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Friday, December 29, 2006

Rabbit Fur Coat

I've been stuck in the past lately with music, so I'm trying to catch up with the "today" sounds. Of course, top-40 crap doesn't interest me, so I took a look at a lot of the top ten critic's lists for 2006 and made note of those who appeared several times, in styles of music that I would like (sorry, I'll pass on Ghostface Killah). One of the records mentioned a few times was Jenny Lewis' Rabbit Fur Coat. I know very little about her. I know she is the singer for a band called Rilo Kiley, who I am unfamiliar with, and she was an actress, her most notable role coming alongside Angelina Jolie in Foxfire.

It turns out she has a wonderful singing voice and has made a gorgeous record. Backed by a duo called the Watson Twins, and with musicians from such indie stalwarts as Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie and Maroon 5, Rabbit Fur Coat is a fine example of alt-country. There's a bit of gospel, evident in the opening a cappella track, "Run, Devil, Run," which bleeds into a honky-tonk foot-stomper called "The Big Guns." I also liked an ironically mournful song called "Happy," a country-rocker "The Charging Sky," and a deliriously catchy bit of pop called "You Are What You Love." The full lyric of that song goes, "You are what you love, and not what loves you back." I'm not sure what that means, but it could be something to meditate on.

The title track is an eerie little short story about a garment that the singer's mother wore. There's also a cover of the peppy Traveling Wilbury's song, "Handle With Care."

I've listened to this album about five times since I bought it last Saturday. It's habit-forming, both for Lewis' breathy voice and the sensational hooks of the songs.

Little Children


Having read and enjoyed Tom Perrotta's book, Little Children, I was eager to see the film version, and after much waiting for it to reach the hinterlands, it finally arrived, and I was not disappointed. I will say, though, that the film is not the feel-good hit of the year, and it is quite arid. As with Todd Field's first film, In the Bedroom, Little Children at times feels like a scientific examination of his subjects. This is established at the outset, when a voice-over tells us that Kate Winslet's character likes to think of herself as an anthropologist as she sits with the catty, small-minded mothers at a park, watching the children play.

Winslet's character is the focal point. She has a master's degree in English literature, and struggled to find a place in the land of Goldfish crackers and juice-boxes. She is married to a man who is more interested in Internet porn than anything else. Enter Brad, who is mooned over and called The Prom King by the other mothers. Winslet, though, actually speaks to him, and before long they are banging each other in her laundry room.Brad (Patrick Wilson) is married to the gorgeous Jennifer Connelly, who would seem to be perfect. But Brad is drawn to the harried, disheveled Winslet. Into this mix enter Ronnie, a sexual offender and pedophile, who has been released from prison and wants to live a quiet life with his elderly mother. But a citizen's "committee", led by an ex-cop, seeks to harass him into leaving town.

What we have here is a very Cheever-esque situation, updated to the age of Oprah. It is certainly not novel for a writer or film-maker to lift the rock and take a look at the nastiness lying below the perfectly-manicured lawns of suburbia. What this film does, though, is take a slightly different view of hypocrisy. So often when you hear the phrase, "For the sake of the children," it's a cover for all sorts of petty behavior. Ronnie, deftly played by Jackie Earle Haley (you won't think of Kelly Leak at all while watching him), is a creep, to be sure, but a human being with rights. It's not easy for an audience to accept this, which creates an unsettling rustle in the theater.

Little Children has copious voice-overs. The narrator sounds like someone in nature documentary. Instead of watch the lion eat the gazelle, it's watch the disaffected suburban mom make a grasp at happiness with the handsome young father. Voice-overs are always tricky in films, because they tell rather than show, but it's clear that Field didn't want to lose a lot of the sterling prose from Perrotta's book. I wouldn't disagree with someone who thinks it's all a bit much, though.

Despite this slight reservation, Little Children is one of the best films I've seen this year, and Kate Winslet in particular gives an outstanding performance.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gerald Ford


Who would have thought that of the three men in this photo, it would be Gerald Ford who would be the last standing? President Ford died Tuesday at the age of 93, living longer than any U.S. president, a testament to physical fitness, because he was also the most accomplished athlete to ever hold the office.

For a country that revolted against monarchy, the United States still has a penumbra of royalty, and this shows bright on the occasion of a death of a president. There is much pomp and circumstance and protocol. Since they come along with great infrequency, it seems to allow the citizenry a rare chance to reflect on recent history. With Gerald Ford, despite his brief, transitional presidency, there is no exception.

Ford's life is uniquely American in its rise. A football player in college, then a lawyer, then a Congressman for 25 years, where he spent much of his time brokering compromise, Ford was tapped from obscurity by Richard Nixon upon the resignation of the sitting Vice-President, Spiro Agnew. Nixon's first choice was John Connally, the ex-governor of Texas, famous for riding in the car with JFK when he was assassinated. But Nixon, under a storm cloud of his own, needed someone easily confirmable by Congress, and Ford fit the bill, as he had no enemies, and no particular agenda. When Nixon resigned in disgrace less than a year later, Ford had made the unlikely journey to President of the United States, despite the fact that not one person had voted for him.

Ford was the right man for the job. He was no fire-breathing idealogue, and projected a sense of honesty and decency that appear to be genuine. He was more down to earth and folksy than his scowling, paranoid predecessor. When he pardoned Nixon a mere thirty days into his presidency, though, some of the luster came off of Ford. "The fix is in!" went the cry, though Ford forever denied there was a deal, stating that he believed pardoning Nixon was key to helping the nation heal from a constitutional crisis. That's all well and good, but to many Americans, the idea that Nixon would never be prosecuted for his crimes rankled, and likely lost Ford the election in 1976.

Ford resurfaced into the news again in 1980, when Ronald Reagan had the interesting idea of making Ford his vice-presidential running mate. It would have been unprecedented for a former President to come back to take the number two spot, and Ford reasonably wanted more power than the post usually has. The deal fell through, and thus Ford is indirectly responsible for the course of American history since then, since if he had taken the gig, there likely would have been no President George H.W. Bush, and for damn sure no President George W. Bush, who couldn't have been elected dog-catcher let alone governor or president, without a father who had warmed his chair.

The encomiums that have peppered the airwaves since Ford's passing have all centered on the man's decency and likability. He was an average leader, no great thinker or visionary, but certainly the right man at the time.

Volver

Early in Pedro Almodovar's film Volver, Penelope Cruz answers a knock on her door with a telltale splash of blood on her throat. She's helping her teenage daughter dispose of a nasty problem, namely the corpse of her husband, who was getting too frisky with the daughter. The concerned person at Cruz's daughter wonders about the blood. "Woman problems," she says.

Woman problems could have been an alternate title for this story, which is one part Hitchcock, one part Telemundo soap opera. Almodovar has always been fascinated with women, but in this tale the men are almost superfluous. Cruz's husband ends up in a meat locker, but nobody seems too concerned that he's not around anymore. Meanwhile, Cruz's mother, Carmen Maura, who perished in a fire, starts reappearing, and she's surprisingly tangible for a ghost.

Also typical of Almodovar, the emotions in this film careen like a runaway vehicle. Cruz is one of two sisters who live in Madrid, but grew up in a village full of superstition. The other is Sole, who is plainer and was closer to their mother. Cruz has become a ravishing, headstrong woman who always seems to be marching at just short of a run. When a neighboring restaurant closes in preparation for sale, she takes it over and starts catering for a film crew. The reappearance of her mother causes all sorts of problems for her, because there are family secrets buried as deep as Cruz's unfortunate husband.

I enjoyed this film, though I didn't find it as substantial as All About My Mother or Talk to Her. The colors are vibrant (at least in the city portions--the village scenes are appropriately drab), and it turns out that Spain has trash TV just as bad as the U.S. I think the real revelation here is Cruz, who I think has turned a corner from tabloid fodder into a fine leading actress.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Pursuit of Happyness

The trailer for The Pursuit of Happyness gave it a TV movie-of-the-week look; a man pulling himself up by his bootstraps with an adorable urchin in tow. Happily, the actual film is more gritty than that, and is thankfully far more restrained.

Will Smith plays a man who struggled to make ends meet selling medical equipment that few doctors or hospitals want. He is dedicated to his son (played by Smith's real son, Jaden), so that when his wife leaves him, tired of his get-rich-quick schemes, he takes custody. His eyes are on a prize--an internship at Dean Witter. But it is an unpaid internship, and only one of twenty students will be hired.

What interested me most about this film was its examination of the working poor. For a time Smith and his son become homeless, sharing a harrowing night in a subway men's room, then a period where they have to queue up for space in a shelter. There is such a blanketing misunderstanding of the homeless in America, and here is an explanation of at least how one man, wearing a suit, needs to be in a homeless shelter.

