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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Shooting Victoria

Here's a fun fact many Americans probably don't know--Queen Victoria was the victim of eight assassination attempts, by seven different men (one of them tried twice). Paul Thomas Murphy, in his book Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Rebirth of the British Monarchy, chronicles those attempts, as well as giving an overview of Victoria's reign, and most especially, the development of the laws surrounding the attempts.

Victoria, of course, is one of the most impactful monarchs of the last few hundred years, essentially the grandmother of Europe. She ruled for 64 years. But it's interesting to note that early in her reign she was something of a controversial figure, and not universally loved as she was in her later years, when she was an icon. The first attempt to kill her came in 1840, at the hands of Edward Oxford, a disturbed young man who fired a pistol in her general direction as she rode in a carriage with her husband, Prince Albert.

Oxford's gun may or may not have been loaded, which was a contention at his trial. He was clearly, by our standards, insane, and a convoluted verdict led to him being imprisoned at Bethlem, the insane asylum that stood for nearly a millennium and gave us the word "bedlam."

It can be said that all seven of Victoria's assailants had some degree of insanity. A spate of the them followed Oxford's attempt, as the men thought that by making an attempt they would get a lifetime of care by the state. Those who attempted were John Francis (he would try twice, as he escaped the first time and Victoria was used as bait to catch him after a second try), John Bean, a disfigured dwarf, and William Hamilton may have taken a shot at her in 1849, all with this in mind: "She was now certain that the law as it stood would only encourage more attacks. Any desperate and overambitious boy in the kingdom might now attain with a cheap pistol an instant worldwide notoriety granted by the elevated charge of High Treason."

What developed over these attempts were changes in the law and how insanity was judged. To be found not guilty by virtue of insanity was a Catch-22: one could be incarcerated at the Queen's pleasure, which meant forever. To be found guilty of "annoying" the queen, that is firing a gun at her with no bullets, could mean a seven-year term of hard labor and a flogging.

Later attempts included Robert Pate's, the only man who actually harmed the queen, as he struck her on the head with his cane:  "Of the many attacks upon her, the Queen until the end of her life considered this one the meanest and most ignoble--'far worse,' she wrote 'than an attempt to shoot which, wicked as it is, is at least more comprehensible and more courageous.' Unlike her previous assailants, Pate had succeeded in breaking through the invisible barrier between Queen and subject, and in actually hurting her. He shook her until-now unshakeable trust in the public."

After Albert's death in 1861, Victoria didn't go out in public as much, so it was several years before the next attempt, by Arthur O'Connor, who though insane, was the only one who had a somewhat political motive--he did it for Ireland. He managed to get inside the gates of the palace, and perhaps came the closest of actually killing her. Her manservant, John Brown, tackled him. "Of all of the attempts upon her, O'Connor's--violating the security of her home as well as her personal space--was the one that frightened her the most. Her worst fears about Fenians, the Irish, and the growing dangers that lurked in the metropolis were all confirmed in the puny boy."

The last attempt came in 1882, by Roderick Maclean, who fancied himself a poet. He claimed he was not trying to hurt the queen, but it was found that his gun was loaded, and had a trajectory that could have hit her.

None of the seven assailants were executed. Some lived the rest of their lives in confinement, while a few others were exiled to Australia, where they married and led somewhat productive lives. Murphy does add a postscript about an attempt that was foiled when some Irish revolutionaries contemplated blowing up Westminster Abbey during Victoria's golden jubilee, which could have taken out the entire royal family.

Murphy's book is enlightening but often strays, as he gets into detail about other sensational crimes of the period and other, successful assassinations, such as of James Garfield in the U.S. Also, and by no fault of his own, the book has a kind of repetition to it, as each attempt is followed by the trial, and all the assailants kind of blend into one. His descriptions of Victoria's relationships with her prime ministers--those she liked, such as Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli, and those she didn't, like Lord Palmerston and William Gladstone--are ably etched.

Though Victoria's attackers were all somewhat insane, the violence of them prefigured the modern age, when shortly after her death an assassination would launch the world into war, and to the state we're in now, when all world leaders must have vigilant and air-tight security. Of course, she would endure, dying in 1901 at 82, the longest serving monarch in British history.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

All Hail West Texas

I was listening to the radio and heard an intriguing song, "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton." It was by The Mountain Goats, a band I had never heard of before. "Band" is something of a misnomer, as very often the only person in The Mountain Goats is John Darnielle. After perusing Amazon for a while (The Mountain Goats are amazingly prolific) I figured out that the song was on a 2001 album called All Hail West Texas, and I have listened to it several times now.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about The Mountain Goats is that they (him) are lo-fi to the nth degree--Darnielle simply plays the guitar into a cassette recorder. There are extensive liner notes on the machine of choice for this CD--a Panasonic RX-FT500 that was thought to be broken. Before and after each song you can hear the wheels grinding. This effect, combined with Darnielle's stunning lyrics, give it a kind of undiscovered genius sound.

As one would imagine, the songs deal with that vast space known as West Texas. The songs deal with loneliness, heartache, and unfulfilled dreams, but also of endless opportunity. In "Jenny," the most hopeful of the songs, Darnielle sings about riding on the back of his girlfriend's Kawasaki motorcycle:

"And you pointed your headlamp toward the horizon
We were the one thing in the galaxy God didn't have his eyes on
900 cc's of raw, whining power, no outstanding warrants for my arrest
Hi diddle dee dee, goddamn, the pirate's life for me"

Each of the songs have a short story quality. "The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton" is about two boys who form a band but are told they will never amount to anything:

"When you punish a person for dreaming his dream
Don't expect him to thank or forgive you
The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Will in time both outpace and outlive you"

Another song covers the Texas mania for football in "Fall of the Star High School Running Back," where the titular character blows out his knee junior year and gets busted for selling acid to a cop. Another, "Jeff Davis County Blues," is about a guy just out of jail who rides the highways because he has nothing better to do. In a similar vein is "Source Decay," a magnificent song that features the line: "I wish the West Texas Highway was a mobius strip, I could ride it out forever."

The most poignant song to me was "The Mess Inside," about a couple who take vacations to try to improve their relationship. The refrain, sung by Darnielle with a plaintive tinge, is "I wanted you to love me like you used to do."

Musically, the album isn't any great shakes, as the tunes are fairly straightforward. All of the songs are solo guitar, except for the odd "Blues in Dallas," which I think was played on a Casio with one finger. It's the lyrics that compel one to listen to All Hail West Texas. I'm glad I discovered it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Black Gunn

There's nothing like an old-fashioned blaxploitation picture, with its chukka-chukka wah-wah soundtrack, villainous white guys in bad haircuts, suave black men who know all the angles, and ridiculously fake looking blood. Black Gunn, from 1972, has all of that and more.

Jim Brown, the former football star, plays the title character, known only as Gunn. He owns a swanky night club that caters to a black clientele. His brother (Herbert Jefferson, Jr.) is in a black militant group that robs a mob-run betting parlor. This gets Gunn involved, and when his brother turns up dead, he gets mad and even.

The film was directed with typical blaxploitation style, which means abrupt cuts and at times incoherent story telling, by Robert Hartford-Davis. In addition to Brown, the cast includes Martin Landau as the chief bad guy, and other familiar faces such as Bernie Casey, Bruce Glover (father of Crispin, and the apple doesn't fall from the tree), and Gary Conway, who I used to watch years ago in Land of the Giants. Brenda Sykes is Brown's girl, and she sports a truly awesome Afro.

There are a few other athletes in the cast, notably Vida Blue, then a top pitcher for the Oakland A's. He gets feature billing, but appears in only one scene, where he gets the tar beat out of him.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gay Marriage

What a glorious day it was for progressives yesterday. The day started still in the bask of Wendy Davis' courageous filibuster against the draconian abortion bill in the Texas legislature. Davis stood on her feet for eleven hours, without food or bathroom breaks, and had to stay on point (in congress, members can filibuster by talking about anything--Rand Paul read from Alice in Wonderland during his filibuster against drones, an apt choice). She successfully carried her filibuster past the close of the session, thus the bill did not pass.

Davis restored my faith in Texas politicians, though earlier a new candidate for stupidest emerged: Jodie Laubenberg embarrassed herself and her entire family by suggesting that a rape kit "cleans women out" after a rape, thus making sure a woman doesn't pregnant.

