Monday, October 24, 2005

Fearless reporting: Do not go gentle into that "Good Night"


directed by George Clooney
starring David Strathairn, George Clooney, Frank Langella, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Jeff Daniels, Tate Donovan, others

Get it straight: “Good Night, and Good Luck” is *not* a movie about McCarthyism.

True, it recounts the story of CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), who dared to take on the junior senator from Wisconsin and expose the grotesquerie of his interrogation tactics. But the fact remains that “Good Night” is primarily a film about journalism (and, somewhat more elliptically, about television), and only secondarily a film about McCarthy’s implosion.

Perhaps that’s why the movie feels less like a protest than an elegy—an elegy for a distant, carefully burnished ideal of courageous reporting, arriving at a time when the integrity of both broadcast and newspaper journalism has never been under heavier fire. It’s also why many of the criticisms leveled against George Clooney’s direction and writing (he co-wrote the script with Grant Heslov)—that he stacks the deck against McCarthy, that he exaggerates Murrow’s heroism and importance to McCarthy’s fall, and that he deliberately ignores the genuine threat Communism posed during the 1950s—seem curiously misdirected. Murrow is idealized, certainly, and McCarthy, to put it mildly, comes off as a repugnant bully—though it’s hard to fault the latter portrayal too much, considering the senator stars as himself via archival footage of the Senate hearings and his confrontation with Murrow. The real question, however, is not whether the movie is fair to McCarthy or his cause, but whether it is fair to the media, then or now. Opinions may differ on this; all *I* can say is I walked out of the film feeling chastened and a little sorrowful, on behalf of both the news corps and the television industry generally.

That’s not to say that Clooney’s movie is preachy or overbearing: nothing could be further from the truth. “Good Night” is a smart, coolly measured piece of work, with a spare yet intimate style that draws attention to the words, facial expressions, and body language of the characters as the vehicles for the much larger, universe-shifting events that keep them buzzing over the course of 1953. The camera rarely leaves the CBS studio, except for glimpses of a nearby bar and the home of two network employees (Robert Downey, Jr., and Patricia Clarkson) who happen to be clandestinely married to each other. Yet a tinge of period nostalgia pervades every black-and-white frame of the film, from the brooding, elegantly angular profile of Murrow himself, exhaling a luxurious plume of cigarette smoke, to the jauntily tilted hat of a female jazz singer.

Clooney builds the drama at a deliberate, but not sluggish, pace, and maintains a sometimes maddeningly discreet distance from its central figure. Murrow, played with Strathairn’s characteristic intelligence and restraint, remains something of an enigma—a man who seems to channel all of his passions into the quiet fire of his reporting. If, as I’m assuming, his public lines were taken verbatim from his broadcasts and a famous keynote address delivered some years after the McCarthy showdown, then the man clearly had a way with words that remains unmatched by today’s most eminent journalists. But only the merest flicker of anger breaks through his slightly weary gravitas: all his indignation, his outrage, and his sorrow remain contained within the beautiful structures and rhythms of his speech. If this treatment tends to render him a shade too iconic, the only proper defense is that the film is less about Murrow the man than the principles for which he stood. In interviews, Clooney has made it clear that the movie is in part a tribute to his own father, a former news anchor, as well as to Murrow, so it’s hardly surprising that Murrow emerges as more of a symbol of integrity than a fully dimensional character.

The rest of the cast shows some degrees more teeming humanity, if only within the rarefied context of the newsroom and its corporate offices. Clooney himself appears as a key supporting character, subduing his natural charm (but not his wit) to play Murrow’s loyal producer, Fred Friendly, while Frank Langella, as head honcho Bill Paley, does a fabulous job conveying the mixture of paternal understanding and frigid corporate logic that would go only so far (read: not very) in backing Murrow’s crusade. The film also introduces a more personalized note of pathos in the form of Don Hollenback (Ray Wise), a fellow CBS anchor who was routinely and viciously flayed as a pinko by the 1950s counterpart to Bill O’Reilly—if you don’t see where *his* story arc is going, then you’re not paying attention. It’s a quiet, surprisingly unhistrionic nod to the real damage wreaked by the “Red” scare, regardless of whether or not that scare was well founded.

