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Monday, April 30, 2012

Meet the Mets

Rusty Staub
I am not a Mets fan, but I have two dear friends who are, and Mets fans and I share a hatred for the New York Yankees. Therefore, I felt among friends at a three-day conference at Hofstra University marking the 50th anniversary of the birth of the Mets, that was full of panels on almost every aspect of the team, from the mascot to the stadiums to the organist who played there.

As I sat in the panels, immersed in baseball, I considered just what a Met fan is. Fans of a particular team seem to take on certain characteristics. Certainly Cubs fans, none of whom are alive to have seen last World Series victory, have a certain personality type. Red Sox fans, who were similar to Cubs fans until 2004, now have a different personality after experiencing a rush of success. Yankee fans are unaccustomed to losing, and represent a certain kind of elitism. As sportswriter Stan Isaacs commented, "Rooting for the Yankees is like rooting for Donald Trump to win the lottery."

The Mets are the spiritual descendants of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who, along with the New York Giants, decamped for the West Coast after the 1957 season. Many fans of those teams, especially the Dodgers, swore off baseball rather than root for their exiled teams, or even the Yankees. The Mets came along to soothe their pain, but the team was historically awful--120 losses, still a record. But the team was embraced, as they were lovable losers, a collection of fading stars and bumbling journeymen, typified by Marv Throneberry, who once hit a triple and missed both first and second base on his path to third. The manager was the legendary Casey Stengel, now in his dotage, who remained a writer's favorite with his fractured syntax and pithy witticisms. Upon meeting sportswriter Steve Jacobson's wife, he told her, "I don't know you, but you could be our third-string catcher."

The team would experience glory in 1969, a 200-to-1 shot that rose from the depths of the standings to win it all. Four players from that team, Ed Charles, Bud Harrelson, Ed Kranepool, and Art Shamsky, attended the conference. Gentlemen all, they were generous with their time, although you can't help feeling they are wistful about missing out on the millions that would come to the players of the next generation.

The team has had ups and downs since then, mostly downs. There was a lot of talk about the anger over the trade of Tom Seaver, the mid-80s team that would win only one World Series (but what a win--who will forget the '86 series, with the thrilling win over the Astros and then "Game Six" of the World Series against Boston). The team has declined steadily since their last World Series in 2000, with the Mets just missing getting to the Series in 2006, when Carlos Beltran ended game seven of the NLCS against the Cardinals by taking a called third strike. A Mets fan told the story about being at that game, and spending two minutes in a stall in the Grand Central Station men's room, screaming, "Why didn't he swing?!"

Being descendants of the old Brooklyn team, the Mets fan is associated with a kind of Sisyphean mythos. Mostly it's losing, with the occasional rise to the mountaintop. They are mostly middle-to-lower class, and there are many Jewish fans (one Jewish history professor came to the realization that God was a Yankee fan, so he became an atheist). They are also marked by a persistent optimism, despite all the losing. Yes, they hearken back to '69 and '86, but they also care about the current team, despite the financial difficulties of the current owners. Serendipitously during the conference, a Mets day game was playing on the big-screen TV in the commuter lounge at Hofstra. Conference attendees gathered around the set. The Mets had trailed the Marlins, but had tied the score in the ninth, and now had the bases loaded. Official historian of Major League Baseball, John Thorn, stood next to me as out number two was recorded on a force-out to home plate. "Is a sacrifice fly too much to ask for?" he beseeched, turning away in typical Mets fashion. The next hitter, a call-up named Kirk Nieuwenhuis, slapped a two-out single over the head of the Marlins rightfielder, and a roar of delight and triumph went up.

The highlight of the conference for me was the banquet. I sat with my friend and the co-director of the conference, Dr. Paula Uruburu, and also at my table was Bud Harrelson, shortstop of the '69 Mets. His most famous moment was getting in a fight with Pete Rose during the '73 NLCS. I did not tell Bud that Rose was my father's childhood friend, but it's easy to see that Bud is probably ten times the gentlemen Pete ever was.

I was thrilled to get to shake hands with Rusty Staub. Rusty was a well-traveled player who spent most of his career with the Mets, and he gave the keynote address at the banquet (pictured above). But me, being a Tigers fan, remember him fondly for his few years with the Tigers in the late '70s.

It was a great three days. There's nothing like being among kindred spirits who, despite the emergence of football and basketball as eclipsing baseball, understand that America is still about baseball.

Sunday, April 29, 2012


Unknown is a straightforward action-thriller that doesn't establish any new ground but is the perfect kind of movie to get from Red Box when you are visiting your mother, as I did last week. It is also one of a number of films that has strangely seen Liam Neeson bloom into a bankable action hero.

Neeson plays Dr. Martin Harris, a biotechnologist attending a conference in Berlin. He is accompanied by his wife, January Jones. When he leaves a briefcase behind at the airport he jumps in a cab, driven by Diane Kruger (does Germany regularly have such stunning cabbies?) They end up in a car accident, and Neeson is in a coma for four days. He is surprised he is not attended by his wife, and when he does find her at a reception, she claims not to know him. Not only that, but another man (Aidan Quinn) says he is Martin Harris.

So what's going on here? Neeson doubts his sanity, and ends up hiring a private detective (Bruno Ganz) to find out what's going on. He's shadowed by sinister looking gunmen, including one who tries to kill him in a hospital. He finds Kruger, and is promptly attacked by two men. He and Kruger escape. Later, Frank Langella will appear, playing someone who Neeson thinks is an old friend.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Sera, Unknown is a nice, modest time-killer that will keep you guessing. I didn't figure everything out, but the twist, as it were, does recall another movie involving amnesia, so it's not exactly original.

Neeson kinds of growls his way through the film, as he does with many of his roles these days. He seems to have inherited a certain kind of role from Harrison Ford, and does quite well with it, though it makes Schindler's List seem like a hundred years ago.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Clybourne Park

According to 2011 study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, Chicago is America's most segregated city. Or, as legendary columnist Mike Royko put it, you could always tell what neighborhood you were in by the food, the language, or "by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock." I read this info in an essay penned by Northwestern professor Bill Savage in an essay on Bruce Norris' play Clybourne Park, set in Chicago, which just opened on Broadway. It dares to go into the nest of vipers that is the conversation on race.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize last year, the play returns its entire cast from the Steppenwolf Theater production of 2010. While some dramaturgical creaks are too plainly evident, I found the play to be lively and scathing, and all-too true about what's going on with race in this country. Just when you think we're post-racial, with a black man in the White House, comes along something that knocks you back on your heels, like the Trayvon Martin shooting or the outrage by a shocking number of people that a beloved character in The Hunger Games was played by a black child.

Clybourne Park takes Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic, A Raisin in the Sun and gives it expanded life. In that play, a black family, bestowed with a sizable insurance check, buys a house in all-white neighborhood. A representative of the white community, a fictional neighborhood called Clybourne Park, tries to buy them out, lest the property values plummet. That character, Karl Lindner, appears in Norris' production, just a few hours after his appearance in Hansberry's work.

The setting is the house itself, a modest bungalow in a working-class neighborhood of German and Irish. The first act is in 1959, and the Stollers, Russ and Bev, are packing up to move. The opening moments are a kind of Father Knows Best parody, as the couple gently bicker over the derivation of the word Neapolitan and the capital of Mongolia (Ulan Bator, which you will never forget after seeing this play). A neighbor and minister, Jim, stops by, full of Eisenhower-era exclamations like Jiminy Cricket and Holy Toledo.

It slowly becomes apparent that the Stollers have endured some kind of tragedy--their son, a Korean war vet who was accused of killing civilians, hung himself. But before that can be fully developed, Karl appears, with shocking news--the family that Russ and Bev have sold to are "colored."

The ensuing drama has Karl trying to convince Russ to back out of the sale. What he couldn't do with the Youngers in Hansberry's play, he spells out to Bev what will happen if a black family moves in--one family will leave, then another, and property values will drop precipitously. It's all economics, really--no aspersions are cast on black people, except for Jim's statement that the black church uses tambourines. Later in the play, de Tocqueville will be quoted: "The history of America is the history of private property."

The Stollers' black maid, Francine, will be dragged patronizingly into the conversation, as Jim asks her if she would like to live in a neighborhood like Clybourne Park. Her husband, Albert, cuts through the nonsense and clarifies--what would it be like to live next to white folks. Bev sees Francine as a girlfriend, but Francine sees this only as a job, and is trying to get through her last two days of employment unscathed.

