30th 01 - 2009 | 5 comments »

Our Backstreets #27: He Looks Like a Former Child Star Gone Evil

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The above statement is what my esteemed friend and blog partner Roderick Heath had to say about the woeful countenance of Illinois’ newly deposed knight errant—former Governor Rod Blagojevich. Yesterday was a big day for taxpayers in Illinois, the day when one of the thousands of crooked politicians past and present who have had their hands in our pockets got kicked out of office. Despite Blago’s protests that the state senate had usurped the power of the voters who twice elected him to the highest office in the state—a fact he repeated so many times that I thought he was on the verge of making a run up to Canada to buy us all cut-rate hearing aids—they unanimously booted him with our blessings. According to Politico, a poll conducted in December 2008 showed that 70 percent of Illinois voters believed that Blagojevich should resign immediately; a 73-percent majority supported his impeachment—including a majority of Democrats—with 58 percent “strongly supporting” his impeachment; and only 7 percent of Illinois residents and 13 percent of Democrats approved of Blagojevich’s performance as governor.

I’ve been following the trial all week with the help of The Beachwood Reporter’s Steve Rhodes, who live-blogged the proceedings on NBCChicago.com, and his entertaining and enlightening commenters, particularly one with the moniker Blago Sphere. As television (or in my case, streaming video to my computer), the evidentiary phase of the prosecution’s case was a little dull. Various senators asked questions that went beyond the scope of the investigator’s ability to reply. Of course, things picked up when the secret FBI tapes were played during which Blago discussed various pay-to-play schemes, pressure on the Chicago Tribune to fire an employee critical of His Hairness, and, of course, his bartering for President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat.

Finally, the day of reckoning arrived yesterday. House-appointed prosecutor David Ellis delivered his summation, replaying part of a tape in which Blago discussed a pay-to-play arrangement with a lobbyist, pausing it several times to explain various parts of the scheme, and then playing it again uninterrupted to allow listeners to take it all in with full knowledge of its implications. His summation built logically, much the way the evidentiary phase built, addressing each point of the articles of impeachment with examples and compelling punctuation, like the tape. Although the senate proceedings didn’t offer much in the way of visual variety, the content of Ellis’ explications was more than compelling enough to make for riveting television.

The pièce de résistance, of course, was Blago’s closing argument to a defense he never mounted. The reason that he didn’t put on a defense is that he would not be allowed to lie with impunity without committing perjury. And lie he did from the start to the end of his 47-minute speech. He started off awkwardly, trying to curry favor in the senate chamber by thanking them early and often for allowing him to speak on his own behalf. This toadying was negated, however, by his repeated assertions that he had not been allowed to present a case and evidence that would clear his name—a bald-faced lie that was designed not to appeal to the senators, but rather to the viewing audience outside of Illinois and to potential jurors in his criminal trial. It worked, too, if comments left on the NBCChicago.com site and phone-in calls to CNN are any indication. Blago effectively confused this trial with a criminal trial—a fairly easy thing to do since impeachment and removal are extremely rare and, therefore, unfamiliar processes. The crucial difference is that holding a public office is a privilege, not a right—a privilege, like driving, that can be revoked if there is evidence of unlawfulness and recklessness in its exercise. In essence, the senate fired the governor, and we all understand the limits to protection against firing. Nonethless, Blago was offered the chance to mount a defense. Let me repeat that: Blago was offered the chance to mount a defense. He chose not to.

The former governor continued to try to address each point of the articles of impeachment, but couldn’t stay on point because he had no real defense. He repeated an anecdote about a little old lady needing medication—probably made up, and certainly embellished with novelistic flourishes about how she goes about her day—and believes this is evidence that he was right to go around the state legislature and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to buy drugs from Canada. One Canadian supplier never received payment, though funds were transferred to pay for them, and more than $1 million were wasted on promoting a program that never happened. He also said how much he cares about children and how he tried to provide flu vaccines to save lives among the young and old. He doesn’t mention how he tried to shake down Children’s Memorial Hospital for $50,000 in exchange for his support for $8 million in additional funding. Then he punted to the overwarm rehash of his immigrant Serbian background, how he’s in it for the little guy who works so hard to give his children a better future. His script needed editing to remove the redundancies, but that would have left him with about 20 minutes of talking points. Still, he’s telegenic and knows how to feign sincerity. I’d cast him in the Law & Order ripped-from-the-headlines story of his future criminal trial.

