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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Game of Thrones, Season 1

As I wrote on my post about George R.R. Martin's book, I finally got around to watching the HBO series, Game of Thrones, finishing the first season a few nights ago. I wasn't enthralled with the book, determining I won't read the succeeding books, but I was with the show, which is excellent television, another example of this golden renaissance of the boob tube.

What the series is able to do is smooth out the fan-boy stuff and get down to brass tacks. The plot is the same, as labyrinthine as ever, with enough characters to keep both sides of the Atlantic employed. What's different is it has a keener edge. This is like Tolkien combined with Shakespeare's history plays. The maneuvering is easier to watch, and easier to enjoy.

I won't get too involved with plot summary, as it would take me all night. The island of Westeros has seven kingdoms, but are ruled by one sovereign, who sits on the iron throne, forged from swords. We start with King Robert on the throne (Mark Addy, in full on Henry VIII mode). He trusts Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) of the House of Winterfell, but Stark realizes that Addy's wife's family, the rich and sleazy Lannisters, want to put their son Joffrey on the throne, even though he is the product of an incestuous relationship between the Queen (Lena Headey, wearing a perpetual scowl) and her twin brother Jamie (the too handsome Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). That's just scratching the surface, as there are numerous other subplots, including something mysterious going on beyond the massive wall in the north, to an army of Mongol-like warriors, led by the Targaryens, children of the "Mad King," killed by Jamie Lannister, who want the throne back.

Of course, a lot of the credit goes to Martin, who has cribbed a little from British history but created a world that is every bit as interesting as Middle Earth. I loved the detail, such as the rituals of the Night Watch, the monastic order that keeps watch at the wall. The same for the Dothraki, who are the warriors led by Khal Drogo, who has married Daenerys Targaryen (played fetchingly by Emilia Clarke). A lot of this is difficult to keep track of, but seeing it all play out was easier than reading and flipping back to the appendix.

Special credit is to be given for some of the peripheral characters and their performers. Peter Dinklage, as the "imp," Tyrion Lannister, is not peripheral--in fact he may well be the anchor of the cast. Tyrion is the character of a lifetime, and for an actor of Dinklage's stature it may well be a dream come true. He never speaks a line that isn't charming or cunning. The scenes in which he is imprisoned in the Eyrie (held by the bat-shit crazy Lady Arrys, Kate Dickie) are riveting.

I'd also like to single out the characters who maneuver through the king's court like eels. One is Aiden Gillen as Littlefinger, the other Conleth Hill, as Varys, the eunuch called the "spider." The actions of these two give the piece a Shakespearean vibe, sort of like the Wars of the Roses plays, where life was a giant chess game.

And this all is a game, though a deadly one. As Headey says to Stark, "You win or you die." And lots of people die, and the camera doesn't stint in the bloodshed. But the show is leavened with terrific humor (mostly from Dinklage) and great power. The first season ends with Clarke, naked, emerging from a fire with baby dragons crawling on her. That's a wow finish. I'll keep up with this series.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Americanah

The immigrant experience in America has long been the stuff of fiction, as each wave of newcomers has inspired their own literature, from the Irish right up to the present day, when Africans who come of their own accord have added to the discussion. With Africans, of course, comes the discussion of race. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her excellent novel, Americanah, Africans from countries who have little racial diversity, such as Adichie's Nigeria, don't think of themselves as black until they come to America, where it is then thrust in their faces.

The novel is something of a throwback, a romantic comedy of manners of a sort, but with the added layer of racial politics. Ifemalu is a girl in Nigeria who is in love with Obinze. They both seek to go to America to go to college, but only Ifemalu gets the visa. She leaves, and experiences a whole new world, not only of the strangeness of the place: "it was the commercials that captivated her. She ached for the lives they showed, lives full of bliss, where all problems had sparkling solutions in shampoos and cars and packaged foods, and in her mind they became the real America."

Obinze travels to England, where he must work under a false name, at menial labor. He cleans toilets and drives a truck. "The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain."

Ifemalu gets a job as a nanny, has a relationship with a white man, and starts a blog, detailing her observations as a non-American black: "Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care. So what if you weren't 'black' in your country? You're in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up."

I enjoyed the blog posts, which also detail the frustrations of dealing with American blacks who talk about Africa as the mother land. Eventually she will have a relationship with an American black professor, who will balk at her decision to return to Nigeria.

Much of the story, before she returns to Nigeria, is told in flashback as she is having her hair done. As it is becoming more apparent in mainstream (white) culture, hair is important to black women, African or not.

