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Friday, May 11, 2007


When the body of a young woman is found along an L.A. street, her body bisected and lacking a single ounce of blood, Detective Tommy Spellacy (Robert Duvall) instantly focuses on her “professional” status and thinks of his old boss, Irish mobster Jack Amsterdam (Charles Durning). After all, the calculating crook/pimp turned semi-legit businessman had a thing for fresh faces and Tom used to run prostitution money for him back in the day. To make matters even more complicated, Amsterdam works closely with Monsignor Desmond Spellacy (Robert De Niro), an important priest in the local diocese and Tom’s baby brother.


Much of the Church’s real estate dealings are wrapped up in Des and Jack’s backroom backslapping. As he collects clues, it becomes clear to the veteran lawman that Amsterdam had something to do with the girl’s death. But he knows it will be impossible to implicate the scoundrel and not bring down his sibling. Similarly, Desmond recognizes that he’s fallen away from the service of God and into a web of deceit and lies, and such a crisis of faith is pulling him apart. Unfortunately, both brothers seem fated to a final, fractious confrontation, where loyalties are tested and True Confessions become meaningless in a world overloaded with graft and guilt.


Just call it the anti-noir. Unlike its far more famous cinematic brethren, 1981’s True Confessions is hard-boiled detective fiction as lazy, Southern California calm. It’s a movie with many disturbing elements bubbling right underneath the surface, but decides to keep many of those mysteries dormant, dead, or just plain buried. Offering two stellar performances by Robert DeNiro and Robert Duvall, this is a film about vendettas and vice, the lure of power and the arbitrary manner in which is it wielded. Some will see the references to the notorious Black Dahlia crime (here referred to as the “Virgin Tramp” murder) and wonder why novelist John Gregory Dunne (who also wrote the script along with wife Joan Didion) decided to use such an obvious lynchpin for his narrative.


Since he’s not out to solve the case, the allusion appears to be merely symbolic—perhaps to illustrate the dualistic dynamic between equally corrupt brothers Thomas and Desmond Spellacy. Tommy, the cop, is the more outwardly dishonest. He was once a bagman for the rotten racketeer Jack Amsterdam and now spends his days living down his crooked past. Desmond is a Monsignor in the local Catholic diocese, more valuable to the Cardinal for his business acumen than his ability to save souls. Though his purpose is clearly distorted, it’s the company he keeps that sullies his basic decency.


Thus we have the perfect setting for some standard cinematic redemption. Tommy will find a way of pinning the gruesome murder on Amsterdam, and Des will rediscover his vocation and abandon the wheeling and dealing except True Confessions doesn’t want to make it that easy. Like any story wrapped around religion, salvation comes at a price and, with all the dead bodies floating around, as well as the rumors and innuendos of even more disturbing crimes, Dunne is desperate to drive this point home. The sin of late ‘40s L.A. is definitely seeping into every aspect of the Spellacys’ world and director Ulu Grosbard is out to illustrate this in his own unique, atypical manner.


Noted for his major Broadway successes (The Investigation, American Buffalo) and sporadic Hollywood output (The Subject was Roses, Straight Time), the Belgian auteur wants to peel away the forced mystery surrounding the standard thriller and turn the tide on its potboiler particulars. In Tinseltown’s golden era, this film would be steeped in dark shadows, deflected light, and a thick ambient fog of human liability. True Confessions, on the other hand, is bathed in an error-exposing luster. Even in scenes where darkness would heighten the horror, Grosbard keeps the ever-present California sun center stage.


This is specifically true in one of the movie’s more devastating moments. Tommy has traced the victim’s last days to a fly-by-night porno outfit functioning in an abandoned barracks in El Segundo. Traveling to the location midday, he wanders into a dimly lit makeshift studio. Instead of bringing out the flashlight and surveying the scene, he immediately goes for the canvases covering the windows. As each drape is ripped from the walls, more and more of the room is visible. Sure enough, Tommy finds what he is looking for—a mattress soaked in blood and a trail of gore leading to the bathroom equivalent of an abattoir. It’s the one and only time that Grosbard and Dunne allows us to see the ugly underneath.


Even when the “Virgin Tramp” is discovered, split in two, her body separated along different sections of a vacant lot, we are kept at a distance. The director’s camera only picks up part of the scene, eager instead to focus on the interplay between cops and coroners, ambulance attendants, and muckraking press. It’s the same during the autopsy. All we see is a single shot of a naked, pale white torso. Indeed, everything about True Confessions is misdirection and insinuation. The first-act death of a priest is really nothing more than an expositional red herring. A power play among Church administrators over the ousting of a longtime Monsignor named Seamus is another narrative non-event.