The second act is set 50 years later. The same actors play different characters, but strategically so. The house is now dilapidated, but a white couple, Steve and Lindsey, have bought it, intending to tear it down and build a new structure. But their new house would be taller than the zoning allows, and the neighborhood association, represented by Tom, with black neighbors Kevin and Lena, have petitioned to stop them. Everyone sits peaceably, going over the law, and tensions slowly mount.

Steve starts to think that Lena objects because they are white, and we are forced to come to a riddle: is white gentrification of a black neighborhood the same as integration was 50 years ago? Of course, gentrification actually raises property values, but Lena, who is named after her great-aunt, the woman that bought the house 50 years ago, sees the historic value of keeping the homes as they were. When Steve starts to feel he is being racially singled out, the discussion degenerates into an exchange of tasteless jokes, and everyone in the room gets offended.

In a simultaneously clever and clumsy way, Norris points out how far and how little we have come. The acts parallel each other--each starts at three o'clock on a Saturday afternoon and end just after the church bells strike four, each has a discussion of world capitals, and each share a few lines that take on different meaning: "you can't live in a principle" is one, and another, hilariously, is "Do you ski?" But a play that relies on an exchange of jokes is a bit clunky, though one of them, "Why is a white woman like a tampon?" makes the house inhale with shock.

There is also, literally, buried baggage in the backyard (it reminded me of the Sam Shepard play, Buried Child) and an ending that attempts to be poignant, but instead seems to elude the point.

The cast is mostly on target. Frank Wood, as Russ, dominates the first act, with a festering anger (he will play the workman who discovers the trunk in Act II). Jeremy Shamos, who plays Karl and Steve, has the most work to do, and he shines, playing  both the unctuous nervous white man in the first act and the easily offended white man in the second. Christina Kirke, as Bev and Kathy, a lawyer in the second act, has more mixed results. She is difficult to get used to in the beginning, as a kind of intense June Cleaver, but in the second act she has a number of laugh-lines, playing a woman who has no idea how to take the temperature of a room. As the black couple, Crystal A. Dickinson is terrific as Francine/Lena--it's almost as if Lena is the outlet for Francine's quiet rage, while Damon Gupton is solid as Albert/Kevin. Annie Parisse plays Lindsey in the second act and Karl's deaf wife Betsy in the first. She has the line that is the most problematic in the whole play, when she says, "Half of my friends are black." That's kind of a cliche of white liberal guilt, but does get quite a laugh. Finally, Brendan Griffin is capable as Jim/Tom.

The direction, by Pam McKinnon, is excellent, although I did find much of the second act stagnant, as the characters are seated as if at a panel ready to answer the audience's questions, which makes for some awkwardness.

Clybourne Park has considerable merits, even if the seams show. White flight and gentrification are issues that still resonate in the American consciousness, and if politics and religion are topics that one shouldn't discuss, race needs to be added to them.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The King Is Dead

Once upon a time, and it still may be true, there was a certain type of music called "college rock." Basically, it was alternative rock, whatever that meant, that appealed to undergraduates, and played on college radio stations. College rock bands have a habit of sprinkling obscure references in their lyrics, give their songs oblique titles, and even naming themselves after something only a college graduate might recognize.

A few college rock bands I can think of are R.E.M--who could be considered the granddaddies of college rock, The Hold Steady and The Decemberists. The latter, from Portland, Oregon, no less, are named after a faction of the Russian Revolution, and play indie folk-rock that is influenced by many things, most predominantly the strains of Appalachia.

Their latest album, and the first chance I've had to hear them, is The King Is Dead, from 2011. It is a gloriously listenable album, whatever your education level. All songs are written by the frontman, Colin Meloy, and the tracks are arranged with maximum hoe-down instrumentation: fiddles, mandolins, accordions, pump organs,Wurlitzer pianos and bouzoukis. On the back cover, the band is arranged to look like a bunch of rednecks just up from the holler.

Still, there is a certain smartypants factor to the lyrics. It's not often you'll hear references to Hetty Green (I had to look her up on Wikipedia--she was a 20th century financier), or the word "panoply." But that's alright by me, especially when the hooks are as great as they are, and the sound is joyous and toe-tapping.

In many ways, The Decemberists remind me of The Band, if they had gone to college (I've been thinking a lot of The Band since Levon Helm died last week). Now, The Decemberists stuff isn't nearly as loamy as The Band, and I sincerely doubt any of The Decemberists ever worked on an oil rig, like Helm did, but there's still a quality of genuine Americana and ancient melancholy in their sound.

My favorite songs are "Calamity Song," which is the one that tips the hat to Green, and also contains the chorus: "And the Andalusian tribes/Setting the lay of Nebraska alight/'Til all that remains is the arms of the angels." Okay. And I also love "This Is Why We Fight," probably a reference to the series of films made by the War Department during World War II, but with a haunting sense of loss. There are also two very pretty songs as odes to different months: "January Hymn" and "June Hymn." But the best song is "Rox in the Box," which I think is about mining, and if I was told it was a cover from a century-old song (except for the spelling or Rox) I wouldn't have thought twice about it.

To give this album even more street cred, Peter Buck of R.E.M. plays on a few tracks, as does Gillian Welch, a big name in bluegrass music.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Monsieur Lazhar

There is nothing groundbreaking about Phillipe Falardeau's Monsieur Lazhar, which is one of a long line of films about teachers and students. But I found it so delicately wrought, its heart on its sleeve, and so empathetic for the fragility of children, and at the same time, their teachers, that it was a profoundly moving experience.

The film opens with a schoolboy (Émilien Néron), discovering his teacher hanging in the classroom. Her suicide rocks the small Montreal middle school, and a replacement is hard to come by. But one day in walks the title character (Fellag), who is an Algerian immigrant who needs a job.

The dynamic of the new teacher, who teaches the old-fashioned way,  clashing with the more liberal attitudes of his students (they refer to teachers by their first name, and have no compunction of speaking up without being called on, which were no-nos when I went to school) make things rough at first. But soon the kids learn to love Fellag, and he them, especially an intelligent girl (Sophie Nelisse) who becomes his favorite.

Fellag hides a secret from all of them--he has been touched by tragedy of an unbearable nature. He also has more secrets, one of which the discerning viewer will figure out. But he takes great care with his charges, especially in allowing them to deal with their grief and confusion about their dead teacher. As he tells a colleague, standing in the classroom, "It's difficult to understand why anyone would kill themselves. It's impossible to understand why anyone would do it here."

The screen time is divided between Lazhar and two of the students. Nelisse, a pretty girl but an observer, who instead of playing with the children on the playground watches instead, and Néron, a troublemaker who bears some guilt over his teacher's suicide. Both kids give lovely naturalistic performances (Nelisse won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar, as did Fellag and the picture itself). But all of the kids are great, including the roly-poly Vincent Millard. If there's ever a French-Canadian version of Leave It to Beaver, he'd be a perfect Larry Mondello.

But this movie is about Lazhar, and as such, Fellag is memorable. An Algerian comedian, Fellag is wonderful as a man who has little to live for but manages to get through each day, one at a time, with quiet dignity and grace. He strikes up a friendship with a colleague that could lead to romance, but he's not ready for it, and the chemistry between the two seems authentic, rather than a phony one that most movies would go for.

Monsieur Lazhar is touching without being sentimental, and gives a clear-eyed view of what it is to be a child confronting the specter of death, and what it is to be a teacher trying to both instruct and shield children from this specter. Well done.

My grade for Monsieur Lazhar: A.

Note: this was one of the nominees for the last year's Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language. It's the quickest I've seen all five in quite some time, and the first time I've seen all five in the cinema in many years. Though Monsieur Lazhar is terrific, it's not as good as the winner, A Separation. Here's how I rank them: A Separation, Monsieur Lazhar, Footnote, In Darkness, Bullhead.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Moth Diaries

Mary Harron is an interesting but problematic director. I've seen all four of her films: I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page, and now The Moth Diaries. Of these, only American Psycho did I despise; the others have approached being great movies but ultimately fall short.

The Moth Diaries, based on a novel of the same name, is set in a girls' boarding school. Rebecca (Sarah Bolger), is sixteen and is just starting to be happy again after dealing with her father's suicide. She's very close to her roommate Lucy (Sarah Gadon). But when a new student, the eerie Ernessa (Lily Cole) arrives, Bolger's life turns upside down.

The film has heavy Gothic overtones, and there is an element of the supernatural, but we're not quite sure what. Is Cole a ghost? A vampire? There's clues that she is both. To reinforce this, we get scenes in Bolger's English class, where her teacher (Scott Speedman) is teaching Dracula and Carmilla, the first real vampire tale. Certainly Cole is some kind of succubus, as she lures Gadon away from Lucy and starts to change her. Then there's the mysterious deaths that make the school look like a hazard.

