Monthly Archives: March 2007

Sic gloria transit

The last episode of Rome is over. HBO canceled it; apparently the ratings weren’t enough to justify the production costs. I gather those were substantial. They filmed the series in Italy and went to great pains with the sets and the costumes.

They took some liberties with historical accuracy. Brutus for instance did not die charging into battle. Octavia had another husband and more than the one child. Heck, Marc Antony had far more than just the one wife. Octavian and Livia’s courtship and marriage was actually pretty scandalous back in the day.

That ain’t how it played on the TV show.

All of that said, I loved the show. The actors were really really good. There was tons of eye candy. It was a fun, almost like a guilty pleasure, except that if you go back to some of the original source material, you get the sense that show was pretty tame in comparison.

Sigh. I will miss it.


Wordplay is a brilliant little documentary about crossword puzzles. Yep, that’s right crosswords, Will Shortz, the people who do them, the people who make them, and the people who gather every year in Stamford, Connecticut to compete at solving them.

I got the film through Netflix not knowing anything beyond that it was about crosswords and that two of my friends had it in their queues. I like documentaries. I like crosswords. I thought, hey, let’s give it a shot.

First off it’s masterfully edited by a man named Doug Blush. If anyone had told me you could have a riveting 2-3 minute sequences with a guy showing how a crossword is made, I would have said they were crazy, but he did it. Filmmakers Patrick Creadon and Christine O’Malley did a terrific job with this film. They managed to get Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton to provide interviews. The top crossword contestants are articulate and witty and interesting in and of themselves. The topic itself is cool. I had no idea how much art goes into constructing a crossword puzzle.

Plus, and this is what I love about this movie. So many different people in all walks of life solve crosswords. As Shortz comments, it’s a solitary pursuit, but at the same time (this is me saying this here), it’s a common pursuit. I have really special memories of my parents and I fighting over the Sunday paper or talking about the clues. I’m by no means a master at them, but I struggle along in my own way and enjoy the process.

The extras on this DVD are almost as good as the film. I particularly loved the stories behind 5 different NY Times crosswords – how they were made and what was different about them.

One of the most engrossing and fun films I’ve seen in a long time.

Wonderfully miscast soaper

So I had recorded Not as a Stranger under the mistaken idea that it was a thriller. Last time I rely on the TCM schedule for a film description: ” A medical student will stop at nothing to become a top surgeon.”

Robert Mitchum is a medical student– poor medical student (Lon Chaney, Jr. has a cameo as his drunken father). His best friend, privileged rich kid, Frank Sinatra, is in med school because it’s expected of him and also for the cash. So’s Lee Marvin. Yeah, that’s right. Lee Marvin. Broderick Crawford and Whit Bissell are profs. It’s a strange strange class. And the writer at TCM had the same thought. Last time I saw Whit Bissell and Lee Marvin together was in the godawful, but oddly engrossing Shack Out on 101.

After Dad drinks up Mitchum’s tuition money, he looks to alternative sources. While dropping out for a semester (Broderick Crawford’s suggestion) and getting a job to get the money is too heinous to be considered, marrying Swedish nurse Olivia de Havilland for her money is not. That’s okay. Sure, Mitchum doesn’t love her. Sure he looks down on her, even though she seems to be a very competent nurse. Sure she has goofy relatives–okay that I buy–Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter of M*A*S*H) playing a Swede would turn me off too. But hey, Mitchum was meant to be a doctor.

And he becomes a doctor. He heads out for one of those small towns that manages to appear to be a small city (gotta love Hollywood) where he works under crusty Charles Bickford’s supervision. Okay, I love Charles Bickford. It was worth sitting through the first half of the movie just to see him do his stuff. He’s working round the clock, helping people, being the noble doctor, pretending to love his long-suffering wife, when into his life slinks Gloria Grahame; she takes one look at hunky Mitchum and makes the expected play for him.

You can see why I thought this was a thriller with noirish influences (Mitchum, Grahame, Bickford, Sinatra). This was Stanley Kramer’s first directorial effort. I’m not sure who did the casting, but evidently they were either insane or intoxicated. It’s an odd, odd, mess of a film. Unless you have a burning desire to see Olivia de Havilland and Harry Morgan as Swedes, I’d suggest giving this one a miss.

Different side of the coin

It’s hard not to compare “Infamous” with Capote. Both films cover roughly the same time period and the same series of events. Both films were released within a year or so of each other. I’m not sure what happened with that, but it’s unfortunate because I suspect most people ended up seeing “Capote” (released first) and passed Infamous by. That said, I’m going to bow to pressure and compare them.

I’m not sure one is superior to the other. I liked both for different reasons. Sandra Bullock did a surprisingly good job as Harper Lee–not Bullock’s biggest fan–but she brought a haunted quality to the part that I liked a lot. Director and screenwriter, Douglas McGrath uses “testimonials,” to punctuate the plot. Babe Paley, Slim Keith, Diana Vreeland, even Gore Vidal periodically share their thoughts on Capote. It’s artificial, but it does work. Given that New York and the society in which Capote traveled are so prominent in “Infamous,” perhaps it’s even a shrewd move.

Where I think the movie falls apart for me is in the portrayal of Perry Smith, one of the two murderers. In “Capote,” Clifton Collins, Jr. plays Smith as part naive and part psychopath. Daniel Craig of James Bond fame is mercurial, violent, and charming, but … it didn’t work for me. Nor did the film’s premise.

Truman Capote was never the same after completing “In Cold Blood. ” The fundamental question that both of these films poses and answers is why. What about this period in Capote’s life changed him so? What broke him? Because I’m not a Truman Capote scholar, I don’t really know.

“Capote” suggests that it was the author’s betrayal and manipulation of his subjects. Infamous suggests it was the emotional relationship between the author and his subject itself. As convincingly as Toby Jones and Daniel Craig play it, McGrath’s solution seems too pat, too Hollywood for me. There’s an elegance in “Capote” that “Infamous” lacks.

I do agree with the New Yorker review. You “should not not see it.” Well worth your time and the rental fee.

Stop the presses!

I watched Lost last night and didn’t hate Kate. And I have hated Kate for three years now. For once she was resourceful and intelligent and not immersed in the adolescent triangle of choosing between Jack and Sawyer. The fans on the various forums seem to be really disappointed with this season; I’m not. Okay, last week’s episode with the stupid tatoos was mediocre, but on the whole the third season has been high in quality. Last night’s episode was Hurley-centric and although nothing radically new was revealed, it was fun! Sometimes fun is a good thing. Too much angst and I get bored.

And in other news, Megan McTavish, who is the headwriter for my soap, All My Children is out. Praise be. Now I can start watching it again. She’s been writing the show into the ground ever since they rehired her.

I’ve heard a lot lately about how the soap opera genre is dying. I don’t know that this is true.
It’s like there’s a huge divide between what the viewers want and what TPTB think the viewers want. It would also be nice if they started writing for this century–from the diverse makeup of our cities and towns to the more enlightened attitudes that most Americans possess. There’s a dearth of intelligence and continuity in the writing and that’s what’s killing soaps. It’s not the medium that’s obsolete. It’s the current crew that writes and produces that medium.