In order to make this work, Grosbard needs actors who understand the value in internalized emotion and subtle character suggestion, and the casting in this film is first rate. Robert Duvall’s Tommy always recognizes his own bad temper, but he’s much more frightening in his static, slow-burn mode. He’s the catalyst for all that will happen, and the actor does a terrific job of balancing interior and exterior importance. As for De Niro, he has the far more difficult part. Desmond is many things—priest, businessman, apologist, confidant, brother, son—and he constantly carries all of them around in a presence of non-volatility and calm. It must have been difficult for De Niro to be so mousy and controlled. Granted, he is a multi-faceted actor, quite capable of playing anything. But here, he’s supposed to be a man drowning in his own despair, eager to be free from the false life he’s leading.


True Confessions main flaw is that we never see clearly the connection between Tommy’s detecting and Desmond’s deliverance. It is apparent that the two are interconnected in ways beyond family, but the subsurface strategy to the storytelling leaves many of the mechanisms unexplored. Purposefully paced to let every restrained reaction and sudden emotional explosion sink in, it is both devastating drama and half-hearted whodunit. In the end, we come to care about neither and, oddly enough, don’t really mind at all.


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Friday, May 11, 2007

Today’s WSJ had a story about neurological research into the brain areas held to be responsible for morality.


Using neurology patients to probe moral reasoning, the researchers for the first time drew a direct link between the neuroanatomy of emotion and moral judgment.
Knock out certain brain cells with an aneurysm or a tumor, they discovered, and while everything else may appear normal, the ability to think straight about some issues of right and wrong has been permanently skewed. “It tells us there is some neurobiological basis for morality,” said Harvard philosophy student Liane Young, who helped to conceive the experiment.


Further along, the deeper ramifications of this research are considered:


For Harvard neuroscientist Marc Hauser, the moral-dilemma experiment is evidence the brain may be hard-wired for morality. Most moral intuitions, he said, are unconscious, involuntary and universal. To test the idea, he gathered data from thousands of people in hundreds of countries, all of whom display a remarkable unanimity in their basic moral choices. A shared innate capacity for morality may be responsible, he concluded.


This seems to lead invariably to the notion that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong that will eventually be decoded from our neurons—a premise that seems fairly ominous for those accustomed to a bit more liberty in matters of conscience. Also, it seems a matter of time before traders and the like would seek to have this inhibiting moral part of the brain removed, as it may provide them with a competitive advantage.


If you are wondering how you stack up in relation to universal morality, take this handy quiz. I discovered that I was much less likely to want to punish people than other test takers. Perhaps this means I am drifting toward amorality.


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Friday, May 11, 2007

Just Say “No” to the Spin Room

Back in college, my Political Science professor used to grovel about how politics was the only academic field in which every average Joe thought their opinion was worth its weight in gold. He targeted MIT professor Noam Chomsky as an example. “He’s a linguist,” my professor would say. “Would you go to a dentist if you broke your ankle?” We students tended to disagree with this sentiment, arguing that a democratic society thrived on direct participation from the masses. It was while watching the recent post-debate coverage that made me think twice about my professor’s complaint. The old kook may have been right after all.


Post-debate news coverage may be the most confounding aspect of political reporting. The live broadcasts can sometimes go early into the next morning as any two-bit hack willing to appear on cable at some god-awful hour is treated like some sort of civic Nostradamus. The most egregious of the post-debate sins is the spin room. The appropriately named forum is host to a line-up of political consultants who congregate outside the debate hall, hounding the press for interviews. These political hit men peddle their client’s strengths by praising the night’s performance and berating their opponents. These esteemed political consultants are hired hands, paid by their respective campaigns to put the best face for the candidacy.


It’s not that these “consultants” should not be allowed to appear on the post-election coverage. They clearly have a right to their opinion; the problem is that they are treated as objective observers when they clearly have a conflict of interest. When Barack Obama campaign aid Robert Gibbs says Obama “looked strong and confident” during the past debate, or when the Clinton campaign explains how Hillary “really nailed” a question, they need to be challenged more. As spokespeople for the campaign they should be prepared to answer the tough questions: explain how their candidate will end the war in Iraq or provide universal health care without raising taxes. This should not be a forum for them to simply spout their campaign slogans and garner free publicity.


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Friday, May 11, 2007
by Preston Jones [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey
by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday / $24.95)


Raw and unblinking, Chuck Palahniuk’s novels often feel like primal scream therapy, unloading into the void and holding back very little.


