusioned by the outcome because they are still anxious about the war in Vietnam, and a great number of other matters which have left that sense of 70's paranoia running rampant. Just as the public is disappointed, Nixon himself hopes to somehow set the record straight and retain some level of respect for his presidential legacy.

Enter British talk show host David Frost (Michael Sheen). The most unlikely person to throw himself into the political ring, Frost adopts the possibility of attaining an interview with Richard Nixon as a way to get himself new exposure in the United States, some credibility and of course the sheer potential for big TV numbers. As Frost explains his intentions to his trusted producer, John Birt (played by a nearly unrecognizable Matthew MacFayden, Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice"): "It's indescribable. Success in America is unlike success anywhere else. The emptiness when it's gone. The sickening thought it may never come back." The international playboy hopes to get his table back at Sardi's in New York. The intentions of Nixon and Frost couldn't be more opposed, and yet so congruent. After all, the only reason Nixon and his people agree to the interview, despite Frost's lack of credibility, is that he would be an easier interrogator than Mike Wallace. And he would pay them $600,000, an unprecedented price at that time for a news interview.

From there the story becomes a wonderful study of the two men, with their personal hopes and their demons. What is so moving is that this is a very human story anyone can relate to. The film also nicely moves us through the process each man must go through to get to the final confrontation: the interviews. For Frost, his struggle to get funding or network and commercial support, and the preparation of his very anxious team. For Nixon, preparation for what he hopes will be his return to the good graces of the public, a chance for redemption.

As Frost's team dives into the Nixon tapes and all sorts of research in order to give him "the trial he never had", they also represent the shifting mood of the public. After all, at first when the scandal hit in 1974 people were downright distraught by the matter. The interviews finally came together nearly three years later, and there was some perspective then (although not nearly as much as today, when Nixon's crimes seem practically mild compared to the actions of our government officials since - an aspect of the film that makes it all the more powerful and forces the audience to question the treatment of Nixon, in retrospect.) There is even some humor seeping into the public consciousness; for example, while Frost is attending movie premieres and keeping up his front, his team work away at framing questions on topics such as wiretapping, and Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) says, "This guy wiretapped 17 people! Including his own brother. But you know what, we can't ask him about his brother. Because frankly, if Donald Nixon were my brother I'd wiretap him too." Sam Rockwell's portrayal of team member James Reston, Jr. is the angrier one, with a greater sense of urgency in bringing down the ex-president, representing that side of the public conscience.

Despite the thrilling subject matter and performances, (Langella's stoically moving one, in particular, should be used as a study for actors in training), the beautifully human story, and historical elements, one aspect of the film I noticed more clearly upon the third viewing is its construction, the direction. Ron Howard has been known for not having a "signature style". I have to disagree. My take on his style is that he has incredible agility, energy, and passion for detail and for his subject matter. This may not be called style, but it is a drive that results in plenty of it. As was similarly the case in another terrific Howard film, "Apollo 13", a film that captured its subject so intensely that one is at the very edge of his or her seat, exhilarated and moved from beginning to end. I felt the same movement and excitement in watching "Frost/Nixon", but by the third time I began to see the real "game" that Howard brought to the film.

For example, there is a wonderful scene when Frost, his producer John Birt, and his new girlfriend Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) go to Nixon's home to meet him and his team, and to exchange the initial $200,000 fee Frost had agreed to pay for the interviews (turns out, from his own pocket.) There is already such electricity in this scene. Underlying the pleasantries is a palpable sense of foreboding and concern from both sides, for both men. Nixon's men are sizing Frost up, and Frost and his entourage are doing their best to be respectful and cordial within the enormity of the moment in which they find themselves.

This scene is exhilarating for its sheer drama. The group could be standing in Nixon's den, and the exchanges could occur on a single camera with no movement, and the moment would be fascinating. But the agile, passionate and (dare I say it) artistic Howard shoots this scene with so many shots –– angles, on a hand-held camera, on a steady camera, close-ups of hands, a movement from Caroline from the side –– just so much happens visually that you are living and breathing in this exciting moment, not realizing the effects that have been added to the experience. There is agility and an athleticism to his direction. A scene that could have been great in one shot is done with maybe fifty. And the result is also impressive in that it doesn't make the viewer nauseous, which would surely be the case in a lesser director's hands. Instead, one is subconsciously more intrigued by the very simple scene, and moved more deeply without knowing why.

