Category Archives: Film

‘Conquering Beautiful Stages’

Thirty-nine years ago this week, “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.”

I saw “Man on Wire” a few years ago, then again last night while we were packing for our big trip east. I love Philippe Pettit’s description of his obsession “to conquer beautiful stages.” But there’s something powerfully elegiac here, too, especially in the first three minutes or so of the clip below, a montage of the construction of the World Trade Center (the soundtrack is Michael Nyman, “Fish Beach“).

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Film, History

One Last Thing About That Snow

Before I bid adieu to the subject of the Great Groundhog Eve’s Blizzard (a bullet I dodged, I suppose, but whose trajectory I got to enjoy from afar), a couple final keepsakes. First, a segment from Chicago’s Fox affiliate, Channel 32, which takes a look at its coverage of the 1967 blizzard. Entertaining stuff that focuses less on the weather and its effects than on the way the TV and newspapers covered the events. I had my first newsroom job at Chicago Today five years after these clips were shot–our offices were in Tribune Tower, across Michigan Avenue from the Daily News and Sun-Times Building–and the scenes are familiar.

Friday Flashback: The Chicago Blizzard of 1967: MyFoxCHICAGO.com

And next is a short film of New York City’s Boxing Day Blizzard–did anyone call it that?–that I came across while poking around Roger Ebert’s site today. Ebert went gaga over the film (check out that link for a detailed discussion on how the filmmaker shot and edited the movie), and it’s been viewed half a million times so far, so I’m not sure how I missed it. It’s extraordinary.

4 Comments

Filed under Chicago, Current Affairs, Film, History, Weather

The Origin Files: ‘Busting a Cap’

The weekend before last, we went to see the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit.” I liked it, and liked it more than my date, who insisted the 1969 version with John Wayne was more compelling because it depicted a deeper emotional connection between Mattie Ross, the young girl bent on bringing her father’s killer to justice, and Rooster Cogburn, the old manhunter she hires for the job.

So the next night, we rented the original “True Grit” and watched that, too. The capsule review: John Wayne had almost audibly creaky knees. His acting, likewise, was almost audibly creaky. But there were a couple of pleasant surprises: Robert Duvall, who plays the bad guys’ ring leader, Lucky Ned Pepper, and Dennis Hopper, who has a bit part as one of the gang. (Here’s Roger Ebert’s review of the new movie, with some good observations on the differences between the versions and the performances therein.)

truegrit.jpgOne of Duvall’s moments really stood out, but not because of any piece of acting craft. At one point, Lucky Ned warns Rooster that he’s ready to shoot the captured Mattie: “I never busted a cap on a woman or anybody much under sixteen. But it’s enough that you know that I’ll do what I have to do.”

That line did not jump out at me in the Coen Bros. remake. And I don’t know whether it’s in the 1968 Charles Portis novel that the movies are based on. [Update: In the novel, Portis has Ned telling Mattie: “I have never busted a cap on a woman or anybody much under sixteen years but I will do what I have to do.”] But like many others I’ve found comments from online, I thought “bust a cap” and variations like “pop a cap” were more recent coinages. Talking to my movie-viewing partner and speculating on the origin, the one clue I could come up with that would support a 19th century origin was the percussion cap–part of the firing system of guns before the advent of cartridges (a.k.a. modern-day “bullets,” including primer, powder and projectile in one integral unit).

To bust or pop a percussion cap–that would make a certain amount of sense. What’s the evidence that the phrase actually arose during the percussion cap era as opposed to the late 20th century gangsta era?

The source of choice is Google Books–mostly because it allows you to search phrases by date (the caveat: the search only returns sources in print that have made it into Google’s database. Still, that gives some idea of when terms have gained currency). A search for “bust a cap” and variations shows the phrase appearing rarely (fewer than 10 times a decade) up to about 1940, occasionally (say 10 or 20 times a decade) up through 1960, and becoming increasingly common (dozens or hundreds of mentions a decade) since.

