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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Blurred Lines


I'm an old fart, so a lot of pop culture doesn't pierce the membrane of nostalgia I keep around me. But "Blurred Lines," the number one hit by Robin Thicke, with assistance by Pharrell and T.I., has managed to catch my attention.

The song, dubbed the "song of the summer" by many, has elicited all sorts of conversations about a number of facets of it--the video, which features almost nude models prancing like show horses, the lyrics, which to some are misogynistic and endorse rape, and the similarities to Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up;" the latter created enough of a stink that Thicke filed a pre-emptive suit against Gaye's estate.

The song itself, which I've heard only a few times, is catchy enough, but not very substantial. I'm not a club guy--I don't dance, and just listening to dance music isn't very interesting. Apparently this song, which has spent much of the summer at number one and topped charts all over the world, is now a staple at weddings, and even grandmas dance to it (this reminds me of the "Macarena" craze some fifteen years ago). It's got a nice hook, with the use of cowbells and the repeating "Hey, hey, hey," but it hasn't turned itself into an ear worm for me--if I try to recall how it goes, it's not easy for me to summon it. All in all, though, there are many number one songs that are not particularly distinctive, so it doesn't break new ground here.

It's the video that garnered my attention. The unrated one features three models, topless and in flesh-colored g-strings, cavorting with the three singers, who are fully clothed (another version sees the girls wearing tops). This has always been a bugaboo for feminists, who see it has equating women as objects, while the men are in some kind of control. I can't disagree, but this is not new. Frankly, men's bodies aren't as beautiful, and these women, including Emily Ratajkowski, who is currently number one on my imaginary girlfriend list, is incredibly attractive. She reminds me of a line by Woody Allen: "Her figure described a set of parabolas that could cause cardiac arrest in a yak."

The other girls in the video are no slouches: Elle Evans, who was once known as Lindsey Gayle Evans, was a Playboy Playmate and former beauty queen who is most infamous for being arrested for dining and dashing. The other girl is Jesse M'Bengue, about whom I know nothing.

So what does this video say, really? It reminds me of Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible," which featured him backed by sullen models pretending to play instruments. They were fully dressed, so Thicke merely kicks up the sexuality several notches. Is it offensive? In the grand scheme of things, I would say no, but I'm also not buying the counter-argument, that the girls, especially Ratajkowski, who frequently shows a look of disdain, are the ones in control. I suppose the big sign "Robin Thicke Has a Big Dick," which is shown twice, is some kind of joke, whether or not it is true--it's like Thicke is playing the part of a callow good-looking guy, but the girls are getting the last laugh. Uh huh.

Thicke has protested, saying that he and his mates are all married. It's really laughable to think that a guy thinks that married men are immune to being sexist pigs. I don't think he's a pig, but let's call this for what it is--cheesecake. And thank god for it.

As for the lyrics, I can't understand them so I had to look them up. It appears to be sung from the point of view of a guy who is trying to tell a girl that her boyfriend, who wants to marry her, is wrong for her, and that she should let her kinky side roam free, especially with him. In some ways it's like Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," except much more explicit: "I know you want it," repeated over and over. I don't really see anything in it about lack of consent, just a guy who is hoping she'll dump the stiff and get freaky. Perhaps "You're the hottest bitch in this place" is a bit much.

I also listened again to Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," and I don't see plagiarism. Both are catchy and use cowbells and a falsetto, but otherwise they don't remind me of each other. I'm not musically gifted enough to know much more than that--they certainly don't seem to have the same melodies, not like "She's So Fine" and "My Sweet Lord" did.

So, after all this, what can I say about "Blurred Lines?" It's a cute song, Robin Thicke seems to have some talent, and Emily Ratajkowski is a goddess. That's about all.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Black Angel

Black Angel, a noir from 1946, is really a run of the mill B picture until its socko ending, which I won't spoil here. The first time I saw it I was amazed at how the twist works, but viewing it a second time, knowing what was coming, the film didn't hold up as well.

Set in Los Angeles, the film begins with a forlorn Dan Duryea (a wonderful character actor of the period) standing outside an apartment building. The camera, in a bit of crude but effective special effects, swoops up and in through a window, where a beautiful woman is preparing to meet someone. She's a famous singer, and about as warm as a rattlesnake. Duryea, who wrote a hit song for her, is her estranged husband, but she won't see him. After being thrown out of the building by her doorman, he goes on a bender, and is put in bed by his friend (Wallace Ford).

It turns out the singer (played by model Constance Dowling) is a blackmailer, and a poor sap (John Phillips) shows up at her apartment to find her murdered. He does everything dumb, such as touching a gun lying on the bed to fleeing, but not before he's spotted. He gets convicted and sentenced to death, but his devoted wife (June Vincent) believes in his innocence. She tracks down Duryea who, sensing the goodness in her, decides to help. Finding a matchbook with a phone number in it leads them to a nightclub run by Peter Lorre, and the two go undercover as a pianist and singer duo to see if they can find incriminating evidence against him.

The spine of the film is the redemption of Duryea, who falls in love with Vincent. He cleans himself up and quits booze, though seeing the bottles in her cupboard makes him pause. The film has other charms, notably Lorre, who slinks through the film like a reptile, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip, his lummox of a bouncer, played by boxer Freddie Steele, and Broderick Crawford, with that marvelously silky voice, plays the sympathetic detective on the case. But the story is pretty thin until that ending.

It was directed by Roy William Neal, who made many of the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes pictures (it would be his last film) and based on a novel by hardboiled writer Cornell Woolrich, who hated the adaptation (I have a feeling the film softened a lot up).  It has many noir staples, such as the cold woman (Dowling's acting career never really took off, and she died in 1969 at age 49 of a heart attack) and the wonderful "drinking" montage, with Duryea shown stumbling down the street, or slumped at table, with the neon signs of various bars floating around him.

Black Angel is not a great film, but it's a nice bit of film noir.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Jeff, Who Lives at Home

Jeff, Who Lives at Home, a 2011 film by Jay and Mark Duplass, surprised me. I thought it would be about an unemployed guy who gets stoned all the time and lives in his mother's basement. Instead, it's about that guy as part of a mismatched buddy movie, the other half being his obnoxious brother. So we don't really find out what makes Jeff tick, or his brother, either--we just see their wacky adventures.

Though this was a let-down, it isn't a horrible movie. Jeff (Jason Segel), is a slacker who has had issues since his father died. I don't know exactly what those issues are, and I don't know why he can't hold a job. Pat (Ed Helms) is younger, has a job with a paint company (judging by the logo on his shirt) but it is an unrepentant asshole. The first we see him is telling his long-suffering wife (Judy Greer) that he has bought a Porsche, even though they don't own a house.

Segel, after getting a wrong number asking for someone named Kevin, thinks this is a cosmic sign (he worships at the shrine of the movie Signs, which will tell you how disturbed he is). This leads him to finding his brother, and they both see Greer having lunch with another man. Meanwhile, Susan Sarandon, as the men's mother, is working in an office and being flirted with over the computer by a secret admirer.

The movie rests on what ordinarily would be called coincidences, but the philosophy of Jeff (and the film) is that there are no coincidences. However, I'm still going to call bullshit on some of these groaners, such as Jeff walking in front of the Hooters where Pat is having lunch, at the same time that Sarandon is on the phone with Pat, asking him to take an interest in Jeff.

The film does have its selling points, though. Segel plays an appealing rootless man, who has his heart in the right place, though I can see how anyone in his family would be enraged by him. Helms doesn't fare as well, as his character is written so horribly that there is no way to sympathize with him, even after he reaches an epiphany. We can't see why Greer would have been attracted to him in the first place.

The ending did bring a tear to my eye, I'm ashamed to admit. For anyone who has a sibling they don't connect with, it should be very cathartic, as after all, family is our last refuge. I just wish the film, which is a brisk 83 minutes, spent less time on the plot and more on what happened to these two guys.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Chris Christie

A few months ago I made my first post about the 2016 presidential election, and posited that Jeb Bush may be the Republican nominee. Well, after Jeb made an ill-considered speech saying that "immigrants are more fertile," the notion of another Bush in the White House seems to be a fantasy.

Republicans, who usually have an orderly, almost Teutonic, succession for nominations, seem to have a wide open choice this time around. And things will be different, as the Tea Party now has many more members who have been elected to state legislatures and such; this may skew the nominating process even more to the right than it has been in the past.

This would be bad news for New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who, despite a typically mean and nasty conservative record, is appealing to centrist voters, and in my view, would give putative Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton the toughest fight.

Christie, who is running for re-election this year, has created a persona that celebrates him as being something of a regular guy and a straight-shooter. He loves Bruce Springsteen, and worked with President Obama in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, crossing party lines. Many in his party, and those who waver in party, might find him a refreshing alternative to the thoughtful Obama, as Christie is bumptious and arrogant (although Obama can certainly be arrogant).

