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Monday, April 30, 2007

Alec Baldwin

A few weeks ago, a woman in Michigan was arrested for soliciting her seven-year-old daughter for purposes of prostitution to an undercover policeman. That, folks, is bad parenting. So it's hard to see why there's been so much tut-tutting about Alec Baldwin leaving his daughter a voice-mail where he calls her a "rude little pig."

First of all, those who don't have kids can't imagine what kinds of things a person can say in the heat of anger (and by all accounts it appears that Baldwin's anger was really intended for his ex-wife, Kim Basinger, with whom he is going through nasty court proceedings). And for those with kids, how many would like their every move scrutinized by the press?

That Baldwin had to subject himself to the sorry spectacle of apologizing to the biddies on The View is indicative of the society we live in today, where celebrities seem to live their entire lives in fishbowls. The only apology Baldwin needed to make, if he found it necessary, was to his daughter, in private. As for her, maybe she was being rude, and if the worst thing she is ever called in her life is a rude little pig, she will live a charmed life indeed.

A lot of people get rich by exposing the private lives of celebrities, and I find it disgusting. This national mania about the comings and goings of people like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes or Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie sells a lot of magazines and so-called "entertainment news" TV shows. I suppose for people who live lives of drudgery, this is what passes for excitement. I actually know someone who once told me that they were "worried" about Jennifer Aniston, after Brad Pitt left her. I find that an interesting statement. Of all the things I worry about, the romantic life of a young, multi-millionaire actress is pretty far down the list. I imagine she'll endure okay, and if she doesn't, well, it's not much skin off my nose.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Death Proof: The Soundtrack

One thing that is reliable about the films of Quentin Tarantino: they will have a kick-ass soundtrack. The soundtracks for Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill are among my favorites in my collection, and having a seventies-weekend on the radio as the musical bed for Reservoir Dogs is a gas. The music for Death Proof, Tarantino's half of the double-feature that is Grindhouse, is no exception, and I received it as a birthday present the other day.

As with his other films, Tarantino uses some forgotten hits from the sixties and seventies, some music from other movies (again utilizing Ennio Morricone) and throws in a few lines of dialogue from the film itself (it's nice on Pulp Fiction to have the discussion of the relative charm of pigs and dogs included on the soundtrack). Death Proof kicks off with a genre that Tarantino loves, the surf & spy, with a hard-driving track called The Last Race by Jack Nitzsche. There's also a great song in this style toward the end of the disc, called Riot in Thunder Alley by Eddie Beram, which includes some fantastic tribal-like drumming.

Of the songs from jukeboxes past, there's the slyly infectious Jeepster, by T. Rex, a gritty number by The Coasters called Down in Mexico, and a song called Hold Tight by a sixties British band called Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. As steeped as I am in sixties music, I am ashamed to say I have never heard of them before, and the song is a classic nugget of sixties garage band music.

There's also a couple of covered tunes, such as Smith's take on Burt Bacharach's Baby, It's You and a charming and cheesy version of Serge Gainsbourg's Chick Habit by April March.

Tarantino has long been rumored that he will be making a World War II picture. The problem with this idea is that he won't be able to tap into his knowledge of music from the last forty years, unless he is going to be gleefully anachronistic.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Woody Allen, Standup Comic

My favorite all-time filmmaker is Woody Allen, no doubt about it. If I made a list of my 100 favorite films, he'd have about ten of them. But I first came to know him when I was an adolescent, and it was not through his films--it was his writing and his stand-up comedy. When I was about fifteen or so I bought a copy of Without Feathers, which I still have somewhere, tattered and held together with tape, as I read it hundreds of times. Then, through a record club I belonged to, I got a recording of his stand-up act, which I also played over and over again. For my birthday the other day, a friend gave me a CD of a slightly different version of that recording, and I listened to it again, laughing just as much as I ever have.

Many people may not realize that Allen was first visible as a stand-up. Before that he wrote gags for newspaper columnists and for television, and then in the sixties was a nightclub comedian, appearing on television quite a bit, even guest-hosting the Tonight Show. Listening to his act, you can hear the persona he would assume in his earliest films, that of a nebbish who is constantly victimized by the strong and stupid. Some of the stories he spins on stage ended up in written form in his New Yorker "casuals" that would end up in one of his books, like Without Feathers. What isn't evident in this recording, though, is any sense that he was capable of films like Manhattan or Hannah and Her Sisters.