Now, there was a mini-burst of “bust a cap” and “pop a cap” references in the 1860s, mostly connected to the Civil War. These, and virtually all of the other appearances of the “cap” phrases up through the 1950s, come from the South. Here’s one, an anecdote published in 1866 in a magazine called “The Land We Love,” (published in Charlotte, N.C., and edited by D.H. Hill, a former Confederate commander). It explains an insult commonly applied to green troops. From a veteran to one of the untried:

” ‘Axin yer pardon, stranger, my old gun is dirty and I wanted to clean her out. I’m jist gwine to pop a cap. Don’t be skeered, honey!’ From this, started the taunt so often used to cowards, ‘Lie down, I’m gwine to pop a cap.’ “

The ultra-modern sounding “bust a cap in your ass”? That phrase and variants, popular in movies since 1972’s “Superfly,” shows up nearly verbatim in a 1907 appellate court case regarding a homicide in Kentucky:

“Dave Grant testified that’ between 11 and 12 o’clock, at Landon’s barber shop, he heard Henry Cooley say ‘he would bust a cap In somebody’s ___ …”

Later, “bust a cap” appears in a form very close to the one in “True Grit.” Frank Hamer, the former Texas Ranger who led the posse that tracked down and killed Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in 1934, is widely quoted as saying he’d been reluctant to shoot Parker:

“I hated to bust a cap on a woman, especially when she was sitting down, but if it wouldn’t have been her, it would’ve been us.”

The oldest documented reference I turned up? It comes from 1865 and was published the following year in “The Index to the Executive Documents of the United States. First Session Thirty-Ninth Congress.” Among many other papers, the volume contains the proceedings of two courts-martial held in the occupied South during 1865. The cases are harrowing and involve circumstances unthinkable in the southern states, and unusual anywhere in the country, before the Civil War: white defendants being held to answer for the murders of black victims. The first case involved a former slave who allegedly stole a horse and was shot and killed by the horse’s owner (the verdict: guilty of manslaughter; sentence: 10 years in a northern prison).

The second case involved a woman, Nellie West, killed by two men in Taliaferro County, Georgia–a former plantation overseer and a young friend of his–who wanted to stop her from reporting earlier maltreatment to the local military authorities. Here’s the overseer, John M. Brown, describing his accomplice, Christopher Columbus Reese, in action:

I was near the railroad crossing, and Columbus Reese was crouching behind the bushes, about seventy-five yards from me, close by the railroad track; I heard him pop a cap, and heard Nellie say, “Yes, I see you are trying to shoot at me.” … Reese then appeared to be putting another cap on his gun, at the same time hastening after her. I hallooed to bim, “Quit, don’t do that,” but he made no reply, but ran after her into the pine. … I then heard the gun fired, and saw him, after firing, turn round and stop. Nellie screamed two or three times, but I could not see her where she stood. Reese came back out of the pines and asked me to shoot my double-barrelled gun into her head to make sure that she was dead.

Both Reese and Brown were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged (their chief defense was that the court had no jurisdiction in the case). Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, endorsed an appeal for clemency in Reese’s case to President Andrew Johnson. As the scheduled execution date in January 1866 drew near, Reese came up with a story—not in evidence previously—that Nellie West was the aggressor and tried to kill him with a piece of scythe blade, that he killed her in self-defense, and that he had falsely implicated his alleged accomplice, Brown, to save himself. The Army’s judge advocate general responded in a letter to Johnson, “The attention of the President is respectfully called to the significant fact that not a particle of proof … to lend probability to his shocking charge.”

The post-script (by way of a footnote in “The Papers of Andrew Johnson: September 1865-January 1866”): Johnson at first approved the hangings. But after receiving appeals for mercy for both defendants—and despite the patently false confession of Reese and the judge advocate general’s opinion that “if the law does not take the life of such a monster of crime as this [Reese], then it is believed that the penal code has been enacted in vain”— he blocked the execution. History, so far as I can consult it on my laptop, doesn’t record what happened to Brown. Reese went on to once more bust a cap—this time in a bar-room brawl in which he killed a man.

7 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Film, Literature

The Infospigot Review: ‘Comes a Horseman’

Somewhere back in the ancient past–the late 1970s, I reckon–I went to a theater and saw a modern-day western called “Comes a Horseman.” It is a horsey melodrama with what on paper looks like a terrific cast: Jason Robards as a grasping, off-his-rocker land baron; Jane Fonda as his hard-as-nails rival and one-time paramour; and a young-ish James Caan as the World War II vet just looking to rope a few cattle and breathe free on his own spread in God’s country. (Hard to believe I don’t write this stuff for a livin’, ain’t it?) Alan Pakula, whom I believe directed Fonda in the perhaps much overrated “Klute,” helmed this feature.

