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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Thief

From the opening scenes of Thief, we can tell it's a Michael Mann movie: the rain-slicked streets in a dark inner city, the score by Tangerine Dream, the almost dialogue-free footage of men breakign into a safe and stealing diamonds.

Indeed, Thief was Michael Mann's first film, released in 1981, and starring James Caan as an ex-con and professional goniff. He uses a car dealership and a bar to front for his criminal activity, and prefers to freelance, using only his trusted partner, James Belushi.

But after his usual fence "takes a walk through a 12th floor window," Caan meets Robert Prosky, a big-time fence. Prosky comes on all smiles, asking Caan to work for him--he can make him rich. Caan is resistant, but realizes that he wants to leave behind this kind of life and settle down with his girlfriend, Tuesday Weld. In a terrific scene shot in a diner, Caan relates his harrowing prison experiences, and shows her a collage he has made that symbolizes his life and his hopes and dreams.

Caan and Belushi accept the challenge to hit a diamond exchange in Los Angeles. Mann shows us all the details, including how they rig up a tool hot enough to cut through steel, and how they bypass the alarm systems. Of course, things won't go as great with Prosky as he'd hoped, and we get a shootout at the end of the film.

What makes Thief a fine film is mostly Caan's performance as the hardened but still optimistic thief. He tells Weld that he learned to get by in prison by caring about nothing, not even himself, but he still cares about her and their life together. He also cares about his mentor, played winningly by Willie Nelson, who is still in prison suffering from a heart condition.

Much of this film is interesting to see compared with Mann's film from 1995, Heat, which is also about a professional thief, Robert De Niro, who has learned to not own anything he can't walk away from. It also has a memorable scene in a coffee shop, between De Niro and Al Pacino.

Some of Thief shows Mann's rookie mistakes, such as needless slow-motion explosions and shootouts, which make it look like a grade-Z thriller. But enough of it is classic Mann, and more than a footnote in his career.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Detropia

I haven't seen a sadder film in quite a while than Detropia, by documentarians Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. With Detroit now in bankruptcy, I moved it up my Netflix queue.

I spent my formative years in a suburb of Detroit, Dearborn. I only went into Detroit for Tiger games, and even then, in the '70s, the city was not in great shape. From 1930, when it was the fastest growing city in the world, it has lost half of its population. The waning of industry in the country, especially concerning the automobile business, has led to unemployment and the city becoming a ghost of its former self. There are over 10,000 abandoned homes and vacant lots. Some think the land should be turned over to farming.

Ewing and Grady do not have narration, instead focusing on some Detroit citizens, such as the president of a UAW local and a lounge owner who is hoping that a plant will be used to make the new electric car, the Volt. A blogger, Crystal Starr, is followed as she makes her way through abandoned buildings. A young pair of artists have moved into the city, amazed by the cheap prices. But I wonder if they are dismayed by the lack of services, such as street lights or a police department that averages a response time of over 50 minutes to emergencies.

This makes for some sincere melancholy, but I would have liked more nuts and bolts. Instead, the film is like a collage of images and sounds. Just why is Detroit worse off than other industrial cities, like Pittsburgh? Nothing is mentioned of the incompetence and corruption of the local government over many years.

Still, Detropia can't help but strike a nerve, as what happened to Detroit could happen to other cities, and highlights the problem with capitalism--it exploits the weak. The lounge owner visits an auto show, and sees that the Chinese are making an electric car that costs half of what the Volt does. He is not encouraged, and sees the auto companies as continuing to keep their heads in the sand.

Monday, July 29, 2013

These Honored Dead

Deacon White
It was my twelfth annual trip to Cooperstown to attend the induction ceremonies for the new Hall of Famers. But for the first time in many years, there were no living inductees--the Baseball Writers of America did not elect anyone (75 percent is required for election), and the veteran's committee, which considered individuals from the pre-integration era, chose three men who have all been dead for more than 70 years. Thus, the ceremony had the overall effect of an elegy.

When the BBWAA passed on electing anyone, a chill must have descended on Cooperstown. Induction weekend is the biggest tourist draw of the year. But this year the place seemed almost deserted. I had no problem finding a parking spot--in fact, I don't think any of the parking lots filled all day. It was easy to get a seat at a restaurant, and the field at the Clark Athletic Center, which has resembled a small city in some years, had maybe only a few hundred people. The seniors at Cooperstown High School, who work the concession and use the proceeds for their senior trip, got a shitty draw--they tried to hustle soda and hot dogs, but at times it seemed there were more kids than patrons.

This turn of events all stems from the plague of PEDs. Without their taint, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa would have been sure first-ballot HOFers. But the writers are sending a strong message. The appropriateness of this message can be debated--Bonds and Clemens, for sure, would be Hall of Famers despite their use of banned substances (for Sosa it's not so clear). Instead, as the years go by, other players, notably Alex Rodriguez, will probably be turned away, as writers will stand like Cerberus in front of the gallery to keep out the cheaters.

Not only did the general public stay away, but the returning Hall of Famers were low in number as well. Only 32 showed up, most of them of recent vintage. Perennial attendees, such as Whitey Ford and Al Kaline, were nowhere to be found.

The ceremony itself was delayed about 45 minutes by rain, and when it started, Hall of Fame Chairman Jane Forbes Clark was almost apologetic. Yet the show went on, with three descendants of the new Hall of Famers on hand. Hank O'Day was an umpire for many years in the first decades of the twentieth century. He umpired ten World Series, including the very first in 1903. He also managed a few years. His most famous call was on Merkle's Boner (he surely is now the only man to have the word "boner" on his plaque), when in 1908 Giant Fred Merkle, on a walk-off hit, failed to touch second and a sharp-witted Cub retrieved the ball and forced him out.

Jacob Ruppert was the owner of the Yankees from 1915 to 1939. He turned a franchise that was almost always in the bottom half of the league into the pre-eminent franchise in American sports. He did it by hiring Miller Huggins as manager, Ed Barrow as general manager, and buying Babe Ruth from the Red Sox. In 1923 the Yankees, which had been evicted from the Polo Grounds, opened Yankee Stadium.

James "Deacon" White was a nineteenth-century star, who is credited with having the first hit in professional baseball. He was a catcher in the days when no gloves were used (his great-grandson described his hands as feeling like gnarled tree branches) and then switched to third base. He had a .312 lifetime batting average, and played for several clubs. He got his nickname of Deacon for his religious beliefs and his abstemiousness, a departure from most of the players at that time.

To make the ceremony even more of a celebration of the dead, the plaques of about a dozen players who were not formally inducted due to travel restrictions during World War II were read aloud. Most of these players were nineteenth century men, except notably for Rogers Hornsby and Lou Gehrig. Living Hall of Famers read their plaques aloud, and it was kind of touching to hear Cal Ripken read Gehrig's plaque, while Joe Morgan, the greatest second baseman of the second half of the century, read the plaque of Hornsby, the greatest of the first half.

There were a couple of anniversaries being celebrated as well. It is the 125th anniversary of the publication of Ernest L. Thayer's poem "Casey at the Bat," and the 75th of Abbot and Costello's classic sketch, "Who's on First?" Throughout the day in the museum the poem was recited and the sketch was enacted by pair of very good impersonators. I've heard "Who's on First?" dozens of times, but it never fails to make me laugh.

Next year, there may be an abundance of inductees. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, two 300-game winners, without a hint of controversy, should be elected easily. Craig Biggio, who should have gotten in this year, may move up. And the veteran's committee will have three managers to consider--Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and Bobby Cox, all who deserve induction. So maybe the town will bounce back next year.

I had a bonus on this year's trip. My nephew, who is 12 and baseball mad, came up with his team to play in a tournament at Cooperstown Dream Park, just down the road from the Hall of Fame. My sister came up to watch the games, and I got a chance to see two of them. The complex is amazing, with over a dozen pristine fields and dormitories for the kids. Teams from all over the country attended, and the ball flew out of the park--in one game my nephew's team had three home runs in a row. My nephew had a three-run dinger, which I didn't get a chance to see, but I saw him pitch and lay down a perfect bunt. My 15-year-old nephew suggested the amount of home runs was due to the higher altitude; I just hope it wasn't PED use.

