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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

X-Men 3


Certainly there were reasons to avoid X-Men 3, or X-Men: The Last Stand, or whatever it's called. The director, Brett Ratner, is not exactly renowned as an auteur, having made the execrable Rush Hour movies. And who can keep track of all the mutants? There must be over a dozen of them running around. I'm helped by having read the X-Men comics in my youth, but pity the person coming to it cold. Which guy throws fire, and which guy throws ice?

So I was pleasantly surprised by this film. It was the equivalent of cotton candy, almost completely forgotten by the time I got to my car, but enjoyable none-the-less. The dialogue was cheesy--Limburger cheesy--but perhaps this is befitting the nature of the comic book beast. And speaking of beast--the casting of Kelsey Grammer as the Beast, which was derided by some, was a stroke of inspiration. When you hear his voice you keep looking for Niles, but it was fun. Of course, there is a lot of dopeyness afoot. How can anyone take Magneto seriously with that silly helmet? And the body count is high. But I thought the not-so-hidden metaphor of mutantism equaling homosexuality was thought-provoking. And there's a nearly nude shot of Rebecca Romijn.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Gone With the Wind


I rented Gone With the Wind over the weekend. I believe it is the third time I've seen it. The first time was when my grandmother took me during a re-release during the 1970's. She had seen it a number of times and it was a favorite of hers. I then rented the video version about twenty years ago. I may have seen parts of it during television airings since then.

It is, without reservation, a magnificently made film. The photography, script, editing and direction are all exquisite, and it certainly deserves its reputation as perhaps the greatest movie of all-time, if only for the sensation it created. There are, however, some disturbing things about it, particularly it's attitude about slavery.

Now, I know the film was made in 1939, and no one was going to make any money in those days making movies where blacks were treated as equals. But I think this attitude needs to be addressed. The novel, which I have not read, is, I understand, Margaret Mitchell's method of trying to invoke the memory of a civilization past--the "moonlight and magnolias" era of the ante-bellum South. That's all well and good, but that was a civilization that was created on the backs of slave labor. As I watch the opening scenes, I relish the prospect that these spoiled, horrible people are about to get their just desserts. The film keeps that romantic vision alive, depicting zero scenes of the cruelty and horror of slavery. We are told that the O'Hara's "darkies" are treated well, and they remain loyal to a fault. But wouldn't have been nice if Big Sam, instead of trying to quell the Yankee invasion, had run off and joined the Union Army?

Rhett Butler, a wonderful character, almost seems to exist outside of the film. He is the only person who seems to know the situation, and is a realist of the highest order. He's also the only character who treats Mammy with any respect. I suppose the way he was written was the only way the film could have taken a more modern sensibility. Thanks, also, to producer David Selznick, who removed all instances of the "N" word which were in the novel. If that word had been peppered through the script, I don't know if the film would be so loved today. It might sit on the shelf next to Birth of a Nation, as a film classic that nobody wants to watch anymore.

My grandmother, who was from southern Ohio, talked about how terrible the Union Army was to the South during Sherman's march to the sea. From where I sit, it was entirely appropriate. So even today this film can provoke thought and debate.

Friday, May 26, 2006

On the Cusp of a Three-Day Weekend

As I write this, it's less than an hour to go before I am free on a three-day weekend. It's raining, but supposedly there will be two nice days coming up. I will not be leaving town, though. I will probably go see X-Men 3, and I have Netflixed Gone With the Wind, so I I'm sure I will write about those next week.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Lost Season Finale



Some questions, comments:

Who's alive/coming back? Locke and Eko are unaccounted for. Michael and Walt have set out for parts unknown. Whether we see Michael and Walt again is interesting. Since Walt is a child, the actor's growth is a problem for producers, as the time elapsed on the show is far less than real life. Also, if Michael were to have to return to the island, the castaways wouldn't accept it, given that he killed two of their members (Hurley will certainly tell everyone this when he returns to camp).

Who are the "Others?" They are using Dharma initiative hatches, but they clearly weren't involved with the Swan, as Inman and Desmond referred to them as "hostiles." Who they are and what they are up to is now the biggest question of the show (last year it was "what is in the hatch?")