Smith, of course, is a very engaging performer, and ably depicts a man's desperation, and his unflinching belief that he can have a better life for him and his son. There's a nice moment when his son expresses an interest in basketball, but Smith tells him not to expect to be good. He immediately realizes his mistake, that he has done the same thing that people have been doing to him.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Beauty Queens Gone Wild

It's been a rough few days for some beauty queens affiliated with the Miss USA pageant. First the reigning Miss USA, Tara Conner, seems to have been channeling Edie Sedgwick as she burned a coke-and-alcohol fueled swath across New York. Donald Trump, the paterfamilias of Miss USA, deemed to pardon her. He had no such sympathy for Katie Rees, the former Miss Nevada USA. Some photos of her, a few years old, have surfaced of her engaging in intoxicated behavior (that's Katie in Red), and well, the Donald let the axe fall.

I'm not sure what to make of all this. First of all, I'm disgusted by the hypocrisy of beauty pageants. Women are paraded around like beef on the hoof, and yet they are supposed to be some kind of moral guidepost for girls of America? They are just one notch below nude models, and lately more of them have made that leap. Frankly, I have more respect for the demimonde of centerfolds and adult film actresses, because at least they aren't pretending to be pillars of society. Is there anything more nauseating that a woman sashaying across a stage in a bikini like a hooker, at the same time proselytizing for conservative, Christian values?

I feel bad for both of these girls. For Tara, I'll buy that she's a Kentucky girl who got caught up by associating with New York City douchebags, although I'll bet she didn't have her first whiskey or first bit of blow in the Big Apple. Than having to look to Donald Trump for help, well, god bless her. As for Katie, the photos were taken before she was Miss Nevada. As far as I'm concerned, that's water under the bridge, and shame on them for making a girl pay for a youthful indiscretion. I felt the same way about Vanessa Williams.

Katie, I'm sure the phone is ringing with offers from Playboy and Penthouse. Cash in and don't look back.

The Year of the French

While I was a student at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, there was an English professor named Thomas Flanagan. I never took any of his classes, but I was aware of him because he won some big book award for his novel, The Year of the French. Now, over twenty years later, I have read the book. It's quite an impressive achievement.

The book is the first of three books that Flanagan wrote about Irish history. The titular year refers to 1798, when a group of rebels calling themselves the United Irishmen, under the leadership of Wolfe Tone, persuaded the French to assist them in driving the English out of Ireland so that said country could establish a free republic. As so much of the history of Ireland during the British occupation, it ends rather badly, but for a few weeks the French took a few towns in County Mayo and General Cornwallis, who had been embarrassed in the American Revolution, was dispatched to deal with the rebellion.

Flanagan incorporates several strands into his densely packed plot. Interestingly, Tone is a minor character, and only appears once in the book, as he never set foot in Ireland during the uprising. Instead, Flanagan spends the bulk of his narrative on the people directly involved in the action. Particularly engrossing are a schoolmaster, poet, drunkard and libertine, Owen McCarthy, who has a cynical view of things but ends up joining the rebellion (he's sort of like Rhett Butler without a Scarlett O'Hara), and the Moore brothers, George and John, who are Catholic landowners. John, the younger brother, is proclaimed President of the Republic of Connaught, an act of defiance against the crown that is surely a hanging offense, and George does everything he can to see that his brother's life is spared.

The depiction of Irish life at the time is vividly portrayed. The writing, as I said, is dense, with a lot of information packed into each paragraph and quite a few characters to keep track of, but I stuck with it and by the end was genuinely concerned with the fate of those involved. I am now interested in reading the other two books of Flanagan's trilogy. It should be noted that Thomas Flanagan died a few years ago.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Bigots in Congress

Apparently not believing in the fundamental American value of religious tolerance, Republican Representative Virgil Goode of Virginia has sounded off on the threat of encroaching Islam in the U.S. The first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, is planning on using the Koran in his swearing-in ceremony, and this gets Virgil's goat. He's made it clear that he will have nothing to do with the Koran. Also, he will do his best to make sure immigration is tightened so that more Muslims can't get in and threaten our Christian way of life. What he plans on doing with the Muslims who are already here, or with American citizens who covert to Islam, I don't know. Maybe internment camps? Forced Christianization?

This is not new in American politics. In the mid-nineteenth century there was an entire political party, the Know-Nothings, who based their philosophy on anti-Catholicism. And of course, I'm sure there were Congressman who seethed when Jew after Jew emigrated here over the decades. Now peaceful, law-abiding Muslims, who share an unfortunate connection with the bloodthirsty terrorists who now bedevil us, are the new group to hate and shun.

As one peers deeper into the history of the congress of this country, one realizes that the Capitol has been populated by every sort of scoundrel, thief, degenerate and bigot. Mr. Goode can be counted among their number.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pretty Little Head

When writing about pop music, it seems to be an imperative to categorize an act, to figure out what category they're in, which, in the long run, is pointless and unfair. This is especially true of a performer as eclectic as Nellie McKay, the British-born, New York-based singer-songwriter. McKay, in her early twenties, would seem to have an old soul, drawn to styles of music that are not exactly in the mainstream anymore. Listening to her newest album, Pretty Little Head, I was reminded of artists as diverse as Jacques Brel, Peter Allen, and Cyndi Lauper, who shares a vocal with her on one of the tracks.

The album was originally scheduled for release on Columbia Records, but they wanted to cut some of the tracks. McKay refused, and ended up putting out the album, on two discs, on her own label, Hungry Mouse. The length of the material could have fit on one disc, but McKay wanted to evoke the nostalgia of the double-album.

The music is catchy and for the most part upbeat, with a jazzy, Broadway-show tune panache. There is also a bit of hip-hop in a couple of the tracks, particularly "Columbia is Bleeding," which is not about her old record company but instead animal testing at the research labs of Columbia University. A song called "Tipperary" could have been written in the 1920s, and another called "Gladd" is a sweet and melancholy song. The duet with Lauper is in "Beecharmer," which is a great example of top-40 songwriting.

Lyrically, McKay is a bit cryptic. Reading about the album on Wikipedia I see there is a song about gay marriage and tenants rights, but I didn't get that by multiple listenings. Also, I can sort of see Columbia Records' point. Comparing the list of songs they wanted to include with McKay's final version, there are few songs that seem like throwaways: a brief little song called "Yodel," which does include yodeling, and a couple of songs, "Food," and "Pounce" that sound like commercial jingles. Should McKay become a big star you can bet that "Pounce" will someday be used in a kitty litter commercial.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Apocalypto


Coming after one of the most controversial films in history, Mel Gibson has followed up with a film that is cozily familiar, at least in structure. The only dissent I've read is by someone who is angry that actual Mayans weren't used in the cast of the film, which concerns Mayans in the sixteenth century (I suppose only Danes can play Hamlet, too). The world that Gibson takes us into is certainly unique, going so far as to use the Mayan language, but the plot of the film is straight out of Hollywood B pictures of the forties.

The story concerns a young man named Jaguar Paw. He lives in a village that are hunter-gatherers. One morning his village is raided by an opposing force, which captures several of the men and leads them on a trek to their land. These Mayans are temple builders, a somewhat more developed society, except they still have the nasty habit of commiting ritual sacrifice, which includes ripping still beating hearts out of chests and decapitation. Oh well, all societies aren't perfect. Jaguar Paw attempts to escape, and leads his captors on a merry chase back to his jungle. It is this portion of the film that reminded me, no joke, of Home Alone.

I can't speak to the authenticity of Mayan life in this period. As a coddled person of the 21st century there are many moments when I looked at the many piercings the tribespeople have and said to myself, "That must have hurt," or after a nasty wound, "That's going to get infected." The violence is certainly vivid, but is usually so over the top in a Grand Guignol manner that it's almost comic.

This film is dressed up like it is an important picture, it is simply a fun time at the matinee, and really makes no particularly insightful statements about the nature of man.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Four Films About the Troubles


My Irish film festival moves on with four different films which have at the center the "Troubles" in Northern Island. Two of them are collaborations between director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who first teamed with Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning performance in My Left Foot. Their second was 1993's In the Name of the Father, which was my favorite film of that year. It begins with the thumping title song, sung by Bono, accompanying the sight of a pub being blown to bits by a bomb planted by the IRA. We then meet Gerry Conlan, a young layabout in Belfast. He is constantly in trouble with the law, and with the local IRA, who don't want thieves about attracting the attention of the British occupying forces. Gerry moves to London, and through a series of tragic misunderstandings, ends up arrested and framed for the bombing in Guildford, along with three friends. The British police, under intense pressure, incredibly also arrest Gerry's mild-mannered father, and the two share a cell, while completely innocent.