Americanah (the term is one used by Nigerians to describe a person has come back after living in the U.S., bringing the accent and Western attitude with them), is a fantastic novel, charming and angry and with its heart on its sleeve. The "will they get back together" plot of the two leads is the least interesting thing about it, and the ending was a bit of a let-down, but no bother. What was more interesting to me, especially as an American, is finding out what people of other countries feel about us. I'd say Adichie was pretty close to the mark. Her comments on racial politics in the U.S. were particularly keen: "Racism is about the power of a group and in America it's white folks who have that power. How? Well, white folks don't get treated like shit in upper-class African-American communities and white folks don't get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don't give white criminals worse sentences that black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don't stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don't choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don't tell white kids that they're not smart enough to be doctors and black politicians don't try some tricks to reduce the voting power of white folks through gerrymandering and advertising agencies don't say they can't use white models to advertise glamorous products because they are not considered 'aspirational' by the 'mainstream.'"

Monday, April 21, 2014

Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson, who performed under just his last name, is one of those singer-songwriters who is best known for writing songs for other people, and for the other artists who admired him. When John Lennon and Paul McCartney were asked what American singer they liked best, they both answered, "Nilsson." Nilsson became friends with all of the Beatles, and had some legendary drug-fueled adventures with Lennon, who once listened to a Nilsson album for 36 hours straight.

Ironically, Nilsson's greatest hits were written by other people. I suppose most today would know him for Everybody's Talkin', written by Fred Neil and used to great effect in Midnight Cowboy. One of the great break-up songs of all time, Without You, was a cover of a Badfinger song, but Nilsson made it completely his own.

But Nilsson excelled as a songwriter. One was a smash hit for Three Dog Night:

"One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do,
Two can be as bad as one, it's the loneliest number since the number one."

Other groups that covered his songs were The Monkees, The Yardbirds, Blood Sweat and Tears, and The Turtles. His songs are still recorded, including his hauntingly beautiful "Don't Forget Me," by Neko Case.

"And when we’re older and full of cancer
It doesn’t matter now, come on get happy
‘Cause nothing lasts forever
But I will always love you"


Nilsson was born in 1941 in Brooklyn, from a broken home. He discusses this in his first single, "1941."

"Well, in 1941 a happy father had a son
And by 1944, father walks right out the door."

After working at the computer department of a bank, he recorded his first album in 1967, and while not a huge commercial success, impressed The Beatles and scores of others. He had a string of albums throughout the '70s, going a little harder mid-decade, but also composing a children's theme album, which included "Me and My Arrow," which has ended up being used in a commercial for an automobile. He also composed and sang the theme song for the TV show The Courtship of Eddie's Father, "Best Friend," which he adapted from his song, "Girlfriend." I can still remember the song well:

"People let me tell you 'bout my best friend,
He's a warm-hearted person who'll love me till the end.
People let me tell you bout my best friend,
He's a one boy cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy."

Another song well-remembered from my youth was "Coconut," a kind-of novelty song that has inspired many theories. Is it about the remedy for a stomach ache, or is it a form of birth control? He had some other trippy songs, like "Spaceman," and "You're Breakin' My Heart," which gets right to the heart of the matter:

"You're breakin' my heart,
You're twistin' it apart,
So fuck you."

Nilsson never really hit it big, but has an important legacy in the history of pop music. He had an air of mystery--he never toured and rarely gave interviews. He died in 1994, at the age of 53.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rio 2

I was visiting family for Easter weekend and my sister-in-law asked if I wanted to go to the movies with her and her kids, ages 7, 6, and 4. I would have jumped at the chance to see Bears, but instead it was Rio 2. Now, I had seen Rio, so I wasn't totally in the dark Unfortunately, this film has basically the same good and bad: lovely animation, boring story.

We pick up on Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway), two rare macaws. They are living in a bird sanctuary in Rio, and have three mischievous fledglings. They are used to the ways of humans, and use iPads and eat pancakes. When Jewel hears that she might not be the only one of her kind, and a colony may exist deep in the Amazon, she gets Blu and the kids, along with some of their friends, to find it.

Once they do, Jewel discovers her father (Andy Garcia) is still alive, and that there are hundreds of her own kind. We get the fish-out-of-water humor, as Blu is taught the ways of the jungle by his overbearing father-in-law (the first thing is: lose the fanny-pack). 

Two things threaten their idyll: a vengeful cockatoo is after Blu, helped by a tree frog and an anteater, and the more real problem of an illegal logging operation, which threatens to destroy the birds' habitat.

As with the first film, Rio 2 is filled with light and color and swirling motion (it is again directed by Carlos Saldanha). A three-dimensional soccer game is one of the highlights. But the film dragged and is not appealing to adults. The kids enjoyed it, but there wasn't any laughing out loud--I suspect it simply held their attention.

