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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Best American Poetry 2013

"Poetry mustn't try to compete with the sound bites of politics or the breezy vapidity of pop culture. Rather it should serve as the antidote for them." So writes guest editor Denise Duhamel in The Best American Poetry 2013.

I have a confession: I often don't get poetry. I'm a fairly literate guy, and I love the idea of poetry, of the romantics like Byron and Shelley, the debauchery of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, the Beat Allen Ginsberg. But when I try to read it my eyes glaze over. I'm not quite sure that is, but don't think I'm alone. I just think I never learned how to read a poem.

But I rolled up my sleeves and read the 75 poems in this volume. As one might expect, they were all over the map. I liked some of them a great deal, and others might as well have been written in Urdu. Philistine that I am, I prefer poems that have a set structure, or that rhyme, and there were few of them here. But a good number of them I found intriguing.

Death was a pretty common subject. There were poems titled "Dear Thanatos" and "Thanatopsis." Two poems were about dead cats, including "Death," by Kwame Davis, which includes the lines:

"...you coax a black
cat to your fingers. You let it lick
milk and spit from your hand before
you squeeze its neck until it messes
itself, its claws tearing your skin,
its eyes growing into saucers.
A dead cat is light as a live
one and not stiff, not yet. You
grab its tail and fling it as
far as you can. The crows find
it first; by then the stench
of the hog pens hides the canker
of death."

Many other subjects were broached; it was something startling to see how many different subjects one can write a poem about. Titles of some of the poems are "George W. Bush," "Blazing Saddles," and "Albert Einstein." One of my favorites of the collection are a series of haikus by David Trinidad (I love haikus, one of the easiest and hardest forms to write) by all dealing with episodes of the TV series Peyton Place, one for each episode. Two of the best:

"Would you want Charles
Dickens read to you if you
were in a coma?"

"Amnesia might be
a blessing--best to forget
she's part of this script."

Some of my other favorites were "Divine," by Kim Addonizio:

"You lived on grapes and antidepressants
and the occasional small marinated mammal.
You watched DVDs  that dropped
from the DVD tree."

Stephen Dunn's "The Statue of Responsibility"

"Imagine it's given to us as a gift
from a country wishing to overcome its own hypocrisy.
I can see someone standing up at a meeting
and saying, Give it to the Americans, they like
big things for their people, they like to live
in the glamour between exultation and anxiety.
Instead of an arm raised with a torch, let's insist
they cement its feet deep into the earth, burden it
with gigantic shoes--an emblem of the inescapable."

"Book of Forget" by Rebecca Hazelton

"I danced after the knife thrower threw
his blades and before the velvet clown kicked away
his chair and hung himself, his tongue thick and purple,
urine dribbling down to the boards."

Some of the poems had just one line that grabbed me, such as "All-American" by David Hernandez: "Jesus never leveled his eye to a bedroom's keyhole," and "I don't hunt but wish every deer wore a bulletproof vest and fired back." Or "Five One-Minute Eggs," by Andrei Codrescu: "The German economy thrives because Germans make 'the thing that goes inside the thing that goes inside the thing.'"

My other favorites include "Pink Is the Navy Blue of India," by David Kirby, "Eggheads," by John Koethe, "Sugar Maples," by Richard Wilbur (it actually rhymes), and "Florida Poem," by Emma Trelles, which I quote in its entirety:

"After summer rains,
marble thumb snails and beetles
blot the window screens
with pearl and drone. Gardenias swell,
breathing is aquatic and travel
a long drawl from bed to world.
During drought,
the heat becomes a devil
girl with oven-red lips
who wants your brain puddled
in a brass-capped mason jar,
who wants the silver stripped
from your tongue, the evening pulse
between your legs, yes, she wants
everything from you."

The longest poem was "Joe Adamczyk," by Mitch Sisskind, about a Chicago bartender who late in life becomes an intellectual. It could be made into a lovely short film, as he leaves his wife, becomes absorbed in philosophy, and ends up having sex with the pizza delivery girl. A few standout stanzas:

"Also available were White Owl cigars,
And Cubs' home runs were called
White Owl Wallops by Jack Brickhouse
On the TV set above the bar.
But the Cubs lost during the 1950s."

and

"He gamahuched Karen Schmolke with startling
Enthusiasm. Cunt, slut and similar words
Eddied and swirled in his brain. Yet a logos,
A telos, was also disclosing itself, cleverly
interweaving his fucking with philosophy."

Gamahuched? What a great word! That's the thing about poets is that I learned by reading this book. No one makes a living as a poet--this is a labor of love. I'm frankly surprised that there is such a number of journals and magazines that publish poems. But they take things seriously, using their words extremely carefully, and the way the lines are structured, it's almost like an art.

Series editor David Lehman writes: "In America we have had stereotypes of the poet as clown prince, beatnik, nervous wreck, nature-loving recluse, world-besotted aesthete. Formerly an eccentric spinster, she may now be a self-actualized role model and possibly even a concerned citizen on PBS or NPR." Bless them all.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

"What are you doing?" is the graffito scrawled on the partition of a toilet stall in a rest stop somewhere on the road between New York and Chicago. This question is confounding enough to most of us, but ever more so to Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer in 1961. His career is going nowhere, he has no home of his own, he might have impregnated his best friend's wife, and he lost another friends' cat.

As played very well by Oscar Isaac in Joel and Ethan Coen's film, Inside Llewyn Davis, this character is not offered a sunny redemption. In fact, this film is consistently daring, declining at almost every turn to transform into a standard Hollywood film. Part of me kept waiting for Davis to be discovered, but I was in good hands--the Coens wouldn't let me down. At one point, Davis passes the exit for Akron, Ohio. In a lesser film he would taken that exit.

As per usual with the Coens, Inside Llewyn Davis is a dramatic comedy, or a comic drama. They start with a character who is almost thoroughly unpleasant. Davis is a talented singer, but a lousy human being. He is rude and brutally honest, lacking in almost all social graces. One of my only criticisms of the film is that he is so obnoxious that it's hard to believe he has as many friends in the film as shown. The possible mother of his child, as played by Carey Mulligan, uses the word "asshole" in almost every other breath about him, so we wonder how he convinced her to sleep with him in the first place.

But if Davis is disagreeable, he is also endlessly fascinating. He moves from the apartment of a professor friend on the upper West side (he is referred to by the professor as "our folksinger friend"), managing to accidentally let loose their cat. With feline in tow, he makes his way to Mulligan's apartment, where she lives and works with Justin Timberlake. He is so shameless that he asks to borrow money from Timberlake for Mulligan's abortion (though, of course, Timberlake doesn't know who the woman is).

Hearing about an agent in Chicago, Davis splits the cost of a trip with a grotesque jazz musician, John Goodman, and his laconic driver, Garret Hedlund. This is most Coen-esque part of the movie, full of acid-dipped dialogue and an otherworldly performance by Goodman. It both says nothing about the film and everything, a kind of typical Coen film in miniature.

The boldest move may be that the film is really about failure, a thing that most Americans don't want to think about. Davis is reeling from the suicide of his partner, who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge (Goodman says that the Brooklyn Bridge would have been more appropriate). Davis misses him, but at times almost seems to envy him. His downward spiral is both pathetic and justified. He turns down royalties on a song that becomes a hit, and turns his nose up at becoming one of Peter, Paul, and Mary (folk fans will recognize F. Murray Abraham's Bud Grossman as Albert Grossman, the man who put that trio together). He bites the hands that feed him, and heckles performers in the very club he plays at.

Yet his failure is poetic, as if he were Odysseus, at the fate of the Gods. In a not-so-subtle gesture, the cat that Davis carries around is named Ulysses. That cat could be seen as a metaphor for the shred of decency that Davis may possess, but instead it's a metaphor for is ineffectualness, his complete failure as human being.

So a movie about failure may not be the feel-good movie of the year, but it's done nothing but grow on me since I've seen it. Davis, a fine singer, is perfect in the role. I liked Mulligan, and was glad she was given a scene late in the film where she wasn't spitting fire. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel is astonishing, both for the smoky nightclub scenes and the harsh lighting of a diner somewhere on in the Midwest.

The film is based somewhat on Dave Van Ronk (check out the cover of Inside Dave Van Ronk--it's the exact same as Davis'), but apparently Van Ronk was well liked. It is pointedly not about Bob Dylan, as the last scene of the film shows.

This may not be as great a film by the Coens as Fargo or No Country For Old Men, but it's among their best. It has their typical flourishes of bizarre humor--one of the biggest laugh lines is a woman holding up a cat, screaming, "Where is his scrotum?"

My grade for Inside Llewyn Davis: A-.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Cardinal

One of the other big films of 1963 was Otto Preminger's The Cardinal, which won the Golden Globe for Best Drama (it was the last film to win that award yet not be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar). Preminger, who specialized in long films about controversial subjects, did that again here in the story of a young priest who climbs the ladder to cardinal.