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In Ellis’ rebuttal to Blago’s closing argument, he said, “When the camera’s on, the governor is for the little guy, the little people. When the camera’s off, what are his priorities?” Ellis asked, pointing behind him to a poster board containing words extracted from intercepted phone conversations. “‘Legal, personal, political,'” Ellis said. “Nothing in that statement about the people of Illinois.” This moment, and Ellis’ fiery rebuttal charged with passion, were the climax of the trial closing. All of the rage, indignation, and disgust I and others feel for the ex-gov and all the Illinois politicians like him were channeled into this one moment.

The unanimous vote to remove him from office and bar him from ever holding another public office in Illinois was the second great moment of yesterday’s coverage. While it was preceded by far too many 5-minute statements made by about half of the 59 senators who make up the Illinois Senate, many of whom did a bit of electioneering and who were definitely pots calling the kettle black, nothing could take away from the satisfaction of the final verdict. Watching the lights shine from the voting board was a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington kind of moment. The people of Illinois, so pissed upon for so many years, finally were heard.

Right after a phone call to CNN from a non-Illinois resident who said the prosecution had not made its case (again, confusing this with a criminal trial) was a call from one Illinois resident who lives not far from Springfield, the state capital. She said, “You have to live here to understand.” I sincerely hope not. I know there are many other states riddled with horrible corruption. Perhaps this will be the beginning of a movement across the country to try to clean up government. l


18th 12 - 2007 | 2 comments »

The Walker (2007)

TheWalker_468x643.jpgDirector/Screenwriter: Paul Schrader

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of my favorite movies of all time is Terence Davies’ The House of Mirth (2000). This film, based on the wonderful Edith Wharton novel of the same name, shows the depths to which one can fall in American high society by being even slightly out of sync with the prevailing mood and manners of the day. The best way to remain in everyone’s good graces, therefore, is to be as superficial as possible so as not to betray an incorrect emotion or thought. The protagonist of The House of Mirth, Lily Bart, is ruined by seeming to criticize a powerful society doyen and then refusing to expose an indiscretion of someone she loves to save her own skin. It seems strange in this day and age of social voyeurism and self-exposure that anything as quaint as the notion of scandal could truly ruin a person’s life, but as The Walker illustrates, power at many levels is all about who is willing or unwilling to be seen with you.

The Walker focuses on an ethical dilemma faced by insider/outsider Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), an impeccably turned-out, discreet homosexual from a good Virginia family whose fortune was made in tobacco. Carr, as he is known, works one day a week at a realtor to the rich and mighty and spends the rest of his time socializing with several society matrons, escorting (“walking”) them to functions their husbands would rather not or cannot attend, helping them redecorate their homes, and gossiping with them at a weekly game of canasta at their exclusive club. The film opens with Carr entertaining Natalie Van Miter (Lauren Bacall), Abby Delorean (Lily Tomlin), and Lynn Lochner (Kristin Scott Thomas) at the canasta table with the gossip of the day and joining in their conspiratorial delight in knowing that others fear what they say and panic when one of the group is seen whispering to another.

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Lynn and Carr are especially close, sharing progressive political viewpoints and an odd sort of love—Carr once asked Lynn out before she was married (“the 70s were a confusing time” says Carr). His loyalty is tested when he drives her to the home of her lover, a lobbyist who has given him bad investment advice, and she returns to the car almost immediately and tells him that her lover is dead—murdered. She doesn’t want their affair to become public—it will mean her husband’s political ruin, and, she says, kill her. Carr sees her home and then returns to the scene of the crime, carefully observing the scene and wiping the door knob clean of Lynn’s prints. A neighbor sees him leaving. He is forced to sit down on the steps and phone the police.

Carr’s situation starts to strangle him bit by bit, as an overzealous FBI investigator (William Hope) decides to become a star ripe for promotion by burying one of his social betters. Lynn disappears, supposedly to tend to her sick mother, and Abby declines a luncheon invitation from Carr. “That is the sound of all the doors in Washington closing,” Carr muses to himself. Carr’s on-again/off-again lover Emek (Moritz Bleibtreu), a photographer who creates lurid photos of naked men in Abu Ghraib torture poses, starts investigating the affairs of the murdered man. He and Carr are threatened and attacked, but in the end, the only thing destroyed is Carr’s comfortable berth in Washington society.