When I actually noticed and started counting the shots, I found it breathtaking. I noticed this technique again in a scene where Frost is speaking to a TV network executive on a pay phone near the airport, the next shot is the executive on the other end of the call; then, back to Frost, but this time, only his mirrored reflection in the silver face of the pay phone; then, cut to a side angle of Frost with producer Birt facing the camera, looking at him with concern. And above Birt, a tiny plane flies overhead. These shots come in quick succession in a simple scene that could have had nothing of visual interest going on to work. This style is reminiscent of new wave cinema, in fact –– the difference being that the inconsequential things that happen visually occur in the midst of great consequence. It's as if Ron Howard likes to match his subject's travails, and take things further than is expected of him. Yet, with all that he adds in, there is always a simple and clean result. To create something magnificent within that fine line of too much and just enough is pure genius.

In the end, Frost manages to be the victor and Nixon concedes in giving a confession in the final interview. The last scene is very touching. It is between the two men back at Nixon's home in California. At this point, Nixon has begun to wax philosophical about his predicament. He asks Frost whether he enjoys the parties he attends (after all, this was 1977: discos and Studio 54.) Frost says of course he does. Nixon tells him, "You got no idea how fortunate that makes you. Liking people, being liked. Having that facility... It kind of makes you wonder why I chose a life that hinged on being liked. I'm better suited to a life of thought, debate, intellectual discipline. Maybe we got it wrong. Maybe you should have been the politician and I, the rigorous interviewer." He couldn't have said it better, and I was bawling at the end this film. We not only like Nixon after "Frost/Nixon" but even love him as this beautifully portrayed –– and touching –– fallen warrior who finally admitted his mistakes.

The real Nixon wouldn't attain any peace of mind in his lifetime about the Watergate scandal and his resignation. If only he could have known that over the years we've come to acknowledge that, despite his mistakes, we've had worse presidents; they did get away with their actions, they did not get impeached, nor were they forced to resign. In a year of incredibly good work, these are just several reasons why "Frost/Nixon" was undisputedly my favorite film of 2008.

Now for "Frost/Nixon" & the year 1977 (when the story ends), rather than the requisite disco tune, I think Alan Parsons Project's "I Wouldn't Wanna Be Like You" is appropriate to take us out.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Ice Storm (1997)

Retro Active Critique #3

If a surface gets cold enough, it will crack or break. That is what is happening on many levels in Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm" –– one of my favorite films of the 90's, and Retro Active as it depicts the 1970's so poignantly. The setting is Thanksgiving weekend, 1973, in suburban Connecticut. It is the "Me Decade", for sure, with parents too busy with themselves to pay appropriate attention to their children, and children learning destructive behavior from their parents.

Every character displays some type of confusing behavior. There are claustrophobic emotions in the midst of cold and sparse
environments. Tobey McGuire's character, Paul Wood, is a narrator of sorts –– and perhaps the least disturbed of the group. He is a 16-year-old boarding school student living a relatively normal existence consisting of a major crush, drugs and youthful musings (sometimes reverting back to his childhood comic books to make sense of the world.) He talks of the "negative zone level" from The Fantastic Four and relates this to people being tempted by negative behavior, the type of behavior all the characters in the film seem most capable of demonstrating. Not to mention the state of American society and politics at that time. His little sister, Wendy, played by Christina Ricci, is skating on thinner ice, testing darker forces from within. She thinks about politics and Richard Nixon, eats junk food and makes sexual advances to her boyfriend's younger brother, the more volatile of the two boys who enjoys blowing up model planes in the backyard.

When she finds them in her home, planted in front of the TV, Janey Carver, played by Sigourney Weaver, asks Wendy and her son Mikey (Elijah Wood), "Excuse me, don't you guys have homework?" Their blase and empty response: "Thanksgiving break."

