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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Super Bowl

As most of the the Western world knows, Super Bowl XLI is being played this Sunday (if anything, at least the existence of this game keeps us aware of Roman numerals). I am a football fan of some degree, not the kind that knows every player on every team, or about all the different blocking schemes or what a "cover II" defense is, but I can watch a game and know what's going on. Since my team is the Detroit Lions, who have not won a championship in my lifetime and have never really come close, I never have much of an emotional investment in the game.

I am rooting for the Indianapolis Colts in this game. I have nothing against the Chicago Bears, the team with a lunch-bucket persona, which perfectly fits that city. But I'm a fan of Peyton Manning, the Colts' quarterback, and Tony Dungy, their coach. Manning, who seems to be a fan of the game as well as a player, has all the right qualities that I like in a professional athlete. He's a student of the history of the game, aware of the legacy of those who came before him. He has a sense of humor about himself, judging by his press conferences and the myriad commercials he makes, and he seems free of arrogance. For years now he has had to live with the label of "choker," after regularly getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Patriots and then last year in a shocking defeat to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The win last Sunday over the Patriots, in thrilling comeback fashion, made me feel good, not only for Manning but also for his coach, Tony Dungy. Dungy is a soft-spoken man who also seems free of arrogance, unlike the so-called geniuses like Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Belichick. He went through a very difficult period last year at this time when he had to coach in the playoffs after the suicide of his son. When the Colts, who were the juggernaut team of last season, lost to the Steelers, it seemed too cruel. That he and the team have bounced back so quickly is heartwarming.

Dungy is also a native of Jackson, Michigan, the birthplace of my mother. I believe my grandmother knew his parents way back when.

So, on Sunday amid all the hoopla, nothing would make me feel better than a Colts' victory.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Falling Through the Earth

Combining a love of lists with an effort to do more reading of serious literature, I took some Christmas money and purchased all ten of the books the New York Times Book Review section named as the ten best of 2006, five fiction, five non-fiction. First up is in the latter category, a memoir by Danielle Trussoni entitled Falling Through the Earth.

Trussoni grew up in LaCrosse, Wisconsin in the seventies and eighties. Her father was a Vietnam vet, a "tunnel rat," who came back emotionally damaged, his experiences there hovering over him like a dark cloud, and, by extension, this clouds her life as well. She, for reasons she probably can't precisely pin down, stuck by him, even after her parents' divorce, when her sister and brother went to live with her mother, but she stayed with her dad, even though he was frequently drunk and absent, which allowed her to become a juvenile delinquent.

Trussoni's childhood is contrasted with a trip to Vietnam she took in her early twenties to see where her father served, even going so far as to take a tour of a typical Viet Cong tunnel. As a young woman traveling alone in Ho Chi Minh City, it's a suspenseful travelogue, especially when she drops in such novelistic lines as, "I would remember the moment I bought it, thirty seconds before I came face-to-face with the man who made me wish I had not come to Vietnam."

Chapters alternate between childhood and travelogue. Her upbringing isn't unique, although picaresque, as half-siblings seem to pop up regularly, and it certainly isn't usual for a pre-pubescent girl to spend hours with her father at the local ginmill. Late in the book her sister describes the brood as belonging on The Jerry Springer Show, perhaps the ultimate insult a family can receive. When she describes latching onto her father and pushing away her mother she is quite effective, as well as those scenes when she realizes her father will never change.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this book as a whole. The writing is sensational, and I read it slowly, to savor each paragraph. But it wasn't a page-turner, despite the tricks such as I mentioned earlier, or ending one chapter with her brother being hit by a car and not resolving his condition until a few chapters later. Trussoni jumps around in time cinematically, and one can be forgiven for forgetting how old she is at certain points or what the state of the family is. Also, occasionally drops into the omniscient narrator mode to describe her father's experiences in country, which aren't nearly as effective, perhaps because she wasn't there. Finally, there isn't a big emotional pay-off at the end of the book, more like a serene coming of peace, which is good for her but not necessarily for a story.

I'm sure there's more to Trussoni's story, such as how a girl who ran wild hunkered down and ended up in graduate school, or, as her bio on the jacket tells us, how she came to live in Japan and Bulgaria. I'm sure that's for future volumes.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Blood Diamond

Edward Zwick specializes in a kind of epic film-making that wears white liberal guilt on its sleeve. First was Glory, then there was The Last Samurai, and now there’s Blood Diamond (there have been a few other films along the way, most notably The Legends of the Fall). Each of these films is an old-fashioned action picture with an earnest examination of how white Europeans have made life so miserable for everyone else.

