Blago! (The Musical)

With the sensational success of Milk, an Oscar contender if ever one rolled on a projector, we have new project for Mssrs. Penn and Van Sant – another ode to a governmental folk hero in the making. For nothing captures these early Depression Era II days of strange municipal doings than a little side project I like to call Blago! (The Musical).

Now, I’m not generally a fan of musicals – in my experience, people don’t generally break into elaborate song and dance routines during the grind of everyday life. But I’m thinking of something more along the lines of Blues Brothers, a great Chicago musical movie with its big pay-off in Richard J. Daley Plaza – maybe a State House rock opera in the style of Quadrophenia, with the mod/mad Guv driving his heavily-mirrored career scooter over the cliff to the crash of the last power chord.

Not since Chicago mayor Anton (Tony) Cermak traveled to Miami in early 1933 – during the great lame duck last days of Herbert Hoover – has Chicago blood spilled so liberally during a presidential transition. Of course, back in ’33 it was poor Mayor Cermak’s literal blood that washed into Biscayne Bay, as he was shot to death shaking hands with President-elect Roosevelt by an assassin named Giuseppe Zangara – thereby taking a bullet to preserve the life of the man who would converse so famously with the American people about “fear itself” just a month later.

These days, even as we anticipate with barely-concealed glee the next stirring inaugural address, the Chicago blood is all political in nature – that is to say, metaphorical. Yet, as in all great musicals, you can see the next big number coming. Blago! (The Musical) would certainly include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s political death scene, perhaps a fumbling Mercutio’s lament after the self-inflicted wound of barring Roland Burris at the schoolhouse, er, congressional doors for lack of a permission slip from the Illinois Secretary of State.

Rod Blagojevich deftly out-flanked Senator Reid in appointing Burris, the former Illinois Attorney General who seems a decent – if a bit obsessed with grave rubbing and divine ordination of appointments – semi-retired public servant. Now, Blago faces his own public trial by the Illinois Legislature…and you have to wonder if that August body, production plant for Lincoln and Obama, has fallen into yet another clever Blagojevich trap. The incoming President (who has a Swiss watch of a political instinct compared to Reid’s primitive sundial) can hardly be happy about the potential for long Blago defense in the well of the Illinois State Senate. What theater! What drama! What a distraction from the disaster facing the American economy!

Maybe it’s a distraction we need – I, for one, will revel in the political theater and envision the ultimate casting for Blago! (The Musical). Dan Aykroyd’s a little old for the title role, but I think he could’ve done wonders in his Fred Garvin salad days, perhaps throwing down a few Little Walter harp shrieks in the musical numbers. Ditto Kevin Costner, who played the stiff-backed Eliot Ness in The Untouchables and who would’ve made a fine Patrick Fitzgerald. The brilliant Don Knotts is sadly no longer breathing, so we’ll have to cast about for Harry Reid. In my script, Barack Obama would remain serenely off camera, entirely absent but for occasional clips of his best speeches – a one-man center of morality, a uniform Greek chorus. (But I’m really tempted by Nick Nolte in the Bill Ayers part).

So OK, it’s just a concept thing right now – but can’t you see it? Can’t you hear it? Cultural diarist M.A. Peel did some wonderful location research during a visit to the state capitol in Springfield:

We stopped by an office on one of the floors, and the guide made a point of saying that this the “actual working office” of the governor. We were allowed to take pictures of the anteoffice, and there is a portrait of good old Honest Abe next to a statuette of Elvis, which the guide made a point to say is an important possession of the governor.

Under the watchful eye of the great Lincoln, the ego is the Las Vegas Elvis, with all the undertones of the delusions of kingship. That pretty much sums up the Blago. New Yorkers can’t really throw stones at governors these days—the era of Mario Cuomo being long over. But, woah.

Blago ended yesterday’s press conference with Tennyson’s Idyls of the King:

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”

That’s the same way that Frasier Crane ended his last radio show. This is one pop culture kind of leader.

Yeah. And, if we’re not careful, Blago (a man with a sense of comic drama) might become another midwest cultural hero, an electoral Clyde Barrow. After all, he’s legally innocent – and as Lance Mannion says, “he’s written Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel into his story and with his appointment of Roland Burris he’s added the entire Democratic membership of the United States Senate to his cast of characters.”

And he’s dancing one hell of a political two-step. Cue the Muddy Waters soundtrack. Opening Scene: the Governor’s office, Chicago, Illinois.

I’m Not There? – I’m Not There, Man

I'm Not ThereA lengthy and elegant mess of a film, Todd Haynes’ not-so-experimental I’m Not There is nonetheless a beauty of a wreck, a “non-biopic” about Bob Dylan that mainly ignores that facet of Dylan that always hides in plain site when analysts look for meaning in the minstrel poet’s own life – his music.

Oh, there are plenty of songs in it – originals and those recorded by a variety of artists for the inevitable soundtrack. Some interesting choices too. But the story never connects to the songs, the movie’s plot arc of Dylan’s life – told in six intertwined parables with six different actors portraying Dylan-like characters – doesn’t account for the music, for the brilliant synthesis of American music that makes Dylan the most important singer-songwriter of the last half century.

