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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.