Sunday, July 30, 2006

Scare tactics

Ignore the poster, which looks like lesbian gymnastics performed atop a skull-shaped volcano. [It's below, for posterity.] And forget, for the moment, that its writer-director has modified its ending for its US release, which begins August 4 via Lionsgate. From web forums to the pages of Film Comment magazine, The Descent has been proclaimed as the scariest horror film to come down the pike in some time, and I'm not going to argue with that. I'm at an age where an increased lipid count or a decreasing bank balance upset me more than some movie boogeyman, and I rarely emerge from a horror film shaken anymore. [The true-life terror of United 93, or the paranoia-wracked atmosphere of A Scanner Darkly, still get under my skin.] Mileage will certainly vary as how alarming The Descent is. My guess is, given the basic, unnerving situation--female spelunkers, at odds with one another, versus unrelentingly vile humanoid "crawlers" in the claustrophobia of an unmapped cave--it will be a very intense hour-and-45-minutes for many. Scares aside, however, I admired the craft behind the film, which marks its British auteur, Neil Marshall, as a true classicist in a genre frequently given over to the jokiest, crassest exploitation.

Foreign-made horrors have a tough time on these shores. With the best intentions for the US audience, Lionsgate did more harm than good to the French-made Haute Tension, dubbing (ugh!) a movie that had more screams than chat-chat and cutting it back for an R-rating. The original edit is available on DVD, but the damage had been done. Marshall's first horror film, 2002's Dog Soldiers, premiered, between commercial breaks, on the Sci-Fi Channel, hardly an optimum venue. Amidst the ads, however, it was clear that Marshall was a cut above--the humdrum scenario, male military types going mano-a-paw with werewolves, was invigorated by reasonably somber telling and well-handled setpieces. The Descent continues in this vein, paring away the CGI, obvious scares, faux politicizing (as in the exploitative Hostel) and juvenile humor (a pox since the sequelizing of Freddy Krueger) that have settled like tumors on the form, and exposing the vital nerve endings.

Why does The Descent work as well as it does? For starters, it keeps the plot simple, and visual; action reveals character, and the emotions deepen without a lot of useless expository dialogue, as in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, one movie that did work me over. The movie opens with a real jolt: The car accident deaths of the husband and daughter of Sarah (Shauna Macdonald, pictured above), following Sarah's annual extreme sports jaunts with her friends (in a reverse on Dog Soldiers, The Descent's leads are all female). A year later, Sarah, feeling nominally better but still haunted by visions of her dead child, agrees to join her gal pals on their latest adventure, exploring caverns. The group leader is Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah's best friend--but, if you were paying attention to the first scene, it's clear that the friendship had ruptured, likely over infidelity on Juno's part with Sarah's husband. It's easy to miss this, as we're used to being spoon-fed rationales and explanations for behavior, but Marshall, in the tradition of the suggestive scenarios of Rosemary's Baby and Val Lewton (producer of the classic RKO chillers of the 40s, like Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie), doesn't dumb us down.

Within the caves (a beautiful series of sets designed by Simon Bowles, and imaginatively shot by Sam McCurdy), emotional fault lines develop. The movie is reminiscent of Deliverance in this regard but Marshall, to his credit, doesn't wear hommages on his sleeve. The bickering and in-fighting that develop leave the women (including Rebecca, played by Saskia Mulder, and Sam, played by MyAnna Buring, pictured) that much more defenseless when the monsters show up. Here again the movie is commendable, in that the creatures have been rendered prosthetically (by Paul Hyett), and not digitally, and move, and strike, credibly, rather than fantastically. Supported by an eerie soundscape that vibrates and hisses, you buy into the illusion. [Peter Jackson is one of the few filmmakers working in the CGI realm whose creations behave with some passing nod to the real world; see, or, rather, pass on seeing Van Helsing for the opposite.] In and of themselves, monsters aren't necessarily frightening; it's the buildup that gets you, and sustains you through the next twists in the storyline, and so it is with The Descent, in the tradition of Jawsand the very best creature features. Things get messy as the movie turns the screws, quite logically I found, but Marshall doesn't try to terrorize us with gore effects, which usually expose the limitations of the makeup artists (one exception is a horrific stalking sequence in the 1979 Zombie, a knockoff of Dawn of the Dead, but there, too, the mod is set up creaky, bump-in-the-night audio effects).