However, the movie’s script doesn’t live up to its cast,r and some truly dark bad-guy moments are wasted in a swirl of flames, smoke, and gunfire. In fact, the denouement rolls by so fast and the story ends so abruptly and on such an empty note that it feels like the filmmakers ran out of film and told everyone to go home. Which is why there’s not much reason you’d have heard of “Comes a Horseman.”

One thing about the movie stuck with me all these years, though, and made me want to see it again. Richard Farnsworth plays Fonda’s ranch hand, character by the name of Dodger. His performance is natural and unadorned and is marked by an honest sentimentality. Though he’d been in movies for decades as a stuntman and supernumerary–I see that he’s listed with an uncredited part in the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” in 1937, for goodness’ sake–this movie launched a pretty decent late film career for him. For Farnsworth alone, “Comes a Horseman” is worth a spot in your Netflix queue.

2 Comments

Filed under Current Affairs, Film

Obituary Notebook

Obit in the news: Before I went to Chicago last week, Kate mentioned an obituary she'd heard or seen: Meinhardt Raabe, 94, the man who played the Munchkin coroner in "The Wizard of Oz." Kate being Kate, she dug out a three-year-old story she'd saved from The New York Times: "He Confirmed It, Yes He Did: The Wicked Witch Was Dead." Dan Barry wrote the article, which begins, " Like any coroner, he has seen some things. But one case stays with him nearly 70 years after the fact, like some old song he can’t get out of his head." It's a playful and poignant piece that reveals a remarkable life that would have otherwise gone unremarked. (One final link: The Times included an audio slideshow of Barry's visit with Raabe.)

Irish funnies: I recently became contentious with a family member who failed to instantly comprehend what I meant when I used the term "Irish funnies." What I meant was "newspaper obituaries." I assumed–in error, as usual–that the reference was transparent. The Irish relish misfortune and loss the way the less soulful might anticipate "The Katzenjammer Kids" (a strip that, shockingly, is still being produced). So when most people are turning to "Boondocks" or "Doonesbury" or "South Park" or whatever's on the comics page now (please tell me "Nancy" is gone; and "Cathy," too), a certain Hibernian-tinged demographic is flipping straight to the death notices. My sister Ann knows a retired Chicago Irish priest who occasionally reads the obits with a ruler at hand. "Look at that," he'll say when he spots an ostentatiously lengthy notice. "Six inches! Good for them!"

When I was in Chicago, Ann was going through the Irish funnies when she encountered a name she knew: John T. Fitzgerald, Jr. One of my mom's first cousins, whom everyone knew as Jack. He was the last of his generation of the South Side Hogan/Fitzgerald clan she came from. We weren't close, and I didn't know much about him. His obituary doesn't help much and reads like it was written by a stranger. It omits his age and the names of any family members. It says he had been "preceded in death by many brothers and sisters" (from what I heard growing up, he had two brothers and one sister). It described him as "a kind uncle to many." The only specific detail: he graduated from Leo High School, on Chicago's South Side, in 1936 and belonged to the alumni association. He was to be buried down at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery on the far South Side. Plenty of other Fitzes and Hogans there (and O'Malleys and Morans, too, from the other side of Mom's family).

Come to think of it, I do remember a couple of things I heard about him and his life. Some of it's best left unsaid. Here's one remarkable particular I can relate, though: He worked well into his 80s as a helper and bus-person at an Italian restaurant somewhere on Chicago's Southwest Side. He was a small, slight guy, and I remember having an image of him lugging tomato-sauce-stained dishes. He didn't do it because he needed the money, from what I heard. He did it just to have something to do.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Film

Sunday Matinee

I heard the other day that the Druid Theatre, from the city of Galway on Ireland’s west coast, was in Berkeley presenting “The Playboy of the Western World.” This morning, Kate and I talked about going. Tickets were $75, and even as I like a good play and love Irish storytelling, that seemed steep. I took a look at the website of the outfit presenting the play, Cal Performances at UC-Berkeley. There was a mention of discounts. Students–and I have a current ID–could get in for half. Good deal. Then I noticed a mention of “rush tickets.” If seats are still available, the box office will tell you two hours before curtain, and you can purchase them at a steep discount beginning an hour before the show. It turned out rush tickets were available, and I wound up sitting front row center, close enough to wonder whether the four actor balanced on a flimsy-looking wooden table might topple over into the audience.