Of course, he’s right, and the success of these pictures is how well he manages to bury the message in the context of a good film. Glory was a fantastic movie, and extremely moving in its depiction of black soldiers in the Civil War led by a white commander. The Last Samurai, with a white man learning the ways of the Japanese, was far less successful. Blood Diamond is somewhere in the middle. It’s a fine action picture with some stunning locales, but its earnestness and implication that the diamond ring on your finger may have come at the expense of the lives of those who dug it up weight it down into the realm of the polemic.

The dual protagonists are Solomon Vandy, (Djimon Hounsou) a fisherman in the war-torn country of Sierra Leone. He has a family and hopes that his son will one day become a doctor. One day his world is turned upside down when a roaming band of machine-gun toting rebels kidnaps him and puts him to work digging for diamonds in a river. He finds a large, pink stone, and manages to hide it before government troops break up the rebel diamond operation.

Leonardo DiCaprio is Danny Archer, a smooth-talking smuggler of Rhodesian birth. He happens to hear about Solomon’s find, and strikes a deal—he will reunited Solomon with his family if he is led to the pink diamond. Archer realizes the return on that stone is enough to get him out of Africa for good.

Along the way a muckraking reporter, played by Jennifer Connelly, helps the two men. They get in and out of some tight scrapes, and eventually Solomon’s son is captured by rebels and brainwashed into their belief system. There are many scenes of indiscriminate mayhem, interspersed with commentary about how the soulless diamond merchants are exploiting the citizenry to satisfy the craving for bling in the United States.

The problem is the two strands, action and politics, never quite mesh together. DiCaprio’s character is terrific, in the Rick Blaine tradition of the hardened cynic who finally opens his heart for his fellow man. But the other two main characters don’t work. Hounsou’s fisherman is a bit too reminiscent of the noble savage. He is a good and decent man who can be driven to rage when his family is threatened, so Hounsou basically has two modes of expression—composed dignity, and manic rage. Connelly is in a tough position. She is a transcendentally beautiful woman, which means a woman who looks like her tramping about in the bush immediately draws attention, which I can live with, because beautiful women do all sorts of things, but she never seems to me to be a real journalist. It’s more like she’s playing an actress who is researching the role of a journalist. The only time she is ever seen taking a note is when she’s pretending to interview a soldier to provide a diversion.

The role of Archer, along with his work in this year's The Departed, marks of a coming of age for DiCaprio. He is forceful and mesmerizing here, with a scruff of beard and a world-weary cynicism. His scenes at the end of the picture, which reminded me of For Whom the Bell Tolls, will be my lasting memory of this film. In The Aviator I got too much of a sense of a young actor playing dress-up, but there’s none of that in Blood Diamond. DiCaprio was a Rhodesian mercenary/smuggler.

The underlying theme, though, that many diamonds in circulation today have blood in their history, is an important one and rings loud and clear. Ideally, this would have been a better documentary about the exploitation of Africans in the mining of diamonds, but of course that would have been seen by far less people. In the end, though, a film can’t be judged by its intentions, however righteous they may be.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Boys and Girls in America

It wouldn't be surprising to get a buzz after listening to The Hold Steady's album, Boys and Girls in America, for almost every song mentions alcohol or drugs. The eleven-song cycle concerns a rock standard, teenage wasteland. Reminiscent of the mid-70s output of Bruce Springsteen, this music has moved the location from New Jersey to the environs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, but still focuses on aimless youth, who don't look past last night's revels.

The album starts out quoting Jack Kerouac's alter-ego, Sal Paradise: "There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right/Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together." The song, "Stuck Between Stations," then goes on to drop the name John Berryman, but as the album wears on, the intellectualism is replaced by a world-weariness that seems too jaded to inhabit such young characters. "Chips Ahoy," the next song has the melancholy line, "We spent the whole next week getting high/I love the girl but I can't tell when she's having a good time."

It goes on. In "Hot Soft Light": "I've been straight since the Cinco de Mayo, before that I was blotto/I was blacked out/I was cracked out/I was caved in." In two different songs is the line, "Gideon's got a pipe made from a Pringles can," which is, I suppose, an impressive feat of engineering. There's even a song called "Citrus," which is a veritable ode to cocktails: "Hey citrus/Hey liquor/I love it when you touch each other." It reaches an apotheosis in an infectious upbeat number, "Chillout Tent," where two kids meet cute after having a bad trip at a rock festival.