As it happens, I like the way The Descent ends. Lionsgate and Marshall need not apologize for trying it out here in the US. I don't think it's a cop-out, and not seeing it because it has an alternate conclusion is a clear instance of cutting off your nose to spite your face. The original ending may be more elegant, and more disturbingly symmetrical, but if the new one is a compromise at least it's a creative one. And it doesn't lead to speculation that all of this is happening in Sarah's tormented mind, which I don't buy. Marshall has made an excellent monster movie--if he believes in the existence of his monsters, so should we all.

[But, if you have to scratch that itch, the original ending is on the Region 2 DVD, which has made it toYouTube. Don't click till you've seen the film proper. It's worth seeing in the darkest recesses of your local bijou.]

Photos by Alex Bailey.

[By the way, this entry should push me above the 2,000-hit mark. Thanks for reading, and feel free to chime in.]

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Screen scene

Been too busy actually seeing movies to post much, but now it's time to pay the piper. Despite the skippability of so much--Lady in the Water, a no-hoper from the get-go and further proof that its auteur has lost whatever smarts he had left after the dreadful The Village, is already exiting my local cineplex, and for the first time ever I'm thumbing my nose at a Woody Allen film, which I should have done about a half-dozen credits or so; Match Point wasn't that good--the indie scene is fairly lively, and there are one or two decent movies in the malls, too. A look, with a French accent.

Clerks II (The Weinstein Company). Now in their early 30's, and at the point where extended adolescence congeals into a semi-permanent state, Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson)--well, Dante--ponder their options, this time behind the counter at a tacky fast-food chain. The references have changed--The Lord of the Rings and The Silence of the Lambs get a good going-over--but the scattershot, hit-and-miss format hasn't. Between gross-out gags involving "inter-species erotica" and cameo customers like Jason Lee, Ben Affleck, and the everywhere-all-at-once Wanda Sykes, writer-director Kevin Smith lets the sadness of resignation seep in, and the possibility of change, represented by pedicure-happy supervisor Becky (Rosario Dawson), who tests Dante's plans to relocate to Florida with girlfriend Emma (played by Smith's tough-as-fake nails wife Jennifer Schwalbach). The sequel is fortunate in the casually sexy Dawson, who, unlike the game but professionally amateurish O'Halloran and Anderson, has the skill to negotiate the shallower sections of the script. (Though Jay and Silent Bob can be counted on for their Mutt-and-Jeff act, the comedy honors are pretty much claimed by newcomer Trevor Fehrman, as Elias, an easily bamboozled fry cook, who is under the delusion that his girlfriend's virginity is guarded by trolls. His reaction shots are often funnier than the material, which may be how he got the job.) Confirming that a good ending can make up for a multitude of venal sins, however, Clerks II very deftly pulls itself together for a genuinely touching and warm-hearted conclusion, not an easy bar to reach after a leather-bound stud and his donkey have reached a different kind of climax. Maybe Smith, like Michael Apted and his "Up" documentaries, should revisit the Quick Stop every decade or so.