Some historical and literary allusions: Locke and Hume (Desmond's last name) are both the names of European philosophers. I don't know enough about philosophy to know whether this is meaningful or just a conceit. I also haven't read Our Mutual Friend, but I did read Turn of the Screw in college. It's a ghost story, as I recall. Desmond's old girlfriend, who seems to have been funding a project to find him, is named Penelope, who in The Odyssey was the wife of Odysseus, who waited patiently for him to return. How would she know to have men look for electromagnetic anomalies? This scene was also the first non-flashback scene referring to the world outside the island, which suggests that they are still on Earth (not purgatory, or in a dream) and that life on Earth has proceeded normally since the crash.

Libby is now connected by coincidence to two on the island: Desmond and Hurley. Since she's now dead, will we ever get a flashback that explains how she ended up in the booby-hatch with Hurley, or how she ended up in Australia?


Where is Rousseau? I think it's clear that the young woman of the Others called Alex is her daughter.

Will Charlie get some Claire-lovin'?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Comic Books


Superhero comics hold a special place in my life, but I do not read them anymore. I have had different phases where I have consumed them: as a kid during the seventies, then a few different times as an adult, mainly in my 20s. I was a fairly serious collector then, as I would hit Forbidden Planet on Broadway and 12th Street in New York City and buy almost every monthly title that Marvel published (I have always been a Marvel guy, as opposed to DC).

I find the superhero character to be as interesting an archetype in American culture as the cowboy, the private eye, or the G.I. Done right, it can be thrilling. However, if it's not done right, it can be quite silly, as you realize you're watching a guy in tights prance on rooftops because he got zapped by radiation.

I began to sour on comics as I realized they were making suckers out of guys like me. They would continue a Spider-Man story in an Iron Man title, for example, or put out an issue with four different covers ("collect 'em all!"). I'm glad I had stopped reading when Marvel decided to start its "universe" all over again.

But I had fun with them. Spider-Man was my favorite, as he is with many guys who can identify with a neurotic loner. Spider-Man had several different monthly titles, including one called Marvel Team-Up, which featured two disparate Marvel characters pairing for one adventure. Due to his popularity, Spider-Man was always one of the pair.

After years of legal wrangling, Marvel has finally begun to bear the fruit of the comic-book film explosion. The results have been hit and miss. I think the two Spider-Man films are top-notch entertainments, and remain true to the character. I was never a Hulk guy, and I thought that film was a bit too heavy-handed. Daredevil was so-so, and I skipped Elektra and The Punisher.

I finally got around to seeing the Fantastic Four last week and, as expected, didn't care for it. It was an origin story, and suffers from the pitfalls that origin stories are susceptible to. The Fantastic Four, in the comics, fought villains on a galactic scale (one of their arch-enemies was Galactus, who eats planets), yet this film had them rescue a fire truck and battle Doctor Doom on a street in New York, hardly an epic scale. And they sure gave short shrift to Doctor Doom, who in the comics was an evil tyrant, not a Donald Trump knock-off.

The third X-Men film is coming up this weekend, and I suppose I'll take a look. I liked the first two okay, though they have an embarrassment of riches with the number of characters and don't seem to know what to do with them. Ghost Rider is coming up, and there's talk of an Iron Man film.

The best Marvel stuff I ever read was a 12-part series called Secret Wars, which came out in the mid-eighties. The main heroes and villains (minus Daredevil, for some reason) are spirited away to a distant planet by a God-like figure who calls himself the Beyonder. Like a kid putting different kids of bugs in a jar and watching them battle, the Beyonder has put Marvel characters on this planet to watch the results. I thought it was great stuff. It's where Spider-Man found the black uniform that would one day turn into Venom, and where Doctor Doom came close to turning himself into a God. It would make the most expensive film ever made. Perhaps one day, during my lifetime, the FX techology will make it economically feasible.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Best American Fiction Poll


The New York Times recently published the results of a poll on the best American work of fiction over the last 25 years. I like to think of myself as well-read, and I was heartened to see that I have read about half the works listed (a few of them are a series of novels, which I have read part). But this is mostly due to the frequency of appearance by Philip Roth, who is my favorite writer.

Roth has six books of the 22 listed, an impressive feat. I have read and enjoyed them all: American Pastoral, The Human Stain, Operation: Shylock, The Counterlife, Sabbath's Theater, and The Plot Against America. Of these, I would say The Counterlife was my favorite, the last of the Zuckerman trilogy (although Zuckerman still shows up in Roth's books). My favorite Roth book, perhaps my favorite book of all time, is Portnoy's Complaint, too old for this poll. Any writer who can write so detailingly and humorously about masturbation is certainly a compadre of mine. I have read almost all of Roth's books, but am a little behind, as I have not read The Dying Animal and he has a new book, called Everyman.