But, as is always the case, the hard part will be getting the nomination. Christie, despite towing the line on most conservative issues--he's anti-choice, against gay marriage, against the Affordable Care Act (because of that, I will have to look into the Federal system, as he is preventing New Jersey from setting up its own exchange). But, whether sincerely or not, he has staked out a territory that John McCain had some years ago--he ignores party politics, and does what he thinks! To this end, he recently signed a law banning "gay aversion" therapy, and approved the use of medical marijuana. But note, he still doesn't believe in same-sex marriage, and the medical marijuana is only for children.

As a resident of Christie's state, I see firsthand the blowhard that he is. When Frank Lautenberg died, he shamelessly called for a special election that will cost the state over a million dollars to replace him. This, even though a general election will take place a month later. Why? Because Christie did not want to be on a ballot that included Cory Booker, who would surely attract more turnout from traditional Democrats who might vote for his opponent.

Christie is running twenty points ahead of his challenger, Barbara Buono (she has moved up ten points in the polls, which is kind of like saying the Titanic is sinking a little slower). He is immensely popular in a deep blue state, which would surely help the Republican party.

But, is Christie not conservative enough? The wingnuts who have taken over the party have decided that any cooperation with Democrats is like worshipping Satan. They are going after Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, of all people. Footage of Christie and Obama will be in the commercials of his primary opponents. He will not be "pure" enough. This is how the Republicans will lose another election.

Also, it will be interesting to see how an obese man does in this day and age. Christie is much slimmer after lap-band surgery, but is still a big man. I despise fat jokes, or any jokes about a person's appearance, even by comedians I normally respect. Will fat jokes subconsciously affect voters who might be put off by his appearance? We haven't had a fat president (I mean really fat, not like Bill Clinton) since Taft, and there were no late-night comedians than.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

As a young man, Cecil Gaines is told that black people need to have two faces--their real one, and the one they show to white people. That is the spine of a film with the unwieldy title Lee Daniels' The Butler (so named not because of Daniels' vanity but legal issues). This is a powerfully moving film that fights with itself--is it a gritty look at the transformation of black America during the civil rights movement, or is it a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with stunt casting?

I think the former eventually wins, and The Butler is a good movie, but it does constantly undermine itself with its often bizarre scenes set in the White House. Cecil Gaines, played as an adult by Forest Whitaker, will land a job there as a butler, spending thirty years under various administrations. Heeding the advice he got, he goes along to get along, remaining silent as the fate of his people are debated by presidents and their advisers.

His son, though (played excellent by David Oyelowo) wants to present only one face. He goes to college, becomes radicalized and becomes a freedom rider and then a Black Panther. This enrages his father, and the two do not speak for years. Their reconciliation at the end of the picture is very moving, and made me forget any of the gripes I had up until then.

If the film had been simply about the two men, it would have been a lot better. Frankly, the White House stuff is the least interesting, not helped by casting well-known actors as the presidents. Only James Marsden, as Kennedy, looks and acts like the man he plays. It's a toss up as to whether John Cusack as Nixon or Alan Rickman as Reagan are more egregiously awful. The presidents are all kind to the black staff (though LBJ still calls them n*ggers) and Reagan, even while gutting civil rights legislation, expresses doubts to Gaines. I question that Ronald Reagan ever had moments of self-doubt or introspection.

What works is the arc of Oyelowo, even if he seems to be at all the key moments in civil rights history (did he really have to be in Memphis for King's assassination?) A scene that intercuts between the staff preparing for a White House dinner and Oyelowo and compatriots sitting in at a diner is extremely effective. Another scene, in which he arrives for a family dinner in Black Panther regalia (his girlfriend, Yaya DaCosta, has a mighty 'fro) that erupts in an argument over Sidney Poitier rings true (my father and grandfather once had a blow-up argument that was about baseball manager Billy Martin).

Also well done are the early scenes, when Cecil is a young boy on a cotton plantation. Slavery has been over for several generations, but black people have little freedom, and Cecil watches as his father is gunned down after daring to say "Hey," to his boss after the white man raped his wife (played silently by Mariah Carey).

Daniels, who can go indulge in some crazy whims, keeps it relatively straight here. The performances by the principles, which include Oprah Winfrey as Whitaker's wife and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as another butler, are fine, but I found Whitaker to be problematic, as I never felt he had a true bead on the man. He saw horrors as a young man, found success in a white man's world, but also recognized injustices (he constantly fights for equal pay with the white staff) but I didn't find the performance or the script ever really revealed what made the man tick.

Still, this film got to me and I recommend it.

My grade for Lee Daniels' The Butler: B.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Oscar 2013, Best Picture: We Shall Overcome

12 Years a Slave
As the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington is commemorated, it's interesting to see that the Oscar race this year is dominated, relatively speaking, by films that deal with black issues. Up to three films that focus on the struggle of black people in America (and another that deals with South Africa) could be nominated for Best Picture. Needless to say, that would be unprecedented. The three American films are all directed by blacks; only two have been nominated for Best Director in the history of the Academy (John Singleton and Lee Daniels) and only one film that has been helmed by a black director, Precious, has been nominated for Best Picture.

Of course, there are plenty of white-themed films in the mix this year, and there's no guarantee that any of these African American-themed pictures will be nominated, but it seems likely that one or two will. What follows is my annual look at ten films that I think will be nominated; if my track record is consistent about five of them will make the actual cut. Only two of these have been released, and no doubt some of the other eight will sink without a sight, while films that are not on the radar right now will emerge. Again this year there will be five to ten nominees.

American Hustle (David O. Russell, December 13) Russell has a little streak of two straight Best Picture noms, and reteams his Silver Linings Playbooks stars Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro and Jennifer Lawrence, along with his The Fighter co-stars Amy Adams and Christian Bale. The film centers around the ABSCAM FBI sting of the late '70s, and seems to have the fashion and hairstyles that are historically correct. A cast this illustrious sets it up as a no-brainer if it's up to Russell's recent track record.

August: Osage County (John Wells, December 25) Another movie with a high-profile cast, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts headlining. The source play won the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony, and was one of the best plays I've ever seen. But it was also three hours long, so writer Tracy Letts surely had to murder some of his children and cut it. Also, the director, John Wells, is primarily a TV director and does not have a particularly distinctive filmography.

Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen, July 26) Allen has been an Academy darling, holding the record for most wins and nominations in the Original Screenplay category. This film has gotten some of the best reviews of his career, and Cate Blanchett is the current front-runner for Best Actress.

Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, October 11) Tom Hanks returns to prominence this year with two big roles, this one as the title character in the true story of the Maersk Alabama, which was taken by Somali pirates. Greengrass is an excellent director of films like this, and seems a natural as an Oscar contender.

Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler, July 12) Since the Best Picture nominations expanded, there has been room for more indie films, and this one, the sensation of Sundance, seems like it will cop that spot. It profiles the current situation that black men face in this country, and with the "stop and frisk" laws in the headlines these days, along with the shooting of Trayvon Martin, it is extremely timely.

Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron, October 4) Also getting more nominations since the field expanded are science fiction films, and this one has been on the horizon for a while. Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, if it meets expectations it should be in the mix.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, December 6) The Coens are also working on a two-in-a-row streak, and their last three out of four films have been nominated. This one interests me because of its setting--the New York folk music scene of the early '60s--but may not be catnip for the Academy. But you never know, and you can't ignore them.

The Monuments Men (George Clooney, December 18) Clooney has run hot and cold as a director, but this one seems enticing--Nazis and stolen art (and a small role by Bill Murray). Clooney could have as many as six nominations this year if everything goes right--he's also a producer of August: Osage County.

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, October 18) A true story about a free black who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Saw the trailer today; it looks absolutely harrowing. Chiwetel Ejlofer, Alfre Woodard, and Michael Fassbender star. Just a hunch, but I could see it winning it all.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, November 15) Scorsese in yet another collaboration with Leonardo DiCaprio. Four out of five of Scorsese's last films have been nominated for Best Picture (Shutter Island is the only one since the turn of the century that hasn't).

Also in the mix is Lee Daniels' The Butler, which may very well be nominated and is on my bubble. I saw it today and will write about it tomorrow. Additionally, there is Jason Reitman's Labor Day, Ron Howard's Rush, Saving Mr. Banks (with Hanks as Walt Disney), Dallas Buyer's Club, All Is Lost, Foxcatcher, Alexander Payne's Nebraska, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Cabin in the Woods

The whole post-modern, meta take on horror movies has been with us for a while, at least since the first Scream movie, and they're so common now that it's almost welcome to see an unironic horror flick. But The Cabin in the Woods is so meta that it's mind-bending, and it's very clever premise is really the selling point of the film--the actual dicing and slicing is beside the point.