In the end, the film focuses not on that highly touchy subject (which is best captured in the Senate hearings footage, anyway), or even on the age-old truth that, as Murrow put it, “dissent is not the same as disloyalty,” but rather on the duty of the media to do, well, what Murrow did. Not just speak truth to power, but to inform and educate the citizenry on those events which affect their very lives, their well-being, and their rights. In that 1958 keynote address, which flanks the beginning and end of the movie, Murrow took several sharp shots against television’s enslavement to advertising and the corporate bottom dollar—shots that seem even more appropriate today. But he also focused on the power of television to shape people’s minds and understanding:

“To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

What would Murrow make of television today, I wonder? I shudder to think.


Tuesday, October 18, 2005

"Elizabethtown" Meanders, "Violence" Sears


directed by Cameron Crowe
starring Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon, Judy Greer, Alec Baldwin, others

Cameron Crowe has always been what I call a wise sentimentalist. By this I mean he retains an unwavering faith in the human ability to connect with one another—while at the same time fully recognizing our equally incredible capacity to miscommunicate and treat each other like shit. In this respect, he’s the natural heir of writers like E.M. Forster and, to a lesser extent, George Bernard Shaw—humanists who missed no opportunity to mock the follies and flaws of the societies they inhabited or the characters they created, yet were fundamentally sympathetic to the latter. Personally, I prefer Crowe’s brand of optimism to the darker visions of edgier filmmakers. He may see the world through rose-tinted glasses, but that doesn’t mean they lack 20/20 vision.

Sadly, “Elizabethtown” is far from top-drawer Crowe, being a good deal more muddled and soft-focused than most of his previous work (e.g., “Almost Famous,” “Jerry Maguire,” “Singles,” “Say Anything”). It’s not the premise that’s lacking. The setup, after all, presents classic Crowe territory. A young man (Orlando Bloom) groomed and hand-picked for spectacular success as a footwear designer instead delivers a spectacular failure—in the form of a much-ballyhooed athletic shoe that, as his boss (Alec Baldwin) reminds him, has cost the company nearly $1 billion in losses. Reeling from the shock and contemplating a colorfully grim form of suicide, the young man, Drew Baylor, is interrupted by a call from his sister (Judy Greer), who informs him that their father died while visiting family in Kentucky. Drew is told that he must go to Kentucky—specifically, Elizabethtown, a little burg near Louisville—to see to the body and fend off the efforts of the Baylor clan to bury it there. Like a good son, he obeys. Along the way, he meets Claire (Kirsten Dunst), a perky wisp of a flight attendant who may be either a kindred spirit or slightly mental, or both. The two of them dance around a potential romance for the rest of the film, mainly (we’re meant to infer) because of Drew’s internal Issues (with a capital “I”).

If this sounds suspiciously like last year’s “Garden State,” it is and it isn’t. Like that film, it’s about a young man who’s gradually roused from an emotional stupor, thanks in large part to the attentions of a cute girl. But “Garden State” was also about going home and confronting buried family issues, which “Elizabethtown” only gestures vaguely towards without really addressing. In fact, one of the film’s major flaws is how badly it utilizes Greer and Susan Sarandon as Drew’s sister and mother, respectively. Another is the even thinner characterization of Drew’s deceased father (all we’re told is he was a wonderful man, and seems to have been a kind father) and the Kentucky Baylors, who appear as little more than a snapshot montage of elderly “eccentrics” and little kids in a constant state of commotion.