Unfortunately, The Moth Diaries is more atmosphere than substance. The trope of suicide weaves in and out--Cole tells Bolger that the moment of death is ecstatic, which should have been countered with a "how do you know?" Bolger raises her suspicions to others, who doubt her sanity (she sees Cole walking through glass). But this comes across more like a "It Gets Better" ad than a serious work of cinema.

Still, The Moth Diaries is not boring (it's only 84 minutes long) and is creepy enough to warrant attention from fans of the genre. I just wish it had more oomph to it. I will add that Cole, who is a model, is perfectly suited for the part. She's one of the strangest looking yet beautiful women in film today. Any director would be intrigued by her face.

My grade for The Moth Diaries: C+.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Raisin in the Sun

This weekend I will be headed to New York City for the Broadway production of Clybourne Park, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that expands upon the iconic play of Lorraine Hansberry--A Raisin the Sun. I thought it might be a good idea to actually read the play and watch the film version to prepare. I'm glad I did--both are brilliant.

The play was first produced in 1959, and was the first Broadway production by an African-American woman. With a strong cast of Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil, Lou Gossett Jr. and Diana Sands, the play was a hit and moved the conversation of civil rights in America.

Set in a cramped apartment in a black neighborhood of Chicago, Hansberry's play deals with the American dream, as seen through the eyes of a lower-middle class black family. Pointedly, her title is taken from Langston Hughes: "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?"

Walter Younger (Poitier) is man overbrimming with dreams. He is a chauffeur for a rich white man, but wants to make something of himself. His current dream is to buy into a liquor store with some friends. He will have the means, because the life insurance check following his father's death is due to arrive any day. But that money belongs to his mother (McNeil), a proud, churchgoing woman, who is more interested in buying a house that will fit her, Walter, his wife Ruth (Dee), his younger sister Beneatha (Sands), and his young son Travis (played by Glynn Turman on stage and Stephen Perry on film).

No one else in the family shares Walter's ambitions. His wife is very suspect, mostly because she does not trust his potential partners, but Walter sees this as the black woman holding the black man back: "That's it. There you are. Man say to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman say: Eat your eggs. Man say: I got to take hold of this here world, baby! And a woman will say: Eat your eggs and go to work. Man say: I got to change my life, I'm choking to death, baby! And his woman say--Your eggs is getting cold!"

The play is something of an omnibus for African-American issues of the time. Not only does it address the frustration of the black race's attempts to gain economic equality with whites, but it also addresses African identity. Beneatha, who is twenty and wants to go to medical school and be a doctor (ironically, Poitier tells her she should settle on being a nurse), is charmed by a Nigerian student (Ivan Dixon, who would later star on TV's Hogans Heroes). Beneatha is determined not be an assimilatist, and seek out her African roots. She listens to African music and is put off by her suitor, George Murchison (Gossett), who is an upper-class black who is fully absorbed into the white world. She tells her mother: "The Murchisons are honest-to-God-real-live-rich colored people, and the only people in the world who are more snobbish than rich people are rich colored people." Beneatha even tells her mother she doesn't believe in God, but she gets slapped across the face for it.

But most keenly, the story turns on the house in Clybourne Park. Mama puts a down payment on a small but clean and sunlit home in a section of Chicago that has no black people living in it. Walter and Ruth are incredulous that she would do such a thing, but figure if she's up for the challenge, so be it. But then a representative of the neighborhood "improvement association" pays a call (played on stage and in the film by John Fiedler, who would later be the voice of Piglet). He is full of pleasant charm, and says that problems between the races can be solved by talking (I've read about some of the attempts to segregate Chicago neighborhoods, such as Cicero, where a black couple were burned out while cops watched). The Youngers believe the man is genuinely interested in their welfare, but he then pulls out paperwork and says that colored people are happiest living with their own kind, and offers to buy them out at a profit. Walter, proudly, throws him out.

Eventually Mama will give Walter some of the insurance money so as to let him have his dream, but of course things go wrong, and when they do, the anguish, both reading on the page and watching the film, is palpable. But the ending is hopeful, represented by Mama's struggling plant, which she carries out the door to her new home as the play ends.

The film version, from 1961, also written by Hansberry, and directed by Daniel Petrie, is powerful stuff. All of the stage cast are back (except for the part of the young boy), and much of it is filmed in their apartment. This gives it a stagey feel, but Petrie's use of camera helps alleviate any claustrophobia. A few scenes open up the action, particularly the one in which the family visits their new house in Clybourne Park, which of course couldn't be on the stage. Watching this scene is heartbreaking, as we see the smiles of the new owners, especially of the seven-year-old boy, who is too young to understand why his neighbors will do anything to keep him out. As pointed out, the Youngers have six generations in America, much more than the ancestors of the Germans and Irish and Italians who make up the neighborhood currently consists of, but the fear of diminished property values drives the morality of the situation.

The actors in the film are all great. McNeil was nominated for a Golden Globe, and she is excellent, not taking the character into a stereotype of the older black churchwoman. This is party due to the writing, which gives her a sense of humor. Poitier, who would later get pigeon-holed in "dignified" black roles, is brilliant as the temperamental Walter, who feels misunderstood, burns to better himself, but when denied, seeks solace in drink. And Dee and Sands are also first-rate as woman of different generations, whose hopes go in different directions.

A Raisin in the Sun also reminds me of the magic rhythms of black speech, which though aren't necessarily grammatically correct, nonetheless is rich with meter and passion. I can't help but laugh when terms like "raggedy-ass" are used, and who would have thought that "Miss Thing" was in use in 1959?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stone Arabia

Stone Arabia is a lovingly rendered novel about a person who is absorbed in the orbit of a sibling. It's also about creativity, and its benefits and curses. It's also a lot about rock and roll.

Dana Spiotta's primary narrator is Denise Kranis, the younger singer of Nik Worth, a marginal rock musician who, in 2004, is tending bar at a dive, living above a garage in Topanga Canyon, and continuing to put out experimental CDS called The Ontology of Worth, in 20 volumes (they are numbered in reverse chronology, and he is down to number 1, his last).

We hear in detail about Nik's tenth birthday, when their itinerant father gave him a guitar as a present. Later that day they went to see A Hard Day's Night: "Nik was a bit of a Beatle skeptic; he had the 45s, but he wasn't sure it wasn't too much of a girl thing. The movie erased all doubt. Denise remembered how everything about it thrilled them--the music, of course, but also the fast cuts, the deadpan wit, the mod style, the amused asides right into the camera. The songs actually made them feel high, and in each instance they felt permanently embedded in their brains by the second repetition of the chorus. They stayed in their seats right through the credits."

Nik goes on to be in a few bands, with modest success. He has a chance at stardom, but ends up largely in obscurity. But, in another expression of his irrepressible creativity, he has written what he terms "The Chronicles," which is his life (and Denise's) in an alternate universe where he is a rock star. He even writes reviews of his nonexistent records, both raves and pans. "I think it is funny, and no doubt at all lost on Nik, that in the end, his life in the Chronicles wasn't all that different from his real life. In some ways it was worse, and in other way it was exactly the same. Not a fantasy perfect life at all, just a different life, perhaps a more artful life. But in the Chronicles he wasn't the author of the Chronicles, which was arguably the thing he had grown to be the proudest of as time went by."

As the novel goes on, we feel for both Denise and Nik. The latter for his dissolute lifestyle: "He did not care, or seemed not to care, about his drinking belly or his general, considerable decay. He did not care that his hands shook when he lit his cigarette. He did not care when his conversation was brought to a halt by his coughing fit. He pursued a lifetime of abuse that could only come from a warped relationship with the future." Nik gets a swollen toe but won't go to the doctor, so Denise is forced to go on the Internet and determine he has gout, and give him medications of her intuition, which include pills for menstrual cramps.

But Denise, who at times tells the story in the first person, or is always the direct focus of the novel, is sad in her own way. She dates a man who delights in kitsch (he gives her Thomas Kinkade memorabilia), has a daughter in New York, but seems to be hollow at the center, constantly worrying about her brother or the events on television, including Abru Ghraib or a fictional kidnapping of a girl from Amish country. There is a humorous self-awareness about Denise, such as when she recalls her first day with the Kinkade guy: "I hadn't been out with a guy in a long time, but even I knew talking about infectious diseases was not appealing first-date conversation."