Directed by Drew Goddard but from the mind of Joss Whedon, the film takes all the classic horror tropes and suggests that they are there for a reason--the very future of Earth hangs in the balance. Thus we get five types of college kids who visit an isolated cabin deep in the woods--The Jock, The Scholar, The Whore, The Fool, and The Virgin, who must be killed last (if at all).

I won't spoil the surprise of this film, because watching it unfold is the best reason to see the movie--watching it a second time would be a waste of time. Suffice it to say that the adventures of the students are interspersed with scenes of white-collar technicians monitoring them on cameras, and occasionally interfering (such as turning up the heat or spraying pheromones to get two characters to have sex), and betting on how they will die.

These office workers have some recognizable actors, such as Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins, and Sigourney Weaver pops up later. The cast of college kids were mostly unknown to me, though Chris Hemsworth, who I have trouble distinguishing from his brother Liam (I think this is the one that married Miley Cyrus) is the Jock. Notable as the pot-smoking Fool is Fran Kranz, who along with Amy Acker, also are featured in Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin would have turned 70 this year, and though I missed the actual date I did finally pick up a CD of  The Essential Janis Joplin and have been listening to it. It's hard to imagine her at 70, because so much about her was temporal--a meteoric streak across the '60s, through the drugs and music, at Monterrey and Woodstock, lover of many big names in the business, and finally dead at age 27.

Joplin was born in Port Arthur, Texas, did a bit of drifting, and ended up as a singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company. Her performance at 1967's Monterrey Pop Festival, most notably a rendition of Big Mama Thornton's "Ball and Chain," made her a star. She cut a few solo albums, had a few hits, but her reliance on Southern Comfort and heroin did her in. She died only 16 days after Jimi Hendrix did, also 27.

I would agree with those who call her the greatest female rock vocalist of all time, if you consider Aretha Franklin R&B. She had the old soul of some ancient blues singer, but looked like the quintessential hippie chick. But her voice, with sounded as if it were marinated in whiskey and tobacco, was transcendent of time. Consider the way she handled the song "Move Over:" she sings the line, "You say that it's over baby, you say that it's over now," with the emphasis on the second instance of the word "say," which she exclaims with some sort of hidden power. Or, in "Ball and Chain," the way she delivers the "whoa-oh-whoa" of the refrain, as if the entire heartache of mankind were resting on her shoulders.

The two-disc set has all of the stuff you'd expect, but I didnt' really discover anything great beyond what I already knew, although it was interesting to hear her cover The Bee Gees song "To Love Somebody." Her most well-known songs are "Piece of My Heart," a classic-rock staple that never fails to please me, "Summertime," the song from Porgy and Bess that she wails with emotion beyond her years, and her only number one hit, posthumously released, "Me and My Bobbie McGee," written by Kris Kristofferson about a woman but the genders switched for Joplin, a sublime record that chills. "I'd trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday of holding Bobbie's body next to mine." Sigh.

There's also the a capella ditty, "Mercedes Benz," a lark that she introduces as a "song of great social and political importance." "Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends. I've worked hard all my life with no help from my friends. Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz." The song ends with her saying, "That's it!" and giggling. That giggle gets to me. What would she sound like now?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Attenberg

Here's an indication that other countries view their films differently: Attenberg, written and directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari, was Greece's submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. To think that this small, exceedingly quirky film, which values silence as much as it does sound, would be considered the best film from a country is mind-blowing, considering that if it were an American film it would be on the festival circuit and would be lucky to get a release.

Attenberg is about a young woman, played winningly by Ariane Labed. She is mystified by sex, and finds it repulsive. Her friend, a promiscuous bartender, tries to teach her how to French kiss. This is the opening scene, which has the two women basically opening their mouths wide and swallowing each other's tongues. I can imagine all the older, more sedate viewers turning it off right there, but those who stick with it will find themselves drawn into Labed's story.

Her other condition is dealing with her father, who is in chemotherapy, though his death is imminent. The relationship between the two is painted so well and so touchingly that when she can't take discussing his funeral plans--apparently Greece does not allow cremation, and he does not want to become a diet for worms--that we feel her pain.

Labed is a cab driver, and strikes up a relationship with a passenger. She is a virgin, and fears she might be asexual, but gives it a go, and she finds a partner who is willing to take it slow, though he does go crazy when she describes everything she is doing. The film is very frank about sexuality, and Labed gives a naked performance, literally and figuratively.

The film also has its share of quirks, foremost being the non sequiter scenes of Labed and her friend locking arms in dresses of the same pattern, marching as if they were in the Ministry of Silly Walks. I have no idea what this was supposed to mean, but it's not boring.

Oh, and the title? Well, Labed has trouble relating to those of her own species, and seems more at home watching the documentaries by nature film maker David Attenborough. The title is how they pronounce the name in Greece, I guess.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Woody Allen has said for years that he finds drama more substantial than comedy--he calls writing drama "eating at the adult's table." With his latest film, Blue Jasmine, he pays a homage to the tragedians of his admiration, most notably Tennessee Williams, for this film bears more than a passing resemblance to A Streetcar Named Desire.

Cate Blanchett, who played Blanche Dubois in Streetcar on Broadway, stars as Jasmine French (she changed the name for the more prosaic Jeannette). As the film opens, she has come, tail between her legs, to live with her comparatively dowdy sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), who is dating a brutish auto mechanic (Bobby Cannavale). As the film unfolds, we learn that Blanchett is at the end of her rope, flirting with madness. Her husband (Alec Baldwin), was a financier who has been busted for white-collar crime, a la Bernie Madoff. Part of his crime was to squander the fortune of Hawkins and her ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay).

Blanchett, used to living a life of luxury on Park Avenue, the Hamptons, and San Tropez, bristles at Hawkins' humble abode in San Francisco (at least the cost of living is still high). She is forced to take a job with a grabby dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) and tries to get on with her life, but falls into a relationship with a would-be politician (Peter Sarsgaard), but this relationship is founded on the lies she finds it too easy to tell.

I found Blue Jasmine to be an excellent film, and unlike some of Allen's other dramas, doesn't stint on jokes. But perhaps I expected too much--it's not that good. Certainly Blanchett is brilliant--her Jasmine is so real it's kind of scary. The character is almost always on something, whether it's vodka or Xanax, and Blanchett is able to convince us of her self-induced fogs just by her eyes and facial expressions. But it's not showy--I never found her to be chewing the scenery, and always played the scene truthfully.

Perhaps what bothers me is that I never could get Allen's point in contrasting Jasmine and Ginger's lives. He pointedly makes them adopted, so they don't share blood; their connection is not a randomness of biology but of civil action. Hawkins, like Stella Kowalski in Streetcar, is unfailing cheerful, but finally has enough of Blanchett's snobbery, long after any audience member would have blown their top.

Allen, who I imagine doesn't rub elbows with the common man much these days, even at Madison Square Garden during the Knick games, doesn't mock Hawkins' lifestyle, but uses it for easy gags. A long and otherwise funny scene with Blanchett, Hawkins, and Cannavale at a wharf-side restaurant gets a little weird when Cannavale brings a buddy along as a blind date for Blanchett. (he's played deftly by Max Casella). Blanchett, thrust into the world of regular people, can hardly stand engaging in conversation as they suggest jobs for her. I felt Allen's script tilted negatively toward the 99 percenters, as flashbacks to Blanchett's life with Baldwin is painted as rosy as possible, even if it is built on sand.

Another scene is a flashback to when Hawkins and Clay visit Blanchett and Baldwin in New York (I'm as surprised as everyone by how good Clay is). Again, the jokes are good but easy, as the two rich people can hardly stand the relatives from Palookaville.

A sub-plot involving Hawkins' affair with a sweet-mannered man (Louis C.K.) offers an interesting counterpoint to the main storyline. In a way, this thread is more heartbreaking, as Hawkins is a much more sympathetic figure.

I don't want to be make it sound like I'm picking on this film--it's very good, and has a lot of great moments. Allen enthusiasts will get a kick out of the name of Stuhlbarg's character--he's Dr. Flicker, the same name of the doctor in Annie Hall who tells young Alvy Singer not to be worried about the universe expanding. Hawkins is great, Baldwin is perfect--he's sort of the go-to guy on rich cads these days--and Blanchett, though her character may be getting what she deserves, is luminous. I think she's got to be the frontrunner right now to win Best Actress next Oscar ceremony.

My grade for Blue Jasmine: B+.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

As I wend my way through all things Mexican, surely the most famous film ever set in Mexico (and shot there, a most unusual thing for the time period) was John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, an American classic from 1948. I must have seen this film as a kid, but in looking at it yesterday I was amazed at how it hasn't dated, and how its duality of being both simple and complex make it timeless.

The film is basically about human greed, and the screenplay, by Huston based on the novel by B. Traven, is elegant at showing how the pursuit of riches warps men. It opens in Tampico, Mexico, where two Americans down on their luck (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) both get hired for construction work. They are screwed out of their pay, though, and end up in a flophouse. There they meet a grizzled old prospector (Walter Huston), and after Bogart wins the lottery, team up to follow the old man into the hills to search for gold.