No, most of “Elizabethtown”’s focus is on the slow-building relationship between Drew and Claire, which might have worked better if Claire weren’t so daffy and Drew weren’t such a blank. Before this movie, I was beginning to think that Bloom was actually growing as an actor: underwhelmed as I generally was by “Kingdom of Heaven,” I thought I detected some progress there from the one-note Legolas of “Lord of the Rings.” Now I see that he’s merely shifted from two expressions to three. I suppose that’s progress of a sort; still, I don’t think it’s a good sign that any new depths developed in Drew’s character over the course of the film fail to leave any mark on his face.

That said, the movie’s not without certain Crowe-ian charms—great music (especially in the last fifteen minutes or so), flashes of quirky humor (look for the appearance of “Freebird” at an otherwise howlingly dull and cheesy funeral), and a handful of genuinely witty and thought-provoking observations on the nature of success and romance. Crowe’s too intelligent a director and writer to give us a film that isn’t worth watching at least in parts. But in the end, it’s not enough—not nearly enough—for someone from whom we’ve come to expect so much more.

RATING: ** 1/3



directed by David Cronenberg
starring Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt

In many ways, David Cronenberg is the diametric opposite of Cameron Crowe. He’s not a nihilist, or even a pessimist, exactly; he just has a far colder eye for human nature—in particular, the twisted convolutions that human desire can take. There’s a place in our culture for both Crowe and Cronenberg; but in this round, at least, Cronenberg wins, hands down.

“A History of Violence” has something of the quality of a fable or allegory, although (or perhaps because) it’s based on a graphic novel. Set mainly in an idyllic Everytown, America, it centers on the character of Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), quiet family man and proprietor of the local diner. Soft-spoken and unfailingly polite, blessed with an attractive wife (Maria Bello) and two apple-cheeked children, Tom seems like an upstanding citizen and the embodiment of small-town virtues.

But there’s more to Tom than meets the eye, as he inadvertently reveals when trouble hits Paradise—in the form of two sadistic criminals who invade the diner and threaten to kill one of his employees. In a split second, Tom gains the upper hand and saves the day by shooting both men dead with their own guns. After the initial round of jaw-dropping, he’s promptly canonized as the town hero; unfortunately, his woes have only begun. Before long, a new, far more menacing set of criminal types, led by a mobster named Fogarty (Ed Harris, oozing menace), slink into Tom’s diner and begin stalking him and his family. Fogarty, having seen our hero’s face in the news, is convinced that “Tom” is another man altogether—more to the point, that he and Fogarty go way, way back and have a longstanding score to settle.

I won’t reveal whether Fogarty’s right, or, as Tom repeatedly protests, he’s got the wrong man. Suffice to say that for at least the first half of the movie, the truth about Tom is beside the point. Far more significant is the spiraling effect of the violence and its aftermath on Tom and his family. As Fogarty’s comments fan suspicions regarding Tom’s shady past, Tom's wife and adolescent son react in ways that would keep a psychoanalyst busy for days. What would *you* do if you discovered that your loving husband or father was a killer? What Cronenberg recognizes and depicts with remarkable perspicacity is that it just might *turn you on*. Or, at the least, it might turn something on in you that you never suspected was there.

In the last third or so, “A History of Violence” loses some of its bite even as it reveals more clearly its graphic-novel origins. (It does come back, with a silent roar, at the very end.) But even at its most stylized, the movie remains a sharp testament to our dual susceptibility to violence. Each time an act of unspeakable brutality cracks across the screen, it compels an impulse to simultaneously cheer and wince. And that impulse, far more effectively than the bloodiest boxing match or the harshest documentary, captures the terrible power of violence to both seduce and destroy.


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

So tell me how to get, how to get to "Avenue Q"


music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
book by Jeff Whitty
directed by Jason Moore
at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York
(also playing in Vegas, with a different cast)
Cast on Oct. 9: Barrett Foa (total hottie), Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Christian Anderson, Ann Harada, Jordan Gelber, Natalie Venetia Belcon, a few others

Sorry for the slack in blogging…I’ve been more or less on continuous vacation this past month, being literally between jobs. It’s very nice!