Anyway, it looked like the kids were having a great time. My nephew's team is 4-0 after two days of competition, so I'll be keeping an eye on them. You can actually watch some of the games on live-streaming video. They are the Wayne Wolfpack, for anyone interested.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Summer of '69

While driving to Cooperstown for my annual trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame (which I will detail in my next post) about half the trip was taken up by listening to the top 40 from July, 1969. It really made the time go by, as I was familiar with almost all the songs, and the host included other bits of information about the time period, such as the most popular TV shows, books, and the like.

What an interesting time that was. I was only 8, so I had other thing on my mind, like baseball cards and Dark Shadows, but late July 1969 was smack between two of the most significant events of the decade: the moon landing and Woodstock. Both have had lasting influence, and the participants in one had almost nothing to do with the participants of the other. It's easy to look back at 1969 and think the whole country was flower children, but the guys with crew cuts and pocket protectors at mission control in Houston had very little in common with the hippies who dropped acid at Yasgur's Farm.

Also that summer Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in Chappaquiddick, killing Mary Jo Kopechne, the Stonewall riots occurred in Greenwich Village, which started the gay rights movement, and Hurricane Camille killed hundreds (this happened at the same time as Woodstock, an interesting juxtaposition). The TV shows Star Trek and The Smothers Brothers aired their last episodes, while Hee Haw, as anti-hippie a show that could be, debuted.

The most popular TV shows that summer also showed a wide range. For CBS it was Gomer Pyle, USMC, while on NBC it was the hip and psychedelic comedy sketch show, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. ABC's number one show was Bewitched which, in retrospect, was a metaphor for being a closeted gay.

On the charts were all different types of songs, from Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue" to Henry Mancini's version of the "Romeo and Juliet Theme." There was "Crystal Blue Persuasion" by Tommy James and the Shondells, "Get Together" by The Youngbloods (at least the fifth version of the song, which had been previously recorded by The Kingston Trio and The Jefferson Airplane), and "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond. The Rolling Stones were on the chart with "Honky Tonk Woman," and The Beatles with "The Ballad of John and Yoko." John Lennon was also on the list with his Plastic Ono Band's "Give Peace a Chance," the first song by a Beatle that had no other Beatles performing on it.

Number one that summer, spanning the time between the moon landing and Woodstock, was "In the Year 2525," by Zager and Evans. It is a classic of one-hit wonders; in fact, Zager and Evans are the only artists to hit number one in the U.S. and the U.K. and then never have another hit. The song is a warning against technology, taking a similar view as H.G. Wells as they project what life would be like in future generations:

In the year 2525
If man is still alive
If woman can survive
They may find

In the year 3535
Ain't gonna need to tell the truth, tell no lies
Everything you think, do, and say
Is in the pill you took today

In the year 4545
Ain't gonna need your teeth, won't need your eyes
You won't find a thing to chew
Nobody's gonna look at you

In the year 5555
Your arms are hanging limp at your sides
Your legs got not nothing to do
Some machine is doing that for you

In the year 6565
Ain't gonna need no husband, won't need no wife
You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too
From the bottom of a long glass tube

In the year 7510
If God's a-comin' he ought to make it by then
Maybe he'll look around himself and say
Guess it's time for the Judgement day

In the year 8510
God is gonna shake his mighty head
He'll either say I'm pleased where man has been
Or tear it down and start again

In the year 9595
I'm kinda wondering if man is gonna be alive
He's taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain't put back nothing
Now it's been 10,000 years
Man has cried a billion tears
For what he never knew
Now man's reign is through
But through the eternal night
The twinkling of starlight
So very far away
Maybe it's only yesterday

Some of this is pretty prescient: the choosing of a child's traits before it's even born probably will be ready before 6565, and the same for the stanza about pills and machines doing all the work. The song has no chorus, and a horn section that gives it a Mexican sound--I was surprised to learn that these two guys came from Nebraska.

Because the song was number at such a key moment in history, it has Proustian qualities for baby boomers, as it takes them back to when science and technology and the counterculture were front and center in American life. The Summer of '69 wasn't just a bad Bryan Adams song, it was a lively time in American history.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Beach Fossils

It takes some stones to put the word "beach" in the name of your band. But Beach Fossils, a band from Brooklyn, did just that. While comparisons to the Beach Boys don't seem apparent, there is a connection. It's as if Beach Fossils are the confused slacker grandsons of the Wilson brothers.

Beach Fossils' front man is Dustin Payseur, who writes or co-writes all the songs on their 2010 self-titled debut album. The sound is very lo-fi, with lots of reverb, and Payseur's vocals are combined in a kind of reverie-like choir. The guitar work (I'm not sure by who--the lineup has changed and there is no credits on the album) has a kind of crystal-tapping sound, and the songs are all seem to be in a minor key.

Lyrically, the songs reflect a brain fog on Payseur's point. He doesn't seem to be a very get-up-and-go kind of guy. Consider some of these titles: "Vacation," Daydream," and "Lazy Day." Another is called "Wide Awake," but I have to view that as ironic. In several of the songs some form of the phrase "I don't know" is mentioned. Consider this verse from "Golden Age": "But I'm not trying to lose my mind, but I couldn't say that I wouldn't mind," or from "Daydream," "And not a day goes by or an hour without, times I can't remember what I'm thinking about." I wonder what these guys are like in concert--perhaps they recline in La-Z-Boys?

But I liked this record, despite its trending toward somnambulism. The songs don't have any diversity--they all that wall of sound and Payseur's overdubbed vocals--but it makes for a pleasant listening experience. And like The Beach Boys, this album makes me think of summer, especially the last track, an instrumental that includes the sound of crashing waves. It's not the summer of cars and girls like The Beach Boys, but instead the lazy summers of not doing anything but letting your mind drift.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Raid: Redemption

Among fans of martial arts pictures, The Raid: Redemption, a 2011 film from Indonesia, is a pretty big deal. For someone like me, who doesn't really care all that much for movies in which the whole thing is mostly people beating on each other, it was only okay. I will say that the star, Iko Uwais, is an incredible athlete, and that the fight choreography was stunning, but there's more to a movie than that.

Directed by Gareth Evans, the film is set in Jakarta, and has a pretty simple premise. A druglord has his operations in a dank apartment building. Most of the residents are in his employ. Therefore, a contingent of 20 police officers are going to have a tough time making it to the top. Even more so when they discover they've been set up to fail.

Uwais, as a rookie cop with a pregnant wife, manages to overpower several dozen men, and it's really amazing to watch. Granted, this film is structured like a video game, with each floor of the apartment building like a level, and opponents that pop up one by one. If they only got together and rushed him at once, there would be no movie. Also, I'm no expert on fighting, but these guys seem awfully tough, especially their skulls, which stand up to fists, walls, and other hard objects. I imagine this is in the realm of fantasy.

Aside from the kicking, punching, and general mayhem, the film is a routine police thriller. There is a twist involving a relationship between a cop and a criminal, which made it a little more complex, but otherwise most of the characters were disposable (and disposed of). I liked the work by Ray Sahetapy as the druglord.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Superman

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the debut of Superman, one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world, ranking right up there with Mickey Mouse and Sherlock Holmes. In honor of the anniversary I read Larry Tye's "biography" of the character, Superman: The High Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero.

I've never been a big Superman guy. I was more of a Marvel Comics guy or, if it were a DC hero, I preferred Batman. Superman was too bland and uncomplicated for me. But Tye's book was very engaging, and it is unquestionable that Superman is an essential bit of Americana.

He was created by two Jewish teenagers who lived in Cleveland. Jerry Siegel was the writer, and Joe Shuster the artist. Many of the great American comic book heroes were created by Jews--in addition, Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, was Jewish, as is Stan Lee, who created many of the Marvel heroes. Tye puts it: "The Jewish writers were outsiders by birth. They were conflicted, with one foot in their parents' shtetl and another in their brave new universe of opportunity. They gave life and shape to heroes whose very names, from Batman to Captain America, reflected their creators' reach for the otherworldly and the all-American. Yet the themes and the characters they brought to life grew out of the very past they were trying so hard to escape."

Siegel's father died when Jerry was a kid, and so the origin of Superman, sent by his parents from a dying planet to Earth, resonated when compared to Jerry's story. He was a wunderkind of science-fiction and fantasy, and his first incarnation of the "Super-Man" was as a villain in a pulp magazine he produced himself. Tye points out his resemblance to other characters who came before him, notably Doc Savage, but eventually the Man of Steel took unique shape, and was published by two former smut peddlers, Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. It was an almost instant sensation.

