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Monday, March 27, 2017

Shylock Is My Name

Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson, is the second of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which the Bard's plays are turned into contemporary novels. Unlike the first one, A Gap in Time, which basically updated the plot of A Winter's Tale, Jacobson instead takes the essence of The Merchant of Venice--the Jew as outsider--and creates a whole new story. He does, though, toward the end, bring things in line with the play, but not with a pound of flesh. More like just a snip of flesh.

"It is one of those better-to-be-dead-than-alive days you get in the north of England in February, the space between the land and sky a mere letter box of squeezed light, the sky itself unfathomably banal. A stage unsuited to tragedy, even here where the dead lie quietly. There are two men in the cemetery, occupied in duties of the heart. They don’t look up. In these parts you must wage war against the weather if you don’t want farce to claim you." This is when Simon Strulovich, an art dealer, meets Shylock. Strulovich is the main character of the novel. He is a Jew, but doesn't really observe: "Being a Jew was everything to him, except when it wasn’t. Which is a debilitating characteristic of the Jewish mind; unless it is a strength."

However, he has a daughter, Beatrice, who is only sixteen and is a constant point of frustration for him, as she rebels: "My whole life, she thought, has been made a misery by him. She tried to remember a time when he hadn’t pursued her, dragged her out of parties, punched her boyfriends, wiped the lipstick off her face with the back of his hand, pulled her down the street by her hair while clutching at his heart, as though to threaten her with cardiac arrest."

Beatrice is now dating a football player many years her senior, and what galls Strulovich is that he is not a Jew, even though his first wife was a gentile and his father disowned him for it. The only way for him to bless the union is for Gatan, the footballer, to convert, i.e., get a circumcision.

There is a subplot, just like in The Merchant of Venice with Portia, involving a woman improbably named Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Wiser Than Solomon Christine.and her circle of friends, including D'Anton, an art dealer who runs afoul of Strulovich (note his name's similarity to Antonio, who owed Shylock a pound of flesh). In the last act, everyone comes together in a hullabaloo, and the last line of the book borrows from another of Shakespeare's plays, when a character says, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you."

I found the beginning of the book a bit of a slog, as I was trying to figure out what this had to with The Merchant of Venice, other than Shylock's name. The conversations he and Strulovich have about Judaism are very witty and erudite, but they don't really push the plot forward. It seems that nothing happens, then everything happens at once.

I'm still with this series, there's two more out; adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew and Margaret Atwood's version of The Tempest.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Get Out

On the surface, Get Out is a basic horror film, largely structured around The Stepford Wives (the original, not the horrible remake). If every character had been white, or race had not been commented on, it would have been a solid thriller. But write and director Jordan Peele added another level, which makes Get Out a great conversation piece. It's a metaphor for our so-called post-racial society.

Peele is one half of Key & Peele, the great comedy duo, and I've seen this film described as a comedy, but I wasn't doing a lot of laughing, as it's as creepy as hell. I don't want to give too much away, as I had no idea what was coming, but a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) is visiting his white girlfriend's (Allison Williams) family for the first time. He's worried, of course, as he's from the city and the parents are both doctors and live in the leafy suburbs. Williams assures him they are not racist.

When he gets there, though, something is odd. They treat him politely, almost too much so. And what's with the servants, two black people who act as if they are lobotomized? It becomes even more odd when a party is thrown, and all the white guests patronize him, like making sure they let him know that they know Tiger Woods or asking him about the "American black experience." When the one black guest, who also seems somewhat vacant, has a moment of lucidity, he tells Kaluuya to "Get out!"

What we have is a genuinely scary horror film combined with a racial commentary. This is nothing new--over forty years there was Blacula--but Peele makes some interesting commentaries on the persistence of black stereotypes--one woman at the party feels his bicep, as if he were on a slave auction block. The home of Williams' parents (played eerily by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) has an almost plantation vibe, though you can't quite put your finger on why.

Peele show great promise as a filmmaker. The direction is basic, as he doesn't employ too many tricks and lets the story breathe.  Sometimes the foreshadowing is a bit oversold--early in the film Williams and Kaluuya hit a deer on the road. Later we see a closeup of a deer's head trophy on the wall. It's not hard to figure out what will happen to that trophy.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Old Gringo

My very long Gregory Peck retrospective ends with one of his last films, Old Gringo, from 1989, directed by Luis Puenza and based on a novel by Carlos Fuentes. It also stars Jimmy Smits and Jane Fonda, and they are all in a love triangle. Try and wrap your mind around that one.

Ostensibly, this film is about the author Ambrose Bierce (Peck), an iconoclast of the first order, who has gone to Mexico to fight with the rebels under Pancho Villa. He finds himself riding with a general (Smits) who has returned to the hacienda where he was born to wreak vengeance on the rich and mighty. But Smits gets caught up in his past, living in luxury in the abandoned estate, and refuses orders to join Villa elsewhere.

That's basically the story, but the film chooses to revolve around the character of Harriet Winslow, played by Jane Fonda, who is woefully miscast. She is a spinster, longing for adventure, and takes a job as a governess with a rich Mexican family. It just so happens that that is where Smit's army is attacking. She sort of becomes a camp follower, unable to return home, and both Peck and Smits become smitten with her. Despite initially disliking each man, she grows to admire both of them.