What is fascinating about this first third of the film is that the men don't really have a backstory. Huston tells us that he has prospected all over the world, but other than that we have no idea where these men come from, whether they have families, and why they are in Mexico in the first place. It is 1925, a time of political peril in Mexico, as ruthlessly efficient police, called "federales," deal with bandits who will kill a man to take his boots. This makes the search for the gold elemental, and their eventual downfall inevitable.

Eventually they make a strike (in a famous scene, Huston laughs uproariously and dances a jig as he shows the pikers the gold lying on the ground). But each doesn't fully trust the other, and Bogart in particular becomes increasingly paranoid. When another prospector (Bruce Bennett) stumbles upon them, his fate hangs in the balance, as one of the three options is killing him.

After encounters with bandits (the most famous line in the picture is by Alfonso Bedoya, the bandit known as Gold Hat, who replies, after claiming he is a federale, " Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges") and the native Indians, the three men turn on each other, with Bogart the catalyst. Holt and Huston are resolutely honest and fair, while Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs (who frequently refers to himself in the third person) becomes as twisted as rope strands.

Of course this will lead to tragedy, and the ending becomes a cosmic joke, as the remaining men will realize the comedy and laugh. This ending, in which riches are literally blown away, recalls von Stroheim's Greed and will be repeated in films as varied as Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, the original Ocean's 11, and even It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

The behind-the-scenes stuff is pretty interesting. This was John Huston's follow-up to the great The Maltese Falcon, and he had wanted to make it ever since reading the book in the '30s. The war delayed that, and the producer, Henry Blanke, basically spun his wheels on the project to keep other directors from shooting it. Jack Warner gave Huston full freedom, despite that the film had no female love interest and was consistently downbeat.

The film has some notable cameos, including Huston himself, who plays a rich American in a white suit who gives money to Bogart three times. Robert Blake, then a child, plays the Mexican boy who sells Bogart the lottery ticket, and there's some controversy about whether Ann Sheridan is the woman who plays a walk-on role of a prostitute.

Walter Huston was John Huston's father, and both nabbed Oscars; the younger for both writing and directing, the father for Best Supporting Actor (this would be repeated only once, with Francis and Carmine Coppola both winning for The Godfather, Part II). The film lost Best Picture to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, and was not a box office success, as it was perhaps too European and ahead of its time for the audiences of the late '40s.

B. Traven is the most enduring literary mystery of the 20th century, as no one can definitively say who he was. He was alive during the filming, and a so-called assistant was present on the set (and received $100 a week) as a consultant. Many thought he was Traven, but John Huston doubted it. It's hard to believe in this day and age someone's identity can remain hidden like that, but there it is.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an almost perfect film. My only quibble is with the score, by Max Steiner, which is at times intrusive and overbearing. Also, Holt, who never really became a star, is a bit stiff in his part. But Bogart and Huston give performances for the ages.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Feast of Wire

Many years ago I picked up an album by a group called Calexico called Hot Rail. I liked it very much, and put their next album, 2003's Feast of Wire, on my Amazon wish list. There it sat, and finally, after more than ten years, I bought it. I love it; it's even better than Hot Rail.

Calexico are a couple of Americans--Joey Burns and John Convertino, plus a lot of other contributing musicians--who play a kind of amalgamation of rock and roll, jazz, and traditional Mexican music. The opening track, "Sunken Waltz," has the unmistakable sound Mexican sound of accordions. The album is full of Latin horn riffs and steel guitar. But it's impossible to classify Calexico's sound simply as border music. Perhaps the other term that's used, desert noir, is more fitting.

While many of the songs do sound Mexican, some certainly do not. "Not Even Stevie Nicks," with an enigmatic title and even more enigmatic lyrics:

"With a head like a vulture
and heart full of hornets
he drives off the cliff
and into the blue
not even the priestess
with her wrenches and
secret powers
could save (steer) him
from danger for a little while
not even she could save him"

sounds a lot like an emo-rock song, say by Death Cab for Cutie. "Crumble," an instrumental, is straight-up jazz, with a great trumpet solo by Jacob Valenzeula. "Black Heart" is sort of an art-rock song, dominated by a keening violin that sounds as if it's in its death throes. "Close Behind" sounds like the opening theme to a great Spaghetti Western, and "Across the Wire" is a traditional Mexican ballad.

My favorite tracks are two instrumentals. "Attack El Robot! Attack!" has a sci-fi sound, with a terrific minor key hook, and "Guero Canelo," which was featured on the soundtrack of Michael Mann's Collateral, is a groovy finger-snapping boogie with vocals that sound like a bullfrog. After a little research I find that Guero Canelo means "Cinnamon Blonde," although there is some dispute about this.

Calexico has made quite a few more albums in the meantime, and have a couple dating from before Hot Rail. Hopefully I'll get to the next one before a decade has passed--I just don't have that much more time.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi, a 2011 film by David Gelb, is a fascinating documentary that is, on its surface, about a sushi chef, but in deeper levels says a lot about fathers and sons, the definition of success, and the role of work in Japanese culture. After viewing it, it's hard to know what to feel about Jiro--you will either admire him, feel sorry for him, or both.

At 85 when the film was made, Jiro's restaurant is acknowledged as the best in Tokyo, by far. He received the highest rating from the Michelin Guide, which indicates that a trip to Japan just to visit the place is worth it. He has been at it for 75 years, starting work as a boy, and never ceasing to try to improve himself, with perfection the never-reachable goal. As the title states, sushi occupies him even while he sleeps.

But something is missing from the man. He says that finding a job you love and then becoming great at it is what success is. I can't argue with that, but it seems to me there has to be something else. It's painfully obvious that Jiro, who only takes national holidays off (perhaps because it's the law) has never read a book, gone to a ball game or movie, or taken a nature hike. His entire focus is on the preparation of food.

This extends to his family. He has two sons, both of whom were dissuaded from college and went to work for him. His second son has a mirror-image restaurant (Jiro is left-handed, the son right). The elder son, who is fifty, still works for his father. He is asked if he is jealous of his younger brother operating his own place, and replies that in Japanese culture it is expected that the eldest son succeeds the father. But he doesn't really answer the question. Jiro laughs when he recalls that he was never around during their boyhoods, up at 5 and back at 10.

Many customers are intimidated by eating at his place. There are only ten seats, and it's a counter, so he gives you the food and watches while you eat. There's really no room for conversation, and people are usually out in 15 minutes. But, as a food writer says, he's never had a bad experience there, and Jiro's courses are like music, with three movements. There is nothing on the menu but sushi.

I'm not sure I would want to eat in that situation, but the film is certainly rhapsodic about the food. I've only eaten sushi that I'm sure would horrify Jiro--shrink-wrapped and sold in supermarkets. But he is a fascinating study, a focused workaholic with no interior life that doesn't involve sushi. As a hedonist who would quit work in a second if I could, I'm alternately awed and appalled by people like him.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Count of Monte Cristo

Before I begin my critique of this novel, I must say there is a certain satisfaction upon finishing a long book. I read this on a Kindle, but it must be near a thousand pages in printed form. I started it on April 25th, so it took me nearly four months to complete. Now, I rotate among a handful of books at the same time, but still, it was with me for a long time, longer than some marriages, longer than the William Henry Harrison presidency. Reading a book like this is like climbing a mountain--the precipice is in sight, but sometimes it's a long way off, and when I reach it, whether the book is good, bad, or indifferent, there's an incredibly smug feeling of accomplishment, as if I've done something that no one else has done.

Anyway, The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, is one of those books that almost everyone has heard of, but I imagine few people today have actually read. Most literate people know the set-up: a young man, Edmond Dantes, is falsely imprisoned. He languishes for years, but manages to escape with the help of a fellow prisoner, an Abbe who tells him of a vast fortune hidden on a small, uninhabited island called Monte Cristo. The Abbe dies, but Dantes takes his place in a bag that is tossed into the sea. He survives, finds the treasure, and plots revenge on his enemies.

The book was published in 1844, and has been made into countless plays and movies. Eugene O'Neill's father, an actor, played the part of Dantes for years in a touring production, and the family house in Connecticut was called the Monte Cristo Cottage. It's also been parodied--I know that The Simpsons tackled it, with Mr. Burns as the prisoner who tries to tunnel his way out.

What I didn't know was that the part that everyone knows--the imprisonment and escape, takes up only a small part of the book. Dantes is a sailor, who is promoted by his kindly boss. This incurs jealousy in the part of the second mate, Danglars. He is also affianced to Mercedes, but has a rival in her cousin, Fernand. They team up to accuse him, anonymously, of being a Bonapartist (the emperor was then on Elba). The prosecutor, Villefort, sees through the falsehood, but Dantes' evidence is a letter which incriminates Villefort's father, so he destroys it, allowing an innocent man to go to prison.