Then came the two Supreme Court opinions everyone was waiting for. Tuesday's ruling on the Voting Rights Act was dispiriting--apparently the five justices who gutted the act think that all is rainbows and lollipops in America today regarding race. I'll bet they don't see racial prejudice in their summer homes in Maine, but it's still out there.

So it was bated breath that the two decisions regarding gay rights came down, and though it wasn't everything we could want--a ruling that bans on same-sex marriage were unconstitutional--it was pretty damn good all the same. First was the repudiation of the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to legal same-sex marriages. This was a pretty big deal, as there were over a thousand benefits affected. Anthony Kennedy, who ten years ago to the day announced the landmark decision Lawrence v. Texas, which ruled anti-sodomy laws unconstitutional, was again the hero of the gay rights movement. His ruling used the word dignity, which may not be in the Constitution, but is welcome nonetheless.

Then the court decided, in a strange configuration, that it would not decide the case brought against Proposition 8, the law passed by California that banned same-sex marriage. When the law was thrown out by the California Supreme Court, the state officials chose not to pursue it, so a band of citizens that have a problem with gay marriage appealed it. John Roberts said no, you have no standing, and the law was vacated.

Even though it was decided not on merits, it still means the country's most populous state now honors gay marriage, which is a good thing. Hopefully somewhere along the line, a couple will sue (maybe in my own state, New Jersey, where troglodyte Chris Christie vetoed same-sex marriage) and the court will rule that gay marriage is a basic right, everywhere.

I've never gotten the objection to same-sex marriage. Well, I understand that the objection is on a purely religious basis. There is no reasonable objection outside of the Biblical, and of course that has no place in our law. I mean, the Bible calls for men who lay with men to be put to death, and we've gotten over that one. Same-sex marriage is going to be accepted, as it doesn't hurt anyone and is really nobody's business. The Christian right may pout and whine and say that we're all going to hell in a hand-basket, but it's not true. In fact, I would think conservatives would favor gay marriage. Gay people are cohabitating and sleeping with each other, wouldn't marriage make things more civilized? Why do straight people have to get married to have sex with each other, but gay people can't?

The dissenters are dishonest, as well. Antonin Scalia railed about how the court undid what Congress created. Well, he had no problem junking the Voting Rights Act, which Congress renewed overwhelmingly just seven years ago. The naked political motives of the man are just embarrassing. I hope Obama gets to replace him. That would be sweet.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, directed and written by Stephen Chbosky, based on his novel, is earnest and heartfelt, but really targeted for a certain kind of teenager. I probably would have liked it a lot more when I was seventeen, but now I see the earmarks to teenage wish fulfillment. I have no idea on what Chbosky was like as a kid, but I have to imagine this is based on a situation he knew about, and by writing a book he made it come out all right in the end.

Set in the early '80s (to judge by the music and the size of the portable phones) in Pittsburgh, the film centers around Charlie (Logan Lerman), who has just started high school. Vague comments are made about his stay in a hospital, and he keeps flashing back to memories of his beloved aunt, who was killed in a car accident. He has no friends until he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller), a senior who happens to be gay. He then enters Patrick's circle of arty oddballs, foremost Sam (Emma Watson) who he falls in love with. But Sam, who has a bit of reputation, goes for a pretentious college guy.

The film follows this trio through the school year. They are loyal to each other and kind of don't give a shit about what other kids think of them. They act out scenes at the Rocky Horror Picture Show screenings, and Sam likes to stand in the back of a pickup truck as it zooms through a tunnel.

"My life is an After School Special," Patrick says at one point, and this film isn't far off that categorization. Patrick is in love with a football player who refuses to acknowledge his homosexuality, even though he and Patrick get it on. Lerman ends up dating another girl in the group (Mae Whitman), even though he is in love with Watson, and makes a shocking faux pas during a game of truth or dare. And there is the cliche of the understanding English teacher (Paul Rudd), who gives Lerman books like Catcher in the Rye and On the Road. I did like one bit of wisdom from Rudd, when Lerman asks why nice people date the wrong people. "We accept the love we think we deserve," is his answer.

As a movie for teens, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is exceedingly well done. For a novelist, Chbosky shows a sure directorial hand, and the script is witty and tender. The performances are all good. But for adults that can look back on their own teenage years, especially if they were in the artsy-fartsy clique, this all plays like a fantasy. Of course we boys all had a girl like Sam we pined over, and we could only dream that she acted towards Charlie the way we wanted her to.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Meet Dr. Christian

Getting back to the films of Bernard Vorhaus, I turn to 1939's Meet Dr. Christian, which was based on a radio show, and later became a television series. This was the first of six films about the kindly country doctor who dispenses impeccable wisdom along with medical advice.

Played by Jean Hersholt (who was quite a humanitarian), Dr. Christian is the kind of doctor who accepts bushels of tomatoes as payment. He once wanted to be a hot shot doctor in Chicago, but learned he can be a big success in a small town, even if it's not monetary success.

The conflict in the film centers around the good doctor butting heads with the town's bumptious businessman (Paul Harvey). Hersholt is away on a call when an emergency arises at Harvey's plant, so Harvey fires him as company doctor. Later, Hersholt will lead the movement to get Harvey appointed mayor (this doctor holds no grudges), but Harvey's refusal to listen to a proposal for a new hospital gets the doctor fired as health commissioner.

There are subplots involving the romantic entanglements of Harvey's son (Jackie Moran) and Hersholt's nurse (Dorothy Lovett), and all is settled when Harvey's precocious tomboy daughter, Patsy Parsons, is injured in an automobile accident.

This is not any kind of movie that made any kind of impact. I'm sure it's one of hundreds that existed on double bills, forgotten as soon it was over. It's an interesting piece of nostalgia, the kind of thing that evolved into daytime dramas, especially those that are set in and around hospitals.

Interesting note: one of the screenwriters was Ring Lardner, Jr., later blacklisted by the HUAC committee. He would later write the screenplay for M*A*S*H. I once saw him, as a very old man, giving a talk on one of his father's plays.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Bling Ring

The Bling Ring, Sofia Coppola's latest film, goes with her previous film, Somewhere, like a matched set. As with that film, The Bling Ring is about a certain kind of Southern California malaise, a kind of woozy torpor that settles over the young, rendering them incapable of introspection.

Based on the true story of a group of teenagers that burglarized the homes of wealthy celebrities, Coppola's film doesn't begin to scratch the surface of what I suppose she's trying to get at: the national obsession with celebrities, and rampant consumerism. Instead it's an inert film, offering pop psychology and an often mocking tone.

The script centers mostly on Mark (Israel Broussard), a friendless boy who starts attending Indian Hills High School, known by the students as "dropout school." He befriends Rebecca (Katie Chang), and they share a passion for celebrities and designer fashion. Broussard's sexuality is indeterminate, but he tells an interviewer that he loved Chang like a sister and likes wearing pink pumps.

He is introduced to Chang's inner circle, which includes a sharp-tongued Valley girl (Emma Watson) and her foster sister (Tarissa Farmiga), and Chloe (Claire Julien). They have a lot of drug-fueled fun. One day, while looking on the Internet, Broussard tells Chang that Paris Hilton is out of town. He Googles her address, and they decide to pay a late-night call. The key is under the mat, and there are no security alarms. Chang is excited to go through Hilton's stuff, and liberates some of it.

Emboldened, and the gang enlarged, they visit Hilton's house again, and everyone takes what they want (Broussard balks when Chang wants to take her chihuahua). They decide to go to other celebrity's homes, again just walking in, and steal jewelry and clothes, even a gun from Megan Fox's house. They brag about it to their friends and put pictures of them and the loot on Facebook, so it isn't hard to catch them.

This is the second film this year about a group of vapid girls. But unlike Spring Breakers, which vibrates with intensity, The Bling Ring just sits there, offering no insights to its protagonists. Broussard is the only character that has any introspection; the girls are cyphers. Chang, in particular, though the ringleader, is vacant. Coppola often seems to mocking the characters, especially Watson's mother (Leslie Mann), who home schools her kids using the philosophy of "The Secret."