Here is where the story gets complicated, not only in Superman's story but Siegel and Shuster's as well: "On March 1, Jack mailed Jerry and Joe a check for $412...and, almost as an afterthought, $130 for Superman. It was double what they were used to and a fair rate--$10 a page--for the era and their experience, so Jerry and Joe cashed it and split it down the middle. It was also a swindle on the order of the Dutch West India Company's 1626 purchase of Manhattan from the natives for $24."

For years, until their deaths and after by their descendants, Siegel and Shuster have battled National Publications, later called DC, now owned by Warner Communications, for a share of the possible billion dollars that Superman is worth. This even while Siegel continued to write for them.

The character was a big hit, with Joe DiMaggio counted among his fans. At first it was a comic book and daily strip, then animated films made by the Fleischers,  then a radio show. In fact, it was the radio show that introduced some of the character's features, such as the ability to fly (the comic book Superman could only jump long distances) and his vulnerability to Kryptonite. It also introduced the doggerel that is still familiar today:  "Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman! Yes, it's Superman! Strange visitor from another world, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands! And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-bending battle for truth, justice and the American way!"

Eventually there would be film serials and a popular television series starring George Reeves, which Tye covers in detail (including Reeves' mysterious death). Then there is extensive coverage of the big-budget films produced by Alexander Salkind, who had no idea who Superman was until his son suggested they make a movie about him. As the films declined in quality and success, the comic book continued, with the publicity-garnering killing off the character in the '90s (of course, he didn't stay dead for long).

Tye's narrative goes right up to Man of Steel, which at the time was in pre-production, but proved his point that Superman is America's most-enduring hero, for even after 75 years, millions of dollars are spent on being entertained by the man in cape and tights.

Where Tye's book moves beyond simple biography the religious aspect--Superman has penumbras of both Judaism and Christianity, given his origin (on one hand, he is Moses-like, sent off as a baby only to become a leader of the chosen people, on the other he is the only son of a man sent to Earth to save them). "Superman had even stronger cultural ties to the faith of his founders. He started life as the consummate liberal, championing causes from disarmament to the welfare state. He was the ultimate foreigner, escaping to America from his intergalactic shtetl and shedding Jewish name for Clark Kent, a pseudonym as transparently WASPish as the ones Jerry had chosen for himself. Clark and Jerry had something else in common: both were classic nebbishes. Clark and Superman lived the way most newly arrived Jews did, torn between their Old and New World identities and their mild exteriors and rock-solid cores. That split personality was the only way he could survive, yet it gave him perpetual angst. You can't get more Jewish than that."

Tye attempts to explain why Superman has been so popular for so long, but I think the answer is elusive. Still, this comes pretty close to the mark: "He is an archetype of mankind at its pinnacle. Like John Wayne, he sweeps in to solve our problems. No thank-you needed. Like Jesus Christ, he descended from the heavens to help us discover our humanity. He is neither cynical, like Batman, nor fraught, like Spider-Man. For the religious, he can reinforce whatever faith they profess; for nonbelievers, he is a secular messiah. The more jaded the era, the more we have been lured back to his clunky familiarity. The outcome of his adventures may be as predictable as those of Sherlock Holmes--the good guy never loses--but that too is reassuring."

This is a wonderful book for the comic book geek and the student of American cultural history, as it covers print, radio, TV and movies. We follow along as the comic book soars and then declines in popularity (as Tye points out, now they are bought mostly by adults in specialty shops at prices much too high for kids). Those who were at the helm of those entities are a wonderful menagerie of characters, who all were passionate about keeping Superman alive in the imagination. Judging by the robust (if not stratospheric) box office numbers from Man of Steel, Superman isn't going away anytime soon.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Los Ninos de Cobre

A few weeks ago I was listening to the radio show Sound Opinions, and they devoted the episode to the rock music scene in Mexico. Needless to say, I hadn't heard of any of the featured artists, but I was fascinated. Mexican popular music is informed by the traditional root music, such as mariachi, but also has a lot of European and U.S. influences.

So I did a little reading and heard about a band that was influenced by The White Stripes. They're called The Copper Gamins, and I bought their album Los Ninos de Cobre (my Mexican boss at the pizza place where I work helpfully translated this for me as "Children of the Cobra.") It does sound a lot like the garage-rock revival of The White Stripes and The Black Keys, with the same guitarist/drummer combo configuration.

The guitarist and vocalist is Jose Carmen, and the percussionist is Claus Gall. The sound is very stripped down, with elements of the American blues, as filtered through the British invasion and underground rock. The instrumentation is pre-eminent--the recording on much of the songs has the guitar tuned way up with the vocals as if they were in the next room. This album is sung in English, but Carmen's vocals are so distorted and buried under the guitar that it's hard to understand him. There is a lyric sheet, but there isn't anything particularly profound.

The song most reminiscent of Jack White is "Nightingale," which I found the best cut. "Nightingale sing a song, sing a song about us, because I'm in pain, and I'm in love, and she won't notice my love." The song is impeccably arranged and played--it's top notch.

I also liked "Learn a Song," "Little Ron," and the epic if cryptic "Tell My Sister." None of the songs suck, and "Golden Card" has a very Keith Richards sound to it. I could close my eyes and imagine the Stones doing it very easily.

For some reason I've been thinking a lot about Mexico lately. I've never been there, and have no immediate plans to, but the country seems to be calling to me. Over the next few months I'll be checking out more music from Mexico, as well as some literature by Mexican writers and other books that are set in Mexico.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Way, Way Back

Though set in the present day, The Way, Way Back has the feel of a period piece, perhaps because the title refers to an artifact of a previous generation--the station wagon. Our hero, Duncan (Liam James) is riding in the third seat, or the way, way back, and not only that, he is facing backwards, metaphorically hauled to an unwilling destination.

And it is unwilling. He is going with his mother (Toni Collette) to the beach house of her new boyfriend, Steve Carell. In the opening moments of the film, Carell asks James where he would rank himself on a scale from one to ten. James, reluctant to even speak to the man, says six, but Carell cruelly tells him he's only a three.

This is the dynamic of the often very good if a bit treacly film, written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who won an Oscar along with Alexander Payne for The Descendants). James, 14 and extremely socially awkward, despises every moment spent with Carell, who is a dick of the highest order.

Two things will help James survive this torment: the daughter of the next-door neighbor, played by AnnaSophia Robb, who sees James as a kindred soul, and the gang at a local water park, especially Sam Rockwell, a loquacious slacker who takes the kid under his wing.

The Way, Way Back is often very heartfelt and emotionally charged. Anyone who was a shy kid or knows one will identify with James, although he is so closed that it's a surprise he hasn't been put on meds. His connection to the folks at the water park (amusingly called Water Wizz) really rings true--it really does look like a fun place to work. The scenes at home are not quite as authentic--though Carell plays against his usual image, it's hard to understand why everyone doesn't see him as an asshole. Still, a scene in which a game of Candyland breaks down is very well done.

The scenes with Robb are also nicely done. She is in with the popular crowd, but can't really stand them. Her mother (Allison Janney) is an obnoxious lush, so it's understandable why she takes an interest in James. However, there is a bit of an adolescent fantasy at work here, as Robb is exceedingly pretty. Perhaps a plainer actress would have made more sense here.

Most of the acting is good. As stated, Carell is effective, maybe too much so. Collette gives a very subtle performance as a woman torn between her own needs and her son's, and Rockwell is convincing as a Peter Pan type (Maya Rudolph, the manager of the park, is his Wendy). Janney is basically playing the same annoying person she did in Away We Go, but here she's not as abrasive.

The ending packs some power, even if there's an unnecessary bit about performing a legendary feat on a water slide. The last shot, in that way, way back, seat is a very nice ending.

My grade for The Way, Way Back: B

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Pacific Rim

You might be surprised to learn that cinematic battles between giant monsters and giant robots can get tedious rather quickly. That's the take away I got from Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro's affectionate but overcooked homage to the Japanese monster movies of his youth.

I loved Japanese monster movies, too, but I haven't seen one in ages, and I doubt I would like them now. I think the charm of them to adults is that they are cheesy, and you can laugh at them (or make sarcastic remarks) while watching. Pacific Rim is dumb, but without that endearing incompetence. It seems odd to say it, but because Pacific Rim looks so good, it makes the whole thing a chore to sit through.

Del Toro at heart is a fanboy, and the script he has written (along with Travis Beacham) captures the zeitgeist of a thirteen-year-old boy. A fissure in the floor of the Pacific Ocean allows beings from another dimension--large, reptilian monsters (called Kaiju)--to roam loose on Earth. Here is yet another movie with destruction on a massive scale, as before the movie is a minute old San Francisco and Manila have been destroyed.

