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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Best American Mystery Stories 2016

The 2016 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories is a fairly good collection, with some big names, but once again there is the ongoing debate with what a mystery story actually is. Series editor Otto Penzler writes: "While I love good puzzles and tales of pure ratiocination, few of these are written today, as the mystery genre has evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) into a more character-driven form of literature, with
more emphasis on the “why” of a crime’s commission than a “who” or “how.” It's interesting to note that the only story that has any connection to ratiocination is "Street of the Dead House," by Robert Lopresti, which is "Murders of the Rue Morgue" told from the point of view of the orangutan (this also appeared in The Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2016).

So what we get is really crime stories, which is fine. There are some heavy hitters in this volume, including Stephen King, writing about a rural murder in "A Death" (I would have thought King would have given us a twist in this story, but the killer is known throughout) and Elmore Leonard, with "Something to Do," about a stand-off between a mild-mannered veterinarian and some scumbags. Chloroform always comes in handy. King, as usual, knows how to open a story: "Jim Trusdale had a shack on the west side of his father’s gone-to-seed ranch, and that was where he was when Sheriff Barclay and half a dozen deputized townsmen found him, sitting in the one chair by the cold stove, wearing a dirty barn coat and reading an old issue of the Black Hills Pioneer by lantern light. Looking at it, anyway."

Another good line is "I hadn't been thinking about killing Delwood. Not really. But you know how people sometimes have just had enough." That's from "Rearview Mirror," buy Art Taylor, about a couple on the move. They meet cute--she's the clerk in a convenience store, and he robs it and she gives him her number. "On September 12, 1994, in my second week of college, I killed Russell Gramercy," begins Brian Tobin's "Entwined," one of the better stories here. The narrator has killed a man accidentally in a car accident, and is of course guilt-ridden. But there's a great twist.

I also liked "Border Crossing," an homage to "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," but on the Mexican border, by Susan Thornton, and the very suspenseful "Christmas Eve at the Exit," by Kristine Kathryn Rush, about a mother and girl on the run from an abusive husband. Also full of suspense is Georgina Ruth's "The Mountain Top," set in the near future when a farmer and his wife deal with a pair of toughs. There's also a Western story in here, "Christians," by Tom Franklin.

I'm hard pressed to name my favorite story. I very much liked Evan Lewis' "The Continental Opposite," which revives Dashiell Hammet's old hard-boiled private eye, and "Fool Proof," by Bruce Robert Coffin, is also something of an homage, both to a part of Les Miserables and a Twilight Zone episode.

But I think the best this year goes to the opening story, "The Little Men," by Meghan Abbott. It's a hard story to summarize, but it's set in old Hollywood and captures the allure of that era. It's not so much the story but the fantastic writing that hooked me. And if you have ever thought you heard something scratching behind the walls, it will get you spooked.

So I guess the days of the whodunit and locked-room mystery are over, but writers are still putting their interesting stamps on the genre, and I'm eager to read them.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Coming Home

The Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album went to The O'Connor Band for their collection, Coming Home. My first few listens I thought the record was about as exciting as the title, which meant not much. But the more times I played the more I came to appreciate the best part of it--the voice of Kate Lee.

The band is a family--Mark is the father, a long-celebrated bluegrass musician, his son Forrest is on mandolin, his wife (by her youthful appearance she looks not to be his first) Maggie is on violin. Lee is married to Forrest, and she's the one that makes the band interesting. I mean, Mark O'Connor is a virtuoso on the fiddle, but when I hear her sing I just melt (it doesn't hurt that she's one of the most beautiful women I've ever seen).

The record has three different types of songs. Forrest's songs are the least interesting--bland and forgettable. Mark O'Connor highlights the instrumentals, such as the kick-ass version of Bill Monroe's "Jerusalem Ridge," another called "Fishers Hornpipe," and an elegiac piece, "Fiddler Going Home," which seems to be an attempt at reproducing the poignancy of "Ashokan Farewell."

Then there's the Lee songs, which she co-wrote. "Blacktop Boy" is very strong, with a fine lyric:

"Dressed to kill with a black shirt on
and a cool guitar
like Johnny Cash had crashed to Earth
from a fallen star."