As someone who's never been much of imbiber of intoxicating substances, the subject matter of this record is alien to me, but I did enjoy the music. As with the E Street Band, there is heavy use of tinkling pianos, but no saxophone. Taken on its own terms, it's good rowdy party music. If the band is reminiscing about their misspent youth, or making a general comment about the behavior of today's youth, I don't know. There doesn't seem to be a point of view, it just is what it is. The writing is frequently poignant concerning the aspects of romance of the gin-soaked and marijuana-numbed teenagers: "I'm pretty sure we kissed," sings Craig Finn at the end of "Party Pit."

This record was mentioned several times in top ten lists by rock critics at the end of 2006, and I can understand why, given the sophisticated lyrics and music. But it was kind of like hanging out with a guy who is really smart and funny but who will only talk about getting high, when you want to talk about something else, anything else.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Lookingglass Alice

Count me among the legion of devotees of Lewis Caroll's Alice stories, which have entered into the subconscious of us all over the near 150 years of their existence. They are astonishing works of genius, both a tapping of the collective unconscious as expressed as a children's story, and as a sly elucidation on mathematics, chess, linguistics and Victorian politics.

The two books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have been reinterpreted numerous times in other media, from film to opera. The Lookingglass Theatre Company of Chicago have taken a crack at it, turning the tales into a combination of theater and circus. Enacted by a remarkable cast of five under the direction of David Catlin, who also adapted Carroll's words, Lookingglass Alice is sort of a representation of the story as told by a troupe of acrobatic clowns.

I saw the show at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. I was among those seated on the stage, facing those who were seated in the usual seating area. The two audiences were initially separated by a black curtain, a fireplace, and what looked to be a mirror above. A sharp-eyed little girl noticed what I didn't--it wasn't a mirror, but merely a window. In this way, the play could begin with Alice on one side, and Mr. Dodgson (the real name of Lewis Carroll) on the other, and they could pass through to the other side.

What followed was a mixture of music, acrobatics, clowning and stagecraft that never wavered in its ability to fascinate. There were tykes all around me, and not a one seemed to be at any moment bored. The production was just over ninety minutes, with no intermission, and constantly offered a treat for the eye.

The story itself look some severe liberties with Carroll, rearranging portions and giving characters different attributes. For instance, the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen are combined, and instead of the caterpillar being a sage puffing on a hookah, it's a three-headed creature given to a fascination with question words (and I don't think the word "poop" appears anyway in Carroll. The production also gives us Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee disco dancing, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Dormouse performing with a series of folding chairs, Humpty Dumpty taking a great fall, and even proposes an answer to the riddle, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Mostly it followed the plot of Through the Looking Glass, which has Alice progressing through the story as if a chess piece until she reaches the point where she becomes queen.

The performers are all amazing. As Alice, Lauren Hirte is able to persuade us she's seven years old, while simultaneously being an expert gymnast and aerialist. As she swung on ropes twenty feet above a net-less stage, I couldn't help but feel my heart in my throat. Only four men inhabited all the other characters, and they are Larry DiStasi, Anthony Fleming III, Doug Hara and Tony Hernandez. Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi was the circus choreographer. She had a lot of work to do.

This was a wonderful entertainment for children as well as an unusually pleasurable divertissement for adults, or, as are usual noted, "children of all ages."

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Oscar Nomination Aftermath

As Christmas morning was for me when I was a child, now Oscar nomination day is for me as an adult. I still get excited with the suspense, poring over the nominations, pondering who the favorites will be. Why, I’m not exactly sure, since I have no chance at being nominated. My simplest explanation is that it combines a love of movies with that of sports.

Yesterday’s nominations were a bit different than usual, in that the Best Picture nominations did not dominate the rest of the categories. The five Best Pictures got a total of 26 nominations, the lowest since the 1930s, and did not have a Best Actor or Cinematography nomination, also a rarity. This was facilitated mostly by the lack of an appearance by Dreamgirls in the top five. The putative front-runner for Best Picture, Dreamgirls did get 8 nominations to lead all comers, but did not get the expected Picture or Director nomination. It thus becomes the first film to lead a year in nominations without getting a Picture nomination.

After getting over the shock (which I’m sure is profoundly felt in the corridors of Paramount and Dreamworks—David Geffen probably did not have a good day), what reasons can we come up with for this snub? Supporters of the film may cry racism. Tom O’Neill, the mincing Oscar expert who seemingly never met a song-and-dance extravaganza he didn’t like, puts it this way:

Those straight ole white geezers in the academy just don't "get" the wow-pow of what's going on between all those hip black folk singing, loving, dancing, dreaming, hearts breaking up on screen. Yes, voters admire their performances, the songs, art direction, costume design, even sound mixing, but they're not doing their fundamental job as filmgoers, they're not projecting themselves into the characters on that screen, thus experiencing what they feel. Why? Because they can't break out of their white skins, that's why.”

