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Monday, September 30, 2013

Oscar 2013, Best Actress: Star Power

Last year the Best Supporting Actor Oscar category consisted entirely of previous winners, the first time that had happened. It looks like a strong possibility it may happen again this year, in the Best Actress category.

Unlike some years, there are a lot of potential nominees this year from Hollywood films, which means that women from foreign and indie films, who otherwise might break through, would be left out. There are so many big stars with juicy parts that it may be a given that the winner will be getting her second (or third, or fourth) Oscar.

Here's my early picks for the nominees, in alphabetical order:

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine. The great Cate won for Best Supporting Actress for The Aviator, and is probably the front runner for the award so far this year. Her turn as the socialite having a nervous breakdown in Woody Allen's films is scintillating. Allen has directed several women to Oscars: Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest (twice), and Miro Sorvino. Cate may join the list.

Sandra Bullock, Gravity. Bullock won for The Blind Side, which as much a thank you by the industry for putting fannies in the seats for a series of comedies. This time she may actually deserve the nomination, as the buzz about her and the film is sky high.

Judi Dench, Philomena. A winner for Shakespeare in Love, Dench is a big favorite in the Academy, as she could probably fart "God Save the Queen" and get a nomination. This role is in a tear-jerker about an elderly woman who searches for her daughter, who had been given up for adoption.

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County. Speaking of Academy favorites, there's none more than Streep, who could get her 18th nomination, the most by a long shot. The role in this film, of a drug-addicted women with an acid tongue, would probably get a nomination for anyone who played. Julia Roberts, who is in also in the film in a major role, seems to be category-frauded into the supporting category.

Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks. Thompson hasn't been nominated for an Oscar since 1995, but is the only person to have won for both acting and screenwriting. Her role as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers seems ripe for Oscar consideration.

Also possible: Among other previous winners, Kate Winslet in Labor Day. Of non-winners, there's Amy Adams (who is threatening to become the new Deborah Kerr--much nominated, never winning) for American Hustle; Brie Larson in Short Term 12; Greta Gerwig for Frances Ha; Berenice Bejo, The Past; and Adele Exarchopoulos for Blue Is the Warmest Colour.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Rush is the quintessential Ron Howard film; it has his greatest strengths, and his worst weaknesses. On balance, I recommend the film, because when we're on the race track, it's thrilling.

Howard's first film was Grand Theft Auto, and at the time it was "Opie is directing a movie?" I remember him on the Mike Douglas Show, showing Mike how he used toy cars to block out scenes. I wonder if he still used toys in Rush--probably not, there's probably a computer program for that now--but Howard's boyish enthusiasm for racing is on display in Rush. The racing scenes are really fun, giving us a sense of what it's like to drive a 450-horsepower automobile at speeds close to 200 miles an hour.

On the other hand, Howard is an anti-auteur. None of his films take artistic chances, and settle for the lowest common denominator. He's the poster boy for a kind of middlebrow, cliche-based cinema. With a weak, exposition-riddled script by Peter Morgan, Rush has many face-palm moments that reek of market testing.

Rush is the story of the rivalry between Formula 1 race drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. The action mostly takes place in 1976, when Formula 1 was actually a major sport. When I was a kid, I knew who Niki Lauda was, but when I looked at the list of today's Formula 1 drivers, I didn't recognize a name. Formula 1 is much more exotic, romantic, and jet-setting than the more popular NASCAR, and in the '70s, the best drivers were treated like rock stars.

Hunt (a very fine Chris Hemsworth), was a British playboy who was financed by a member of the peerage. He was hedonistic and loved to fuck almost as much as he loved to race. He had an endless string of women--he theorized that women were attracted to his closeness to death. He married a model (Olivia Wilde, looking as beautiful as I've ever seen her), whom he eventually lost to Richard Burton.

Lauda, on the other hand, was Teutonically ruthless in his ambition. With rodent-like features, he didn't care if anyone liked him, and was brutally honest. But he was also a genius with cars, and eschewing his family fortune, he got a bank loan on his own to finance his entry into Formula 1. From their very first race, Hunt and Lauda hated each other, but in the way that was good for both of them--each spurred the other on to greatness.

This is a great story, but Peter Morgan's script is simple-minded. He assumes, rightly so I expect, that most of the audience doesn't know Formula 1, but almost every line is exposition. It's as if the script had footnotes, and he and Howard are looking back at us, ready to stop the film and explain if we didn't get it. There's also a lot of oatmeal psychology going on here, with chunks of dialogue about why they risk their lives and so on.

Most of the film documents the 1976 season, when Lauda and Hunt battle for the championship. Though it's a real story, I don't want to spoil what happens, but suffice it to say there's a gruesome accident (Lauda computes that every time he races he has a 20 percent chance of dying). So we get kind of a Seabiscuit story, with one driver coming back from injury. The final race, in a rainstorm in Japan, is pretty exciting, but Howard gives in to his basest instincts by throwing in cliches, such as Wilde watching on TV.

The leads are very good. Hemsworth, with his Bjorn Borg hair, naturally embodies the look of a dilettante playboy, but Daniel Bruhl as Lauda steals the show. He's the kind of guy who, when asked why he is such an asshole, gives an honest, rational answer. But, deep down, you can see the vulnerability of the man, especially in his relationship with his wife (Alexandra Maria Lara).

The racing scenes are why this movie should be seen. The editing is superb, and there's a fantastic sense of speed. The true test is that after leaving the theater, I imagined I was driving home on a Grand Prix track. Luckily I did not spin out.