Allen's stand-up stuff is largely in the same world as other sixties comics like Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, or Dick Gregory. Instead of a string of gags, he tells stories, some of them about his upbringing in Brooklyn (his parents' values were "God and carpeting,") his failed first marriage, which have echoes of Henny Youngman, "I tended to place my wife underneath a pedestal," and bizarre, almost surreal tales such as how he shot a moose and ended up taking it to a costume party, where it came in second in the best costume prize to a Jewish couple who were dressed as a moose. The main themes of his humor are his Jewishness (the moose-story's punchline is about the New York Athletic Club being restricted against Jews, a curio that is thankfully forgotten in this day and age) and his neuroses. There are many jokes about him being in analysis, such as being on the "latent paranoid softball team." "I would steal second base and feel guilty and go back."

Mostly, though, Allen plays the victim. He is constantly getting roughed up ("I won two weeks at Interfaith Camp, where I was sadistically beaten by boys of all races and creeds"), antagonized by mechanical objects, such as a talking elevator, and losing out in the game of love. He tells about getting aced out of going out with a good-looking girl by Peter O'Toole during the filming of What's New, Pussycat? "I asked her if she had a sister for me. She did--Sister Maria Theresa. It was a dull evening. We discussed the New Testament, and decided that He was remarkably well-adjusted for an only child."

There is much, much more. In these days of YouTube and MP3 players, the comedy record is a relic, but when the comedian is someone like Woody Allen, providing a snapshot of a comedic genius in his early years, the relic is quite precious.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Kagemusha

Even at my advanced age (I turned 46 yesterday) I'm still working my way through the classics I haven't seen, helped by my old pal Netflix. I've seen a lot of the Kurosawa classics, but had yet to catch up with Kagemusha, which I rented over the weekend.

Kagemusha, which means "shadow warrior," was released in 1980. It was Kurosawa's first film in five years, and almost died on the vine. Francis Coppola and George Lucas stepped in and secured the financing necessary for an international release. They appear in interviews in the supplementary material.

In doing a little reading on the film, Kagemusha is seen as minor Kurosawa. I enjoyed it, though it was a little slow-paced. It tells a story from sixteenth century Japan, during what was known as the Warring States period. The country was ruled by various warlords, each of whom vied for domination. Shingen is the ruler of the the Takeda clan. He regularly employs doubles, or shadow warriors, to avoid danger. His brother, who bears a certain resemblance, but not identical, comes across a thief who is going to be executed. The thief is a perfect double for Shingen, and is spared death to prove useful to the warlord.

When Shingen is wounded by a sniper, he asks that his death be kept secret for three years. The brother and the other retainers use the thief as a double, and much of the film is how they go about this. Shingen's grandson and mistresses are fooled, as are opposing warlords, who are skeptical but the thief manages to pull it off. Of course, sooner or later the ruse fails, and events escalate from there.

Kagemusha makes wonderful use of color, particularly in the uniforms of soldiers and in skyscapes. The screenplay is perhaps too over-detailed, as the film runs three hours, but I enjoyed the various situations the thief gets into, only to cover when suspicion is raised. The actor playing both roles is Tatsuya Nakadai, and I thought he was terrific. I then learned in the supplementary material that he was a last second replacement for the actor who was best known as Zoiche the Blind Swordsman. He wanted to videotape his scenes for an acting class, and Kurosawa refused.

Kurosawa would have one last triumph as a filmmaker, five years later, with Ran, so Kagemusha is kind of relegated to an after-thought. Compared to Ran, or Yojimbo, or the Seven Samurai, this is justified, but I thought was a well-done film on its own merits.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Cold Six Thousand

A sequel of sort to American Tabloid, James Ellroy continues his paranoid (or is it really paranoid if it's true?) vision of American history during the cold war, seen from the point of view of operatives that are behind the most cataclysmic events of that period.

American Tabloid dealt with the Bay of Pigs and the election of John F. Kennedy. The Cold Six Thousand picks right up where the other book left off. The title refers to the cash that an ex-Las Vegas policeman named Wayne Tedrow receives in exchange for killing a pimp in Dallas. The time is November, 1963.