Based on a novel by Henry Morton Robinson, which was loosely based on the life of Cardinal Spellman, the film succeeds because it is so even-handed. It is not an indictment of the Catholic Church, and showcases the noble efforts of its priests to do good work. But it also is not an advertisement for it, pointing out the problems of the faith and its bureaucracy.

The film covers the period from before World War I to just before World War II. Stephen Fermoyle (Tom Tryon) is a young priest who has studied in Rome. He comes back to work as a curate in his local Boston parish. His sister (Carol Lynley) wants to marry a Jew. This man (John Saxon), considers converting, but sees the clubby way the Irish Catholics look down at others and passes. Tryon, seeing himself as a priest first and a brother second, tells Lynley to give him up. She leaves home and ends up in dance halls. Later she will get pregnant, and when advised by doctors that giving birth will kill her, Tryon anguishes but can not let them do that, so his sister dies.

Later he will get sent to a poor parish by the domineering cardinal (John Huston, in an Oscar-nominated and Golden Globe-winning role) as a means to curb Tryon's ambition. He works with a kindly but ill priest (Burgess Meredith). After that man dies, Huston, grudgingly admiring Tryon, takes him on as secretary. When Tryon is offered a job with the Secretary of State in Rome, he tells Huston that the ordeal with his sister has given him doubts, and he wishes to leave the priesthood. Huston asks him to demure, and take a leave of absence.

Tryon does, and teaches English in Vienna. He falls in love with a winsome student (Romy Schneider), but eventually returns to the priesthood. He will battle racial prejudice in the American South and then try to stop the Cardinal of Vienna from cozying up to the Nazis. At this time he will become reconnected with Schneider, and witness firsthand the annexation of Austria by Germany.

The film is three hours long, but moved along at a terrific clip--I was never bored. Some of this, in the retrospect, seems like heart-on-the-sleeve liberalism, but the script, by Robert Dozier, recognizes the blinders that progressives can wear. When Tryon arrives in Georgia, to stop the segregation of Catholic schools, he is warned by the bishop there that he doesn't know what he's getting himself into, and indeed he is assaulted by Klan members. The same happens when confronting the Austrian cardinal, who tells him pointedly, "Hitler doesn't respond well to criticism."

Incidentally, Tryon later turned to writing horror novels, and including The Other, which made a very spooky movie, and Harvest Home, which I read and was enthralled by when I was a teenager.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Wise Up Ghost

Elvis Costello is one of those musicians who seems to be on a quest to full explore the universe of music. From his start as a punk he's dabbled in almost everything, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. I admit I've kind of lost interest in him along the way.

But his new album, a collaboration with the hip-hop/funk/jazz hybrid band The Roots, is amazing. The Roots are best known as the house band of The Jimmy Fallon Show, but are a respected band in their own right--I dare say they are just as respected in certain places more than Costello is.

The result of their collaboration, Wise Up Ghost, is a haunting, at times gritty record. The songs are mostly in a minor key, with words that are despairing or of warning. The liner notes, by Ben Greenman, indicated that the composers and producers, Costello, Steven Mandel, and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, were interested in the climate of America following Barack Obama's election, and the resulting fracture of political discourse.

Indeed, there are some dark statements in this record. The opening song, "Walk Us Uptown," while having a great groove (there are no shortage of those on the album) contains the lyric:

"Will you walk us uptown
Will you gather us near
As cowards flee and traitors sneer
Keep a red flag flying
Keep a blue flag as well
And a white flag in case it all goes to hell"

My favorite song on the album is "Refuse to Be Saved," with Costello's vocals down and dirty:

"The Liberation forces make movies of their own
Playing their Doors records and pretending to be stoned
Drowning out a broadcast that wasn't authorized
Incidentally the revolution will be televised
With one head for business and another for good looks
Until they started arriving with their rubber aprons
and their butcher's hooks"

There are also songs about the never-ending tussle between the sexes. In "(She Might Be a) Grenade," Costello sings:

"She's taping up her hands just
like a boxer will
And they started laughing
But if looks could kill
She'd take them down right now
She's covering her mouth
With some unholy vow
There's nothing more to say
This is her wedding day
Full of shattered glass and mayhem
Not some softly whispered Amen"

Other excellent songs on the album include "Tripwire," the title track, and of the three "bonus" tracks, I especially liked the last, "The Puppet Has Cut His Strings," with a haunting piano riff played by Ray Angry.

The style is a melange of jazz, rock, R&B and funk. I suppose I liked it because it dispensed with hip-hop, which I don't care for because of it's usual lack of melody. Instead, these songs are bursting with melody, but do have the raw emotion of the best hip-hop. I suppose it could be called "thinking man's rock" a deplorable phrase that usually means boring, but in the case of Wise Up Ghost, is anything but.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Tom Jones

The winner of the 1963 Best Picture Oscar was Tom Jones, and if it doesn't seem like a Best Picture winner, it's hard to see an obvious alternative from that year. A jokey, wink-at-the-camera sex comedy, it's not the worst picture ever to win, but it doesn't hold up very well, either.

Tom Jones had the distinction of being the only Best Picture winner I had never seen, so I was anxious to watch it. But right from the start I was put off, as it has that British, Benny Hill-like humor that is only good in small doses. It is based on the classic novel by Henry Fielding, and a script by "angry young man" playwright John Osborne, but the approach by director Tony Richardson is "we're not taking this seriously, and just having a bit of fun." A little of this goes a very long way.

The story is that the title character is foundling, left on the bed of a bachelor squire. He is assumed to the son of a servant, but the squire raises him as his own. But Tom, who grows up to look like Albert Finney, though raised as a gentleman, can't help but be a carouser, dipping his wick with the gamekeeper's daughter (Diane Cilento). His sanctimonious cousin (David Warner) plants doubts in the squire's head about Tom's character, so the poor lad is banished from the household. He makes his way to London, having adventures along the way.

The film has a number of striking things about it. For one, it's shot in natural light, which makes it look like the film really does place in the mid 1700s, and it is edited briskly, with quick cuts that make the pace almost breathless. There are several instances when the characters break the fourth wall and look to the camera, and the action is played at high speed. Some of this is funny, but at times one gets the impression that Richardson was doing this as a goof, so why should we care?

The cast is full of British actors acting broadly. Finney is quite charming, and Susannah York is winsome as his one true love, while Hugh Griffith hams it up mightily as her father. The film has the distinction of being the only movie to earn three Best Supporting Actress nominations: for Cilento, Edith Evans (as York's fussy aunt), and Joyce Redman, who shares a scene with Finney that has become the movie's most famous. They eat at a tavern, and eat their meals with a sexual gusto. You've never seen oysters slurped just like that.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins is the kind of novel I had wish I had written. It covers a multitude of subjects, from the making of the film Cleopatra to the Donner Party, and has locations as varied as the Italian coast, Edinburgh, and the mountains of Idaho. Each character is sharply drawn, and there's a genuine suspense that comples us to the end. Author Jess Walter keeps a lot of balls in the air, and he's just able to pull it off.

We start in 1962 in the small coastal village of Porto Vergogna, which is often bypassed by vacationers for more luxurious surroundings. "Vergogna meant shame, and was a remnant from the founding of the village in the seventeenth century as a place for sailors and fishers to find women of ... a certain moral and commercial flexibility."

To this village comes a young actress, Dee Moray, who has a small part in Cleopatra, filming in Rome. She thinks she has stomach cancer. She charms the young man, Pasquale Tursi, running the only hotel, modestly called the Adequate View. He is determined to build a tennis court on the cliffs, until it is pointed out that if a ball goes off the court it will sail into the sea.

We then cut to the present day, when a young producer's assistant, Claire Silver, hears a pitch from a would-be writer, who has a screenplay about the ill-fated Donner Party. Into this meeting bursts Tursi, now an old man and looking for Dee, who did not die. It turns out that Claire's boss, an old Hollywood guy named Michael Deane, was involved in the Dee Moray business.

That's just the barest bones of the story. There is also a failed novelist, Alvis Bender, who visits the Adequate View every year to work on his book, but has only finished one chapter (which we get to read). Pasquale has fathered a son, who lives with his mother in Florence. Dee's son, Pat, a failed rock musician, has an adventure touring in the U.K., which ends with him flat broke in London. And it all culminates at a small theater in Sands Point, Idaho. Did I mention that Richard Burton is a character?

Beautiful Ruins is a very ambitious novel. It takes several different viewpoints and styles--in addition to Bender's one chapter, we get part of the Donner party script, and later a play that has summarized much of the action. At times this was just way too much, and I felt that Walter had gotten off-track, but he does a fine job of bringing it all home, as the book is richly and intricately plotted.