Well! I would counter to Tom, perhaps the straight ole white geezers, like me, just didn’t think the film was very good. It’s been compared a lot to Chicago, which I thought was far superior, and didn’t begrudge it it’s Oscar win four years ago. As for any racism, a record five black performers were nominated, as well as two Latinas and one Asian, which seems pretty Rainbow Coalition to me. I think the basic reason for all of this is that the pundits who dabble in Oscar prognostication got behind Dreamgirls early, and the Academy members, who are a small and exclusive bunch, just weren’t that impressed.

If it was a bad day for Dreamgirls, it was a good day for Mexican cinema. The “Three Amigos,” Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Alfonso Cuaron, and Guillermo Del Toro, friends and Mexican filmmakers, had their films well represented at during the morning’s announcement. Innaritu’s Babel picked up 7 nominations, with two (directing and producing) for the man himself, while Del Toro got a screenwriting nod for Pan’s Labyrinth, with the film getting five more nominations. Cuaron got two of the three nominations for Children of Men, writing and editing.

The acting categories went pretty much to form, with no major surprises. They range from the 10-year-old Abigail Breslin of Little Miss Sunshine to Venus’ Peter O’Toole, 73 and with his eighth nomination. If he loses, he will be all alone with the record for futility among acting performances. Meryl Streep bested her own record, getting her 14th nomination, while Kate Winslet, at 31, becomes the youngest performer to notch her fifth nomination.

The record for futility in all categories is held by Kevin O’Connell, who just picked up his 19th nomination, for Sound Mixing for Apocalypto. He now has 19 nominations, but has never won. If he does win this year, I will make a small, yet forceful, “Wahoo!” in his honor.

Predictions as to the winners will come shortly before the awards, which will be presented February 25th.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Thirteen Moons

Charles Frazier has followed up the phenomenal success of his historical novel, Cold Mountain, with another book set in the hills of western North Carolina. This time he has focused on a different aspect of the region--the Cherokee Indian, and the removal of such during the Jackson administration. He has told the stories through the eyes of a white man, who is looking back in his old age.

Will Cooper was thirteen and an orphan when he was bound by his aunt and uncle to a merchant as the clerk in a trading post on the edge of the boundary with the Cherokee Nation. The time would have been about 1820, and Cooper has nothing but a faithful horse and some books. He quickly becomes friend with the local chief, Bear, who eventually adopts him and he is accepted into the clan. From then on, he fights tirelessly to keep his adopted people from being ill-treated by the ever-expanding white civilization of America. He also spends his whole life pining for a woman, a part-white, part-Cherokee woman named Claire.

Although I appreciated getting a look at a time and place I didn't know much about, Frazier, apparently letting accolades about his first book go to his head, has written a meandering and frequently lazy book. I enjoyed the beginning, when Cooper is a boy and has some big-sized adventures, even though I should have known what I was in for with the first sentence: "There is no scatheless rapture." Even after reading the entire novel, this line is so inscrutable I still don't know what it means. The story unfolds in herks and jerks, at times settling in on details about real estate and bad debts, which is not exactly page-turning. Transitions from chapter to chapter are frequently chasmal. Frazier utilizes his narrator as unreliable, who won't tell us everything, and at one point, describing a dual he has with another father figure, he tells three versions of the story, and asks us to pick the one that we like.

Also, this book leaves some major history outside its borders. When the removal of the Cherokee comes, leading to what is known as the Trail of Tears, Cooper stays behind, his beloved Claire going west. I suppose Frazier acknowledges that there might be enough literature about that event in history, and he wants to tell us about the Cherokees who stayed, but in seems like the readers have been short-changed.

Frazier writes in a florid, romantic style, because that book is at heart a love story, not a history lesson, though the love described, though life-long on Cooper's part, is unsatifactorily fulfilled. There are a lot of gooey passages and descriptions of connubial bliss in streams, which veer dangerously close to romance novel boilerplate. I admired Cold Mountain for it's history and its romance, but Thirteen Moons falls short of the mark in both areas.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Notes on a Scandal

Notes on a Scandal is based on a novel called What Was She Thinking, by Zoe Heller, and that certainly is the question you will ask during much of this film, which is crisply directed by Richard Eyre and masterfully spun by screenwriter Patrick Marber, but ultimately crumbles, like an expertly made sand castle. At the heart of this story is a conflict which tends to sag with the weight of melodrama, without being important enough to sit up and take notice.