I should add that Watson, though her character is written as some kind of parody, manages to create a character out of nothing. She employs a wickedly funny California accent, and her speech detailing how she wants to become a world leader creeps to the edge of satire without going over. I loved her little squeal when she enters Hilton's shoe closet--"Look at all the Louboutins!"

The movie doesn't so much end as trail off, with a funny bit of information that Watson ends up sharing a cell block with one of her victims, Lindsay Lohan. But as the movie ended I realized I didn't really know anything more about these girls than I could have imagined from TMZ reports.

Also, I know this is based on true events, but I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that celebrities would have extensive security camera systems, but leave their doors unlocked and have no alarms. One of them even has a safe that is left open, which kind of defeats the purpose of a safe.

I would call this film a disappointment, but I haven't really liked Coppola's string of Marie Antoinette, Somewhere, and now this.

My grade for The Bling Ring: C-

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

There's been much ballyhoo about the origins of Joss Whedon's version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. With some time on his hands while filming The Avengers, he made what in many ways is the diametrically opposed kind of movie than the superhero epic. He got some of his friends and shot the Bard's 1599 comedy in his own house.

But the backstory of the film should not overwhelm the fact that it is one of the best films of the year and one of the most satisfying adaptations of Shakespeare that I've seen in many years. It is exquisitely acted and edited, and though there seems to be no reason other than financial why it was shot in black and white, it looks great. I could watch it again right now.

I put Much Ado about mid-tier in Shakespeare's comedies--certainly not as good as Twelfth Night or A Mid-Summer Night's Dream, but much better than the almost impossible to understand today Love's Labour's Lost. The title is a bit of a pun that is lost today--"nothing" and "noting" were homophone's in Shakespeare's day, noting being a synonym for eavesdropping, which is prevalent in the telling of the story. There is also the familiar Shakespearean trope of mistaken identity. While it is certainly a comedy--all ends well, with two marriages--there is a pall of melancholy that gets pretty intense at times.

The plot is pretty basic for Shakespeare (and Whedon has done judicious cutting). There are two parallel love stories set at the home of Leonato, who is hosting the prince, Don Pedro. Claudio pines for Hero, the daughter of a nobleman Leonato. Their love for each other is pure and instantaneous. The other pair is Beatrice and Benedick, who at the start of the play hate each other, and exchange wicked insults. Benedick, on first sight of her, says: "What, my dear Lady Disdain: are you yet living?"

Don Pedro, on something of a lark, tries to push Beatrice and Benedick together, and employs the whole household in his plan, having people gossip that they love each other while the objects of the plan are eavesdropping. Meanwhile, Pedro's evil brother, Don John, tries to break up Hero and Claudio by having one of his minions seduce a servant girl while Claudio watches, thinking it is Hero. This leads to a painful wedding at which Claudio refuses her hand, basically calling her a slut.

Much Ado is one of the more accessible of Shakespeare's plays to modern audiences, and Whedon, though it is contemporized (we get iPods and smartphones) consistently makes good choices to make the play clear. So often I see productions in which the director bends over backwards to make sure the audience understands the language when it really isn't necessary. Whedon doesn't condescend to the audience.

The actors, with one exception, are marvelous. Clark Gregg, the only actor who did double duty here and in The Avengers, makes a wonderful Leonato, and Alexis Denisoff makes a suitably vain and clueless Benedick. The clowns of the piece are the constable Dogberry, who bumbles his way to save the day, and he is played with deadpan dimness by Nathan Fillion. Some of his scenes with his deputy, played with Reno 911 flair by Tom Lenk, are very funny. I laughed at loud at a scene in which they lock their keys in the car.

Special praise should be given to Amy Acker as Beatrice. I've never heard of her before, and I see her credits are mostly supporting roles on TV series. But she is a constant delight in this picture, beautiful and vivacious. She didn't exhibit one false note. Unfortunately, Jillian Morghese as Hero doesn't fare well. She has a community theater stiffness about her that makes her stand out in a negative way.

I did find a few puzzling things about the play. There is a prologue that has Benedick sadly sneaking away from Beatrice's bed. Was this before they fall in love, or after (the key is his shaved face). I also found it odd that Whedon casts a woman, Riki Lindhome, in a male role (that of Conrade) but does not change the gender of the nouns. It's fine to cast a woman in that role, but why continue to have her referred to as a man?

Amid all the blockbusters this season, Much Ado About Nothing is really the perfect summer movie. I almost floated out of the theater.

My grade for Much Ado About Nothing: A

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Texas Dumb

Once upon a time Texas was known for its Democrats--Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, Ralph Yarborough, Lloyd Bentsen. Today, a fog of imbecility seems to have settled over Texas voters, as the politicians they elect have lowered the collective IQ of congress and the state house. Each week it seems a new candidate for stupidest politician is submitted, a kind of circus of idiocy. Just what is going on in Texas?

A few days ago, as I wrote below, Michael Burgess contributed the concept of fetal onanism to the national discourse. But he's just the latest and not by far the looniest.

Where to start? Let's look at the delegation to congress. Steve Stockman is a gun fetishist who claimed that the Clinton administration raided the Branch Davidian complex to further a push for a ban on assault weapons. He wanted to repeal the safety zone rule around schools, urging teachers to be armed. He also voted against the Violence Against Women Act, worried that men dressed like women would be covered by the law.

Joe Barton is an odious congressman that made headlines after the BP Gulf spill by defending BP, indicating how beholden he is to oil companies: "I apologize. I do not want to live in a country where any time a citizen or a corporation does something that is legitimately wrong, is subject to some sort of political pressure that is, again, in my words — amounts to a shakedown, so I apologize." It's nice to know that oil companies have their own congressman, bought and paid for. He also shows a child-like knowledge of wind energy: "Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up? Now, I’m not saying that’s going to happen, Mr. Chairman, but that is definitely something on the massive scale. I mean, it does make some sense. You stop something, you can’t transfer that heat, and the heat goes up. It’s just something to think about."

Certainly the dumbest member of the Texas delegation, and perhaps in all of congress, is Louie Gohmert, who almost on a daily basis displays a shocking level of both cruelty and dopiness. His list of moronic statements and causes are legion. He is a particularly ripe example of a politician who embraces both guns and the belief that life begins at conception. He told a witness at a hearing that she should have brought her child to term even though it had no brain function. He claims that the Obama administration is in bed with the Muslim Brotherhood. He thinks, like Stockman, that teachers should be armed. His latest addition was a claim that cutting food stamps isn't a big deal since we have an obesity crises. Obviously, his twisted logic determines, kids aren't that hungry.

Looking at the Senate, there are two Republican senators. John Cornyn, a nasty conservative, is the picture of reason compared to Ted Cruz, a newly minted Tea Party favorite who is even despised by his own party. A self-styled Constitutional expert, he is another God and guns cheerleader who thinks the government is hiding under our beds. He called for abolishing the IRS, threatened to filibuster any attempt to regulate guns, and wants to block immigration reform, even though he himself is an immigrant (born in Canada). He voted against the Violence Against Women Act and Hurricane Sandy relief. He is vile.

At the statehouse level, Texas is also a haven for regressive lunatics. The school board has become famous for rewriting history textbooks, de-emphasizing Thomas Jefferson and emphasizing Phyllis Schafly. They also are attempting to counter the teaching of evolution with creationism and other religious theories.

The ringmaster of this circus is the governor, Rick Perry. He had one of the most massive brain farts ever exhibited when, during a presidential debate, started listing the cabinet departments he would get rid of and forgot one. After the fertilizer plant explosion that devastated the town of West, he defended his anti-regulation stance that led to the disaster. Just recently he showed a lack of understanding of the First Amendment when he said that freedom or religion doesn't mean a freedom from religion. And this is just the tip of iceberg.

The last laugh may be that, if demographers are correct, Texas will soon be a blue state, as the Hispanic population, which shows a fondness for reasonable politicians, increases. A new star on the horizon is Juan Castro, the appealing mayor of San Antonio, who may one day be presidential timber. Until then, we must all put up with the ignorance, venality, and arrogance of Texas Republicans.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Magic Mike

Despite it being a Steven Soderbergh film, I avoided Magic Mike until last night. I suppose I was just uncomfortable about watching a film about male strippers. This is odd, because I've watched hardcore gay porn and find it intriguing.

