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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Passion

Brian DePalma is a great example of the A-list director who steadily declines. DePalma, who has made such hits as Carrie, The Untouchables, and Scarface, hasn't really had a big hit since the celebrated flop Bonfire of the Vanities. His latest project, Passion, from 2012, didn't even get a release in the U.S.

DePalma has always been a guy who borrowed from others, and this psychological thriller, which was based on a French film, is rehash of a lot of other films, including the recent Steven Soderbergh film, Side Effects (which actually came later, but it is much better). Like another of DePalma's recent films, Femme Fatale, it has an erotic tinge to it, with a teenage boy's attitude about lesbians.

The film stars Noomi Rapace as a dowdy ad women. Her boss is Rachel McAdams, and the two have a complicated relationship. McAdams, who professes to love Rapace, isn't beyond taking credit for her ideas. As the film moves along, we discover McAdams is basically a psychopath.

Late in the film there is a murder, and the film has a few twists and turns. At times it's clever, but most often it's incoherent, resorting to dream sequences as reality several times, which is a lazy way of directing.

In addition to McAdams and Rapace sharing lip lock, there is also German actress Karoline Herfuth as Rapace's assistant, who also shares a kiss with her. Herfuth is a stunning redhead, and this is what teenage boys imagine lesbians looking like. I guess some do.

Also, the title is terrible.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Purge

Perhaps one day there will be an interdisciplinary study of films that deal with income equality. Earlier this year we had Snowpiercer; on a much lower scale of quality was last year's The Purge, which already has one sequel.

The set-up of The Purge is that the government ("The New Founding Fathers," which sounds very ominous) has established one night a year as a law-free night--the citizens can do just about anything, including murder. This is said to act as a catharsis, getting all of that hate and rage out of one's system. This makes no sense to me--it would take more than one night for a lot of people, but apparently it works, as it has lowered the crime rate drastically.

But of course, as with most things in America, this disproportionately hurts the poor. The rich can barricade themselves behind security systems, so it's the poor and disabled who are exposed to the bloodlust of others. In a way, it's less an outlet for violence than it is a population control.

This is kind of heady stuff, but the movie doesn't deliver. Ethan Hawke, looking like the "after" in a plastic surgeon ad, is a security system salesman. He lives in a big house in a gated community, and plans on spending purge night locked inside with his wife (Lena Headey, in a ghastly wig) and their two teenage children. But things start to go wrong when his daughter's boyfriend sneaks inside, and even worse when the compassionate son (who looks disarmingly like Christina Ricci circa The Addams Family) lets in a homeless man who is being hunted by smarmy rich kids.

The Purge cost only 3 million and made close to 90, which made it one of the biggest earners of the last few years. Unfortunately, that 3 million shows. Essentially the film is a one-set movie, with characters sneaking around in the dark trying to kill each other. The problem is we the audience have no sense of the layout of the house, so the director and writer, James Demonaco, can have people saved at the last minute anytime he wants.

Also, the sociological framework aside, this is no different than many other home invasion movies of the last several decades, going back to Straw Dogs. The Purge may make interesting statements--the homeless man is pointedly a black man who is referred to as hunters as "swine"--but it doesn't do it very effectively.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

International Tiger Day

Today is International Tiger Day, a day designed to call attention to the alarming fact that there are only about 3,000 tigers living in the wild, down from 100,000 100 years ago. Most of this is due to the loss of the tiger's habitat, which is down 93 percent, due to encroachment by man and global warming. All tiger species are endangered, and unless dramatic action is taken, tigers may only exist in captivity in a short period of time.

I've been reading about tigers today, and there is much to be admired. They are the largest cat species, and can grow to be 11 feet long and over 800 pounds. They are instantly recognizable, and though tigers are responsible for more human deaths than any other wild animal, they still manage to be somewhat cuddly, as evidenced by a poll of children that named them their favorite animal.

Tigers have been worshipped for years, by Indian and Chinese cultures, among others, and even to this day they are representative of positive feelings and attributes, from Tigger to Hobbes to Tony the Tiger, selling Kellogg's corn flakes. Still, they are mistreated. China is keeping 5,000 animals in captivity for breeding for skins and other body parts (the penis is highly prized for therapeutic qualities, and is made into a soup).