If the action sometimes gets far afield, the prose is worth remarking on. He seems to have a bead on Hollywood: "Claire's Coffee Bean is crowded at seven-thirty, every table sporting a sullen white screenwriter in glasses, every pair of glasses aimed at a Mac Pro laptop, every Mac Pro to a digitized Final Draft script." Of Deane, who is seems modeled on Robert Evans, Walter writes: "The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have a caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl."

The heart of the book, though, is the Cinque Terre, on the Italian Riviera. Walter writes of it lovingly, as Pasquale shows Dee his country, including a magical visit to leftover pill-box turrets from World War II, where a German soldier painted portraits of a woman. The back and forth between the sleepy world of Porto Vergnona and Hollywood can be bruising: "Perhaps it was the difference in age between the countries--America with its expansive youth, building all those drive-in movie theaters and cowboy restaurants; Italians lived in endless contraction, in the artifacts of generations, in the bones of empires."

I enjoyed the book, though I thought it could use some trimming. Some of the characters get more backstory than they are due. Claire and Shane Wheeler, the young screenwriter, get a large buildup but then almost disappear from the story. Also, a play at the end that is supposed to be brilliant doesn't sound all that good to me.  But it's a touching story.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation

Looking for something festive to watch last night, I found that I could get National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, which I've always enjoyed, so I took another look. It still holds up, mostly because the humor is never particularly aggressive, and the movie has a heart without being maudlin.

Released in 1989, it was the third in the "Vacation" series featuring the all-American Griswold family. It was written by John Hughes, based on his story "Christmas '59" from National Lampoon, and directed by Jeremiah Chechik.

The over-riding theme of the movie is that the dad, played with the usual obtuseness by Chevy Chase, wants to have the perfect family Christmas. He wants the best light display, the best dinner, the fastest sled, the perfect tree. Of course in each of these endeavors he fails miserably, with mishaps wreaking havoc on the house. I think there's a message in there somewhere that makes some sense--Christmas is about the little things.

The film has lots of layers. We have some subplots that have varying success. I kind of liked the yuppie neighbors (Nicholas Guest and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss), who are victims of Chase's mishaps (Louis-Dreyfuss ends up being attacked by a squirrel and a dog). I also liked Eddie (the scene-stealing Randy Quaid) who arrives by RV with his wife, two children, and a slobbering dog. He's a kind of white-trash white knight, and when Chase describes him as having "a heart bigger than his brain" he takes this as a compliment.

The film goes a little off the rails with the subplot involving Chase waiting for his Christmas bonus, which he needs to cover a deposit check for a swimming pool. When he gets a membership in the Jelly of the Month Club instead, Quaid takes it upon himself to kidnap the boss (a properly bumptious Brian Doyle Murray), and everything turns out all right. I find it interesting to compare that time to this, because I don't think many people are getting Christmas bonuses any more (if they have jobs), so the whole idea seems too farcical now.

There are simple pleasures to the film, mostly involving good old-fashioned slapstick, such as Chase being hit in the face by boards, or the scene in which the guests chew down on extremely dry turkey. Most of the gags involving the ancient aunt and uncle (William Hickey and Mae Questel) are good, such as when she is asked to say Grace and recites the Pledge of Allegiance, or when he tells her that she "couldn't hear a dump truck going through a nitroglycerin factory."

The script seems to have one hand tied behind its back, maybe to keep a PG rating, and maybe because Hughes just didn't want to be too scabrous in a Christmas movie (that was taken care of in Bad Santa). As such, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is a fairly funny family film that has earned its place in the canon of Christmas standards.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Black Santa

This year, once again, we have the ballyhoo about the wholly manufactured "War on Christmas," which seems to suggest that wishing someone "happy holidays" instead of "merry Christmas," recognizing that the U.S.A. is a land of diverse faiths, and that not everyone is a Christian, is somehow bellicose.

A new salvo has been fired in the person of Megyn Kelly, one of the blonde Stepford Wives on Fox News. Annoyed that Santa Claus was being portrayed as black in some places, she stated categorically that Santa is white, and while at it, that Jesus is white, too. This, she claims, is historical.

She was roundly criticized for it, and later laughed it off, saying it was a joke. Yes, of course telling children of color that thinking that a beloved symbol might be shared by their race is impossible is a laugh riot. But then pinhead Bill O'Reilly backed her up.

The very notion of declaring that a mythical figure is white is of course ludicrous on its face. What she is thinking of is the common depiction of Santa Claus as rendered by cartoonist Thomas Nast, acting on suggestions from the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" which may or may not have been written by Clement Moore. The red suit, the beard, the chimney, the reindeer, all of that comes from those two men. And of course Santa was white, as Nast was white and he was drawing for a white audience.

But the history is a little trickier. St. Nicholas was a Greek bishop from Turkey, so was probably not lily white, and certainly didn't wear a fur-trimmed red suit. The truth is that that saint, along with Germanic and Scandinavian folklore, combined to make Santa Claus. He belongs to anyone who chooses to celebrate Christmas, and can be any color of the rainbow. Kelly's rant was shockingly ignorant and insensitive. And she's usually the most reasonable one on Fox News.

Now as for Jesus. There is no historical consensus as to what race Jesus was (if Kelly thinks otherwise, she must have been reading Klan history books). He was Semitic for goodness' sake, born in Judea, where the sun is pretty intense. I'd say he was a shade or two darker than Kelly. What cultural history tells us is that most Biblical figures have been assigned racial characteristics based on their own, subjective views. White people think of Jesus as white, while darker peoples may see him as darker (although American blacks, indoctrinated into Christianity by their white owners, seem to have accepted Christ as white).

There are no photographs of Jesus. Their are no first-hand accounts. He has, over time, become a figure much like Santa Claus, a mythic being that lives in the hearts of some. He can be any color, any size, any shape. To attempt to define him is petty and childish. But that's par for the course in today's conservatives.

Monday, December 23, 2013

American Hustle

The working title of American Hustle was American Bullshit, and though that title would have never allowed it entry into the multiplexes, it's much more apt. Not only is bullshit one of the more frequently used epithets in the film, but the whole concept of that word--that nothing in America is real, and can be manipulated into something else--pervades the story.

Set in the corrupt world of New Jersey politics, with its protagonists a pair of con artists and a slightly askew FBI agent, American Hustle is one of those movies that we used to say lifts the rock on what goes on in America. We've said that so often though that I don't think the rock needs lifting--it's been permanently lifted.

Here's the thing--though you want to take a shower after watching it, it has a tremendous amount of heart, and all of the characters, though extremely flawed and not the people you'd want in your house, are sympathetic. Even when at odds with each other, you root for all of them, none more than Irving Rosenfeld, inhabited by Christian Bale. We first see him elaborately preparing his comb-over, with what looks like glue and pubic hair. How can you not love a guy like that?

Co-written and directed by David O. Russell, it shares many actors from his recent films and a common thread--badly damaged people. It's not as good as The Fighter of the sterling Silver Lining's Playbook--it's a little too long and parts of it gave me a headache. But there are moments that make it all worthwhile.

The film starts in media res with Bale, along with his mistress (Amy Adams) being used by FBI agent Bradley Cooper trying to sting the mayor of Camden (Jeremy Renner) into taking a bribe to smooth the entry of casinos into Atlantic City. We then see flashbacks, narrated by a variety of characters, the sort of equivalent of a novel having several different narrators. Bale plays a guy who owns a few dry cleaning stores, but makes his money in a loan shark racket that I never fully understood. He meets Adams, an ex-stripper, who takes to the life like a duck to water, even using a phony British accent.

Problem: Bale is married to Jennifer Lawrence, an ancestor of The Real Housewives of New Jersey (the action is set in 1978). She wants Bale, but so does Adams, though Cooper also wants Adams. So we have two love triangles and the highly fictionalized Abscam operation, the real FBI sting that netted a U.S. senator.

Russell obviously watched Goodfellas quite a few times while making this. We have a lot of transitions scored by hits of the era, and even Robert DeNiro shows up as a Mafia don. There are all those narrators, and a sense of overwhelming dread, as Bale grows to like Renner and can't stand that he's going to send him to jail. Cooper, his personality as tight as the curls on his head, lives with his mother and tries to undermine his straight-laced boss (Louis C.K.), even going so far as to hit him in the head with a telephone.

At times the pace is just too much, and the whole thing is awash in business. But when it slows down and focuses on character, I liked it. The acting is pretty great. Bale, unrecognizable as the same man who was Batman or in The Fighter, is fantastic, putting on weight and affecting a Bronx accent. Adams, who I like in roles like this (she should just stick with Russell) is very good as a woman who has no other options. Lawrence is another actor who should stick with Russell, as she takes a cliche and turns into a living breathing human being, with vulnerability. Renner is a corrupt politician who only wants to do well by his constituents, and is the character with the most pathos.

Cooper is the weak link, but I think the character is the least-well written. It's hard to get past the perm.