My grade for Rush: B-.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Telegraph Avenue

Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, "There is no there there." Michael Chabon, in his novel Telegraph Avenue, seems to disagree, as it is an exuberant panorama of a neighborhood on the brink of change. Just what the change should be is at issue.

The central locations is Brokeland Records, a vinyl record store on the title thoroughfare. The store sells mostly used jazz records, but is more of a meeting place for local hipsters and oddballs--it's former location was a barber shop, which used to serve as a gathering place for gossiping men in the old days.

The store is owned and run by partners--Nat Jaffe, a Jewish white man, and Archy Stallings, a black man. Their wives are also partners in a midwife business. Aviva is Nat's wife, and Gwen is the extremely pregnant wife of Archy.

The central concern of the book is when a former NFL quarterback, Gibson Goode (the "fifth richest black man in America") is set to open a large shopping plaza nearby, which will include a music megastore, certain to put Brokeland out of business. Goode has the most prominent local businessman, a funeral director named Chan Flowers, in his pocket.

While this is going on Archy discovers he has a teenage son, Titus, that he didn't know he had. Titus befriends Nat's son, a timid gay boy named Julie--they meet at a class on Quentin Tarantino films. Flowers is being shaken down by Archy's father, the forgotten star of '70s blaxploitation pictures.

Telegraph Avenue is rife with nostalgia. It's set in 2004, but it almost has the feeling of a period piece. It wouldn't be good business by anyone to open a big music store today--a store selling vinyl records is actually a better option now. This line, from an early section set at a flea market, sets the tone: "Though Mr. Nostalgia loved the things he sold, he had no illusion that they held any intrinsic value. They were worth only what you would pay for them; what small piece of everything you had ever lost that, you might come to believe, they would restore to you. Their value was indexed only to the sense of personal completeness, perfection of the soul, that would flood you when, at last, you filled the last gap on your checklist."

It was interesting to read this book while also reading Elmore Leonard; the writers are yin and yang in their approach to prose. Leonard wrote of rewriting something that felt like writing, while Chabon's prose is on steroids. His vocabulary is sesquipedelean, and his sentences complex. One sentence, a Faulkerian monster, must be over 3,000 words, and starts with a parrot flying out of a window and ends up in studio where Bruce Lee learned kung fu.

Chabon also can't help but pepper pop culture references throughout. A sliding metal door is called "Blofeldian," a man's head was "shaved clean as a porn star's testicle," and the comic strip Foxtrot is name checked. This is both fun and indulgent, as Chabon seems inordinately fond of his own writing. But that's okay--a writer should write to please himself, and hope that others enjoy it, too.

The best thing about the book is that it gives a view of a place in a time: a used-record shop in western Oakland in the first decade of the twenty-first century. "So many of the of the other used-record kings of the East Bay had already gone under, hung it up, or turned themselves into Internet-only operations, closing their doors, letting the taps of bullshit go dry. Brokeland Records was nearly the last of its kind, Ishi, Chingachgook, Martha the passenger pigeon."

Though Chabon loves the area, he filters criticisms through his characters: "She had never liked the Bay Area, with its irresolute and timid weather, the tendency of its skies in any season to bleed gray, the way it had arranged its hills and vistas like a diva setting up chairs around her to ensure the admiration of visitors. The people around here were fetishists and cultists, prone to schism and mania, liable to invest all their hope of heaven in the taste of an egg laid in the backyard by a heritage-breed chicken."

Chabon may break almost all of Elmore Leonard's rules, but there's space enough in life for both men.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Neko Case in Concert

Lordy, it had been a long time since I went to see live music. Time was, when I lived in Jersey City and could pop in and out of New York City with ease, I used to go to a ton of concerts, making myself a regular at places like The Bottom Line, Roseland, and The Beacon Theater. But since moving to the Princeton area, I think I've only been to one concert, and that was on the Jersey shore about ten years ago.

That changed last night, when I took in Neko Case at Radio City Music Hall. Waiting for the show to start I tried to remember all the other shows I'd seen there: Paul Simon, 10,000 Maniacs, Suzanne Vega, The Pretenders. It felt good to be back.

It's interesting to find out who else is a fan of someone you really dig. My Neko Case fandom pretty much existed in a vacuum--everyone I told about the concert hadn't heard of her. I wasn't surprised by seeing who else was there--a lot of white people. The number of non-white faces was minuscule--the majority of them were the Radio City staff. I wasn't the oldest person there, but I definitely raised the median age. I would say the average age was about thirty, and they weren't really a hipster bunch (although there were a few pork-pie hats). And it wasn't an overwhelmingly vegan, NPR-listening, Greenpeace-donating bunch, but it probably leaned that way.

No, it was just a bunch of average young white people, and they were orderly. When I used to go to concerts at venues that had chairs, it was always interesting to see if it would be a sit-down show or a stand-up show, or even a stand-on-the-seat show. This was definitely a sit-down show, and a quiet and attentive one. Even during Case's most up-tempo shows, the only movement to be seen was a sea of nodding heads.

The opening act was a singer named AC Newman and his band, and he fit in with Case's style (nothing is worse than an opening act that doesn't gel with the headliner). He is part of this movement of Appalachian-tinged music, replete with a bass fiddle and a mandolin player (who wore a bowler), but there was no one wearing suspenders. His set was solid, though it didn't want to make me buy his album.

Case went on at 9:15 and played for about an hour and fifteen minutes. She had a five-piece band, with one guy showing incredible diversity, playing guitar, keyboards, and even a trombone. The bass player, who also played the upright bass, had a snowy white beard the size of a dinner plate.