One would expect nothing less than a well-written script from Paul Schrader, and he delivers a very literate one indeed, one that forms, as Schrader says himself, a companion piece to his American Gigolo. He is grappling with some provocative ideas as well. For example, as the film unspools, it’s clear that the women relish their social power because, in fact, they are basically inconsequential in the lives of their rich and powerful husbands. Lynn says that she wanted a bit of happiness with her lover because the men don’t need them: “They fuck each other.” That is a swipe at the hypocrisy of Washington, DC, and its closeted gay men. Lynn’s husband (Willem Dafoe) confirms her view (or at least confirms their relationship) to Carr, who continues to shield her: “Lynn inflates her importance in the larger scheme of things.” From the look on his face, he really seems to mean it.

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So why is this film so unsatisfying? I think the problem lies mainly in choosing to introduce a scandal that crosses from the private to the political. Comparisons are made constantly of Carr, an apolitical social creature, with his father, a senator who helped bring down Nixon during the Watergate scandal. By bringing in an informal investigation conducted mainly by Carr’s dark-haired lover, but also by the blonde-wigged Carr, the parallels The Walker perhaps unintentionally evoke are to All the President’s Men. The dirty politics of this dirty era get a clothesline airing, but the real story is Carr’s fall from society’s grace. Schrader’s polemical script doesn’t drill into the heart of that story; it doesn’t even sound like real people, not even cultured and educated people. Schrader’s focus is all over the place.

Worse, perhaps, by creating a social milieu composed entirely of people who live their lives so superficially that they can’t even explain their own actions to themselves, Schrader creates an emotionally vacuous story. All of the actors in the film are capable of depth, but Schrader directs them only as deep as the first circle of Hell. We can’t believe that any of them, perhaps with the exception of Emek, yearn for more, not even Lynn, who says she wants what every woman wants—love, family, home—and then rifles through her dead lover’s pockets to find an incriminating picture he might have had on him, a creaky plot device at best and a cynical repudiation of her declarations of love for him.

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In this film, the one person who most understands this crowd is the art director, David Hindle. Why are these people the way they are? What do they want? What motivates them? Look around. The lavish, exquisitely tasteful interiors, the priceless art and artifacts, the gilt-dripped crystal goblets and Louis Quatorze office furniture—these are what make this world turn. These riches are the heartbeat underneath nearly every scene in this film and the only things that give the film life. Don’t listen to Bacall’s character when she says that marrying money is hard work because you can only look at it, you can’t touch it. She sits comfortably in her fourth row center seat at the opera and holds her lead-crystal old-fashioned glass steadily enough. She’s long, long past needing the touch of anyone. Ned Beatty, who plays Lily Tomlin’s industrialist husband, is being disingenuous when he says people only want a story, a good American story, they can believe in. What he really believes people want is what he wants—money, and lots of it.

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Schrader, unfortunately, doesn’t really know this world. He wasn’t able to bring it to life in his screenplay or his direction. I admire his attempt to reach past his rough-and-tumble masterworks under Martin Scorsese, and The Walker does hold some interest. But in the end, it’s a lot less than the sum of its parts.


4th 07 - 2006 | 2 comments »

Silver City (2004)

Director: John Sayles


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Today, on the 230th birthday of the great experiment in democracy known as the United States of America, I thought John Sayles’ state of the union address, Silver City, would be an appropriate film to review. I’m not a big fan of Sayles, whose films often seem like well-intentioned misfires. With this political satire, however, he shows that he can be an inspired cinematic force given the right motivation.

Silver City is a real place, but in this film it is a dream—a development for the well-heeled built on the slag heap of a silver mine closed down by federal regulators for safety and pollution violations. The developer is Senator Judson Pilager (Michael Murphy), a man with a well-known record of failed enterprises, including his son Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper), who is running to be the governor of Colorado. It is during the filming of a campaign commercial designed to show Dickie to be environmentally friendly that the movie begins.

Dickie’s campaign manager Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) is rehearsing Dickie on one phrase he keeps getting wrong. Dickie is not the brightest bulb in the marquee. In fact, he bears a rather strong resemblance to someone currently taking up space in the Oval Office. When Dickie finally gets the line right, the commercial moves forward. On cue, Dickie casts a fishing line into a lake. When Raven yells cut, Dickie tries to retrieve the line, but he has landed something. As he reels the line in, a human hand breaks the surface of the water. Raven instantly closes down the set and moves the shoot to an alternate location. He suspects a conspiracy to label Dickie as the candidate “who landed a stiff” in the lake to reduce him to an also-ran novelty.

