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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction

After retiring a couple of years, David Letterman is back on television, er, well, on my television, when I stream My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Letterman jokes that he needed to get out of the house, which is probably not far off the mark, but what I think he really wanted to do was something more serious than a late-night talk show.

In the first of six episodes, Letterman interviewed Barack Obama in his first television (or the equivalent) interview since leaving office. The two were very chummy during Obama's presidency, so Letterman scored the coup of getting him for his new show. Of course, Letterman admires Obama about as much as Sean Hannity loves Trump, so this was a very cozy affair.

Letterman is a terrific interviewer, but he's no Mike Wallace. There were no controversial questions about drones or gay marriage, the questions were mostly about Obama's life since leaving office (the first day he slept in), his wife, and his kids. There was no policy talk at all, and the only time things were serious was when Obama discussed how the democracy has been endangered by people living in bubbles of information. "The people who watch Fox News are on a different planet than those who listen to NPR," Obama said, which is surely true.

Letterman, having no fucks left to give, is sporting what Obama called a "Biblical" beard ("Do you have a staff?" he joked) and is as self-deprecating as ever, telling a story about how Malia Obama zinged him at a White House dinner, and almost tearily stating that he has been nothing but lucky in his life.

In addition to Obama, Letterman had an interview with John Lewis, civil rights hero and congressman, walking across the Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where Lewis was almost killed on the march to Montgomery. Lewis is always an eloquent man, and Letterman does not kid around.

There are five more episodes, with guest ranging from Malala Yousafzai to Howard Stern. I'm sure I'll tune in for all of them, because I could watch David Letterman do almost anything (and I did--like dropping things from a five-story building). And, as always, Obama, with his wit and charm, makes me miss him all the more. If there was anyone I would think about letting be king, it would be him.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Molly's Game

If you knew nothing about Molly's Game going in but knew the work of Aaron Sorkin, you'd put two and two together pretty soon and realize it had his fingerprints all over it. That's mostly a good thing--nobody writes dialogue like Sorkin, he must be paid by the word--though he can edge into sanctimony. Molly's Game is mostly free of that--no President Bartlet monologues outlining the progressive viewpoint--and has some terrific acting.

Jessica Chastain, one of our best actors right now, stars as Molly Bloom. For about the first five to ten minutes of the movie, or so it seemed, she contributes voiceover on who she is, a former skiing champion who is injured badly in a fall, who endured an overbearing father (Kevin Costner), and ended up rich running poker games. Some screenwriting books will tell you not to use voiceover, but Sorkin either did not read or ignored those books.

Molly's Game is Sorkin's directorial debut, and he has the same flair for that as he does for writing. This is a very busy film, requiring some deal of attention (there is no real spot to go to the bathroom, and it's a long movie), with all sorts of graphics showing poker hands and how a skier prepares. It's sometimes dizzyingly brilliant, if not tiring.

Chastain's Molly (who is a real person) gets a job with an obnoxious realtor (Jeremy Strong) who has a weekly poker game with high rollers (one of them is only known as Player X, played by Michael Cera, who is supposed to a composite of movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Toby Maguire. Which one said, "I like to destroy people?" Maguire, right?). Chastain is smart, smarter than most of them, and ends up stealing the players for her own game. It's all perfectly legal, as she takes no cut of the winnings, only buy-ins and tips. But she gets arrested anyway, and hires Idris Elba as her lawyer, who accepts the case reluctantly.

Sorkin must really love depositions (The Social Network had two) as there is one here, plus a lot of other legalese. But at its heart Molly's Game is the story of a woman with daddy issues. A scene late in the film, when she and Costner have it out on a park bench, is sharply written and tremendously acted. I kind of like what Costner has done with his career--he's taking roles that befit his age (62) and are not necessarily the lead. When he pops in one (I had no idea he was in this) he's a pleasure to watch. Other aging stars could follow his example.