What takes up the vast remainder of the book is Dantes insinuating himself in French and Italian society (he buys the island and the title of Count from the Tuscan government). It takes long and labyrinthine turns, with the Count often disappearing for several pages at a time. I had forgotten some of the side trips by the time I got to the end of the book, such as those dealing with Roman bandits.

What gives the book an extra edge is Dantes' methods. He doesn't just want to get basic revenge, like simply killing someone. He goes to great lengths to ruin them, make them insane, or drive them to suicide, sometimes all of the above. At times this includes destroying their whole families. Mercedes, who went on to marry Fernand and had a son, Albert, begs him (she's the only one who recognizes him) to spare the life of her son, who has challenged Dantes to a duel. He was ready to kill the young man, but due to Mercedes' pleas, he decides he will die instead. A different resolution saves both of them.

What he does to Villefort is perhaps most encompassing. He endeavors for a series of poisonings to wipe out almost the whole family. In fact, there's more than a bit of cruelty to Dantes, some that transcends simple revenge. For example, he saves the financial life of his former boss, but does it at the last second, when the good man has a gun to his head, ready to shoot himself.

Dantes eventually recognizes this part of himself, and questions: "Having reached the summit of his vengeance by a long and tortuous path, he saw an abyss of doubt yawning before him." But a visit, as a tourist, to his former cell, reassures him that he was in the right. It makes for a great ethics conversation though--is revenge ever justified?

Dumas, who also wrote The Three Musketeers, is a florid writer, befitting the serial origins of the book. It was a huge bestseller, and often goes nakedly into melodrama. When Dantes unmasks himself to Villefort, he says, "I am the spectre of a wretch you buried in the dungeons of the Chateau d'If. God gave that spectre the form of the Count of Monte Cristo when he at length issued from his tomb, enriched him with gold and diamonds, and led him to you!"

Still, this is what is sometimes called a very good yarn. If one can make it through the extraneous parts, it is a rewarding (and lengthy) read.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Hunter

The Hunter is a 2011 film from Australia, more precisely Tasmania, that is taut, slow-building, and completely absorbing. Willem Dafoe gives a quiet, understated, but devastating performance as a man who changes, and it's the genius of the performance, the writing, and the direction that that change is understandable.

Directed by Daniel Nettheim and adapted from a novel by Julia Leigh, it stars Dafoe as some kind of master hunter. He's been hired by a corporation to find what may be the last Tasmanian tiger, a carnivorous marsupial that was thought to go extinct in 1936.

Dafoe, posing as a zoologist, bunks with a family near the wilderness. At first he just deals with the two children, because their mother (Frances O'Connor), is medicated after the disappearance of her husband, lost in the bush. Dafoe tries to stay removed from their problems, especially a conflict with logging interests, but can't help but be drawn into their lives. He also becomes more and more respectful of the animal he is tracking.

Nettheim uses the Tasmanian locations to great effect--an old guide (Sam Neill) tells Dafoe that some areas have been never been visited by man, and you can believe it. But what hovers over all of this is the tantalizing mystery of the thycaline, the Tasmanian tiger, which is one of those cryptids that people have been sighting for years but have no authentic proof of. The mystery wraps itself around this film, and I'm still haunted by some of the images, especially the last few scenes, which I won't give away here.

The Hunter is an outstanding film, and is even more of a gift to cryptozoologists, professional and amateur alike.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Canyons

The stunt casting of The Canyons got me to tune in on Video on Demand, and though the film is not very good I wouldn't call it a waste of time. It's evidence that despite her many troubles, Lindsay Lohan is a very good actress, and that porn stud James Deen, while not a great actor, is not a disaster.

Directed by Paul Schrader, with a script by literary bad boy Bret Easton Ellis, The Canyons harkens back to other Schrader works like American Gigolo. The palate is cool colors, the score heavy on electronica, the attitude arrogant. Though Lohan is the big name here, it is actually Deen's picture, and he walks through it like a man who knows he's got a big cock (which does get a cameo).

The plot is a basic soap opera. Deen, a trust-fund douchebag, is living with Lohan, who basically is with him because of his money and his Malibu mansion. Deen is into kinky stuff like swinging, or just having guys watch him and Lohan fuck.

Deen's assistant (Amanda Brooks) is dating a would-be actor (Nolan Funk). Deen is putting some of his money into a horror film, and Brooks gets him to cast Funk in the lead. Unbeknownst to Brooks or Deen is that Lohan and Ryan used to be a thing, and have started sleeping together again. Deen, who is not above cheating on Lohan with his yoga instructor, suspects her and starts having them followed.

While it's all basically a dressed up Cinemax movie, complete with soft-core sex scenes (and Lohan does show off her body--the days of Herbie the Love Bug are long gone), I think Ellis and Schrader were going after something bigger, but what I don't know. In the opening credits and punctuating each chapter are shots of abandoned movie theaters. They are worthy as photographs, but I didn't get the connection. Ellis has long written about the soulless lives of young people, especially in L.A., and Deen's character is a doozy. I've seen Deen in countless adult films (I can't really recall another male adult performer making the gulf to mainstream as a lead), and he always projected a puppy-dog boyishness, but his character here is so callow that I wonder if I'll ever see him again without thinking of this film.

The film makes a turn toward crime in the last act, something I'm not sure I bought. Perhaps this film is really about possessiveness, as the love expressed in the film goes unrewarded. Thus the murder that takes place really doesn't fit, except it had to go somewhere.

The Canyons is a moody film, but not particularly erotic or interesting.

My grade for The Canyons: C-.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Enter the Dragon

It's the 40th anniversary of Enter the Dragon, the most important Chinese martial arts film ever--the first to be made by a Hollywood studio. It was also the first Hollywood-made action film to feature an Asian-American star, and it was that star's last film.

I am not a big fan of martial arts films--I find too much kicking people in the head to be tedious, but I enjoyed this film. I even enjoyed it's obvious rip-off of the James Bond film Dr. No--the screenwriter, Michael Allin, even admitted it. It has a groovy '70s grindhouse feel to it, but does not look overly cheap, and Lee was a magnetic presence, and obviously did his own stunt work.

Lee plays a monk in a Shaolin temple. He is recruited by the British government to go undercover and attend a tournament held on the private island of Han (Shih Kien), a Shaolin monk gone rogue, to get the goods on him. Later Lee will discover that Han's men, including a giant white man called Oharra (Bob Wall) was responsible for his sister's death, so watch out.

Also in the tournament are a slick con man (John Saxon) and a black guy with a classic Afro, Jim Kelly. Meanwhile, Lee makes contact with another operative, and snoops around, discovering an opium operation.

The many fights here are well done (the choreography was by Lee) without looking ridiculous. Too many of these films are structured like video games, where the hero fights one guy at a time, but this was before video games, and Lee's speed and agility are shown off to realistic effect (this reminded me of the opening of Yojimbo, in which ninja Toshiro Mifune's impossible speed is placed in a physical reality). Lee isn't much of an actor when it comes to speaking, but given the historical aspects of his ethnicity, it's to be forgiven.

The parallels to Dr. No and other James Bond films are laughably obvious. Kien even looks like Dr. No, with a metal hand (he also pets a white cat like Blofeld). There are lots of beautiful babes on Han's island (Chinese actresses refused to play prostitutes, so they got the real thing from Hong Kong's bordellos), and of course, there are the ultimate showdowns.

Saxon, who was a staple of '70s B films, plays a good guy for once, and is amusingly droll.

Lee died only a few days before the film was released at age 32.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

If an outsider wanted to understand American culture during the first years of the 21st century, he might do so by reading Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, easily the best new novel I've read this year. Focused on one day in the life of a lowly 19-year-old soldier, it's how we've magnified everything, from heroism to sports to entertainment, into an amorphous lump of hyperbole, until it almost means nothing.

Billy Lynn is one of Bravo Company, who performed a heroic deed in the Iraq War. The men are treated to a whirlwind of activity, celebrated everywhere and, of course, used as political pawns. This culminates on Thanksgiving Day, as they attend a Dallas Cowboys game. They will get to meet the owner, the players, and be part of the half-time show, which features Beyonce.

Also during this day they will be squired by a Hollywood guy, who is trying to turn their story into a movie, though there are a few bumps--Hilary Swank is interested, and she wants to play Billy. But they've been promised $100,000 each. Billy is inclined to follow the lead of his no-nonsense Sergeant Dime, and also thinks of what his fallen comrade, Shroom, would do. Shroom died during the event, but acts as an unseen conscience for Billy.