The winner of the poll was Beloved, by Toni Morrison. I read that about twenty years ago, and it was rough going. I won't say that I didn't like it, but it was a struggle to get through. Roth's writing is like butter to me, but while reading Beloved I found that I had trouble understanding what was going on. I felt this way while reading another finalist, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian.
Here are the other books on the list that I've read: The Rabbit novels of John Updike (two of the four: Rabbit is Rich, which is one of the best novels I've ever read, and Rabbit at Rest), A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin (too precious by half), Libra, by Don DeLillo (a good book, but kind of got co-opted by the similar story of Oliver Stone's film JFK), Cormac McCarthy's Border Crossing trilogy (I read All the Pretty Horses, but not the other two).

Unread by me: Underworld, by Don DeLillo (well, I read the first chapter, which was great, but put it down and didn't go back to it. I should find it and start again), and White Noise, by the same author; Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson, Where I'm Calling From, by Raymond Carver, The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien; Mating, by Norman Rush, Jesus's Son, by Denis Johnson, Independence Day, by Richard Ford (I own this, and is in a stack of yet-to-be-read books); and The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. I guess it's time for more reading!

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Da Vinci Code--The Movie


After reading the book a few weeks ago, specifically in preparation for seeing the film, I ultimately decided I would see it, after having my doubts following the critical pasting it took. There was nothing else playing I wanted to see, and I would be able to see it for free (I still had a free pass from my pals at the multiplex where I worked), so I figured it wouldn't hurt to get out of the house and take it in.

The result? Well, it's not a great film, but it's not the disaster that some critics paint it as. As with any film that Ron Howard directs, you know it's going to look good, make sense and be mildly entertaining. He is not Francis Coppola, who took The Godfather, a pulp novel, and turned it into a classic.

The problem with making a well-known book into a film is that there must be an urge to not deviate too much from the source material, or you have legions of attendees walking out of the theater griping, "It didn't happen that way in the book." There are some changes--mostly streamlining, and a few characters' motivations. But overall, all the plot points are there, so the film at times resembles a paint-by-numbers exercise, everything in place to please the masses.

But I'll give it this--I can't be too hard on a summer blockbuster that plays to the intellect, instead of just blowing shit up. This film goes into great detail about arcane history that is interesting (it must be interesting--40 million bought the book) and is actually thoughtful. This film may be a bit boring, but it is not dumb. I also enjoyed Ian McKellen chew the scenery. This actor really can turn on the twinkle in his eye.

I see that the bad reviews didn't keep people away, at least on the first weekend, and I think that's a good thing. This film can not be lumped in with all the crap that Hollywood is feeding us, and I give it some credit.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Tristan and Isolde



I am what you might call an "Arthur" buff. I'm a sucker for all that Camelot, Knights of the Round Table stuff. I'm not sure when that started, but about fifteen years ago I delved into it rather seriously. I read most of the main texts: Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of England, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, plus several books about Arthurian legends and whether Arthur was a historical figure or not. A lot of that knowledge has seeped out of head in the intervening years, but I still retain a lot of it and have a bookshelf full of volumes on the subject.

Tristan, or Tristram, was tangentially an Arthurian legend. He is one of the round table in Malory, but the earliest representations of him, by the Anglo-Norman Thomas and the German Gottfried Von Strassburg, don't have anything to do with Arthur.

I am invariably disappointed with any film version of an Arthurian legend. Perhaps Monty Python ruined them forever by making the definitive film on the subject. John Boorman's Excalibur probably came close, but there have been some silly ones--First Knight, with Sean Connery and Richard Gere, and last year's King Arthur, which had the knights of the round table as Russians (!) and Guinivere a Pict. So when I popped the recent film Tristan and Isolde into my DVD player last night, I didn't expect much.

The film shot up in queue due to the casting of Sophia Myles, who I saw early this week in Art School Confidential. Even at my advanced age I get schoolboy crushes on actresses, and she's my latest. I was pleasantly surprised by some of the film, but overall it suffered from the usual problems in these kind of films--there's no magic to them. It was kind of a slog, and attempted to be realistic. That's well and good, but I'd rather see dragons and wizards than a realistic look at sixth century Britain.