If you are prone to believe conspiracy theories, this book is for you. The assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and RFK are all tied together in this book, the epicenter being J. Edgar Hoover. I'm not sure how much of it is true, but there's enough reality to make it sound good. In addition to Tedrow, Ellroy has two other main protagonists: Ward Littell, an ex-FBI agent who has become a lawyer for both Howard Hughes, who wants to buy up Vegas hotels, and Carlos Marcello, organized crime boss of New Orleans. Littell still does assignments for Hoover, and gets drawn into Operation Black Rabbit, which is Hoover's attempt to discredit King. Then there's Pete Bondurant, the gigantic freelance enforcer, who believe in a free Cuba and will go to almost any lengths for "the cause." Bondurant is a great character--a vicious hit man who chews Nicorette gum, loves his wife and deep down has a sense of morality.

Many real-life people turn up in this book, and there is no disclaimer that they are used fictionally. There's Sonny Liston, who becomes a mob enforcer after he loses to Cassius Clay (it is Liston who first braces Sirhan Sirhan, who owes gambling debts), Sal Mineo, who is portrayed here as a killer and who is used in an attempt to blackmail civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, and there's Hoover himself, who comes across as the most entertaining character in the book. He is only glimpsed in transcripts of telephone calls, and he's like a villain in a Bond film--urbane, witty, and erudite, with a mordant sense of humor. He also hates Bobby Kennedy (referring to him as the "Dark Prince," and King as "Martin Lucifer King."

By the time this book was over, you feel a kind of despair, whether it's the commingling with the despicable characters who are in the Klu Klux Klan, run dope to black people, or plot to bring down men who might make a difference, or whether it's Ellroy's staccato writing style. He rarely employs adjectives or compound sentences. It's simply subject and predicate, over and over again, sometimes making your eyes go glassy. However, when a scene of violence erupts, which is fairly regular, you certainly take notice.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Janine and Vince Neil

Now that we are living in an age where we can take video with our cell phones, the purloined home-made sex tape is almost becoming ubiquitous. I recently was on a web site that chronicled those that have been released and those that have been rumored (including one with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda) and the list is quite long. But about fifteen years ago, when I was well-ensconced as an editor at Penthouse and an adult film critic, the concept was nascent.

The first to hit was Pam Anderson and Tommy Lee's, which I dutifully saw. It is still probably the most famous, the most talked about home movie since the Zapruder film. It's also kind of a mess, a long sludge through boring stuff with a couple of minutes of eye-popping hard-core action. I think the most salient thing about it was the revelation of the size of Lee's member. It is certainly impressive that he can steer a boat with it.

The second one to come out, and in my eyes still the best, is the video capturing some fun Janine Lindemulder and Vince Neil had on a Hawaiian vacation. This is to be expected, since Janine is a major adult film star. She obviously learned from her directors about lighting and camera angles. The awkward hand-held stuff that Pam and Tommy take part in is instead replaced by a camera set on a flat surface, with Janine very conscious of what she wants the center of attention to be.

I'll never forget the first time I saw it. The tape starts off with Janine and Vince enjoying a helicopter ride over lush Hawaiian landscape, and then spending some time on a black lava beach. There is a third member of their party, another blonde who is frequently in the distance. Then we see Vince feeding her his member, though her face is pixillated out. Who is she?

The action then cuts to their hotel room. Vince is bouncing on the bed in tighty-whities, which Janine proceeds to rip off of him. Then they get down to business. For those in the adult film world, it was a big deal, because although Janine had made dozens of titles, she only performed with women. It was heartening to see she could cater to men with equal skill.

After they've been at it about twenty minutes, the third person hops into bed. Her face is still blurred, but I knew who it was instantly--Brandy Ledford, aka Brandy Sanders, aka Jizel, Penthouse Pet of the Year. The blurring wasn't too obfuscating, and I had studied her body in pictures so much I knew it anywhere. Brandy was, and remains, my favorite Penthouse Pet ever, and now she was about to engage in a hard-core threesome right before my eyes. It was an electric moment for a porn-guy like myself.

I've owned the VHS for years but recently picked up the DVD version (will I one day have to get it on Blu-Ray?) It reminds me of certain things: that is an advertisement for boys everywhere to get into rock bands, especially heavy metal bands with umlauts in their names; that I once met Janine, at a strip club in Manhattan, where she was performing with her partner, Julia Ann, in an act they called Blondage. She was very nice and appreciated me delivering to her a magazine containing an interview I did with her. She still performs, although she is now nearly covered in tattoos, and she does perform with men.