But this is Chastain's show. She is both regal and vulnerable, a woman in the world of rich and powerful men who is ready to break. It's a crowded field for Oscar contenders this year; it will be interesting to see if Chastain can nudge her way in.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Cars

It's that time of year to talk about the new slate of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, and I'm starting with The Cars. They were a major presence in my high school and college days, a kind of pop-new wave band that, though they didn't set out to be, became a singles band.

In listening to their greatest hits collection, it becomes one of those times when you say, "Oh, I remember that!" There are only a couple of songs that I don't know, and they are from later albums that were put out when their arc was completing. But geez they consistently put out song after song that was finger-snapping and just a little bit weird, especially the ones with vocals by Ric Ocasek.

The Cars were formed in Boston in 1976, and maintained the same lineup throughout their history, until the death of bassist Ben Orr in 2009. Their style was to use a combination of synth-pop and guitar-driven rock, plus a post-punk sensibility, but always with hooks, fantastic hooks. If you can listen to The Cars and not tap your foot, you may need to see an ear doctor.

They exploded quickly, with their self-titled debut album selling six million copies. The rise of The Cars coincided with the importance of the music video, and, in a bit of trivia, they won the first MTV Video Award for best video with "You Might Think." The song is fairly mild in tone--most of The Cars' songs were about relationships--but the video can be categorized as about a stalker. Ocasek is the vocalist, and is seen popping up in a young woman's life, even showing up in her bathtub. Eventually, of course, she is won over.

Other singles that have firmly established themselves in our subconscious are "Drive" (their biggest hit, and where Ocasek met Paulina Porizkova, who starred in the video, and stole her away from me), "All I Can Do," "Let's Go," "Touch and Go," "The Dangerous Kind," and, borrowing from the Everly Brothers' title, "Bye Bye Love." Perhaps my favorite Cars' song is "Moving in Stereo," which is more experimental and not about the affairs of the heart.

The Cars had been eligible for a few years for the Hall but were kept waiting. I think they definitely belong there. They sold a ton of records, and they were high quality.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

End of Watch

"Suicide may not be painless, but it is catching." This line comes near the end of End of Watch, the third and final book of Stephen King's "Hodges Trilogy." These books have been a different sort of King book, as the first two did not contain anything paranormal and were more mystery thrillers than horror. This book, though, could be termed mystery/science fiction, because some things go on that aren't possible, at least not yet.

The first book of the series, Mr. Mercedes, concerned Bill Hodges, a retired detective, catching the killer Brady Hartsfield, a very evil guy. His friend Holly Gibney whacked Hartsfield in the head with a sock full of ball-bearings, preventing him from blowing up a concert hall full of teenagers. Hartsfield was only briefly mentioned in the second book, Finders Keepers, but he's back in End of Watch.

Supposedly, the blow Hartsfield took rendered him nearly comatose. He spends his days in the hospital, brain damaged, and thus not eligible for trial. Hodges visits him to taunt him, suspecting that he's faking it. The nurses notice strange things, such as objects moving on their own. Hartsfield has been receiving experimental drugs from a Dr. Babineau, which may be giving him extra powers.

Meanwhile, people have started killing themselves, including two nurses that cared for Hartsfield, some survivors of his crime in the first book, and teens who were at the concert he failed to blow up. Hodges and Gibney figure out that the connection between the victims is a hand-held game called a Zappit. They face the amazing fact that Hartsfield may be behind these suicides. But how?

As usual with King's books the writing here is just so splendid. I do wonder sometimes at his use of detail. Sometimes the details are completely unnecessary, as discussing a game show contestant. King throws in that he won a trip to Aruba, and I found myself wondering why he added this, as it makes no difference to the story. I wonder if Elmore Leonard would have approved. However, King is a clever man, because a seemingly throwaway gag about his corny ring-tone becomes very important.