What's most interesting is the distinctly pro-environmentalist stand the film takes. Not only is the sanctity of the rain forest and its wildlife upheld without question, the villain is heard more than once calling those who oppose him, "tree huggers," a favorite pejorative used by conservative pundits. The film was made by Fox, so I suppose that's why there's been nary a word of protest on Fox News.

My grade for Rio 2: C-.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Inventor and the Tycoon

The Inventor and the Tycoon, by Edward Ball, is essentially a dual biography of two men who radically changed the world, and shared a moment in history. The Inventor was Eadweard Muybridge, who, according to Ball, "invented a new way of seeing." The tycoon was Leland Stanford, who went West seeking fortune and found it, linking the American coasts by rail.

The moment they shared was when Stanford hired Muybridge to photograph horses. "That a man who photographed a horse became a piece of national, and then international, news shows something of the widespread desire for the fleetness of photography, the craving for movement, for speed and acceleration in horses, railroads, emulsions."

Photography in the 1870s was still in its developmental stages (no pun intended), and there was an age-old question that could conceivably now be answered: did horses' hooves entirely come off the ground as they ran? "What especially excited Stanford was Marey's hypothesis that all four hooves of the animal did, in fact, leave the ground during a gallop. It was a question the horse collector regarded as second only, perhaps, to conception."

Ball jumps back and forth between Muybridge's and Stanford's biographies, sometimes abruptly so, in the middle of a chapter. He also tells the story out of chronological sequence, which at times was confusing, as the other major event in Muybridge's life was being tried for murder: he shot and killed his wife's lover, but was acquitted, mostly on the barbaric tradition that a man was entitled to protect his honor. At times I had trouble figuring out if events were before or after the murder. Right now I'm still not quite sure if the horse photos happened before or after the crime.

Stanford was one of America's major magnates, and like most of them, his fortune wasn't completely on the up and up. He was governor while he secured government contracts for the Central Pacific, which would link the nation by railroad for the first time. As his fortune grew, he and his cohort became known as "the Octopus," having their tentacles everywhere, ruling by oligarchy. He and his company resisted efforts at workers' rights, but a tragedy late in life led to his establishing Stanford University (he named the town it resides in, Palo Alto).

Muybridge as the far more interesting story. He was born Edward Muggeridge, and would change the spelling of his name many times. For a time he went by the name Helios. Born in England, he left for America when he was 20 to sell art prints in New York, but then went West and became a celebrated landscape photographer. He was also a tinkerer: "he would patent several things--a clock, a shutter for a high-speed camera, and an apparatus to generate stop-motion photography, which involved equipment that filled a barn." But his most important invention was the zoopraxiscope, which he oddly never patented. It was basically the first motion-picture projector.

Muybridge was an eccentric, a man who sported a long white beard and wore clothes until they fell apart. He married a woman who worked at a photography gallery, but she had an affair with another man. Muybridge tracked him down and shot him dead, in an act of frontier justice. "The Alta California newspaper reported that there had been 560 killings in California in 1854. With a state population of 100,000, this amounts to about one hundred times the homicide rate of California during the early 2000s."

After his acquittal, Muybridge traveled the world, showing off his zoopraxiscope. Stanford, though, never game him much credit (and only reluctantly and lately paid him). Eventually Muybridge would meet with Thomas Edison. "'We talked about the practicability of using the Zoopraxiscope in association with the phonograph, so as to combine, and reproduce simultaneously, in the presence of an audience, visible actions and audible words.' They talked about, in other words, a recipe for sound movies."

Edison would basically steal his idea and set up the first movie studio in West Orange, New Jersey, and would get the whole ball rolling, but it was Muybridge, Ball asserts, that planted the seed. At the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, Muybridge had a theater, which was essentially the first movie theater in history.

The book is mostly engaging when discussing Muybridge and his inventions, less so with Stanford, who frankly isn't that interesting. The men did know each other, and were linked to the revolutionary horse pictures (they were taken by use of a series of still photographs, which of course movies were for over a hundred years), but the pairing of them seems almost random. Many books, I think starting with Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, have sought to put two historical events together. Sometimes, as with Larson's book, it works, sometimes not so much.

But I was glad to learn about Muybridge. I'm a movie history buff, and I can't say I'd known much about him. I've heard of the Lumiere brother and George Melies and Edwin Porter (who worked for Edison), so it was nice to read Muybridge getting his due: "From Stanford and Muybridge came the first spray of images that became the stream of pictures in which most of us bathe for half our waking hours."

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

In tribute to Mickey Rooney, who died a week or so ago, I'll be looking at a few of his films. There are a lot of them--he had a career that lasted almost ninety years, and he made films in ten straight decades, which will be hard to top. He was the last living person who starred in silent films--he did so playing a character called Mickey McGuire (he kept the Mickey--his real name was Joseph Yule).

