The Seminal and Influential Sidney Lumet

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Published last year, Maura Spiegel’s Sidney Lumet: A Life is an absolutely first-rate biography. It is probably the strongest single director biography I’ve ever read and definitely one of the best showbiz biographies I’ve come across. The book is heavily researched, provides astute analysis of Lumet’s work and personal life, and Spiegel does a fine job of illustrating Lumet’s influence on more recent films and television programs.

I knew quite a bit about Lumet going into Spiegel’s biography, but I learned so much more through her enjoyable and accessible 363 pages. I was unaware that Lumet had grown up a stage and screen actor with deep Yiddish roots in 1930s New York. Through Spiegel’s book I also learned that Lumet had served in the American military in World War II, and had experienced Anti-Semitism as well as pervasive humiliation there (Lumet remarked on the humiliation of having to use toilets without stalls while serving). Racial prejudice and the sterility and messiness of institutions would appear again and again in his work.

Film critics often describe Lumet as being workmanlike in his aesthetic and output. This generalization often came from Lumet’s early work in television in the 1950s. What Spiegel’s book makes clear and what I’ve known for a long time is that Lumet was very much an auteur. Lumet was famous, maybe even infamous, for mainly shooting in his hometown New York City, and rarely filming outside of New York and Europe. He repeatedly returned to his theme that justice is fragile in films including 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, and that institutional bureaucracy will always protect itself over individuals in his films Serpico, Prince of the City, and Dog Day Afternoon.

Spiegel really does fine work noting how Lumet’s films have influenced more recent projects by younger filmmakers. She points out the aesthetic influence of Lumet’s Prince of the City on Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. I’d add that Lumet’s The Verdict and its depiction of the little guy fighting the big institution for justice certainly bears its influence in Steve Zaillian’s A Civil Action and Stephen Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich. The sad and weary cynicism of Prince of City is painted all over David Simon’s series The Wire.

Spiegel also presents a clear understanding of Lumet as a man based on her research into his book on filmmaking, his unpublished memoir, as well as interviews she conducted with his friends and relatives. Lumet had a philandering father and an unstable mother who died while he was young, and his work as a child actor provided for his father and sister growing up. So Lumet was always working and always seeing someone. He was married four times in his life, and he is consistently remembered by his wives and friends as a kind, thoughtful, and generous person. This assessment also comes through how actors speak about him: as warm, caring, and patient.

Lumet seems to be getting a reappraisal among film critics and programmers, and Spiegel’s recent book attests to this movement. Hopefully we’ll continue to see this late legend get the recognition he’s long earned.

In the Sommar Time, I Learned to Die: Midsommar

The name of this blog should really be “I Was Late” because as with most of the works I write about I was late to Ari Aster’s folk horror film Midsummer (released last year). Like with Aster’s first film, Hereditary, Midsommar is best experienced with as little known about it as possible. The start of the film is one of the most shocking and saddest openings I’ve ever seen. I won’t give it away. The film follows an American young couple, Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), who have tagged along with their two friends and a Swedish exchange student to the Swede’s family commune in the Swedish countryside. Things start to get weird and violent fast when the commune quickly reveals itself to be a pagan cult.

Midsommar is often darkly humorous largely because the character dynamics are believable. Dani is both excessively clingy and needy and also rightly so after a horrific family trauma. Jack is enabling, but also aloof and cowardly. Jack’s friends can barely stand Dani or be in their presence. Jack and his friends are also grad students, and with that comes their pathetic attempts at armchair psychology as well as selfish competitiveness and self-righteous moral superiority. Aster is brave enough to make movies where you won’t necessarily like the main characters.

For the most part, Midsommar is exceptional though it becomes more predictable as its nearly two and a half hour running time goes on. If you’ve seen either version of The Wicker Man, you’ll see the film’s ending coming long ahead of time. That being said, Aster has some incredible aesthetic instincts. His meticulous mis-en-scene frequently calls to mind the work of Stanley Kubrick, particularly The Shining, and on occasion Wes Anderson (who seems to also often visually nod to Kubrick). There is a great, enveloping score by Bobby Krlic that seems heavily influenced by Penderecki and Penderecki’s spiritual descendant Jonny Greenwood.