The storm is literally coming. The film beautifully captures the style and mood of this era aesthetically. I feel cold just watching the film. Trouble among the parents leads up to a "key party." Or the beginning of the infamous swingers period. Elena Wood (Joan Allen) and Ben (Kevin Kline) are the parents of Mcguire and Ricci. Ben is having an affair with his neighbor's wife, the cold, calculated and bored Janey (Weaver). Elena suspects them and starts to develop her own disturbing behavior in her frustration, namely kleptomania.

Mikey is fascinated by molecules, so much that when the storm hits, he is compelled to go out and experience it. Because, as he explains to his little brother Sandy, in an ice storm the molecules freeze so that all you breathe is yourself; there is a rare purity to the air. Despite this dangerous environment, he goes out and frolics happily. The kids in the film seem to like danger as much as the parents do. Sandy's toy soldier has a broken record, and it says, "Mayday, mayday! Get this message back to base." But no one gets the message before it's too late and a terrible tragedy forces them out from their selfish, dream-like existences.

While the parents are in the midst of their own icy chaos –– trading spouses at the neighborhood key party –– two of the kids take sexual experimenting too far, one is traveling back by train from a drug ridden party in New York, and the other is taking his dangerous frolicking too far in the ice storm. The film bears the question in its final moments, why does it take a tragedy to wake people up? Why should the worst happen to finally bring people closer? This is a beautiful, sad and entertaining film, and Ang Lee is masterful in bringing this story to life.

To take us out, here is a #1 hit from the year 1973, "My Love" by Paul McCartney & Wings. (Certainly not the sentiment that prevails in the Wood and Carver families... but at least it was out there.)

Power Opening Credits of the 1980's

One of the great 1980's power openings. Legendary. It's "Falcon Crest".
And "Knot's Landing"... Not as exciting, but it has a decent vibe.

One that is certainly iconic - but not quite as dynamic in my opinion - is the theme song for "Dallas" (which I understand they changed slightly, every season...)

But likely to be the undisputed champ of the group is "Dynasty". As for the theme song, this is a most magnificent one: melancholic and stoic.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Terrific book I'm reading:

A revolution that was...

However, much of what was occurring in the era depicted in the fabulous book by Mark Harris, 'Pictures At A Revolution', is applicable to what is happening in the film industry today –– in surprising ways.

An interesting perspective and a great read.

A few times I've had to put this book down –– and always with the utmost reluctance –– only because life and its circumstances got in the way. Really loving it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Atmosphere - 40 Years Ago

La Piscine (1969)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Retro Active Television

What really happens when you watch a classic TV series? It's like stepping into a time machine. A classic series can transport you back to the era when it was being aired, as if you are watching it along with its respective audience. Use your imagination, and you can be a part of that particular time. It is a heightened level of escapism. And that's Retro Active.

Here's a new discovery, both exhilarating and disappointing: "He & She". It ran from 1967-68 and received glowing reviews and several Emmy noms (it won for best writing in a comedy series for that year.) From what I've read, it was ground-breaking and set the bar high for the shows to follow with its style and sophistication. Unfortunately, it is not available on DVD, but on YouTube (somehow) there are two full episodes. To some degree this show seems to have inspired The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In fact, although set in New York, not Minneapolis, the apartment looks practically identical, so much that when the Paula character says, "This is my house" in the scene below, I'm a bit stunned since it seems more like Mary Richards' house to me... Of course that show, with MTM, would begin two years later and run for eight successful seasons.

As it turns out, critically acclaimed and award-winning shows (particularly for comedy writing - hint, hint "Arrested Development"?) were canceled abruptly and prematurely back in the day, as well. Watch the show for yourself, below, starring real-life couple - married since 1961, and still today, believe it or not - Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin. I should add, although Paula looks smashing, the patch on the arm of her dress in the clip is a bit odd.

Speaking of Retro Activity, and one season wonders...

"Gidget" ran for only one season in 1965 and is now showing on On Demand. Good for when you're in the mood for a very easy, breezy, innocent 60's surfer girl show - it's really one of a kind. Apparently it didn't develop much of an audience while it was aired, but soon after they pulled it and started airing reruns, it generated a cult following. It's actually pretty entertaining. (Terrible intro, though. Terrible.)