What was good about the film was that it did maintain a shred of the actual story. Now, you can't fault a film for deviating from legend, because there were several versions of the stories. In this version of the story, we do get the main component of the love triangle between Tristan, Isolde, and King Mark of Cornwall. What we don't get is the other central feature, the love potion which makes the lovers crazy about each other. The change is explained in the supplementary material and it makes sense. We also don't get Isolde (or Iseult) of the White Hands, who Tristan marries when his main gal marries Mark.

This film's low budget also shows, and a story like this should be full of epic grandeur, and instead it's a small, dark, dank picture. But I admire the filmmakers for giving it a go, and not surrendering to silliness.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Nostalgia


I read in the entertainment news that there will be a feature-film version of Underdog, the cartoon from the 1960's. Thinking about that cartoon takes me back to the days when memories are fuzzy.

My childhood was pretty typical for a white kid in the American suburbs. My parents were married, I lived in comfort, and I had a loving extended family. But specific memories from before the age of six or so are few and far between. Instead I just remember things in terms of emotions--mostly from watching TV. Recalling a show like Underdog, or Speed Racer, or Captain Kangaroo can take me to emotional memories. I may not remember the room I was in when I was watching these shows, but I can remember how they made me feel. It's a very comfortable feeling, similar to the feeling I get when I remember sitting on my grandfather's lap while he ate his breakfast. Fortunately, the good feelings are the ones I remember most, although I know it wasn't an entirely rosy time for me, and I had my share of distresses. I think I've dealt with those issues, though, and put them behind me, and I can take out the good memories when I choose to.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Cat's Cradle


A few years ago in a burst of consumerism in a Barnes and Noble, I bought up all the Kurt Vonnegut novels I wanted to own. A few of them I had read before, but did not have copies of: Slaughterhouse-Five (which is in my top ten all time of novels) and The Sirens of Titan. I have been reading them periodically since then--first Player Piano, then Breakfast of Champions last winter, and today I finished Cat's Cradle.

As with much of Vonnegut's fiction, Cat's Cradle can be described as comedic, or perhaps absurd, but it is also one of the bleakest books I've ever read. The metaphor of the title seems to suggest that life is meaningless (the string game of cat's cradle creates neither a cat or a cradle, and it is compared to religion--where is the cat? Where is the cradle?), and the fate of mankind is not a happy one.

The story concerns an unnamed writer who has become interested in the (fictional) "Father of the A Bomb," who also created something called Ice-9, which is a form of ice that freezes at room temperature, thus it's exposure to the Earth's water supply would end life as we know it. It is has fallen into the hands of this scientist's children, one of whom is a happy-go-lucky midget, another a love-lorn woman, and the third a misfit who has used his Ice-9 to become a general on a Caribbean island. This island is the home to a cynical man named Bokonon, who has created a religion built on lies. Vonnegut explains much of the principles of this religion throughout the novel.

Also typical of Vonnegut, the novel is written in simple, straight-forward style. Chapters are only a page or two, and there is little artifice or ornamentation. It is in this deceptively simple way that he exposes us to the fundamental blocks on humankind--race in Breakfast of Champions, fascism in Mother Night, and in Cat's Cradle the balance between techology and religion. A terrific book, but it may not make you want to whistle a happy tune.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Fiona Apple


I remember the first time that I became aware of Fiona Apple. An article about her ran in the New York Times, and I was drawn to the photo of her, which was very similar to the one at right. I guess heroin chic was still in then, and I'll admit that's a look that gets my attention, so I was immediately intrigued with her, even without hearing a note of her music. Later I heard her first hit, Shadowboxer, and found it a bit turgid. It wasn't until I began hearing Criminal that I went out and bought her first record, Tidal.

I became more of a fan of hers with her second record. But, in a well-known story among her fans, her latest album was much delayed. At first the news was her record company wouldn't allow it to be released, but later it was found out that Fiona herself was unhappy with it. Eventually the album, titled Extraordinary Machine, came out to great acclaim last year.