Films about the wrongly accused, as Hitchcock knew, are gut-wrenching, and this one is no different. It is seen how easily a false confession can be wrung out of someone, and how hope in the judicial system is a flimsy one. What makes this film so good is that the central relationship between father and son is the load-bearing wall of a sense of hope, and that the lawyer played by Emma Thompson, who believes in their innocence, gives the audience hope as well as the Conlons. The ending, which has everyone cleared in court, is one of the more thrilling ends of a film in recent memory.

Sheridan and Day-Lewis teamed a few years later for The Boxer. Day-Lewis plays a prizefighter who took part in some sort of violence for the IRA, did his time, and now is back in Belfast. He wants nothing to do with the IRA, and instead is interested in starting a gym for the local youth. Problems arise, though, when he rekindles his love for Emily Watson, who is married to his best friend, who is in prison. A prisoner's wife, in the culture of the Catholics of Northern Ireland, is unapproachable. This film isn't nearly as powerful as Father, but it is a solid work and an illuminating look at a perilous situation.

Sheridan was Executive Producer of Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday, a cinema verite-style look at the events of January 30, 1972, in which a peaceful civil rights march in Derry erupted in violence when British paramilitary forces fired upon the marchers, killing 13 and wounding 14. The central character is member of Parliament Ivan Cooper, played by James Nesbitt, a Protestant who is looking for a peaceful solution to the troubles. If the accuracy of the film is to be believed, trigger-happy troops are the flashpoint for the violence, but in the larger sense, it is the British government's refusal to allow a peaceful march that is the mistake. Nesbitt, confronted with the carnage, makes a chilling speech to end the film, letting the British government know that they have "reaped a whirlwind."

Finally, Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, which was a cause celebre back in 1992. It was a flop in England, but caught on with audiences in the U.S. because Americans didn't care about the politics--they cared about the sex. Jordan uses the Troubles as a plot device, but this film isn't about that, really. Instead he compounds the differences between Protestants and Catholics by adding two layers to the mix--the British soldier that the IRA kidnaps is black, and of course, his "girlfriend," is actually a man. The film in essence becomes a love story between two men, whose differences make Protestant/Catholic seem trivial. Stephen Rea gives a terrific performance as the IRA volunteer with a conscience, and Jaye Davidson, who only appeared a few more times in films, is memorable as the person who gave the movie-going public quite a surprise.

Interestingly, in each of these films, the IRA are seen as a somewhat villainous entity, sort of like the Mafia is in the U.S. In In the Name of the Father, the actual Guildford bomber is briefly incarcerated with the Conlons. At first Gerry is enamored of him, but the man is ultimately revealed as blinded by hatred. In The Boxer, the IRA are seen as having internal fighting over the peace process, and one man in particular is also blinded by hatred, ordering a policeman to be killed. In Bloody Sunday the IRA are in the shadows. Nesbitt's character is keen that they keep their guns away from the march, but is told in no uncertain terms that that is none of his affair. In the end, Nesbitt says that the deaths of innocents are a victory for the IRA, because it will only recruit more young men. And in The Crying Game, Rea's character seeks to break away from the IRA, going into hiding, but is found by his former IRA compatriots, who tell him that he is never out, and force him to take part in more violence. From this sampling, it is clear that the artistic community of Northern Island have little use for the violence of the IRA, and were more interested in peace than vengeance.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

I came to this book through an interesting occurrence of synchronicity. It got a rave review in Entertainment Weekly, and the very same day I read that review an interview with the author was in Penthouse. Now, Penthouse usually doesn't run interviews with authors, especially of books that could be classified as literature, especially with women who are fully clothed. But I couldn't ignore these signs and I picked up a copy.

The book is a collection of short stories by a young woman named Karen Russell (the fact that she is pretty darn cute didn't hurt). Most of them are set in or around the Florida Everglades, and most are neither narrated by or concern children in some sort of dire circumstances. A few of them concern one particular family, the Bigtrees, who own an alligator farm. Almost all of the stories are also tinged what could be called magic realism--elements of the story contain the fantastic. One story has a character who is a minotaur. Another is about two boys' search for their sister, who disappeared while riding a crab-shell, and they are aided in their search by a pair of magic swim goggles. The title story concerns a home for girls who are the children of werewolves, learning to adjust to civilized society.

I liked all the stories, it would be difficult to choose my favorite. They all suffer a bit from the writer's youth--they can be termed what is usually known as "precious." They are the kind of stories that can be found in a young girl's notebook, written in pink ink, but these just happen to be far better written. Also, the endings are frequently ambiguous, stopping ahead of a resolution. Although her stories have the patina of fairy tales, there are no happy-ever-afters.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Love




I had been resistant to the idea of Beatles' songs remixed as a soundtrack for a show by Cirque Du Soleil in Las Vegas. A lot of that just sounded wrong. I have all of the Beatles original records, I'm reluctant to fall into the trap of buying everything that's put out with their name on it. My friend Paula got the Beatles 1 CD a few years back. I asked her why she got it, because I knew she had all those songs already. "But not in one place," she added. Of course, now I own that CD, having received it in a Christmas grab bag last year.


I received the Love CD as an early Christmas present this year, and I admit I was wrong to doubt. It's exhilarating. Now, to say I am a Beatles fan is an understatement. I consider their catalogue to be the greatest music of the twentieth century. That wasn't the problem. What bothered me is that after one has listened to songs thousands of times, to hear them remixed, it seemed to me, was going to be a disturbing experience. I mean I know every little sound from these songs, when Paul comes in to scream during the Nah-Nah-Nahs of Hey, Jude, to the lines of Shakespeare in I Am the Walrus. Why would I anyone to monkey with that?


It helps when the monkier is George Martin, who produced almost of the original Beatles music and can be said to be the only person who truly deserves the title of "Fifth Beatle." This is a crowning achievement for him. He has taken the Beatles recordings (and what sounds like alternate tracks never heard before) and stitched together a patchwork quilt of sounds. Listening to it for the first time, especially without looking at the song list, is a game of Name That Tune, or perhaps more a jumping through a looking glass into a world (Pepperland?) where all of the Beatles songs exist as separate entities, floating through ether, bumping into each other and making friendships. Who would have though that you could mash Within You Without You and Tomorrow Never Knows and make it sound like that was intentional way back when? Or have the guitar opening of Blackbird feed effortlessly into Yesterday?


Many of the songs play as they did originally, such as I Am the Walrus, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and All You Need is Love. There are some odd but wonderful choices, such as Paul's mysterious coda to Cry Baby Cry, and The Sun King, played backwards. In addition to the songs listed, I heard shreds of many other songs, such as the opening chord of A Hard Day's Night, the drum solo from The End, a guitar riff from Hey, Bulldog and a snippet of Piggies.


So I have learned a lesson, and that is that the music of The Beatles, though they ended their relationship thirty-six years ago, is an ongoing creative process. I'm going to be in Las Vegas in April, and though the tickets are prohibitively expensive, I just may have to go see the Cirque du Soleil show. I'm going to have to step up my search for that rich widow.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Casino Royale


I loved James Bond films when I was a kid. I saw Diamonds Are Forever when I was ten and it was a pivotal moment in my life. The film excited me in ways that unleashed my creative juices. It was just so cool that I knew I wanted to make up stories like that. Of course, looking at that film now it's kind of silly, but I still think the five original Sean Connery Bond films--Doctor No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, and You Only Live Twice--remain the gold standard for Bond films. Roger Moore was too effete for the role. By the time Pierce Brosnan inherited the role, the franchise seemed to be just another series of action films, with stuff blowing up. I'm not even sure which of the Brosnan films I've seen, as they all had interchangeable titles. I know I didn't see the one where Denise Richards plays a nuclear physicist.

So when Daniel Craig was announced as the new Bond and they would, in essence, start all over again, with the first Ian Fleming Bond tale, Casino Royale. I wasn't excited. But the positive reviews got me interested, and I saw the film on Saturday. I was very impressed. Much as Christopher Nolan did in Batman Begins, Bond has been recreated. We see him in his first mission as a Double-O agent, and much closer to how Fleming envisioned him, a "blunt instrument." We even get a hint of a characterization of the man, getting a shred of his past (he's an orphan) and seeing him have doubts about his profession. He even tells his "Bond girl" that he's in love with her.
The Bond girl this time is around is Eva Green, and it's hard to argue against the fact that she's the most beautiful actress to ever hold that role. She is an absolute vision of loveliness. She, also, has a character to play, Vesper Lynd, an accountant from MI6 that is to watch over the money that Bond uses in a high-stakes poker game.