For reasons that continue to confound me, conventional warfare doesn't work so well, so mankind has created large robots (called Jaegers) that are piloted from within by a pair, usually people who are simpatico, because they share one mind. I never completely bought this plot contrivance, because there's just no way that spending billions of dollars on a robot that punches monsters would work better than the entire world's arsenal.

Our hero is Charlie Hunnam, a generic himbo that is a pilot but loses his brother in a monster fight. He's recruited back into the program by his boss (Idris Elba) and teamed with a Japanese woman (Rinko Kikuchi). There's all sorts of hardware and battles with various monsters. A little of this goes a long way, and by the end, a battle at the bottom of the ocean, I was more than done with it.

Part of the problem is that Del Toro and Beacham's dialogue makes George Lucas seem like Noel Coward. There is little in the way of characterization. Elba gives a good, intense performance, but Hunnam is a zero and there is some ghastly comic bits with two scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorham). Kikuchi, in what I think is her first English-speaking role, manages to not embarrass herself, and Ron Perlman livens things up as a flamboyant dealer in Kaiju parts.

Some of the reviews I've read or heard say that this film is at least fresh, compared to the comic book movies that dominate summers nowadays. I don't think so. This really isn't that much different that a Transformers movie crossed with a very expensive Ultra-Man episode. Del Toro has shown he's capable of making thoughtful films like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. Maybe the relative disappointment of the box office of Pacific Rim will send him back to those kind of films, which would be welcome in this corner.

My grade for Pacific Rim: C-.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Gatekeepers

The final nominee for Best Documentary Feature at the 85th Academy Awards that I've seen is The Gatekeepers, an occasionally interesting but very dry film featuring interviews with the heads of Israel's Shin Bet, the intelligence arm of their national defense. None of them had ever given interviews before, so it was something of a coup for director Dror Moreh to get them to be so candid.

Shot mostly in a static, "talking head" style, with interstitial archive footage, the six men interviewed discuss Israel's history from the Six-Day War in 1967 onward. The Shin Bet replaced the Mossad as the intelligence organization in 1980, and the first leader was Avraham Shalom, who now looks like a cuddly grandfather in suspenders, but we hear how he was a ruthless bully. When he talks about an incident in which Palestinian hijackers of a bus were killed while in custody, the fierceness of the man shows in his eyes. He is asked whether it was moral to kill them, and he says that with terrorists, no morality is needed.

Also making an impression is Carmi Gillon, who presided over the Shin Bet when it had to go after internal terrorists--the Jewish Underground. A plot to blow up the Dome of the Rock was thwarted, though the captured later were released early. Gillon points out that had they succeeded, a worldwide war would have erupted. Gillon was also at Shin Bet when Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin was assassinated, by a zealous Zionist.

Over the course of the history of Shin Bet, the enemies of Israel changed, from the PLO to groups like Hamas and other Islamic Jihadists. It's interesting to see how all of them, even Shalom, see violence as counterproductive, and none of them are particularly optimistic about the future. There is also a division about "collateral damage," with some of them haunted by the killing of innocents when terror leaders are taken out by bombs. But Avi Dichter bemoans a missed opportunity when all the major terrorist leaders were gathered for a meeting, but a small bomb was used to try to limit collateral damage, and the leaders walked away.

The film is very informative, but kind of drab. Though the men are identified by their years of service, that didn't register with me and I forgot who was who and what order they came in. For those who follow Israeli or Palestinian issues, this film will have much more impact.

Now that I've seen all five of the nominees, I can agree wholeheartedly with the winner, which was Searching for Sugar Man. It is the only one that doesn't deal with a hot-button issue (the others were about AIDS, sexual assault in the military, and Palestinian civil rights), so perhaps it was just refreshing to see a documentary that didn't challenge anyone's beliefs.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From the Tree

The juicy political news this week is that Liz Cheney, daughter of former VP Dick Cheney, is running for the Senate in Wyoming. Never mind that the seat she is after is held by a Republican, Mike Enzi, or that until recently she lived in Virginia. In this age of entitlement by name recognition, it all makes perfect sense.

Looking over Cheney's biography, she certainly has a long record of political service, even if she got those jobs because of who her father was. She has also been a mainstay on Sunday morning political roundtables, where she usually spews her odious opinions.

But why take on a firmly entrenched senator, who was the eighth-most conservative senator in 2012? It might be because he's old (69), though that puts him right at the mean of age in the U.S. Senate, or that he's too conciliatory. Cheney has said, basically, that she wants to obstructionist, and Enzi might just be too gentlemanly. Certainly he doesn't appear on TV much, and her attention-seeking narcissism might find that unstomachable. Perhaps the real reason why Cheney wants to take on Enzi is that, like Veruca Salt, she just wants it now.

This has got all the pundits wagging their tongues. The Republican standard-bearers are flocking to Enzi, except for old man Dick, of course. She could certainly raise a lot of cash, and since even a primary fight won't help the Democrats of the state (who could probably fit in a phone booth), I'm kind of torn about whether I'd like to see her win or not. The entertainment value of the bizarre statements she would utter would make up for the loss of Michele Bachmann, but on the other hand, it's just too dangerous to have this woman in any position of authority.

Wyoming is solid red state. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, it also has the highest suicide rate in the country, and just this morning I read that there are only two escalators in the entire state. When a certain candidate has a lock on an election, it's said that the only way they can lose is if they get caught having sexual congress with a farm animal, but in Wyoming this probably wouldn't be a deterrent.

The next fifteen months should be lively for the otherwise bored journalists in Wyoming, and will make for some enjoyable rubbernecking for the rest of us.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Trayvon

It's been a few days now since the end of the George Zimmerman trial, and I suppose I have to face it. When the verdict was announced I kind of ignored it, as it was not a surprise. I didn't want to watch the media coverage, even on the sympathetic cable networks, and especially not the vituperative remarks of those on the right, who somehow were gleeful about the result.

This was just a sad, tragic story from beginning to end, a shameful episode in the long, depressing history of race relations in the U.S. And make no mistake, this was about race, because there is no way Zimmerman would have followed Trayvon Martin if he wasn't black. At the root of this is the "fear of a black planet" that is age-old in this country; that a young black man must be up to no good, especially if he's wearing a hoodie.

I have no approbation for the jury. I didn't watch the trial, and so I can't fault them for their verdict. I do have a problem with the horrible Stand Your Ground law, which basically allows anyone to shoot someone else, especially if  there are no eyewitnesses. We'll never know for sure what transpired between Martin and Zimmerman, but this sinister law allowed a man to be the aggressor--following a teen who was just minding his own business--continue to follow him even after police told him not to, and then shoot a boy who might have struck out at a strange armed man who was following him. This is insane.

The legacy of this verdict is nothing but anguish. I saw some idiot comment that it was a happy day, because the system worked. Well, it certainly wasn't happy for Trayvon's family, who still have a dead child, through no fault of his own. Zimmerman walks, but his life will never be the same, and I'm glad about it. I wish him no violence, but I suspect he will end up about as visible as Steve Bartman. Unless Fox News gives him a TV show.

Speaking of Fox News and their ilk, it's really shameful how they tried to demonize Martin. Geraldo Rivera, clown prince of pseudo-journalists, equated wearing a hoodie to a ship flying the Jolly Roger. It seems to be a hoodie is a sensible piece of clothing to ward off a chill, and only becomes a symbol of something else when ding-a-lings like Rivera say they are. This, along with the verdict, makes it open season on black youth. I have a friend who has an adopted black child who is now eleven. What is she going to tell him when he's big enough to look threatening? Stay indoors whenever possible?

We are left with the most common image of Martin, wearing a hoodie, staring out in what seems to be a mixture of fear and vulnerability, without a trace of danger. He has become the Emmett Till of our age, killed for being black in America.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Getting Straight

Getting Straight is a real museum piece, an artifact from the student protest days of the late '60s and early '70s, as quaint as a peace medallion or a fringed vest. It has flashes of brilliance, but is wildly uneven and often as self-indulgent as the characters it portrays.

Directed by Richard Rush, who made a similarly uneven film The Stunt Man, it stars Elliot Gould as Harry Bailey, a college student at a large state university. He is older than most of the students, as he did a tour in Vietnam and participated in protests (he was at Selma, he tells a black activist). Done with activism, he wants to get his master's and teaching certificate, but lives on the margins, getting evicted from his apartment and driving a car that is one jolt away from dilapidation.