The story concerns two women, teachers at a school in London. The elder, and narrator of our story, is played by Judi Dench. She is a bitter, lonely old woman, who jots down in her diary how superior she is to everyone. Like Richard III, she tells us about the treachery she's about to commit. The other woman is played by Cate Blanchett as a novice art teacher who seems to be constantly at odds with the world around her. She is unsure of herself in the classroom, and quickly bonds with Dench as one might to a mentor. She is completely unaware of the insidious manner Dench has about forming a friendship.

Soon enough it is clear that Dench is actually a frustrated lesbian, but unwilling to accept her inclinations, instead longing to have a friendship with Blanchett. However Blanchett seems happily married to an older man, Bill Nighy, and is the mother to two children, including a boy with Downs Syndrome. It is only when Dench discovers that Blanchett is having an affair with a 15-year-old student does she realize she has the upper hand.

This affair is the "Scandal" in question, and I'm never completely convinced why Blanchett undertakes it. Yes, her character is a bit of flibberty-gibbet, or perhaps simply someone with an "artistic" temperament, but there just isn't enough there to explain why she carries it out. Nothing on screen about her relationship with Nighy suggests a reason for it, nor is the boy, played by Andrew Simpson, a freckle-faced lad with a Scottish burr, so incredibly charismatic that he is irresistible.

The titillation of such an affair is fueled by the many instances of it in the news. A similar relationship between an older man and a teenage girl is rightly seen as nothing but creepy and reprehensible, but when the genders are reversed, though the law deals with it just as severely, public opinion seems to judge it differently, with a wink and a nod. This film does the same.

The performances are excellent. Dench sinks her teeth into this role like a lioness into an antelope. She puts a lie to the claim that there are no roles for women of a certain age. If she is Oscar-nominated for this role, as I expect her to be, it will be her sixth, all past the age of sixty, astonishingly unprecedented. Blanchett, also one of the finest actresses in film, is good, but again she has less to work with. We hear Dench's every thought in the frequent voice-over narration of her diary entries, and we see Blanchett through her eyes. As for Bill Nighy, he's fast becoming one of my favorite character actors. If he is in a film, his part is sure to be interesting.

Also worth mentioning is the gripping music score, by Philip Glass.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Final Oscar Nomination Predictions

Okay, here goes. These are my predictions for the Oscar nominations, which will be announced on Tuesday.


The Departed
Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen

Same five as I had in December. Only question is whether Letters from Iwo Jima dislodges LMS.


Bill Condon, Dreamgirls
Stephen Frears, The Queen
Clint Eastwood, Letters from Iwo Jima
Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Babel
Martin Scorsese, The Departed

I’ve bumped Pedro for Clint. Paul Greengrass could get in, I’m more doubtful of the Little Miss Sunshine duo, even though they got a DGA.


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

Same five as before. Four are locks, Gosling is still my choice, but this is a very weak year for this category and could allow for an oddball nomination like Baron Cohen, Craig, or Eckhart


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

No changes. The entire world is picking these five. Very surprised if someone else breaks in.


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

The most wide-open acting category. Anyone of ten guys could in, and Murphy is the only lock. Haley, Walhberg, Hounsou, shit even Ben Affleck stands a chance.


Adrianna Barraza, Babel
Cate Blanchett, Notes on a Scandal
Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine
Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls
Rinko Kikuchi, Babel

I’ve bumped Emma Thompson for the nanny from Babel. Feel pretty confident with these five.


Little Miss Sunshine
The Queen
Letters from Iwo Jima
United 93

Identical to WGA except Letters instead of Stranger Than Fiction. Volver and Pan’s Labyrinth also possibilities


Children of Men
The Departed
Little Children
Notes on a Scandal

Children might be wishful thinking. Dreamgirls doesn’t deserve it, and sometimes the writers spot bullshit (like Titanic). Borat probably left out.


Canada, Water
Denmark, After the Wedding
Germany, The Lives of Others
Mexico, Pan’s Labyrinth
Spain, Volver

The Academy was helpful and whittled a list of 61 down to 9. Hard to imagine a Paul Verhoeven film getting in here (Black Book).


Deliver Us From Evil
An Inconvenient Truth
Iraq in Fragments
Jesus Camp
The War Tapes

The Dixie Chicks get left out.


Flushed Away
Happy Feet
Monster House
Over the Hedge

Can go up to five, should be only three.


Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Superman Returns

Also eligible: Casino Royale, Eragon, Night at the Museum, X-Men


Pan’s Labyrinth
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Also eligible: Click, The Prestige, Santa Clause 3 (!) X-Men


Curse of the Golden Flower
The Illusionist
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest


Children of Men
The Departed
The Illusionist

The ASC nominated The Black Dahlia and The Good Shepherd instead of The Departed and Dreamgirls, but I figure the bigger films will bounce them.


The Departed
The Queen
United 93


Children of Men
Curse of the Golden Flower
The Departed
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest


Blood Diamond
The Departed
Flags of Our Fathers
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Always the toughest category, because every friggin’ movie has sound!


Flags of Our Fathers
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

The Academy usually announces a short list of seven for the bakeoff, but haven’t heard anything yet.


The DaVinci Code
Notes on a Scandal
The Painted Veil


Bobby, “Never Gonna Break My Faith”
Dreamgirls, “Listen”
Dreamgirls, “Patience”
Happy Feet, “Song of My Heart”
An Inconvenient Truth, “I Need to Wake Up”

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Arctic Monkeys

Trying to catch up with the best music of 2006, I now turn to one of the flavors of the year, the Arctic Monkeys, whose debut album was called Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, which is apparently a reference to the Albert Finney film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. This is just the first hint to the dichotomy of the band, which is of working-class origins but have a bit of a college-boy impishness.

The first thing that impressed me is the musicianship, as these guys really rock. The guitars drone like chainsaws, and the drumming is also first-rate. It sounds as if it was recorded live, and you can almost smell the urine, beer and stale peanuts from some downtown club where they might play. They are from the outskirts of Sheffield, and the singer has a discernible Yorkshire accent, complete with vernacular known only to the locals (I've learned that "Mardy" means grumpy.)

The songs, for the most part, are hard-driving dance numbers with witty titles, such as "I'll Bet You Look Good on the Dance Floor," "Fake Tales from San Francisco," "Red Light Indicates Door is Closed," and "Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But...", which proceeds to label the objects of the singer's wrath as vampires. The song "Mardy Bum" is an amusing ditty about a guy who's pissed off his girlfriend, while "Riot Van" is a melancholy dirge no doubt about an unfortunate encounter with police early one morning.

Perhaps the most socially significant song is "When the Sun Comes Down," which is about prostitution and pimps, with the pimp being repeatedly called a scumbag.

The band, who eschewed a major label, and put a picture of a friend on their cover, seem to shun the spotlight. Will they succumb to the same pressure that bands like The Strokes came under? Time will tell.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth, from director Guillermo Del Toro, is a sumptious feast of a film, building on the archetypals story elements of fairy tales, but set in a very real, very scary modern time period. The story concerns a young girl, Ofelia, in Spain in 1944. Her father has been killed in the war, and her mother has remarried to an officer, Captain Vidal, in Franco's military. He is stationed at a remote rural outpost, hunting resistance fighters in the woods. Since Ofelia's mother is pregnant with the officer's child, he wants her there when the baby is born, despite the hardship of the travel.

Ofelia loves books, particulary fairy tales. When her mother tells her she has a surprise for her, Ofelia immediately wonders, "Is it a book?" Her vivid imagination allows her to remove herself from the misery of her current situation, but when a large winged insect starts following her around and then leads her to a stone maze on the grounds of the house where she is staying, the stories from her picture books seems to be all too real.

Ofelia meets a faun (in English he is called Pan) who, in a marvel of movie creativity, manages to be both cuddly and menacing. He tells Ofelia that she is the long lost princess of his world, and that if she can complete three tasks, she will resume her rightful place on the throne. In the meantime, the insanities of the conflict around her continue. Her mother is in very bad health. The guerrillas in the woods are being aided by a kindly woman who works for the Captain, and she must remain vigilant that she won't get found out, because the Captain has a fetish for torture.

Del Toro does a wonderful job of taking us back and forth between the bleak reality of war to the surreal world of Ofelia's fairy tale, parts of which are quite scary (the scene involving an eyeless creature who seems to like skewering babies is particularly frightening), but are also quite beautiful. The Captain is one of the more awful villains in recent memory, a man who is devoted to military discipline and the ghost of his father, a general who was killed in battle.

Ofelia is played by Ivana Baquero, who is quite good. She is imaginative, without being precocious, and rightly plays her scenes around the Captain is a kind of permanent clench of fear. When she is in her fantasy world, though, she knows she is the heroine of her own story.