The plot is a bit superfluous--it concerns a banker to terrorists, called Le Chiffre, who weeps blood and has a genius for numbers. Suffice it to say that we get the usual Bond structure--one set piece every twenty minutes or so, including a dazzling foot race through a construction site and a fight in a fuel truck on airport tarmac. The romantic idyll before the inevitable last act goes on a bit long, though.

There are the other usual Bond touches, such as an elaborate credits sequence and a fairly disposal song, this time by Chris Cornell. Missing are the gadgets (Q does not appear) and the quips Bond usually makes. This Bond isn't much of a comedian. But the film is a grand entertainment and I look forward to the direction they are taking the character.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Sasha Knox


In this post I'm going to discuss my unabashed love for pornography, so bluenoses look elsewhere. Specifically, this is a valentine to Sasha Knox, a performer of singular gifts.

I first discovered Sasha in my duties as a review of adult films for Adam Film World. She was in a scene in a film called Don't Pull Out 2. I'll leave the reason for the title to your imagination. She has All-American, girl-next-door looks, coupled with a cheerful enthusiasm for her task at hand.

I then purchased three other DVDs that she appears in, and my affection was cemented. The titles, which are mini-jokes in themselves, were It's a Daddy Thing 2, One-on-One (I think #5), and Barely 18 (I forget the number). In It's a Daddy Thing, Sasha comes on to her stepfather, a tried-and-true porn set-up. In One-on-One she is teamed with a fellow, Manuel Ferrar, who is, how should I say it, amply endowed. And in Barely 18 she plays a young woman who is putting up decorations for a Fourth of July party, when her boyfriend interrupts her for a good old-fashioned afternoon delight. In all of these scenes her sexual charisma jumps off the screen.

But she elevated herself to my pantheon with her interview clip on Barely 18. Many of these DVDs have Behind the Scenes segments, in which the performers are seen between takes, and are oft times interviewed. Sasha is asked her favorite position, and says, "Anal piledriver," which I will again leave to your imagination. Then she basically states her philosophy, and I felt myself falling in love. Her goal in life is to have babies and be with one man. Of course, she adds, the man has the say in the relationship, so if he wants to bring other women into the bed, that's fine, but she's a one-man woman. Okay, where does the line form?

I have read that Sasha has found her guy, who is the luckiest man on Earth, and has retired from the business to have her babies. I feel a small sense of sadness at this, though I can comfort myself with the approximately 75 films she's made. She's also one of four featured adult film actresses on the Fox Reality show My Bare Lady, which takes the girls and has them compete for a part in a London theatrical production. That sounds like a great idea for a show, but my fear is that they will mock the girls, when instead they deserve to be admired. I wish you luck and happiness, Sasha!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

My Irish Film Festival Continues


A while back I mentioned that a celebration of Irish drama by the Princeton department of Theater and Dance had spurred me to immerse myself in Irish literature as well. To that end, my Netflix queue has been full of films that are set in Ireland. Here is a summation of those I have seen in the last few weeks.

A few things I've learned--a lot of the films that are redolent of Ireland made in the last twenty years or so can be traced to a few people--Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan, or Roddy Doyle. Also, the actor Colm Meaney, who is known to most Americans for his role in a Star Trek series, seems to be in every film ever made in Ireland.

Roddy Doyle is a novelist who is known for his Barrytown trilogy, Barrytown being a poor section of Dublin. All of them have been made into films, although the third, The Van, appears not be available on DVD. I took a look at the other two, The Commitments (which I had seen in the theaters before) and The Snapper. In both, Meaney plays a similar character, a working-class father who has a loose rule over an unruly brood of children. He has a very small role in The Commitments, as the father of Jimmy Rabbite, a would-be music impresario who cobbles together a rhythm-and-blues band. Jimmy doesn't like any kind of music except for American R&B, and manages to build a group that includes a bus conductor who with a dynamite set of pipes, a trumpet-player who did sessions with all the greats, and a trio of female singers. The film is a delight both for the music and the easy-going comedy of watching the band work together and then inevitably fall apart. It may well be the best film ever about Dublin. The Snapper is sort of a sequel. Meaney is again the father. His twenty-year-old daughter reveals she is pregnant, and zaniness ensues. Meaney is a wonder to behold as a man who loves his daughter and wants to be supportive, but has to deal with the small-mindedness of his neighbors, and his own prejudices when he learns who the father might be. This was a television film, directed by Stephen Frears, so it appears a bit rough around the edges.

Jim Sheridan is perhaps the most celebrated Irish director. I have a couple of his films coming up, In the Name of the Father and The Boxer, and he also directed In America. One of his earlier films was The Field, which earned Richard Harris an Oscar nomination. One of the lasting themes in Irish drama is the relationship between those that work the land and those who own it (oft times Englishmen). In this film, Harris plays a man who has turned a rubble-strewn field into a luxurious green meadow, only to have the owner put it up for auction. No one local would dare bid against him, but when an American with limitless funds steps in, the stakes become deadly. It's a fine film, and raises questions about just how far a man should go for something as precious as land.

Sheridan wrote, but did not direct, Into the West, a children's fable. This film is about a segment of Irish society called Travellers, or Tinkers, a nomadic group often associated with Gypsies. The story concerns two boys, sons of Gabriel Byrne, who used to be a traveller but has foresworn that life after the death of his wife. The boys come across a spectacular white horse, but it is stolen from them by a corrupt policeman and sold to a rich man. The boys steal the horse back, and set out for the west. The two boys give wonderfully natural performances, and I admit I got a little choked up at the end. Colm Meaney is in the cast, of course.

Another film for children is The Secret of Roan Inish, which was directed by the American John Sayles. I've always admired Sayles because he sets out to make the kind of movies he wants to, often on the cheap. I saw this one in the theaters when it first came out. It concerns a young girl sent to live with her grandparents (again after a mother dying), who live on the coast of Donegal. They used to live on an island called Roan Inish, and when they left her little brother floated away in the ocean in his cradle. There is lots of mysticism in the film, particularly concerning selkies, the mythological creature who is half-seal, half-human. The story is a bit thin and dry, but a nice film.

Neil Jordan is probably best known for The Crying Game (also coming up on my queue), but the film I just saw was Michael Collins, his biopic of the Sinn Fein leader who helped Ireland achieve independence in 1922. This is a marvelous, luscious film, full of politics and passion. Collins was, to use a word that is now a pejorative, a terrorist, who was responsible for much mayhem during the movement from the Easter rebellion right up to the time when the British finally buckled. He ordered many representatives of the crown assassinated. Eventually, he also took part in a civil war over a proposed treaty. Collins asserted that becoming a Free State would lead to eventual independence, while those who followed Eamonn de Valera wanted nothing less than a republic. Liam Neeson is magnificent as Collins, though Julia Roberts is kind of wasted as his love interest.

Learning about the civil war was useful, as later that day I read Sean O'Casey's play, Juno and the Paycock, which is set in 1922. There are many references to a Free State, so it was helpful to get a primer from the film.

Finally, a film that is from a younger generation of Irish filmmakers, Intermission. Directed by John Crowley and written by Irish playwright Mark O'Rowe (who appeared at the Princeton symposium earlier this fall) Intermission is a slice of contemporary Dublin life, and stars two of the bigger Irish film stars on the scene, Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy. The film has several different story lines, all inter-connecting, similar to Pulp Fiction or Go!, ultimately centering on the ludicrous kindapping attempt by Murphy to win back his old girlfriend, Kelly McDonald. And who plays a pugnacious Dublin detective, who is always chasing after Farrell's thief character? Why, Colm Meaney, of course.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Hillary Problem


As the long 2008 presidential race continues, Hillary Clinton has made some kind of step toward announcing a run (the first step seems to be forming an "exploratory" committee--I think for her, she will explore the mountain of money she has raised and decide it's a good idea). Now, I think she is a capable, intelligent woman who would make a fine president, but I don't want her to run and I will not support her during the primaries. Why? Because it's hard to imagine how she could win in November.

I am a liberal, but I am also a loyal Democrat, unlike some liberals (such as the ones who decided there was no difference between Bush and Gore, and instead voted for Ralph Nader, which is why we are in the mess we are in now). The Democrats have one of the best chances they will have ever have to take the White House, given the results of the mid-term elections. Voters in traditional Republican areas are getting used to voting Democrat, and have clearly had it with the current occupant. He can not run again (thank you, Constitution!) but he has done a nice job of tainting his entire party with his stench, so a Democrat can try to tie whoever the nominee is to Bush's dismal record.