Late in the book, as Nik's 50th birthday approaches, she worries that he will kill himself, especially when she finds his obituary in his Chronicles. The desperation about Nik is palpable, and the relationship so acutely drawn (Nik describes her as an alternate version of himself) that we can't help be drawn into her sense of panic.

Aside from the sorrow, Stone Arabia also has the bouncy memories of the L.A. music scene. This passage, describing Denise's former boyfriend and father of her daughter, is delicious: "When I first met him, Chris played bass in this eyeliner band called Ether. (Later they moved from New Romantic/new wave to a more death/Goth style and changed their name to the Select and then, after Chris left, to Crown of Thorns. After that they moved beyond death/Goth to life/bright wave and then to Romanesque edge metal and changed their name to Leviathan until they finally broke up or faded out or quietly kept going in someone's garage."

The recent Pulitzer Prizes could not bring themselves to bestow an award this year for fiction; Stone Arabia would have been a worthy winner.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The House of Mirth (2000)

After reading Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, it seemed like a good idea to revisit Terence Davies' film adaptation from 2000. I saw it when it first came out, and when I started watching it again I got bored and put it on pause and returned to it a few hours later. Maybe I was more attentive or maybe the story just got better, but I was enthralled by the second half.

Faithful to the book, Lily Bart (Gillian Anderson) is an unmarried woman on the hunt for a husband in the gilded age of New York. The film leaves out the details that her father went broke; all we know is that she lives with her wealthy aunt and has a small allowance and some investments. Whether she realizes it or not, she is in love with lawyer Lawrence Selden (Eric Stoltz), and visits his rooms when she is between trains to the country. This small act seems to set her on a downward spiral.

The film glows for two reasons: Davies' excellent screenplay, which knows what to cut and what to leave, including verbatim patches of Wharton's dialogue: I loved the reading that Dan Aykroyd, as the lusty older man Gus Trenor, gave the line, "When a man pays for dinner, he expects to get a seat at the table," and Anderson's luminous performance. Her career has been spotty to nonexistent since The X-Files. Perhaps she has eclectic interests, for she never went the multiplex route, minus the two X-Files films. I would have loved to see her in more films over the years.

Davies manages to capture Anderson as a woman who is out of time. Looking back, we can say that she is a modern woman stuck in the wrong time period, but of course Wharton was writing at the very time she depicts, so she had no idea there would be such thing as a modern woman. But to watch Anderson's downward spiral, and her at times pathetic attempts to right herself, are heartbreaking as they are maddening, for at no time is Lily not in control of her own fate. She makes a series of bad decisions.

What a time it was for women of means in those days. Rich, but dependent on making the right kind of marriage to survive. One scene from the book that is cut that I would have liked to see is when Lily visits the poor woman, who imagines her guest's life as one of fantasy and nonstop pleasure. What The House of Mirth does is show how one can live in the shadow of the rich while being completely miserable.

Monday, April 16, 2012


One of the nominees for the most recent Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film category, Joseph Cedar's Footnote takes an ingenious idea and crafts a moving and funny movie about fathers and sons and integrity. Set in the world of Talmudic scholars, it also highlights the pedantry and autocraticism of academia, which is always ripe for satire. The film, unfortunately, peters out at the end, perhaps from a failure of nerve by the director.

Uriel Shkolnick (Lior Ashkenazi) is a popular professor at Hebrew University. As the film opens, he is being inducted into the Israeli Academy of Arts and Sciences. His father, Eliezer, (Shlomo Bar'Aba) looks on dourly, even when Uriel pays tribute to him during his speech. The reason--Uriel has outpaced his father's achievements. Both are Talmudic scholars, but Eliezer is not well respected. He spent 30 years working on a theory but was trumped by his rival (Micah Lewenson). In his old age, he is bitter and antisocial.

Therefore he is surprised to learn that he has earned the Israel Prize, which he has longed for but was passed over for 20 years. He is elated. But the next day Uriel is called to an emergency meeting of the award committee: he has actually won the prize, and someone called his father by mistake.

This sets off an intriguing series of events--what to do about the prize? The committee wants to revoke it from the elder, but Uriel understands this may literally kill him. And to boot, that it would go to the son would poison their relationship forever. A compromise is struck, even though the old man reveals he has little respect for his son's scholarship.

All of this is presented intelligently--I didn't find a character acting in any way that isn't organic, instead of just serving the script. It would make for great after-theater conversation: what would you do? It's also at times drolly farcical--at one point Uriel spies on his father while dressed in fencing togs, and the pivotal meeting of the awards committee is held in a small, cramped room, and everyone has to move when someone brings a chair in, which brilliantly alleviates the crackling tension of the scene with comedy.

But as the climax of the movie approaches, I was ultimately let down. The film drags to its conclusion, and then leaves the viewer hanging. I suppose Cedar intended us to make up our own minds about what happens, somewhat like John Sayles did in Limbo, but my reptilian brain demands a resolution. For that reason, I drop Footnote one-half grade.

Still, this will be in the running for my best of the year and I enjoyed it a great deal. The performances are all top notch.

My grade for Footnote: A-.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Wild Flag

A group made up of musicians from other bands, most notably Sleater-Kinney and Helium, Wild Flag released their self-titled debut in 2011. I've been listening to it off and on for a few months, and several times this past week. It's a fine example of contemporary garage rock, with a bit of '60s psychedelia and proto-punk.

The most famous member of the group is guitarist and vocalist Carrie Brownstein, formerly of Sleater-Kinney (and a member of the sketch comedy series Portlandia). Also in the band is Mary Timony, formerly of Helium, and keyboardist Rebecca Cole and drummer Janet Weiss.

The songs are mostly straightforward three-chord rock, with the instruments played only by the band members--thus no strings or brass. The lead vocals, which I assume are by Brownstein, but I can't be sure, since all the band members are credited as vocalists, are of a guttural, punk style, frequently sounding like Patti Smith.

The most interesting song is the one that most doesn't sound like the others, "Glass Tambourine," which has a psychedelic sound and ends with the band chanting, choir-like, the title of the song. "Racehorse" is the most minimal, with the vocals very antagonistic and ending in with a long jam.

Lyrically, Wild Flag is minimalistic and enigmatic. If there's a common theme, it's music itself. "Romance," the opening track, does not seem to be about between two people and as between people and music: "We love the sound, the sound is what found us/Sound is the love between you and me." The next track, "Something Came Over Me," includes the line, "I want you here now, 'cause you're coming through in stereo sound."

In "Electric Band," the lyric is: "All we are is dust and air/Play the part of the dragon slayer/Dance all night or turn to sand/Come on and join our electric band." And the last song, "Black Tiles," ends with: "For all we know we're just here/For the length of the song/I never when it's done/When it's gone."

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Demetrius and the Gladiators

Demetrius and the Gladiators, a 1954 sequel to The Robe, is a decent film set in ancient Rome that bears a lot of similarities to films made during the period--grandly-scaled epics about the era of the life of Christ, and bearing more than a little Christian propaganda, but with plenty of juicy drama and violence.

I haven't seen The Robe, but essentially it was about a Roman soldier who ends up with the robe Christ wore before the crucifixion. As this film begins, it ends up in the hands of Peter (Michael Rennie), who entrusts it to the former Greek slave Demetrius (Victor Mature), who hides it with his girlfriend (Deborah Paget). The emperor, Caligula (Jay Robinson), wants it for its supposed magical powers, and when Roman soldiers search the Christian community Mature assaults an officer and ends up sentenced to gladiatorial school.

Though he's new, the wife of Caligula's uncle Claudius, Messalina (Susan Hayward) wants to see him fight. He wins, and then takes on three tigers at once. Although the fight scenes in this film are very well choreographed and, based on my recent reading, fairly accurate, a gladiator did not fight animals at this point in the program, certainly not after fighting another gladiator. And I doubt any man could so easily dispatch three tigers.

Through a series of events, Mature comes to doubt his faith, and ends up in the praetorian guard. Hayward has an affair with him. But of course he will see the light, and be there when the guard turns on Caligula and proclaim Claudius emperor.

Shot in Cinemascope (The Robe was the first such film), and directed by Delmer Daves, Demetrius and the Gladiators is a satisfying mixture of Biblical epic and gladiator flick. Most of the history is right, but it's a shame that some details were left out, such as Claudius found hiding behind a curtain after Caligula was assassinated. And when Messalina, at the end of the film, proclaims that she will be a faithful wife to Claudius, it wouldn't be rude to shout, "Hah!" as Messalina was a notorious adulterer and would end up dying for her promiscuity.