I was going through a pile of magazines and found the Entertainment Weekly Best of 2005 issue, and thumbed through it and hers was named best album of the year. That reminded me that I hadn't yet purchased it. On Sunday, while walking in Princeton, I was pulled by magnetic force into Princeton Record Exchange, when I finally bought it.
It's a very good record. I've listened twice now. I like that she's growing as an artist. Oh, there are still touches of the "Sullen Girl," but some of the songs, including the title track, are downright whimsical. The instrumentation is also excellent, getting away from just a girl at a piano. In addition to the title track, I like Not About Love (there's a funny video on the DVD version, where you can actually see Fiona laughing), Window, and Parting Gift. I have no quibbles with Entertainment Weekly's selection.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Art School Confidential


Terry Zwigoff was three-for-three in my book. I loved Crumb, Ghost World, and Bad Santa, so his latest, an adaptation of Daniel Clowes graphic novel (he also wrote the source material for Ghost World) was a film I was looking forward to. Unfortunately, it was a misstep.

A story about a kid beginning his studies at a prestigious New York art school, Art School Confidential could have been a bright funny look at the oddities such a journey would be like. It has some strains of that--there are a lot of chuckles about the absurdity of the art world, and how some look at a painting full of scribbles and see genius while others say it's garbage. But this film gets hijacked by an absurd plot about a serial killer, that drags it into places that are uninteresting.

There's also a major problem with our hero, played by Max Minghella. He's a drip. At the beginning of the film all he wants to be the world's greatest artist, like Picasso, but by the end of the film he wants nothing else but to impress the girl he has a crush on, an artist's model played by Sophia Myles. There is little else to the character. He never says anything funny or charming or interesting, so it's hard to imagine that the Myles character, who is something of a social butterfly in the New York art scene, would be interested in him. You just don't root for the guy. Contrast this character with Enid in Ghost World, who is much more layered and sympathetic, despite her faults.

I give this film a C-.

Friday, May 12, 2006

American Idol



American Idol is a hugely popular show, a phenomenon, really. Someone by the name of Chris Daughtry was voted off the show and it actually made the national news on networks other than Fox, which airs the show. I know this, even though I don't watch the show.

Why don't I watch? I've seen a bit of the show, usually when I'm visiting my mother and I'm a captive audience. I find it to contain elements in all that is wrong with American culture. It is really a glorified Karoake contest, and encourages the bland music that now seems to be popular across the land. I'm sure the singers that do well on the show have talent, but their route to stardom is a bit of a cheat. None of these performers who have hit it big since Idol seem to write their own music. Imagine if Bob Dylan had been a contestant if the show were around in 1962. He would have been laughed off the show by the supercilious Simon Cowell.

I might enjoy watching a battle of the bands kind of contest featuring unknown rock acts, with the requirement being they perform their own music, and points would go for distinctiveness and creativity, beyond just the ability to hit notes or be charismatic. But American Idol, to me, is just a battle of wedding singers.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Team of Rivals



I finally finished Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin. It was an immensely readable, enjoyable book, and once again reinforced my belief, which is shared by many, that it was either great luck or divine intervention that we had Lincoln as president during the civil war.

The first third of the book is a detailing of the 1860 presidential race, with biographies of the principle Republican candidates: Lincoln, William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates. Lincoln was the darkest of horses, a one-term congressman who had made a name for himself losing a senate race in Illinois, but becoming well-known as an orator. Goodwin describes how Lincoln craftily maneuvered for delegates, and how dumbstruck Seward and Chase were not to get the nomination.

Then Lincoln does the unthinkable--he appoints his vanquished challengers to his cabinet. Over and over again it is demonstrated how Lincoln puts aside grudges for the betterment of the country. Edwin Stanton, who was Lincoln's second Secretary of War, once embarrassed Lincoln when they were both attorneys. But Lincoln harbored no grudge, and came to trust Stanton completely.

Also, Lincoln's virtues as a man shine through: his humor, compassion, intelligence and people skills. I wish I had been able to know him. This book is a must for anyone who enjoys reading about Lincoln or the Civil War.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Hitchcock



I've been watching a lot of Hitchcock films lately. They are from the Hitchcock Signature collection, which is mostly stuff from the forties and fifties. I don't own any Hitchcock in my collection, I've rented them from Netflix.

I started with North by Northwest, then on to Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Foreign Correspondent, Suspicion and Stage Fright, with The Wrong Man, I Confess, and Mr. and Mrs. Smith to come. I'm also renting Notorious, which at the moment I consider my favorite Hitchcock film.