So why would the Democrats nominate one of the most polarizing figures in all of American politics? She has a fifty percent dislike rating, and that's a passionate dislike. I think people would come out of the woodwork to vote against her, off-setting her ardent admirers. Bill, while still loved by many, is also a pariah in many walks of life, and there are millions who don't want to see him resurface. Also, I haven't been crazy about some of her positions. She holds a finger to the wind on many issues, including Iraq. Also, let's face it, she's not very cuddly. The American voters have a strange fixation on the affability of their candidates. Bush, it is said, beat Kerry because more people would rather have a beer with him. Well, maybe this time people will vote for a president who can actually fix things, but that may be naively optimistic.

If I had my druthers, I'd like to see a Gore/Obama ticket. I will admit, though, that Gore brings a lot of the same baggage, so I'm more than willing to take a flyer on a fresh face who isn't despised by huge portions of the population. Right now Obama seems to be the flavor of the month, could it last?

Many seem to be resigned to Hillary taking the nomination as a fait accompli, because of her war chest and the power she wields. But a cursory look at the history of the Democratic nominating process will show that front-runners don't fare well. Unlike the Republicans, who take an orderly, "it's my turn" approach, (McCain, absent a "macaca" moment, should be the GOP nominee) Democratic politics are full of upheavals. No matter how much money she has, people will actually have to vote for her in the primaries. I humbly suggest they do not.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Blood and Thunder


I fancy myself as knowledgeable about the history of the American West, having read several books on the subject, so it's nice to get a dose of history that I previously knew next to nothing about, and in a book that is startingly well-written. That is the case with Blood and Thunder, by Hampton Sides.

The story covers twenty-odd years of history of what is today the state of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, and has at its center Kit Carson, who was a celebrated mountain man. I knew the name Kit Carson, but wouldn't have been able to tell you much about him. Turns out he was an intriguing figure, and has heroic as his legend suggests. He was, however, involved in a dark period of U.S. History--the treatment of the Navajo.

The book begins with the Mexican War, in which the U.S. made a bold land-grab (Sides mentions it was the first time the U.S. made an invasion into another sovereign country. Gee, that sounds familiar). General Stephen Kearny led his army on a long trek, capturing Santa Fe, then moving on to California, which had been explored by John C. Fremont, using Carson as his guide. In the middle of all this were the Navajo and other tribes, who were long-time enemies of the Spanish/Mexicans. Some tribes thought the men in blue from the East had come to liberate them. Fat chance.

Hostilities between the Navajo and the U.S. continued for years, particularly after the Navajo's great chief, Narbonas, was killed in a stupid squabble over a stolen horse. His son-in-law, Manuelito (or Black Weeds) held out for years. During the Civil War, the Navajo were bewildered but pleased to see two different armies of white men fighting over each other, as a Confederate army had dreams of conquering New Mexico, then moving on Denver and then California. That dream ended at the battle of Glorietta Pass, though.

As with any story involving the history of Indians in North America, this story ends inevitably and sadly. A military man named John Carleton had an idea to move the Navajo to a place outside their ancestral lands, near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. The tribe was marched 400 miles (with many dying along the way) and set up with a farm. The first crop, though, was destroyed by pests, and soon they were living in squalor. After the Civil War, Carson convinced William Sherman that the plan wasn't working, so the Navajo were allowed to return to their land, which today is the massive reservation that stretches across New Mexico and Arizona. If their way of life came to an end, at least they were allowed to live where they wanted.

The writing is superb, and works like a page-turning novel. Carson, Fremont, Kearny, Carleton and many others are superb characters, brought thrillingly to life with Sides' prose. This book is a must for any Western buff, and even to the casual history reader.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Borat


I had resisted seeing Borat, but being out of the loop, culturally speaking, was getting the best of me, so I finally took it in this weekend. I had resisted it because I generally don't care for humor in which not all participants are in on the act. This ranges from Candid Camera, to prank phone calls, to the "found" style of humor practiced by personalities like David Letterman.

I did find Borat to be funny, sometimes brilliantly so. There were elements of satire in the film that are worthy of Swift. I will admit, though, that it was not easy to watch. Sacha Baron Cohen, the creator and inhabiter of Borat, is so extremely gonzo in his approach that anyone with any shred of empathy will feel crushingly embarrassed for him.

The story, for those who are living in a cave, has Cohen playing Borat Sagdiyev, who is a TV reporter from Kazakhstan (a fictionalized version, mind you). He has come to America, "the greatest country in the world," to learn new things to take back to his homeland. While in his hotel room, he stumbles upon an episode of Baywatch, and becomes enamored with Pamela Anderson, and he changes his mission to heading to California to make her his wife and "make a romantic explosion on her stomach."

Along the way he meets various types of Americans. Part of the time while I was watching these segments I had to wonder how much of it was staged and what was ambush. Some frat boys from USC, who reveal themselves to be bigoted lushes, are suing, which indicates they weren't in on the joke. But how could they not, with a camera stuck in their faces? Were releases signed? Did Cohen really go to a dinner party in the south (on Secession Drive) and hand his hostess a bag of his own feces? And have a hooker come over? If so, the mind boggles at his temerity.

In addition to sending up American values, Cohen also has some classic slapstick and deliciously rude humor, such as a naked wrestling match with his corpulent producer, played by Ken Davitian, that has to be seen to be believed. Suffice it to say that Borat later yells at him, "I can still smell your testes on my mustache!"

Borat is a classic of its kind, but it also gave me a nervous stomach. Prepare to watch part of it through your fingers.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Oscar Predictions, Round 1

Before the critics awards and Golden Globe nominations either clarify or muddy the Oscar nomination picture, here are my picks for the major categories. I'll chime in again with predictions for all categories sometime in January.

PICTURE

Babel
The Departed
Dreamgirls
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

I'm least sure about Babel because of it's art-house pretentions. But what would replace it? Flags of Our Fathers? World Trade Center? Or something on the horizon, like Notes on a Scandal or The Painted Veil? The other four seem pretty safe to me.

DIRECTOR

Pedro Almodovar, Volver
Bill Condon, Dreamgirls
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Babel
Martin Scorsese, The Departed

Usually doesn't match up 100 percent with picture, though it did last year. The co-directors of Sunshine seem the easiest to drop, with Almodovar taking that spot.

ACTOR

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed
Ryan Gosling, Half-Nelson
Peter O'Toole, Venus
Will Smith, Pursuit of Happyness
Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

A weak category this year, and ripe for a surprise. O'Toole may be seriously ill, which further complicates things.

ACTRESS

Penelope Cruz, Volver
Judi Dench, Notes on a Scandal
Helen Mirren, The Queen
Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Kate Winslet, Little Children

Winslet is vulnerable, due to the fact that the film has been out for months but still hasn't gotten a wide release. Annette Bening for Running With Scissors is a possibility, as is Beyonce if Dreamgirls goes wild.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Alan Arkin, Little Miss Sunshine
Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Jack Nicholson, The Departed
Brad Pitt, Babel
Michael Sheen, The Queen

Pretty sure about this group. Interesting that it would have more star power than the lead category.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel
Emma Thompson, Stranger Than Fiction

Adriana Barraza from Babel also a strong possibility. I put Kikuchi in there because she plays handicapped.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Echoing Green


This is the second book this year I've read about the home run hit by Bobby Thomsen off of Ralph Branca on October 3, 1951, to vault the Giants over the Dodgers for the National League pennant. This past summer I read Underworld, which was Don DeLillo' fictional meditation on the iconic moment in American sports history. Now I have read The Echoing Green, a point-by-point history of that moment and the aftermath, by Joshua Prager. The new twist is that the Giants remarkable run that season was aided by them stealing signs from a telescope in centerfield.

You certainly will get everything you wanted to know, and more so. At times the reader is bogged down in details, everything from a history of signals dating back to the dawn of man, to an entire chapter that is a biography of the electrician who installed the wire and buzzer that the Giants used to tip their batters to what pitch was coming.

Essentially, though, this is a dual biography of Thomsen and Branca, who both come off as decent men who where interwined in a lightning bolt of history, and never were able to shake that moment to this day (both men are still living). It's always interesting to me to read about the everyday lives of baseball players from the old days, and you get that here in spades. There are interesting stories about Giant manager Leo Durocher, backup catcher Sal Yvars (who relayed the stolen signals to Giant batters), and that Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason were at the ultimate game, and Gleason ralphed on Sinatra's shoes (a detail that is also in DeLillo's book).