His deadpan, withering social commentary has spawned legions of fans who anticipate his works with a fervor generally reserved for rock stars—it isn’t overreaching to connect the industrial-tinged nihilism of, say, Trent Reznor to Palahniuk’s razor-edged fantasies.


Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey continues the author’s penchant for toying with conventions of form—2005’s Haunted was a novel masquerading as a collection of short stories; 2000’s Survivor unfolds in reverse—while retaining his flair for sketching reprehensible antiheroes with the faintest glimmer of humanity.


Palahniuk renders brief, punchy narratives that demand attention; Rant, in particular, isn’t a book to be consumed at leisure. Relying on interviews with those who met the mythic Buster “Rant” Casey during his brief, violent life, a portrait of a tortured, confused martyr emerges—or seems to, anyway. It’s not giving much away to reveal that Rant is infected with a potent strain of rabies and prone to freely sharing his sickness. The concept of a homegrown bioterrorist, an all-American “patient zero,” is merely an opening salvo in what becomes a misanthropic thrill ride, culminating in a temporally dislodged religious fervor.


Evoking J.G. Ballard’s Crash and Philip K. Dick’s cyberpunk dystopias, Palahniuk also cribs from future-shock films like Strange Days and eXistenZ, dour examinations of life in a brave new world. Rant flirts with government-mandated genocide, Greek tragedy, aberrant sexuality, substance abuse and audacious fusions of religion and violence, stitching together disparate elements to craft a surreal, poignant and darkly humorous quilt of madness.


Much of the book’s emotional potency stems from one of Palahniuk’s enduring thematic fascinations: the almost pathological need for his characters to feel something—anything—in their modern, anesthetized existences. Choke‘s protagonist, Victor Mancini, faked asphyxiation in restaurants to meet people, for example, while Rant’s hobby is Party Crashing, a brutal form of socialization that involves vicious auto collisions.


Rant may too strongly recall Fight Club for some, but Palahniuk has more on his mind here than simple titillation. A white-knuckled what-if, Rant is the author’s most idiosyncratic work to date, a piercing plea to push the galactic reset button.


Tagged as: chuck palahniuk
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Thursday, May 10, 2007


In keeping with the inherent structure of one of this week’s premieres, SE&L is going to suggest an American Idol like theme for 12 May – let’s label it “film fiascos”! Just look at the four choices being offered to you by the pay TV titans – each one a testament to poor conceptualizing, mediocre imagination, and a severe lack of tell tale talent. No matter how their merchandised or marketed, they are four examples of awful cinema. If one were prone to conspiracy theorizing, you’d swear the networks were doing it on purpose. It could even be a competition of sorts: which channel can bring out the absolute worst film of the last two years and still get audiences at home to celebrate their Saturday night bow. Our bet is on the SE&L selection – it remains one of the most audacious celluloid atrocities ever to be considered full blown family fare (right, perhaps by the Manson clan). Anyway, check you gag reflex and prepare to be pummeled by Tinsel Town at its most terrible, including:


Premiere Pick
Little Man


No, this is not a misprint, and your confusion is perfectly understandable. How can SE&L suggest 2006’s worst film as one of its weekly VDA picks, especially with the amount of vitriol and anger we’ve foisted upon it in the past 8 months? The answer is simple – misery loves company. That’s right, we want you to also suffer through what we did last year, to experience this sad, sloppy and racially insensitive stool sample for yourself. From its frightening sexualization of children, to the equally unsettling idea of a dwarf reduced to a cinematic sight gag, this mean spirited mess set back the cause of minorities in movies by much more than 40 acres and a mule. And the most depressing part – it made scads of cash at the box office, meaning that the Wayans will definitely return to cause more hackneyed hate crimes in the name of big screen humor. (12 May, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Omen (2006)


Here’s perfect proof that casting is EVERYTHING when making a movie. The script for this horror remake more or less mimics the original 1976 effort beat for beat, so it should work, right? Wrong! The decision to cast Julia Stiles in the Lee Remick role, and the decent Liev Schreiber in the part played by Gregory Peck turns something with potential into an object of sheer genre scorn. (12 May, HBO, 8PM EST)

American Dreamz


Bombs Away! After the success of American Pie and About a Boy, Paul Weitz wanted to make a scathing social commentary that mixed party politics with our nation’s love of all things Idol. The result was this weak kneed satire that sunk almost immediately upon hitting theaters. Instead of irony or insight, the only thing this flop could generate was irritation. (12 May, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