This book is both penetratingly sociological and hysterically funny. Fountain writes so many pearls of wisdom that I can't hope to share them all here, but he certainly has his finger on the pulse of America during the Bush years--what could be more representative than a Cowboys game? Fountain fictionalizes the owner--there's no Jerry Jones here, at least not named--as well as the players. He also introduces a cheerleader, Faison, who falls for Billy. She's an evangelical, but she isn't such a prude that she doesn't stop from letting Billy dry hump her.

The use of military heroes to bolster a country's sinking morale is nothing new, but it is always shameless. As Fountain notes: "Desperation's just part of being human, so when relief comes in whatever form, as knights in shining armor, say, or digitized eagles swooping down on the flaming slopes of Mordor, or the U.S. cavalry charging out of yonder blue, that's a powerful trigger in the human psyche. Validation, redemption, life snatched from the jaws of death, all very powerful stuff. Powerful."

But I was constantly snickering at the observations of life in America these days, the land of consumers. "Billy thinks about this as he eyes the fast food outlets that line the stadium concourse, your Taco Bells, your Subways, your Pizza Huts and Papa John's, clouds of hot meaty gases waft from these places and surely it speaks to the genius of American cooking that they all smell pretty much the same. It dawns on him that Texas Stadium is basically a shit hole. It's cold, gritty, drafty, dirty, in general possessed of all the charm of an industrial warehouse where people pee in the corners. Urine, the faint reek of it, pervades the place."

The novel will build to two decisions--will the Bravos take the deal of the Cowboys owner, a bumptious blowhard, to make their movie, and will Billy heed the advice of his sister and go AWOL (despite their heroism, Bravo company have to deploy after the game) and run off with his cheerleader? Though the ending didn't quite match the build-up, it was satisfying nonetheless, as Dime facing off against the owner is classic.

Fountain also attacks some American institutions, such as the game of football itself: "And if it was just this, Billy thinks, just the rude mindless headbanging game of it, then football would be an excellent sport and not the bloated, sanctified, self-important beast it became once the culture got its clammy hands on it. Rules. There are hundreds, and every year they make more, an insidious and particularly gross distortion of the concept of 'play,' and then are the meat-brain coaches with their sadistic drills and team prayers and dyslexia-inducing diagrams, the control-freak refs running around like little Hitlers, the time-outs, the deadening pauses for incompletes, the pontifical ceremony of instant-replay reviews, plus huddles, playbooks, pads, audibles, and all the other manner of stupefactive device when the truth of the matter is that boys just want to run around and knock the shit out of each other."

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity is a young adult novel by Elizabeth Wein that has won all sorts of awards, and is an uncompromising look at the role two young women during World War II. But I had trouble engaging with it, and didn't like it as much as I would have liked.

The novel is in two halves. The first half is the written confession of an English (or, as she keeps pointing out, Scottish) spy who has been captured by the Nazis and is kept in a prison in the fictional city of Ormaie. She was caught by looking the wrong way in crossing a street. Her confession is rambling, and the gestapo chides her for making it like a narrative. Indeed, she even goes so far as to writing it in the third person, and we the reader don't know who she is in the story.

That threw me off, as it is well into the story that I realized she is not Maddie Brodatt, who is a young pilot who is recruited by the Air Transport Auxiliary, usually ferrying personnel around the U.K. It is while she is doing this she meets the narrator of the first half of the book, who doesn't reveal her name until the end of that half, so I won't reveal it here.

Our narrator is seen by the other prisoners as collaborating, but we realize that she is an unreliable narrator, and the information she is giving may not be accurate. But her imprisonment is nonetheless harrowing, and at the end of the half we are told she will be sent off to a place to be used for medical experiments.

The second half details Maddie's adventure flying into France to meet with resistance fighters. They are going to try to rescue the spies capture in Ormaie and blow up the gestapo headquarters. This is a more conventional and easy to follow spy story, and the scene in which the narrator and Maddie see each other again is very well done.

The book is okay, but I wasn't gripped by it as others have been. It is informational on how women contributed to the war effort, and Maddie is a great character (she is the one who is able to fix a stalling automobile, not the men around her). I just felt at a distance from the characters, and it's perhaps because I never got fully in stride after the subterfuge of the first chapters. I also wonder why she fictionalized many things, including the city of Ormaie, which had me wondering about where it was supposed to be.

The prose is very good, though, with this passage close to the end very beautiful: "But a part of me lies buried in lace and roses on a riverbank in France--a part of me is broken off forever. A part of me will always be unflyable, stuck in the climb."

Friday, August 09, 2013

Duck Season

This small Mexican film from 2004, which was the darling of many festivals and got a big push from Alfonso Cuaron,  is an odd and interesting work, but isn't quite as profound as it thinks it is. Written and directed by Fernando Eimbcke, and shot in black and white, it takes a banal setting--an apartment on a lazy Sunday, and makes it into something epic.

Flama (Daniel Miranda) and Moko (Diego Catano) are two 14-year-olds who have been left alone for the day. They are excited, as they have everything they need--video games, manga comics, Coke, and money to order pizza. But little by little their day turns into something different. First a pretty next-door neighbor girl stops by to use their oven. Then the power goes off. Then their pizza arrives, but in a stand-off over whether the driver was on time or not, he stays and demands his money.

That's basically it. Aside from a few scenes of the driver (named Ulises, but I didn't get a Homeric vibe from his character) on his motorbike, the film is entirely set in the apartment. After the mother leaves, it's just these four characters. The girl, Rita (Danny Perea) is trying to bake a cake, and ends up flirting with Catano, but he's got a crush on Miranda. The driver reveals that he really wanted to be a veterinarian, and would like to get into the parakeet-breeding business. And a painting of ducks holds a special control over them all, even more so after they ingest pot-laced brownies.

The film is edited in blackout style, and some of it is very droll. But I was never fully engaged--at times it sinks under the weight of its own preciousness. The theme of ducks and their migration habits never really resonated with me, and the use of pot-laced pastries is getting to be a cliche to allow characters to expose their inner behavior (it used to be alcohol).

Still, Duck Season is an ambitious film for a low budget, and has a lot to admire.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Night of the Iguana

As I embark on this tour of Mexican culture, I wanted to include plays, but after looking online for a good long while I see that though there are many Mexican playwrights, there is no particularly great one, not like there are great Spanish dramatists. There certainly have been plays set in Mexico, and the most famous is surely Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana, which also coincides with my reading of his complete dramatic oeuvre.

Premiering on Broadway in 1961, The Night of the Iguana is set in a small town on the Pacific coast of Mexico in 1940, as Williams writes, "The west coast of Mexico had not yet become the Las Vegas and Miami Beach of Mexico." The setting is a hotel, owned and operated by a blowzy woman called Maxine (she was played by Bette Davis and later Shelley Winters on Broadway, and by Ava Gardner in the film directed by John Huston).

The action begins with Shannon, a former Episcopalian priest, huffing and puffing his way up the hill to the hotel. He is a frequent visitor (it can be assumed that he and Maxine have a past) and has brought a busload of Baptist Texas women as part of a tour he is operating for a third-rate tour company. He is upending the schedule, and hears about it from Miss Fellowes, the scolding organizer of the tour. Shannon has also dallied with a teenage girl on the tour, something he has a weakness for.

Also staying at the hotel is Hannah Jelkes, a fortyish spinster who "suggests a Gothic cathedral image of a medieval saint, but animated." She travels the world with her grandfather, "97 years young," "the world's oldest poet," who is wheelchair bound, blind, and struggling to finish his last poem.

It is this mixture, plus a captured iguana that is tethered below the hotel's veranda, which will make for a wonderful play. The quality of Williams' output had started to wane, and this is perhaps his last great play, a sparklingly funny and haunting look at individuals who, like the iguana, are at the end of their rope.

The greatest creation here is Shannon (played by Patrick O'Neal on Broadway, Richard Burton in the film), the former priest. Why former? "Fornication and heresy...in the same week," he replies. Besides his predilection for underage girls, he took to the pulpit and denounced God as a "senile delinquent," and was subsequently committed to an institution.

Despite his ephebophilia, he is somehow drawn to Hannah, who holds her own, even when confronted with the fact that she has no money to pay for the hotel (she plans on selling her drawings to pay her way).  It's as though he recognizes something of himself in her, of the lost soul within. She is also not immune to his charms, though not so much as a held hand is shared between them. He does ask her if she has had any sort of love life, and she responds by sharing two stories: when she was a teenager, a man put his hand on her knee in a movie theater, and much later an Australian salesman took her out in a boat and, after asking for a piece of clothing, masturbated, though she turned her back to him during the deed.

Hannah is in stark contrast to Maxine, who is earthy and wanton, and walks onstage with her blouse half undone after a tryst with her 20-year-old employee. She is recently widowed--her fisherman husband died after a hook cut his flesh and got infected--but she still has a strong libido. It's interesting that Davis created this role, as it's completely unflattering--Shannon tells her that tight pants are not her friend--while I can certainly see Winters in the part.