The acting is largely wooden, which is par for the course. Mature specialized in sword-and-sandal films like this one, and acted mostly with his forehead. Robinson really chews the scenery as Caligula, who is portrayed as crazy, but given the time period, his sexual perversity is omitted. Anne Bancroft has a small role as a courtesan, and William Marshall, who would one day play Blacula, is a gladiator whom Demetrius befriends.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Last Train From Cuernavaca

Last Train From Cuernavaca won the Spur Award, awarded by the Western Writers of America. This is notable because the novel does not spend one moment in any part of what would become the United States, and it takes place in 1913, the last gasp of what would generally be considered the Old West. Most notably, the book really isn't that good.

Set during the bloody Mexican revolution, Lucia St. Clair Robson would seem to have researched her topic well. I'm no expert, so I don't know if everything is authentic here. She points out in an afterward that two of the characters are based on real people, and of course the off-page characters, such as Emiliano Zapata and Porfirio Diaz, were quite real.

Robson's story covers two threads. One is the romance between Rico Martin, a captain in the Mexican army, and Grace Knight, the English owner of a hotel in Cuernavaca. He is urbane, Harvard-educated, and rakish, while she is a widow and initially scoffs at this advances. But soon enough they are deeply in love, and we head into Harlequin Romance territory. Of course they become separated, and at different stages both believe the other to be dead, which is stretching it even for a daytime soap opera.

The other, more interesting thread, follows Angela Sanchez. When her parents are run off their land, she joins up with Zapata, but since she is a 15-year-old girl, she shoves her hair under her at and soon is known as Lieutenant Angel. She takes no grief from anyone: "'May snakes and toads crawl out of your mouth,' Angela called after him. 'May your insignificant penis shrivel up like a chili pepper.'"

These two threads will intersect, and ultimately come to a respectful agreement against the excesses to the Mexican government, in the form of a Colonel Rubio, also known as Fatso. Martin will rescue a peasant girl from being raped by the Colonel, which earns him a bounty on his head. But since he was part of the military establishment, Angel would like to see him hang. Grace is also kidnapped by Angel's band, but earns her respect, typified by this somewhat ludicrous passage: "The gringa could now clean and and load rifles. She could ignite tinder with a fire drill. She could hone a knife blade and pat out tortillas that were edible if not asymmetrical. But although she was tanned, calloused, and trouser-clad, Inglesa still stuck like a long-stemmed rose among the hardy cactus flower of the women's camp."

I lost patience early in this book, and I lost the thread of who was against who and why, and where everybody was (a map would have been helpful). The prose, as seen above, tends to the purple. I think there's a good novel about the Mexican revolution (I'm sure there have been several) but this is not one of them.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Gladiators

Although this film's title suggests that it's about the gladiators of ancient Rome, it is actually a very modern film about war, and is an antecedent of The Hunger Games. Directed by Peter Watkins, it was filmed in Sweden but has an international flavor, as actors of many nations take part.

In order to prevent World War III, the United Nations has set up what they called the "International Peace Games," which has two teams of young soldiers, one from the West and one from the East (which basically constitutes the Chinese--I didn't see any hints of Russian soldiers). The West contains some Germans, Swedes, Englishmen and Americans, including an African American. The generals of the various countries sit and watch the proceedings, as does the entire world on television.

The object of the game isn't to kill everyone, it's basically capture the flag, but with live ammo. We only see the byplay among the Western team, which includes some racism against the black man, and some nasty comments by Vietnamese (presumably South Vietnamese). A joker in the deck is a French student/activist who goes his own way, trying to get into the control room to destroy the system.

The generals call out commands to a Swedish captain (Hans Bendrik) who mans the controls of "the machine," which coordinates events. It is interesting to see 1969's version of high-tech computers, full of colored buttons that say things like "Snow" on them. Even in 1969, when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were still prepubescent, the concept of all-knowing computers (like HAL 9000) was alive and persistent.

When an English soldier and a Chinese female prisoner converse, the generals declare "Collaboration," which is a no-no, and the machine takes over. The French student makes it into the control room, declaring himself the winner, but Bendrik calmly tells him that the French student's system will be no different than the old system, a kind of forerunner to Pete Townshend's "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

The Gladiators is very much of its time. At one point the Western team is distracted by girls in bikinis, as if they were the Sirens of The Odyssey. The whole thing is distinctly low-budget--we don't get the sense of a worldwide TV audience, that is only told to us--and the puffed up generals watching in their military regalia almost seems like a Monty Python sketch. I would imagine, though, that the message was much sharper than today, when much of the world understands the foolishness and futility of war and violence, even if it continues unabated.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Fall of the Roman Empire

Anthony Mann was fired from the director's chair of Spartacus, but he hadn't got the notion of making an epic film about ancient Rome out of his blood, and in 1964 made The Fall of the Roman Empire. It was a box-office flop, and put producer Samuel Bronston out of business.

The film has done better with retroactive critical praise, and has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I heartily disagree with that, though. The film is leaden and fairly boring, and lacks the intensity of other Roman pictures of the period such as Spartacus or Ben-Hur. The only thing that makes the movie really sing is a devilish performance by Christopher Plummer.

Anyone who has seen the much more recent film Gladiator will note how that film was almost a remake of this one. The stories are almost identical, particularly in the beginning. The Romans are at war with the Germans. They are defeated by a (fictional) general named Livius (Stephen Boyd). He is a favorite of the emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Alec Guinness), who intends to disinherit his son, Commodus (Plummer) in favor of Livius, who is a straight arrow. But Marcus is murdered by his advisers, and Livius, realizing there is no proof of Marcus' offer, goes along and serves Commodus, as they have been longtime friends.

Commodus immediately tries to undo everything his father did, and acts the megalomaniac. Livius fights the Germans, capturing their leader and taking prisoners. The Senate wants to make them slaves, but Livius, and his loyal Greek aide (James Mason) convinces the Senate that the way of peace is better, and these people should be given abandoned Roman farmland and welcomed into the fold. Commodus is outraged by this, and sends Livius to fight the Persians, who are leading an uprising led by the King of Armenia (Omar Sharif) and his wife, Commodus' own sister (Sophia Loren).

The film departs from Gladiator in that Livius, unlike Maximus, is never turned into a gladiator. But the film does end with he and Commodus in a mano a mano battle to the death. This is a fiction, as not only did Commodus rule for 12 years, but he was assassinated, and did not die in the arena. But history should never get in the way of drama.

The title is also misleading, and the closing voiceover narration tells us that this was the beginning of the fall of Rome, which wouldn't happen for another three hundred years.

The film is three hours long, and I watched it over two days--to sit through it straight through would have been deadly. Some of it defies sense--a battle in a cave is completely incomprehensible. Plummer is very good, though, and so is Mason, who has two great scenes--one of them being tortured by the Germans. Despite that, though, this film is a long slog through history that is far more interesting than appears on screen.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The House of Mirth

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the birth of Edith Wharton, one of the key writers of American fiction in the 20th century. Of course, I haven't read any of her books, not until finishing The House of Mirth, her first major success, a few days ago. Written in 1905, it is one of a trilogy that examines the navigation of the upper-crust during New York's gilded age. This book, however, spotlights the downward spiral of one its victims.

Lily Bart was a child of privilege, but her father loses his fortune overnight. She continues to be part of the city's elite, living with her aunt, Mrs. Peniston, and taking weekends in the country. One such weekend visit encompasses much of the first portion of the book. Lily is 29 and unmarried, something of a shocking thing to be back in the 1890s. She is carefully, perhaps too carefully, searching for a husband, but makes a number of missteps that leads to her downfall.

Lily is really in love with Lawrence Selden, but he's not wealthy enough for her. She flirts with Percy Gryce, but he is turned off by her obvious affection for Selden and her gambling debts (she loses quite a bit at bridge). She is relieved to be rid of the obnoxious Gryce, but when she learns of him marrying someone else: "Lily stood staring vacantly at the white sapphire on its velvet bed. Evie Van Osburgh and Percy Gryce? The names rang derisively through her brain. EVIE VAN OSBURGH? The youngest, dumpiest, dullest of the four dull and dumpy daughters whom Mrs. Van Osburgh, with unsurpassed astuteness, had 'placed' one by one in enviable niches of existence!"

To pay off her debts, Lily takes money from an older, married man, Gus Trenor, which she thinks is dividends from investments. Trenor expects something from his money. She then is accused by a major player in society, Bertha Dorset, of flirting with her husband, and ends up being put off a yacht in Monaco. Eventually her aunt hears of this disreputable behavior and refuses to pay her off. The aunt dies while Lily is in Europe, but instead of getting all of her fortune, gets only $10,000, all of which is owed to debtors.