Another, called "Old Black Creek" sounds as if it was written a hundred years ago and Lee's vocals are so mysterious and arresting that you get drawn into it. And the best thing on the album is her rendition of an old song called "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?" The video of a performance can be found here. She can sure hold a note, and her charisma and appearance could make her a big star if she broke out of the bluegrass niche.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Jerry Before Seinfeld

If you've seen Jerry Seinfeld's Web series, Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, you can ascertain three things about him: he likes cars, he likes talking about comedy, and he's incredibly nostalgic (the bittersweet episode with Garry Shandling just before he died is a case in point). His new Netflix special, Jerry Before Seinfeld, is dripping with nostalgia. He performed at the Comic Strip, a New York club where he made his first appearance, shows the house he grew up in, and even has a pair of his own Superman bookends on stage.

As a stand-up Seinfeld is a pro, almost a machine. What's most interesting about him is that he doesn't seem to be neurotic, which most comedians are. For the most part, he seems a normal human being. He tells us that he really doesn't care if the audience likes him or not. Of course, that's easy to say when you're a multi-millionaire.

Seinfeld carries the nostalgia to the point of doing the material he did at the Comic Strip forty years ago. I'm interested in what comedians think about doing old material. I've heard some say that once they do an act on television, they retire it forever. But some comedians, like Stephen Wright or Andrew Dice Clay, haul out old jokes like the Rolling Stones haul out "Satisfaction." Most of the material Seinfeld did in this special I hadn't heard, but a few things, like his joke about policeman beating up suspects and then making sure they don't hit their head on the top of the door I've heard before.

He begins the act with an amusing riff on the prepositions used living in New York. You live in the City, but on Long Island. You get on and off the train, but in and out of a cab. He's updated the bit to add Uber--you take it. He also, predictably, does a long riff on cereal. It's part of a longer bit on how growing up in the '60s was a wild time--no helmets, no seat belts. Parents didn't know where kids were, and he ate 100% sugar. He speaks of the cereal Cookie Crisp, which was actually chocolate chip cookies in milk.

Seinfeld also jokes about women's bathrooms and how come they have so many cotton balls when he's never bought one? Or how his parents moved to Florida, because it's the law. Another bit I had heard was his one about rooting for sports teams--we don't really root for the players, we root for the clothes. A player can leave and go to another team, wearing another shirt and suddenly he's the enemy.

We also get an insight into Seinfeld's almost scientific approach to comedy. He has kept all his notes from 1975 in an accordion folder (I don't believe he has the same folder, I had one that eventually dissolved). When all the notes are taken out, they seem to cover an area the size of a football field.

Seinfeld has suggested he is on the autism spectrum, which may explain his obsession with comedy and comedians. Nevertheless, he's done pretty well for himself. But, he does note he had a very normal childhood. "Would I have been a better comedian had I grown up in Peoria raised by prostitutes?" he asks, referencing Richard Pryor. "Definitely."

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Overnight

Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling have just moved to California. They have a toddler son. Scott is concerned, since he's a stay-at-home dad, that they'll have trouble making friends and he'll be lonely. One day at the park they meet Jason Schwartzmann, who seems like a great guy, even if he is wearing a hipster's hat. He invites the whole family over for pizza night, and they meet his charming French wife, Judith Godreche.

This is the opening of The Overnight, a comedy written and directed by Patrick Brice, and released in 2015. I'm having trouble getting a fix on what I think of it. It is funny in parts, if not laugh out loud funny, but it's raison d'etre, to be sexually shocking, seems almost quaint. If it wanted to be the Bob & Ted & Carol & Alice of the decade it's about thirty years too late.

The set up of the film is that the strait-laced Scott, who has issues about his small penis, and Schilling, who has never had another man than Scott, are uptight while Schwartzman and Godriche are free. She makes demonstration videos for breast pumps. He makes giant paintings of assholes (literally). They are like the ego meeting the id. And though this film has a short running time, we wait for the other shoe to drop, like secretly this wild and free couple are cannibals or something. But no, when the other shoe drops, it lands with the weight of a ballet slipper.