Onto other retro activity, namely fighting crime - and one show that did have its fair share of success, starting in the late 60's and well into the 70's. It could be referred to as "No Guns, Some Violence", but instead it was aptly named "The Mod Squad". It's been said that before the actors playing the squad were willing to sign on, they instigated a clause where their characters would never use guns. They were hippies after all, but this was incorporated nicely into the show. Thus, they never did use guns - but the fists do fly, and if any low-life totes a gun it gets wrestled and tossed away in the scuffle.

Below is the climactic fight scene from the first episode of "The Mod Squad". Linc and Pete's dive tackles are epic. They do them in every show, and the dives seem to get better, bigger, even swan-like as the series progresses. The following scene features their first attempts in which they manage to break up Julie's apartment and banister pretty good.

It's great to watch this series, on DVD, at night before bed. Very comforting, a good trip. Solid, as Linc Hayes would say.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Say Anything (1989)

Retro Active Critique #2:

While watching "Say Anything", written and directed by Cameron Crowe, I discovered something: I'm quite satisfied with my criteria in handling critiques, that I can choose from any film or TV show, whether current or released many moons ago. Quite liberal in its parameters. And when there is the lucky chance I'll see a classic or iconic film for the first time, critiquing it could be quite fun.

As in the case of "Say Anything". I had never seen it before, and it's been a part of the collective consciousness since its release. Finally able to see why, for myself, I was pleased to find that there are many wonderful moments; that its cinematic significance is more than justified. And now for me it's no longer simply, you know... that movie where John Cusack holds up a boom box above his head playing 'In Your Eyes'. But what a great character Lloyd Dobler turns out to be, just as the film's reputation has long indicated.

But onto the critique, and as I expect most would know that it is about Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), an underachiever type, who falls in love with the overachiever valedictorian of his high school, Diane Court (Ione Skye), upon graduating. The story takes place in Seattle, Washington. Diane has received a substantial fellowship to study in England, and while her time is limited before going abroad, Lloyd is determined to spend as much of it with her as possible.

The triumph of "Say Anything" is not only that it is about honesty and decency, but also its real development at the core of the story: a young woman's transition from her first protective and loving figure (the father) to the next (the relationship), and how in this case the better man, Lloyd, wins her trust. It is about the virtue of being completely transparent, which LLoyd is. Diane's father loves and respects her more than anything, and he is convincing as a very virtuous man. But once it comes to light that he had in fact taken certain liberties in his nursing home business, and the IRS has been investigating him, it becomes clear that Lloyd is even more decent than he, and that Diane can comfortably and safely transition to being with him as her supporter and protector.

Having been aware of this film's strong following for such a long time, but never having seen it for myself, part of my viewing of it became a curiosity of sorts, my seeking to unravel the mystery and the origin of its romantic affect on people. It certainly has that affect - it has been on countless best film or best romantic film lists, and in 2002 it was ranked number one in Entertainment Weekly's list for best modern romantic films. Lloyd Dobler, the character, also has a major following. There are plenty of groups and websites dedicated to him, and he is the inspiration for one band's name, called The Lloyd Dobler Effect.

So what is the cause for this Lloyd Dobler/ "Say Anything" effect? I believe it is the fact that in male/female romantic relationships, the most inherently romantic thing is for a girl to feel protected and for a guy to protect his girl. And that is what moves Lloyd like a magnet to be with Diane. He seems to believe, and even tells her father at the end, that the one thing he is sure he's good at is being with Diane. That is his greatest ambition, and will be his greatest achievement in life as he sees it. And so, as it turns out when Lloyd wins the girl, he is not an underachiever after all. He just needed to find Diane to focus his energy on. This may sound stifling for Diane, but it's not, because he's a real man about it. He's strong and he just wants his lady love to shine, and to be with her every step of the way to ensure her comfort.