I’m currently kicking back my heels at my parents’ home in Virginia, having returned from a lovely, if severely weather-challenged, trip to New York. Among other things, I saw the musical “Avenue Q” on Broadway, and I’m writing this to tell you: if you’re reading this blog, you will *love* this show. Because you are its target audience.

In so stating, I’m assuming that you are probably under 40, have graduated from college, watched “Sesame Street” as a kid, and are still searching for your Purpose in Life. (One of the recurring songs and themes is aptly titled “Purpose.”) “Avenue Q” is basically “Sesame Street” for adults who belong to that demographic. And it rocks. But be warned: if you are offended by the concept of muppets who spout foul language, engage in loud and ecstatic sex, or confront latent homosexuality, then you may not enjoy the show as much as I did. (The stony-faced middle-aged couple sitting next to me evidently did not.)

Not that “Avenue Q” is intended solely as a parody of “Sesame Street.” If that were it, the joke would get pretty thin pretty fast. No, what we have here is a coming-of-age tale written principally for twenty and thirtysomethings---but really for anyone who still looks back with a little longing to an earlier time when it didn’t matter so much that you didn’t know what to do with your life. It just happens that the coming-of-age characters are mostly puppets. Unlike “Sesame Street,” the audience has full view of the actor behind each puppet---which doesn’t mar the effect so much as highlight the skills required to manipulate the damn thing while singing and jettéing about. The performances are all top-notch, and sustain the tone of the overall show.

The aforementioned puppets, and some real-live people, all live on the titular street, located in a fictional outer borough of New York. The fulcrum of the story is (puppet) Princeton, a fresh-faced college graduate who moves onto Avenue Q because it’s affordable. He soon gets acquainted with his neighbors, including a (puppet) love interest and elementary school teacher, Kate Monster; an uptight (puppet) preppie named Rod and his sloppier roommate Nicky (dead ringers for Bert & Ernie); a cranky (puppet) pervert named Trekkie Monster (a cross between Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch, as well as a dig at Internet geeks); an unemployed human named Brian and his unforgettable Japanese American wife, Christmas Eve; and the superintendent of their building, none other than Gary Coleman. Yes, *that* Gary Coleman, and no, he isn’t starring as himself. He’s played by a woman. In fact, I’d advise the real Gary Coleman never to see this show unless he has a sublimely forgiving sense of humor.

What’s the plot? The usual for any recent college grad without a particular mission in life: Find Thyself. What makes “Avenue Q” exceptional is how deftly it integrates that much-explored theme into the classic format of both “Sesame Street” and that peculiar beast, the Broadway musical. While the music isn’t especially memorable, except for its uncanny resemblance to those earnestly upbeat public-television jingles, the tart, decidedly R-rated lyrics more than make up for it. These deal with everything from racism to relationships to…Gary Coleman, and range from acidic (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “It Sucks to Be Me”) to risqué (“The Internet is for porn, / The Internet is for porn, / Grab your dick and double-click / For porn, porn, porn”) to wistful, even poignant (“I Wish I Could Go Back to College”). But they are never anything less than clever. The only song that didn’t have me either laughing or nodding in sympathy was “Schadenfreude,” a rhapsody on the idea that people derive pleasure from other people’s misfortunes. I give props to the writers for writing a song about schadenfreude in the first place, but this one seemed just a bit too mean-spirited, even for someone who cherishes no starry-eyed ideals about human nature.

Indeed, “Avenue Q”’s somewhat jaded take on life may be unappealing to older or more conservative viewers, who are likely to feel that it lacks a moral center. Perhaps it does. A more accurate assessment might be that the show depicts, with surprising freshness and lightness of touch, the predicament of a generation that neither follows nor has replaced the guiding forces that dictated their parents’ lives. For this very reason, “Avenue Q” is guaranteed to resonate with anyone struggling to find his or her Purpose. And I venture to guess that means you and me both.