Tag Archives: New Yorker

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael

21 Feb

‘What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael’: Sweet kiss for film critic with acid tongue

 

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Rob Garver’s hagiographic ode to the life and work of film critic Pauline Kael adequately covers the writer’s rise to her post at The New Yorker, her daunting (perhaps exaggerated?) influence on the film industry and her legions of A-list admirers. What distinguished Kael, besides being the lone woman in an all-male club when she got into film criticism back in the 1950s, were her uniquely punchy, eloquent and visceral reactions, many imparted in a single sentence. Kael also became famous for her embrace of graphic violence (she largely adored Scorsese, De Palma, Peckinpah and Coppola) and envelop-pushing erotica (“Last Tango in Paris”) while gouging away at sacred cows such as French New Wave icon “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and Christmas classic “The Sound of Music” (“the sugar-coated lie that people seem to want to eat”).

“What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael” is framed with tape recording of Kael being interviewed by a young girl who gaily asks the critic her first movie (Chaplin) and later, her favorite film is (a detail I’ll let the moviegoer discover). Kael, who lived in Great Barrington and died just before 9/11, came from humble roots in Northern California, where she attended college at Berkeley. She never graduated, failed as a playwright in New York and her one marriage ended quickly, but throughout it all she maintained a deep passion for emotion-provoking narratives, be they bound by book jacket or cinematically projected. Her early reviews were on radio and for free, but being a single mother Kael looked to get paid for her labor; before landing at The New Yorker she was at McCall’s, which ended badly. 

Film clips spruce up the narrative, sometimes to echo Kael’s thoughts and other times simply as illustrating the film being trumpeted or impaled. We get Kael’s personal reflections from letters and other scrawlings read by Sarah Jessica Parker in voice only, evoking a smooth, husky Hollywood starlet persona that feels warmly congruent with the actual Kael we hear at the bookends, and in interview clips with Dick Cavett and other TV talk show hosts of the era. Plenty of celebrities lend their talking heads to the project, most prominently screenwriter/director Robert Towne (“Chinatown”), Alec Baldwin and film-nerd-turned-auteur Quentin Tarantino. Continue reading

Trail by Fire

17 May

‘Trial by Fire’: On death row after arson trial, but he finds a new hope (if not a new story)

 

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Anti-death penalty films tend to land far and wide. There are hits (“Dead Man Walking,” “The Green Mile”) and misses (“The Life of David Gale”), much of it hinging on degree of subtlety vs. preachy, manipulative overtones. Sure, the talent involved matters, but so do tenor and posture. “Trial by Fire,” from Edward Zwick (“Glory” and “The Last Samurai”) lands closer to the “Dead Man Walking” side of the field than sermonic foul territory. It’s something of a nifty crime drama too.

Adapted from David Grann’s haunting 2009 “New Yorker” article of the same name, “Trial by Fire” plays us for our stereotypes the way a courtroom might. Two days before Christmas 1991, in a poor Texas ’burb, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a man with a bedraggled mullet, pentagram tattoos, no job, no education and several run-ins with the law on his record, watches his house go up in flames with his three baby girls inside. Later that night he’s drinking at the bar and playing darts, reveling in all the donations that have rolled in. 

It’s not pretty, and next comes sordid details of his marriage (wife Stacy, played by Emily Meade, was at work at the time of the fire). It all comes out in the courtroom after investigators examining the remains of the charred house – one expert articulating, “Fire doesn’t destroy evidence. Fire creates evidence” – deem it an arson-engineered death trap and charge Willingham with the crime. 

As the film sets it (or us) up, Willingham’s guilty as hell – and just like that, off to death row he goes. The script by Geoffrey Fletcher plays with time and our sensibilities as it goes along. Willingham’s trial lawyer seems competent during the initial defense, but not so in a rewind, and then there are the shifting accounts from eyewitnesses (we saw what they saw, and they tell it differently on the stand). It’s enough to cast doubt but not enough for a retrial. Willingham and the film get a big boost when Laura Dern’s Elizabeth Gilbert (not the “Eat, Pray, Love” author), a compassionate single mother with two teens, embarks on a letter-writing relationship with Willingham and jumps in on his defense. 

O’Connell, a British actor (“Unbroken”) whose stock should rise in the wake of “Trial by Fire,”  does an affectingly palpable job of selling us on his transformation into a more educated and balanced person behind bars. Meade and Dern are likewise commendable. It’s a heavy film with a heavy agenda that lets us know that Texas executes five times as many death row inmates as the next death penalty state, and Project Innocence gets rolled in too. It’s not overtly (and unnecessarily) manipulative until late in the game. Its points about the weaknesses of the justice system are provocative and real considerations to deliberate.