Neko was wearing a sleeveless, slinky black cocktail dress that ended just above the knee. Often she seemed uncomfortable in it, like a tomboy dressed up for a fancy dinner. Her red, pre-Raphaelite hair cascaded behind her, and she sang with the microphone raised so she had to tilt her head back, like a person emerging gratefully from a dark room into the sun.

The show opened with the sonar pings of "Where Did I Leave That Fire," from her most recent record, and her set I believe was almost exclusively from her last four albums. Of course she played quite a bit from her latest release, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. I was happy to hear one of my favorites, "Red Bells," from her album Blacklist.

I was surprised that she didn't talk more. From hearing her interviews, she's funny with an eclectic knowledge base. Most of the talking was by her backup singer, Kelly Hogan, and the two chatted at often cross purposes. Case did mention that it was Christmas year-round at Radio City, and she spotted a door that said "Christmas Operations." Hogan, referring to Case's penchant for writing sinister lyrics, introduced the song "Maneater" by saying, "Here's a bloody song. The first bloody song."

It was a good show, with Case's voice in fine form--I wondered if she really needed a microphone. The songs sounded exactly like they do on record--there were no drum solos or re-interpretations. There were also no off-the-wall cover versions. It was designed for the Case fan, with no surprises, which was a bit disappointing. I would have liked to hear her take on an old sixties song or maybe a pop hit, Neko Case-style.

But really, my only regrets are that she didn't play my favorite of her songs, "Star Witness," and that I sat too far back for her to catch my eye during the show so that she could fall in love with me at first site.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Exterminating Angel

There's a moment in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, when Owen Wilson, traveling back in time to the Paris of the 1920s, meets a young Luis Bunuel. He suggests to the filmmaker that he make a movie in which guests a dinner party can't leave the room. "Why can't they leave?" Bunuel asks, perplexed. "They just can't," Wilson responds, though Bunuel doesn't understand.

Years later, in 1962, Bunuel, presumably not by Wilson's suggestion, made that film, The Exterminating Angel.

As I return to my ongoing series on Mexican culture, I turn to this classic by Bunuel, who was a Spaniard by birth but worked extensively in Mexico, exiled from his home country by the fascist Franco regime. The Exterminating Angel was made in Mexico after the film he made upon a return to Spain, Viridiana, ruffled Spanish government feathers.

The setting is a large mansion. A dinner party is being prepared, but the servants are itching to leave. They don't quite know why--later they are compared to rats leaving a sinking ship. Only the majordomo remains. After dinner, the guests lounge in the music room--it is close to dawn. At a certain point, after a guest plays the piano, it is clearly time to leave, but for some reason they can't, and instead simply lie down and go to sleep.

The following morning again they can't leave, and they realize something strange is going on. There is nothing physically compelling them to stay--it's just when they reach the threshold of the room they can't move forward.

Time goes on. They are out of water, so break open the wall so they can open a pipe. They are out of food, but eventually lambs (the sacrificial kind, surely) wander into the room, where they are set upon and devoured. Outside the house, police and the press wonder if the guests are still alive--they are also mysteriously unable to enter the premises.

Bunuel clearly was making a political statement, but the genius of the film, I think, is that it applies to almost any age. Perhaps this was a statement about Spain, or maybe there's something more elemental here. Surely it is relevant to this age, when we talk about the one percent, as these swells, starting out in formal dinner wear, are reduced to savages, fighting amongst themselves, their barbaric natures brought to the fore.

Most of the guests have certain distinctions. The calm, rational one is the doctor, (Augusto Benedicio), who also has the funniest lines. At one point a man raises the Masonic cry for help, but the only living thing in the house is a bear. "Unless the bear is a Mason, I don't think it will work," the doctor says. There is a young couple who are about to be married, an aging conductor who is married to a much younger woman (during the night, he smooches unsuspecting women), and a fat man with a cane, who blames it all on the host, Enrique Rambal, and thinks if the guests kill him, it will end the spell.

The most mysterious guest is a woman dubbed "The Valkyrie" (played by Bunuel veteran Silvia Panal), who is identified as a virgin. She is the one who figures out how to free themselves from their torment.

The Exterminating Angel is the kind of absurdist satire in the same vein as Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros. It is a brilliant film.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Riding the Rap

When Elmore Leonard died last month, he received several encomiums; he was hailed as a writer of popular fiction who transcended the genres he wrote in. I have read several of his books, so many that I'm not sure which ones I've read, as his books do have the tendency to blend into one another. I do know that I have read many of his best-known books, such as Out of Sight, Get Shorty, and Rum Punch.

One book I knew I hadn't read was Riding the Rap, which had been sitting on my shelf for years. I took the occasion of the man's passing to finally read it, and, in keeping with his legacy, it is wonderful, a tasty snack, consumed quickly, with an almost elegant brevity.

The story concerns Raylan Givens, who ended up being the centerpiece of the TV series Justified. Here he is a U.S. marshal operating out of Miami. After bringing in a fugitive and disrupting a car-jacking (bringing in the perpetrators along with his fugitive) he responds to his live-in lover Joyce, who worries about her ex, Harry Arno, a bookmaker.

We know that Harry has been kidnapped by the man who owes him several thousand dollars, Chip Ganz, a lazy scumbag, and two confederates: Louis Lewis, a Bahamian, and Bobby Deo, a murderous bounty hunter who initially worked for Harry. They decide they will use a psychic, Dawn Navarro, to trick Harry into revealing where he keeps his money, and then abduct him and demand he pay his own ransom.

As with many of Leonard's crooks, these guys aren't too bright. When Raylan goes looking for Harry, it doesn't take him long to find Dawn, who gives him a scarily accurate reading, and Chip. He's acting unofficially, so he can't just bust in, but eventually the crooks get nervous and start acting even more stupidly than before. Someone ends up at the bottom of an overgrown swimming pool.