What we get, in amazing photography and some fine performances, is pretty much a glorified and well-shot episode of Behind the Music, the old hackneyed story of every star: the backstory, the self-invention, the rise, the drugs, the women, the fall, the comeback, the discovery of faith…and so on. At the end of it, we’re all wowed by the detail and the ambition of it, but we don’t know any more about Bob Dylan than we did going in – or about ourselves, for that matter.

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Watching for Keira – Almost Nightly

Keira Knightley

A pirate walked up to me in the mall this holiday weekend as I was loitering outside of Anthropologie, waiting with only moderatre patience for The Artist. “Hey big man, I’ve got Pirates and Shrek 3 on DVD. Twenty bucks.” I shooed him away with a suave “belay me buck-o, and be about yer business.” But I also found it strange to be offered a pirated Pirates of the Caribbean – for which I’d laid out considerable scratch at the local cineplex two nights previous. Then again, perhaps twenty bucks was a bargain. Why shouldn’t the Motion Picture Association endorse pirating a movie that glamorizes rapine plunder?

Pirates3 gets a sad thumbs down from this reviewer: it’s too long, too unemotional, and too driven by computer graphics and a thick and clumsy plot (if it can be called that at all) that had me trying to fathom the many competing pirate curses that seemed to spout up like stranded whales as excuses for some battle or swordfight. A huge Hollywood mess, in other words – one that will rake in tens of millions of dollars (a success!) and satisfy audiences’ desire for a big, sweeping epic. Problem is, this thing screams “big sweeping epic!” without actually providing the sweep. Or for that matter, a single convincing character…save one.

And I’m not talking about Keira Knightley, though her presence – all angular profile and Oxbridge enunciation – is one of the few reasons to sit through the flick.
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Meeting Kirk Douglas

Kirk DouglasYou don’t have to ask Kirk Douglas for his favorite film role – it’s already on his lips. “Van Gogh.” He’s referring to Lust for Life, the 1956 MGM movie about the life of the Dutch painter, based on the 1934 novel by Irving Stone, directed by Vincente Minnelli and George Cukor, and produced by John Houseman.

“Yes, Van Gogh. For the first time in my acting career, the part took me over. He took over. You know, I slept in the room where he committed suicide.”

I listened in something approaching open-mouthed awe to Douglas during his talk (an interview with Mort Zuckerman) at the 10th annual Milken Global Conference in Beverly Hills this week. I was there to cover the proceedings for onPhilanthropy, but for a few moments I allowed myself to play the fan, chatting briefly with him afterwards as he signed a book for my father. I couldn’t help it. Douglas is a living link – among the last – to a generation of actors, of real stars, of men and women who created the film industry.

The co-stars alone dazzle and tingle the nerves: Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Mitchum, Rosalind Russell, Michael Redgrave, Raymond Massey, Burt Lancaster, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Rudy Vallee, Anne Baxter, Cornel Wilde, Lauren Bacall. And that’s just the 1940s.

Kirk Douglas is 90 years old. He’s smaller, a littled crooked, but he moves with real determination. The eyes twinkle and laugh. His speech isn’t perfect ten years after the stroke, but no matter: he’ll talk your ear off, and with attitude and delivery. This nice little old gentleman is still Kirk Douglas.
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A Bad TV Show About Good Movies

David Niven and friendToday we focus on movies by way of a glitzy, Vegas-style revue show that has almost nothing to do with brilliant film-making. It’s Hoillywood celebrating Hollywood with schmaltz, and it’s evolved from a rather subdued black tie dinner at Sid Grauman’s theater to a megcast shown around the world and widely reviled for its length, its lack of pacing, and its tacky showbiz numbers. Through the years, there have been a number of “Oscar moments” by way of the television product – the streaker behind David Niven and Marlon Brando’s non-acceptance leap to mind. We’re celebrating the Academy Awards here on newcritics in words and commentary, but I thought we could use some video – at least as a preview of tonight’s madness. So I did some YouTube research and – after the jump – found some Oscar gold through the years. Enoy the preview!
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London Calling

I’m not a film completist; with three children and a limited window of screening opportunities outside of video-on-demand, my year’s best, non-kiddie category, is scant by definition. So my “best of” list in the cinematic arts is limited to exactly two pictures, the only two to really cut through the mist of over-production and bad popcorn, and to stick to my intellectual ribs like butter on a toasted corn muffin.

Both are deeply English, more so in language than in culture. Both have all their crucial action scenes in and around London. And both deal with government and with the power of perception in the masses, a crucial factor in self-governance and the source of legitimacy of power.

VqV for Vendetta caused one right-wing reviewer to rant that the film was “a vile, pro-terrorist piece of neo-Marxist, left-wing propaganda filled
with radical sexual politics and nasty attacks on religion and Christianity.” Others took it as a parable of neoconservatism run wild: its core story of America in ruins, and Britain run by a brutish totalitarian regime is filled with torture, secret imprisonment, the end of fair trials, and a government spying on its citizenry.

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