Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Man of the People's: Farewell Howard Zinn

Lanky Howard Zinn, who died this week at the age of 87, bore a sort of passing resemblance to Abraham Lincoln and spoke with much the same impassioned eloquence. “People I meet all over the country have a great reservoir of common sense and common decency,” the historian said during a 2004 phone interview from his home in the leafy Boston suburb of Auburndale. “That gives me hope.”

Zinn’s abiding faith in humanity is evident in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, a profile co-directed by Vermont resident Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller of Chicago. The documentary, released six years ago, traces the extraordinary life of a man whose teaching, writing and activism have influenced generations. One contemporary young acolyte is Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, who contributed a song (“Down”) to the film. He later shipped his mentor two custom-made skateboards emblazoned with Zinn’s image -- both of which the octogenarian then regifted to Ellis’ adolescent son. Matt Damon, who narrates the documentary and Ben Affleck were Massachusetts teenagers when they first became entranced by Zinn’s landmark publication A People’s History of the United States. The successful actors long wanted to produce a TV mini-series based on the myth-busting 1980 tome, which has sold more than one million copies. In it, Zinn details many shameful episodes, beginning with Christopher Columbus and the Arawak Indians that ordinary textbooks have covered up or not covered at all.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Helen Mirren's Thrilling Countess: The Last Station

The Last Station is not a great movie by any means but Helen Mirren’s performance as writer Leo Tolstoy’s wife, the mercurial Countess Sofya, is certainly great acting. It’s also a timely reminder that sometimes it’s the acting alone that makes a film worthwhile.

As the film begins, in the early 20th century, Sofya, who has been married to Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) for nearly fifty years, is warring with writer Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), who as Tolstoy’s secretary, has become the writer’s premiere acolyte. Devout followers of Tolstoy, Chertkov and many others call themselves Tolstoyans, and influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s writings, espouse vegetarianism, the sacredness of all life and advocate for a world free of war. Sofya doesn't buy into any of the Tolstoyans’ new age beliefs, nor does she even concede that they bear any relation to anything her husband, who is widely known for his novels Anna Karenina and War and Peace, has ever written. More significantly, she is convinced that Chertkov is pressuring Tolstoy to change his will so that his royalties will go the Russian people and not to her and her children. Her fear of losing the family mansion and not having anything to live on, after Tolstoy dies, sends her on a trajectory of rage, hysteria, duplicity and finally a nervous breakdown, even as her worst fears come to fruition.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Shooting for Success: The Messenger

On February 2nd the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its contenders for 2009‘s best film, a list traditionally with five selections now expanded to ten. Hopefully the change means there’s room for The Messenger, a stunning drama that has yet to open widely. After a limited release in November to qualify for the awards season, the distributor -- Oscilloscope Laboratories, brainchild of Beastie Boys rapper Adam Yauch -- seems to be slowly unveiling this exquisite cinematic examination of how war hits home. Literally.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

U2's Beautiful Day: The Changing Masterpiece

In June 2001, my wife and I were lucky enough to have a four-day weekend in Paris, France. It was a magical trip that was great on almost every level. The hotel we stayed in was quaint, the meals we ate were spectacular and our touring around the City of Light was nearly perfect. Heck, even the Parisians were mostly well mannered. Upon my return, I managed to maintain those good feelings, at least once a day, by listening to U2's "Beautiful Day" off their All That You Can't Leave Behind album. Why did I use that song? Firstly, its hugely uplifting and yearningly romantic lyrics:

It was a beautiful day
Don't let it get away
Beautiful day.

Touch me
Take me to that other place
Reach me
I know I'm not a hopeless case.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Et Tu, NBC! The Unlearned Lessons of the Leno/O'Brien Affair

I have no sympathy for NBC’s head Jeff Zucker over the imbroglio he’s currently involved in over the network’s decision to scrap Jay Leno’s weekly 10 PM hour long talk show slot, mere months after launching it, and bumping him back to 11:35 pm. Zucker and the network brass had fully expected that Conan O’Brien, the current host of The Tonight Show, would thus agree to having his show move back to 12:05 am, to accommodate Leno’s return to late night TV, albeit in a shortened half hour time slot. The problem for Zucker and the network is that O’Brien, who was promised The Tonight Show gig five years ago in order to entice him not to go to another network, didn’t agree with that programming decision and has decided to leave the network instead, accepting a massive million buyout from it in the process. He had made it explicitly clear, on air, that he would rather leave NBC altogether than give in to his network boss’s wishes.

The reason, of course, for overhauling NBC’s primetime schedule, is that Leno's ratings were low, reportedly dropping from 18 million viewers at 11:35 pm to an astounding 5 million at 10 pm, and, most important, also adversely affecting the newscasts following his show, the ones airing on NBC’s many affiliate stations, who count on viewers staying on to watch the news after the 10 PM show is over. Audiences used to do that when one of NBC’s dramas occupied that time slot but with Leno in that slot, they were jumping to other networks or tuning out altogether. This occurred despite the fact that, reportedly, ad revenues weren’t any lower for NBC with Leno in prime time.

NBC should have seen the risks inherent in its decision to placate and keep both Leno and O’Brien by adopting the strategy they did. James Poniewozik, for one, in his Time magazine cover story on Leno’s move to primetime last September, pointed out that the network’s affiliates would be furious if the ratings went down when Leno moved to 10 pm, so obviously these affiliate concerns would have been transmitted to Zucker at the time and, obviously, ignored by him. (He had to browbeat Boston’s affiliate station to stay with Leno or lose its status as an NBC station.)

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Lonely Passion of Jean Simmons

The sad thing about British actress Jean Simmons’s death this past weekend is that she never truly had the career she should have. While some today often complain about the diminishing roles for older women in motion pictures, many of those aging actresses – Christine Lahti, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Angelica Huston - at least have had careers worthy of their talent. Simmons was trashed and mostly forgotten before she could even fulfill her ambitions.

Jean Simmons was the most graceful, quiet beauty who ever gently commanded the screen. She began acting at the age of 14, but she was quickly relegated to appearing in largely terrible and forgettable pictures. (When she went to Hollywood with her actor husband Stewart Granger in 1950, Howard Hughes bought out her contract from J. Arthur Rank. Hughes then stuck her in rank pictures like She Couldn’t Say No and Angel Face.) She began as a sprightly adolescent as Estella in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946), but as she grew into adulthood, she developed into a more ethereal screen icon. Besides Great Expectations, and her heartbreaking Ophelia in Olivier’s Hamlet (1948), her best roles came towards the end of the fifties in Richard Brooks’ potboiler Elmer Gantry and Stanley Kubrick’s exciting and moving sand-and sandal epic Spartacus.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Remembering the Talking Man

“Critics call me a monologist,” explained Spalding Gray. “But I refer to myself as a storyteller – no, not a storyteller. The Talking Man, that’s what I say.”At that moment, eight years ago, the acclaimed 60-year-old performer was talking on the telephone from New York’s Long Island. His minimalist one-man shows -- such as Swimming to Cambodia, filmed by Jonathan Demme in 1987 -- were wildly entertaining even though Gray would remain seated at a table. He used props for emphasis, while animatedly exploring the world’s foibles and the humor in his own neurosis.