The Overnight is like porn for people who have never seen porn. Interestingly, there is more male nudity than female, for those of you who wonder if Jason Schwartzmann is hung or not, the answer is yes. The script is cagey--at every point that the straight couple get suspicious, the other couple does something to reassure them. Although when Schilling goes on a liquor run with Godriche and she stops at a Thai massage parlor to give a random stranger a handjob, you'd think Schilling would have had enough.

The cast is good, although Scott seems, with his role on Parks and Recreation, to have settled into the guy who always looks perplexed. I just wish this film had gone further out on a limb, instead of settling for the easy ending.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Days of Heaven

Getting back to Sam Shepard, he made his film debut in Terrence Malick's 1978 film, Days of Heaven, which I had somehow not seen until last night. It's a film that has been re-evaluated over the years, and is now considered a great film, especially the Oscar-winning cinematography by Nestor Almendros.

It was Malick's second film and took three years to make. Set in the Texas Panhandle in 1916, it's a love triangle, a kind of Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot story in fields of wheat. A very naturalistic film, Almendros used mostly natural light, often shooting in what is termed "the magic hour," that time when the sun has set but there is still light in the sky.

Richard Gere stars as a steel-worker from Chicago who accidentally kills his boss. He, his girlfriend (Brooke Adams), and younger sister (Linda Manz) hightail it out to the West, getting jobs harvesting wheat on the large farm of Shepard, who is known only as "The Farmer." He seems to have inherited the land, because he lives alone and doesn't care much about it, even when he's told he's the richest man in the Panhandle. His foreman (Robert J. Wilke) runs things.

Shepard is captivated by the beautiful Adams. Gere overhears that Shepard is dying and only has a year to live. He and Adams have been traveling as brother and sister, so Gere encourages Adams to accept Shepard's proposal, since he figures he'll die and she'll inherit the money. But two things interfere with his plan--Shepard maintains good health, and Adams starts to fall in love with her husband.

When Shepard suspects that Gere is more than a brother, things come to a head, climaxing during a locust swarm and subsequent fire.

Days of Heaven is an exquisitely beautiful film. Shots of amber waves of grain, plus the main house (modeled after one in an Edward Hopper painting) are breathtaking. The story is a bit thin--there isn't much dialogue (Malick and Almendros shot it like a silent film), but it's short, so it doesn't get particularly boring.

This is one of Gere's first major films, and he's terrific, a scoundrel. Wilke doesn't trust them (he calls them con artists to Shepard's face, even after he's married her) and he plays the role very slippery. It's interesting that Shepard would go on to play many all-American cowboy types, but here is a meek, ineffectual man. He seems tentative, but when he gets angry he flowers into a great character.

Malick wouldn't make another film for twenty years (The Thin Red Line).

Monday, September 18, 2017

mother!

The biggest news coming from the opening weekend of mother! was that it received an F rating from Cinemascore, which is apparently hard to do. I saw the film yesterday, and it certainly doesn't rate an F (I'd give it a B), so what happened? One, it wasn't marketed properly--when people hate a movie, it's often because they didn't get the movie they thought they were going to get. mother! was marketed as a run-of-the-mill horror film, and it is not. Two, there's an old saying in theater that satire is what closes on a Saturday night. I'd say Biblical allegories would be included in that category. The truth probably is that most people didn't get it.

I'm not sitting here saying I'm superior, because I didn't get it, either. I could write about what I thought was going on, but I had no firm theory. It reminded me of other works, such as Edward Albee's play A Delicate Balance, where guests come to stay and don't leave, or Rosemary's Baby, but I read an interview in Vanity Fair with director Darren Aronofsky, who explains what it is. I'm reluctant to spoil anyone's encounter with it, lets just say that a sound understanding of Genesis is involved.

Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem star as a couple living in a big, beautiful house that she is renovating (She says she wants to make it a paradise--Garden of Eden?) He's a poet, so we know immediately this isn't reality because I don't think anyone makes a living solely writing poems, especially with a house that big. He's got writer's block, though. One day a stranger, a doctor played by Ed Harris, shows up. Barden invites him to stay the night, and Lawrence is incredulous. She's even more so when Harris' wife, Michelle Pfeiffer shows up. They are followed by their two sons, arguing about the will. One kills the other (this is the only Biblical reference I picked up on--Cain and Abel) and Lawrence is stunned that a funeral gathering is taking place in her house.