This book isn't called End of Watch for nothing. Trilogies are no more than three, and there are unlikely to be any more Hodges books, unless they are prequels. Early in the book Hodges is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and if the book had a musical score we'd hear the opening of Chopin's Funeral March. King manages to work the cancer into the suicide theme, mentioning how cancer cells run rampant until their host dies, thus killing themselves. "Maybe it’s self-hating, born with a desire not to murder the host but to kill itself. Which makes cancer the real suicide prince."

Friday, January 12, 2018

Harvard Man

Here's a cinematic oddity that climbed up my Netflix queue for several years: 2001's Harvard Man, written and directed by James Toback. It's pretty bad, but in a fascinating way.

The plot sounds like a teen comedy: the point guard of the Harvard basketball team (Adrian Grenier) needs a lot of money to help his parents. He's dating the daughter of the local mob boss (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who offers to get the money from her father if he'll shave points on the next game. He does, but Gellar is pulling a fast one so he gets in trouble with both the mob and the FBI.

But Toback has chosen to make an art picture, and a pretentious one at that. You know you're in for trouble when there' split screens during the opening credits. There are more jump-cuts than Godard ever used, and the color tint of the film is saturated with yellow, as if the negative were dipped in urine.

If that weren't enough, Grenier is sleeping with his philosophy professor (Joey Lauren Adams), who gets to lecture on the difference between fear and dread and drop names like Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger. Great, Toback, you've read philosophy. There is also an extended series of sequences that show what a trip on LSD is like, as Grenier takes three massive hits. According to Wikipedia, Toback did this himself, and went on an eight-day high.

Perhaps the most amusing thing about this film is that Al Franken makes a cameo as himself, with his real daughter. It's weird to see Franken as an actor after being a senator, and now he's back to being a comedian again, I guess. His fall from grace is connected to Toback. This is straight from Wikipedia: n October 22, 2017, the Los Angeles Times reported that 38 women have accused Toback of sexual harassment or assault. Since the article was published, 357 additional women contacted Los Angeles Times and said that Toback had sexually harassed them. The accounts stretch over a 40-year period. Toback has denied all the allegations." Wow! 357!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Never a Dull Moment

It was the year of "Stairway to Heaven," "Miss American Pie," and "Imagine." Some of the albums to come out that year were Who's Next by the Who, Aqualung by Jethro Tull, Every Picture Tells a Story by Rod Stewart, What's Goin' On, by Marvin Gaye, and Tapestry by Carole King. It was 1971, a year that David Hepworth, in his book Never a Dull Moment, claims as the best year in rock history.

"I was born in 1950. For a music fan, that’s the winning ticket in the lottery of life," writes Hepworth. This will undoubtedly make the eyes of many younger people roll. Here's another Baby Boomer claiming his music is the best. Hepworth does concede that usually everyone's favorite music is that of their youth, but notes that the music from this era is still around and listened to fifty years later. Of course, how do we know that Drake and Kanye West and Taylor Swift won't be listened to fifty years from now?

So, if we take Hepworth's claim as gospel, he writes a somewhat disorganized report on what the rock gods were up to that year, as well as some artists who slipped out of sight. There are twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, ranging from King's Tapestry, which came out early in the year, to Who's Next, which came out at the end. We hear about the antics of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the various ex-Beatles (except for Ringo, who I don't think gets a mention). There's a lot about Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, and acts that are as varied as Alice Cooper to Linda Ronstadt. It's an awful lot to absorb, as the names an bands come flying fast and furious.

Hepworth also notes that it was the beginning of what might be called "heritage rock," which is now billion-dollar industry. At the Concert for Bangladesh, which George Harrison organized, and featured Eric Clapton, Leon Russell, and Bob Dylan, Dylan played his hits (John Lennon was invited, but when he insisted that Yoko Ono be involved the matter was dropped). And of the recently departed Jim Morrison: "Morrison’s elevation into a cult hinted at a new truth about the music business, which was becoming even more apparent as it turned into an industry. It was no longer strictly necessary for its performers to be alive. In a handful of cases, it was probably better if they weren’t. “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse” was the traditional advice."