Edmond (First Independent Pictures). Mamet-land, where words, rather than fists, are thrown. Racial slurs that have very arguably been "reclaimed" by the popular culture still pack a wallop in an adaptation of his 1982 play, directed by his frequent stage collaborator, Stuart Gordon, one of the friendliest people I have ever interviewed. Gordon is best known for his two earliest films, the sprightly horrific Re-animator and From Beyond, and the visual shock effects here have jack-in-the-box jolt to them. But indie cinema has changed, and what took a modest cast and crew to pull off then today requires 20 producers of various kinds and a troupe of recognizable faces and/or names (Denise Richards, Bai Ling, Mena Suvari, Re-animator star Jeffrey Combs, etc.), whose brief appearances work against the anonymity of the seamy urban underbelly the self-loathing Edmond (William H. Macy, wired to combust) willfully rips into. Gripping (the mutually assured destruction between Macy and Julia Stiles, in one of the larger roles, and the very sly way Bokeem Woodbine plays a savior figure, especially), screwy (in its time- and place-warped way), and, depending on your taste, either content-rich or hopelessly impoverished. Given accomplished work (Bobby Johnston's jazz score and hard-edged lighting, by Denis Maloney, are also exemplary) I lean toward the former, but it's hard to imagine wanting to spend another 82 minutes in Edmond's disagreeable company to confirm my opinion. By the way, I held onto my From Beyond promotional souvenir hat, with its grotesque pop-out "third eye," for many years, and wonder what I could get for it on eBay.

Gabrielle (IFC Films). Infidelity is a theme of this Joseph Conrad adaptation. Alas, the director and co-writer, Patrice Chereau, follows suit by breaking faith with the material, introducing grating, inappropriate music and flashing words like giant text nessages across the screen, as if he distrusted its ability to hold an audience's attention. Wrong. Isabelle Huppert, who as always acts as if some strange force has entered her body and is trying to exert full control through her intense eyes (I mean this as a compliment; she is stunning in a remote way I cannot comprehend after 30 years of immaculate performances) is Gabrielle, who after 10 years has walked out on her marriage to the stuffy, pompous, stifling Jean (Pascal Greggory, with a manner like a vise)--the trouble really starts when she just as abruptly walks back in, setting off tremors that extend beyond their chilly relationship to their 19th century social circle. I was captivated, by the psychological warfare waged by the two leads (both faultless) and Eric Gautier's slightly smudgy cinematography, which removes the Merchant-Ivory-ish gloss off the formally appointed parlors and bedrooms, and resented Chereau's juvenile intrusions. If only Chereau (who made my favorite historical drama of recent years, 1994's Queen Margot, but has been otherwise erratic) had dared to be unhip and made a true chamber piece, one that sucks the air right out of the theater and leaves you gasping after 90 minutes. Movies like this should kill you.

Heading South (Shadow Distribution Inc.). Laurent Cantet's followup to his excellent films about working life, Human Resources and Time Out, has been misread. It is a continuation, and not a departure, from those movies, moving from the office to a hazier, but no less entrenched, economy where gifts and money are traded for sex. And, much as a recent, well-intentioned New York Times Style section piece tried to turn it into some sort of sizzler about older women and younger lovers, Heading South is no day at the beach; if anything, it's cold water thrown at the likes of How Stella Got Her Groove Back (whose author eventually found out, the hard way, about the limits to frolicking with toy boys who turn out to have minds, and inclinations, of their own). There is a little May-October nudity and hanky panky, but much of the mutual seduction is a matter of hands playing lightly across backs, and business being transacted from white to black hands just as discreetly. The film is at its most absorbing when it shows how each of the participants in these games of fantasy and commerce, including queen bee Ellen (a cattier, chattier Charlotte Rampling than usual), the searching Brenda (Karen Young, excellent even in a difficult, romance novel-type monologue), thrill-seeker Sue (Louise Portal), and lust object Legba (Menothy Cesar), get something from the deal; less so in blaming "American dollars" for the corruption that annihilates the playground that Haiti's beaches seemed to be in the mid-1970s. [Dumping its ills entirely on North America isn't going to solve its ongoing plight; as it was, the filmmakers were forced to decamp to Santo Domingo when local conditions worsened.] The politics, like the sex and the yearning that underlies it, might have better served behind closed doors, but Heading South is a more thoughtful, much less empty-headed piece than I had been lead to believe from the largely dismissive reviews.