Leonard is famous for his rules of writing, in which he basically says that he wants to avoid writing the part people tend to skip. That makes his books very short and almost entirely of dialogue, which he was famous for. Even his non-dialogue is structured in an active, speaking tone of voice, often missing elements of speech, which makes it seem like someone is telling you the star, probably over drinks at a bar.

For example, there's this sentence: "Not twenty feet from the table when he shot Tommy Bucks three times, Joyce watching it happen." The sentence is missing the important little thing called a subject, but it's implied, and gives it a forward motion that is eminently satisfying.

Leonard also spares the reader too much description--he rarely describes the physical appearance of characters. In Riding the Rap, for example, we know nothing of what Raylan looks like (I just pictured Timothy Olyphant, who plays him in Justified). Dawn gets a little description--she has a hippie look, hair parted in the middle, and is said to look like Marianne Faithful. I think Leonard had a soft spot for her.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Last summer I read Emily Bronte's novel Wuthering Heights, hoping to see the classic film adaptation, directed by William Wyler. But the DVD was not available until now, and I got the chance to see it.

The film was produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and it was the film he was most proud of. It was a star vehicle for Merle Oberon, but made Laurence Olivier a star. It was released in 1939, who some call the greatest year ever for Hollywood, and won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Picture.

Wuthering Heights covers the first half of the novel. As with the book, it's told as a story. A new tenant stumbles out of a blizzard into the titular Yorkshire estate, finding a depressing group of people. The owner, Heathcliff (Olivier), begrudgingly gives him a room, where the man hears a voice calling in the storm. When he tells Olivier this, the latter runs out into the snow, calling the name Cathy.

The maid, Flora Robson, tells the stranger the story. The estate was once a happy place, seen over by Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway). He has adopted a foundling from the streets of Liverpool. He is immediately resented by his son, but the girl, Cathy, becomes his friend. They have adventures, imagining a rocky promontory overlooking the moors a castle. But then Kellaway dies, and the brother (Hugh Williams) allows Olivier to stay, but as a stable boy, where he is routinely beaten and treated cruelly. He stays only because of his love for Oberon.

Eventually Oberon becomes torn between her love for Olivier, who she sees as a kindred spirit, and her love of fine things. She is courted by a neighboring rich guy (David Niven), whom Olivier refers to as a "milksop with buckles." He overhears Catherine say that she could never marry him, because it would be too degrading. He runs off, but returns a rich man, and pays off Williams' debts, thereby owning the estate.

It is here that the film varies widely from the book. The film, as one might imagine, wildly romanticizes the love affair, and makes a big deal out of Olivier visiting Oberon on her death bed. In the book, she dies while he's away. In fact, Catherine dies off-page in the book, which shows Bronte wasn't interested in making a doomed lover story.

But the differences aside, this is a very fine film, with award-winning cinematography by Gregg Toland. Olivier really smolders, and at least he shows us that Heathcliff is not that great a guy. Oberon was only two years removed from an auto accident that scarred her face, yet it doesn't show here. Olivier and Geraldine Fitzgerald, who plays the sister of Niven whom Oliver marries, received Oscar nominations (it was the first of ten for Sir Larry).

Monday, September 23, 2013


Sometimes it's fun to speculate on where a movie idea comes from. Prisoners, written by Aaron Guzikowski, may have occurred to someone while watching a live-action cartoon like Taken. That person may have wondered, what if a movie were made on this subject that had moral ambiguity at its center?

The result is the kind of movie that tries so hard to be serious, but its genre origins keep popping up like weeds through cement. This is an earnest, noble attempt at a grand film event, but it never outclasses its base subject.

That subject is the child abduction. Robert McKee, in his book Story, writes that the death of a child is one of the most shameless plot points a screenwriter can use, but child abduction may be worse. It always plays out the same--the child or children playing, this time at a cozy Thanksgiving dinner shared by neighbors. The initial "where are the kids?," until panic builds and then the police are called in. We even get the line, "Do you have kids, Detective?" which may as well be spoken to the audience, because we dare not think that this isn't important.

I don't know if a truly good movie has been made about a child kidnapping, and lord knows there have been many of them, all designed to tug at the heartstrings in a naked and manipulative way. Prisoners, though it is far more intelligent than most, is only a so-so movie, elevated by an intelligent approach to the cathartic revenge fantasy of films like Taken, as well as superb photography by Roger Deakins.

The Thanksgiving dinner between Hugh Jackman, as a contractor who is a few ticks away from becoming a survivalist nut, and his wife Maria Bello, and Terrence Howard and his wife, Viola Davis, is right out of a commercial (that they are interracial friends is no accident, methinks). Each has a girl of about six who vanishes, last seen playing around a decrepit RV (in this day and age, it's hard to believe that the girls would actually accept an invitation to hop in).

Enter Jake Gyllenhaal as the dedicated detective. We don't know anything about him other than that he has a tattoo on his neck and eats Thanksgiving dinner alone in a Chinese restaurant. He is the first on the scene when the suspicious RV is found, the driver being a mentally-challenged young man played by Paul Dano.

There is no evidence to hold Dano, which enrages Jackman. He is convinced that Dano knows where his daughter is, and takes matters into his own hands, enlisting Howard as a reluctant accomplice. As this unfolds, we are led to believe that there is another suspect, which makes Jackman's actions even more egregiously villainous than they already are.