They are also a frequently used mascot for American sports teams. It's a coincidence, but my favorite sports team is the Detroit Tigers, and the nearby college for whom I root, Princeton, also uses the tiger as a mascot. I will also admit that I always felt a little tingle whenever I read a comic book that featured Tigra, who was far too under-utilized in the Marvel Universe, methinks.

Although the lion is known as king of the jungle, there's something even more regal about the tiger. Even when the tiger is used as a villain, like Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, he is given a royal demeanor. In the Disney version, Shere Khan is voiced by George Sanders, and you can't much more aristocratic than that.

I urge everyone who reads this blog to get involved. You can start by going to tigerday.org. Spread the word.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Home of the Braves

Once again, as I have for the last 13 summers, I headed to Cooperstown, New York for the annual Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This year my companion was my old friend and fellow baseball fanatic Bob, and we had a blast.

Bob signed on for the trip when he learned that Roger Angell, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, but known to baseball scribes as one of the greatest of baseball writers, was to receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, given annually to recognize excellence in baseball writing. Bob and I have shared a love for Angell's writing for decades, and now that the 93-year-old wordsmith was to be awarded, Bob wasn't going to miss it. On Saturday, after the drive up and some wandering around town, we watched that awards ceremony, which is held separately from the induction on Sunday. Angell, frail but forceful, told of his love for the game--he saw his first one in 1930. Their was a full crowd at Doubleday Field, but I had a sense of intellectual smugness--how many of these people had actually read Angell's work? They were probably thinking, "Who is this old man?" But after his speech, he received a standing ovation. Maybe some of these philistines will got out and buy one of his books.

Earlier that day Bob and I did some shopping. Bob likes to collect autographs (something that doesn't interest me in the least) and several ex-players lined Main Street in Cooperstown that day selling their signatures. Bob, a Mets fan, got the autograph of and a picture with Darryl Strawberry. I was later surprised that he had forked over sixty dollars to get the signature of Pete Rose, who signed in the back of a memorabilia star. We had to go around to the alley and enter the back way, as if going into a speakeasy. I went in, too, as Bob's cameraman, but I suddenly remembered that the now banned and disgraced Rose, one of the greatest of hitters, was a childhood friend of my father's. I had to say something. While Bob was getting the autograph I mentioned my father's name to Pete, whose face lit with recognition, no doubt taking him back to his days as a boy in Cincinnati, palling around with my dad. It was a nice moment for me, and dare I say, for Pete.

On Sunday, after an early morning thunderstorm, the skies cleared up as Bob and I sat on the athletic field in town, along with 48,000 other people. After the skimpy crowd last year, which saw three men who were dead for over 70 years inducted, this year saw six living men getting the honor. Three of them, Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux, spent the lion's share of their careers with the Atlanta Braves, and thus the crowd was awash with Braves fans, doing the Tomahawk Chop. Frank Thomas, the slugger who played most of his career with the Chicago White Sox, was the reason there were many Pale Hose fans there. Oddly, Tony La Russa did not draw many die-hard Cardinals fans (although he was a manager of the White Sox), and even more surprisingly, there were not many Yankee fans in attendance, even though their great manager, Joe Torre, was to be inducted (of course, Torre also managed the Braves and Cardinals).

I love these things, even if it is an afternoon of listening to speeches while roasting in the hot sun. Maddux went first, and his speech was as mechanical and unemotional as one of his starts. But Maddux, though appearing as boring as an actuary, seems to have reserves of a very strange sense of humor. While thanking his brother, he chose to recall that his sibling taught him science involving methane and a lighter. This was perhaps the first mention of lighting farts in Hall of Fame induction history.

Cox went next. His speech was more polished, with speaker's bureau anecdotes. Glavine's was a solid if unspectacular speech, much like his career, which was mostly in Maddux's shadow. To their credit, once the Braves were finished, many Atlanta fans stayed.

Next up was La Russa, who seemed uncomfortable, and said as much. For man who has had to deal with the media in more than thirty years of managing, he was skittish as a man thrust into the limelight after years in obscurity. Frank Thomas followed, and was the only man to blubber on the day. He started by thanking his parents, including his late father, and the tears ran down the big man's cheeks. He ended his speech with a rat-a-tat recitation of about 100 of his teammates. Later the other Hall of Famers kidded him by handing him a phone book.