Monster House (Columbia). I'm so over the digitally animated adventures of talking cars, animals, and bugs, but a monster house possessed by the spirit of a rumbling and growling Kathleen Turner, that uproots itself to chase screaming little kids around the block, and in 3D no less in select theaters (Brooklyn's Flatbush Pavilion has a superb set-up)...well, I am so there. I've been fascinated by 3D since my parents took me to see the revival of 1953's House of Wax in 1982, which kicked off a brief revival of the format and movies like Friday the 13th Part III and Jaws 3-D, all of which I donned glasses for. The third dimension has made a comeback recently, with Monster House the second feature to extend executive producer Robert Zemeckis' motion capture photography effects (as seen in The Polar Express) to the realm of flying objects. But the best 3D is more than that, and Monster House also uses the format more subtly, to create an immersive, tactile world. The story--kids, a little less doll-like than in Express, trying to find out the secret of that people-eating house and its grouchy owner (cantakerously voiced by Steve Buscemi)--is slight, but felt, with a feel for how gawky preadolescents talk and relate (the movie pushes against its PG rating, a reminder of what that rating was before the more restrictive PG-13 was introduced in 1984). I'd call the action overly derivative of executive producer Steven Spielberg if only I weren't pleased to find someone (debut director Gil Kenan) working in that classical style, one largely abandoned for gobs of frenetically edited CGI. Not a big deal, but a pleasant summer breeze. A motion-captured Maggie Gyllenhaal is very funny as an insolent babysitter, prime house bait. Sign me up for this Halloween's revival of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, reworked for 3D.

Quiceanera (Sony Pictures Classics; opens August 4). A Mexican-American girl's 15th birthday, a major celebration, touches off family strife, and reconciliation, in this Sundance hit, which co-writers and -directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland patterned after the kitchen sink dramas produced in England in the late 1950's and early '60s. But the Echo Park neighborhood in Los Angeles where the filmmakers live, and shot the movie, is no drab flatlands of council flats, and Eric Steelberg's assured digital cinematography bursts with color. The storyline, in which celebrant Magdalena (Emily Rios) finds herself with child in an apparent virgin birth, strains the purported realism. More down-to-earth is her affection for her great-great uncle Tomas (a lovely performance by Sam Peckinpah veteran Chalo Gonzalez), who she lives with after being kicked out by her father, and the Heading South-type interaction of her fellow castaway, gay cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), with the homosexual landowners of Tomas' modest, but cheerily gardened, rental house. Without condescending, the filmmakers behind 2001's The Fluffer, a dreamy Boogie Nights drama set in the world of gay porn (where Westmoreland learned his trade), alight on a more affectionately observed community, which returns the favor by opening itself up to us.

Der Fur-rers

Where do people come up with this stuff...have to admit, though, we saw a genuine "Kitler" roaming a parking lot near us. Boys from Brazil-style, they're multiplying...are Picque (left) and Tom-Yum (right) enjoying a cute moment, or locked in conspiracy?

Friday, July 14, 2006

Speak of THE DEVIL

In a recent topic discussion, the usually civilized Mobius Home Video Forum got hot and bothered over HBO's Sex and the City, which departed pay cable two years ago but now reaches a wider audience via edited versions broadcast on TBS. As someone who absolutely hates formulaic cop, doctor, and lawyer shows (on principle, I've never seen a complete episode of any of the Law & Order franchise members), I found Sex a pleasant break from the programming paradigm, and without its success HBO might never have pursued other breakthroughs, like The Sopranos and the very best show on TV, Deadwood, the weekly equivalent of great literature in broadcast form. Given that Mobius has few female members (or, maybe, few female members with an interest in the subject at hand), I can't say the conversation broke down along gender lines, but it certainly broke apart, and I found myself the last man standing defending the show against charges of tastelessness, inaccuracy, and the perceived unattractiveness of its castmembers (a low blow, that one).