Midsommar is long, brutal, and mean. You won’t feel good after watching it, but you’ll experience first-rate filmmaking.

Revisiting the B-Movie Glory That is Venom

Venom!

Probably one of the most criminally misunderstood comic book movies, Venom is a brilliant B-movie that knows it is a B-movie and isn’t taken very seriously by its creators. Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a San Francisco news reporter who is a bit of a slob, very arrogant, dishonest, disloyal, and has no friends. This is a supreme contrast to the exceptional individual of most superhero and action movies where the protagonist is this single supreme all-star destined for greater things above everyone else (a typical neoliberal fantasy).

Within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, Eddie loses his job, fiance, and apartment after he reads some legal memos from his lawyer girlfriend, played by the always welcome Michelle Williams, regarding a tech and pharmaceutical billionaire’s experiments on the poor of San Fran and then decides to confront the billionaire during a routine news interview. Six months later, Eddie breaks into the billionaire’s lab and becomes a host to a lethal alien symbiote that calls itself Venom, giving Eddie superpowers and super strength.

Okay, so you can understand how ridiculous this movie is, and that’s why it is so welcome when so many superhero movies these days are so dark, dreary, gritty, and dull. Venom is silly and comical. Hardy is in nearly every scene, and he’s very funny as he plays the earnest loser Eddie as well as voices the threatening Venom, who talks with Eddie and at times controls him. Williams is lovely and radiates intelligence and kindness as Eddie’s smart and loyal ex. Riz Ahmed plays the billionaire Carlton Drake with a very believable sense of visionary charisma. You actually believe that he believes he’s doing good by experimenting on homeless people with alien substances in order to somehow save mankind. There is also Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, and Melora Walters all doing good work.

I think a lot of viewers were disappointed with Venom because it’s absurd. Hardy himself likened the dynamic between Eddie and Venom to that of Ren and Stimpy, and said he was influenced by such disparate sources as Woody Allen, Colin McGregor, and the rapper Redman in his performance (who else commands Hardy’s love of both highbrow and lowbrow?). The sci-fi fish out of water premise as well as the fighting between Eddie and Venom certainly and lovingly recall other works including The Thing, The Fly, An American Werewolf in Paris, and especially Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies. In fact, Venom is very much like Spiderman meets Evil Dead, what I would have liked Raimi’s Spiderman movies to have been like. Andy Serkis is set to put out a Venom sequel in October this year. I hope it’s half as good as this one.

Counterpart is Smart, Understated Espionage Sci-Fi

I was late to Starz’s two season series Counterpart, which began back in 2017. The show’s premise itself isn’t exceptional, but a lot of exceptional work is built off it. In the series, a second reality is created or discovered through a physics experiment in Berlin circa 1989. In the present, a hangdog worker bee for a United Nations agency (played masterfully by J.K. Simmons) in Berlin is brought in by his superiors at the request of… his ‘other’ from the other reality (played by Simmons again obviously). The instigating action for this development is that an assassin from one side has come to the other side to kill the agency’s spies. I won’t give much else of the plot away because there are some outstanding twists and twists in this complicated but not excessively convoluted thriller.

One of the reasons I wanted to write specifically about this show is that writing about acting can be troublesome. As my NYU professor Emmanuel Levy once noted, we don’t have quite the same specific technical phrasing for acting that we do for, say, editing or cinematography. Simmons’ acting on this program as well as the acting of his costar Olivia Williams (who plays the hero’s wife as well as his other’s wife) is noteworthy because of the versatility required in doing so. Our hero, Howard Silk, is a gentle and kind pushover in this world, but a mean and assertive bully in the other world. Simmons portrays this bi-polarity believably. Williams also succeeds in playing one version of Emily Silk as being cold and sharp while playing her other version as regretful and just out of a coma. Both leads are supported by a fine cast that also includes James Cromwell, a very strong Betty Gabriel, and Ulrich Thomsen.