I was somewhat disappointed with American Hustle, in that it's not as good as Russell's recent films, but I still recommend it. I'd actually like to see it again, as I can pick up the plot points I missed.

My grade for American Hustle: B-.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

How the West Was Won

The fourth nominee for the 1963 Best Picture Oscar was How the West Was Won, which was notable for being the first Cinerama movie to tell a story, and for having some spectacular stunt work. Otherwise, it's a dud.

Chock full of stars, and with three different directors, the film was based on a series of Life magazine articles. It was an extension of the historical belief that western expansion was carried out by plucky white people who were brave and true. Spencer Tracy, in the narration, mentions that the west was "won" from nature and primitive man. I guess then that the Indians were losers.

The thread of the plot covers a smorgasbord of Western tropes. We start with the Prescott family, New Englanders who are headed to Illinois sometime in the 1830s or '40s. Karl Malden is the patriarch, Agnes Moorehead his wife, with Carroll Baker and Debbie Reynolds as his daughters. They take the Erie Canal and then move across Ohio by river. Along the way they meet mountain man James Stewart. Here is one big problem--what is a mountain man doing in Ohio? He says he's on his way to Pittsburgh, but that's a long way to go to get a drink, when St. Louis was already a thriving haven of sin.

Baker and Stewart fall for each other, and he saves them from river pirates. Malden and Moorehead are killed while going down rapids, and Baker decides to build a farm right there, and Stewart stays with her.

Reynolds, though, wants city life, and ends up in St. Louis as an entertainer. She finds out she's been left a gold mine in San Francisco, and joins a wagon train west. The wagon master, Robert Preston, wants to marry her, but she falls in love with a gambler, Gregory Peck.

The story jumps to the Civil War. Baker and Stewart's son, George Peppard, joins up and we see him at the battle of Shiloh. We get a brief cameo of John Wayne as Sherman, with Harry Morgan as Grant. Peppard returns home, finds Baker is dead (Stewart was killed during the war) and decides to head west with the cavalry. He ends up guarding the workers toiling on the Union Pacific, watched over by the unscrupulous Richard Widmark. Peppard is sympathetic to the Indians, whose hunting grounds are destroyed by white settlement. During this segment Henry Fonda has a cameo as a mountain man and buffalo hunter.

Finally, Peppard decides to help his aunt, Reynolds, run her ranch in Arizona. A former lawman, he has to have it out with an outlaw (Eli Wallach).

Cinerama was a process that used three projectors showing on a curved screen. It was a gimmick that didn't last long (there were only about a dozen theaters who could show it), and most of the films were travelogues. Even now, on DVD, one can see the screen divided into three segments. Directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall, there are some exciting scenes, including a buffalo stampede, an Indian attack on the wagon train, and a shootout aboard a moving train. Some of the stunt work is brilliant.

But the script is tin-eared and banal, full of cliches. Amazingly, it won the Oscar for Best Screenplay, a crime of unusual proportions (it beat 8 1/2).

It was the only film to feature Wayne, Stewart, and Fonda, but they didn't appear in any scenes together.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Deadly Is the Female


I just finished a fascinating class taught at the Princeton Adult School. We saw several films in the "noir" category, with an emphasis on the "femme fatale." Most of these films came from the '40s and '50s, with one example of a more updated, neo-noir.

What is a femme fatale? The literal translation is "fatal woman," and has examples from the beginning of history. Lilith, Salome, the Sirens, Cleopatra, and Mata Hari are all examples from literature and history.

But the femme fatale in film noir is a little different. Basically, she is a woman, wittingly or unwittingly, who uses her seductive wiles to gain what she wants, usually money or status, while leading a man to his doom. There are many variables on this theme. Sometimes she gets away with it, sometimes she ends up dead. Sometimes the man, though smitten, never trusts her, sometimes he's a complete dupe. Sometimes he ends up dead, sometimes in jail, or sometimes victorious. The woman can be a murderous psychopath, a compulsive liar, or just a beautiful woman who can't help that men do stupid things for her.

Sociologically, the '40s was a ripe time for the femme fatale. Her existence in literature has always had a basis of misogyny behind it, as the men writing these stories expressed their fear of powerful, independent women. In some ways Eve herself could be considered a femme fatale, responsible for the whole being banished from the Garden of Eden thing. The '40s saw a revolution in how women were perceived, as they had to go to work during World War II. Rosie the Riveter became a powerful symbol. A seed was planted--no longer would women be satisfied with just being homemakers, or nurses, secretaries, waitresses or teachers. Women wanted more, and men feared the repercussions.

The women in the films we saw had some common characteristics. Many were from the wrong side of the tracks. They had dubious backgrounds, and used men to get what they wanted. More than one said: "I've been bad." We can assume some were prostitutes, who have graduated to becoming kept women, with an eye on the ultimate goal of being independently wealthy. The femme fatale today is quaint, in an age when women can become CEO's of the top companies, but back then, earning a fortune on the backs of men, whether by marrying into society or being vamps, was the only way for women to become rich.

We saw many of the best examples of the genre, including what I think is the standard, Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944). Barbara Stanwyck starred as Phyllis Diedrichson, the second wife of a well-to-do businessman. She meets an insurance man, Fred McMurray, and they hatch a scheme to kill him and make it look like an accident, earning double indemnity on the life insurance policy. Of course things go wrong, and they end up killing each other. Stanwyck's character is a psychopath, with hints that she killed her husband's first wife.

Essentially a remake of that film was Body Heat (1981) by Lawrence Kasdan, this time with Kathleen Turner, in her film debut, again as a the wife of an older, rich man. She's devious at any turn, using poor dumb chump William Hurt to kill her husband. He realizes too late he's been used, and ends up in jail for the crime, while she's off to some exotic island.

Another of the classic type of femme fatale was Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947). She is the kept woman of gangster Kirk Douglas, but uses Robert Mitchum, a private eye, for her purposes. Here Mitchum never really trusts her, but can't help himself, a common trope of the genre. Like many other films, this one was based on a pulp novel, and many of those writers specialized in depicting women as seductive monsters, with them incapable of resisting the temptation. Today we'd call that thinking with your dick.

This could be said of John Dahl in Gun Crazy (1950). He was probably the dumbest sap we saw all semester, a man obsessed with guns. He becomes a trick-shot artist, performing with a sinister Annie Oakley called Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins). She loves danger even more than money, and leads Dahl into a life of crime, where they become bank robbers. Though he knows he's doing wrong, he can't help himself. She must be a tiger in the sack. The original title of Gun Crazy was Deadly Is the Female.

Sometimes the guy didn't fall for it. In two films featuring famed detectives, we have some great femme fatales, but they are defeated. In Murder, My Sweet (1944) Claire Trevor stars as Velma Valentino, who was once a girl of the lower depths who has transformed herself into Helen, now the trophy wife of a rich art collector. She's involved in a caper, but detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), while certainly interested, doesn't fall for her wiles. Instead, he goes for the femme fatale's counterpoint, the "Good Girl," (in this case Anne Shirley) who is virginal and sweet and usually too good to be true.

Sam Spade is also above falling for the femme fatale. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), Mary Astor plays one of the great femme fatales, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, who is incapable of telling the truth. She will do anything to get what she wants, and professes her love for Sam. But Spade, played brilliantly by Humphrey Bogart, never trusts her, and in the end does what he has to do and sends her over for the killing of his partner.

Sometimes the femme fatale changes her spots. In The Big Heat (1953), Gloria Grahame plays a gangster's moll. But she is impressed by the honesty of a cop, Glenn Ford, and ends up helping him. In this way, Grahame's character comes off as more feminist than the others, because she rebels against the way she is kept like a trophy (a great scene has her showing how she has to hop whenever her gangster, Lee Marvin, says hop), but instead of turning to crime, does the right thing instead.

One of the things we discussed after almost every movie was whether the woman really loved the man. I suppose the romantics thought that they did, but I don't know. Did Mary Astor really love Sam Spade? I don't think she was capable of love. Did Kathleen Turner love William Hurt? Certainly not, though some in the class thought she ended up loving him and felt bad about it. They may have had passion for the victim--I'm sure Jane Greer did for Robert Mitchum and Barbara Stanwyck for Fred McMurray, but when it became necessary to kill them, they didn't flinch. Most femme fatales don't feel love the way most of us do--it's only an emotion of convenience.

There are some great femme fatales we didn't see, like Marie Windsor in The Killing, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Anne Savage in Detour, and Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears, and in more contemporary times, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction, Nicole Kidman in To Die For, and, of course, Rebecca Romijn in Femme Fatale. But again, these contemporary films exist more as homages to the old, and don't have the same power.

Not all noir films had femme fatales, but it was a basic element of the genre, and provided a lot of work for many actresses who played many such women.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

My favorite album of 1988, which I have now purchased on CD, was Camper Van Beethoven's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. A mix of punk, Middle Eastern, psychedelia, and folk, it has an oddly hypnotic sound to it, and the rare quality in an album--every song is good.