I see Sex and the City, and now The Devil Wears Prada (which share a director, David Frankel, and the sublime costume designer, Patricia Field) as the natural extensions of traditional "women's pictures," a genre that has much to offer straight men (gay men so get them), if only they'd look beyond, I don't know, ESPN or The Speed Channel (OK, I'm stereotyping). I got into them, naturally, from horror movies, specifically those battleaxe titles from the Sixties, like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1964), featuring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in their last, campy hurrahs as screen stars. In turn, I sought out their cornerstone titles, and became an unabashed fan. The direction and screenwriting may have been the work of men, but the emotions and temperament were exquisitely, savagely, funnily female. They helped open my eyes to the mysteries of the opposite sex, much as key films like Kramer vs. Kramer and Raging Bull, for example, offered insight into the world of adults, so near and yet so far away from my teenage consciousness.

Sex and The Devil (there's a movie title for you) update The Best of Everything (1959), a Crawford co-starrer based on Rona Jaffe's highly influential novel, with a scoop of Doris Day's hugely popular comedies from the same era added on top. (The Day comedies are weirdly unfunny today--the humor in 2003's warmly parodic Down With Love is much more au courant--but the social gleanings are as fascinating as examining the rings of an ancient redwood tree). All are set in "glamorous" New York City working worlds. For all their seductiveness, these are unmasked as quietly seething snakepits of clashing egos and petty misbehavior, where the rise to the top is accompanied by a corresponding solitude and loneliness, the high price to be paid for mastery of the universe. In the older models, the nice girl, pushed too far by a tyrannical boss, either walks away, for the security of family life, or grimly accepts what will be her lot in life by climbing the treacherous rungs of the career ladder. The newer films and TV shows, which give women freer rein over their personal and professional lives (which undoubtedly bugs more conservative male and female viewers) aren't so cut-and-dried in their choices.

The pre-9/11 episodes of Sex very accurately reflect the sense of New York City as party central in the mid- to late Nineties, days of wine and roses when new possibilities seemed to be falling from the skyscrapers. The show changed smartly with the times, and the current hangover is reflected in The Devil Wears Prada, based on Lauren Weisberger's bestseller, a book that helped define "chick-lit." I haven't read it (there are limits to my interest in the world of women), but by all accounts the screenplay, by Aline Brosh McKenna, adjusts the hemline of the novel, which was an assistant's screed against her nasty, flagrantly self-serving employer, who among other slights and eccentricities never bothered to say "please" and "thank you" when she flung her expensive coats on said assistant's desk in the morning. That's all in the movie, encapsulated in an amusing montage of couture in motion (pictured). And I assume the weak, perfunctory sequences of the assistant's social life and boyfriend problems (the guys are played by Adrian Grenier, star of HBO's Entourage, a male response to Sex and the City, and Simon Baker, with eyebrows and facial hair that suggest a passing-for-chic blond werewolf), come from the book, too. Like its predecessors, it's not a deep probe into the politics of the workplace, but like good pop culture it has at least one ear to the ground regarding its subject.

But the master-and-servant games are exceedingly well-played, by Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt on the one side of the fence, and a wicked Meryl Streep on the other. The template requires that the identification figure, Hathaway's Andy, be naive, but maybe not so much as here; while I appreciated the switch in Andy's alma mater from the book's Brown to Northwestern's J-school (my own; did they pay someone for the actress to wear one of the signature purple-and-white sweatshirts?), she's a little dense on basic j-job interview prep--no self-respecting NU grad would not know that Runway is the leading fashion magazine, and that its editor-in-chief, the imperious Miranda Priestly, is, as her name implies, the high priestess of that domain. I was a little insulted, but it's a 109-minute movie and the exposition has to be gotten through on the run, delivered by Miranda's first assistant, Emily (Blunt), who is incredulous at how much of a bumpkin, in attitude and attire, Andy is. But, as impressed as someone of her status can be by an underling with Andy's promises of a solid work ethic, Miranda hires her anyway to be her second assistant.