The pieces are all there for a good film, but it doesn't hold together. Most of them is due to awful character of Winslow. Fonda was in her early 50s when she played the part, but I sense it was meant to be a younger woman (haven't read the book). It all seems like a vanity production to make her feel like she's still attractive (indeed, it is from Fonda Films). She earned a Razzie nomination for worst actress, but lost to Heather Locklear.

When the film focuses on Peck and Smits, it's much better. They have a great scene by the graves of Smits' family, who were servants at the Hacienda. His father raped his mother, and his father was the first man he killed. Peck is an absolute delight as Bierce, a man is his 70s who has a unique perspective on the world. He is only interested in truth, telling a dying man that he is indeed dying. He is also still a bit of rake. He takes the opportunity to visit the local whore, who asks him he likes women. "I do like women, and I will after I die," he says.

In real life, Bierce disappeared and no one knows what happened to him. There's a question if he even went into Mexico. The film has its own solution to the mystery, which is fairly satisfying if a stretch of the truth. I imagine Bierce would have approved.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Frailty

Bill Paxton, who died far too young last month, was the kind of actor that people might not have known his name, but knew him by sight. I was just looking at his filmography and there are movies I forgot he was in. He was kind of an everyman, who never stood out in a film, and instead filled a role perfectly, such as in Apollo 13 or One False Move or Tombstone. He was also the star of the HBO series Big Love, as a Mormon man with three wives.

But I think his greatest achievement was the 2001 Frailty, which I counted as my favorite film of that year. It was, essentially, a horror film, but is also a film about fathers and sons and faith and skepticism.

Paxton directed the film as well as starred as a typical single dad raising two sons. One day he awakens the boys and tells them he had a vision--an angel has told them that the end of the world is nigh, and they must destroy demons. These demons will look like people, but they mustn't be fooled, and will come to them in a list supplied by God.

This is all told by Matthew McConaughey, a grown man now who was one of Paxton's sons. He is telling the story to an FBI agent, Powers Boothe, who is investigating a serial killer called the "God's Hand" killer. McConaughey believes that man to be his brother, and that he just committed suicide. He takes Boothe to the rose garden where all the "demons" are buried.

The brilliant script was written by Brent Hanley, which explores how faith and madness are just two sides of the same coin. The older brother, Fenton, thinks is father is crazy, while the younger brother, Adam, believes in the cause. What are we to believe? We are certainly led to believe that Paxton is mad as a hatter, but a shocking twist in the end makes us review the entire film.

The film delivers horror by having Paxton kill his victims while they are bound and gagged, with an ax. Sometimes I think this is how I will end up, in the basement of some religious zealot wielding a sharp tool, tied up, my mouth covered in duct tape. These scenes are that vivid and that horrifying.

Paxton directed one other movie, The Greatest Game Ever Played, which I don't recall seeing. It's too bad that there won't be more films either directed by or featuring him.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trolls

Sticking with mythological figures, there's Trolls, which are really based on a toy from the 1960s and not the Scandinavian creatures that live under bridges and eat people. Yes, Trolls is actually based on those ugly little rubber dolls with a shock of Crayola hair. Maybe next they'll base movies on major appliances.

Trolls, directed by Mike Mitchell, is barely passable animated fare. Although I've never seen a Smurfs movie, I know enough about them that it seems almost the same. The soundtrack is like an oldies radio station, and the story about happiness is something inside of you is as old as the hills.

The trolls are incessantly happy creatures, always singing, dancing, and hugging. What their economy is based on, or what they eat, is not mentioned (one trolls does defecate glitter). Everything is great until Bergens (who are like the trolls of myth) find out that eating trolls makes them happy. The trolls are rounded up and put in a tree and eaten every year. But then they escape.

Twenty years later, they have a new spot in the forest, but their loud partying leads the Bergen chef (Christine Baranski) to find them again. Now a rescue is afoot, led by Poppy (Anna Kendrick), and the one dour, unhappy troll, Branch (Justin Timberlake). Can they manage to rescue the trolls, while also making the Bergens realize the true nature of happiness?

I think the best audience for Trolls is for kids young enough who are still mollified by bright colors, because Trolls as a lot of them. The trolls themselves are cute, but not to watch for an hour and a half. I suppose this is one of the prices of parenthood. Better to put the kids in a room with the thing on TV and leave them alone.

So why did I watch this? It did get an Oscar nomination, for a song written by Timberlake. Those who read this blog know I go out of my way to see any Oscar-nominated film. I went way out of my way this time.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Gremlins

For my after-school horror class, last night I showed them Gremlins, from 1984. You may find it surprising that I had never seen it before. I was surprised to find out how bad it is.

Gremlins was a successful film, and introduced things to the culture, namely the three rules of owning a Mogwai, the Furby-like creature that is unbearably cute. Don't expose them to bright light, don't get them wet, and most of all, don't feed them after midnight. That's when the little furballs turn into reptile-like gremlins, who maliciously damage mechanical things and don't care if by doing so they kill people.