Camper Van Beethoven was a band formed in California. David Lowery was the lead vocalist, and his laconic vocal quality suggests the kind of slacker persona of the hippie culture. Yet almost every song features the violin (or perhaps more accurately, fiddle) work of Jonathan Segel, which gives the album a unique Appalachian sound. No where is this more prevalent than the old folk song "O Death."

The highlights of the record are many, but I think there a few minor masterpieces. One of them is "Tania," an ode to Patty Hearst.

"Oh, my beloved revolutionary sweetheart
I can see your newsprint face turn yellow in the gutter
It makes me sad
How I long for the days when you came to liberate us from boredom
From driving around from five to seven in the evening
My beloved Tania,
We carry your gun deep within our hearts
For no better reason than our lives have no meaning
And we want to be on television."

The songs are also unexpectedly profound. One of the other great songs is "One of These Days," which begins as if it's full of sarcasm:

"One of these days
When you figure, figure it all out
Well be sure to let me know
Well I'll be waiting right here
Come and whisper in my ear what it is I want to know."

But no, the lyric is actually sincere:

"One of these days, gonna get into it way on over our heads
And you'll find that there's no place to hide
But if you fight and if you fail, don't fall back into yourself
You can fall back on me."

This is further emphasized in the closing track, "Life Is Grand":

"And life is grand
And I will say this at the risk of falling from favor
With those of you who have appointed yourselves
To expect us to say something darker
And love is real
And though I realize this is not a deep observation
To those of you who find it necessary
To conceal love or obscure it, as is the fashion."

CVB made one more album, Key Lime Pie, and then broke up. Lowery formed the group Cracker. I see that them reformed in the 2000s, I should check out the albums they made after that.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Paige Summers

I had a dream the other night about Paige Summers. She was the Penthouse Pet of the Year for 1998. Also, once upon a time, she was a friend of mine.

I worked for Penthouse for over ten years, and during the last five years or so of my run, the late '90s, I wormed my way into working with Pet promotions--writing "girlcopy" (the often inane biographical stuff that accompanies the pictorial), doing interviews with them for Penthouse Forum magazine, and attending promotions. I probably met three dozen Pets over the years, and became pretty close friends with a handful. One of them was Paige, a country girl from Morganton, North Carolina, whose real name was Nancy Ann Coursey.

The dream, though blissfully erotic, was also poignant to me, and I awoke with very mixed emotions, as I had a lot of affection for her. I first met her in the summer of 1996, just before her issue came out (she was Miss August). She was in the photo library, not yet twenty years old. I was 35. For whatever reason, I was fairly bold around the Pets, as if they weren't real people. So I chatted with her and actually asked her out. She laughed and politely declined, but as time wore on we became friends.

I met her several times over the course of a few years. She always seemed so happy to see me that it fed my ego like a seven-course meal. She laughed at my jokes--when she won Pet of the Year one of the prizes was a Kia, which was a new company in the American market at the time. She was kind of underwhelmed, and when I said that they went zero to sixty in five minutes she laughed.

Of course I had a crush on her. I would lie awake and imagine us as a couple, as ludicrous as that sounds. She had a boyfriend, and I met him and he was a real nice guy. He was a real man's man (a woman in the office confirmed that he was very good looking). She brought him into my office, which was adorned with her Pet of the Year poster, a large photograph of her with legs completely akimbo, her ladyflower completely spread open. He seemed completely nonplussed about it.

The highlight of my relationship with her was when I visited her in her home town. She spent most of her life in Morganton, a small town in western North Carolina. She invited me for a visit, and on Labor Day weekend in 1997 I drove down. The first night we had some drinks in the Holiday Inn bar (the county had just approved alcohol by the glass) and then, in my hotel room, we stretched out on the bed. Completely clothed and not touching, we watched her Pet of the Year video on a VCR we hooked up to the TV. Watching a woman nude on TV while lying next to her counts as one of the most surreal moments of my life.

It almost got more surreal. The next day we spent at her friend's house, where I took the picture above. It was one of the few times in my life I smoked pot, and it didn't do anything for me. I suspect I did something wrong. Later that night we went to where she got her start as a topless dancer. There was a TV over the bar, and the news was that Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. Yes, I heard about the death of Princess Diana while in a strip club in Hickory, North Carolina.

That kind of put a damper on the weekend, and it did not end as my fantasies would have it. We stayed in touch, though, until I was sacked by Penthouse in early 1999. I lost touch with all my Pet friends after that.

Thus I was shocked when I picked up an issue of Penthouse sometime in late 2003, and read the horrible news. On September 22, 2003, Paige Summers died of an overdose of oxycodone. Presumably it was an accident, as she was engaged to a guy from Morganton. She was a country girl, a family girl, a girl who liked to work in a garden, who listened to Tim McGraw, and though she showed off everything, had somewhat conservative morals. She knew she was beautiful--she once got a guy to buy her a car, with no kind of compensation, and regularly got out of speeding tickets by carrying her issue of Penthouse in the car with her.

But she was a sweetheart. She was 27 years old when she died. I miss her.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Cleopatra (1963)

The third Best Picture nominee from 1963 is Cleopatra, well known today for being a monumental flop and a prime example of Hollywood hubris. True, it did lose money, but it was also the number one movie at the box office in 1963, the only such film ever to earn that distinction. It's lasting legacy, though, is that it started one of Hollywood's longest soap operas, Liz and Dick.

Originally budgeted at 2 million, it ended up costing 44 million, and changed directors and casts (it ended up with Joseph Mankiewicz at the helm). At least most of the money is on screen--Elizabeth Taylor, in the title role, makes 65 costume changes, and her entrance into Rome, riding atop a replica Sphinx, is pretty amazing, even if she does look like the grand marshal of the Rose Parade.

The film is four hours long, so I watched it over two nights; I can't imagine having to endure it one sitting. It's not terrible. The first half is dominated by Cleopatra's relationship with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), the second by her relationship with Marc Antony (Richard Burton). Harrison, who was nominated for an Oscar, is quite enjoyable as Caesar, giving the character humor and pathos. Burton, who doesn't appear until about an hour into the film, takes a stranglehold on the picture toward the end, as he gets besotted by Cleopatra and makes some pretty bad moves in the name of love.

Historically, it's fairly accurate, including the fact that Cleopatra was in Rome when Caesar was assassinated in the Senate on the Ides of March, which isn't in Shakespeare, for example. The naval battle of Actium, in which Antony's navy is destroyed, is very impressively mounted by what looks like actual ships, not miniatures. At least the money was well spent, even if it did almost bankrupt Twentieth-Century Fox.

Taylor, who almost died during the filming (she had to have a tracheotomy), is fairly wooden in the role, but is spectacularly beautiful. It's kind of racy for 1963, as she is artfully posed in various forms of dishabille; her decolletage is remarkable. I wouldn't recommend the film to anyone except obsessives like me, though, unless you can get your hands on the abridged version.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

White Reindeer

Suzanne is excited about Christmas. She loves the season--right after Thanksgiving she puts up the tree and starts knocking back the eggnog. And why shouldn't she be excited? Things are going great. She is happily married to a TV weatherman, and he just got a job in Hawaii. But then he gets murdered during a burglary.

There are lots of movies about Christmas, but White Reindeer is unlike any of them. It's certainly not a movie about Christmas "magic," and though a black comedy is it not an irreverent but still sentimental film, like Bad Santa or Scrooged. This film layers grief upon a time of year when we are supposed to feel happy, but many of us don't. Though Suzanne has a concrete reason to be sad, she still clings to the happiness of Christmas, even if it is slipping out of her grasp.

Suzanne is played by Anna Margaret Hollyman in a very good performance. She is completely authentic as she comes to grips with the tragedy. First she is told by a family friend that her husband had had an affair with a black stripper. For reasons that she doesn't understand, she meets with that stripper (her stripper name is Autumn, her real name is Fantasia). They bond, and she hangs out with Fantasia and her stripper friends, binging on cocaine.

She also binges on Internet shopping, first with clothing and then with Christmas decorations, including a festive toilet seat cover. She even attends a swing party at her neighbors, partaking in an orgy in the blankest way possible.

Hollyman's performance is never pathetic--we are always right there with her, even when she is arrested for trying to shoplift a home pregnancy test (her credit card is maxed out). When the model of the cashmere sweater she buys visits her and announces she is the Ghost of Christmas Present, we accept it as calmly as Suzanne does--why not?

White Reindeer, written and directed by Zach Clark, offers no answers, no epiphanies. It simply is, as Christmas simply is. It's just a day, and doesn't change lives or enrich them. White Reindeer just may be the most intelligent Christmas film ever.