The movie is very shrewd in its portrayal of Miranda. We come to see that she has an inner life, beneath her frosty surface, and there is a replay of the familiar (but always gripping) scene where she lets her fabulously tended hair and makeup slip in the presence of her new confidante, Andy, who is by this time less recognizable as the naive liberal girl we met in the beginning. But we only see her at a remove, in the context on her employees, who are awed, cowed, and shaped by her. (The movie would be silly if Miranda barnstormed through as its central character. And, in a credible real-life touch, Miranda's unassailable reputation does not make her wholly invincible from the front-office beancounters.) Miranda, who like a practiced Mafia don of yore strikes more terror with a raised eyebrow than a raised voice, is not a stereotypical boss-from-hell--there is a method to her pettiness, which the starstruck (and, ultimately, struck down) Emily never sees. When she comes down hard on a tearful Andy, we see that Miranda is right for doing so; as her sage second-in-command, gay-man-in-waiting, Nigel (Tucci) observes, Andy broke faith, by not living up to her initial promise and condescending to the job at hand. In the real world, Andy would be speed dialing for her unemployment benefits by this time but Nigel, with some reluctance, opens the door for her to Runway's promised land of cast-off clothes, enabling Andy to get a better wardrobe and a better attitude.

From here on in, Miranda, rather than be awed by the new, improved Andy, continually ratchets the stakes, forcing Andy to complete even more impossible tasks and putting her on difficult moral territory regarding Emily, who has fallen behind in the placating sweepstakes. Here is where the old and new-model women's pictures part ways. Yesteryear, Andy would have walked out of the office, as if the experience had never happened, and into the arms of her waiting beau. But here, Andy (who, in another switch from the template, has her cake and eats it too regarding Boyfriend No. 2, Baker's smarmily charming freelancer) actually learns something of value once the gamesplaying reaches a crucial peak--Emily and Nigel, who will have to live in hope longer than anticipated, will have to keep playing. Andy's character is reassembled, toughened up for meaner streets than Carrie and the gang walked on Sex and the City. Miranda's final (and, in the picture, only) enigmatic smile, the one private moment she is allowed, is her savoring that someone (an NU grad!) finally understood the down-and-dirty lessons she was trying to impart. (Or maybe it's an awareness that Andy's next environment is even more ego-driven than the one she exited, in a more dressed-down way. Or maybe she's put one over on Andy; "she's smart, but if only she had thrown her coat on her desk one morning, or put down my dress sense, I would have laughed and my whole house of cards would have finally collapsed." However you read it, it's another comedy triumph for Streep, right up there with Death Becomes Herand Adaptation. She's truly in clover now, and as finely aged as vintage wine, with a Mother Courage due in Central Park that will be something to see.)

Not a great film, The Devil Wears Prada is nevertheless, and obviously, very bloggable, for more besides its shoes and belts. It opens a corner office window on the here-and-now regarding timeless subjects in the movies and in life. And, guys, I gotta tell you--reliable sources say the gift of the year, available now in stores, is among Andy's accessories, and by not seeing The Devil there'll be hell to pay regarding your significant other when you come up empty this Christmas.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

On the beach

The best vacations yield time--and, for me, that's time to read books. (I read plenty of magazines, newspapers, and web journals--maybe too many--during the course of a typical week.) I generally read histories and biographies, with an occasional novel thrown into the mix, but I find that movies and TV usually take care of my need for fiction. So I lugged a few tomes into my backpack and plunked myself down at my in-laws' Lake Michigan house in Oostburg, WI, where--between sweeping the beach of dead alewives, dips into the sometimes frigid water (not too much of a problem for an Atlantic Ocean hand like myself) plundering the local strawberry patch, and enjoying a Wisconsin diet of cheese curds, bratwurst, and local Leinenkugel's beer--I cracked open a few biographies.