An added element is a German family staying at the hotel. Given that it's 1940, it's certainly Williams' way of allowing the world to slip into this jungle of lost souls, as the family sings Nazi marching songs and follows the Battle of Britain on the radio. They were cut from the film.

The metaphor of the iguana, which is caught and then tied up and fattened for eating, is a bit clunky, but not ineffective. The parallel between the lizard and Shannon is drawn when he pulls off the gold cross around his neck, freeing himself from the shackles of his past.

Finally, the old man completes his poem, Shannon frees the iguana and accepts an offer from Maxine. For a Williams play, it's a pretty happy ending.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Dick

Back before it was revealed that Mark Felt was the Watergate source "Deep Throat," I'll bet you wondered: "Maybe Deep Throat is a couple of fifteen-year-old girls." That's the premise of the sublimely funny Dick, which posits that the Nixon presidency was brought down by a pair of not very bright schoolgirls.

I saw the film on its release in 1999, but I think I enjoyed it more this time, as it is unadulterated bliss, which manages to be a wicked satire and a sweet teen comedy. Nixon apologists won't like it, but what do they know?

Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams are Betsy and Arlene. It is 1972 and they worship Bobby Sherman. On the way to mailing a letter to him, they encounter G. Gordon Liddy (Harry Shearer, armed with mustache). Arlene, you see, lives in the Watergate complex, along with her mother (Teri Garr). Later, on a field trip to the White House, Liddy spots them, and in order that they don't identify him, are taken on a private tour of the West Wing, where they meet the president (Dan Hedaya), who is charmed by them and offers them a job walking Checkers.

The two love the job, though no one believes that they have it. They, in turn, are loved by the staff, because of the cookies Betsy bakes. It seems that they have a secret ingredient--the cannabis that her brother hides in the jar of walnuts. This leads to a great scene involving a high Leonid Brezhnev singing "Hello, Dolly," accompanied by Henry Kissinger.

Arlene gets a crush on Nixon, which leads to a variety of lines of dialogue along the lines of "I love Dick," which you would think would get tired but doesn't. When they listen to the tapes he makes in his office, though, and finds out he doesn't really like Checkers, they end up calling the Washington Post.

Will Ferrell today can be insufferable, as he seems to think he need only make a face and he's funny. But here, back before he was a movie star, he's great as Bob Woodward, with Kids in the Hall member Bruce McCullough as Carl Bernstein. The film portrays them as pompous twits in a jealous rivalry with each other. They end up meeting with the two girls and, well, history is made.

I had a wide smile on my face the whole way through this film. The performances are great--Dunst and Williams are inspired as the not very bright but enthusiastic girls, while Hedaya is perhaps the best film Nixon ever--forget Anthony Hopkins. In addition to Ferrell and McCullough, other SNL and Kids in the Hall players are on hand, including Dave Foley as Haldeman and Jim Breuer as John Dean, who is moved to turn on Nixon by the girls.

The film was directed by Andrew Fleming, and it's a lovely candy-colored view of the 1970s, complete with a killer soundtrack. The closing shot, of a disgraced Nixon leaving the White House via helicopter, is set to Carly Simon's, "You're So Vain."

I think Leonard Maltin said it best about this film: a cross between Clueless and All the President's Men.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Fruitvale Station

As the U.S. has a national conversation about the never-ending racial problems in the country--notably, that young black men continue to be seen largely as suspects by some--Fruitvale Station is as timely as it is gripping. It chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old unarmed black man who was shot in the back and killed while in police custody.

Set in Oakland, California, the film has spurred controversy. This article from Forbes points out the factual problems with the film, but after reading it, I'm okay with what the film added and left out. The scene with the dog is artistically clunky, a heavy-handed metaphor, but films about real-life events add this kind of stuff all the time.

I disagree that the film, written and directed by first-timer Ryan Coogler, tries to paint Grant as some kind of heroic figure. In fact, I think the film goes the other way, and paints him warts and all. As played brilliantly by Michael B. Jordan, Grant is an ex-con who is extremely immature, getting fired from his job at a supermarket for serial tardiness. He maintains a fiction that he still has the job to his girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), whom he is in hot water with because of an affair. He's hot tempered, but also basically a good guy--he treats his daughter well, and helps out a (white) customer at the supermarket who need information on how to fry fish Southern style. Arguing about the facts of his life miss the essential point: no matter what kind of person he was, he didn't deserve to be murdered.

Grant, along with his girlfriend and some friends, went into San Francisco on New Year's Eve. According to the film, he had a run-in with a white man he knew in prison on a BART train. The train is stopped and police arrive, who proceed to pull every black man they can find off the train (no white people are pulled off). During the ensuing confrontation, Grant protested his innocence, and ended up put down on the platform, face down. An officer, saying he was going to for his Taser, accidentally pulled his gun instead, and shot Grant.

So, was this racially motivated? The film portrays it that way, as one of the cops calls Grant a n*gger, and certainly the fact that the cop was ready to arrest every young black man in sight, even if Grant was involved in the fracas, seems like racial profiling to me.

What the film does say about race is that it doesn't have to be that way. The Forbes writer cites a scene in which an impromptu dance party breaks out the on BART train--it apparently never happened. But it's a great scene, and shows the strengths of multiracial togetherness. Until the cop, played by Kevin Durand, who seems to always play heavies, shows up, there isn't a hint of racial discord in the entire film. Coogley seems to be saying that we can all get along, but people with guns keep interfering.

The film kind of meanders along for the first hour, being good without being special, but the last half hour is absorbing and left me in tears. I defy anyone to watch the hospital vigil for Grant (including Octavia Spencer as his mother) and not be moved. The coda, relating what happened after Grant's death, seems to annoy the Forbes writer; it may provoke other reactions in some.

The acting is first-rate. Jordan is great, and while Spencer will probably be among the favorites for a Best Supporting Actress nomination, I hope that Diaz will be recognized. Her performance as the long-suffering girlfriend of Grant, who also loves him and sees the best in him, is poignant.

My grade for Fruitvale Station: A-.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Red Tails

I have no doubt that the story of the Tuskegee Airmen would make a good movie. Red Tails is not that movie. A noble but misguided effort by executive George Lucas, directed by Anthony Hemingway, Red Tails is ridiculously corny and riddle with cliches. It is a film completely without nuance.

That said, it's not a disaster, as the dogfight scenes are very well done. Of course, this is all CGI cooked up at ILM, and somehow that makes it pale in comparison to a film like Wings, which used actual planes.

The Tuskegee Airmen were black pilots who made up a squadron in the segregated military during World War II. As the film begins, they have simple missions, usually involving shooting at ground transportation. The officer in charge, played convincingly by Terrence Howard, tries to get them more important missions, but is blocked by racist attitudes (the film opens with a title card from a 1925 U.S. army report that blacks are inferior and not suited for combat).

Finally they get a chance to escort bombers, and here is a bit of controversy. The film suggests they get the chance because white fighter pilots are all to ready to ditch the bombers and go chasing German planes. This is viewed as extremely historically inaccurate. The Tuskegee Airmen were brave enough as it is; denigrating white pilots to make them look better wasn't necessary.

Historical accuracy aside (apparently there is little that is accurate in the film), Red Tails suffers from god-awful dialogue and wafer-thin characters. Of the men in the squadron, we really only get to know two well--"Easy," the ambitious leader (Nate Parker), who has a drinking problem, and "Lightning," (David Oyelowo), who is the best pilot but also takes too many risks. Oyelowo has a subplot involving his romance with an Italian woman, which is sweet but brings up a lot of interesting but unanswered questions, such as how did Italians view black Americans?

There is another subplot involving a captured Airmen (Tristan Wilds) who seems to have wandered into a very truncated version of Stalag 17. This subplot is amazingly rushed and underdeveloped, and almost seems like an afterthought.

Even with all the bad dialogue and war film cliches, the most galling thing about the film is how little we know about the characters. One mentions he's from Tennessee, but other than that we know nothing. What was life like for black pilots in America--how did they get their licenses in the first place, when surely commercial airlines weren't hiring them? I appreciate that Lucas wanted to make a much longer film, but this doesn't do the Tuskegee Airmen any favors.




The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation is the latest album by a band called The Wonder Years. I read great reviews of it on the Web, so I bought it sound unheard. Mostly I end up liking albums I get that way, but sometimes I strike out. This is one of those times.

But here's the thing: the lyrics on this record, by lead singer Dan Campbell, are outstanding. Read just as poetry they are touching and visceral. I just couldn't stand the music, starting with Campbell's vocals, and extending to the production and arrangement.

Campbell's writing focuses mostly on the soul-crushing nature of life in the suburbs, and the fear of failure and being a fuck-up. Each song touches on these themes, sometimes brilliantly. The opening song, "There, There," kicks things off with the great line "You're just trying to read but I'm always standing in your light," and ends with "I'm awkward and nervous." In "Passing Through a Screen Door," Campbell sings, "Jesus Christ. I'm 26. All the people I graduated with all have kids, all have wives, all have people who care if they come home at night. Jesus Christ, did I fuck up?"