I went alone since my would-be matinee companion decided other business pressed too hard to give up the entire afternoon to a gaggle of very thick Irish accents. After buying my ticket, we walked through downtown Berkeley running an errand or two before the show started. And that gave me the chance to hear a young guy selling a demo recording say to passersby, “Free CDs … free CDs. I’m trying to expose myself.”

The play? It was great to the point I hated to leave the theater afterward and stood watching the stage crew begin cleaning things up. (I had once wistfully thought of going to Ireland to see this company do the play after reading they were visiting the town in County Mayo that Synge visited before writing it. It was worth waiting for.) The production goes to Los Angeles now, and then to the Kennedy Center in Washington and the University of North Carolina. If it shows up in your town, go.

Technorati Tags: ,

1 Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Film, Literature

Bad Fish and Pedaling Machines

[Reposting from my other blog]

A must-see for the TdF fanatic, or even the mildly curious onlooker: “Vive le Tour,” an 18-minute documentary gem by the late French filmmaker Louis Malle. The film (available from Netflix and Amazon, among other purveyors), is a real time capsule, especially for viewers (like re:Cycling) whose Tour exposure dates back only to the 1980s.

Viveletour-1

The film depicts moments from the 1962 Tour (won, eventually, by Jacques Anquetil). There’s not much of a narrative thread–it’s an impressionistic look at the race, the racers, and the spectators. The riders’ appearance is striking: they seem old, haggard, and rather beat-up looking compared to the riders we’re used to seeing. In fact, one is reminded of pictures of baseball players in the major leagues’ alleged golden ages: these guys look like working stiffs who are riding as much to make a living as for the competition or some higher “sporting” values.

The shots of the route, the fans, the preceding caravan, the motorcycle corps that accompanies the peloton, the mountain roads–it’s all familiar stuff, but also quite foreign. You see an older, unpolished France here. The alpine routes look primitive. As wild as the crowds get today, there was even less of an imaginary barrier between them and the competitors: fans are depicted giving racers long, long pushes up the climbs. On the flatlands, the riders are shown stopping for impromptu water breaks and “cafe raids”–the latter involving physically running into cafes and carrying away bottles of water, soft drinks or even beer and champagne. We see a velodrome finish, and a slow, tortuous mountain descent.

The physical difficulty of the race and the toll on the participants is also highlighted. One rider–from his number, it appears to be Italy’s Giuseppe Zorzi–is depicted getting back on his bike after passing out and resuming his race. But not for long: he soon slows and topples to the pavement, hors de combat. (Tour references say he quit in stage six.)

But there’s one brief segment that offers a striking parallel to the age of Landis, Rasmussen and Vinokourov. There’s a scene of a very shaky looking rider–Hans Junkermann of Germany, though he’s not named in the film–climbing off his bike and settling disconsolately in a roadside ditch. The voiceover–not sure whose voice–says:

Now let’s talk about doping. In cycling slang, doping is called “the charge,” and “the charge is killing this profession. Now every time someone quits, he’s under suspicion. This racer told us he must have eaten some bad fish. That same day, ten racers quit, and each said he’d eaten bad fish. Contrary to popular belief, doping doesn’t give you extra strength. It simply suppresses the pain. The doped-up athlete no longer knows his limits. He’s nothing more than a pedaling machine.”

Bad fish. That’s one excuse we haven’t heard recently. (But here’s a little more on the “bad fish” affair of 1962.)