Truth is, no matter how far we believe we've come, or how evolved we think we are, that is still inherently the most romantic notion for both men and women: for the woman, to find someone who feels that way about her; and for a man, to find someone to feel that way about... It is the age-old story, like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella, only here is the late 80's, grungier version of a classic fairy tale. Lloyd is Prince Charming, or that knight in shining armor –– holding his boom box high above his head like a shiny sword. He is dedicated to his mission and professes his love for Diane in the most stoic of ways. That is the romantic motivation Cameron Crowe so simply and beautifully tapped into with "Say Anything". And, that is why so many people have responded to the film.

Of course this critique couldn't be complete without revisiting "In Your Eyes", so here's a nice version to take us out:

Sunday, April 5, 2009

I Love You, Man (2009)

Retro Active Critique #1:

Although I am female, I have embraced the current concept of bromantic comedies, or "brom-coms". I enjoyed and gushed about "Pineapple Express" a bit more than some. "I Love you, Man" is a sweet movie that takes the bromance genre to the next level... perhaps not to the "Sleepless in Seattle" one, but to that of "You've Got Mail." With only slightly less schlock, and there's nothing wrong with a bit of schlock in a rom-com. "I Love You, Man" plays like a classic romantic comedy, but the spin is that it spotlights the blossoming of a meaningful friendship between two guys. One can see clearly in that moment when the soon-to-be friends first meet that there is some serious "love at first sight" chemistry between them. It is so charmingly evident and the connection is palpable, as if each has genuinely found his perfect mate - of the friend, buddy, pal variety.

Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) is a newly engaged real estate agent in L.A. haplessly searching for a best friend to be his best man for his impending wedding. He'd always been the "girlfriend guy" who didn't make time for strong male friendships. After a few failed attempts in finding a viable pal, he nearly gives up hope. So Peter's chance encounter with Sydney Fife (Jason Segal), a guy who's just crashing and enjoying the sun-dried tomato panini sandwiches at his "understated" open house for a big client, Lou Ferrigno, is that revelatory moment when birds are singing, it seems as if they are the only two people in the room, all is right with the world... and he just knows: this is it, this guy is "the one". And we know and rejoice it, as well.

There are several things to love about "I Love You, Man". For instance, how honest the two guys are with one another. Not simply in that they share details about their personal and/or sex lives (the sort of carefree, masculine bonding Peter had been lacking before Sydney), but midway into their on screen relationship, Pete is provoked into telling Syd about his deliberate search for a best friend/best man, prior to meeting him. This prompts Syd to ask if that's the only reason Peter wanted to be friends with him. It's not, of course - they both clarify immediately that, no... their friendship is authentic, and they have both enjoyed it immensely so far. In an average rom-com, there tends to be that dark secret that looms heavy, resurfacing to break up the couple, just so that they can eventually get back together again - but "for real, this time." It is refreshing that the film manages to skate past such gags and creates a story that is engaging on its own. I should add that they do break up and get back together, but in a less contrived way.

+ + + + + + + + +

In keeping with the retro-active elements, there was a good deal of Rush action in the film, as the guys have jam sessions in Syd's Venice Beach hangout. On real instruments, no sign of a Guitar Hero in the man-cave, thank goodness. There is also an appearance by Rush themselves, performing at a live gig. The before mentioned soft-spoken giant Lou Ferrigno (aka TV's "Hulk"), is also sprinkled nicely into the plot lines. And lastly - but only because this was a bromance, after all - there's Rashida Jones (daughter of Peggy Lipton and Quincy Jones) as the lovely fiance, Zoe, who happens to be Pete's other perfect mate.

And here's Canada's own Rush to take us out - with "Tom Sawyer".

Saturday, April 4, 2009

We've Only Just Begun

Not with white lace or promises, but with solid intentions. The goal being: to make retro "active" again, via current critiques. Or to critique that which is current –– with a retro mindset. And yes, we've just begun. (Cue the horns. And tambourine.)
Long ago, they were two fresh-faced kids from Downey, California, about to take over the 1970's with their incomparable brand of music. Still seems like no other voice comes close to Karen's, while no other pop composer is as sublime as Richard. The Carpenters are truly awesome, and it's high time they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In fact, it's long overdue.

Next up, a review of 'I Love You, Man', starring Paul Rudd, Jason Segal and Rashida Jones, (daughter of lovely Peggy Lipton, pictured on the side rail.) See you then, man... Solid.