Of course, that just scratches the surface of Hitchcock's canon. You could rattle off ten of his films and someone might say that their favorite hasn't been listed. He made so many films over such a long period of time, and yet they all seem to have a distinctive touch that instantly identify them as his. He's sort of the Shakespeare of film.

Of this recent bunch, North by Northwest is probably the best, it's a grand entertainment, even if no one lives on the top of Mount Rushmore. Strangers on a Train contains one of the creepiest performances ever, by Robert Walker, who seemed to set the standard for stalking, a term that hadn't even been invented yet. Dial M for Murder is very stagey, befitting its source, but is an easy pleasure, even with all that talk of keys. And my favorite part of Foreign Correspondent may have been an early performance by George Sanders, as a good guy.

As for Stage Fright, I had never seen it before and knew nothing about it. Therefore I was a sucker for what is known as the "false flashback," which Hitchcock claimed was a mistake. I thought it was ingenious, and made the movie interesting.

Monday, May 08, 2006

United 93



The advanced talk about United 93 wasn't so much about the quality of the movie, but whether people wanted to see it. There are those who think it may be too soon after the events of 9/11 to see a fictionalized take on the flight of United 93, which was intended by its hijackers to crash into the U.S. Capitol, but instead was commandeered by passengers and crashed into a Pennsylvania field. I'm sure there are others who are put off by the idea that it may be exploiting the tragedy. I went in with an open mind, and I was mightily impressed.

The film works as a thriller, even if you knew nothing about the history. The only points of view in this film are from those on the plane (both hijackers and passengers) and the various air-traffic control centers, including the NORAD center. This keeps the melodrama at a bare minimum, and instead focuses on the mechanics of the event. It was fascinating to see how the controllers and military personnel reacted to the events as they unfolded, questioning a hijacking (which there hadn't been for over a decade) and then the horror when the second Trade Center building is hit.

A conventional disaster movie would have spent time with the passengers before take-off, telling us who they were. Instead, we don't even know their names, putting us almost in there situation, which makes for a more intense experience. Apparently director Paul Greengrass spoke with the families of all aboard and received their blessing.

For those who are shying away from seeing this, I'd like them to reconsider.

Friday, May 05, 2006

The Da Vinci Code



Just finished The Da Vinci Code on my lunch hour. So now I've removed myself from another cultural stigma, as I've joined the 40 million or so who have read it (or at least bought it).

It is was certainly a fun read, a beach read, though I did not read it at the beach. It was seemingly well-researched (I've been looking elsewhere to see what is true and not true about it) but at times clunky and amateurish in its presentation, with lines I would have expected in a Hardy Boys book. But, as I read the conclusion, I was completely absorbed in the book, and enjoyed the aspect of puzzles and riddles. I will have to see the film to see what changes were made, as I heard there were some to appease the protests of the Catholic Church.

Neko Case



I've really cut back on my music purchases. Time was I would buy, on average, a CD a week or more. Now I can go months between purchases. Some of that is due to a more sensible fiscal outlook, but it's partly due to an inability to keep up with what is out there these days. Therefore, when I do buy music, it tends to be oldies, or bands that I am familiar with.

But lately I had been intrigued by Neko Case. I have the first two New Pornographers CDs. She is a vocalist for that band, but it's not really her band. So this week I bought her solo CD, The Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, as well as the New Pornographers third CD, Twin Cinema. I listened to the solo record first, and I will be listening many more times. Her voice and sound, which reminds me of Hope Sandoval and Mazzy Star, is transporting. She glides over notes in a dreamy fashion. I particularly like a song called Star Witness. Don't ask me what any of her songs are about, her lyrics are pretty inscrutable.

I got a first taste of Twin Cinema last night. It's a good record, not as good as the first one--Mass Romantic, but better than the second, Electric Version. It's loud and full of power pop, with a touch of gospel in there the way the vocals are layered. I'll need a few more listens to determine which songs are my favorites.