Weighing this book down, though, is that, like many books about baseball, the author beats us over the head with his erudition. Baseball is a game that appeals to intellectuals, so there is a tendency in baseball writing for the highfalutin. The title of the book is from a poem by William Blake, and chapter epigraphs come from quotations ranging from Homer to Herman Melville. Most annoying is Prager's tortured syntax, which appears to have been translated from another language by Yoda. Several reviews on Amazon also point this out, and one reader wonders where the editor was, but it's clear to me this was intentional. Prager is trying to capture the grandiloquence of the baseball pressbox from the golden age of newspapers. In a book written in 2006, though, this style comes across as clumsy and pretentious.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Behold the Ladyflower of Britney Spears


I must admit to a fascination with Britney Spears. Ever since she burst on the scene as a teen pop idol as sixteen-year-old, I have lusted in my heart after this wide-eyed Louisiana girl. I can't tell you too much about her music--Oops, I Did It Again was a catchy number, but I can't name any of her other songs, but she perfectly captured the jailbait fantasies of perverts such as myself.

Now that she's in her mid-twenties and a mother of two, and she's musically irrelevant, she seems to exist only to provide a soap opera that is fully covered by the large and monstrous celebrity press. And she never seems to disappoint. Whether it's her diet of Red Bull and Cheetos, running into a gas station restroom barefoot, her dubious parenting skills, her constant chewing of gum, even while giving out an award on television, and her now two failed marriages, she's in that circle of people who make tabloid editors smile with satisfaction.

So when I saw that there were photos of Britney flashing her pudenda, I had to look. Now that she's single again she seems to have redoubled her efforts to be a scandal, and who better to associate with than Paris Hilton, the queen of tabloid escapades. The two were out on the town, and Britney conveniently lost her underwear. There are so many fakes of this sort, but this appears to be the genuine article, unless a wizard with Photoshop was able to work in the faint hint of razor stubble and a Caesarean scar.

Thank you, Britney, for being the trashy girl of my heart. Until your inevitable photo shoot for Playboy, I will treasure this moment.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Bobby


The title character of Bobby appears fleetingly, in news clips, and from the back as he is ushered into the Ambassador Hotel, and then into the hotel's kitchen after his victory speech after the 1968 California primary. But his spirit leaves fingerprints all over this film, written and directed by Emilio Estevez, who clearly clings to a romantic notion that Senator Robert F. Kennedy, were he not killed, would have been elected and led the United States on a better path.

Not a bad notion, and when we do see those news clips, or hear his speeches, it's easy to get caught up in nostalgia. But to support this notion, Estevez has made a clumsy, amateurish film. It is an homage to Grand Hotel (Estevez even has the audacity to have one of his characters quote that film early on). Several different characters, employees or guests of the hotel the night of Kennedy's victory speech and then assassination, meander through the film. Some of the stories resonate, some are merely window-dressing. A busboy is forced to work a double shift, even though he has tickets for the Dodger game that night. A young woman is marrying a soldier to make sure he doesn't go to Vietnam. The general manager of the hotel is fooling around with a switchboard operator, his hair stylist wife unknowing. A boozy chanteuse is performing at the Cocoanut Grove, while her handler husband struggles to keep her sober. Two young Kennedy volunteers score some acid.

Each of these threads is pretty insignificant, and don't really add to much of a tapestry, either. Mostly it's because of the script, which is something you might hear in a college creating writing class. Early on I was checking my watch, wondering how many more important speeches I would have to hear these characters make. The worst was probably by Laurence Fishburne, as the hotel's sagacious chef. When the busboy does him a good deed, he scrawls "Once and Future King" on the wall of the kitchen, and tells him about King Arthur. Hello, awkward Camelot reference! The acid trip scene was also an unintentional hoot, with Ashton Kutcher as the most stereotypical hippie you've ever seen.

A few things work--Anthony Hopkins is good as a retired doorman who still spends all of his time at the hotel, thinking about the old days, and Sharon Stone, as the cuckolded stylist, brings a nice dignity to her role. And just when I was ready to relegate this film to my worst list, it was almost saved by the last ten minutes--the assassination, in which all the characters converge, while a Kennedy speech about violence plays on the soundtrack. To anyone who harbors romance about the Kennedys, this is very moving.

What this film really is is a disaster movie, liked the old Ronald Neame films of the 70s. We are introduced to characters who are all strangers to each other, learn a bit about them, and then watch as they are united in tragedy. Unlike those films, though, there is no third act of a struggle for survival. The film stops and lets us the audience carry on that struggle. Unfortunately, this film isn't strong enough to get us there.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Stranger Than Fiction


I enjoyed Stranger Than Fiction, while recognizing its weaknesses. As many others have noted, this film is strongly reminiscent of the work of Charlie Kaufman, who freely intermingles reality with the existential into a mind-bending Moebius Strip. While this film isn't as profound as Kaufman's film, it is a breezy entertainment that also tickles the writer within me.

The story concerns a meek IRS agent, played by Will Ferrell. One day, as he's brushing his teeth, he hears a female voice narrating everything he does. He slowly comes to discover that he is the character in the new book by reclusive author Emma Thompson. He also discovers, through her use of the third-person omniscient, that he is about to die.

There are a number of things to enjoy here. I think my favorite parts are when Ferrell visits an English professor played by Dustin Hoffman. That Hoffman's character just assumes Ferrell is telling the truth is funny, as it is when Hoffman tries to narrow down the type of story Ferrell is in by asking him questions like, "Are you king of anything?" and "Do you have magic powers?"

The film's message--that one should live their life at full tilt, is a bit trite, and the romance that Ferrell strikes up with a rebellious baker, Maggie Gyllenhaal, is forced. But I was caught up in the film's overall sense of wonder and went along with it willingly. I think Thompson is a strong candidate for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, for she excellently captures the misery of being a writer, and the moment when she learns that her character may be real is quite moving.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Babel


I just finished seeing Babel, and it's quite an extraordinary film. Certainly not a cuddly movie, or a movie to go to on your first date, but a great piece of cinema. The third film by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, it is very similar in structure to his first two, Amores Perros and 21 Grams. A single incident (in the first two films it was a car accident, in this film it is a gunshot) effect a wide range of people. His films are also non-linear in nature, although Babel is much easier to follow that 21 Grams, which really jumbles the timeline.

The title comes from the biblical tale of man's attempt to build the Tower of Babel, in order to reach God. To punish man's hubris, God makes it so man has several languages instead of one, so they couldn't understand each other. Inability to communicate is at the core of this film.

To start, a pair of boys, goatherds in the mountains of Morocco, have a new rifle they have been given to keep jackals away from their herd. To show off, one of boys shoots at a bus, and hits an American tourist, Cate Blanchett. Her husband, Brad Pitt, is desperate to get her medical attention, but he is in the heart of the third world and amidst a pissing match between two governments. Meanwhile, his two children are cared for by a Mexican domestic. He phones her and tells her she must watch the children, as they can not leave Morocco while the wife is injured. The domestic, though, wants to go to her son's wedding in Mexico. She decides to take them with her, which in retrospect turns out to be a bad decision.

The third story concerns a young deaf Japanese girl. She is connected to the incident of Morocco only by the slenderest thread, but her lack of ability to communicate with the outside world makes her isolated and lonely, and given to impulsive acts of sexuality.

I particularly like the way this film was edited. Each story is grippingly suspenseful, and we are bounced from one to the other at just the right time, I think. The performances are all good--Pitt is sure to be a nominee for Supporting Actor, and Adriana Barazza, as the Mexican domestic, and Rinko Kikuchi, as the Japanese girl, are also possible nominees.

The film takes a few shots at U.S. foreign policy, particularly in the area of immigration, which I found perfectly acceptable, if not a little simplistic. Immigration is such a complicated issue in this country that could stand a whole film festival worth of films to sort out.

Playboy of the Western World




In conjunction with the semester-long celebration of Irish drama by the Princeton department of Creative Arts, the Theater and Dance department mounted a production of John Millington Synge's play, Playboy of the Western World, which I saw on Friday night. It's been a long time since I've seen a student production in academia, and it brought back memories, some good, some not so good.

This play, first produced in 1907 at the Abbey Theater in Dublin, presents problems for both an American cast and audience, and that is the language. The dialogue makes heavy use of vernacular, and accordingly, accurate accents must be used. All of this at times can make it sound as if a foreign language is being spoken by the actors. This is further intensified when an actor can not articulate what they are saying properly, or unable to project to the back of the theater. Some of the students in this production did well, others did not. It helps to have read the play beforehand.

The story concerns the arrival of a stranger, one Christy Mahon, to a public house on the coast of County Mayo. He has a wild story to tell--he has killed his father. Instead of marching him off to the police, the locals treat him like a hero. Pegeen Mike, who is the daughter of the owner and basically runs the place, falls in love with him, and is ready to push aside her wishy-washy fiance and marry this knight errant. A neighbor widow also has her eyes on him, and he ends up winning an athletic contest, and is proclaimed "Playboy of the Western World" (the Western world referring to the West coast of Ireland, which was quite a wild and woolly place). It is only when Christy's father shows up, quite alive, that things start to go wrong for Christy.