Technorati Tags: , ,

1 Comment

Filed under Cycling, Film, History

Old Business

I’m always a little relieved to discover that I’m not the only person in the world with procrastination and lack-of-work discipline issues. We watched the movie “Adaptation” again; we saw it on DVD around the time it came out, but I didn’t remember it well, and I certainly didn’t recall how much it dwells on the scriptwriter’s neuroses and lack of productivity. One passage, a voiceover as the writer sits down to his assignment, is perfect: “To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

So, after having gone to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, here’s something new on the procrastination/discipline front: a Wednesday op-ed from The New York Times on the biology of willpower. The basic take is this: We only have so much self-control; if you spend it on one thing–getting your writing assignment done on time–then you won’t have as much left over for that other good habit you want to pursue, like working out. But that’s not the end of the story. If you understand you’re working with a limited store of self-control, you can manage the supply; and the researchers say that practicing this kind of control is a form of exercise: it actually helps you develop more willpower:

“… It can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

“Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

“In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”

***

And speaking of procrastination: Here’s something held over from a week ago. Robert Fagles, the most recent great translator of Homer and Virgil and others, died last week (here’s the New York Times obit; and here’s a little side-by-side comparison of his translations compared to past masters of the art–Fitzgerald, Pope, and Chapman). Nothing to say, really, except to take note of someone who was a superb storyteller in his own right.

“… They harnessed oxen and mules to wagons,

they assembled before the city walls with all good speed

and for nine days hauled in a boundless store of timber.

But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world

they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears,

and they placed his corpse aloft the pyre’s crest,

flung a torch and set it all aflame.

“At last,

when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,

the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre . . .

And once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds,

they first put out the fires with glistening wine,

wherever the flames still burned in all their fury.

Then they collected the white bones of Hector–

all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning,

and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks.

They placed the bones they found in a golden chest,

shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths.

They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave

and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set,

then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around

for fear the Achaean combat troops would launch their attack

before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound

they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again

they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor,

held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

–Robert Fagles: “The Iliad,” Book 24

Technorati Tags: , ,

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Film, Science

Old Business

I’m always a little relieved to discover that I’m not the only person in the world with procrastination and lack-of-work discipline issues. We watched the movie “Adaptation” again; we saw it on DVD around the time it came out, but I didn’t remember it well, and I certainly didn’t recall how much it dwells on the scriptwriter’s neuroses and lack of productivity. One passage, a voiceover as the writer sits down to his assignment, is perfect: “To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

So, after having gone to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, here’s something new on the procrastination/discipline front: a Wednesday op-ed from The New York Times on the biology of willpower. The basic take is this: We only have so much self-control; if you spend it on one thing–getting your writing assignment done on time–then you won’t have as much left over for that other good habit you want to pursue, like working out. But that’s not the end of the story. If you understand you’re working with a limited store of self-control, you can manage the supply; and the researchers say that practicing this kind of control is a form of exercise: it actually helps you develop more willpower:

“… It can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

“Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

“In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”

***

And speaking of procrastination: Here’s something held over from a week ago. Robert Fagles, the most recent great translator of Homer and Virgil and others, died last week (here’s the New York Times obit; and here’s a little side-by-side comparison of his translations compared to past masters of the art–Fitzgerald, Pope, and Chapman). Nothing to say, really, except to take note of someone who was a superb storyteller in his own right.

“… They harnessed oxen and mules to wagons,

they assembled before the city walls with all good speed

and for nine days hauled in a boundless store of timber.

But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world

they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears,

and they placed his corpse aloft the pyre’s crest,

flung a torch and set it all aflame.

“At last,

when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,

the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre . . .

And once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds,

they first put out the fires with glistening wine,

wherever the flames still burned in all their fury.

Then they collected the white bones of Hector–

all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning,

and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks.

They placed the bones they found in a golden chest,

shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths.

They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave

and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set,

then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around

for fear the Achaean combat troops would launch their attack

before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound

they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again

they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor,

held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

–Robert Fagles: “The Iliad,” Book 24

Technorati Tags: , ,

Leave a Comment

Filed under Current Affairs, Film, Science

No Tele, Plenty of Vision

I’ve mentioned several times that we’ve become TV-less here at the HQ. That’s true, and a truly wrenching experience that I’m backing into; but it’s also not like the old days — pre-DVD, pre-VCR –when turning off your TV was the media survival equivalent of pouring a drum of ice water on the fire you were counting on to keep you alive through the winter. In other words, our little electronic fireplace can still keep us warm. The “tele-” part of the TV might be switched off for now, but there’s plenty of “vision” left in the box if you have the requisite hardware hooked up.