"It seemed to Lily, as Mrs. Peniston's door closed on her, that she was taking a final leave of her old life. The future stretched before her dull and bare as the deserted length of Fifth Avenue, and opportunities showed as meagerly as the few cabs trailing in quest of fares that did not come."

Lily's final stab at marriage comes with Simon Rosedale, rich but vulgar and Jewish. She spurns him once, but a year later, in desperate straits: "'I do believe what you say, Mr. Rosedale,' she said quietly; 'and I am ready to marry you whenever you wish.'

"Rosedale, reddening to the roots of his glossy hair, received the announcement with a recoil which carried him to his feet, where he halted before her in an attitude of almost comic discomfiture."

It seems that Rosedale, social climbing, still loves her, but will not have her, as she is damaged goods. Lily actually has to end up working, first as a milliner, where she can't put sparkles on hats correctly, then as a private secretary to an eccentric worker. But Bertha Dorset, still out for revenge, poisons her with her employers. Lily ends up living alone and nearly penniless. She gains a different perspective when she runs across a woman she had held helped with a charity, who tells her, "YOU in trouble? I've always thought of you as being so high up, where everything was just grand. Sometimes, when I felt real mean, and got to wondering why things were so queerly fixed in the world, I used to remember that you were having a lovely time, anyhow, and that seemed to show there was a kind of justice somewhere."

Wharton's novels about the gilded age are almost anthropological in nature--one feels as one might need a pith helmet to traverse through the jungles of social protocol. "'Ah, there's the difference--a girl must, a man may if he chooses.' She surveyed him critically. 'Your coat's a little shabby--but who cares? It doesn't keep people from asking you to dine. If I were shabby no one would have me: a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself. The clothes are the background, the frame, if you like: they don't make success, but they are a part of it. Who wants a dingy woman? We are expected to be pretty and well-dressed till we drop--and if we can't keep it up alone, we have to go into partnership.'"

Wharton says this about the perils of socializing with the rich: "'You think we live ON the rich, rather than with them: and so we do, in a sense--but it's a privilege we have to pay for! We eat their dinners, and drink their wine, and smoke their cigarettes, and use their carriages and their opera-boxes and their private cars--yes, but there's a tax to pay on every one of those luxuries."

Wharton is magnificent stylist of language, and the scenes of dialogue, such as when Rosedale turns down Lily for marriage, are thrilling. But I must admit that at times the prose becomes so ornate I lost the thread of the story, and forgot where everyone was. There are also many supporting characters, mostly women, who tend to bleed into one, and I wasn't quite always sure who was a friend to Lily and who wasn't. But there's no denying the power of Wharton's expression of Lily's demise: "It was delicious to lean over and look down into the dim abysses of unconsciousness. Tonight the drug seemed to work more slowly than usual: each passionate pulse had to be stilled in turn, and it was long before she felt them dropping into abeyance, like sentinels falling asleep at their posts."

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Deep Blue Sea

To start, I should point out that this is not the Deep Blue Sea from 1999, in which Samuel L. Jackson was eaten by a genetically-altered shark. Although, this somnambulant film might have been given a well-needed shot of adrenaline with a shark attack.

Based on a play by Terence Ratigan and directed by Terence Davies, The Deep Blue Sea is a study in miniature of three characters in post-war England. Rachel Weisz is Hester, the much-younger wife of a respected judge, William (Simon Russell Beale). However, she is having an affair with a former RAF pilot (Tom Hiddleston). Beale discovers his cuckoldry and leaves her, and Weisz moves in with Hiddleston in his modest apartment.

The film begins with Weisz attempting suicide by taking sleeping pills and turning up the gas. She is found by her landlady, and when Hiddleston returns from a golf outing, he knows nothing about it, until he finds her suicide note. Outraged, he storms out, believing that she tried to kill herself because he forgot her birthday.

Beale, estranged from her, returns to offer his concern, and realizes he is still in love with her. But she still wants Hiddleston.

All of this is presented in an overly serious, lugubrious manner. Davies has an eye for detail, but seems to have lost the big picture--what about this should make us care? Frankly, because I might be dense, I couldn't figure out why Weisz did try to kill herself--Hiddleston's explanation is as good as any. And, yes, this is an English picture, but it's so...English. Though there are some tastefully arranged scenes of amore, I kept thinking of the title of the British comedy, "No Sex, Please, We're British."

I will admit the acting is wonderful. Weisz is luminous, despite the lack of character development in the script. And Beale is also terrific, especially in scenes with his domineering mother and two scenes of rapprochement with Weisz.

Rattigan was a very popular playwright. He has had numerous films of his plays, including Separate Tables, The Winslow Boy, and The Browning Version. His centenary last year inspired a lot of tributes, but it's inescapably true that he was rendered almost instantly obsolete after the "Angry Young Man" school of British playwrights, such as John Osborne, seized the British imagination. The Deep Blue Sea doesn't do anything to change that opinion.

My grade for The Deep Blue Sea: C.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

El Camino

Aside from whatever project Jack White is up to, my favorite rock act these days are The Black Keys. I have only two of their albums, but it's enough to sell me, and I'm going to have to go about filling in my collection of their back catalogue.

Their latest album is El Camino, and the eleven songs are all fine--no clinker in the bunch. Most are drawn from a garage blues-rock, and lyrically they suggest that love is misery.

The band consists of only two members--Daniel Auerbach on guitar and Patrick Carney on drums. For this album, Danger Mouse produced and co-wrote all the songs. I'm not knowledgeable enough about Danger Mouse to know what he added to the enterprise.

As I said, all of the songs are good, so picking out  favorite is tough. I think I'll go with the min-epic "Little Black Submarines," which seems to be an up-date of Jim Croce's "Operator," as the lyric suggests a man begging with a telephone operator to connect a call (how quaint). The repeated line here is "Everybody knows that a broken heart is blind."

Other songs are variations on the weak-willed man and the predatory female. "Mind Eraser" says, "Got this sin in our brain/That she ain't gonna see me again/See me again, this I know/But oh, deep down I can't let go." The single "Lonely Boy," which is nothing like the Andrew Gold of the same name (God, I hated that song--what a whiner) is instead about a guy who's willing to wait for this awesome girl. He even sings, "You pulled out my heart out and I don't mind bleeding."

In the vein of The Offspring's "No Self-Esteem" is "Run Right Back:" "She's the worst thing I've been addicted to...I run right back to her." And "Stop Stop" goes: "You're wound up like a weapon/you've got an evil streak/they told me to stay away/but I was much too weak."

The closest thing to a positive message about a woman on this album that I could find was in the very danceable "Money Maker," but it's not exactly "I am woman, hear me roar": "Oh, she wants milk and honey/ oh, she wants filthy money but oh, that's not the way it goes/I wanna buy some time but don't have a dime." So that's either about a stripper or a prostitute.

Despite what may be deemed a misogynist bent (these guys must have had some bad relationships) this record is eminently listenable. "Money Maker" and "Gold on the Ceiling" are hip-shaking, and the whole think rocks--no ballads, no acoustics. If you've had a bad breakup, put it on and realize you're better off without her, and shake your hips while you're at it.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Eagle

Sticking with my Roman kick, I turn to the 2011 film by Kevin McDonald, The Eagle. This certainly has all the trappings of a movie I could dig--it's set in Ancient Britain, which I find even more fascinating than Ancient Rome.

It concerns the legendary "lost" 9th legion. Scholars are unsure of what happened to them--some think they may have been wiped out in Judea--but the myth has it that they were massacred by ancient Scots in the second century AD. The son of the commander of that legion (Channing Tatum, playing the gamut of emotions from A to B, to steal from Dorothy Parker) seeks to rescue his father's honor. You see, not only was the legion lost, but so was their standard, a golden eagle atop a pole, which symbolically was bad mojo for the Romans.

Tatum takes a slave, Jamie Bell, whom he saved from death in the gladiatorial arena. Bell, quite rightly, hates the Romans--they conquered his land, after all--but because Tatum saved his life it would be dishonorable not to help him in his quest. This makes for a tense and largely uninteresting chemistry between the two.

The pair go through the Hadrian wall, which was built to keep the barbarian Scots out (at this time they were called Picts, though the film calls them the "painted Seal people.") Tatum finds a man who was part of the legion who has assimilated as a Briton, and he points them to the scary blue people, who don't look that much different than Native Americans in their tribal structure and customs.