At the play's opening, the crowd rioted. There are two reasons given for this. The simplest one is that a line of dialogue referred to women's undergarments, a huge no-no in 1907 (Ireland, for all its charms, is very slow in the sexual revolution department). The more complicated reason is that the Irish audience didn't particularly care to see the peasantry depicted as such slippery moral characters. The play survived the tumult, and is now recognized as a classic of modern drama.

With all this Irishness going on, I've also set up my Netflix queue to get a taste of Erin. I started with The Quiet Man and Man of Aran, two seemingly quite different but in some ways similar looks at the Emerald Isle. The Quiet Man was director John Ford's affectionate portrayal of his homeland. Ford, who became famous directing Westerns, always wanted to make this tale, based on a short story, and owned the rights for years before he could finally get financing. It tells the story of an American, Sean Thornton, played by John Wayne, who was born in Ireland and left as a young boy. He comes back and buys the cottage he was born in, and sets about wooing his head-strong and beautiful neighbor, played by Maureen O'Hara. The most famous scene has him kissing O'Hara as the wind blows open the door of the cottage.

The Quiet Man hits on all the romantic, touristy notions of Ireland--the beautiful green countryside, the quaint customs (the film really is about a clash of customs--American vs. Irish, in such matters as asking a woman's hand in marriage and then in collecting a dowry), and the twinkly countryfolk, best exemplified by Barry Fitzgerald, the tippling marriage broker with the leprechaun accent.

Man of Aran is a quasi-documentary by Robert Flaherty, the first great documentarian. He spent two years living with the inhabitants of one of the Aran Islands, rocky isles off the West coast of Ireland. These people lived a particularly harsh existence, as the islands have very little soil for growing crops (they are shown making their own soil, by hauling seaweed up from the beach to use as fertilizer). Fishing is their primary industry, and the sea their great provider and nemesis, as when fishermen went out in their rickety canvas-lined boats, chances were they would never come back again. (Synge wrote beautifully about this in a play called Riders to the Sea).

The film has its detractors--though Flaherty used locals as his actors, all the scenes were staged, including a shark hunt, which the Aran islanders had stopped doing fifty years before. There is no mention of the Catholic church, which was a huge part of their lives, or of the landlord system. Flaherty was simply interested in the man vs. nature aspect, which also was the theme of his other documentaries, particulary Nanook of the North.

Both films, then, are the same in that they emphasize the romantic notion of Ireland, the one tourists want to see when they get off the motor coach. Whether it's colorful people who sound like Barry Fitzgerald, or rugged men in their Aran sweaters, Ireland has a reputation to live up to that is in reality far more complicated, as I'm sure John Millington Synge could tell you.

Bo Schembechler


I simply must say a few words about Bo Schembechler, the former coach of the University of Michigan football team, who died on Friday at the age of 77. He is a tie to my childhood in many ways. I was born on the campus of that University, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when my father was a student there. And it has always been a constant that my father has been a huge fan of their sports teams, particularly the football team. That rooting interest has also followed to me. As a kid during the seventies, while Schembechler was coach, Michigan always had good teams, and every year the conference championship came down to the season-ending game against Ohio State, coached by Woody Hayes, who Schembechler was a player and then assistant coach for. The rivalry, as it is today, is intense, to say the least. Schembechler and Hayes coached against each other ten times, in what is now known as the "ten-year war."

Those games were watched raptly by everyone in my family. Since becoming an adult I haven't seen every game, but if I'm around a TV set I'll be sure to tune in, because it doesn't matter what records the two teams have, the rivalry is always there. I even went to one, back in 1995. Over the years I've been to a few games at Michigan Stadium, known as the Big House, for it seats well over 100,000 fans. That was quite a day, when the favored Ohio State Buckeyes and Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George fell to the Wolverines of Michigan, buoyed by over 300 rushing yards by Tim Biakabatuka. Being amidst over 100,000 people is an eletric feeling.

Schembechler retired almost twenty years ago, but his legacy continued up to until the day of his death. Almost cinematically, he died the very day before the latest Michigan-Ohio State game, the first time the two teams met while ranked number 1 and number 2 in the nation. The script didn't have a Hollywood ending, though, as Ohio State outlasted Michigan in a wild game, 42-39. It was a shame, as it would have been great to see a win for Bo.

I haven't had a chance to talk to my father, who still lives in Michigan and lives and dies with the Wolverines. I'm sure Bo's passing is the talk of everyone in the state.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Video Games


I see that Sony has now come out with Playstation 3, and that there are people camping out in lines at stores to get their copy, even though Sony may have fucked up because some of their older games are not compatible with the new system. And to that, I happily say, I don’t care. I’m so glad I’m not caught up in that world. The only video game system I own is a Super Nintendo that is somewhere in the back of my closet, and four games, which I haven’t played in close to ten years.

Now I’m not immune to the seductive power of video games. I was around, kids, when they were invented, and we had a Pong in our house (I’m sure this sounds to younger people like it did to me when an older person said they had nothing to play with as a child but a hoop and a stick). In college, I used to go to the video arcade with a pocket full of quarters to blow off steam. I usually played Mousetrap or Berserker (“intruder alert!”). And while I worked at Penthouse, and had long afternoons of having no work to do, I would play Quake or Centipede on the computer, or LinksPro (Which I now play at home, the only computer game I own).

But I refuse to get caught up in the world of home video game systems. I don’t give a fiddler’s fart whether Playstation is better than Xbox, and even if I stumble into a fortune, I still won’t, because if I had the means to piss away money it would be traveling to far-off exotic places and having sex with shallow women, not spending my days in a darkened room maneuvering a joystick.

It’s an interesting thing, aging. Just as my grandmother has never used an ATM, and never will, I’ve reached the point where I kind of shrug and realize that there are certain technologies I probably will go to my grave without using. Video game systems are one, and the various methods of playing entertainment are another. I don’t own a TiVo, an I-Pod, an MP3 player, or a cell phone that takes video or pictures. I think it will send a text message, if I read the manual and figure out how, but I have no interest in that. Am I so starved for entertainment that I need to watch a TV show on a handheld device? I think I’d rather just daydream.

There are many who defend video games as art-forms, and I won’t quibble with that. Some of them sound interesting, and I guess they have carefully crafted worlds and actually, in their own way, tell a story. But there are only so many hours in the day, and frankly I’d rather be reading, watching a film, listening to music, or enjoying the outdoors rather than killing zombies or racing motorcycles or whatever it is people do when the play these things.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Traitor to Memory


Every once in a while I like to read a good old-fashioned mystery, in between the "literary" fiction I usually read. The novels of Elizabeth George I've enjoyed because they are more literary than most--her detectives have, over the course of her novels, grown and experienced life. I've read about a half-dozen of her books, from the first one to A Traitor to Memory (I think she's had one or two come out since this one), and I've been keen on seeing what happens next with her British sleuths--Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers of Scotland Yard.

One thing to note about Elizabeth George--she doesn't skimp. Most of her books are lengthy for mysteries, but this one was really daunting--1,007 pages! That certainly must be a record for the mystery genre, and is usually reserved for the books of James Michener, who is writing about thousands of years of history. No matter how compelling, I think that's egregiously long for the mystery or thriller--who wants to take over a month, like I did, to read it?

I did finish it, though, over six weeks of reading. The story concerns a woman who is killed by a hit and run driver. Her estranged son is a concert violinist who has recently lost the ability to play, and he keeps a diary in the form of a conversation with his therapist. We soon learn that he had a sister who was murdered years earlier, and a German nanny went to prison for the crime. That earlier murder, of course, ties in to the present one, and Lynley and Havers, along with their colleague Winston Nkata, are on the case.

In addition to the length, the structure is very frustrating. It is typical of George to begin the book with a prologue involving a character you don't come across again for scads of pages. It's as if she wants you to have that moment where you say to yourself, "Ah, I remember her!" Also, her detectives don't make an appearance until about page sixty, and just when the action gets going, she cuts back to the violinist's diary entries. I would wager a lot of people started this book but didn't finish.

George is a woman who lives in California but sets her novels in England, an Anglophile for sure, and for that reason she appeals to the Anglophile in her reader. Unlike most of her books, this one does not take place in the countryside, so there is a distinct lack of feeling like one wants to hop a plane to London after reading it.