Raven engages a detective agency run by Senator Pilager’s wife Grace Seymour (Mary Kay Place) to intimidate three suspects in the supposed conspiracy. Grace reluctantly assigns the job to Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), a former newspaper reporter who went to work for her after he was set up to make a false accusation in a story and dismissed from his paper. Danny is a natural investigator, but he’s still a dreamer. Grace fears he will not be up to the goon work this important client wants done.

And so he is not. When he approaches the first suspected saboteur Cliff Castleton (Miguel Ferrer), a right-wing talk radio host, Danny’s “you’re being watched” sounds more like “nice shirt” than a threat. Castleton spits his venom, challenging Raven and Pilager to come and get him. Sayles reveals this Rush Limbaugh knock-off to be an angry bully more than spoiling for a fight. Anyone will do.

Dickie’s sister Maddy is another suspect. She is a dope-smoking Olympic hopeful in archery with a mixed-race son whose conception when Maddy was a teenager upset her father’s political ambitions. When Danny approaches her, she shoots an arrow alongside his head and otherwise acts like the hostile loose cannon she is—or pretends to be. She seduces Danny and then kicks him out. Later we will see her aiming at a target that has her brother’s picture on it.

It is when Danny approaches his last suspect, Casey Lyle (Ralph Waite), that he finds out what really happened to the corpse on the end of Dickie’s fishing line. Lyle, a former federal regulator who went up against ruthless business mogul Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson) over the Silver City site, tells a tale of buried toxins invading the watershed. Danny attempts to get the truth out through another former reporter, Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), who runs a website dedicated to exposing conservative corruption.

Sayles has fun playing with his stereotypes. Sheriff Joe Skaggs (Joe Gammon), who is investigating the death of the floating Mexican, is all gruff frontier lawman who shows his scorn for the sissified slickers around him at every opportunity, beginning by insulting the hook on Dickie Pilager’s line. He says the hook couldn’t catch anything (although clearly it has), but as a prop, it wasn’t meant to.

Benteen rides with Dickie through open land (“We’ll make a cowboy out of you yet!”), patting himself vigorously on the back for being a man of vision. He sees money on that land but is blind to the priceless natural vista that he could never create on his own. A view won’t make Benteen rich, and he sneers at the tree huggers. Skaggs and Benteen—indeed, most of the characters in this film—are misguided in their superior attitudes that actually reflect total self-absorption. His arrow aims true at these deserving targets.

He is way off the mark, however, in setting up the central romance between Danny and Nora Allardyce (Maria Bello), a reporter who disloyally did not quit the paper after Danny was dismissed. Nora ended their very serious affair and is now involved with a professional middleman (Billy Zane) whom she intends to marry. This mismatch makes no sense except as a desperate run to the opposite side of the room, away from anyone like Danny. She paints Danny as the Antichrist, but she also declares that he was the love of her life. Sayles perhaps was aiming for something like the Julie Christie/Warren Beatty romance in Shampoo, but Huston and Bello have no chemistry at all, and the dialogue he saddled Bello with is weak and unmotivated.

Sayles is such a humanist that he finds a heart in all but the most ridiculous of his characters. This is both a strength and a weakness in this film and in his film-making in general. It’s hard to pull off the biting satire Silver City aspires to be, as well as the serious social commentary of such films as Casa de los babys, with vaguely focused characters about whom Sayles wants us to care. His murder mystery is so convoluted that it got tedious to follow. He includes one kind-of action scene that ends up being a fizzle—action just isn’t his strong suit. His characters’ names are a bit too obvious. Nonetheless, Silver City succeeds as few films have in presenting the essence of our national scene today and in suggesting how poisonous that scene has become. You owe it to your country to see this film! l


30th 03 - 2006 | 12 comments »

Chicago (2002)

Director: Rob Marshall

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Grand, isn’t it? Great, isn’t it? Swell, isn’t it? Fun, isn’t it?