Last to go was Torre, and as might be expected, he gave the best speech. He cut to the chase, telling the crowd that he was there because of his stint at Yankee manager. He knew failure--his managerial record was below .500 before the pinstripes, and he was fired three times. He recalled the day as a player he hit into four double plays in one game. He also went over the great moments in his Yankee run, including many that must have given agita to Braves fans, because they came at their expense. Torre did forget to thank George Steinbrenner, which was the talk of the back pages in New York.

This morning Bob and I went to something called The Legends Roundtable, or something like that. Basically, it was the six men on stage fielding questions from Peter Gammons and the audience. Torre again emphasized that Greg Maddux had no pulse. They shared some stories, talked about their charity work, and the weekend was over.

I'll likely be living out west next summer, but I hope I can continue to come back east every year for this event, which is just so much fun. It's the chance to eat, breathe, and smell baseball, where fans from rival teams can break bread together, and there are no such things as PEDs, DUIs, or salary negotiations.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Little League

This week I had a great experience. My nephew, Dylan, and his team were in a tournament to determine the North Jersey State Championship in the Babe Ruth U13 league. He lives about an hour away from me, but serendipitously the tournament took place only a few miles from me, so I was able to see about two and a half games, including the championship.

Dylan is 13 and has been baseball mad for ages. His mother, my sister, is a huge baseball fan, going back to her days of loving Bucky Dent. But of her four sons, only the baby, Dylan, shared her love for the game. He's been playing for his team, the Wayne Wolfpack, for several years now.

I managed to see half a game on Saturday, which they won easily. The next day I wasn't able to see the game, in which Dylan was the starting pitcher, which he won. So they advanced to the next round, on Tuesday night. It was a taut game, which the Wolfpack won in the bottom of the 9th (their games only go seven innings) 4-3.

Thursday night was the championship. My sister could hardly contain her anxiety. The team had never gotten this far before, but have been together a long time. They were taking on the defending champs, from the host city South Brunswick. In the bottom of the first the home team scored on a run on a throwing error, and things looked bad for the Wolfpack. But that would be the last run that South Brunswick would score.

But the Wolfpack couldn't get any offense going. Finally, in the fifth inning, my nephew was up (he was playing firs base). He lined a grounder down the first base line, which was booted--safe on an error. Two sacrifices moved him to third, and then a two-out hit scored him. The game would, as the previous game did, go into extra innings.

Both teams had superb pitching (unusual for kids--I remember games from my youth where pitchers would walk in run after run, or errors would make any hit ball an adventure). But these kids knew how to pitch. It was the top of the 11th before the Wolfpack would finally put the game away, scoring four runs with two outs, taking a 5-1 lead. They would retire the side in the bottom of the inning for the win.

I'm in Cooperstown right now, after having attended the Hall of Fame induction (more on that tomorrow) and while here I always get a warm glow about baseball. I also got one while watching my nephews game, because of the way these kids were playing--for the sheer enjoyment of it. Sometimes youth sports can get ugly, when parents behave like ogres, but this was feel-good all the way. I sat with my sister surrounded by other parents, who were nervous. But they recognized how great the game is, and how much fun these kids are having.

I only played one year of little league. I was a terrible player on a terrible team. I was meant to watch baseball, not play it. So it was a lot of fun watching these kids. By the time the tournament was over I knew all their names (there are only ten players on the team--versatility is a must) and was cheering them on as if I'd watched them all year. The excitement on their faces after they won was infectious.

Later this week they head to the Mid-Atlantic Regionals near Atlantic City. I won't be able to go, but I'll be there in spirit. Go Wayne Wolfpack. I hope you win, but above all I hope you have fun.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Ramones

A few weeks ago, Tommy Ramone died. He was the last living original member of The Ramones. As far as I know, this is the first major band that has lost all its members. It has given me the occasion to consider a band that, like The Velvet Underground and The Pixies, are known more for their influence than their record sales.