My grade for White Reindeer: A-.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Peter O'Toole

As I thought about Peter O'Toole and his films last night, in the wake of his death yesterday at 81, I realized that, push comes to shove, he's my favorite actor. I don't make any claim that he's the greatest actor ever, but I have gotten more pleasure from watching him act than any other man, I think. I suppose the closest competition would be Humphrey Bogart, but Bogie could never have played someone who thought he was Jesus.

I haven't seen all of O'Toole's films, the most notable exceptions being Lord Jim and Goodbye, Mr Chips (the latter being the only one of his eight Oscar nominations I haven't seen), but I've seen all of the other big ones and been delighted by all of them. I suppose he first came to my attention in Lion in Winter, one of the favorite films of all time, which I saw first when I was in my early to mid teens. Then, when I was in college, I saw The Stunt Man, which was something of a comeback for him after a quiet decade or so (perhaps the low point being his turn as Tiberius in the pornographic Caligula). Both of these performances, as Henry II and megalomaniacal director Eli Cross, were larger than life, with more than a serving of ham.

Then, for me, came My Favorite Year, a thoroughly entertaining film that sees O'Toole as the Errol Flynn-like movie star Allan Swann. O'Toole was a movie star, but unlike Flynn he was trained on the stage, and never lost the knack for projecting to the back row, even on celluloid. Swann says, in the key line of the film, "I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!" but O'Toole was also an actor (once Laurence Olivier chided him, asking him if he wanted to be a household name or an ac-tor, but O'Toole was both).

In the years since I caught up with the rest of his filmography. I think I first saw Lawrence of Arabia sometime in the mid-eighties (at least on screen--I'm sure I saw it carved up and served in five sections on the 4:30 Movie) and agree with those, such as Entertainment Weekly did about ten years ago, that it's one of the greatest performances in movie history (they had him at number 1; I still have to go with Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront). O'Toole, in his first major film role, is far more restrained than he would be in later years, but managed to convey the brilliance of his character. It's hard to act smarter than you are, but O'Toole does it with aplomb. A lot of his lines from that film live in my head, none so much more than what he says to the officer who tells him he's in for a rough time in Arabia. "No, it's going to be fun."

I haven't seen Becket in years, but I remember it and Lion in Winter for his complete command of playing a king. As Shakespeare wrote, his Henry II was "every inch a king." He's one of a few actors to earn two Oscar nominations for playing the same character, and the only one that was in two films that were not connected to each other as sequels. What a daunting task to play opposite Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitane, but he more than holds his own. She had most of the good lines in that one, but I can still hear him, when she implores of him what he wants, when he says, "I want a new wife."

There have been more roles to enjoy since those. Another Oscar nomination came in The Ruling Class, in which he plays a member of nobility who thinks he's Jesus. O'Toole really lets it fly there, and it's the acting equivalent of a Keith Moon drum solo. It may be scenery chewing, but no one did it better. In his golden years he acted all the time, in many films that were otherwise forgettable, such as his last Oscar nomination, Venus (how I remember the crestfallen look on his face when it was revealed he did not win the Oscar; surely he knew it was his last chance). In his last years he specialized in playing ancient men of prestige, such as the the Pope Paul III in The Tudors, the Emperor of Lilliput in Gulliver's Travels, or King Priam in Troy (that last one was one of the few he did that annoyed me--I hated the way he pronounced "gods" as if it were "gawds."

In looking over his filmography, I had forgotten his wonderful voice performance as the restaurant critic in Ratatouille, his touching Arthur Conan Doyle in FairyTale, and the sybaritic lead of What's New, Pussycat, Woody Allen's first film and a role that was initially created for Warren Beatty.

I even managed to see O'Toole on stage, on Broadway in Pygmalion. As one might expect, it was all about him--I have no recollection who played Eliza Doolittle. He was a renowned actor before he turned to film--his Hamlet and Uncle Vanya were acclaimed. But I remember that while I was in college he had one of the most disastrous performance ever to blight the West End. His MacBeth was apparently so bad that it was discussed the entire theater world over.

So what about O'Toole's acting impresses me? I think it's a multitude of things. I like the languorous way he holds the camera--he moves like I imagine I do. And how he wraps his mouth around words, as if they were candies. He hated naturalistic acting--no Method for him--and there's a theatrical quality to him that's hard to resist. I remember auditioning for the part of Mercutio and doing the Queen Mab speech as I imagined he would have done it. That was pretty dumb of me--an actor should be himself, and besides, I'm sure no one but me would have recognized any O'Toole in my performance.

As good an actor as O'Toole was, he was also a great character. He was a marvelous raconteur on talk shows--I remember him telling David Letterman a story about how he and Richard Harris rode white horses in Ireland while completely smashed. Of course he was a drinker--he was Irish, after all, but he did outlive Harris and his fellow great Richard Burton. These three were the epitome of British acting through the sixties and seventies, and none of them ever won an Oscar.

O'Toole did eventually win an a lifetime achievement Oscar, the "sorry we didn't give you one before this" award. He initially refused it, stubbornly thinking he could win one in competition. He relented, and when receiving the award, he let bygones be bygones and said, "Always a bride, never a bridesmaid--my foot."

Sunday, December 15, 2013

America America

The second film nominated for Best Picture in 1963 was America America, written and directed by Elia Kazan. It is a very personal film, as it documents (loosely) the experiences of his uncle, who was the first of his family to emigrate to the U.S.

Set in Turkey at the turn of the 20th century, the film begins in Anatolia, an area that was once populated by Greeks and Armenians, but ended being conquered by the Turks. By the time of the film, the Greeks and Armenians are an abused minority. We see the wounds of oppression, especially an Armenian church that is set on fire by Turkish authorities, even as women and children are inside.

Our hero is a Greek, Stavros (Stathis Giallelis), who chafes at the oppression and dreams of traveling to America, which he pronounces as if it were a magic word. He is ashamed of his father, a man who goes along to get along. Eventually his father realizes that Stavros must go to Constantinople, and the rest of the family will follow. They load Stavros up with everything of worth the family owns, so that Stavros can join a cousin in the rug business.

Almost immediately Stavros is beset by thieves. He ends up accompanied by a con man (Lou Antonio) who calls him brother, but actually has designs on all of Stavros' possessions. Empty-handed, he finally gets to the city. He gets a job as "hamal," a kind of porter who is looked down upon by many. He befriends his employer, John Marley, but again gets robbed, this time by a whore. He takes his cousin's advice and courts the plain daughter of a rich man. He asks for a dowry of 110 pounds--the exact cost of a ticket to America.

Eventually he breaks off the engagement, gets on the boat, and becomes the lover of an older American woman (Katherine Balfour), but her husband finds out and tells him that they will put him back on the first boat to Turkey. But an old acquaintance, who is on the same boat, has tuberculosis, and exchanges his identity with Stavros'.

Kazan has directed several important, famous films, but this one seems to have been lost in the shuffle. I had known it was nominated for Best Picture, but it never seems to be mentioned in Kazan's career highlights. Perhaps that's because it has a cast of unknowns, and was filmed in Turkey and Greece. It covers ancient grudges that don't resonate in America, though the spirit of immigration that it contains certainly is in the roots of almost all Americans, who have a similar story of their first ancestor who made it to Ellis Island.

The peripatetic journey of Stavros is very nicely rendered. Giallelis is an actor of limited range, but Marley, Antonio, Linda Marsh as his fiancee, and Paul Mann has his prospective father-in-law are all fine.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Lumineers

Amid the trailers for a film I saw recently was some sort of advertisement that featured a song and the rules for creating a hipster anthem. I don't remember them all, but one I remember was use the word "Hey!" I thought of that while listening to the eponymous debut album of The Lumineers, who are among those retro folk-rock acts that have hit it big lately. They have guys wearing fedoras, playing mandolins, and use hand claps and the word "hey" frequently. In fact, their biggest song is "Ho Hey."

While The Lumineers may fit the cliche, the album is sonically very good. The production by Ryan Hadlock is clean and crystal clear, and while sitting here listening to it on good equipment it fills the room with a lovely sound. The songs themselves are pretty good, although the band doesn't create much diversity--all of them seem plucked off the same tree. They all have lead vocals by Wesley Schultz, who has a kind of tremulous, on-the-edge-of-crying quality that sometimes can be a little grating.

There are some lovely songs on the album, though. I particularly liked "Dead Sea:"

I stood alone, upon the platform in vain
The Puerto Ricans they were playing me salsa in the rain
With open doors and manual locks
In fast food parking lots

I also like "Stubborn Love," even though it contains the trite message that "It's better to feel pain, than nothing at all." But it's a terrific song with a terrific arrangement. Another beautiful song is "Charlie Boy," an anti-war song:

"Charlie boy, don't go to war, first born in forty-four
Kennedy made him believe we could do much more"

Another favorite is "Big Parade," which seems to be a combination of a love song, a cynical look at a parade featuring politicians and beauty queens, and a fixed boxing match.