As for Brandy, I never quite got a chance to meet her. I once had occasion to call her, and got her voicemail, and once when I was walking out of the Penthouse office she was sitting at the reception desk, waiting for someone. I was too dumbfounded to say anything, she was so beautiful. I have to give her a lot of credit, because she has managed to forge an acting career in the mainstream world, appearing in TV series like Baywatch Hawaii and Andromeda. Given that for a while in the nineties photos of her with her knees up around her ears appeared in phone-sex ads in countless porno rags, that's a pretty good climb. Today she describes herself on her web-site as a Christian. From what I understood, Janine and Neil sold their home-made tape without her permission (which is why her face is blurred) which is probably something that can end a friendship.

I've seen a few of the other celebrity sex tapes, such as Paris Hilton, Jenna Lewis, and bits of the Keely Hazell tape, but the Janine-Vince-Brandy tape remains the best.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?

I've listened to this album by Of Montreal twice now and I'm not sure what I think. It's a pleasant enough listen, with some good dance beats, but I don't dance. There is no lyric sheet, so I'm not sure what's going on, but the titles of the songs are so vivid they are irresistible. The band, which is apparently one guy, Kevin Barnes, reminds me of the glam-rock of the early seventies, with some Peter Gabriel-era Genesis thrown in. The music doesn't particularly grab me hard, though, or hit me on a gut level.

Reading about the album on Wikipedia, I see that the songs are about a transformation of the singer into an alter-ego called "Georgie Fruit." This recalls the alter-egos of David Bowie, particularly Ziggy Stardust. But while Bowie's work had some gravitas, Of Montreal's sound is gossamer, and threatens to drift away while listening.

But back to the song titles. They are like poems unto themselves: "Heimdalsgate Like a Promethenian Curse," "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger," "The Past Is a Grotesque Animal" (which clocks in at almost twelve minutes, and has a great driving rhythm), "Bunny Ain't No Kind of Rider," which has my favorite line of the album, "You're just a faggy girl, I need a lover with real soul power." Then comes "Faberge Falls for Shuggie" and "We Were Born the Mutants Again With Leafling."

In seeing pictures of Barnes, I can see that he is probably influenced by Bowie and Gabriel, as he is given to theatricality and a fey persona. I probably won't end up listening to this album much as time goes by, as it just seems a hard nut to crack and I'm not sure there's a lot of meat inside.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

J-Lo


It is reported that when it was suggested to Warren Beatty that he hire Madonna to play Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy he responded, "Isn't that like working with a country?" The same could probably be said of Jennifer Lopez, megastar. She seems to an industry unto herself now. What's forgotten is whether she has actually has any talent. I took a look at a bunch of her films, from Anaconda to Monster-in-Law, to get a sense of just where her appeal comes from.

Of course she is beautiful, and she became a butt of jokes for her, er, butt, but it's interesting to discover that in some of her early films she displayed a kernel of talent and daring, taking on edgy projects by directors like Oliver Stone and Steven Soderbergh. That's all gone now, though, as she churns out one disposable romantic comedy after another. Except for a few minor exceptions, if her name is in a cast list, it's probably an unwatchable film.

In Stone's U-Turn Lopez plays the quintessential femme fatale, a spider luring Sean Penn's fly into her web. In Soderbergh's Out of Sight, Lopez's best role, she is U.S. Marshall Karen Sisco, a tough cop who happens to get seduced by crook George Clooney (who can blame her?) Oh, she made a few stinkers early on, like Anaconda (with some of the worst CGI I've ever seen) and Money Train, but that' s forgivable, she was an up-and-coming actress and those were stepping stones. But after Out of Sight, when she became fodder for tabloids, something horrible happened.

It may have started with The Wedding Planner. This is a by-the-numbers romantic comedy, the kind that are supposedly marketed for women (though the women I know would probably hate it). Lopez does okay in creating a character, a wedding planner who has a horrible romantic life, but the film itself is just dreck, and includes a performance by Justin Chambers as a Sicilian that has to be seen to be believed. Apparently a dialogue coach was not hired. Then came Maid in Manhattan, also completely disposable, a Cinderella story with Lopez as a chambermaid getting involved with rich guy Ralph Fiennes. All I could think while watching this harmless bit of fluff was, "What was Ralph Fiennes thinking?"

In the past few years Lopez has made at least one decent film, An Unfinished Life. Oh, it is typical Lasse Hallstrom fare (see my review of The Hoax, below, to see that Hallstrom is capable of breaking this mold) about forgiveness and family and blah blah blah. Lopez plays a battered woman who escapes her boyfriend and goes to live with her estranged father-in-law, Robert Redford, who blames her for his son's death. Redford is the key to this film, and he's a pleasure to watch. Morgan Freeman plays much the same character he would in Million Dollar Baby, the sage friend of a grizzled old white man. Interestingly, though An Unfinished Life was released later, it was filmed before Million Dollar Baby.