He is still a BMOC, though, knowing almost everyone, who all want a piece of his time. One of his friends is Nick, (Robert F. Lyons), who is baked most of the time and is desperately trying to get a deferment from the draft--feigning homosexuality or taking up Buddhism doesn't work.

Gould's girlfriend is Candice Bergen, a girl from privilege who vacillates between protest and wanting to settle down in the suburbs with a bland gynecologist. She and Gould fight most of the time, as Gould, like many men on the left in those days, was still Chauvinistic, and demanded that she do his laundry.

Viewed today, Getting Straight is an interesting time capsule of college life in the countercultural movement. Gould has one foot in the student world and one in the administration world--he is hired as something of a bridge between the two--and his obstinate nature makes him argue the opposite side of who he's with. Gould gives a large performance, sometimes too far over the top, such as his breakdown during his orals when he is challenged to agree that The Great Gatsby was about homosexual panic.

Parts of this film are very intense, such as protest that ends up a riot, with police clubbing the students. Then National Guard are called in, and it's worth noting that the film was released only nine days after the shootings at Kent State, so they must have really resonated. The film is hard on both sides, with the university president, a self-professed liberal, only willing to have a Negro History Week and lifting the curfew by one hour (Gould points out the window at a student throwing rocks, telling the president, "Two weeks ago he just wanted to get laid. Now he wants to kill somebody. You should have let him get laid.")

But the protesters are presented just as callowly. The black activist (Max Julien) comes across as strident, though all he wants is a black studies department, which in retrospect seems minor. Gould finds their rhetoric irrelevant, and simply wants to get his teaching degree, but a professor (Jeff Corey) stands in his way.

A few other things: Bergen, who went on to a great career in Murphy Brown, gives an epically bad performance, wailing her lines as if she were sitting on pins. It's amazing that she was able to overcome her awfulness this early in her career. Also, Harrison Ford has a few scenes as a student, and it's hard to think of him as so young.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Stalag 17

A few weeks ago, Donald Bevan, one of the authors of the play Stalag 17, passed away. I had to stop and think whether I had ever seen the 1953 movie version, directed by Billy Wilder. I have dim memories of watching at least part of it on TV, but watched the whole thing yesterday on DVD.

Viewed through the lens of hindsight, the film is an interesting if not wholly satisfying entertainment, and not up to Wilder's best. It's set in a German prison camp during World War II, and certainly the 1960s TV series Hogan's Heroes took inspiration from it, even going so far as to have a blustering Nazi character named Schulz, as does the movie. William Holden won an Oscar for his role, though it was thought that it was a make up for his having lost for Sunset Boulevard. Even his wife told him that.

The premise is pretty simple. The Americans in a barracks in Stalag 17 try to mount escapes, but they are always caught. Finally they figure there must be a spy in their midst, and suspicion falls on Holden, who doesn't buddy up with anyone and is constantly wheeling and dealing with the guards. Holden denies he is the spy, and sets about finding out who is. I knew I hadn't seen it when I realized I had no idea who the real turncoat was, which is pretty suspenseful.

Where the film loses momentum is in its attempts at comedy. Wilder mixed comedy and drama often, but here it doesn't work. Most of it comes from the two clowns in the barracks, Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss. Lembeck is Harry Shapiro, a Jew, and Strauss is Animal, the hairy and gruff-voiced soldier who is obsessed with Betty Grable. Their clowning is too broad and fell flat with me, especially a long scene in which they try to break into the section of the prison where Russian women are kept. Another scene, in which Strauss drunkenly hallucinates that Lembeck is Grable, made Paramount nervous because of its overt (for the time) homoeroticism.

Strauss was nominated for an Oscar, as was Wilder and the picture, but only Holden won. It's not an obvious Best Actor performance, in that it's an ensemble piece and Holden's character is not warm and cuddly. Holden had begged Wilder to give him a line denouncing Nazis, but Wilder wouldn't let him.

Also in the cast were Peter Graves, later famous for his work in Mission: Impossible (and Airplane!) and Otto Preminger as the Commandant. He had one really funny scene where he put on his shiny boots just to talk with headquarters in Berlin.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Keeping Score

I read an article in the New York Times about how the act of scorekeeping a baseball game has diminished in practice. People hardly sit still enough to watch the game, let alone track every at bat. There was a lot of reminiscing about the days when you could get a scorecard for a nickel, and that came with that little pencil without an eraser, like the kind that you get miniature golf courses.

The common scoring system is thought to have been invented by Henry Chadwick, who also came up with the box score, another indispensable piece of baseball nerd-dom. It seems that the scoring system, using numbers one through nine for each position on the field, pitcher being 1, catcher 2 and so on, is universal throughout the baseball world. Usually it's passed down from father to son, and that's true in my case, as my father taught me how to keep score. There are variations, of course, such as using a backwards K for a called strike (I would put a "c" or an "s" after the K, do distinguish between called and swung), or adding little things like a notation as to how reach runner advanced around the basepaths. Scoring books purchased at the sporting goods store even had room for counting balls and strikes, and of course now there are more sophisticated systems used to chart pitches.

Nowadays programs that have a score sheet in the center can cost up to ten dollars, but you still get the pencil for free. Really all you need is the scorecard--the rest is advertising and fluffy features. In the old days, the scorecard also had the rosters and the pitching staffs for out-of-town teams, so you knew who was pitching all around the majors by the lights on the scoreboard. For those who don't want to pay, you can always get those store-bought scorebooks, that can hold a number of games in one (I bought one once and kept score of games off of TV--but trying to score an All-Star Game is particularly difficult, given the double switches and all the players used). Scoring a game that goes more than ten innings is always a problem, too.

I don't keep score anymore--I don't think I have in twenty years or more. I finally found it to be work, when I'd rather just soak up the atmosphere. I also finally realized the notion that I would go back and look at them to be ridiculous. Still, if I attend a game with someone who does keep score, I use them for information. Once I attended a game with my friend Bob and we noticed that the Yankees were leaving a lot of men on base, and, finding the record for such a thing on his smartphone, kept track of it during the game. You can't do that without a scorecard.

Scorecards are excellent visual representations of the game, though. You can look at a scorecard and "read" the game, much more than you can a box score. Roger Angell once told of a fan sending him a fictional scorecard of a game in which Angell pitched and led a team of Red Sox outcasts against an All-Star team, and the outcasts won, but barely, nearly escaping disaster at every turn. All this was visible in the scorecard.

With the overall ADHD of each successive generation, keeping score at the ball game will be increasingly rare, but I don't think it will ever die out. Broadcasters need to do it, and there will always be die-hards, like Bob, that insist on doing it. Though I don't do it anymore, I'm always heartened to see anyone under the age of forty actually keeping score. It's a great tradition.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Silence Yourself

Written on the label of Savages' debut album, Silence Yourself, are the words "Don't Let the Fuckers Get You Down," which is as good a summation of the album as any. Savages are three Englishwomen and a Frenchwoman who perform kick-ass, take-no-prisoners rock and roll, and they've made a sensational record.

The album opens with the song "Shut Up," which starts with a clip from John Cassavetes' film Opening Night. I still haven't ascertained the significance of that, but then the song erupts with the ferocious bass line of Ayse Hassan. She's just one of a trio of excellent musicians--Fay Hilton's drumming is terrific, especially on the song "Hit Me," while Gemma Thompson's guitar work is hypnotic as it is ear-piercing. At a certain point in the song "Waiting for a Sign" she lets loose with a squealing set of notes that could reduce your brain to jelly if you aren't properly warned.

The heart of the band, though, seems to be Jhenny Beth, the singer and lyricist. Her lyrics are cryptic, but you can tell they mean a lot to her. Many of the songs seem to be about sexual politics--"Hit Me," which has the line "I took a beating tonight and that's the best I ever had," could mean a number of things. Another song, "Husbands," could be ironic as well, as Beth sings about "My house, my bed, my husbands"--as if a man is just another object that one owns.

The sexual nature of women is also present in the song "She Will"--"She will open her heart, She will open her lips, she will choose to ignite, and never to extinguish. She will forget her pain, She will come back again, Get hooked on loving hard, Forcing the slut out."