The film ends with a twist that some may find easy to spot. I certainly had an inkling, because I noticed a key clue that the entire police force missed until Gyllenhaal discovers it accidentally. I was also unclear about some things, maybe because my hearing is not what it was--what exactly led Gyllenhaal to the church, where he makes a grisly discovery? What was the the one suspect's connection to Dano? The script has so many balls in the air that I think a few of them dropped to the ground.

But wow does this movie look good. I was wondering who shot it--the movie has no opening credits--and when I saw the name Roger Deakins I smiled to myself. The film is set in some decaying industrial town--Pennsylvania, I think--with empty shopping malls and a perpetually gray sky. It's almost always raining or snowing, and a scene late in the film at night, involving a rusted out old Trans Am, is breathtaking.

The director is Denis Villenueve, who made the very fine Incendies. For his Hollywood pay day he seems determined to take a very familiar topic and turn it into something cinematic, and I applaud the effort. I just can't say the same about the result.

My grade for Prisoners: C+.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case's new album, which has the Fiona-Apple-like title, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You, is described as her most personal record to date, coming after a depression sparked by the deaths of her parents and grandmother. All I know is this is yet another classic by one of my favorite music artists.

It took me a few listens to get into it. Her songs are not immediately catchy; they can wander and make oblique statements, such as "Night Still Comes," which opens with:

"My brain makes drugs to keep me slow,
A hilarious joke for some dead pharaoh.
But now, not even the masons know
What drug will keep night from coming."

That's kind of inscrutable, yet at the same time intriguing, and this album is full of those kind of songs that Case has written for years. She is someone who seems to be fascinated by things that happen in the woods in the dark. Consider one of her true crime songs, "Bracing For Sunday:"

"I only ever held one love,
Her name was Mary Anne
She died having a child by her brother
He died because I murdered him.
I shot him through his jelly eye."

But there are other songs of exquisite beauty. "Nearly Midnight, Honolulu," an a capella story of Case overhearing abusive language from a mother to her child, or "Afraid," a cover of a song by Case's homonym, Nico. "Calling Cards" is one of the only straight out love songs that I recall Case singing:

"Every dial tone, every truck stop, every heartbreak,
I love you more
Looking like you just woke up from making songs,
Shooting satellites that blew up the pay phones...
Singing we'll all be together,
Even when we're not together
With our arms around each other,
With our faith still in each other"

The album's production doesn't detract much from Case's voice, which is so beautiful and penetrating, or her songwriting. "Where Did I Leave That Fire" has samples of the pinging of sonar. The other cover, of Robyn Hitchcock's "Madonna of the Wasps" has a psychedelic-folk sound, and accompanying vocals by M. Ward of She & Him, which is lush and lovely and sounds wonderfully out of place.

The first single from the album, and the most straight-ahead rock and roll song, is "Man," which deals with Case's gender identity:

"I'm a man
That's what you raised me to be
I'm not an identity crisis
This was planned"

I'm seeing Case next week at Radio City Music Hall. I have an immense crush on her. In a recent New Yorker article she talked about life on her farm in Vermont, and how she doesn't have a partner now, but she's looking forward to meeting her new boyfriend.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

War Witch

War Witch is a Canadian film, shot entirely in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the fifth and last of last year's nominees for the Oscar in Best Foreign Language Film that I've seen.

Directed by Kim Nguyen, it tells an all-too familiar story: a twelve-year-old girl is abducted from her village by rebels. She is forced to kill her own parents with a machine gun, and then trained to fight for a charismatic leader, called The Great Tiger. If this weren't enough, she is able to see ghosts, including those of her parents, who warn her of an ambush. Because she survives this, the Great Tiger makes her his "war witch." But that's not necessarily a good thing. She is told the Great Tiger has killed his last three war witches.

The girl, Komona, spends two years either in the rebel army or on the run with her fellow rebel and soon to be husband, known only as "the Magician," a boy who has talismans for all occasions. They move in with the boy's uncle, but Komona is soon recaptured by the rebels and made a concubine by the commander, who impregnates her. She gets some pretty nasty revenge, though.

I found the film to be okay, but given the horrific situation not particularly evocative. The magic realism is a nice touch, but isn't really explored. It's almost a fairy-tale, and suggests that there might be a happy ending, when I'm not sure anyone has any happy endings in the midst of that war-torn country.

The two children in lead roles, Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda, are quite good. But I think there are better and more incendiary films out there about child soldiers. This one, believe it or not, is the softer, hopeful version.

Now that I've seen all five films, Amour, the winner, was absolutely justified. It's no contest.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Oort Cloud

The astronomy world was buzzing with the news that NASA had announced that Voyager I, the space probe launched in 1977, had reached interstellar space. After passing by the outer planets and their moons, and sending back spectacular images, it's now on its way to boldly go where no hardware has gone before.

But it's not that simple. Voyager, if the data is correct, has reached interstellar space, but has not left the solar system, and that's because the definition of the solar system is complex.

It is true that Voyager has left left the heliosphere, that area of the solar system that is influenced by the solar wind. So, in a sense, it has left the nest of the mother Helios. But there is more to the solar system that that. There is a considerable stretch of space between the heliosphere and the edge of the Oort Cloud, which will take Voyager another 300 years to cross.

What is the Oort Cloud? For one thing, it's got a great name, as if Douglas Adams or Kurt Vonnegut had named it. It's named after a Dutch astronomer who discovered it. Basically, it's a ring of particles, or icy planetisimals, that circle around the solar system. It's thought to be a source of many comets that have made their way through our solar system, but there's still a lot that is not known about it.