Anyway, I liked Magic Mike well enough. It takes a well-worn story--the guy who has ambition but continues to stay in a zone of protection--and sets in a world not too many of us know about. There is also the subplot of a young man who finds his calling, but at a price.

Channing Tatum stars as Mike, who holds a number of jobs, the one making him the most money is stripper in all-male revue. He longs to start a custom furniture-making business, but his credit isn't good enough for a loan. On a job at a construction site he meets Alex Pettyfer, a moorless 19-year-old. Tatum gets Pettyfer a menial job at the revue, but when a dancer is indisposed, Pettyfer is shoved out on stage and told to strip. He becomes popular, and loves the lifestyle.

Pettyfer has a sister, Cody Horn, who disapproves of all this, but Tatum is taken with her (she is pretty cold to him--perhaps this is why). Tatum is used to having his pick of women, including a psychology student (Olivia Munn) who likes to have threeways.

The owner of the club, Matthew McConaughey, wants to make a big move to Miami, but Tatum starts to resent being taken for granted.

All of this is pretty predictable. What makes Magic Mike different is the dancing sequences. I've never been to a male strip show, but given Tatum's background in it I would imagine this is accurate. I've spent way too many hours in strip clubs featuring women, so it's interesting to note the differences. Except for feature dancers, girl strippers don't have routines--they just sashay on the stage, allowing men to ogle them (occasionally they spin around a pole). The men have elaborate routines with props, with a lot more showmanship. Also, women in strip clubs, perhaps because they have to hold in their lust by day, go pretty wild in clubs, while men in strip clubs are usually lethargic, as though the nudity has sedated them.

Soderbergh's direction is also pretty fancy for the subject material. He employs a lot of interesting cuts, with dialogue from the next scene starting in the one before it. He shot the film (using his pseudonym, Peter Andrews) in an interesting palette, with the Florida exteriors washed out, and the club interiors bathed in blue. A beach party is shot in an almost sickly green hue.

Tatum is pretty good in the role. McConaughey won a number of critic awards for his role as the former stripper who has found a gold mine. He struts around, wearing a cowboy hat and a vest with no shirt, his crotch thrust forward. Horn, who is a model, is fairly wooden, though it's not clear whether it's just because her character is wooden. There's all sorts of savage comments about her on the Internet, suggesting she got the part because of family connections. I will need to see more to be sure.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Masturbating Fetuses

I don't think there's any issue, in my lifetime, that has been as divisive for as long a period of time as abortion rights. Even 40 years after the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade, the legality of abortion is as fragile as a house of cards, with any number of groups and individuals eager to huff and puff and blow it down.

This week the house passed a bill that would make abortion illegal after 20 weeks. Why 20 weeks? Well, supposedly this is the threshold at which fetuses feel pain. And how do we know that? Well, according to Congressman Michael Burgess, it's because fetuses masturbate.

Burgess, a back bencher who picked a great way to introduce himself to the American public, knows this because he's seen sonograms where the fetus's hand is between his legs. So, in essence, he thinks that fetuses masturbate. Scientists rushed in to say this was poppycock. But here's what's disturbing: Burgess is an OB/GYN. I imagine many women who were his patients are now thanking whatever power is necessary that they survived his care.

Of course I am pro-choice. I see the issue as a women's right to control her own body, which outweighs the life of an unborn child. This is not to say that I favor abortion--no abortion is a joyous occasion, and there should be as few of them as possible, but outlawing it is not the way to do it. Women will abortions whether they are legal or not, but if they are illegal, they will be far more dangerous.

There are reasonable people who are opposed, but they are outnumbered by a menagerie of extremists and oddballs like Burgess, who belong to a cult of the unborn. Outwardly it appears to be a religious thing, that all life is sacred, blah blah blah. But many  have pointed out that it also appears to be a male power thing--the right to an abortion is a way for women to exercise too much power over the male dominion.

This comes out when discussing the exception of rape in abortion laws. Too many politicians have been too cavalier about rape and put their feet in their mouths when discussing this. It cost two men the senate last year--most prominently Todd Akin, who said that women's reproductive shut down while being raped. Not learning from this is Arizona's Trent Franks, who said that pregnancy from rape is rare. I'm not sure what he means by rare--one would be too many to me. I did a little digging and estimates are that five percent of all rapes result in pregnancy, which sounds low, but that's still a considerable amount of women forced to carry the child of their attacker. In many states, the rapists have full rights of parenthood, which is so wrong that it makes the head spin.

The public is still torn on this issue, too. A recent Pew poll shows that over sixty percent, however, don't want Roe v. Wade to be overturned, while it's about fifty-fifty in terms of approval of abortion. This is an issue that's not going away, especially when there are so many in Congress who are insensitive to women's issues and completely at sea when it comes to basic science.

By the way, I'm hoping that somewhere a group of kids have taken the name Masturbating Fetuses as their band name.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

King of the Newsboys

In 1938, Bernard Vorhaus made King of the Newsboys, a depression tale that is implausible and only moderately entertaining. It does offer interesting opinions of the class divisions in the U.S. at the time.

Lew Ayres stars as Jerry, who is unable to keep a job and has a hair trigger temper. He's in love with Mary (Helen Mack), who lives in the same tenement that he does. His foster mother, Alison Skipworth, is an old Irish scrubwoman.

Mary, yearning to break free of her ghetto, lets herself be squired by a rich man (Victor Varconi). Ayres responds with anger, and tells her that they will get married and things will improve. But then he goes and slugs a cop, but Skipworth pleads with him before the judge, who instead of jailing him gives him a job as a newsboy. Mack leaves him for Varconi.

Ayres, along with his ne'er-do-well buddies, turn out to have a knack for selling. In a very unlikely scene, he barges into the offices of one paper, telling them how to improve their circulation. In just a matter of months he has a thriving business, a penthouse apartment, and a box at the race track.

When he starts publishing his own tout sheet at the track, he treads on Varconi's business, who has his men roughed up. Ayres then starts dating a society girl (Sheila Bromley), who sees him more as a distraction, and is aware that their class differences would never allow for a marriage. Ayres loses everything in pursuing her.

This was a very low-budget B picture--shots of Times Square are rear projected behind the actors, and the direction is crude. Some of the goons that work for Ayres are funny, especially one called Lockjaw, who at one point has to wear a dress. But otherwise this film is not very good, and at only 68 minutes seems to have left out things, though I would not have wanted to watch a longer film.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Way Down South

Getting back to the films of Bernard Vorhaus, I turn to a curiosity from 1939, Way Down South. Ostensibly a vehicle for a child star, it manages to be a franker than usual look at slavery, and it was written by Clarence Muse and Langston Hughes--two black men. I can't imagine there were too many other films that could claim that at the time.

Set in an antebellum Louisiana, the plantation owned by Master Reid is a happy place to be, with the slaves all smiles. At first this seemed offensive, but what we are seeing is how Reid (Ralph Morgan) is kind to his slaves, spending more on them than is advised. By today's standards, we might think he's still holding human beings in bondage, but I guess it never occurred to them to free them.

Morgan dies, and his son (Bobby Breen) is too young to take over, so an executor (Edwin Maxwell) does. He is from the North, and doesn't understand Southern ways. He hires an overseer, who whips a slave (something Reid never did). He decides he's going to sell off the slaves, breaking up families. Breen, along with the kindly Uncle Caton (Muse), take off for New Orleans, where they are aided by a kindly innkeeper (Alan Mowbray).

It's really a weird film. On the one hand, there are several musical numbers, including Negro spirituals, and chances for Breen to show off his boy soprano voice (at one point he sings "Motherless Child"). On the other hand, it's a rare and daring depiction of blacks as human beings, though in the auspices of the stereotypes (mammy, uncle, field hand, etc.). For anyone teaching race relations throughout American cinema, it would inspire an interesting discussion.

Also in the cast is Stymie Beard, a member of Our Gang, as another stereotype, the mischievous young black boy.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sugar, Sugar

What I had long suspected might happen to me has finally happened. I have been diagnosed with diabetes, type II. My brother has type I, but his was some kind of genetic freak occurrence, as he has always been in good shape. I, on the other hand, was a ticking time bomb.