In 1935, when he was about 14, he played the role of Puck in Max Reinhardt's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which also starred such luminaries as James Cagney and  Olivia de Havilland (it was her film debut, and she is the last remaining cast member still alive).

Reinhardt was a German theater director who staged the play at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was such a success that it was made into a film. Reinhardt spoke no English, so William Dieterle was co-director, but it was Reinhardt's vision, and though the special effects are crude, it still retains its magic almost eighty years later.

The play is presented straight, without moving it into a different time and place. To celebrate his wedding to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Duke Theseus has called for a revel. A bunch of working men get together to put on a play of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Young lovers, Lysander (Dick Powell) and Hermia (de Havilland) run off into the woods because her father wants her to marry Demetrius (Ron Alexander). They are pursued by Demetrius and Helena (Jean Muir), who is hopelessly in love with Demetrius.

They are in the magic part of the forest, the fairies' realm. The king of the fairies, Oberon (Victor Jory), is mad at his queen, Titania (Anita Louise), because she has stolen his changeling. He gets revenge on her by anointing her eyes with a liquid that will make her fall in love with the first creature she sees. This turns out to be Cagney, as Bottom, one of the actors. To make matters worse, Puck, an impudent, fun-loving sprite, has given Cagney the head of a jackass.

The fairies also play havoc with the Athenian lovers, as magic makes both men in love with Helena. All is fixed, though, and the play ends with the workers version of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is comically inept.

It's hard to screw up this play, because the comedy is so rich, and this is a fine production. As I said, it plays it straight, so we get fairies that look like fairies (though Oberon's minions are dressed like bats). Many of the cast had never done Shakespeare before or after, such as Cagney and comedian Joe E. Brown (as Flute), but they are excellent, as is Rooney, is so joyous and uninhibited in the part. I also thought Jory gave Oberon a hint of something sinister that isn't often seen.

The film was shot by Hal Mohr, who won an Oscar (a write-in winner, the last the Academy allowed), and while it is unsophisticated by today's standards, the scenes of the fairies, which are shot through shimmering filters, work wonderfully. Occasionally there is stuff that could have been cut, such as a ballet sequence, but Reinhardt and his cast milk the laughs. I actually laughed out loud and some of it, mostly the work of Cagney and Brown. The film also uses Felix Mendelssohn's orchestral music, written for the play, one of my favorite classical pieces.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Frozen

The wildly popular winner of the most recent Best Animated Film Oscar, Frozen, plays less like a Disney cartoon than an X-Men origin story. Somewhere underneath all the ice and snow is a film about female empowerment, but at the same time the lead female characters have the physiques of Barbie dolls.

Thus are the contradictions of this uneven film, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. It is a runaway hit, the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and received the accolades of most critics, who called it the best Disney animated film since the renaissance of the late '80s/early '90s.

I'm kind of meh about it. It certainly isn't a bad film, but it didn't do much for me. The CGI animation is visually stunning, but lacks the warmth (no pun intended) of the hand-drawn films of the Disney glory years.

The story is based, very loosely, on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen (Disney had wanted to make a film of Andersen tales back in the '40s). Two princesses, in a Scandinavian-like country, are happy, especially when Elsa, the eldest, uses her special powers: the ability to control ice and snow. But an accident that hurts the younger sister, Anna, forces the girls to be locked away in a castle. When Elsa comes of age and is coronated, she hopes not to reveal her powers, but Anna forces her hand, and she escapes into the wilderness, where her fear and rage have turned the whole country into a winter wonderland. Problem: it is summer.

Anna then goes on a trek to find Elsa, helped by an ice salesman and his pet reindeer. Along the way they meet a snowman who has come to life, who provides the comic relief.

Frozen is a musical, with songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The most prominent is "Let It Go," which won the Best Song Oscar and was a number one hit, especially among tween girls. The song has a great hook--those three notes have been running through my head for 24 hours now--but I can't remember the rest of the song, nor any of the others. I do see why the film is popular with girls, as the film focuses on the relationship between sisters, and has less to do with romance.

But the film also has problems. Just where did Elsa's powers come from? I'm not the only one who thought the film smacked of the X-Men--a clever YouTube parody has her visiting Professor X. Except for Olaf the Snowman (voiced by Josh Gad), the film isn't very funny, and a reveal of a character near the end seemed way out of left field.

The best thing about the film, aside from the effects, are the voice work of Idina Menzel and especially Kristen Bell as the sisters.

As with the theatrical release, the DVD includes the short Get a Horse!, a clever film that combines the animation style of the first Mickey Mouse cartoons with the modern era, as in a Sherlock Jr.-like phenomenon, Mickey and Minnie and the villainous Peg-Leg Pete pop off the screen into a contemporary theater. Mickey's voice is provided by Walt Disney himself.