But what fascinates me is that it is an example of just how vast space is. Voyager, the farthest a man-made object has ever traveled, is 125 AU from the sun. It has taken 36 years to reach that considerable distance. But it will take another 300 years for the probe to reach the inner edge of the Oort Cloud. It will take another 30,000 years for it to make through the cloud in its entirety. Put another way, the Kuiper Belt, which is a band of objects that are classified as trans-Neptunian, and includes the decommissioned planet Pluto, is 1/1,000 of the distance from the sun as to the outer edge of the Oort Cloud, which is 50,000 AU, or approximately one light year, away from the sun.

It's just a further reminder of how the notion of interstellar travel is one of science fiction, not science fact. The Oort Cloud is one quarter of the way to Proxima Centauri, the star closest to the sun. So, even traveling at light speed, which Einstein posited is physically impossible, it would take four years for anyone to make it from there to here. Unless there's something going on that we can't account for, like wormholes or the bending of the time/space continuum, it would be a major effort to get here, with technology that is far advanced our own. The universe is only so old--has there been time for any civilization to reach such heights?

Voyager's first contact with another star, if it is still going, would be Gliese 445, in 40,000 years. The probe includes phonograph records of various sounds of Earth, including music by Beethoven, Mozart, and Chuck Berry. Surely the Chuck Berry would inspire interest in civilizations out there to come visit. Of course, the ironic thing is that the phonographs are obsolete technology here on Earth.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Drinking Buddies

Usually having Olivia Wilde in a cast makes a movie automatically bad, therefore I was surprised that I absolutely loved Drinking Buddies. Not only is she in the movie, she's the keystone that holds it together. I saw it last night and almost 24 hours later it's still with me.

In this film written and directed by Joe Swanberg, one of the principles of the "mumblecore" school, Wilde plays the gal Friday at a brewery in Chicago. She is close friends with a co-worker, Jake Johnson, with whom she jokes around and flirts with, but the relationship is platonic. He lives with special ed teacher Anna Kendrick, while Wilde is dating Ron Livingston.

The foursome spend the weekend together at a cabin on Lake Michigan, and Kendrick and Livingston find each other attracted to one another, going so far as kissing while on a picnic. Johnson and Wilde have a late-night bonfire on the beach, and Wilde jumps into the lake, topless. If this were a Penthouse Forum letter, things would get very kinky, but seeing as this is about Midwestern Anglo-Saxons, everything is held close to the vest.

The tension between the two sets of couples, particularly Johnson and Wilde, percolates as the two realize their feelings, but are unwilling or perhaps afraid to act on them. When Kendrick leaves the country on a trip, Johnson helps Wilde move, where things come to a certain breaking point. The denouement, full of forgiveness, is remarkably cathartic.

As with Swanberg's other pictures, this one is improvised, with the actors given the framework but coming up with their own dialogue, and it's fantastic. The actors manage to convey so much with what isn't said that it's breathtakingly authentic. I think of a scene in which Johnson and Kendrick are discussing when they should get married. They speak in a kind of couples' therapy politeness, but the subtext screams that Kendrick clearly wants to move it along, while Johnson is pushing it off, saying it will happen when it happens.

Everyone in the cast is wonderful, but I couldn't be more surprised with Wilde, who up until now has been mostly adornment in her films. She is, of course, exceptionally beautiful, and at first I was resistant to a woman who looks like that playing someone who has a typical job. Then I realized I was being prejudicial--not all stunning women are actresses and models. She reminded me of a woman I work with, who is heart-stoppingly beautiful and a real party animal. I think what sold me on Wilde was a little thing in the early going, when she sits down at her desk. Before someone walks into her office she gives her armpit a quick sniff.

Another scene, in which Livingston tells her he needs to talk to her (he is about to break up with her) is also great, as the expression on Wilde's face reveals that she knows exactly what it about to happen.

The fact that it's called Drinking Buddies and it's set in and around a brewery is both important and not important. Beer is a big part of these people's lives--if I worked in a brewery, I might not want to go out for beer after work every night, but that's just me. Alcohol is not a problem for these folks, but it's ever-present, and the drinking of it is a major part of the action of this film. Fortunately the film does not veer into sensationalism, such as having one of the characters get a DUI or enter rehab. This movie is not preaching, it's just showing.

I really liked this movie--it's one of my favorites of the year--but it's also right up my alley. It's very theatrical, and almost could have been a play. There isn't a lot visually interesting about it--Swanberg uses a moving camera a lot, so we feel like we're tagging along--but the naturalism and the verisimilitude is palpable. It's a terrific piece of work.

My grade for Drinking Buddies: A.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Time That Remains

We begin in the interior of a hired car. The driver soons get lost, and a heavy rainstorm begins. He pulls over, and wonders where he is. The passenger, in shadows, has said nothing.

This is the enigmatic prologue to The Time That Remains, Elia Suleiman's otherwise straight-forward autobiographical film that traces the Arab experience in Israel, from the founding of the Jewish state to today. It has a clear viewpoint, but it isn't an angry film, and for much of it the film has a droll humor, as the various actors playing Suleiman (he plays himself as a grown man) never say a word, and frequently just observe, hands hanging at their side, faces as impassive as Buster Keaton's.

After the prologue, we cut to 1948, when Jewish forces conquer the Palestinians. Elia's father, Fuoad, is a machinist who makes guns and works for the Arab resistance. He is captured and brutally beaten. The Israelis are painted as vicious, shooting a woman who mistakes them for Arabs, celebrating because she thinks they are victorious.

The film jumps to when Elia is a small boy. His mother and father live quietly in Nazareth, and the tone shifts to one of a domestic comedy. The neighbor gets drunk and douses himself with kerosene, but Fuoad takes the matches away. Elia gets in trouble at school, as the principal asks him, "Who told you that America is colonialist?"