My entire life I have pretty much had a lousy diet. From those years as a child eating Wonder bread and powdered sugar donuts (cut in half, with the ends buttered), Pop-Tarts, Fruit Loops, and various Hostess cake products, I ended up with a serious sweet tooth. My weight has gone up and down--through my teen years I was an ectomorph, consuming food at a rapacious pace yet not being able to gain an ounce. When I graduated high school I was 120 pounds, dripping wet.

My metabolism changed in my twenties, and suddenly my body didn't burn off all those calories. Yet I didn't slow down much in my appetite. For years I have continued to eat entire packages of Entenman's chocolate chip cookies at one setting, or go through two gallons of ice cream a week.

Though I gained weight, my blood sugar remained okay. About five years ago I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic, which had me watching my carbs for a while. But lately I had been going nuts. One of my jobs is next to a Dunkin' Donuts, which for me is akin to a bar to an alcoholic. I got hooked on the Coolatas, and would have a large one every night. It was as if I was mainlining glucose.

A month or two ago I noticed some symptoms. I had dry mouth, my vision was blurring, and most significantly, I had to pee almost every hour. I went to the doctor and after testing my urine the answer was immediate. The glucose in my urine was at 2000. "What is normal?" I asked. "Zero," came the response. After a blood test, it was revealed I have a blood sugar of 287, which is more than twice what is required for diabetes. My triglycerides and cholesterol were double the norm, and something called hemoglobin Ac1 was 16. Normal is 4. This was off the chart, I was told.

So I was prescribed some drugs, which so far have no side effects. Of course it also entails diet changes, permanent ones. I can no longer eat the foods that have sustained me. No more candy bars, ice cream (although Breyer's makes a "Carb Smart" variety that tastes pretty good, god bless them), key lime pie, cheesecake, or chocolate chip cookies. It also means no pizza, which is pretty brutal. I'm okay with no pasta or rice (although it probably means no more Chinese food) and no alcohol, but oh will it pain me to not to have sweets in my life anymore.

Getting the disease at this age is probably a good thing. If I were younger I would probably have a much tougher time with it, both obeying the rules and dealing with it emotionally. I am clearly on the downhill slide toward mortality, and dealt with the news pretty calmly, I think. I'm philosophical about making the diet changes, and am kind of embracing it. I've lost ten pounds already, just by cutting the junk food.

In the long run, having Boston cream pie is not worth losing my sight or a leg. For the first 52 years of my life I ate as I pleased. Now I have to pay the piper.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Before Midnight

Before Midnight is the third film in a series that combines the talents of director Richard Linklater and actor/writers Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Every nine years now they have revisited two characters who met on a train in Vienna, and it's kind of exciting to think how long they can make this go.

I enjoyed the first two films, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but it might have helped if I had looked at them again before seeing this. Not that this film isn't self-contained; anyone not having seen the other two films wouldn't have a problem. But my mind kept going back to their back stories. I remember almost nothing of Before Sunset.

Anyway, Hawke and Delpy, after having met in the first film, and reconnecting in the second, are now cohabiting in this film, the parents of adorable twin girls. They live in Paris. Hawke has a son by a previous marriage living in Chicago. At the film's outset, he sees the boy off back home after a holiday in Greece, where the family has stayed with a famous writer (Hawke is the author of two successful novels). On the drive back from the airport, Hawke and Delpy chat, and Hawke indicates how guilty he feels not being a bigger part of his life. Delpy takes this as a signal that Hawke wants to move to Chicago, though he denies this. Thus the seed of the conflict is planted.

As with the other two films, Before Midnight consists of nothing but long conversations, often shot in continuous takes, and takes place entirely in one day. After getting back from the airport, the two have dinner with the writer and his guests, and the foundation of the film is laid--men and women are different. We hear a story from a woman who mother was a nurse, who told her what men invariably do upon awakening from a coma--they make sure their cocks are okay. There is also an agreed upon philosophy that romantic love is not the most important thing in life, and that a relationship consists of two people--talk of being one person is ridiculous.

Hawke and Delpy, on their last night in Greece, have been given a hotel room as a gift. They walk there, again talking the whole way. Delpy asks Hawke trap questions, such as "If  I looked as I do now, would you have still talked to me on the train," and Hawke answers with pedantic logic "No, because technically I would be cheating on you."

This leads to their blowup in the hotel room, where each exhibit the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus stuff. Delpy is overly emotional, seizing upon comments that she interprets as Hawke trying to turn her into an American housewife, while Hawke calls her nuts and tries to be rational. I would be interested to get a female take on this, because Delpy, it seems to me, is behaving in a rather extreme manner, but maybe I'm just taking the male point of view.

Before Midnight is exquisitely acted, with sparkling dialogue. Perhaps it's a bit pretentious--we hear the names Vaclav Havel, and Django Reinhardt dropped, and Delpy insults Hawke by telling him he's no Henry Miller. I also found the ending, in which Delpy turns on a dime in her emotional state, to be inauthentic.

But overall I found this a fine episode in the series, and I hope there will a fourth in another nine years. Maybe Before Brunch.

My grade for Before Midnight: B

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Coney Island

A little over a hundred years ago, Coney Island was known throughout the Western world as the preeminent playground. It was the home of three major amusement parks, each more grand than the next, and the place where New Yorkers of all races and economic classes gathered in the summer to try to beat the heat. But changing times and fire eclipsed the island, which is today a shell of its former self.

In Ric Burns film for The American Experience, I learned that Henry Hudson, in 1609, was the first European to land on a spit of land at the south end of Brooklyn. It was named for the wild rabbits that populated it (I imagine a coney would be a rare sight today). For two hundred years it was a useless island of dunes and brush, but in the early 1800's, a ferry stop meant that some crude concession shacks were started. The western end of the island became known as "Sodom by the Sea," with all sorts o. f wickedness, while the eastern end opened respectable hotels.

It was near the end of the century that George Tilyou started opening amusements, foremost the steeplechase, which had riders on top of mechanical horses that glided over rails. He opened Steeplechase Park, the first of the big parks. That was followed by Luna Park, and then Dreamland.

These parks coincided with two things--one was the increased leisure time for Americans, something that was unheard of for the lower classes just a few decades before, and the other was electricity. Dreamland had a 375-foot tower as its centerpiece, and had 250,000 incandescent light bulbs. The tower could be seen fifty miles into the Atlantic, and disoriented ships. At Luna Park, Topsy, an elephant who killed a man who fed her a lighted cigarette, withstood poison so Thomas Edison came over from New Jersey and helped electrocute the beast, which was put on film.

As the twentieth century began, the island was a major tourist site, and captured the imagination of many. Some of the things invented there were the Coney Island red hot (nicknamed the hot dog because of dubious ingredients) and the roller coaster. There were contortionists, midgets, movies (465 playing simultaneously). People flocked to have themselves thrown off the human roulette wheel, or parachute to the Earth. Famous disasters and battles were recreated, such as a burning building being tended to by fireman, five days a week. Dreamland had a representation of the underworld, called Hellgate, with a grinning devil on top.

Dreamland was destroyed by fire in 1911 (starting ironically in Hellgate) and never rebuilt. A few years later came World War I, and people didn't find watching disasters so fun. The world changed, and so did Coney Island.

Starting in the '20s, Coney Island's attractions became a little more sordid and seedy, with girlie shows and freak shows, featuring people like the bearded lady and JoJo the Dog-Faced Boy. One of the biggest attractions was babies in incubators.

Though the place wasn't as glamorous, people still flocked there, mostly to the beach. The high water mark was July 4, 1947, when 1.3 million people came--a fifth of New York City's population. Robert Moses wanted to wipe out the amusement parks and build a park, perhaps because the island was a magnet for the poorer elements--it became known as "The Poor Man's Riviera."

Luna Park was destroyed by fire in the '40s, and Steeplechase Park hung on until 1964, by which time the amusement business had been completely changed by Walt Disney. Still, there lingered a reason to go--the Cyclone, a large wooden roller coaster, was still there, as were the freaks. Unmentioned in Burns' film was that Steeplechase Park ended up owned by Fred Trump, father of Donald, who tried to build luxury apartments there but was thwarted by City Hall.

The film was made in 1990, so there is no mention of hot dog-eating contests or the Brooklyn Cyclones. I would have liked to know more about the intermingling of the races on the beach, which in 1900 sounds daring. Was there any controversy over this, or was it just a given?