As for the mystery itself, well, it was okay. What makes up most of those 1,007 pages are copious details about the lives of the suspects and peripheral characters, some of them leading down alleys in an attempt at misdirection, I suppose. Also, instead of learning who the killer is in the last few pages, George wraps up the mystery with about thirty page to go, and uses her remaining time for more character work. Before I read her next book, I will cross my fingers that she has had the supervision of a strong editor.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Modern Times


We continue to live in an era of renaissance for Bob Dylan, who arguably is the most important American poet of the second half of the twentieth century (I know many snobbish poetry professors will sniff that lyrics are not poetry, but the hell with them). After the mid-seventies, just when I was becoming aware of him, Dylan went into a long period of irrelevancy, but came back into prominence in the late nineties with the first of a trio of records that has put him back on the charts and won him critical accolades and even Grammys. Modern Times, released this fall, is the third record in this trio, and I picked it up a week or two ago.

While the days of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are long gone, this record is still a pleasure to listen to. It begins with a shit-kicking roadhouse number called Thunder on the Mountain, which inexplicably references Alicia Keys:

I was thinkin' 'bout Alicia Keys, couldn't keep from crying
When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line
I'm wondering where in the world Alicia Keys could be
I been looking for her even clear through Tennessee

There are also some bluesy ballads and forgettable love songs, but the transcendant Dylan kicks in on the eighth track, Nettie Moore. The song has a drum beat that practically winks at the listener, letting us know we're in for one of his wry, whimsical songs that contains his usual cryptic non-sequitors that still manage to say something profound:

I'm the oldest son of a crazy man,
I'm in a cowboy band
Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain't got time to hide
I'd walk through a blazing fire, baby, if I knew you was on the other side

The album ends with an eight-minute plus dirge called Ain't Talkin', which could scare you if you listen with the lights out. In some ways it's reminiscent of A Hard Rain's Gone A-Fall, but instead of dazzling displays of language, this one is about silences:

As I walked out tonight in the mystic garden
The wounded flowers were dangling from the vine
I was passing by yon cool crystal fountain
Someone hit me from behind

Ain't talkin', just walkin'
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin', still yearnin'
No one on earth would ever know

With this trilogy (the first two records are Time Out of Mind and Love and Theft) and Martin Scorsese's brilliant documentary about Dylan's early years, No Direction Home, Dylan is one again front and center on the music scene, where he belongs, and I hope he's attracting a whole new generation of fans.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Marie Antoinette


There was much talk of this film when it played in Cannes, as it got booed by the French audience. I don't think this film is boo-worthy, my response was more of a yawn, as I found very little about it compelling.

The story of a teenage duchess from Austria who is married off to the dauphin of France, Marie Antoinette has lived through history as an example of decadence run amuck. Director Sofia Coppola takes a look at how tricky a spot this young woman was in. First off, her husband, the future Louis XVI (wickedly played by Jason Schwartzmann) has no interest in deflowering her, and everyone around her urges to get knocked up or she may be shipped back to Austria. Then there are all the weird rules of protocol, like standing in the cold morning air naked waiting for the highest ranking lady in waiting to slip on your petticoat. Some of this is nice, droll humor, but this film is not a comedy. After the dauphin finally does his duty and gives her a daughter, she seeks to withdraw from the court life and has an idyll in the country, where she romps with lambs and goats. I'm sure that was very nice, but hardly riveting.

In the final act history catches up with our girl. We see it all from inside Versailles (aside from a few quick glances of torches and pitchforks). The audience can neither sympathize with the plight of the royals or condemn them for it (Schwartzmann, now as King, simply gives his approval to everything his advisors suggest). Marie denies saying "Let them eat cake," but she's no Eleanor Roosevelt, either. We are spared a guillotine scene, so instead we file out of the theater mumbling, "What was that all about?"

Of course the costumes and sets are dreamy. Coppola also uses anachronistic music, with songs from the eighties. I suppose this is why many critics saw the film as a representation of tabloid divas from today such as Paris Hilton--the lonely little rich girl syndrome. Parallels can certainly be drawn, but I think what this film is mostly about is what a drag it is too live such an insular life, which even someone like Hilton doesn't suffer from (she was busted for DWI, after all). I imagine the closest parallel may have been Princess Diana, but even she busted out of the palace shell and took her kids to Disneyland. Pity Euro Disney wasn't open back in Marie's day.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Adios, Senator Macaca!


The dust has settled from the 2006 mid-term elections, and the Democrats have control of both houses of Congress, as George Allen conceded the Virginia senatorial election to his opponent James Webb yesterday. The freefall by Allen was quite shocking, given that earlier this year he was on a short list of favorites for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, and now he is in the political wilderness. His fall, and the Republicans loss of the Senate, can be traced to one moment--when Allen spotted a Webb operative at one of his rallies, an operative who happened to a dark-skinned man of Indian heritage, and called him "macaca." Such are the vagaries of history.

Allen, it should be pointed out, has a history of racial insensitivity. Several of his ex-teammates from the University of Virginia football team have said that Allen was a frequent user of the "N" word, and Allen has not hidden a bizarre fascination with the Confederate flag. He saw himself as an heir to the George W. Bush mantle--the good 'ol boy who wasn't too bright but was a natural at campaign events like picnics, where he could show off his cowboy boots and football skills. Hopefully the pendulum will swing the other way and Americans will actually want someone with above average intelligence to occupy the White House.

It's also been interesting to read the Republican reaction to this bloodbath. Of course there is a lot spin. Ann Coulter has dug into the numbers and says that since this isn't as big a loss for Republicans as some of the mid-term elections during the Roosevelt and Clinton presidencies, then Americans really must be for the war. Others have pointed out that many of the Democrats are conservative, which is real denial. Some of them may be against gun control, and a few are pro-life, but they are a lot better than those they replaced. The most consistent statement seems to be that this Republican majority wasn't true to conservatism, and this will be a wakeup call to the party. I think this is a truer-to-the-mark attitude, for this Congress did inflate the government and spending(best typied by Ted Stevens pushing for a 220 million dollar bridge in Alaska that would be used by fewer than 100 people). We Democrats should keep an eye on Republicans now--they will head up into the hills and regroup, and come back with zealous fire in their eyes.

As for what the Democrats should do, one thing they should not do is talk about impeachment. Look, no one would like to see Bush and Cheney on a chain gang breaking rocks more than me, but it would be a mistake to take this course, and Nancy Pelosi is right to say it is off the table. The mistake the Republicans made after the 1994 revolution was to go too far, culminating in the bizarre and wasteful attempt to remove Bill Clinton from office because of a blowjob. The Democrats should let W. wither on the vine, and go about making lives better for Americans, and concentrating on taking the White House in '08.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

School Daze


Last weekend I made one of my hockey trips, this time visiting Brown and Yale University. This was my second trip to Brown, and I must say that the Providence neighborhood where Brown resides is a very nice one. The campus is tucked into an urban area, but unlike say, an NYU, the campus is not flung over several areas. So, a student gets both the self-contained campus but also is footsteps away from a thriving commercial neighborhood (very similar to Princeton). If I were a prospective student, Brown would attract me for that very reason.

The college I went to, SUNY-Stony Brook, did not have this. As much as I enjoyed college (in some ways I peaked during those years), I missed out on this aspect. The campus there is entirely self-contained, an unless one had a car, there was little of the community to see. Even if you did have a car, there were only malls, aside from a nice area in Port Jefferson.

The main drag of the neighborhood is Thayer Street, which is full of eclectic shops and restaurants. I had lunch at a Middle-Eastern place, and when I went back for dinner I looked at a lot of menus in windows but ended up eating at Johnny Rockets, which is one of those chain restaurants meant to evoke nostalgia. The place is decked out like a burger stand from the forties or fifties, with the help wearing those paper hats, the place lit as a bright as an operating theater, and oldies on the jukebox. I enjoyed it, but I looked around and wondered about the nature of nostalgia. I was certainly the oldest person in the place, the rest mostly college age. Now, I'm creeping toward AARP eligibility, but even I barely remember restaurants of this kind. There was a place called Parker's in Dearborn, Michigan that my grandfather took me to, with a counter and stools, and the distinctive white exterior, but that was the last of a dying breed. So what Johnny Rockets is doing is creating an era that its customers have no memory of.

My lodging was a bed and breakfast, and the breakfast was communal. I ended up dining with a couple who were taking their daughter on college trips. She is an artist, and had just visited the Rhode Island School of Design, after also visiting New York schools. Also at my table was a teacher of art, so the girl picked his brain on all sorts of art school questions. Her parents were very supportive, even though art school is not exactly a fast-track to financial security. I couldn't help but get caught up in her enthusiasm. The time when a kid is choosing their college is a pretty heady time, and is one of those decisions that really has a major effect on the course of your life.

Oh, and Princeton won both hockey games!