Then there's Monster-in-Law. I did something with this film I rarely do: I turned it off halfway through. The first half-hour is barely tolerable, a fairy-tale meeting between free-spirited temp Lopez and handsome doctor Michael Vartan. I suppose there are women who fantasize about things like this. Maybe it's their version of porn. I thought the film would perk up when Jane Fonda appears at about the thirty minute mark, figuring an old pro would give this lackluster film some juice. She plays a Barbara Walters-style journalist who is a little too attached to her son. But even she is unable to contain the idiocy of this script, so I bailed. I can only take some many of these stupid romantic comedies, I guess.

A few words about Gigli, which was also part of my J-Lo film festival. Made at the height of her tabloid relationship with Ben Affleck, Gigli was famously bad, and as usual with these sorts of things, it wasn't as bad as I expected. It's an odd film, to be sure, about hired killers who are surprisingly squeamish holding a retarded man hostage. At least Affleck and Lopez look to define characters, however ridiculous they may be. Lopez's character is a lesbian. There are not that many prominent lesbian characters in mainstream films, so I'm not sure that when there is one she should so quickly abandon her predilection for a meathead like Affleck's character. But there is a scene so bad that it's good: Lopez, while doing yoga in a skintight outfit, explaining why the vagina is superior to the penis. You can't make up stuff like that.

It would be nice to see Lopez return to doing something more edgy and risk-taking, but perhaps her acting chops just aren't up for it. Instead she can be most well known for her ass and her romantic escapades. So be it.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Virginia Tech Massacre

There will be a lot of discussion of the events of yesterday morning on the campus of Virginia Tech. It would appear that a lone gunman, Cho Seung-Hui, killed 31 people and himself. As of now, no motive is known. It was the largest fatality from a single gun incident in U.S. history.

On the griddle right now are university officials, who dithered about warning students that there had been violence. At 7:15, two people were shot to death in a dorm room. Over two hours later, with students given no warning, the killer perpetuated his slaughter, killing thirty more people, and wounding several others. In retrospect, it seems this is a monumental fuck-up. I thought to myself, if someone had been murdered in my city, I don't need to be warned, but a college, though it is like a city in many ways, also plays an in loco parentis role. Students, who may be of legal age, are still under the cloak of safety a university provides, and it seems to me that when an act of violence so severe as a murder takes place, it's a situation that calls for utmost caution. I think some heads may roll over this one.

Then there is the gun question. I've always been for strict gun control laws, and find the NRA an odious bunch. It's a sticky wicket, though, for the second amendment is pretty clear that citizens have the right to bear arms (there is the reference to militias, which further complicates the issue). Cho may very well have bought the guns he used legally. If he had no record or history of mental illness, what different could have been done?

Living in an open society as we do, and since we do have the right to own guns, these things will happen. The alternative, having armed guards in every aspect of our lives, is both impractical and undesirable, I would think. I live near the campus of Princeton University, which has an open-door policy as far as the community is concerned (of course outsiders can not get into certain buildings such as dormitories). It would be a shame if colleges and universities had to alter this policy.

In any event, this is a very tragic set of circumstances and I feel for the students of Virginia Tech and the families of those who died.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Hoax

The Hoax is a lively entertainment, and would do well as the second half of a (long) double feature with The Aviator, as this film deals with the mythos of Howard Hughes. Surprisingly, it's directed by Lasse Halstrom, who's work lately has slid into the realm of Hallmark Hall of Fame type stuff. The Hoax, though, skimps on sentimentality, and instead provides an interesting glimpse at a man who is obsessed, but not with the truth.

Richard Gere has one of his best roles in years, and knocks it out of the ball park. He plays Clifford Irving, who is a novelist of little repute. When he receives an advance for a book that is later killed, he needs cash fast, so comes up with the hare-brained scheme of selling an autobiography of Howard Hughes, never mind that he has never met Hughes. He figures Hughes is so reclusive that no one will ever know the difference (it reminds me of a gag in The Simpsons, when Homer uses Jacques Cousteau as a reference, because he guesses no one will ever be able to get a hold of the sea-faring Cousteau to check). Roped into this scheme is Irving's friend, Dick, well played by Alfred Molina, who is sort of the conscience of this affair, and Irving's wife Edith, played by Marcia Gay Harden.