At this point, in order to stay alive, Tatum must pose as Bell's slave, giving him a taste of his own medicine. This is kind of interesting, but isn't followed up on enough. Finally they find the eagle (was there any other possible outcome?) and head back to the safety of Roman Britain.

McDonald and his screenwriter, Jeremy Brock, have missed an opportunity here. For one thing, having the Roman as hero is problematic. As I watched, I completely sympathized with the Seal people. After all, the Romans were invaders, and why shouldn't they take the Eagle as victor's spoils? Having Bell fight against his own kind out of an obligation to Tatum is noble, but kind of sleazy at the same time. All told, a lot of people end up dying for a hunk of gold that in the long run means nothing.

The ending has Tatum getting command of a new 9th legion and heading off with Bell like nothing much has happened. Meanwhile, the Picts are wondering, "What the hell is it with these Romans? I can't wait for their stupid empire to fall." Patience, patience.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Rome, Season 2

As much as I liked the first season of Rome, the second and last season was even better, as the characters of our two heroes, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus, are more familiar to us, and their story arcs to the conclusion are that much more emotionally satisfying. It's been said a lot these days, but long-form television, particularly by cable stations, is much more fecund ground for this kind of storytelling than cinema can be.

The second season kicks off immediately after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Mark Antony and Brutus then vie for control--in a smart move, we don't actually see the funeral orations--how can you improve on "Friends, Romans, countrymen?" Instead we get a lot of the behind-the-scenes intrigue, that eventually sends Brutus and Cassius into exile and Antony becomes top dog.

But Antony had not expected Caesar's grand-nephew, who is named his son in his will, Octavian, to be a problem. But the boy grows into a hard-hearted man. The two put aside their differences to defeat Brutus once and for all at Phillipi, and carve up the empire, with Antony getting the East, including Egypt. He is thoroughly bewitched by Cleopatra, and eventually he and Octavian will go to war. Again, we only see the aftermath of the decisive battle of Actium, with Antony escaping by boat back to Alexandria. As most know, he and his Egyptian queen will commit suicide, and Octavian will become Augustus Caesar.

Beyond all of this history is the use of Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Pullo (Ray Stevenson) as fictional Zeligs who always happen to be where the action is. Vorenus, after the death of his wife, curses his children and then they are kidnapped, and he believes them dead. He becomes the ruthless mob boss of the Aventine. Pullo, happily married to his former slave, is the number two man and enforcer. Then they discover that the children are alive, and the two men go to rescue them. But Vorenus' daughter will not forgive him for causing her mother's death, and when she betrays him, he has nothing left to live for and goes with Antony to Egypt, where he will hold the sword for his leader.

Pullo, one of the great characters of any TV series, is loyal to a fault. He works with Octavian to track down Cleopatra's son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion, to kill him and remove any doubt of succession. Vorenus has taken Caesarion into Africa to keep him safe. Both men know that Caesarion is actually Pullo's son, from a romp in the hay with Cleopatra in the first season. The two men meet up and attempt to save the boy from Octavian's clutches, but all does not go completely well. I won't say more than that, but the series ends with a perfect bit of dialogue.

There's all sorts of other stuff, too, including the feud between Atia, Octavian's mother, and Servilia, the mother of Brutus. Atia (Polly Walker), is the spine of the series, as she constantly schemes to better her situation, but the rise of her son means she loses power. She is in love with Antony, but when Octavian suggests that a marriage take place to show solidarity, he marries off his sister Octavia (Kerry Condon) to Antony instead.

If Atia is the heart of the series, Mark Antony is its harlequin. Over the course of the series he goes from powerful general to pussy-drunk drug addict, wearing eyeliner and rolling around with Cleopatra. James Purefoy gives a marvelous performance, as does Lyndsey Marshal as the famous queen of Egypt.

This was the last season of Rome, as HBO pulled the plug because costs were astronomically high. If a person wants to keep following the story, I suggest renting the 1970s BBC series I, Claudius, which covers the end of the reign of Augustus to the beginnings of Nero.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Say Her Name

"The ocean surrounds you as soon as you go near it, she wrote in her diary, and pushes and pulls you and seduces you with the whispering of its foamy withdrawal over the bubbling sand. The heavy waves suspended in the air for miraculous instants in front of your gaze. They fall fall fall with fury, and fling and drag you with more force than you'd calculated."

This is a passage from Francisco Goldman's novel Say Her Name, and by typing this sentence I am presented with what perhaps shouldn't be a problem but can't help but be: is this fiction? It certainly seems like  a memoir, but is classified as fiction. Goldman, a writer of some distinction, married a young Mexican writer twenty years his junior named Aura Estrada. They split their time in Brooklyn and Mexico. After being married four years, Aura died in a swimming accident off the Pacific Mexican shore. So, a reader can't help but think, what is true about this book, and what is not?

Perhaps Goldman changed some names. A major thread running through the novel is his prickly relationship with members of Aura's family, particularly her mother, who blamed him for her daughter's death, and even threatened legal action. Perhaps a lawyer said, "Cover your ass and call this fiction." Otherwise, it has the ring of authenticity, from the opening scene when the couple visit a zoo and Aura asks, "Where are the axolotls?"

The book is a long rumination on a fairy-dusted love affair and the hollowness of grief. Goldman, as stated, was twenty years older than Aura, and throughout the book we hear how he couldn't believe his own luck: "I was so surprised by her warm sweet-smelling and supple youth and by this unexpected development in my life that I was in danger of getting carried away like a romping puppy in a field of tulips, and silently I urged myself not to lose control, to make love to her like a grown man, not an excitable teenager." At various times, Aura is described as looking like the Mexican Bjork, Giulietta Masina, and Audrey Tatou. He's like a guy that can't stop bragging about his great new girlfriend, and you'd wish he'd shut up, but then you remember that she's dead and it makes you feel guilty.

There are some remarkably written passages, though: "A black, flat-topped mountain, or maybe it's a butte, overlooks Las Vegas, rising out of the Mojave Desert against the horizon like a giant black van in an empty parking lot, hot and shiny in the blazing sunlight. Aura and I decided that it radiated evil, spraying it in continuous arcs, like long-range cat pee, over the gleaming city. Our taxi driver was at least partly responsible for this lasting impression, driving us from the airport as if he was under orders to deliver us in the fastest possible time to the sinister mountain, where his Lord Master, the judge and ruler of our fate, was waiting in his cave."

Goldman tells the story nonsequentially, bouncing around in time. He tries to set the stage, but it can often get confusing. He, of course, saves the details of Aura's death for last, doling out small tidbits until he tells the horrible story in every gripping detail: "Then I saw her. The withdrawing foam uncovered her like a white blanket slowly being pulled back: her smooth round back and shoulders floating; she was floating, utterly motionless, facedown in the water."

It is likely that Goldman wrote this book as some form of catharsis, which makes very good sense. There are times, though, when a reader can feel like someone eavesdropping on intense psychotherapy. In essence, this book is about grief, and I think he sums it up best here, in the passage that gives the book its title: "Maybe I feel sick of people not understanding what this is like, but it's not like I wish for anyone else to live through this. I stamped out Aura's cigarette and lit another one. Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that's my advice to all the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair, breathe her in deeply. Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it. Same alive as dead, always. Aura Estrada."

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

It! The Terror From Beyond Space

This 1958 film by Edward L. Cahn is a cheapy but it's not bad, and it may have you seeing parallels with the much greater Ridley Scott film Alien. I'm not saying Ridley Scott saw this film, but maybe...

The film is set in 1973 (our fake future), when we are sending manned missions to Mars (certainly an ambitious fake future). The first crew is wiped out, except for one man (Marshall Thompson). He is suspected of killing his crew after their ship crashed in order to get all the supplies to himself. A rescue ship is sent, taking him back to Earth to face murder charges.

Thompson claims that some sort of monster killed his crew. Hardly anyone believes it, but one of the female crew members (Shawn Smith) takes a shine to him and kind of believes him (it should be noted that the film is a bit ahead of its time featuring two female crew members, one a doctor, but they still clear the dinner dishes and serve coffee).

When an airlock door is accidentally left open (I hate when that happens--it's like leaving a garage door open and a raccoon getting in the house), "It" gets in. He's a reptilian-humanoid that is impervious to bullets, electricity, and grenades. He picks off a few crew members one by one (hence the Alien similarities) while the survivors try to figure out how to kill him.

Though the film has a skimpy budget, it's a decent sci-fi flick. The creature (embodied by famous Western star Ray "Crash" Corrigan) is pretty gnarly, and the characters, for the most part, act intelligently. It's a nice way to pass an insomnia-laden night.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Kill List

Although during this review I will mention many films and directors that Kill List reminded me of, it should in no way diminish what an audaciously original director Ben Wheatley is. He has a gripping visual style that takes on by the throat, and if the material is familiar, it's presented in a way I've never seen before.