Interestingly, it is left ambiguous as to whether her fantasies are real or not, and I think a definitive answer to that is irrelevant, as the world is certainly real to Ofelia, which is what matters most.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Night in Troy

I made the third and final road trip of the season this year (I make it a habit to see as many of the Princeton Women's Ice Hockey games as I can), and this time it was the garden spots of Troy and Schenectady, New York. Let others go to the tropics during winter, I go where the gloom is.

Troy is the home of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or RPI, who have a team that joined the conference this year, and thus it was my first visit there. Back in the summer I made a reservation at a B&B in Troy. I didn't expect a B&B to be in the midst of urban decay, but that's where it was. Troy, at least the part I saw, is a sad little city, with little going for it. When I went out looking for a place to have dinner, I started with a bodega across the street from the inn. I just wanted some takeout so I could watch the football playoffs on TV. But once inside the bodega I was told that they had no food. So I had to get in the car and make a tour of a city that seemed essentially closed down on a Saturday night at six.

It's easy to condemn the franchises that proliferate the countryside, but sometimes they are welcome sites. It was odd to drive around a city and see not one Starbucks, McDonald's or Pizza Hut. There were a few independent restaurants, but when you're a traveler and in a hurry you hate to take chances. I ended up driving out of town and found a major thoroughfare and soon enough was in the comfortable area of strip-malls.

The next day I awoke to icy weather, but fortunately the short drive to Schenectady was uneventful. Schenectady is home of Union College, and is in better shape than Troy. Whereas Troy was full of old Victorian homes in disrepair, the houses in Schenectady have fresh paint and are grander. The area around Union College has much more in the way of commercial establishments.

Three years ago I paid my first visit to Union and saw much more of the campus, including the statue of Chester A. Arthur, esteemed alum and one of the more obscure presidents of the United States.

As for the games, Princeton lost to RPI, which was an upset and a bad loss for the Tigers to endure, but bounced back against Union, which is the doormat of the league.

Friday, January 12, 2007

James Brown

After hearing of the death of James Brown (I heard it from my mother while I was at my sister's house celebrating Christmas) I realized that a giant of the music business had fallen. But, I regret to say, I had no James Brown music in my collection. That has since been rectified by the purchase of his greatest hits collection. The four-box set, Startime, is supposed to be the definitive collection, but I figure I've got the essentials with this one-disc album.

Brown, the Godfather of Soul, was an innovator of enormous impact. I'm no expert on soul, R&B, or funk, but in doing some reading he is proclaimed as a key figure in the development of all of these styles of music, and may be perhaps the inventor of funk. My musical tastes run to the more white-bread, but I do occasionally acknowledge that music not of my ethnicity gets under my skin--a major part of my singing-in-the-shower repertoire is Brown's Get Up Offa That Thing, a deliriously infectious number.

Listening to this album is an instant mood improver. It begins with his unmistakable yowl on I Got You (I Feel Good), and then goes to perhaps my second-favorite Brown song, Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine. Of course his mega-hit Papa's Got a Brand New Bag is there, as well as Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud).

Not all of his hits were rhythm-heavy, funky numbers. It's Man's Man's Man's World, a torch song complete with a string section, is a lovely song, if not a bit dated in it's efforts to acknowledge the importance of women. I'm not sure Gloria Steinem would approve.

James Brown is clearly one of a handful of the most important figures in pop history in the second half of the twentieth century, and I'm sorry it took his death for me to buy one of his records.

Thursday, January 11, 2007


Philip Roth clearly has mortality on his mind. The nameless protagonist of his novel, Everyman, is the same age as Roth, as has much the same background, a Jew growing up in the Newark, New Jersey area. Roth begins the book with his character's funeral, in a decrepit Jewish cemetery in the shadow of the New Jersey Turnpike, and then tells us the man's life story.

Most of this story is focused on two elements: his health and his series of marriages. Hospital stays, whether they are for a hernia operation at age nine, a bout of peritonitis at 34, a heart bypass in his fifties, or the final operation that kills him, are the touchstones of his life, in addition to his three marriages. Although the prose is pure Roth, with sentences polished like gemstones, it does become a bit of a laundry list of ailments. I do know that Roth underwent heart surgery some years ago, I suppose that's a confrontation with mortality that doesn't leave one's mind quickly.

The title does not indicate that Roth's protagonist is a typical man (how many men marry Danish models 26 years their junior?) but instead refers to a medieval English play, where a man is visited by death. Toward the end of the book, there is a bit of a recalling of Hamlet, as Roth's protagonist, visiting his father's grave in the cemetery where he will shortly be buried, comes across a gravedigger, and enlists the man to tell him how a grave is dug.