Then we jump to when Elia is a teenager. He has been denounced for dissidence, and is forced to leave the country. But through it all we never hear him speak a word.

Finally, Elia returns as an older man. His mother is ill, and goes to the hospital (it is here that I realize they must be Christian, as she has a Christmas tree and a statue of Mary). Elia is almost like a ghost, having coffee with old friends and visiting a karoake bar with his mother's caretaker, but never interacts, and remains resolutely silent.

The film is dedicated to his parents, and it's a nice tribute, but as a film it doesn't really do much. It shows that Palestinians haven't had it easy living in Israel, but the Suleiman family seems to have lived a good life, if not exactly one that has honored their culture.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sea of Cowards

Sea of Cowards, the second album by Dead Weather, one of many side project of uber-musician Jack White, is dandy. As with their first album, Horehound, there isn't a bad song in the mix, and they all are straight-forward rockers--no room for ballads.

The sound is very much old style blues, the kind you might hear on a roadhouse in Mississippi on a moonless night. You can almost smell the fecundity of the swamp. As with Horehound, the songwriting speaks to the elemental desires, with no rainbows and lollipops. This is anti-bubblegum music.

The group, in addition to White, consists of vocalist Alison Mosshart, guitarist Dean Fertita, and bassist Jack Laurene. The guitars on this album are amazing, squealing and grinding and gnashing. Mosshart and White divide vocals--her highlight is "I'm Mad," which has her repeating the title in between sarcastic laughter. Her voice is deep, with an edge of cruelty, and is also on display in "The Difference Between Us" and "No Horse."

It's not easy coming up with my favorite song, so I'll mention a bunch: "Die By the Drop" is the most ambitious and far-reaching, as the production is exquisite. "Gasoline" may be about a man's love for a car: "I don't want a sweetheart, all I want is a machine. I love you the most I do. When you're close to me I can smell the gasoline." I also like "I Can't Hear You," which has riff that is very similar to the Monkee's TV show's closing theme, "For Pete's Sake."

The closing track is "Old Mary," written solely by White (all the others are written by various combinations of the band) and begins with a spoken word portion that sounds like some weird old prayer in a scary backwoods church: "Old Mary, full of grease, your heart stops within you, scary are the fruits of your tomb and harsh are the terms of your sentence."

According to Internet reports, Dead Weather are currently working on a third album. I can't wait.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice is a 2012 film about climate change, and one man's attempt to show the few but obstinate skeptics visual evidence of it. The only reason I ended up seeing it as that it got nominated for an Oscar for, of all things, Best Song.

The film, directed by Jeff Orlowsky, documents the travails of nature photographer James Balog, who, along with an intrepid crew, position time-lapse cameras at various points near glaciers across the Arctic. By showing the receding ice, he wants to prove that global warming is not just a bunch of statistics, but an actual thing visible to the naked eye.

He has a few obstacles--the cameras don't work at first, and he struggles with a bad knee, which makes it kind of difficult to climb and hike to the remote spots. But he ends up getting some pretty amazing photos, that show some glaciers losing miles of ice, even during winter.

That global warming is such a hot potato is amazing--I suppose those who think it isn't true are either in the pocket of big oil or are just opposing anything that smacks of liberalism--and Chasing Ice uses clips of the likes of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck as easy targets. The problem with the movie is that it seems like too much preaching to the choir--we already know there's a problem. Would this movie sway Hannity and Beck? Doubt it.

I'm also curious as to why there was no mention of satellite photography, which would surely show the same thing without having to climb so much.

The most spectacular footage is when two of Balog's researchers witness a calving event--when a glacier breaks off and plunges into the ocean. The one they saw and filmed lasted 75 minutes, and was the equivalent of lower Manhattan rolling over and tumbling into the sea.

Chasing Ice has some lovely vistas of Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska, and is a nice complement to stat-heavy films like An Inconvenient Truth, but it lacks the oomph necessary to make it a game-changer in the childish climate science debate.

Oh, and the song, "Before My Time," by J. Ralph? Pretty good, sung by Scarlett Johansson.

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I first read 1984 back in junior high school, and was incredibly grabbed by its dystopian view of society. This summer, it shot up the charts due to the NSA scandals, which suggests that the government may be more of a Big Brother than we even thought. I figured it was a good time to have another look at it.

George Orwell wrote this book in 1949, and didn't intend it so much as a work of science fiction but a contemporary commentary. It has become an iconic book that not only gave us the terms Big Brother and the thought police, but a warning to any government that spreads its totalitarian wings.

The book is set in England during the title year, but England is part of a larger nation, called Oceania. There are only three nations on Earth--Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. One is always at war with another. Oceania's government has complete control over its citizens, particularly those in the party. There apartments have telescreens that work both ways, transmitting and spying on inhabitants. Children are taught to inform on their parents (the youth organization is called "Spies"). Sex, while necessary to procreate, is encouraged only for that purpose, and there is an "Anti-Sex League." Citizens are encouraged to hate the enemy and the figurehead of the resistant movement, Emmanuel Goldstein, by periodic rages of hatred.

Winston Smith, an average man who works in the Ministry of Truth, is troubled by it all. He rebels by finding a nook in his apartment that is unseen by the telescreen and starting a diary. For one thing, he has memories and knows things he is told is untrue: "The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness, which in any case must soon be annihilated."

Winston's job is to recreate history. Anytime a person becomes an unperson, or the war changes, or an official contradicts himself, he goes in and changes the record, which in Orwell's world only meant print. It's amusing and disturbing to think that now this is much easier to accomplish, as digitally changing something is a snap.