Most of the lyrics are not in the conventional pop song format, and the lyrics rarely rhyme. They are almost like prose, which lends itself to the problem of the music. I hate to say it, but I felt assaulted by the songs. The sound is straight-ahead pop punk, a lot like Green Day but without any of the catchiness. After listening to this record half a dozen times I can't hum one of the songs. They would have been better served to have a different type of arrangement--more like an acoustic folk sound, or orchestral arrangements. Instead, it's all high-speed instrumentation and Campbell shouting the words.

A good case in point is the song "The Devil in My Bloodstream," in which the singer worries that he has inherited the defects of his family. It has the beautiful line, "Two blackbirds on a highway sign are laughing at me at four in the morning." The instrumentation is the strumming of a guitar. But about halfway through the song, seemingly unable to contain himself, Campbell starts screaming, and the song was ruined for me.

But I could go on about the lyrics. I love the sprinkling of history throughout. Here are three examples: "I'm terrified like a kid in the sixties, staring at the sky waiting for the bomb to fall," or "Truman will always be remembered for dropping the bomb. I'll always be remembered for my fuck ups," or "It feels like 1929 and I'm on the verge of a great collapse today."

I would love to hear these lyrics with different music, something more subtle and sensitive to the words. Mostly it's just noise.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Cronos

As I embark on this excursion into Mexican culture, of course I will take a look at cinema. Mexican cinema goes almost as far back as any other nation's cinema--several silent films were made in Mexico, almost all of which are lost. A "golden age" in the 1930's and '40s saw a thriving Mexican film industry, and produced one of the most popular stars in the world--Catinflas, who was kind of the Latin Charlie Chaplin. Most of these films were slapstick comedies or melodramas that prefigured today's Telenovas, and none are particularly noted for their artistic greatness.

The '60s saw the stardom of El Santo, a wrestler who wore a distinctive mask (not to belittle Mexican culture, but I think the Mexican wrestling mask is one of their great contributions). Lately, there has been a renaissance of Mexican films, with directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Arturo Ripstein, and Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu, some of whom have made the jump to Hollywood. Their is also Luis Bunuel, who though a Spaniard, has made movies in Mexico.

But the most popular film director to come from Mexico is Guillermo Del Toro, and his first film was Cronos, a delightfully creepy horror film. In taking a look at this movie so soon after Pacific Rim, I'm struck that Del Toro works better with a low budget. This film, with minimal special effects (but some great makeup) evokes a far better atmosphere that Pacific Rim, or either of the Hellboy pictures (which I liked both of). Although Cronos isn't as good as The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth, it's clear from the beginning that Del Toro has abundant talent.

The film begins with a kind of clunky prologue, in which a sixteenth-century alchemist creates a "cronos device," which is a gold thing that looks like a scarab. It grants the user immortality, at least to most things, as the alchemist ends up dying in the 1930s when a bank vault collapses.

The device ends up inside a state of an archangel, which is in the possession of a kindly old antiques dealer, (Federico Luppi), who dotes on his very quiet granddaughter. They end up finding the device, which Luppi accidentally uses, and though it's painful (it pierces the flesh) he gets hooked on feeling youthful.

Meanwhile, the device is sought after by a rich industrialist (Claudio Brook), who employs his hapless but strong nephew (Ron Perlman) to do his bidding. Perlman buys the statue, but when it turns up empty, he comes after Luppi, who is looking younger and younger. After Perlman kills Luppi, we see just how powerful the device is.

Del Toro, who also wrote the script, gives the film incredible life. Perlman's character, a lummox who is brow-beaten by his uncle and wants a nose job, is a marvel of ingenuity by both actor and writer. The use of the granddaughter, who looks on silently as her grandfather succumbs to vampiric madness (it seems that a side effect of the device is craving human blood) is effectively creepy. There are also some great scenes inside a mortuary, which show more than I care to know about the art and science of preparing a body.

Del Toro's next film was Mimic, which I saw but don't remember much about. The only film of his I haven't seen is Blade II, but since I didn't see Blade I don't feel an urge to do so. In the extras, Del Toro gives us a tour of his extra house, Bleak House, which holds his vast collection of books and toys dealing with horror and fantasy films. As it so often happens, film directors are really kids who have never entirely grown up.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Summer of '68

There is no question that 1968 was a momentous year in American history: the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Tim Wendel, in his book Summer of  '68, suggests that it was a pivotal year in baseball as well, as the subtitle is The Season that Changed Baseball and America Forever.

The latter argument isn't stated as clearly. Certainly there are milestones to the 1968 season. It was the "Year of the Pitcher"--Bob Gibson set a record with a 1.12 ERA, while Denny McLain was the first pitcher to win over 30 games in thirty years, and is the last pitcher to do so (it is unlikely, given the five-man rotations of today, that it will happen anytime soon). This was also the last year before the first expansion, and the breaking up of the leagues into divisions. Given that the Tigers and Cardinals, the pennant winners of '68, had comfortable leads and thus no pennant races, this might be seen as something a long time coming.

Wendel touches on the events of non-baseball America, such as King's assassination and Robert Kennedy's speech that night, and of the encroachment of football on baseball's reign as the most popular sport in America (we hear a lot about the Heidi game, which has been written about ad nauseum). These digressions are awkward and written mostly without transitions, like an old man telling a story who keeps losing his train of thought.

When the talk is about baseball the book is better, though Wendel assumes nothing, letting us know what RBI and ERA stands for. His prose is not sparkling and leans toward the pedestrian. He certainly conducted a lot of interviews, but the quotations (some of which are taken from the players' memoirs), are mostly routine and obvious.

But, as a Tiger fan, I reveled in this book. 1968 was a bit before my time--I remember my dad being in a lather during the series, and my sister was born just after it concluded, but all the players were still around when my Tiger fandom blossomed.

Wendel spends most of the book talking about the Tigers and Cards, with a few other players thrown, mainly Luis Tiant, who had a great season with the Indians. The dominant characters are Gibson, who was so no-nonsense that he came off as surly (he refuses a request from Tiger Willie Horton for an autograph during spring training). For the Tigers, the main character is McLain, who was something of a loudmouth and attention-seeker. He played the organ, and actually had a stint in Vegas after the season was over.

In contrast to McLain was Mickey Lolich, who spent part of the year in the bullpen but ended up the World Series hero, winning three complete games, including the clinching game seven. It was clear that the two Tiger hurlers didn't care for each other: "On paper, McLain and Lolich remain a baseball combination for the ages--an awesome one-two pitching punch. But off the field, in the Tigers' clubhouse, their relationship was based more on envy and competitive jealousy than friendship or team loyalty."

Wendel also cleverly foreshadows events. Detroit manager Mayo Smith, in order to get Al Kaline, who had been hurt much of the year, into the World Series line-up, moved centerfielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop, where he had played all of nine games. In late innings with a lead, he would move Stanley back into center, removing Horton from the game, because Horton supposedly had a weak arm. But Stanley and Horton talked strategy, mainly about Cardinal speedster Lou Brock. They noticed that if he was on second and scored on a single, he would slow down rounding third, and rarely slid into home.

This ended up being important information. The Cardinals took a 3-1 series lead. Gibson fanned a record 17 in game 1, and after Lolich won game 2, the Cards won games 3 and 4 easily. It's interesting to note that "The fourth game of the World Series, the one played in a downpour in Detroit, became the highest-rated sports event in television history at the time. The Nielsen Television Index indicated that more than 78.5 million people tuned in that afternoon. World Series games continued to outpace other sporting events, including Super Bowl II and the NFL championship, holding an overall seven-to-three edge in the TV's top ten."

Game five saw Detroit behind, their season slipping away. But they battled back, and a key play, perhaps the play of the entire series, had Brock trying to score on a single. Horton heaved a perfect toss to Bill Freehan at home, and Brock did not slide and was called out (the photo is on the cover of the book). The Tigers hung on to win, and then won game 6 in a laugher.

Game seven was Gibson vs. Lolich (the latter on two days rest), that went scoreless late. With two on, Jim Northrup lined the ball over Curt Flood's head. The usually adept centerfielder initially came in on the ball, and when heading back stumbled slightly, allowing Northrup to triple. The Tigers would win 4-1 and take the title.

Gibson would go on the have a Hall of Fame career, while McLain's career petered out after suspensions for associating with gamblers. He would later serve two stints in prison.

So I'm still not sure how this season changed baseball. I guess it did in that the pitching was so dominant that the mound was lowered, but I don't think the game was altered in any fundamental way. It was more the social conditions of the game that changed. In any event, though this book is wanting in many ways, it's a quick read and especially recommended for Tiger fans.