"Ho Hey" is the song they are most known for, and it is a catchy tune, but I'm more partial to the darker songs on the record, such as the last, "Morning Song," a break-up song, that features these devastating lines:

"And did you think of me when you made love
To him, was it the same as us
Or was it different, it must have been"


The Lumineers are a band to look out for. I'd love to see more experimentation on their next record, and maybe ditch the fedoras, but otherwise, this is a solid record.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Puzzled

I heard on the radio that it's the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle. Hard to believe it's only been a 100 years--they seem firmly entrenched in our collective psyche. I'm sure I'm not the only person who has a long memory of them--I had a grandfather and a great-grandmother who did them religiously.

My own puzzle-solving has been sporadic. When I was a kid I used to get those Dell puzzle books, and for a time I have regularly tackled the Sunday crossword in the New York Times, which I could do while watching a football game on TV. But I haven't done any recently, and anyway, crosswords were never my favorite. They are to puzzles what cola is to soft drinks--the bland common choice.

Of course, the Sunday Times puzzle is always more interesting--it has a theme each week, usually involving puns or a long quote, and the trick to solving it is to figure out the theme. But my favorite Times puzzle is the acrostic, a more complex puzzle that takes a quote, rearranges all the letters into a series of clues, and then is solved by figuring out those clues and putting the letters into a grid, to solve the quote. I was also a big fan of word searches, logic problems, and the Jumble, which sometimes I try to do without even writing in the answers.

Why do we love puzzles? I'm no psychologist, but I think it appeals to our basic interest in exercising our brains, and is probably the same reason we love a mystery. Those of us who love words have a special interest (I do not like the number-based puzzles, like Sudoku--that's the other half of my brain). I think there's also something appealing about using a pencil. The sight of a sharp pencil has always inspired me, whether it's to write something new or endeavor to solve a blank puzzle.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lilies of the Field

It's time for my annual look back 50 years into Hollywood's past by viewing the nominees for Best Picture, this time those of 1963, the year JFK died and Brad Pitt was born. I start with Lilies of the Field, which was a landmark film in one way--it earned its star, Sidney Poitier, the first Best Actor award won by a black man.

What's interesting about a film from 1963 starring a black actor is that Lilies of the Field is not about race. Poitier plays Homer Smith, a kind of everyman (the name, surely not an accident, has a reference to the Odyssey and the most generic surname in America). He is driving cross country when he needs water for his car. He pulls into a driveway which leads to a small structure. Outside are nuns. The mother superior (Lilia Skala) looks heavenward, as her prayers for a strong man have been aswered.

Poitier, an itinerant worker, agrees to fix their roof, but for pay. He stays for dinner, teaches them a little English, and stays the night. But the next morning Skalia does not pay him. Instead she shows him a tangle of beams and bricks. She says he has been sent by God to help build a chapel.

The rest of the film is a contest of wills between the two. They exchange Bible verses--that's where the title comes from--but Poitier is no match for her, a German nun who escaped over the Berlin wall. She knows how to manipulate his pride, and he ends up not only working on the chapel, but insisting on doing it by himself. Eventually the entire community chips in.

There is only one inkling of racial tension. Poitier, in order to fund his stay, takes a job with a construction company, as he is an experienced driver of bulldozers. The company's owner, played by director Ralph Nelson, calls him "boy." Poitier calls him boy right back, a bit of foreshadowing of the moment four years later Poitier, as Virgil Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night, slaps a white man, a moment that would change movie history.

Lilies of the Field is an okay film, but it doesn't hold up well. Poitier is very animated in the film, but he's given better performances. The script never does fix on why he stays. Skala, who was also nominated for an Oscar, has an easier part to play, as her motivation is clear--she's a true believer.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

True Blood, Season 5

Earlier this year it was announced that the next season of True Blood, the seventh, would be the last. I read many comments from the culture vultures out there that it was about time. Indeed, many TV shows outlast their shelf life, desperately trying to remain original even as the wheels spin.

I just finished watching True Blood's fifth season, and I think this is where it starts. The central plot focuses on the Vampire Authority, the church/government of the world's vampires. While there is plenty of vampire/werewolf/fairy action, having the whole thing center around vampire bureaucracy is kind of a bummer.

Anyway, our intrepid hero, Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), along with his former enemy, Eric Northman (Alexander Skarsgaard), end up arrested by the authority. Eric has a sister (in that she was turned vampire by the same man), played by Lucy Griffiths, who is a chancellor in the Authority, which has a massive underground bunker in New Orleans. Why the world's vampires are governed by a handful of vampires in New Orleans seems to be just a matter of convenience for the producers.

Anyway, the Authority gets that old time religion, in that their legendary goddess, Lilith, appears to them (played gloriously naked and covered in blood by Jessica Clark). They turn against the "mainstreaming" movement, which sought to form an alliance with humans, and instead toward the "Sanguinistas," those who believe in the superiority of vampires, and who see humans as food.

Other plotlines have Sookie (Anna Paquin) trying to find out who killed her parents, which leads her more into the fairy world, Tara (Rutina Wesley) is turned vampire to save her life by the acid-tongued Pam (Kristin Bauer van Straten), werewolf Alcide (Joe Mangianello) deals with his pack, a group of rednecks hunt down "supes" while wearing Obama masks, and an Arabian fire spirit, (an Ifrit) torments the shell-shocked Terry (Todd Lowe), who commited an atrocity in Iraq. This latter plot line is an example of the show coming off its wheels. It feels completely extraneous and ends abruptly.

Returning to the show was one of its best characters, Russell Edgington, the 3,000 year old vampire played vividly by Dennis O'Hare. Though, in true soap opera fashion, he was left alive when he was last seen, his return smacked of desperation.

But the bulk of this season was about the vampires religious fundamentalism. Clearly this was a metaphor for the world at large (and certainly the Obama mask gang was a symbol of intolerance in all forms). I find it interesting that almost across the board in vampire fiction that they are portrayed as having a rigid set of laws, (the same in the Twilight films). You'd think people who only come at out night would be much more solitary and free-thinking.

I do want to stick with True Blood until the end, but if this is indication, there will be further bumps along the way.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Oscar 2013 Predictions, Round 1

"Will I get an Oscar nomination?"
Tomorrow the Screen Actors Guild will announce their nominations; the Golden Globes will announce the following day. The Oscar race will come into sharper focus then. Before that happens, here is where the race is after many critics' organizations have given their awards.

It is important to remember that their are no critics in the Academy, so critics' awards don't match up often with Oscar. However, they can bring attention to films and performers. For example, after the National Board of Review and the L.A. Film Critics both named Her as Best Picture, that film certainly has much more visibility. The same for Bruce Dern in Nebraska (he has also been out on the hustings campaigning). On the other hand, Captain Phillips, which I thought might be a dark horse contender for a Best Picture Oscar, has been blanked so far. But, of course, so was Argo.

The Best Picture race is wide open right now. I suppose 12 Years a Slave might still be considered a front-runner, but it's a tough sit. Something more conventionally entertaining may jump to the fore, such as Gravity or Captain Phillips, or maybe even American Hustle or The Wolf of Wall Street.

The acting categories are also wide open. I would venture to say that though there may be front-runners, such as Cate Blanchett for Best Actress or Robert Redford for Best Actor, the races are all very fluid.

Best Picture

Locks: 12 Years a Slave, Gravity, American Hustle
Safe Bets: Captain Phillips, Inside Llewyn Davis, The Wolf of Wall Street
In the Mix: The Butler, Saving Mr. Banks, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Nebraska, All Is Lost, Her

Best Director

Locks: Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave; Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Safe Bets: Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips; Ethan and Joel Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
In the Mix: David O. Russell, American Hustle; Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street, Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine, Spike Jonze, Her

Best Actor

Locks: Robert Redford, All Is Lost; Chiwitel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave; Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Safe Bet: Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
In the Mix: Bruce Dern, Nebraska; Forest Whitaker, The Butler; Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street; Joaquin Phoenix, Her

Best Actress

Locks: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine; Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Safe Bets: Judi Dench, Philomena; Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
In the Mix: Meryl Streep, August: Osage County; Amy Adams, American Hustle; Adele Exarchopoulo, Blue Is the Warmest Color

Best Supporting Actor

Locks: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club, Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Safe Bets: Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street; Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
In the Mix: Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips; George Clooney, Gravity, James Gandolfini, Enough Said; Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks

Best Supporting Actress

Locks: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave; Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Safe Bets: Oprah Winfrey, The Butler; Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
In the Mix: Julia Roberts, August: Osage County, June Squibb, Nebraska; Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine

Monday, December 09, 2013

Philomena

A movie, starring Judi Dench, as a woman searching for the baby given up for adoption fifty years earlier? Sounds like torture, but I was hopeful given that one of the stars and writers was Steve Coogan, one of my favorite performers these days. And I was right, sort of. Philomena, while essentially a blown up TV movie, has all the elements of schmaltz, but manages to keep a lid on it. It's also a pretty devastating attack on the Catholic church.