The style of the film is typical of the Burns brothers', with ghostly images of the island in 1990, and the use of still photos and elegiac music. There is lots of film that still exist, though, and there's nothing quite like watching these ancient movies of people enjoying themselves. A family might save for an entire year just for one day at Coney Island, and by god they enjoyed themselves.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Shark Night

Little did Steven Spielberg know that when he made Jaws way back in 1975 it would spawn countless inferior takes on the same subject. Jaws remains the best shark attack movie ever made, and the rest are just wastes of time, including the sequels to Jaws.

Shark Night, a 2011 film shot in 3D, is a stupid, ridiculous exercise in PG-13 mayhem. At least a movie like Piranha had plenty of nudity and gore, while Shark Night stops at bikinis and mild dismemberment.

Set on a lake in Louisiana, Shark Night concerns college students partying at the home of Sara Paxton. When one of them (the black one, of course) is attacked while water-skiing, losing an arm, they realize a shark is in the lake, even though sharks don't generally inhabit lakes (nor are they capable of keeping up with speedboats). The fellow survives a ripped off arm quite well (though he will eventually become food), only to have the rest of the kids eaten until only two remain--Paxton, and the cute but nerdy pre-med student (Dustin Milligan).

To explain why there are a host of different types of sharks, including hammerheads, cookie cutters, tiger sharks, and even a great white, in a Louisiana lake, we get the absurd plot twist that they are being put there by a hunky diving instructor and his redneck accomplices. It seems that he used to date Paxton, and she rode a propeller into his face.

There is nothing admirable in this film except the site of Paxton and Katharine McPhee, late of the TV show Smash, in bathing suits, and the inclusion of an inflatable beer pong mattress, which is a great idea. The sharks look incredibly fake, and the best way to avoid shark attack--staying out or on top of the water--is consistently ignored. This is an example of Darwinism at its finest.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Amazing Mr. X

For the next few weeks I'll be taking a look at films directed by Bernard Vorhaus, a director of mostly B-films in the post-war era. He was a mentor to David Lean, and was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. He died at age 96 in 2000.

First up is The Amazing Mr. X, from 1948. When I started it, I figured it would be good for some laughs, as the print looks as if it were unearthed from a peat bog. But I was in for a pleasant surprise. It's a well made little thriller that has a twist that I didn't see coming, and at the center a character who is both villain and hero.

Also known as The Spiritualist, the film introduces us to Lynn Bari as a rich widow. She's still pining for her dead husband, but is proposed to by Richard Carlson. But she starts to hear voices coming from the sea, and while walking on the beach she runs into a strange man, Turhan Bey, who seems to know all about her. He is a psychic consultant. Why he is walking along the beach in a dinner jacket is never explained.

Bari goes to see him, and we learn that Bey is nothing but a con man. Carlson and Bari's sister, Cathy O'Donnell, try to talk reason to her. O'Donnell goes undercover to see Bey, but his smooth talk convinces her he's on the level. Even after Carlson gets a detective to try to expose Bey, the women believe him. That's where the twist comes in, and I won't spoil it.

The film is highlighted by the atmospheric black and white photography by John Alton. A scene in which Bari imagines her wedding gown coming at her is breathtaking, and though the special effects are primitive, a seance with projected images is quite effective. Vorhaus also uses non-standard angles, such as shooting from the point of view of a sink drain, or shooting from below through a glass table, giving the film a noir look.

The Amazing Mr. X, despite it's horrid condition, is well worth a look.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Last House on the Left

The Last House on the Left, a 1972 film by Wes Craven, is a seminal film in the modern horror genre. I've never seen it, but by all accounts it was extremely gorey (and based on an Ingmar Bergman film). Years later, Craven decided it would be fun to remake it, but with a different director, Dennis Iliadis. It isn't half bad.

Granted, the conclusion is ridiculous, with people surviving wounds that would fell a grizzly. But the middle section, which features two teenage girls being terrorized by a gang of criminals, is pretty fucking intense.

Garrett Dillahunt is a crook who escapes while being transported to prison. His brother and girlfriend, along with his meek teenage son, hole up in a motel. Meanwhile, a perfect family with a doctor father (Tony Goldwyn) teacher mom (Monica Potter) and swim champion daughter (Sara Paxton) take residence in their summer lake house. Paxton is friends with a local girl (Martha McIsaac) who likes to smoke dope. When Dillahunt's son (Spencer Treat Clark) lures the girls back to the motel for some fine pot, they are interrupted by Dillahunt and the crew. That's when things get intense.

The ensuing scenes are not for the meek. They are not explicit, but the menace exhibited by Dillahunt is effective. He ends up raping Paxton, who does a nice job of showing the fear and shame of that experience.

They leave the girls for dead, and after their car crashes the crooks take refuge with--you guessed it--Paxton's parents. Once the parents find out who they are the film degenerates into a bloody free-for-all. They decided not to include a biting off of a penis, as in the original, but there is a pick-axe to the brain, a hand shoved in a garbage disposal, and a head cooked in a microwave.

What good will I had for the film kind of dissipated there, as things were just way too over the top. We have characters able to swim across a lake with a bullet in their back, and someone surviving a knife to the heart and a poker into the thorax. It goes from scary to silly.

The film does look good. Iliadis shows a flair for pacing and general creepiness. I do find it interesting, though, that the film basically says that not only is marijuana a gateway drug, but it also leads to rape and murder.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Out of the Past

Out of the Past, a 1947 film by Jacques Tourneur, is one of the greatest of film noirs. In fact, if anyone asks what film noir is, Out of the Past is probably the best example. It has the cynical, morally ambiguous protagonist, a femme fatale, and god does it have shadows.

It also has perhaps the most ideal noir performer, Robert Mitchum. Wearing a fedora, a cigarette hanging from his lips, a hang-dog expression and a bass growl of a voice, Mitchum was the epitome of a noir lead. Here he is Jeff Bailey, nee Markham, a former private eye hiding out in a sleepy California town. He owns a gas station, and is romancing a sweet and innocent girl (Virginia Huston).

But one day, by chance, a former associate rolls through town and spots him. (This must have been the inspiration for the brilliant Soprano's episode "College"). Mitchum is summoned to see a crime boss (Kirk Douglas). It seems that a few years earlier, Douglas had hired Mitchum, then a private eye, to find his moll (Jane Greer). She had taken a shot at Douglas and pilfered $40,000.

Mitchum tracks Greet to Acapulco, and the two end up falling in love, and decide they're going to try to give Douglas the slip. But Mitchum's partner finds them, and wants a payoff. Greer kills him, and then takes off, and Mitchum ends up at the gas station.

Douglas, who expertly hides his menace behind a cheerful veneer, is willing to forgive Mitchum. After all, Greer has returned to him. Now he wants Mitchum to get back some tax documents that are being used to blackmail him. But Mitchum is wise to the plan--Douglas is trying to frame him for murder.

The plot gets a bit convoluted--there are more double-crossings that I can could keep count, and Greer, one of the best femme fatales in noir, is constantly switching sides (mostly to suit her best interests, a noir necessity). But through it all there's a wonderful sense of doom, highlighted by the chiaroscuro photography by Nicholas Musuraca (who also shot Tourneur's equally shadowed Cat People). Mitchum is frequently in shadow, sometimes nothing but a silhouette, perhaps indicating he is in a kind of emotional darkness, lured by Greer even while he is in love with the fair-haired and pure-hearted Huston.

As good as Mitchum and Greer are, Douglas almost steals the show. This was a very early role for him, and he has star written all over him. He is unfailing polite to Mitchum, telling him he likes him even after being betrayed. He says things like, "My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven't been able to find them." But you can always tell there's a murderous criminal beneath the facade, and it comes out late in the film when he tells Greer, "I should have kicked your teeth in."

The dialogue, by Daniel Mainwaring, is delectable. Mitchum gets most of the good lines. When Greer tells him she doesn't want to die, he responds: "Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I'm gonna die last." Or when Huston talks about Greer, "She can't be all bad. No one is," he retorts, "Well, she comes the closest."

The film's message, so to speak, is that we can't escape our pasts. Mitchum thought he could change his life, but his past catches up with him, and perhaps that is true of all us--no matter where we go, no matter if we change our name, our past will track us down. That's a very noir attitude.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

My Year as Benvolio

Recently I've reconnected with some of my college classmates on Facebook, which got me reminiscing about my college years. I was a theater major, and those I've been reconnecting with were all in the theater department as well.