The movie begins with Hoyt Axton, an inventor, browsing through a Chinese junk shop (here is a durable cliche--the Chinese owning stores where mysterious and magical items are purchased by the Western and unwary). Keye Luke, the proprietor, wearing a Fu Manchu mustache, will not sell the Mogwai that Axton finds, but his grandson, oblivious to the danger, sells it to Axton, who gives it to his son (Zach Galligan) as a Christmas present.

Galligan loves it, but does not heed the warnings. Getting it wet makes it multiply, and then, when one of the Mogwais cuts the cord on his clock, he feeds them, and then he was gremlins on his hands. One of them jumps into a pool, and soon the town has a big gremlin problem.

I read up on the origin of gremlins. It's not from some medieval folktale, although the word might be. The concept of a gremlin comes from aviation, when unexplainable mechanical difficulties were attributed to them. One of the more famous uses of them in pop culture was the Twilight Zone episode when William Shatner sees one on the wing of his plane.

The problem with Gremlins, directed with confusion by Joe Dante, is that it is a dumb story, and the special effects are very dated. I'm not sure they were cutting edge at the time--this was two years after E.T., and he was much more realistic than any of the gremlins. We get the requisite plot points, such as Galligan being attracted to a girl (Phoebe Cates) who ends up helping him (her monologue about her father's death is ghoulish fun, even though it's an old Tales from the Crypt story). There are the policemen who don't believe Galligan's story, of course, and the mean old lady who is done in by the gremlins.

One of the more bizarre scenes is when the gremlins attend a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In an example of how times change, when my students heard "Hi Ho" they giggled, Beavis and Butthead style, about the word "ho."

For some reason I passed on seeing Gremlins way back in 1984. My intuition was right.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Bizarro Justice

Gorsuch in his college days, reading William F. Buckley
The hearings are underway on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. There was a time when I would have watched this like a sporting event. The Bork hearings in 1987 were riveting TV, and I even tuned in for less thrilling hearings of David Souter and Sonia Sotomayor.

But I just don't have the heart to watch the hearings of a man who is a pretender to the throne. I don't mean he's not qualified--I imagine Gorsuch woud have been a top candidate of any Republican president--the issue is that the seat should have been already filled by Merrick Garland.

When Justice Antonin Scalia died February before last, President Obama, doing his duty, named Garland as his choice. He was certainly a left-leaning judge, but not a firebrand ideologue. He was a man whom Orrin Hatch, troglodyte from Utah, said he would vote for. But all of a sudden the Republican party, flush with power, decided that the "new" president should get the vote, forgetting that Obama had ten months to go in his presidency. It was an unabashed power grab that has forever tarnished the "advise and consent" portion of the constitution.

The gambit worked, and Garland was never scheduled a hearing. Trump was elected, and now Scalia will be replaced by Gorsuch, an originalist who once ruled that a trucker who left his cargo for fear of freezing to death could be legally fired. Gorsuch, who is the first potential justice who is younger than I am, is one of those college conservatives who are so loathsome and drive reasonable people to want to punch them in the face. Gorsuch graduated from Columbia in 1985, and ran a Henry Kissinger quote by his picture: "The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer." In his prep school yearbook, he cited himself as founder and president of the "Fascist Forever" club.

Both of these might be jokes; the problem is that conservatives usually aren't funny. I did a lot of research back in those days about college Republicans for an aborted book, as it was the time of right-wing groups on campuses making a lot of noise, especially the Dartmouth Review, which trashed an empathetic South African shanytown on the pristine green. Two of their illustrious members were Dinesh D'Souza and Laura Ingraham.

So, the question now before the Democrats is what strategy to take? So far the questioning by the Democrats has not been particularly rigorous--only Al Franken dug into the trucker case and finally called the nominee absurd, and questioned his judgment. Meanwhile, the Republicans are playing Bizarro World. That's the alternate Earth from the Superman comics, made famous in an episode of Seinfeld, in which everything is the opposite. We got to hear Hatch say that the president should be given deference in his choice, a flat-out reversal of his stance last year. The same could be heard from the likes of Ted Cruz, who before the election declared that none of Hillary Clinton's presumed nominations would get hearings. The Republicans are truly gifted at speaking out of each side of their mouths, sometimes at the same time.

What to do, what to do? There's not much, really. Gorsuch will be confirmed, and might get a few Democratic votes (Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, I'm looking at you). If the Democrats were to attempt to filibuster, the GOP could change the rules, adding Supreme Court justices to the straight-up-and-down voting of other federal judges. This would be good, ultimately, because the whole filibuster process, making 60 a majority instead of 51, is inane.

Or do they swallow the bitter pill and wait to see if Trump gets another nomination and picks somebody even worse? Then there would be no filibuster opportunity.

Trump will have his way as long as the Republicans hold the Senate. If Trump continues to be completely unpopular and drags the party with him, lightning may strike and the Dems could take the Senate in 2018 (it's not likely, given who is up for election). Then they could play the game and deny Trump (if he's still in office) any hearings for any judgeships. Turnabout is fair play, as Peter Marshall used to say on Hollywood Squares.