It's grand fun to watch Irving wriggle out of each obstacle that is laid before him. He manages to forge a couple of letters that fool McGraw-Hill and Life Magazine, and learns so much about Hughes that he bamboozles everyone who knew Hughes. There are other obstacles that are even trickier, such as how to cash a check for a million dollars made out to Howard Hughes, and Irving's eventual slide into mania as he assumes the identity of Hughes in order to write the book.

Given that this is a film based on Irving's telling of the story, one wonders how true it is, as Irving is portrayed as a silver-tongued master of deceit, who when given the chance to come clean usually chooses to tell even bigger lies. There are subplots involving Richard Nixon that recall John Nash's hallucinations in A Beautiful Mind. Whether any of it true or not doesn't detract from the fun it is watching this film. Had this been a late-year release, Gere would certainly be on the short list for an Academy Award nomination.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Traffic and Weather

I was very keen to hear the new Foutains of Wayne album, Traffic and Weather, as they are perhaps my favorite band currently making records. So I picked it up as soon as it was released. It certainly met my expectations, but I'm also left with a slightly empty feeling, after listening to it three times.

I suppose what's gnawing at me is that FOW's songwriting team, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood, have not shown any growth in this their fourth disc. Don't get me wrong--there are still plenty of catchy tunes about the minutae of middle-class life in America, which is FOW's forte. Expecting them to put out something a little more ambitious may be unfair. But there's a sense on this record that they're going through the motions.

One great thing about FOW, is that you can read the lyrics booklet as if you were reading literature. Many of the songs are like exquisite short stories. "Yolanda Hayes" is about a man who has developed a crush on the woman who works at the DMV. "Someone to Love" is about two lonely strangers who end up not meeting cute. "Strapped for Cash" deals with a fellow who is getting leaned on by his creditors, and "I-95" is a lament about a long-distance relationship. There are two songs about the soul-crushing rigors of air travel: "Mike and Heather at the Baggage Claim" and "Seatbacks and Tray Tables Up." "New Routine" is about a waitress who on a whim moves to Liechtenstein.

Amidst all these song are the effluvia of pop culture, as there are references to King of Queens, light blue Docker pants, Greenpeace bumper stickers, Carl Reiner, La Quinta motels, and hot girls on Spanish television. Clever, yes, but perhaps too clever, in a way that instantly dates the record. The music is typical FOW jangly pop, instantly catchy.

I think my favorite track is the title song, which breaks the FOW mold a bit. It's got quite a bit of funk to it, and deals with the simmering sexual heat between news anchors. If I were on American Bandstand's Rate-a-Record I would give it a 95, as it definitely is easy to dance to.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

This morning I learned the sad news of the passing of Kurt Vonnegut. He is among my favorite writers, perhaps as high as the top three, and on the occasion I've been reminiscing about the books of his I have read and where they came in my life.

My first exposure to him must have been Slaughterhouse-Five, which I read in high school and still numbers among my top ten all-time favorite novels. I don't remember whether I read the book before I saw the movie, but I do remember both making an indelible impression on me. Valerie Perrine's performance as Montana Wildhack certainly got under the skin of an adolescent. I still linger over the concept of Billy Pilgrim as a captive on the planet Tralfamidore, and the amenable alien race bringing the object of his lust to him for mating purposes.

Slaughterhouse-Five, despite that bit of sexiness, is one of the most profound anti-war novels ever written, particularly because the horrors of war are focused on the actions of "good guys," i.e., the Allies in their bombing of Dresden. Although Vonnegut was no Nazi sympathizer, he made clear how the whole war business was supreme folly.

Another bit of Vonnegut I read early was his story EPICAC, which is included in the masterful collection Welcome to the Monkey House. The story of a computer that falls in love, I read it in a high school Science Fiction class, and it made a strong impression on me.

During college, I read The Sirens of Titan, which had one of the most vivid chapter titles in all of literature: "Unk and Boaz in the Caves of Mercury." In my college days I ran with a sci-fi crowd, although I wouldn't qualify myself as a sci-fi fan. Vonnegut, who was classified by some as a science fiction writer, really transcended that genre. He may have written about life on other worlds, but I don't consider him in the same category as writers like Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, or even Ray Bradbury. Vonnegut had a higher calling.