We have some DVDs of old TV shows: “SCTV” and “Saturday Night Live,” “NewsRadio” and “Mad About You” and “Taxi,” too. “NewsRadio” is the only one we’ve been watching; Phil Hartmann’s show all the way, and I’m simultaneously surprised by how good he could be and shocked, still, that he’s dead.

But you could say TV on DVD — even inspired TV, which I admit exists — is nothing but the vast wasteland without the commercials. True, but that’s a great improvement. The last week or so, we’ve gone on to the part of the vast wasteland that comes out first-run in theaters and then comes home on DVD: movies.

We’ve been watching a mixture of old favorites and some stuff we’ve been curious about. To wit, the past five days have featured “Young Frankenstein,” “A Night at the Opera,” “Mr. Brooks,” “The Flying Scotsman,” and “Zodiac.” The capsule reactions and reviews:

“Young Frankenstein”: First viewed decades ago. Not as sharp or funny as I remembered it. Teri Garr and Marty Feldman — not as funny. Neither was Madeline Kahn. Cloris Leachman: inspired. Gene Wilder — nah. Peter Boyle and Kenneth Mars: very good. But the main thing: The first time through this and other Mel Brooks films, you don’t really mind his penchant for trying to pound you into submission, for the constant reminders that what you’re watching is funny. Coming back to it, some of the bits are inspired, but more are painful. I’ll come back to this in 2020 or so.

“A Night at the Opera”: Wanted to see this after watching the last third, close-captioned, on a TV at the bar where we occasionally go for pizza and beer on Friday nights. It’s as good as I’ve always though it was — which is very, very good.

“Mr. Brooks”: You sit down and willingly watch Kevin Costner and Demi Moore, you’ve got no right to complain about it. And for the first half of the movie, in which Costner plays a company CEO who’s also a kinky serial killer and Moore is the multimillionaire homicide detective fumbling to find him, I wasn’t inclined to gripe. Much. But after Costner’s daughter turned out to be a killer, too; and after daddy had to go down to Stanford and commit a copycat murder to get his girl off the hook; and after daddy set up a dazzling plot to get rid of the annoying Moore and some idiot who accidentally figured out daddy was a killer; and after daddy has a nightmare lifted right out of “Carrie” — after all that, the movie went from interestingly implausible to absurd. William Hurt was given the scary job of being Costner’s alter ego and did more than OK, as usual.

“The Flying Scotsman”: True story of a Scots cyclist who sets out to break one of the legendary marks in cycling — the one-hour record — and does it on a home-built bike. Find it and rent it if you’re remotely interested in the world of bicycle racing or in the world of depressed Scotsmen. So: kudos for the story. But the movie shares the usual modern flaw of minimizing characterization in favor of plot. Yes, movies have always had to find dramatic shortcuts to inform you why George “It’s a Wonderful Life” Bailey is the way he is and why he was a big enough sap to stay in Hooterville and try to run his family’s stupid bank. But compare the time and detail Frank Capra devotes to explaining George to the stick figures thrown at you in “Mr. Brooks.” Capra, in the midst of a light entertainment, practically gives us “War and Peace”; in the midst of what someone must fancy to be a psychological thriller, “Mr. Brooks” barely matches “Ren and Stimpy” in terms of character development.

“Zodiac”: Continues a trend that began several weeks ago when watching, “The Hoax,” an adaptation of Clifford Irving’s account of inventing Howard Hughes’s autobiography. The trend is that people I’ve worked with — Frank McCulloch in “The Hoax,” Paul Avery in “Zodiac” — are showing up as characters in movies (if you’ve seen these and your curious about where I am, I’m the guy berating some poor obit writer in the background). But on to the movie: I though it was good, almost great; I think that’s because the movie actually spends time with the characters — though here again, would it be too much to ask the writer and director to give us a little on why Avery was such a wildman and why Robert Graysmith, the editorial cartoonist who is the movie’s main character, became so obsessed with the case? Maybe not, though; maybe both characters, the overwhelming dimension of their dysfunction and obsession, is enough. That perhaps involuntary spurt of bile aside, “Zodiac” was worth the now-extraordinary two hours and thirty-eight minutes running time.

1 Comment

Filed under Film, Television