Dench, who once upon a time was a great Shakespearean actress, has spent her golden years in films that have accentuated her twinkly quality. But that's tamped down as the title role. She plays a simple old Irish lady, a retired nurse, with dignity and without filigree. After some introductory scenes, when we see her character as a teen, pregnant and unmarried, abandoned by her father to an abbey where she is basically imprisoned and forced to do slave labor (much of this was covered in the excellent The Magdalene Sisters), she decides, on the fiftieth birthday of the boy who was stolen from her by the nuns, to try to find him.

Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist who has been sacked from government work (I didn't get why--I'm sure the British may have knowledge of this). He is approached by Dench's daughter, who is a caterer at a party, with her mother's story. Coogan, after dismissing the daughter because it is a "human interest" story, which therefore isn't worth his time, decides to help her.

The film then becomes a detective story, as the mismatched pair--Coogan is a sophisticate, Dench bourgeois (she reads romance novels, perish the thought) track down what became of her son. They start at the abbey, then are off to Washington, D.C.

I won't spoil what happens next, as I had no idea and some things were complete surprises. Of coures along the way Coogan manages to become a better person from associating with Dench, which is a cliche. But the core of the story--a woman longing to know of the son she has thought of every day for fifty years--is strong enough to hold solid interest.

The other part of it is the condemnation of the church. The nuns were selling the babies of the unwed mothers, and one old nun, in the name of God, does a horrifyingly cruel thing. The way Dench and Coogan's characters deal with it is bracingly refreshing (of course they take different approaches).

Though I liked the film, there are some problems. Most of them have to do with Coogan's character. We don't really understand what makes him change his mind about doing the story, and Coogan is unusually restrained in the performance. Of course I didn't expect Alan Partridge, but at times he seems as if he's been jolted out of slumber. Perhaps he is just stepping aside for Dench, who gives her best film performance since Mrs. Brown, and may even have topped it. Philomena is an unremarkable woman in a remarkable situation, and Dench captures it perfectly.

My grade for Philomena: B.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, was published 200 years ago. Though it was is one of the most famous and beloved novels in British history, I had never read it before, but I took care of that. I must say that it delighted me intermittently, but the style was difficult to adjust to, and I wasn't overwhelmingly entertained by it.

I had read only one other of Austen's novels, Sense and Sensibility, which I had similar difficulty with. As with that novel, Austen's main focus is the navigation of social mores during the Georgian era, most specifically, the pursuit of marriage by young woman in the gentry. Though this may seem frivolous today, it was a life or death matter back then, since women couldn't inherit property.

That is the case with the Bennet sisters. There are five--most prominent is Elizabeth, who is the center of the plot. She is the second sister, and a lively and witty twenty-year-old. Her father, known only as Mr. Bennet, is a country gentleman (one of the things about these books is that people never seem to work) who prefers to tend to his books. Mrs. Bennet, less nobly born, concentrates on marrying off her daughters. None of them can inherit the estate, and it will go to Mr. Collins, their cousin.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," the book begins, but this statement really is a mirror of the center of the action, as while men may look for wives, women are keenly presenting themselves as such. The action begins with the arrival of the eligible bachelor Mr. Bingley, who rents an estate near the Bennet's Longbourn. He and Jane, Elizabeth's elder sister, seem to be a match. His friend, Mr. Darcy, makes a very bad first impression at a ball. He is the "pride" of the title: "His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and every body hoped that he would never come there again."

The "prejudice" of the title refers to Elizabeth, who forms an instant impression of Darcy based on little information. Here we have the seed for many a romantic comedy to come--the couple who initially dislike each other, but by the end are happily wed.

Parts of Pride and Prejudice went by for me in a stupor, as I had a hard time keeping track of who was involved with whom and who was visiting whom (transportation being what it was, when people paid visits they stayed for a while). But every once in a while the language exploded off the page, and I was riveted. One of those occasions was the chapter when the pedantic Mr. Collins sets his cap at Elizabeth, but she will have none of him. He refuses to take no for an answer, and the result is comic gold. Austen describes him thusly: "Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms, without forming at it any useful acquaintance."

Another is late in the book, when Mrs. de Bourg, the richest lady in the county, visits Longbourn. She is Darcy's aunt, and had planned to marry him off to her daughter. She has gotten wind that Darcy has proposed to Elizabeth, and in a magnificently taut chapter, puts it to Elizabeth that she will not marry him. Elizabeth shocks Mrs. de Bourg by standing up for herself.

Eventually Elizabeth accepts Darcy's proposal, as she realizes he did a great thing for her sister, who had eloped with an army officer. No one can believe it, as they all thought she hated him. "Jane looked at her doubtingly, 'Oh, Lizzy! It cannot be. I know how much you dislike him.'"

But it is to be, and in a lovely scene with her father, she maintains that she does love him. For 1813, when marrying for love was still something of a novelty, it has a special resonance.

Pride and Prejudice has earned a place in the hearts of many a reader, being the runner-up in a poll of best British books (running second to The Lord of the Rings). I liked it okay, and understand it's appeal, it's just not my kind of thing. It has been adapted many times for the screen, and over the next few weeks I'll take a look at a few of those adaptations.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Brave New World

A few weeks ago I posted on the candidates for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in the Veteran's Committee, and now we know the slate of players that will be voted on by the Baseball Writers of America. This year is an absolute cluster-fuck, and will be interesting to see how it breaks down.

There are a lot of worthy candidates this year; some are holdovers from previous years, others are new to the list. There are also, complicating matters, those players who would be in except for their PED taint.

But the baseball writers have a rule that could make election difficult. They can only vote for ten players. Now, normally that's not a problem, as there aren't often ten worthy players on the list. But this year there are, and this could mean that few of them will get the necessary 75 percent to be elected. Imagine that a movie hall of  fame started this year, and everyone in movie history was eligible. But you only have ten votes. Who do you leave off? Charlie Chaplin? Alfred Hitchcock? D.W. Griffith? Clark Gable? There would probably be no one that would get 75 percent.

Many writers, in an example of what happens when someone gets a little power, have also instituted an arbitrary "first ballot" distinction, deciding that some players deserve election in their first year of eligibility, and others do not. This is not in the rules, and nowhere on the plaques in the gallery does it say what year of eligibility the player was elected or by what committee. All Hall of Famers are equal. But this has meant that some players do not get in in their first year, even though a writer may think of worthy in their second year. These writers should be flogged.

All that be certain this year is that Greg Maddux will get in. Winner of 355 games, four straight Cy Youngs, and, if that wasn't enough, 17 Gold Gloves, Maddux is one of the all-time greats, and should come close to a unanimous vote. But will Tom Glavine, his teammate on the Brave teams of the '90s, also get in? He should, with a record of 305-203 and two Cy Youngs of his own. But I fear that he will be overshadowed by Maddux, and will get in in some future year, thus spoiling a chance of Maddux, Glavine, and their manager Bobby Cox of making it a poignant Brave reunion in Cooperstown this July.

Here are the other players who would be on my ballot:

Craig Biggio, who was unjustly denied last year (no one was elected by the writers last year), who is in the magic 3,000 hit club, and his teammate Jeff Bagwell, who has slowly increased his vote total in three straight elections. Another player unfairly denied last year was Mike Piazza, who is the greatest hitting catcher of all time. I suppose he has a PED taint, although he was never officially accused.

Another holdover who is unfairly ignored is Alan Trammell, one of the best shortstops of the 20th century. He has never received more than 36 percent of the vote, so it will be up to a future veteran's committee to elect him.

Of the first-timers, other than Maddux and Glavine, I would vote for Frank Thomas, the "Big Hurt." His numbers--almost 2500 hits, over 500 home runs, and a .301 lifetime batting average, merit inclusion, but he may lose some votes for being mostly a designated hitter, a distinction that writes are going to have to get over (and certainly will by the time David Ortiz is eligible).

I would also vote for Jeff Kent, who has more home runs as a second baseman than anyone in history. He may lose votes because he played for so many teams (I think a player's identification with one team helps their image) and a not-so-friendly reputation.

Those who I would not vote for, after careful consideration, are Jack Morris (Tom Verducci had a long article on why he should be elected on Sports Illustrated's web site). Morris was the highest winning pitcher of the '80s, was the ace of three different championship teams, and threw one of the most storied World Series games in history, but his lifetime E.R.A. would be the highest of any inductee. He has come close--he got 67 percent last year, but it is his last year of eligibility on the writer's ballot.

I also wouldn't vote for Tim Raines, who a lot of people think deserves enshrinement, or Larry Walker or Mike Mussina, who are near misses, but no cigar from me.

That leaves the PED crowd, led by Barry Bonds, and including Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. I've come to the conclusion that these guys don't deserve election, which is a shame, because I think that most of them would have had Hall of Fame careers even without chemically enhancing.

The vote results will be announced in January.