Beyond the lyrical content, these songs rock. Every one of them has a delicious hook, and it's tough to pick a favorite. I'm fond of "Strife," and "No Face" would be popular on a dance floor. There is one instrumental, "Dead Nature," that sounds like the incidental music of a very creepy video game. "Marshal Dear" is the one that is set apart, as it's a melodic song with piano and clarinet, and would seem to be someone urging someone else to commit suicide: "I hope your breathing your last breath, Oh Marshal dear, And you will die, you will die soon." Given the spelling of the word marshal as a title rather than a name, this may refer to a war criminal of some sort.

Savages have fashioned a strong case for best debut of the year.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Keyhole

There's one thing for sure--no one makes films that look like Guy Maddin's. The Canadian filmmaker's latest was Keyhole, released in 2011. It is a trippy, sumptuously black and white Odyssey (initial cap intended) through a haunted house, and like all of his films, has that over-saturated nitrate look of silent films.

I've seen a few of Maddin's films, and while they aren't exactly transparent in plot, they are hard to look away from. This one probably makes more sense that most of his work, but it's still open to myriad interpretations. What I do know is this--a gangster (Jason Patric) has his gang shoot their way into his house. The dead are still upright (a character called Big Ed asks the dead to stand facing the wall, and then are told they will be helped to the morgue by the police). The place is lousy with ghosts, with the main one being Patric's father in law (Louis Nagin), an old guy wearing no clothes and chained to his daughter's bed.

She's Isabella Rossellini, and I was never quite sure if she was dead or not, because dead characters didn't act much differently than live ones. In fact, when Patric arrives he has a young woman (Brooke Palsson) in tow, and she's drowned, but can still walk and talk (she just can't see). Later, Patric's men will try to stage a coup and strap Patric to a bicycle-powered electric chair, but it doesn't work on him because he says he's been electrocuted once already.

The Odyssey connection comes with Patric's name (Ulysses), as well as Nagin's name, which is Calypso. Patric makes his way through the house, one room at a time, trying to get to Rossellini, who is in the attic with her father. Along the way there are memories of Patric's dead children, plus his sole remaining live one, who has been kidnapped by the gang. He is in love with Palsson, and recalls when she went off laughing for a midnight swim.

I have no idea what any of this means, but it sure his lovely to look at. I think it would take several viewings to come up with a theory, at least it would be for me, but I think it can be summed up by Nagin's line when he says that when a person leaves a house, the happiness goes with him, but the sorrow remains.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Shadow of a Doubt

Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt has its 70th anniversary this year. It was probably the most prominent of his films that I had never seen before, and I took care of that last night. I learned that it was Hitchcock's favorite of his films. His daughter thinks it was because he took an idyllic small town and inserted it with menace.

The spine of Shadow of a Doubt is a familiar one in Hitchcock's work--suspicion. Just two years earlier he'd titled a movie that, and this one bears some parallels with his first film, The Lodger. In this case it's a man, seemingly on the run, returning to the bosom of his family, especially a niece who adores him. But slowly she, and the audience, realized he's not quite what he seems.

The man, Uncle Charlie, is played brilliantly by Joseph Cotten, who allows us sneak glimpses into his psyche as he otherwise deals genially with his family. They are his older sister (Patrica Collinge) brother-in-law (Henry Travers), and the niece named after him, Charlie (Teresa Wright), along with two other small children. All we know is that he beat it out of a boarding house back east when two unknown men are looking for him.

Cotten and Wright have a special bond. Not only do they share the same name, they have a kind of kinship that reminds one of twins. She is first seen as hopelessly bored with her average, small-town life, and decides she's going to wire Uncle Charlie to come visit. As she is in the telegraph office, she learns that he is on his way, and wonders if they have a telepathic connection. When he arrives, she kiddingly tells him that she is going to learn all his secrets, which makes his eyes narrow just a bit.

As usual with Hitchcock, the characters and the audience learn things at the same time. Cotten gives a few clues, such as trying to dissuade Wright from saying "Merry Widow" aloud, or removing a page from a newspaper. But his past is catching up with him when two detectives, masquerading as government information gatherers, visit the house. Cotten is wise to them, and tries to avoid meeting them or being photographed.

One of the detectives, Macdonald Carey, takes a liking to Wright, and takes her out to dinner. There's an interesting cut from them having a good time to Wright accusing him of lying to her. He comes clean, telling her that a man they are looking for may be her beloved uncle. She confirms her fears by finding a copy of the newspaper that Cotten disposed of, which sets up one of those Hitchcock scenes where its suspenseful whether Wright can get to the library before it closes.

I'll leave the rest of the plot unspoken of for those who haven't seen it, but suffice it to say Cotten is not a good guy. Wright must deal with her familial devotion and her fondness for Carey. In a certain way it's all very Freudian, as Wright, the person who loves Cotten the most, is the one who brings him down.

This is a very subtle film. I noted that it's not until the halfway mark that we learn of Cotten's crimes. In a way, it's like Ozzie and Harriet crossed with a thriller. The film was shot in the place it was located, Santa Rosa, California, and it was Hitchcock's first real foray into the American psyche (Saboteur was the first film he did set in America). Much of the success of the film has to do with Cotten's very subtle performance. He easily turns on the charm, but it has rough edges, as when he visits Travers in the bank and makes inappropriate jokes. At times the lid blows off, such as a speech at the dinner table about widows squandering their husbands' fortunes. But even up until the climax of the film, on a train, we can't help but liking Cotten just a little bit.

Hitchcock supplies numerous touches to the film. When Cotten's trains arrives, it casts a shadow over his awaiting family. The middle child, Ann, is played by a wonderful young actress, Edna May Wonacott, as a precocious girl who has a built-in bullshit detector. When Cotten gives all the kids gifts, she gets a stuffed animal, and there's the briefest flash of distaste that crosses the face of this girl who would rather read Ivanhoe.

Other things of note in the film: Hume Cronyn makes his film debut as Travers' friend. The two get together and talk about true crime stories, and think up the best ways to kill each other, certainly something that Hitchcock would appreciate. The script was mostly written by the exemplary chronicler of small town life, Thornton Wilder (he wrote Our Town), with some dialogue by Hitchcock's wife, Alma Reville.

Shadow of a Doubt ranks in the top tier of Hitchcock's films.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Fisherman's Wharf

My look at the films of Bernard Vorhaus concludes with 1939's Fisherman's Wharf, another Bobby Breen musical. Set on the San Francisco docks, it's a family film with lots of music, the kind of thing that is not made anymore.

Breen is Tony, the son of a widowed Italian fisherman (Leo Carillo). They have a great life, like something out of a Prego commercial, singing while fishing. They live modestly but comfortably, with a housekeeper and a best friend (Henry Armetta) who are in love but constantly fighting.

Into this Italian-American idyll comes Carillo's sister-in-law (Lee Patrick, Effie from The Maltese Falcon) and her snot-nose son, who has a massive chip on his shoulder. Patrick twists Carillo around her finger, inspiring him to break up his fishing collective, and making the housekeeper resign in a huff. She even starts to make goo-goo eyes at Carillo, which horrifies Breen.

Finally, the horrible son tells Breen that he is adopted, which prompts him to run away.

This is inoffensive but not particularly gripping, but these kind of films were not high art, but merely something to keep children still for an hour. Breen had a brief blip as a child star, but his popularity obviously waned as no one knows he is today. Perhaps the most interesting about it is the appearance of a trained seal, Skipper, who is the family pet.

Vorhaus' career would end during the blacklist of the McCarthy era.

Monday, July 08, 2013

Upstream Color

Upstream Color, a release from earlier this year, stirred up some debate on Gone Elsewhere, so I took a look at the DVD. It's like a Terrence Malick film, only stranger.

I can't begin to understand what happened in this movie, so let me just outline the sequence of events. First, some kids drink a liquid made from insect larvae. This gives them weird powers. Then, a woman (Amy Seimetz) is kidnapped by a mysterious person, who forces these same larvae down her throat. This hypnotizes her, and the kidnapper (called "The Thief" in the credits) has her sign over all her money.

He leaves her, but she feels the larvae crawling around inside her skin. She goes to another man (called "The Sampler,") who seems to give her some sort of transfusion from a pig. She then awakens, finds that she's broke, and loses her job because of absences.

She then meets a man (Shane Carruth, also the writer and director) and they have a romance of sorts. All the while The Sampler keeps pigs on a farm, and if I'm right they each represent a person. He visits these people unseen in their waking lives, like some sort of deity. Both Seimetz and Carruth have an alternate pig personality.