The show’s geography is also relevant. It was with the fall of the Berlin Wall that any political alternatives to capitalism ended, as the late Mark Fisher noted in his Capitalist Realism and Philip E. Wegner argued in The Life Between Two Deaths. The show unsurprisingly often feels like John Le Carre with a postmodern sci-fi twist. Its conspiracy premise as well as a scene filmed at the postmodern ‘Ren Cen’ building in Detroit certainly point to Fredric Jameon’s notion of cognitive mapping- our difficulty of placing ourselves within the network of global capitalism. Maybe by offering us another world Counterpart also offers us hope of something different and better. Though it’s worth noting that in one of the show’s worlds, seven percent of the population has been decimated by a deadly man-made flu. So maybe hold off on watching this one if you’re freaking out about the current global situation.

Adrien Brody Did It Better

I haven’t been able to shake how unfunny this season’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm with Jon Hamm was. In it, Hamm played himself as he was researching a role based on Larry David. As the episode progressed, Hamm spent more time with Larry and started mimicking his phrases and mannerisms. It wasn’t funny. I’ve wanted to write about this episode without making a negative, snarky, mean, or even critical post. So here it goes.

I don’t think the episode fell flat solely because of Hamm, who might not be funny but certainly has the potential to be an interesting character actor with the right roles and directors. He was a real treat nearly playing two characters in Drew Goddard’s Bad Times at the El Royale, which is saying a lot considering the cast also included such greats as Jeff Bridges, Dakota Johnson, and Cynthia Erivo. I think the episode failed because it pointed out that impersonation in itself is not funny. Impersonation is funny when it reveals something about the person being impersonated as well as the person performing the impersonation.

There was a brilliant and hilarious episode of the short-lived Showtime series Dice where Adrien Brody played a version of himself researching Andrew Dice Clay for a role in a play. Dice, a well-meaning but excessively confident jerk on the show, is flattered and unsurprised when Brody tells him that he “defines masculinity”. Brody, who is written and plays himself as first nervous and earnest, gradually becomes Dice in voice, manner, and attitude to the point that he out-dices Dices at an open mic. The tables turn so that the once almighty Dice is threatened by the once insecure Brody. The episode is over the top and ridiculous and reveals more about these men’s screen personas than what David and Hamm did in this season’s Curb episode. Impersonation for impersonation’s sake is not funny. It has be revelatory to be humorous. Anyway, watch Dice. It’s underrated.

“Neon Joe Werewolf Hunter”, He-Yump!

I was late to watching the second and likely final season of Jon Glaser’s Neon Joe, Werewolf Hunter, which aired on Adult Swim between 2015 and 2017. Like all Adult Swim products, Glaser’s show is an outrageous and absurdist postmodern pastiche of small town soap operas, horror films, sitcoms, and even romance novels. The show isn’t without heart though, making it more light-hearted than many of the channel’s more ironic or nihilistic works (Too Many Cooks, anyone?).

In the first season, Glaser played the title character, an all-neon clad werewolf slayer with a Creole accent summoned to a small Vermont town to fight a murderous werewolf. The debut season had a Twin Peaks quality where many of the town’s residents received ample screentime for their various B-plots. The show’s second season is much tighter as Joe’s retirement is interrupted when he’s framed for the murder of his rival Plaid Jeff, played with uptight control by Godfrey. The show is absurd (an Elon Musk-type billionaire is described as just that) and Neon Joe is not without virtue as he fights to prove his innocence and save humanity. Like Kenny Powers, Andrew Dice Clay, and other lovable TV oafs, Neon Joe has a heart of gold buried beneath his loud bravado.

The King of Queen

I was late to see Bryan Singer’s Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which is nothing short of magical. While the film is full of historical inaccuracies particularly in how many of its characters’ relationships were established and Queen guitarist Brian May is rather charitably presented as kind and noble (May was unsurprisingly involved in the film’s production), it is nonetheless a sweet and inspiring look at the story behind Queen. There are rousing concert sequences as well as many quiet scenes depicting lead singer Freddie Mercury’s profound loneliness. Everything is bolstered by a fine cast that includes Rami Malek as Mercury, Lucy Boynton, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, and Mike Myers.