What turned out to be the disappointment of the bunch, Jon Krampner's Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley (Backstage Books), was up first. Krampner has a fascinatingly elusive subject in his grasp, the much-acclaimed actress who tore up Broadway and live television with her no-holds-barred performances in the 1950s, but who was largely spent by the mid-1960s, never to return to the stage after a disastrous Actors Studio Theater production of The Three Sisters on the West End in 1965. (A handful of TV appearances, mostly with theater acquaintances who tolerated her eccentricities, like Jack Klugman, and her Oscar-nominated turn in 1982's Frances, followed by her vivid aviator barkeep Pancho Barnes in The Right Stuff and a good Big Mama in a cable Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, were about the extent of her later output; I was interested to read that she starred in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery and will have to look for it.)

But the author never quite gets a handle on Stanley, which in itself is unsurprising. The many people interviewed for the book seem perplexed by her shaman-like ability to conjure fully lived-in characters, from material ranging from good (her stage triumphs in William Inge's Picnic and Bus Stop, which Marilyn Monroe, who Stanley liked, freely borrowed for the 1956 film) to pedestrian or unpromising on the page, and create astonishing performances night after night...or, those nights she could pull herself together in time for to go on, a constant, career-stunting problem, aggravated by her legendary, lonely drinking. (The grislier episodes Krampner recounts are unpleasant to read.) Stanley was a born actress--from an early age, the New Mexico-born performer pretended to be a more sophisticated Texan, and besides a score of later evasions and half-truths she enacted with producers and colleagues she whipped up domestic drama besides. Her three children remember her graciously, if cautiously, whatever games she played with their true paternity, which she hid. For her, acting was everything; she disdained performers like Julie Harris, who "had it all worked out before they set foot on the stage." (Surprisingly, Harris supplies a warm back jacket quote.) But it was a constantly changing false front she maintained with quarts of alcohol; when it gave out, she taught the craft, as best she could under declining circumstances (friends like Gregory Peck footed the bills), in haphazardly scheduled all-night marathons that amazed students like future L.A. Law star Alan Rachins.

With so much promising material, why isn't this book better? The torn-from-Variety title doesn't help (Brando, who exited the stage early on and never set foot on live TV as I can recall, isn't an apt comparison; Stanley, Krampner says, preferred those mediums as they left no trace, nothing to torment her with her presumed mistakes and errors in editorial judgment, as her four movies did, including the best of them, 1964's Seance on a Wet Afternoon). Nor does the author's insistence on calling his subject "Kim," a fanboy affectation. And there are curious paragraphs where Krampner, highlighting an important moment in Stanley's career, brings in other historical events of the day, as if they were of somehow equal importance. (The forgotten 1960 play Taffy doesn't quite stack up to the U-2 spying incident.) His subject never wanted to be caught acting, but Krampner is frequently caught writing, trying to breathe imaginative life to his no-bottle-unturned research. Female Brando (writing it, I think again, what a dumb, name-dropping, title!) is a necessary book, but it does not rise to the standards of its subject.

If you read enough of these books in succession, patterns form. George C. Scott was in that storm-tossed production of The Three Sisters, at the same time he and one of the loveliest of the screen's love goddesses, Ava Gardner, the subject of Lee Server's Ava Gardner: "Love is Nothing" (St. Martin's Press) were in the middle of their own tempestuous relationship. You wonder: Did Stanley and Gardner meet? Did they talk about stealing husbands and boyfriends from Shelley Winters, who stole them right back? Their erratic on-set behavior? And: What did they drink?