Mostly I was a playwright and critic during my tenure at Stony Brook University, but I did do some acting. My favorite and most rewarding experience was when we did Romeo and Juliet my junior year. It was a different kind of production--the students were cast the year before, and when we came back in the fall we spent a semester studying the play, Shakespeare, his time, etc. Then, in the spring semester, we rehearsed and put on the play in late April.

I remember auditioning in the director's office (he was a professor there). I did the Queen Mab speech, because I desperately wanted to play Mercutio, which, let's face it, is the best part in the play. I got in the cast, but we were not assigned parts until late in the semester. When we did a reading of the play, people just jumped in and read, and of course I spoke up quickly when the Queen Mab speech came around.

But it was not to be. Mark Bridges was a natural for Mercutio. He was tall, dashing, and sophisticated, kind of like George Sanders. (I use his full name because he is now something of a celebrity--he is a costume designer for films and won an Oscar for The Artist). I was cast as Benvolio, Romeo's cousin, who's far more colorless than Mercutio, and ends up giving a lot of exposition. But the director cast wisely--Benvolio suited me to a T, because I was kind of shy, unlike the gregarious Bridges, loyal, and unassuming.

During the rehearsal process we did all sorts of fun things. We learned stage fighting--I got in one fight, with Tybalt, after trying to break up a dispute at the beginning of the play. I remember my first line: "Part, fools! Put up yours swords; you know not what you do!" I have always had a fascination with fencing, and it was really fun to get to use a sword (albeit a dull-tipped one). We also did tours, going to schools and doing select scenes from the play. Later, we would do a full production for a group of students. I never heard so much coughing in my life.

The play was done straight--set in Verona during the 1500s, just like Shakespeare wrote it. Our director had a reputation as something of a flake, mounting experimental productions. The phrase best associated with him was "feel the space." But he played it by the book for Romeo and Juliet, and we wore tights and codpieces. We did do some funky things during rehearsal, such as singing the play.

Because the class was bigger than the parts available, we doubled a few characters--namely Romeo and Juliet. The two pairs would play on alternating nights. One of the Juliets was Claudia, who was a major crush of mine the year before. I made a pretty good fool of myself in pursuing her, but how could I resist? She had huge brown eyes, a mouth like a bow, had volumes of lustrous dark hair, and was from Switzerland. By junior year, I was in futile pursuit of someone else. One of the Romeos was Frank, and as I see on Facebook he ended up marrying another in the cast, Nancy, who played Lady Capulet. Kinky.

The play was a rousing success, playing to packed houses. One of my professors said it was the first time he had seen students put on Shakespeare where all the actors understood every word they were saying. The stage fights were electrifying to many, and Mercutio's death, the fulcrum on which the play turns from comedy to tragedy, made the audience gasp every night. One night, when I lean over Tybalt's dead body, after imploring Romeo to get the hell out of town, I reached a plateau that perhaps many actors reach--I was out of body, completely in the moment, and not myself but Benvolio. It was a great moment.

I am a nostalgic sort, and this is the time period I miss the most. The camaraderie, the intellectual pursuits, the lack of worry about things like making a living. I didn't have a girlfriend, which made me despondent, but you can't have everything.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Enter Nowhere

Enter Nowhere is a mildly intriguing sci-fi/thriller, one of those micro-budget indies shot almost entirely on one set that relies on a central mystery and a Twilight Zone-like plot twist.

Three strangers find themselves in a cabin in the woods. Samantha (Katherine Waterston) has gone looking for her husband, after he went in search of a gas station after they ran out of gas. Tom (Scott Eastwood) had a car accident, and has been stranded in the cabin for three days, unable to walk out because of a bad leg. Then they are joined by Jody (Sara Paxton), who isn't even sure how she got there.

In what becomes a kind of No Exit in the wilderness, the three bicker and try to survive, with little food and frigid temperatures. Then they realize they each think they are in a different state, and finally they are in different years. I'll save the final twist, which is original, but suffice it to say a German soldier from World War II shows up.

Once the central mystery is cleared up, though, the film kind of degenerates into Back to the Future ripoff, and the logistics of it aren't quite clear.

Waterston and Eastwood are second-generation performers (offspring of Sam and Clint, respectively) and do fine.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

San Miguel

By his own admission, San Miguel, his 14th novel, is T.C. Boyle's "first book-length narrative in the conventional realist mode, sans irony or postmodernist sleight of hand." It is the very straightforward story of two families, one in the 1880s-90s and another in the 1930s, who soley occupied San Miguel, a small island in the Channel Islands, off the coast of California.

The book is viewed from the aspect of three women. First is Marantha Waters, the wife of a Civil War veteran from the East who has invested his (and her) money in an attempt to raise sheep on the treeless, windswept island. Marantha is tubercular, and the wet weather doesn't help. She is at first game, but increasingly distraught over the rough and lonely conditions. When she catches her husband dallying with the cook, things spiral badly, until her death.

The next section is devoted to her teenage daughter, Edith. In a Dickensian nightmare, she is captive to Waters after her mother's death, being forced to cook and clean, while she longs for a life in San Francisco as an actress.

The final and longest third is devoted to the Lesters, who serve as caretakers of the sheep ranch starting in 1930. Elise, from New York, thought she was doomed to be an old maid, until swept off her feet by Herbie, who whisked her to San Miguel as a grand adventure. He has bouts of depression, though, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor they are forced to endure two fresh-faced sailors who are protecting them from invasion, which Herbie finds laughable since he has a large collection of guns, while the sailors have one World War I-issue rifle between them.

San Miguel, as Boyle notes, is told in a completely different style than his usual smart ass prose. It's in the nature of Little House on the Prairie, or O Pioneers! Here, on this little island that is almost impossible to reach (the invention of the airplane and radio made things a little closer) was one the last places to create a kind of mini-utopia. In fact, when Herbie receives epaulets from the government of Haile Selassie, he thinks of himself, vaingloriously, as the King of San Miguel, and welcomes the attention of reporters and a spread in Life magazine.

Boyle is one of my favorite short story writers, but his novels have been problematic for me. This one is no different. In a sense it does play like Little House on the Prairie, as the narrative is interrupted by various incidents--a visit by Japanese fishermen, a few medical emergencies, etc., I found myself wondering what this all means. I suppose it's the American sense of proclaiming one's self lord of one's castle--Herbie hates Roosevelt, and is enraged when government men come to determine the environmental impact of sheep grazing, but as I finished the book I had a disappointing sense of so what?

But Boyle's use of words is as brilliant as ever, and I was able to feel the isolation on the island. I love to read about places difficult to get to, and I would love to visit (it's now a part of the National Park Service). "She was on an island raked with wind, an island fourteen miles square set down in the heaving froth of the Pacific Ocean, and there was nothing on it but the creatures of nature and an immense rolling flock of sheep that were money on the hoof, income, increase, bleating woolly sacks of greenback dollars."

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

End of Watch

End of Watch is a well done crime film that is a tribute to the sacrifice that cops make. Though overly sensational--even in South Central L.A., I doubt cops get in that many shootouts--it still grabbed me.

The focus is on two patrolmen, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. At the beginning of the film they shoot two perps, but it seems to hardly affect them. They are gung-ho about their work--idealistic to a fault, maybe--and devoted to each other. As another cop says later on, cops patrolling this neighborhood are like soldiers.

The neighborhood is at war, with the Mexican and black gangs struggling for control of the drug trade. Our two heroes start uncovering some larger activity, which a federal agent tells them is a cartel. During a routine welfare check they find a gruesome discovery, which the fed likens to pulling on a snake's tail.

The film was written and directed by David Ayer, and it's clear that he was not interested in police corruption or racial profiling or any other criticism of policemen. Cops in this film are heroes, pure and simple, although Gyllenhaal asks at one point, "What does being a hero feel like?" The brotherhood of the cops, especially exemplified by Pena's toast at Gyllenhaal's wedding (to Anna Kendrick) sums it all up, when he says that Kendrick is now part of his family.