When Fred Ebb wrote those lyrics for John Kander’s catchy celebration of the immorality of the Jazz Age, “Nowadays,” for the stage musical Chicago, he likely was making an ironic statement about America in the 1970s. I don’t know if his lyrics for that song, “You can even marry Harry/But mess around with Ike,” had anything to do with the landslide victory Richard Nixon, Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower’s Vice President, received in the year the play premiered (1972), but I do know that Kander and Ebb sounded an early warning of the cynicism and lawlessness to come. Their message fell on deaf ears, and their musical was a flop.

In the 1990s, Chicago returned in triumph to stages all over the world, and the film won the Best Picture Oscar for 2002. I wonder sometimes what the success of Chicago today says about us. In 1972, we still thought of ourselves as liberal, warring on poverty, and peacing on war. By the 1990s, bloody war on others was still the rage, and bloodless war on the poor was well underway. Everyone could understand and many aspired to be like Chicago’s greedy, amoral lawyer Billy Flynn. We also had just experienced a media frenzy over a celebrity murder case that would have pushed Velma Kelly’s and Roxie Hart’s headlines out of the papers altogether. This clearly was a musical for our times.

The show opens in a backstage frenzy of nightclub performers getting ready for their acts. One such performer rushes to her dressing room amid questions about where the other half of her sister act is. Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones) answers flatly, “She’s not herself,” and deposits her things, including a gun, in her vanity. She rushes on stage to perform her act alone, amid the writhing chorus boys and girls that Chicago’s choreographer Bob Fosse is known for. At a climactic moment in the dance, Velma transforms into a glamorous blonde. It is Roxie (Rene Zellweger), an aspiring singer and dancer imagining her heart’s desire. Reality intrudes on them both, as furniture salesman Fred Casely (Dominic West) hustles Roxie back to her apartment for the horizontal tango, and the cops come to take Velma away for murdering her two-timing husband and sister.

This opening sets up the structure of the film beautifully. It uses quick cuts to shorthand the story to us and pulse the film with energy, as well as establish a relationship between Velma and Roxie that will fill the frames of this story. The use of music and dance to telegraph fantasies and underlying motivations also is established, undercutting one of the main objections people have to musicals—they can’t believe a story in which people leave the plot to break into song and dance. In Chicago, we don’t have to take these intrusions literally and, therefore, can enjoy the interludes (which, in fact, comprise almost the entire film) without worrying about the logic of them.

A month passes in the wink of an eye. Casely has decided to end things with Roxie and does so in particularly rough fashion. This does not seem to bother Roxie as much as the fact that Casely lied to her about being able to get her into show business. She does what any self-respecting woman in this film does—she plugs him full of lead. After unsuccessfully trying to pin the murder on her doltish husband Amos (John C. Reilly), she arrives at Cook County Jail to take her place among the other women murderers and learn the ropes of self-preservation through self-promotion.

It’s a merry ride Chicago takes us on. Roxie deposes Velma as the flavor of the month and shows her cunning in holding the spotlight for the duration of her incarceration. Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) is a master manipulator, illustrated by the superb “We Both Reached for the Gun” number, in which Roxie is a dummy on ventriloquist Billy’s knee, and in the spin-control cross-examination at Roxie’s trial, “Tap Dance.” The film has a happy ending, if you want to call it that, with our two ladies of larceny making a comeback on the stage of the Chicago Theatre. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but our endless fascination with celebrity has proven him wrong.

Rob Marshall’s choice to cast actors with limited or no background in musical productions in the leads was an interesting one. In a story obsessed with celebrity, choosing to cast some of Hollywood’s biggest stars adds to the irony of the story. At the same time, I think that the first-class acting chops of these performers, particularly Zellweger, add depth to the portrayals. The stage production used no realistic scenery and was close to being sung through, which heightens the unreality of the proceedings. The convincing performances of the cast ground this film and add to the power and poignancy it offers.

I’m sorry Marshall chose to cut “Class,” the duet between Velma and Mamma Morton (Queen Latifah), the prison matron/fixer. The deleted scene is on the DVD and deserved to be in the final cut. Who knows why it wasn’t. I also quibble with his decision to cast Christine Baranski as obsequious reporter Mary Sunshine. Baranski is a favorite of mine, but the phoniness of the news coverage would have been better highlighted if he had stuck with the strategy of the stage production and depicted Sunshine as a very masculine-looking drag queen.

Still, Chicago makes few mistakes. It is masterfully crafted and enormously entertaining. And it still manages to throw a pie at the audience and strike them right in the kisser. Grand, isn’t it?


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