I read a few of Vonnegut's later works as they came out: Deadeye Dick, and Hocus Pocus. Then, a few years ago, I set about trying to catch up, and bought a bunch of his books at once. I haven't gotten to them all, but I have read Player Piano, Breakfast of Champions, and Cat's Cradle. Player Piano, his first work, is a dark polemic about the industrial age, while the latter two are more characteristic of what he is best known for. Breakfast of Champions focuses on his recurring character, the science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, while Cat's Cradle deals with the weighty subject of the end of the world. The essentials I still have yet to read: Slapstick, Mother Night, and God Bless You, Mrs. Rosewater.

Vonnegut was an atheist and essentially a pessimist, but like a flower poking up through the cracks of urban decay, he seemed to kindle a bit of optimism about the human race. An obituary carries this bit of wisdom imparted to new arrivals on planet Earth: "Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- God damn it, you've got to be kind." No arguments here. RIP, Mr. Vonnegut.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Grindhouse

Grindhouse is a generally entertaining movie experience, but it's not for everybody. In fact, it's really grooved for a particularly small slice of the movie-going demographic: those who appreciate exploitation pictures that were shown in the eponymous grindhouses during the sixties and seventies (others may have seen them in drive-ins). Directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino are mavens on the subject, and certainly must have enjoyed themselves on this project, but the results for the rest of us are spotty.

Set up as a typical grindhouse double feature, complete with trailers, scratched film, and missing reels, Grindhouse is a long evening, clocking in at over three hours. Each of the two films is 85 minutes, but both have moments that drag, so you're a bit numb by the time you walk out. Rodriguez's effort is Planet Terror, Tarantino's Death Proof. Rodriguez comes closert to the mark in sending up a cheesey, scuzzy horror film, while Tarantino's film comes closer to being brilliant on its own terms.

After a phony trailer for a film called Machete, starring Danny Trejo (a film I would like to see), we see Planet Terror. Rodriquez has chosen to spoof the zombie film, a curious choice considering zombie pictures have been deconstructed every which way the last few years. Set in Austin, a type of gas turns people into flesh-eating monsters, and a tow-truck driver and gunslinger played by Freddy Rodriguez teams up with the local sheriff and his ex-girlfriend, a go-go dancer colorfully name Cherry Darling, played by Rose MacGowan to stop them. She gets her leg chewed off by zombies, and ends up using a machine gun as a prosthetic, which seems like the image that Rodriguez used for his inspiration. Also in the cast are Bruce Willis, Naveen Andrews (Sayid!) and Marley Shelton, who does well as a doctor who has to drive a car while her hands have been anesthetized.

Rodriguez has captured the spirit of the genre, as Planet Terror is funny-dumb. There's some neat, gory violence, and everyone plays their roles with tongues firmly in cheek. It would be a perfect film for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

In between the two features comes three more trailers, directed by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth. Zombie's, for a Nazi werewolf film, isn't very interesting, but the trailer for Don't, directed by Wright, and Thanksgiving, by Roth, are very funny. Thanksgiving is about a serial killer dressed as a pilgrim, and has some memorable scenes, such as a guy in a turkey costume getting decapitated, and a cheerleader doing the splits on a trampoline that has a knife sticking through it.

Then comes Death Proof. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around this film. It's both maddening and brilliant, very much in keeping with Tarantino's ouevre. Ostensibly, it's very long meandering conversations punctuated by a car wreck and then a classic car chase. It contains many elements familiar to Tarantino, such as female bare feet (the very first image of the film), a cool jukebox, and pointless conversations. The cast is almost entirely female, and resounds with strong women (even including stuntwomen Zoe Bell, who doubled for Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, playing herself). The only major male character is Stuntman Mike, played by Kurt Russell, who has a thing for running down girls in cars.

Death Proof, I think I'm safe in saying, is like no other grindhouse film ever made. At times the film actually looks too good, and its aspiration exceeds the limits of the genre. Car fanciers will certainly drool at the vintage Challenger involved in the chase, and there are some stunts (presumably performed by Bell herself) that are spectacular.

I'm still waiting for Tarantino to develop as a filmmaker that was promised in Pulp Fiction. Since then he's been fooling around, riffing on genre films that have built-in limits. It would be nice to see him stretch himself and try to tell stories about the human condition rather than engage in cinematic circle jerks.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Viva Las Vegas!