Oh, and Thoreau's book Walden has some significance.

I suppose this all means something to Carruth, but the film is far too obtuse to have any resonance with me. I'm all for experimental cinema, but there are times when you wonder whether there's anything to it other than a series of images.

Still, Upstream Color is lovely to look at, and has a dreamy, trippy style, much like the films of Malick (it has a lot in common with To the Wonder in that way--both are about as equally incomprehensible). But I have little patience with a film that can't meet me half way with a narrative that makes sense.

Seimetz, who may have been in more mumblecore movies that Greta Gerwig, is very appealing. Will she make the inevitable cash-in with a Hollywood movie?

Sunday, July 07, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son

Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son is set in an unusual place: North Korea. Perhaps the most inaccessible nation on the planet, it's ripe for exploration, and in Johnson's hands the totalitarian state becomes fascinating, viewed through the eyes of a single man.

He is Jun Do (certainly the names' similarity to John Doe is not a coincidence). He is raised in an orphanage, but is not an orphan, as his father in the master there. But everyone takes him for an orphan, despite his correcting them. He doesn't know who his mother was, though, and is told she was an opera singer.

The first half or so of the book takes on Jun Do's peripatetic life. At first he is hired out to a crew that kidnaps people from Japan. Apparently there is a rash of this--the "Dear Leader" (Kim Jong-il, who is a prominent character in the book) wants some type of person, and a goon squad goes out to get them. Later, Jun Do will be on a fishing boat, monitoring U.S. communications. He becomes obsessed with the progress of a pair of American women who are rowing around the world, especially the one who rows at night.

The fishing crew are all married (a must, as wives back home prevent them from defecting, as they know their wives will be punished) and have tattoos of their spouses' faces on their chests. Jun Do is not married, but they get him a tattoo of North Korea's most famous actress, Sun Moon, who is in reality married to a fierce military man, Commander Ga.

The second half of the book finds Jun Do now taking the place of Commander Ga. Through flashbacks told from the point of view of an interrogator, we learn that Jun Do killed Commander Ga in prison, and is now assuming his identity, married to Sun Moon. At first she resents the idea of this lowly boy taking her husband's place, but then they plot together to get out of the country.

The book is a magical read, and certainly the first glimpse I've had into the North Korean way of life. It's almost like a parallel world, a dystopia right out of 1984, where the people are told things via broadcasts in their own home (we all know how it was claimed that Kim Jong-Il had several holes-in-one during his first round of golf). Johnson has fun exploring the difference between the culture of totalatarianism, where people get food via ration books and widows are given "replacement" husbands by the state, and the free market world of America.

Much of this comes when Jun Do tags along on a diplomatic mission to Texas: "When the dogs returned, the Senator gave them treats from his pocket, and Jun Do understood that in communism, you'd threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes."

There are a lot of harrowing scenes, too, though, especially in the interrogation center. The unnamed interrogator believes in new, kinder ways, but the old style guys believe in torture. The lobotomy is described in simple terms: "Careful not to puncture anything, you'd run the nail in along the top of the eyeball, maneuvering it until you felt the bone at the back of the socket. Then with your palm, you gave the head of the nail a good thump. After punching through the orbital, the nail moved freely through the brain. Then it was simple: insert fully, shimmy to the left, shimmy to the right, repeated with other eye."

The book is also drippingly romantic. The notion of tattooing one's wife's image on the chest, above the heart, is endearing (if not painful). "Yes, an object could hold a person, that you could talk photograph, that you could kiss a ring, that by breathing into a harmonica, you can give voice to someone far away. But photographs can be lost. In your sleep, a ring can be slipped from your finger by the thief in the barracks...No, you had to keep the people you loved safer than that. They had to become as fixed to you as a tattoo, which no one could take away."

It speaks to the brutality of the North Korean system that Jun Do will be wrong about that, that even a tattoo can be taken away.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Mandingo

Mandingo was something of a lurid sensation when it was released in 1975, as miscegenation was still something of a taboo. Now it's really no big deal, as Supreme Court justices and NFL quarterbacks are in racially-mixed marriages, but this film, directed by Richard Fleisher, took for granted that it was shocking.

Set in the antebellum South on a plantation, Mandingo doesn't hide the sexual antics of the master-slave relationship. James Mason is the patriarch of Falconhurst, and Perry King is his son. It is taken for granted, even encouraged, for King to have sex with the female slaves, even going so far as to deflower the virgins.

King is also urged by his father to marry to produce an heir, but told that sex with white women is very different, and should be done with clothes on. King has only  lain with black girls, and find one he likes in Ellen (Brenda Sykes). He does end up marrying his cousin (Susan George), but makes a wedding-night discovery that she is not a virgin (she had had sex with her brother, a lovely Gothic touch).

So King ends up spending his time in Sykes' bed, and ignoring George. He also finds a Mandingo slave, Ken Norton (the former heavyweight boxing champ) for sale at a slave market. Mason is obsessed with breeding Mandingos (which I assume is a certain African tribe, though this is never explained). King discovers Norton has a talent for fighting, and matches him against another in a fight to the finish. The resulting fight is grisly and demeaning to all who participate.

The slaves on the plantation who yearn for freedom resent Norton's devotion to his master, and of course we all know that George, in an attempt to strike back at King, will lure Norton to her bed. When the resulting baby is cocoa-colored it will be bad times for all.

Mandingo is dressed up garbage, but it does sustain interest. There's lots of nudity, and at least it understands that slavery was a detestable institution (there are still some who say slaves didn't really have it all that bad). Certainly there was a high instance of rape on plantations, but I don't know if it was this openly practiced, but I have no trouble believing it.

As an artifact of another era, Mandingo is interesting, but not very good.

Friday, July 05, 2013

Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor (I'll go with the American spelling), by Tana French, is an above-average police procedural that dovetails with both the recession in Ireland and the struggle with madness. Narrated by the chief investigator, it doesn't pull punches, as that character, Mick Kennedy, isn't a very nice fellow, but he's determined to get his man.

Kennedy, nicknamed "Scorcher," has a newbie as a partner, Richie Curran, who is trying to make the Dublin detective squad. Their first case is a triple-murder in a housing development in a place that was once called Broken Harbor. Kennedy used to summer there as a boy, but he holds bad memories of the place, as it is where his mother walked into the sea and never came back.

The housing development is one of those that was built on the promise of good times but has too many empty or half-completed houses. One of the families that bought in, the Spains, are the victims. The father and the two children are dead, the wife is nearly so. The first portion of the book goes into excruciating and fascinating detail on the forensics, giving it a CSI:Dublin feel to it. Soon enough Kennedy and Curran arrest the likely killer, but Curran has doubts, so they delve deeper. There will be a lot of time spent on what kind of animal was in the Spain's attic.

To further complicate things, Kennedy is visited by his mentally disturbed sister, Dina, which messes with his head. As Kennedy struggles to keep from becoming unglued, he wonders whether he can trust his partner.

Once I had gotten use to Kennedy's voice, which is pretty harsh, I settled in to enjoy the book. Kennedy is driven, perhaps obsessively so, to look at things in black and white: "I have always loved simplicity. With you, everything's black and white, Richie had said, like an accusation; but the truth is that almost every murder case is, if not simple, capable of simplicity, and that this is not only necessary but breathtaking, that if there are miracles then this is one. In these rooms, the world's vast hissing tangle of shadows burns away, all its treacherous grays are honed to the stark purity of a bare blade, two-edged: cause and effect, good and evil. To me, these rooms are beautiful. I go into them the way a boxer goes into the ring: intent, invincible, home."

Over the course of the book, Kennedy, perhaps in spite of himself, reveals his character, enriching the book beyond the nuts and bolts of the mystery. I particularly liked this passage: "In that moment I thought of Broken Harbor: of my summer haven, awash with the curves of water and the loops of seabirds and the long falls of silver-gold light through sweet air; of muck and craters and raw-edged walls where human beings had beat their retreat. For the first time in my life, I saw the place for what it was: lethal, shaped and honed for destruction as expertly as the trap lurking in the Spains' attic The menace of it left me blinded, sang like hornets in the bones of my skull." Lovely.

I recommend Broken Harbor to anyone who enjoys a crackling good mystery that is literary as well as a puzzle.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

World War Z

I didn't think there was more left to do with the zombie-film genre, from George Romano's Night of the Living Dead through 28 Days Later to the TV series The Walking Dead. But the genre has some life in it after all, as World War Z, directed by Marc Forster, provides some chills even as it serves as a cautionary tale.