Neko is classified as alt-country, although I'm not sure what that means. Yes, there is a Patsy-Cline-ish quality to her voice, but the music itself doesn't seem country to me. She has played the Grand Ole Opry, but apparently has not been there since an incident when she took her shirt off during a concert. I guess Nashville wasn't quite ready for that.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

The Moussaoui Sentence



While I listened to the radio to hear what sentence Zacarias Moussaoui would receive for his part in the 9/11 attacks, I had an interesting reaction: I wasn't sure what I thought. I am, in principle, opposed to capital punishment. I don't like the idea that government has the power to take someone's life. However, the strength of my opposition has mellowed over the years. I'm not someone who would devote my time and energy to anti-death penalty causes, like standing outside a prison in a candlelight vigil. Why? Well, those who are on death row, if they are guilty, are hardly the kind of people worth fighting for. I would prefer to devote my energy to the poor and downtrodden, not someone who killed people in a gas-station robbery.

So I was kind of glad that Moussaoui did not get the death penalty. I think the jurors showed admirable restraint. The key is supposed to be justice, not vengeance. Killing him would only satisfy blood-lust, not justice, as after all, he did not kill anybody. I think being locked up 23 hours a day forced to watch religious and educational black and white TV is punishment enough. Maybe they could just put the 700 Club on all day long? Nah, I think that would be cruel and unusual punishment.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Go Tigers!



Time for another baseball post, and it is spurred by the play of my favorite team, the Detroit Tigers. I've been a Tigers fan since I can remember, so nobody can accuse me of jumping on any bandwagons. If you add it all up, there's been a lot more lean than fat years. Since I've been an aware fan, they've won only one championship, in 1984. In fact, since 1992 they haven't finished above .500. Now they are 18-9, only half game out of first place. They are hitting AND pitching. I heard a stat the other day that the Tiger pitchers had allowed the fewest runs in the American League. Now that is absolutely stunning. They are also hitting the cover off the ball. They outscored the Minnesota Twins 33-1 in a three-game series over the weekend.

Is this due to the new skipper, Jim Leyland? Maybe, but I'll just bask in their good record while it lasts. I'm optimistic, because during this latest slate of bad years they have had bad Aprils, and generally get better as the season goes on. Now that April is out of the way, who knows?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Fanny and Alexander



There are certain films that resonate so strongly that you can remember the precise circumstances when you first saw them. It was a warm, sunny September afternooon in 1983 when I first saw Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman's epic masterpiece. I saw it in the Cinema II, the basement screen of the complex of theaters across the street from Bloomingdale's in New York. I had probably taken the bus in to the city to see it, as at the time I was a new college graduate working at a local job in town (Ringwood, New Jersey).

I remember being stunned as I walked out of the theater in a daze. The film was easily the best film I saw that year, and left me emotionally drained. Where Bergamn succeeds most, I think, is presenting the wonderful world where the children live before their father dies, and then contrasts it with the horrible world when their mother marries the bishop. It's all very Dickensian, but with the supernatural added (the magic of the Jewish family, and the prevalance of ghosts).

I had not seen the film since then, but looked at the DVD on Sunday, and then again last night, this time with the excellent commentary of Bergman scholar Peter Cowle (I hope I have his name right). I suppose I had stayed away from it so long because I didn't want to spoil the initial reaction. I understand that in Sweden, it is shown every Christmas, so I'm sure they think of it like we do It's a Wonderful Life. But this film is much more powerful, and I don't think I could watch it year after year.

Fanny and Alexander also exists as a five-hour television series, which is included in the DVD boxed set. I only rented the theatrical version from Netflix, so perhaps one day I will have to take a look at the longer form.

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page



Bettie Page is certainly an interesting cultural touchstone in American society. But I'm not sure she's interesting enough for a feature film. At least that's what I took away after seeing Mary Harron's The Notorious Bettie Page, which details the life story of the southern Christian girl who became a pin-up and bondage model in the fifties, and became a cult figure years later.

I haven't been a fan of Harron before--I did not care for I Shot Andy Warhol or American Psycho. She has a detached style--there's little emotion that jumps off the screen in her work, and especially with Bettie Page. Although Gretchen Mol gamely brings Page to life, there just doesn't seem to be much there. The story of the film is really how others react to her. Perhaps there just isn't that much to Page as a person to make it interesting enough. I found the E! True Hollywood Story about her more interesting, frankly.

There is some nice photography. The film changes from black and white to color depending on where Bettie is. During the Bunny Yeager photo shoots in Miami, the film is tinted in the rich colors we would associate with fifties postcards of Florida (or nudist magazines of the era). But that's enough to sustain interest, so I give this film a C.