Wahlberg is Back in Boston in “Spenser Confidential”

Mark Wahlberg certainly continues to show love for his hometown of Boston in his filmography. From The Departed through Patriot’s Day to the recent Spenser Confidential (now streaming on Netflix), Wahlberg frequently chooses projects set in his hometown. In Spenser Confidential, Wahlberg plays the title character, a former Boston Police officer about to end a five year prison stretch for assaulting his police captain over burying evidence related to a young woman’s murder. Upon release from prison, the police captain is murdered and a young, honest cop is killed and framed for the murder. Unwilling to let an injustice go, Spenser investigates the frame-up himself, crossing paths with dirty cops, Dominican cartel members, and many Boston accents of varying degrees of credibility.

Spenser Confidential is a fairly standard buddy action-comedy, but it is elevated by strong writing and an even stronger cast. Sean O’ Keefe and Brian Helgeland adapted the screenplay from a novel by Ace Atkins (based on the late Robert B. Parker’s characters), and Helgeland, a veteran of the noir genre, leaves his penchant for tough-guy dialogue all over the screenplay. Wahlberg is likable as usual and he’s assisted by a trio of comically deft performers in Winston Duke as Spenser’s roommate and defacto investigative partner, Alan Arkin as their mentor, and Iliza Shesinger as Spenser’s assertive Southie girlfriend. Peter Berg, the director and frequent Wahlberg collaborator, seems to let the camera roll a little longer in some scenes just to catch the brilliant comedic timing of these three. Bokeem Woodbine, intelligent and enticing as always, plays the heavy. From the accents to Bruins references to the lobstah, Boston is firmly a character as well.

Suffering Through Amazon’s “Zero Zero Zero”

Andrea Riseborough in “Zero Zero Zero”

While socially isolating this weekend, I watched Amazon’s new original series Zero Zero Zero. To put it more accurately, I suffered through the series, if watching a streaming show from the comfort of an indoor mattress while eating Doritos can be called suffering (it can’t). Joking aside, the series is relentlessly, punishingly bleak. On the show, it’s not enough for a young Mexican soldier to be killed by his fellow soldiers for not being dirty, he also has to have a pretty, pregnant wife to leave behind as a widow. A boyish central protagonist has to have a degenerative disease in addition to having to fend off Islamic terrorists and Italian mobsters (you get the idea of this program’s broad implausibilities). I almost stopped watching the eight-part series after a group of Italian mafiaso slaughter a (computer generated) pig and drink its blood.

So why did I stick with such a gruesome and unpleasant program? Well, there is some major talent in this work both behind and in front of the camera. One of the show’s creators as well as the director of two of its episodes is Stefano Sollima, who directed the supremely underrated cartel war sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. The international cast includes Gabriel Byrne, Andrea Riseborough, and Dane DeHaan, three performers who often choose interesting projects. One of the most haunting elements of the series is the evocative, ominous score by the band Mogwai.

A truly transnational story and production, the series follows three globe-spanning groups. There a mafia don in Italy who has gone into hiding and wants to earn back the trust of his associates by purchasing a large shipment of cocaine from a Mexican drug cartel. In Mexico, the cartel has a mole in an anti-cartel Mexican army who just happens to be squad sergeant. The cocaine shipment is brokered by a News Orleans businessman, played by Byrne, who rationalizes working in the drug trade so his business can “keep the world economy afloat” and provide for his two adult children, played by Riseborough and DeHaan. Like the disabled sons of other TV anti-heroes on The Shield and Breaking Bad, DeHaan’s character has the aforementioned Huntington’s Disease in order to bolster viewer sympathy for this family of American criminals.

Is the show worth watching? I think so, if you’re in the mood for a serious, gritty, unpleasant epic. Like its unexplained, evocative title, Zero Zero Zero shares common ground with the late Roberto Bolano’s ominous transnational epic novel 2666. Both works include globe-spanning and interlocking stories, savage violence, and a quiet, cynical worldview. Byrne and Riseborough are serious and understated as always. Like Mr. Robot, the series is interested in what it means for two adults to be grown siblings, and Riseborough and DeHaan have some touching scenes together. There’s no shortage of shows about the cartel war these days, this brutal series is one of the stronger ones.

Los Angeles Metropolitan Concert Update, 3/8/2020

Ted Hearne’s Place will be performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday, March 24th. Steve Reich’s Noon to Midnight will premiere at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Saturday, June 6th.

Peter Bjorn and John will be performing at La Santa in Santa Ana on Tuesday, March 24th.