This is all not very cheery reading, but nonetheless powerful, profound, and moving.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Road

The Road tells a simple yet harrowing story: a man and his son are making their way across a scorched countryside. It is a post-apocalyptic America, and the man is intent on keeping himself and his boy alive, one day at a time. There are very few people, but some of them are not friendly, as due to the lack of available food, cannibalism has set in. The man and boy refer to themselves as "the good guys," and the man tells us son that they must "carry the fire." He wants to move south, as the winters have become too difficult to deal with.

Cormac McCarthy has written several books, most of them about the South or Southwest. I've read a few of them, but have never been caught up in one as much as I was with The Road. The writing is very spare, and the dialogue is almost Beckettian. Yet it is easy to get caught up in the simple struggle for survival. Occasionally the pair stumble upon a cache of food, and they can rest easy for a few days. But at other times you can get a real sense of their hunger and desperation.

There is very little flashback. The event that started this is simply referred to as "a shearing light, followed by a series of low concussions." Presumably, a nuclear war. Then nuclear winter has descended upon the land, as the sun never shines, and ashes are everywhere. The pair come across dead bodies, burned into the asphalt. The boy's mother committed suicide, not able to cope with the state of the world, but the man and boy shoulder on.

In addition to finding food and avoiding the "bad guys," the man and boy struggle with their humanity. The boy wants to help the less fortunate they come across, and constantly seeks reassurance from their father that they would never steal, or eat people. He also mentions God, which gives him a bit of the halo of spirituality.

The Road is a very short book, it could be read in one long sitting, but I wouldn't recommend doing so before turning in for the night, as it is a very long nightmare.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Children of Men

Children of Men is one of my favorite films of 2006. It's a classic of dystopian literature, and the production designers deserve a great deal of credit for filling every nook and cranny of this film with remarkable detail, evoking a future of harrowing despair. It's 2029, and for over eighteen years there have been no births. No one knows why, but mankind realizes that in sixty or seventy years there will be no people left, and a collective depression has settled over Earth. A glimmer of hope surfaces, and a former radical, Clive Owen, finds himself protecting that hope.

The plot is rather simple, a standard getting from point A to point B with various obstacles in-between, but it is what this plot is decorated with that makes the film so thrilling, from the photography to the set design to the sound. This is a very loud film at times, but it is very appropriate, because I'm sure real combat situations are even louder. Owen gives a very solid performance, and the script is smart. My viewing companion mentioned that she appreciated that no one really does anything stupid in this film, which is how lesser films further their plots.

Interestingly, the politics of the film, while cleary suspicious of anti-immigration fascism, is also suspicious of radical leftist organizations. Our heroes are pursued by both, and falling into either set of hands is not to be wished for.

Monday, January 08, 2007


Dreamgirls is, if I had to choose one adjective, obvious. Toward the end of the film there's a scene where the record company depicted in the film, Rainbow Records (a stand-in for Motown) has a TV special celebrating their tenth anniversary. The production design gets it just right, capturing the cheesiness of 70's TV variety shows. Unfortunately, that's kind of the tone of the whole film. No matter how much glitter and pizzazz this film tries to create, I was left mostly bored and uninterested.

The key problem is the script. As with most musicals, the plot is thin and the characters two-dimensional. Jamie Foxx is the Barry Gordy figure, who discovers three girls at an amateur night in Detroit and turns them into stars, betraying two of them on the way up. Foxx does everything but twirl his mustache, a standard cardboard heel. Of the three girls, only Anika Noni Rose is an actual actress and comes off well. Beyonce Knowles, to me, is a competent singer and actress, but lacks star quality, and I am mystified by her popularity. She plays the Diana Ross figure, and the script lets her off easy, apologizing as she makes her way to the top over the back of her former friend, played by Jennifer Hudson.

As for Hudson, the presumptive Oscar-winner, well, again I'm mystified. She has a marvelous singing voice, but it's in the style of many of the American Idol contestants--a constant belting. There's not much phrasing or shading to it. And her acting is again, just competent. If this was community theater it would be great, but this is the big stage. The script, though, doesn't help. She's supposed to be a proud woman, but comes off as merely petulant. Her show-stopping number, I Am Telling You I'm Not Going, is indeed a thrilling moment, but Armond White is right--if you listen to the lyrics, you realize it's a stalker's anthem.

I did like Eddie Murphy as a James Brown-like singer. At first I thought he was just doing his shtick, but he gave the character an arc and real pathos. He deserves an Oscar nomination.

I should add that the music is not outstanding, either. It doesn't capture any of the quality of the hits the Supremes had, which were catchy, pop numbers, not Broadway-style ballads.