She becomes pregnant, and time passes. Bardem writes a poem that becomes so admired that people flock to the house to congratulate him. Thus proceeds the conclusion, that involves Lawrence giving birth and, well, let me leave it that. I will only say that it is gruesome, and there are a few things that just don't play in Peoria.

Even though I didn't understand it, I didn't have the visceral dislike that apparently most of America had. At least it was interesting, if obscure. The camera moves disorientingly, following Lawrence as she goes everywhere. The house is dark. The basement has what appears to be a magic tunnel. When Lawrence touches the walls, she senses some sort of presence. But it's not ghosts, it's something much more fundamental. Another clue is that she is always barefoot. The first and last lines of the film are "Baby?"

The performances are also strange. Lawrence, due to the nature of the role, has to be passive and reactive, while Bardem is purposely mysterious (there's a constant, "Why are you doing this?" and "I can't put them out" vibe between them). I wonder if Harris and Pfeiffer even knew what they were playing. Once you understand who Pfeiffer is supposed to be, it's sort of funny that she plays it bitchy.

I have to give Paramount Pictures the guts to spend 30 million dollars on this. I don't think they'll make it back, but I think it will find a home on VOD. If anything, it's a great conversation piece.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Paris, Texas

Harry Dean Stanton's only leading role came in Wim Wenders' 1984 film Paris, Texas, which was written by Sam Shepard. That film has lost two of its major parts in the last six weeks.

The film won the Palme D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is a favorite among the cognoscenti, though it did not do much business. It is a slow-moving film, relying as much on the imagery of the desert and neon signs as it is on plot. But it is a beautiful film, made great by Stanton, especially a monologue he has late in the film.

We see him first walking across the desert, with no particular destination. He wears a red baseball cap, and a well-dusted suit and tie. He collapses in a small town in south Texas, and his brother (Dean Stockwell), who thought he was dead, goes to get him. Stanton is mute, not telling Stockwell where has been the last four years, when he walked out on his family. Stockwell and his wife are now taking care of Stanton's son (Hunter Carson). Jane, Stanton's wife, has also vanished.

Paris, Texas is two road films in one. The first is when Stockwell drives Stanton to Los Angeles, where Stockwell lives. Slowly, Stanton comes back into the world of humans. He is like a small child, remembering little. He is awkward with Carson, but eventually they bond. When Stanton has fully retained his faculties, he decides to go looking for Jane (Nastassja Kinski), with Carson in tow, the second road trip.

Paris, Texas is a long film, and requires some concentration. I find these kind of films better on home video, where I can take breaks (when I saw it originally in New York City in a theater I was a bit bored). There are long takes, and the final scenes, when Stanton finds Kinski in a fantasy booth joint in Houston, have long uninterrupted dialogue.

Much of the film is about seeing. Characters are frequently looking, but not necessarily seeing. Stanton watches the airplanes with binoculars. Stockwell, after Stanton has run from their motel room early on, walks down a railroad. Stockwell looks down the tracks, and says, "What's out there?" The fantasy booths are such that the customer can see the girl, but she can't see them because of a one-way mirror. She does not recognize his voice at first, because later she says that all voices sound like his.

Paris, Texas is also about loss and redemption. Stanton asks how long he has been gone, and is told four years. His son is now eight. "Half a boy's life," he says, with the kind of line reading that gives you goose bumps. The film is really Stanton figuring out what he wants, and going to get it, which is in essence what all of narrative literature is.

As someone who is been in plenty of peep-shows, I must admit I've never seen one like the one in the movie, and wonder if they even exist. Girls enter a small room that is given some art direction. Kinski is first in a hotel room, then, during Stanton's monologue, a kitchen, which suggests domesticity, the kind that they lost. There also seems to be no rendering of payment. These kind of things sometimes bother me. Other than than, Paris, Texas is a great film.