 


Yours, Mine and Ours (2005)


To quote a famous baseball player, it’s like déjà vu all over again.. When Steve Martin brought the unnecessary remake of the big family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen to movie screens, its success sparked a search for similar properties. Bingo! – this 1968 title was tapped. While we no longer give Martin credit for career competence, shouldn’t stars Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo know better? (12 May, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (And Enjoy It)


Melvin Van Peebles contribution to popular culture is always reduced to a single, significant title – 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. And that’s a shame. Instrumental in jumpstarting the blaxploitation movement in film, there was more to this maverick’s work than generating grindhouse fare. Indeed, after 1968’s The Story of a Three Day Pass and 1970’s mainstream hit Watermelon Man, it looked like the writer/director would lead a new wave of minority moviemakers to greater prominence in the plantation-like paradigm of ‘60s/‘70s Hollywood. Instead, he was marginalized. Now, some three decades later, director Joe Angio has helmed a celebratory documentary that shows just how significant Van Peeble’s legacy is to modern artists of color. With a who’s who of contributors, and words from the cinematic madman himself, this is the perfect companion piece to son Mario’s amazing tribute, the 2003 biopic Baadasssss! (14 May, IFC, 10:30PM EST)

Additional Choices
City of God


With time, this critically acclaimed drama about youths attempting to navigate the gang-riddled ghettos of Rio de Janeiro has grown from masterful to masterpiece. Indeed, foreign filmmaking doesn’t get any fresher, or more innovative, than in this film’s shockingly straightforward cinema vétité style. Directors Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund deserve al the credit for taking something standard and giving it a unique narrative spin. (13 May, IFC, 9PM EST)

The Year of the Yao


For those unfamiliar with the subject of this sensational documentary, Yao Ming is the 7’5” center for Houston Rocket’s NBA basketball team. How this Chinese national came to be part of America’s second favorite sport forms the basic elements of Adam Del Deo and James Stern’s doc. It makes for some very compelling cross cultural observations. (14 May, Sundance, 10PM EST)

The Day of the Jackal


Thrillers don’t get any more skillful than director Frank Zinneman’s (High Noon) take on Frederick Forsythe’s classic novel. With a career defining turn by Edward Fox as the title character, an assassin charged with killing then French President Charles de Gaulle, this meticulous, step-by-step suspense saga makes the modern take at similar stories pale by comparison. (17 May, Sundance, 6:30PM EST)

Outsider Option
Black Caesar/ Hell Up in Harlem


It’s interesting – the same week that a documentary on blaxploitation legend Melvin Van Peebles arrives on the small screen, TCM’s Underground offers up two examples of the genre’s best. Former football star Fred “The Hammer” Williamson stars in both, the first a ghetto-fied remake of the 1931 Edward G. Robinson vehicle. With success came a sequel, and the Hell Up quickly followed. Both efforts were written and directed by Larry Cohen, a genre giant who began in TV, but quickly made a name for himself in offbeat cinema and motion picture macabre. With their mix of violence, sex, operatic dramatics and full throttle action, these explicit entertainments changed the face of post-modern cinema. Sadly, because it was so tied to revenues, a great many of these movies never got the aesthetic appreciation they deserve. Thank God for the preservationist principles of technology. (11 May, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
Two Lane Blacktop


A notorious grindhouse epic, this drag racing saga (about two men – The Driver and the Mechanic - who find themselves locked in a cross country competition) expertly illustrates the passion pit style. No frills, not fat, all fun! Sadly, problems with music licensing rights have kept it out of the public eye for decades. Here’s a perfect chance to catch this gearhead classic. (16 May, Drive In Classics – Canada, 12:45AM EST)

Ulee’s Gold


Peter Fonda was 1998’s Oscar shoe-in for Best Actor with his performance as a quite beekeeper who finds himself inexplicably mixed up in some very deadly criminal activities. He ended up losing out to Jack Nicholson’s grandstanding OCD case from As Good As It Gets. The proof over who really deserved the shiny statuette is here for all to see. (17 May, Indieplex, 5:05PM EST)

Dr. Chopper, M.D.


Every once in a while, we here at SE&L need a good old fashioned piece of cinematic schlock, a motion picture purgative to cleanse our occasionally clogged up aesthetic. And nothing spells relief faster or better than a slice and dice slasher flick. In this case, a band of vacationers run into…wait for it…a psychotic biker turned plastic surgeon. Woo-Hoo! (18 May, Starz Edge, 12:35AM EST)

 


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