Occasionally the film drifts into Hallmark territory, especially with Pena's family, an idealized Mexican brood, but I admired the film's integrity and ring of authenticity. The acting is uniformly good, especially Pena, as the guy from the barrio who gets out of the gang life. Also in the film is an unrecognizable America Ferrera as another cop.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

The Innkeepers

The Innkeepers is a nifty little ghost story until it comes entirely undone by a bad ending, loose endings stacked like cord wood. For hard core horror fans, it is probably too tame, but director Ti West uses some nice techniques to keep the suspense up.

The setting is an old inn, the Yankee Pedlar (it was filmed at a real inn of that name) on its last weekend before closing. There are only a few guests, including a former sit-com star (Kelly McGillis). The two remaining employees, a guy with an absurd hairstyle (Pat Healy) and a pretty but dorky young woman (Sara Paxton) pursue their amateur ghost hunting. It seems that a woman hung herself over being left at the altar, and the owners put her body in a cellar for three days.

Most of the film has a staple of the genre--the false scare. We get one of almost every type: the prank, the dream, and instead of the usual cat, a bird. But I found West's style, much of it drawn from Stanley Kubrick's horror film in a hotel, The Shining, to be pretty spooky, even if most of it is in brightly lit corridors.

But the film has nowhere to go. A creepy old man checks into the hotel, wanting to spend the night in the same room as his honeymoon. McGillis is now a psychic, and warns Paxton not to go in the basement, where of course she and Healy will go.

I don't want to give away the ending, but it's hopelessly muddled. How does the old man tie into the ghost? McGillis says three spirits are in the inn, but we never know of more than two. And what happens to Paxton?

Besides these unanswered questions, there is a bizarre cameo by Lena Dunham as a barista who shares too much information. Dunham acts exactly like her character on Girls. Weird.

Monday, June 03, 2013

A Bad Night's Sleep

A Bad Night's Sleep, by Michael Wiley, is the most recent winner of the Shamus Award, given annually to the best novel featuring a private detective. Wiley's detective is Joe Kozmarski, a former cop during private eye in Chicago. While the book is fairly engaging, it's also fairly familiar, as Kozmarski struggles with his alcoholism, has an ex-wife he's still in love with, and tends to get into really difficult situations.

Hired to find out who's stealing from construction sites, Kozmarski is shocked to see, as he stakes one such site, that it is cops who are doing the stealing. During the ensuing shoot out he ends up killing a cop who is shooting at other cops. He's arrested, becomes a media bad guy, but then gets recruited by the bad cops to help them set up a protection racket against the city's gangs.

There's a lot of circumlocutions is this book, and people seem to be shifting sides often, but the core of it is police corruption. They are taking in so much money and so powerful that they run a high class members-only brothel. Meanwhile, Kozmarski, like any down and out detective, at least has his integrity, and works with the police to bust the bad cops.

Raymond Chandler and a few other writers, such as Laurence Block, kind of spoiled it for writers in this genre because so often it sounds like rip-offs of their work. Kozmarski is a kind of mixture of Matthew Scudder and V.I. Warshawski (a creation of Sara Paretsky), except that unlike Scudder, Kozmarski still indulges in drink occasionally. But like Warshawski, he has a tender side, especially concerning his mother and the nephew he takes care of.

For fans of the genre, who consume these books like potato chips, I'm sure it's a fine read. But I couldn't help but feeling I've read it all before.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

After seeing Star Trek Into Darkness a few weeks ago, and sensing that there were many mirror images of the second Star Trek film, The Wrath of Khan, I went back and looked at it, because I'm not sure I had ever seen it, and if I did it was almost 30 years ago.

Released in 1982, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a big sigh of relief to everyone, because it was such an improvement over the first Star Trek picture, which many people called The Motion Sickness instead of Motion Picture. It is generally regarded as the best film featuring the TV cast, and though it has its dated elements today, it's fun romp with some of the pleasurably cheesy aspects of the series thrown in.

Kirk, now an Admiral, is wasting his time as an administrator, collecting antiques. His old friend Bones tells him he should be commanding a starship again. Meanwhile, Spock trains cadets, and when Kirk makes an inspection they take a trip just to put the cadets to the test. While doing so, they get an emergency call from Kirk's old flame, Dr. Carol Marcus, who is working on a top secret project.

It turns out that Khan, a villain from the original series, has been accidentally discovered by Chekov. Khan takes control of Chekov's ship and maneuvers to have Kirk race toward him, so he can be avenged, at the same time stealing Marcus' project, which generates life from the dead.

Much of this film is a duel between William Shatner as Kirk and Ricardo Montalban as Khan, not only with starships but with scenery-chewing. Montalban, who looks sort of ridiculous with a long blond wig and a prosthetic chest, is nonetheless a joy as the evil Khan, who was genetically improved and ruled over a quarter of the globe back in 1996 (I must have missed that) before Kirk exiled him and his people. Of course Shatner is pure Virginia ham, wearing his toupee as if it were a bonnet in the Easter parade, parading around the set as if he were god's gift to the movies, but this is what we expect. Who wants a humble Kirk?

Meanwhile the rest of the gang is there, including Leonard Nimoy as Spock, who, in the parallel to the new film, sacrifices himself for the good of the crew. He and Kirk are living out Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities (if it isn't obvious enough, Bones gives Kirk a copy of the book for his birthday, along with a pair of antique reading glasses), while Khan is acting out Moby-Dick, even quoting from Melville for his last words. (Sharp eyes should spot a copy of that book on the shelf where Khan is living in exile).

It's a lot of fun, and in seen in today's viewpoint has a lot of amusing things, such as Kirstie Alley in her first role as a Vulcan (who could conceive that she would one day be known as Fat Actress?) while the "fake future" is also worth a giggle, as our technology outpaces the fictional. Yes, they can travel at warp speed and can beam each other around, but they still use videotape.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison

I heard on the radio that this week was the 45th anniversary of the release of Johnny Cash's live album recorded at Folsom Prison. Now, 45 is not exactly a round number, but this news compelled me to buy it and write it about, as I haven't had a chance to discuss Johnny Cash here before.

How many have people have said, "I don't like country music, but I like Johnny Cash"? I know I have, because Cash transcends the genre. He's not all steel-guitar and cowboy hats, and his songs aren't just about losing your woman and your pickup truck. He's one of the great American originals, embracing all styles of music (he even recorded a Trent Reznor song).

At Folsom Prison was something of a watershed moment for him. His career was on the decline. He had performed at prisons before--he always seemed to have an affinity for them, especially since his first real hit, "Folsom Prison Blues," connected him with the incarcerated more than any other artist.

So in 1968 he and Carl Perkins, the Tennessee Three, and June Carter performed two shows for the inmates in Folsom. The highlights came out on the album, which was a smash hit and revived Cash's career, leading to a television show and cemented his stature as an American icon.

Here's the thing, though: the album is almost entirely about prisons or prisoners. He opens with "Folsom Prison Blues," one of the great songs of the American songbook: "When I was a baby, my mama told me son, always be a good boy, never play with guns. But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die, now I'm stuck in Folsom Prison, and I hang my head and cry." This makes perfect sense, but as the album wears on there are more and more songs about prison life, or, even more starkly, execution. There's the "Green, Green Grass of Home," "25 Minutes to Go," and "The Long Black Veil," all told from the point of view on someone who has been executed. There's "Stripes," "The Wall," and "Send a Picture of Mother," all about life inside the can. Now, clearly the inmates enjoyed this show, hooting and hollering. But I would think they'd want to hear about anything but prisons.

More in that spirit is "Orange Blossom Special" and a rousing duet of "Jackson" with Carter. There's also, available on the CD re-release, a seven-minute version of "John Henry," and the show ends with Cash performing a song written by an inmate, Glenn Sherley.

Since it's live we get all sorts of weird indications that this was recorded in a prison. Every so often there's announcements that a prisoner is wanted in reception, and the prisoners laugh at the strangest things. During "The Long Black Veil," which is about a man who goes to the gallows rather than reveal his alibi is that he was with his best friend's wife, Cash has to break up laughing when someone applauds at that line. The album ends with the sounds of the prisoners filing out of the auditorium.

Later Cash would record an album at San Quentin, which was in our household when I was a kid. In fact, is there anyone who doesn't like Johnny Cash? I'm not sure how I would react to such a person.