For Gardner, like Stanley, was one of the acting world's great imbibers, with an intake so legendary it alarmed even the subject of Server's last Hollywood bio, Robert Mitchum, who hot-footed it from her company when he was trying to stay on the wagon. Gardner tended bar better than she did her fairly careless career. Audiences, alas, perhaps remember her best from her blowsy, clingly turn in the smash hit Earthquake than they do her steely temptress in 1946's The Killers, her breakthrough role; her rowdier, Oscar-nominated performance opposite her childhood idol Clark Gable in John Ford's Mogambo(1953), closer to her actual self than the period pictures she was so often embalmed in; and her more nuanced work in the talky, unsatisfying (except to Truffaut and Godard and the Cahiers du Cinema staff) The Barefoot Countessa and George Cukor's severely shorn Bhowani Junction, both 1954. (This entry's title plays off of one of her better parts, if not better pictures.) Her scandal-sheet press clippings far outnumbered her critical notices, not that she had much faith in her acting ability anyway, and some of the best ("What Makes Ava Gardner Run for Sammy Davis, Jr.?" asked Confidential) make up a full spread of this book's illustrations. Her misadventures with her three husbands (the cagey, horny Mickey Rooney, the misanthropic Artie Shaw, and the impossible Frank Sinatra), and numerous romances with the unbalanced Howard Hughes, lesser lights, and bullfighters kept the tabloids hopping for two-and-a-half decades, and Server diligently keeps tabs on the bar bills and court hearings. (Almost too much so; as with the Stanley bio, a little discretion, and tighter editing, would not have interfered with the facts.)

A noir-ish prose stylist, Server finds words that correlate nicely with the what-the-hell outlook of his blown-sideways-through-life subject, who based on her ineffable beauty made a near-impossible leap from hard-scrabble North Carolina to the pillars of Hollywood at an impressionable age; the men in her personal and professional life, from Louis B. Mayer to Fidel Castro (an almost bedmate, shortly after the revolution, during her Spanish phase in partners) are tangily rendered. There are a few problems with the text: Basic copyediting errors, which crop up more and more in these books as that function is slighted (Paul "Lucas" for "Lukas"), and questionable assertions--Henry King may have stumbled with his Gardner assignments, but the director of The Gunfighter and Twelve O'Clock High was no throwback to the silent era, as Server mocks him. And I was surprised to find no mention of the 1954 Oscar ceremony; surely she had made an appearance or had some public reaction to being nominated?

This is, however, an irresistible volume, and as the ridiculously complicated chapter with the supremely volatile Scott comes to a close, you can imagine Gardner thinking the thoughts Server puts in her head: "She would never understand it. Love was supposed to be such a wonderful thing. How could it cause so much unhappiness? Why did love always have to mean a broken collarbone, 50ccs of phenobarbitol, and somebody fleeing in the night?"

I'm currently finishing up Kenneth D. Ackerman's Boss Tweed, a superb biography of New York's legendary king of graft. My reading coincided, of course, with the death of today's Tweed, Enron's Kenneth Lay, who, unlike his predecessor in crime, left no Brooklyn Bridge or Central Park behind as the money sloshed in and out of Houston. Death robbed Lay of any chance of clearing his "good name" through further court action, which is satisfying in its own way.

On one of the iffier weather days we went off to Smallville-like Sheboygan to see Superman Returns, already last week's hit in the wake of the second Pirates picture. I replied to a blog entry about it at The House Next Door and don't have much to add, except that I look forward to seeing it again, flaws and all, in Imax 3D. Not an origins story, but a remake of an origins story told as a semi-sequel, it's naturally an odd film, with a muffled beginning and ending (surely Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor deserved a more fitting send-off?). And those swooping, 1978-styled credits really don't work when your stars are nobodies like Sam Huntington and Kal Penn and not Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman. Money spent, I wonder if director Bryan Singer now realizes that it needed to be more of its own thing and less of an homage, however gorgeously rendered. But no one could say "Great Caesar's ghost!" with the aplomb of Frank Langella, not even Jackie Cooper, and it's those elements, which are exactly right, that can stand a revisit. But no "Leinies" afterwards, next time.