Tomorrow I'm winging to Sin City, leaving behind dreary weather with temperatures eking into the 50s to sun-splashed, ninety-degree heat. The excuse is to attend Viva Las Vegas, a rockabilly convention. Now, I'm fairly indifferent on rockabilly music (although if there are some surf acts there I will be much more attentive) but I an enamored of the trappings of the genre, particularly the clothing, so I may drop some cash on some vintage bowling or Hawaiian shirts.

This is my second trip to Vegas. The first one was five years ago and I did much of the tourist stuff, but this time I will probably be more content to relax poolside. The only place I didn't go last time that I want to this time is the Double Down Saloon ("The Happiest Place on Earth").

In some ways, I shouldn't be interested in Las Vegas, because as a traveler I'm much more interested in authenticity, and Vegas is about an unauthentic a place as you can get. But there is some authentic places, like the Double Down, so it becomes a rich experience when I can find them.

I will report back when I return (unless my hotel has a business center, which would enable me to get online) and hopefully I will have some good stories to share.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Happy Feet/Curse of the Golden Flower

I'm catching up with some films I missed in theaters that got Oscar nominations. The winner of the Best Animated film award, Happy Feet, is an odd enterprise. Whatever charm it has (which is small) is overwhelmed by do-gooder sentiment. The tale of a penguin who likes to dance rather than sing, we get a double-barrelled message of "be yourself," and don't mess with the food chain. These are admirable sentiments, but this film is just too drippy with them.

I was also bugged by the soundtrack peppered with pop hits. In the opening sequence, in which the penguins find a mate by singing, it sounds as if a jukebox exploded. You may find yourself playing Name That Tune rather than be dazzled by the animation, which I'll admit is quite impressive.

Finally, did we really need Robin Williams to voice two characters? One is usually way too many.


Zhang Yimou is a director who really knows to how to use color. From Raise the Red Lantern to Red Sorghum to Hero to House of the Flying Daggers, one walks out of the theater after being saturated in rich, opulent color. This is also true in The Curse of the Golden Flower, the third straight Zhang film set in medieval China.

The story is redolent of Shakespeare, or perhaps even more of Lion in Winter: a monarch and his scheming wife, and three sons vying for the throne. Unlike Lion in Winter, though, which had a contemporary snap to the dialogue. Curse is much more formal, without a whiff of humor. Chow-Yun Fat gives an imposing performance as the Emperor, who is slowly poisoning his consort, Gong Li. There are three sons. The oldest, who was born to Fat's first wife, is secretly diddling his step-mother. The second is a warrior, and the third is meek but fiendish. Each has secrets which will result in mass carnage.

As with Hero and Daggers, there is spectacularly choreographed fights, and even though I've seen a few of these films now, they still take the breath away. Gong Li ably inhabits a character who resembles both Cleopatra and Lady MacBeth, while pop-star Jay Chou struggles with the warrior son role.

While a feast for the eye, Curse of the Golden Flower does sag a bit in spots, and is not suggested for viewing while tired.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The Namesake

The Namesake is a film about the precariousness of straddling two cultures, especially after the passage of time. When Ashoke Ganguli takes his bride, Ashima, from Calcutta to New York City, he has already lived in America for a few years, but to her it is a totally alien place, and she is frightened. Their children, though, are completely Americanized, born and bred in New York. Ashoke and Ashima are liberal parents, and don't force-feed the old ways to them. Instead, they let the children embrace traditions when the need arises.

The plot thread through this film concerns their son's name. The Indian culture usually bestows two names upon a child, the pet name and the "good" name. However, since the son is born in a country where a name is required on a birth certificate, he is named Gogol, after the Russian writer. Upon entering college, Gogol Ganguli finds that his name is unwieldy, and he changes it, even though his father has a deeper purpose in giving him that name than just simply because he's a fan of the writer.

The film is directed by Mira Nair, who succeeds with this sort of film (I also admired Mississippi Masala) more than she did with films like Vanity Fair. Though the script clunks a bit, being adapted from a long novel by Jhumpa Lahiri (several years are skipped over in a blink of an eye), I found much of it moving, even though there is a melodramatic plot turn toward the end. Irfan Khan, as Ashoke, is remarkably good, as is Tabu as Ashima. And I felt so good for Kal Penn, a very likable actor who until this point had largely made a name for himself in frat-boy boob and beer films. He makes the most of his opportunity.

A few things didn't ring true, such as Jacinda Barrett's character, Gogol's white college girlfriend, who is more of a plot contrivance than a real person. But aside from that, this is a very well done film that raises fascinating questions about heritage and cultural identity.