Hepworth mostly praises, not condemns. He seems to have a problem with Grand Funk Railroad, whom he disparages in a few different chapters. He also takes a shot at Patti Smith, whom he accuses of "glomming" onto famous people and writing a glowing review of Todd Rundgren's album for Rolling Stone. He was her boyfriend at the time.

What does Hepworth like? He throws a lot of hyperbole around. He gives the nod as best album to Who's Next. "This is largely because of one tune, which may well be the best recording of the best year in the history of recording, the five-minute opening cut, 'Baba O’Riley.'" But he's also effusive about Led Zeppelin IV and it's opening track, "Rock and Roll": "It’s the most bravura opening to what may be the most bravura rock-and-roll album of the era." He also sings the praises of David Bowie, who released Hunky Dory that year. "If all we knew of David Bowie was what he did in 1971, it would be more than enough."

Baby boomers should dig this book, as it will justify their insistence that this was the best music ever made (I'm one of them). It will also be instructive to those who want to learn more about the music. I know a sixteen-year-old who is just getting into the Beatles and he might appreciate it. Hepworth provides a list of 100 albums released in 1971, and it might be a fun, albeit expensive, project to collect them all (I've got more than a few).

The writing in the book is a bit scatter-shot, and Hepworth goes off onto tangents about other events of the year, such as movies and politics (I did love a line where he refers to Henry Kissinger as Nixon's "consigliere"). But he also comes up with some lovely passages, such as this one, which kinds of encapsulates what a rock star was in 1971: "These patchouli plutocrats seemed a new type of human being. They were immensely wealthy but required by their profession to conduct themselves like vagabonds. They had to pretend that they spent most of their time lying on their backs watching the clouds scud across the sky when the reality was that they were consumed by a combination of burning ambition and frantic productivity to which most things around them tended to be sacrificed."

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Le Bonheur

I'm not quite done with my Agnes Varda retrospective. In 1965, she made Le Bonheur, or Happiness. It confronts the age-old habit of French men taking mistresses, and the complete lack of guilt they feel. If Varda is accurate, the women aren't completely on board with this. If this film were made by a man it could be seen as completely outrageous, but since it is a woman at the helm, I think we can properly assume that this tale is told ironically.

The opening shot is of a sunflower, and I don't know if there's a scene in the rest of the film that does not feature flowers or nature. She uses vivid colors, and instead of fades to black they are to red, blue, or yellow. In calling this film Happiness, Varda is setting us up.

We are introduced to a very happy couple. Francois (Jean-Claude Drouot) is a carpenter, and his wife Therese (Claire Drouot, not sure if they are related) is a dressmaker. They have two beautiful children. They enjoy trips to the park. They seem to come out of a catalogue.

As the film goes on (it's only 80 minutes) we wait for conflict to erupt. It does when Francois spies a pretty blonde (Marie-France Boyer) in a post office. He flirts with her, and then they begin a relationship. Francois does not hide his marriage, and Boyer is besotted with him. He tells her she's better in bed than his wife. In a cringe-worthy moment given the time we live in, Boyer tells him that he is her happiness. It's a complete male fantasy, one that may have existed fifty years ago.

Francois feels no remorse over the relationship, and feels he can tell Therese and nothing will happen. After all, nothing has changed between them, has it? But Therese's happiness is also Francois, and her reaction to the news is tragic, and she drowns herself while holding flowers (a la Ophelia).

What's really creepy is that Francois, after a brief period of mourning, goes right on with Boyer, who steps in as mother. It's as if the women were interchangeable. You get the feeling that if he met someone else, Francois could go on doing this forever.

Le Bonheur is a movie that will infuriate women and should infuriate men. If you see it on a date, guys, be prepared to condemn Francois. He's a loathsome character.