Forster, who has directed films as wildly different as Finding Neverland and Quantum of Solace, has constructed a taut tale of biological horror. For unknown reasons, a virus has broken out worldwide. We see it first in Philadelphia, as a family of four, led by Brad Pitt, are stuck in traffic. Soon everyone is running amok, being chased by people who eager to bite their fellows. Once bitten, it only takes a few seconds for the virus to transfer, turning the victim into another crazed "zombie."

Pitt, it turns out, is a former troubleshooter for the United Nations. He's rescued off a rooftop in Newark by helicopter and taken to an aircraft carrier, along with his wife and daughters. The catch is he has to try to track down the source of the disease in order to create a vaccine. He doesn't want to do it, but they tell him he has to, or he and his family get sent back stateside.

Pitt then travels from Korea to Israel to Wales, following clues to the virus's source and its possible weakness. He notices that the zombies leave some people alone, and puts the pieces together.

This makes for some gripping scenes, and I knew it was effective because when I walked out of the theater I was looking over my shoulder, ready to be attacked. The zombies in this film, unlike the history of the genre, move fast, guided by the virus's instincts to find a host.

The first few scenes had me worried, though. We started with the cliche of the happy family, with the kids jumping into the parents' bed, followed by the obligatory pancake breakfast. When Tolstoy wrote that all happy families are alike, he must have meant that they all share pancake breakfasts, usually cooked by Dad. Then, the scenes in Philadelphia, though they get the film off to a quick start, are shot purposely jumbled, with hand-held cameras. I realize this creates a sense of disorientation to the viewer, but it also was annoying.

This calms down later. A scene in Jerusalem, which has the zombies breaching a large wall, is extremely well done, as is a sequence on a plane, when one zombie manages to get aboard. The climax, set in a research facility in Wales, reminded me of Alien in its hold-your-breath tension.

Based on the ending, we will get more World War Z films, which I'm fine with. I'm also convinced to give up my lonely plea to those who misuse the word zombie, in that these are not zombies by the definition of the word, i.e., the reanimated dead. This is obviously a losing battle.

My grade for World War Z: B

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

One of the nominees for last year's Best Foreign Language Oscar, No, a film by Pablo Larrain,  tells an interesting bit of Chilean history. In 1988, under mounting international political pressure, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet agreed to hold a plebiscite. With a simple yes or no vote, the public would decide whether to extend his term as president for eight years, or hold a democratic election for president.

Each side would get fifteen minutes of airtime a day. The No side, a collection of many different political parties, planned on using the horrendous record of Pinochet's torture and executions. But an advertising man (Gael Garcia Bernal) tells them that's all wrong. They have to sell a product, and it has to be light-hearted and funny.

And so we learn about how advertising works, whether it's to pitch a soda or a political idea. Bernal's approach works, and so his boss, a Pinochet supporter, offers him a partnership if he quits. Bernal refuses, so that boss takes over the Yes campaign. Meanwhile, Bernal and his family are intimidated by goon squads.

Larrain shot No using the same kind of video seen in newscasts, which gives it a off-putting quality. It also makes liberal use of the actual advertisements from the campaign (they got celebrity endorsements from American film stars). The editing is briskly paced, with conversations continuing over multiple locations.

Though No is entertaining, here's my problem with it--it has no surprises. By now, we know that a candidate is sold like a bar of soap, though they didn't seem to realize that in Chile in 1988. And the eventual outcome, which I wasn't sure of but surely Chileans would know, is inevitable. Everyone doubts Bernal, from his radical ex-wife to his boss, so we can sort of figure out how this will go.

Still, No is a well-made document of an interesting period in Latin American history, and is well worth a viewing.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

This Is Not a Film

In 2010, Iranian film director Jafar Pahani was arrested by authorities for being critical of the government. While waiting on appeal, he was banned from making movies, writing screenplays for 20 years, and could not leave the country. Searching for an outlet, he invited a friend, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, to come over to his apartment and film him reading a screenplay he had already written, reasoning that acting and reading didn't fall under the sentence.

The result is This Is Not a Film, an interesting exercise in avoiding censorship. Though Pahani was trying to keep to the sentence, it was still an illegal enterprise, and was smuggled out of the country on a flashdrive inside a cake.

The result is an odd mixture of the banal daily activities of Pahani and an aborted attempt to read his screenplay, and ends with Pahani talking to a custodian. I'm not sure what I think about it.

It turns out I have seen one of Pahani's films--Offside, which I enjoyed a lot. His new screenplay, which he reads two scenes from, is about a girl who wants to attend art school but her parents, religious extremists, forbid it and lock her in her room, where she contemplates suicide. But Pahani gets choked up, and wonders, "If one can tell a film, should one make a film?" He then looks at scenes from his films, and realizes that telling is not enough--acting and location can direct films.

The rest of the film is Pahani puttering around his apartment, talking to his lawyer, dealing with a neighbor who wants to drop off their barking dog, and then interviewing a young man who is filling in as a custodian in the building. Outside it is Fireworks Night, which is some sort of holiday, and I think some kind of protest. The last shot is the custodian leaving the building, a conflagration in the street.

Given the limits of Pahani's sentence, this is a remarkable victory in the war against oppression, but I'm not sure it's a good movie. If this were just a guy going about his day we would be terribly bored, so the context of the film is everything. It held my interest for the 78-minute running time, but I wouldn't recommend it to everyone.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Man of Steel

They keep trying, but they still haven't made a wholly satisfying Superman movie. I didn't care for any of the Christopher Reeve films, or the woeful Superman Returns of a few years ago, and I'm not that crazy about the newest entry, Man of Steel.

I shouldn't be surprised. There were two things working against it. For one, it was directed by Zack Snyder, one of my least favorite directors (he made 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch, all of which angered me). Second, I've never been much of a Superman fan. He always struck me as dull, while Batman and the angst-riddled Marvel superheroes were far more interesting.

Still, Man of Steel has some good parts. It's a straight up retelling of the origin story. We start on the planet Krypton, which has overmined its resources and is now crumbling. Jar-El (Russell Crowe) attempts to warn the powers-that-be, but the meantime there is a coup by the military leader, General Zod (Michael Shannon). Before the planet is destroyed, Crowe's baby is shipped off to Earth, and Zod and his co-conspirators are imprisoned in some sort of ever-wandering spacecraft.

We flash forward some years. The baby is now Clark Kent, raised by a famer and his wife (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). The lad has shown remarkable, inhuman abilities, such as super-strength and lasers shooting out of his eyes. The Kents have had him hide his powers, for fear he will be an outcast, but when he finally finds out his heritage (from his father, who though killed by Zod lives on in a computer program) he understands that he can save humanity from Zod, who has come looking for him.

Superman was created by two Jewish kids in the shadow of the Nazi menace, and so there has always been a diaspora quality to him. His origin story is very similar to Moses', after all. But this film gives him a Christ-like quality, from his age (33) to his being a savior. If we didn't get the point, Snyder even has Kent wandering into a church, with Christian images etched in stained glass all around him.

This makes for an interesting film, theologically speaking. I also liked some almost poetic shots, almost throwaways, such as a butterfly on the Kent family farm. But a Superman movie has to have action, and this is where the film lets us down.

Once Shannon and his minions come to Earth, he and Superman battle it out in exhausted, overheated fight scenes. They are badly edited, unable to resonate in the mind, so they just come off as hurly-burly. The ending features Metropolis being all but destroyed, and I'm weary of these scenes of mass destruction, which have been featured in too many films lately. Post 9/11, can we watch these without wondering about the loss of life? In this film, Daily Planet editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and an attractive young intern try to outrun a falling building, which I'm not sure is possible, and we endure wondering if they are safe. Sure, while hundreds of thousands are dying, let's make sure the character we don't even know the name of is okay.

This film has a good cast. Costner and Lane are very good, and Amy Adams is the venerable Lois Lane as the perky and persistent reporter. Shannon, a very good actor, manages to chew the scenery without losing his dignity. Henry Cavill is Superman, and he didn't really have much to do but look pained most of the time, as if suffering from irritable bowel syndrome. Cavill was very good in The Tudors, and looks great with his shirt off, but he wasn't really convincing as a man who's dealing with all the shit he would have to go through.

So, Man of Steel is not a total disaster, and not as brain-dead as a Snyder film usually is, but I'm still waiting for a really good Superman movie.

My grade for Man of Steel: C