Kill List is really three films in one. The first act is a socioeconomic drama worthy of Mike Leigh. A couple and their young son live in middle-class desperation. The man, Jay (Neil Maskell), has been out of work for eight months. The wife, Shel (Myanna Buring), is just about out of patience. Their son, Sam, is fond of tales of King Arthur. One night his father tells him a bed time story about bombs in Iraq, even though Sam wants to hear about Camelot.

The couple have a small dinner party, with Jay's old friend, Gal (Micheal Smiley), and his new girlfriend Fiona (Emma Fryer). Tensions between Jay and Shel erupt and they have a screaming argument. Things calm down, though, and the guests don't leave, and they settle into a comfortable evening of drinking wine. There are a few things that tell us not everything is normal--Jay keeps machine guns in the garage (some bought by Shel) and Fiona scratches a Satanic-looking symbol on the back of a mirror.

Gal urges Jay to take a job, which turns out to be as hired killer. Here the movie becomes a hit man thriller, with a dash of Quentin Tarantino and a soupcon of Martin Scorsese. The Tarantino comes from the droll banter between the two killers. Smiley, a stand up comedian, has a lot of great lines, such as when discovering one of the victims is a priest, he says, "oh well, at least it's not a toddler." When the mysterious client, who cuts a gouge into Jay's hand as if to sign the contract in blood, Gal asks him if it's his wanking hand. Told no, Gal says, "Every cloud!"

The Scorsese elements come into play when the pair's second victim is a collector of pornography. Gal and Jay watch a DVD that we don't see, but judging by Jay's reaction, it's either child pornography, a snuff film, or both. He goes off the reservation and tortures the victim until he finds out where the stuff comes from. He then finishes the man off with a hammer. Like Travis Bickle, Jay takes his revenge, forgetting hit man protocol in the process.

Finally, the third act. Ah, the third act--whether one likes this movie or not is going to be based on the reaction to the ending, where the film completely goes off the rails, as if it were The Wicker Man directed by David Lynch. I won't go into too many details, suffice it to say the words "what the fuck?" may be uttered frequently. Though the ending is as if the movie fells asleep and experienced a nightmare, I thought it fit perfectly with what came before, and bizarre and unrealistic as it may be, it is nonetheless spellbinding. I couldn't take my eyes away, especially in a scene filmed in a dark tunnel.

Be ready for anything when watching Kill List, and hail a fresh new voice of British cinema, Ben Wheatley.

My grade for Kill List: A.

Monday, April 02, 2012

The Kid With a Bike

The only other film I've seen by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne is The Child, which I didn't much care for her, mostly because I could not bring myself to give a shit about the main character, a slimeball. There is a similar challenge in The Kid With a Bike (they do not favor obscure titles, these brothers), in that we are almost always in the company of a kid who is brimming with rage, and is like Dennis the Menace squared.

The film begins with Cyril (Thomas Doret), in an orphanage. His father has dropped him off there (there is no mention of a mother), telling him he will be back for him soon. Cyril wants to find him, telling everyone it's mostly for his bike, which he can't believe his father would sell. He escapes from the home and interviews his father's associates, finally finding his apartment, which is empty. Along the way, he runs into a doctor's office, his school counselors chasing him, and in order to prevent capture he wraps his arms around a woman bystander as if she were a pole. "You can hold me, but not too tight," the woman tells him.

She turns out to be a hairdresser, Samantha (Cecile de France). She takes pity on the kid and finds his bicycle and buys it back (his father did indeed sell it). It takes them longer to find the father, who ends up working in a restaurant. Cyril and his dad have an awkward five minutes together, and then the father (Jeremie Renier), who could be the character from The Child ten years later, wants some time with Samantha. He tells her he does not want to see his son again. She makes him tell Cyril this face to face, and whatever annoyance we had at Cyril vanishes--what child, of any age, could live through that without being fundamentally changed?

This is the first half hour of the film, so it's misleading to think that the story is about Cyril finding either his bicycle or his father. In essence, he spends the film trying to find love. Samantha becomes his weekend guardian, doing her best to keep tabs on his anger. Cyril's bike keeps getting stolen by the same kid (you'd think he'd invest in a lock)--the second time the thief lures him into the woods, like something out of the Brothers Grimm. Cyril fights for the bike viciously, earning the respect of the neighborhood tough guy, a kind of Fagin. This kid, who names himself Wes after a character from Resident Evil, tells Cyril he has earned his respect, nicknames him Pitbull, and invites him to his house to play Assassin's Creed. This is all a set up to convince Cyril to commit a crime for him. Cyril, no doubt viewing Wes as a surrogate father, agrees.

This is a very good film, with a strong juvenile performance by Doret. There is a large donut hole in the middle, though, and that is the character of Samantha. Why would a single woman with no children take on a troubled boy as if on a whim? We have no background information on her. She has a boyfriend, whom we see briefly, and who gives her an ultimatum--Cyril or me. She chooses Cyril without a thought. Why? In an interview with Film Comment, the Dardennes brothers address this and suggest it was intentional, that we should not question basic human decency. I can't buy that argument, because otherwise it just seems like lazy screenwriting.

If the Dardennes had added ten minutes to the film (it's only 95 minutes long) to flesh out Samantha, this might have been a much more conventional film, but also a much more enriching one.

My grade for The Kid With a Bike: B.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

How About I Be Me (and you be you)?

Over 20 years ago, Sinead O'Connor blazed across the music sky with a shaved head, an attitude, and an incendiary collection of songs. Now, unfortunately, her life has become a collection of tabloid-like misadventures. Thankfully, her new album, How About I Be Me (and you be you)? is a return to form, easily her best work since her break-through album, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got.

It's tempting to weigh the events of her personal life in listening to this album, especially when the opening song, "4th and Vine," is a deceptively jaunty tune about impending nuptials:

Gonna put my pink dress on
And do my hair up tight
I'm gonna put some eyeliner on
I'm gonna look real nice
I'm going down to the church
On 4th & Vine
I'm gonna marry my love
And we'll be happy for all time

That Sinead has no hair to put up, and that she had a well-publicized marriage in Las Vegas last year to a man she met on the Internet that was almost immediately annulled (according to her Web site, she is not back on a dating site) would seem to indicate that this song may be have a wink to it, or maybe it's just a fantasy. It was likely written before those events, so perhaps this is just the part of Sinead that likes to play Barbies and enact dream weddings. It's a great song, though.

The next cut is more harrowing. "Reason With Me" is told from the point of a view of a junkie and thief:

Hello, you don't know me,
but I stole your laptop
and I took your TV.
I sold your granny's rosary
for 50 p. 

The song gets deep inside the troubled head of a person most of us would not give the time of day for, and includes perhaps the saddest line you'll likely to hear: "'Cause if I love someone, I might lose someone; if I love someone, I might lose someone."

As is her want, O'Connor also sprinkles religion through her music, as she does in the song "Take Off Your Shoes":

I bleed the blood of Jesus over you
And over every fucking thing you do
Seven times I bleed the blood of Jesus over you
Take off your shoes--you're on hallowed ground

The album ends with a spoken word section on how wisdom means nothing if we don't listen to the word of the lord. But the very last sound is laughter.

O'Connor's songwriting is very strong, but so is her voice, not dimmed by the years. In the album's best track, "The Queen of Denmark," written by John Grant, she uses the full range of her pipes to dazzle. Though she didn't write these lyrics, I'm sure she chose the song because it spoke to her, and it wasn't until I checked the liner notes that I learned it wasn't her words. Her vocals make them hers, though:

Don't know what to want from this world
I really don't know what to want from this world
I don't know what it is you wouldn't want from me
You have no right to want anything from me at all
Why don't you take it out on somebody else?
Why don't you tell somebody else that they're selfish?
Weepy coward and pathetic...

The last song on the record, "V.I.P.," may be the most personal, though it does strain into pretentiousness. The way she sings it, though, guarantees that it's heartfelt:

The artists always spoke their people's needs
Now we're gorged upon what devils feed
In the shallow form of MTV
Telling the youth to worship futile dreams
And alone for begging for material things
I tell you what a real VIP is
A face that never was nor will be kissed
To whom exactly are we givin' hope
When we stand behind the velvet rope

I'm thrilled that Sinead O'Connor is back on her game, and even bought tickets to her upcoming concert tour, where she will appear in Montclair, NJ in May. I'll report back then.