I picked up a copy of The Ramones greatest hits, though, as the liner notes by Tommy Ramone indicate, they didn't really have hits, but they certainly had recognizable songs. I found I knew more than half of them, songs less than three minutes long that formed what would be called punk music.

The Ramones were formed out of a group of teenagers from Forest Hills, New York. They took the name from an alias Paul McCartney used in hotel rooms, giving themselves the last name of Ramone, though they were not related. Their look was distinctive--leather jackets, sunglasses, ripped jeans. They were not hippies. They were something different--urban, dangerous. Punk.

The highest charting single they had was "Rockaway Beach," at number 66. But they influenced an entire style of music. Along with the British bands like The Sex Pistols, they created punk music by using a minimalist approach, countering the increasingly psychedelic sound of the late '60s and early '70s. They used only four chords, simple instrumentation, and largely inconsequential lyrics. They were a successful touring band, playing over 2,000 concerts in their 22 years together.

Most of The Ramones songs were about basic teenage issues and an increasing feeling of alienation, which are not mutually exclusive. I think their most famous song is "I Wanna Be Sedated," which features a fabulous vocal by Joey Ramone, and has the universally agreeable:

"Just put me in a wheelchair
And get me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry, before I go insane
I can't control my fingers
I can't control my brain, oh no"

If that weren't enough, they have a song called "Teenage Lobotomy," and "Pinhead," which gave the world their famous chant, "Gabba gabba hey!"

Other great songs of theirs include "Rock and Roll Radio," the lament "The KKK Took My Baby Away," the seminal "Blitzkrieg Bop," and perhaps the most emotionally resonant theme song from a horror movie ever, the title tune of "Pet Sematary":

"Don't want to be buried
In a pet sematary,
Don't want to live my life again."

They also covered many songs, ranging from "California Sun" to the theme from Spider-Man. And many artists covered their work--no fewer than 48 tribute albums exist.

Since 2001, The Ramones have all died. Joey died in 2001, Dee Dee later that year, Johnny in 2004, and Tommy just recently. Markie Ramone, who replaced Tommy on the drums, still lives.

I never bought a Ramones album or went to a concert--they weren't interesting to me, who favored the more esoteric progressive rock. But, as I've gotten older, I've become more appreciate of musicians who set a different path. The Ramones had a musical philosophy, and though it was primitive, it took the old way of doing things and reinvented them. In many ways, The Ramones were the summation of everything that had come before, and everything that has come since emanates from them.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Computer Chess

Here's an unlikely setting for a terrific movie: a tournament, held sometime around 1980, of computer programmers, competing to see who has the best chess program. But Andrew Bujalski, in his 2013 film Computer Chess, has made a bright, fascinating film about a subculture that basically changed the way we live.

Shot in black and white on a period analog video camera, the film takes place in some anonymous hotel, as men with clunky glasses and pornstaches lug large computer monitors around, talking code and the implications of artificial intelligence (one fellow, fairly accurately, says that the future of computers is dating). There is one woman present, who is repeatedly welcomed, as if her presence was as surprising as a dog's would be.

Slowly the film settles on few characters. There's Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), an obstreperous independent programmer, who spends his nights wandering the hotel, since his reservation was lost. Martin Beuscher is part of the Cal Tech team (he's played by Wiley Wiggins, who was the long-haired Little League pitcher in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused), who discovers a glitch in his program and then resigns before a game even starts, and his student assistant, Peter (Patrick Reister), a glum nebbish.

Bujalski layers the film even more by adding another group at the hotel--an encounter group, who do new age things like restaging one's birth. This leads to a hilarious scene when Reister is lured into the room of a swinging couple. He ends up running out of the room, but will later have an encounter with a prostitute who has an interesting secret.

For those who love computers, this will seem like a trip to a museum. That's where they must have found the hardware, those monitors with the space-age design. One competitor doesn't even have a monitor--he plugs in the moves and then the results are printed. But beyond the computer stuff, the film reaches inside and finds the human heart of a technological pursuit.

I've seen all of Bujalski's films (they're all reviewed on this site) and I've liked them all immensely. This one is a bit different, as it can't really be called mumblecore. Well, maybe it can, as the film was largely improvised, but it is more far-reaching in its pursuit.