Later Winston will meet a woman, Julia, who shares his views. She hands him a note that says simply, "I love you," the three words that are most effective at changing anyone's outlook on life. They share an idyllic period of love and sex in the proletariat part of town, where people live in poverty but are not of interest to the party. But of course they are eventually found out. Then the book shows the full extent of the power of the government.

The book is easily readable, even with a large section devoted to the book written by Goldstein, which lays out the problems of society--there are three classes: the upper, middle, and lower, and that the first is trying to maintain its status, while the second tries to join the first, and the third is hopelessly locked in the basement. Winston believes that only the "proles" can provide the revolution needed to overthrow Big Brother. But Orwell will not let him, or us, have our fantasy.

This book is incredibly rich. Early on we hear a character called Syme discourse on "newspeak," an eradication of English into a simplistic form: "'It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well...Take 'good,' for instance. If you have a word like 'good,' what need is there for a word like 'bad?' 'Ungood' will do just as well...what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like 'excellent' and 'splendid' and all the rest of them? 'Plusgood' covers the meaning; or 'doubleplusgood' if you want something stronger still."

Also, the notion of saying exactly what is opposite, which is a large part of most governmental language, comes into play here. The slogan everyone is forced to read on a constant basis is "War is Peace/Freedom Is Slavery/Ignorance Is Strength." Winston works at the Ministry of Truth, which is concerned with lies. The Ministry of Peace is the war department. The Ministry of Plenty keeps the people in starvation mode. And then there's the Ministry of Love.

The final act of the book is the torture Winston goes through after being caught. It is harrowing and eye-opening. His torturer reasons with him calmly, even while giving him incredible jolts of pain. He is beaten down over months, and when he believes he has at least kept something--he has not yet betrayed Julia--they take that away from him, in a scene right out of Poe (it involves rats). I remembered the words for almost forty years, and here they were, exactly as I remembered them: "Do it to Julia!"

Some other aspects of the book have become true: "It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made a living simply by selling systems, forecasts and lucky amulets."

1984 is not a happy read, but it does have its moments of weeds breaking through the concrete. Orwell's position is that the party will never be overthrown, as they are too consumed with power to ever let it happen. But just by Winston thinking the thoughts he does is rays of sunshine. "Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you made. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the world, you were not mad."

That's important to remember, especially when even in the freest of societies one realizes that the reality of 1984 is disturbingly too close for comfort.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Miley Cyrus Flap Redux

Five years ago I wrote about the stink that was raised by a photo of teen pop star Miley Cyrus. Mostly it was about the sexualization of teenage girls. But Miley is all growed up now, though she still favors the chance to thrust her sexuality in our faces.

A week or so ago, her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards was the talk of the nation. I didn't see it, so I looked it at it last night. I can see how some might think it's yet another step toward the end of Western civilization, though it seems to be another in a long line of recording artists trying to top each other in tastelessness. For those who haven't seen it, Cyrus, wearing her hair in knots like the horns of a billy goat, sings while dancers dressed as giant stuffed animals cavort beside her.

Then, in the part that got everyone's bowels in an uproar, she is joined by Robin Thicke to sing his hit song, "Blurred Lines." Miley strips off her revealing outfit to show an even more revealing one, sticks out her tongue, rubs her nether regions with one of those foam "We're Number One" fingers, and then bends over and simulates rear entry sex with Thicke. While she does this she "twerks," a word I hadn't heard before but is now so common that it made the O.E.D.

Cyrus isn't done with pushing the taste envelope. Her new single, "Wrecking Ball," has a video that sees her licking a sledgehammer and riding the title object wearing nothing but a pair of boots (smart, she wouldn't want to step on a nail barefoot). When she is clothed she's wearing a skimpy white t-shirt that shows her nipples and little white panties. Clearly, her next step is a sex tape.

So what does this all mean for our decaying culture? Are we headed off the cliff like the Romans did, when Tiberius was having orgies with slave boys on the isle of Capri? Maybe, but the larger question is why Cyrus is even popular. Who are her fans? The "Wrecking Ball" song is okay, instantly forgettable. She doesn't even have much of a voice, as evidenced by her live singing on the VMAs--a typical woman singing karaoke sounds as good. She's not particularly attractive, not helped by the horrendous haircut. Is she still appealing to those girls who watched her as Hannah Montana? Or is there a whole new generation of girls (certainly not boys) who think she's aces?

Stars like Miley Cyrus, and Lady GaGa, and Britney Spears, and Madonna before them, are products of stylists and choreographers who are just trying to do something never seen before. It doesn't really matter if it's any good or makes any sense. "Wrecking Ball" was directed by Terry Richardson, a photographer who frequently takes beautiful women and makes them look grotesque. It's all about shock, not talent. Does this all damage our collective psyche? In a way, it might, as the next star has a new bar to try to jump over. As evidenced by the nudity in "Blurred Lines," the sexuality of this performances are reaching a level that television might not be able to handle, and it will all be on the unrated Internet.

Imagine, almost sixty years ago Elvis Presley was not able to show his gyrating hips on The Ed Sullivan Show. Now twerking can be seen anytime. That's a good thing, in that censors should not be interfering with our lives. But do we really want to see twerking?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

My Joy

My Joy, a 2010 film by Sergei Loznitsa, reinforces my belief that Russia must be the most depressing country in the world to live in. At least that's the way its depicted in movies. And, judging by My Joy, it's also one of the cruelest. The title is completely ironic--there's no joy to be found.

It begins with a body being flung into a hole, covered in mud, and then the hole is filled in with a bulldozer. We never return to this scene to learn who the unlucky interree is, but its casual disrespect for life is established. The film then centers on a truck driver, Viktor Nemets. He undergoes something of a banal odyssey: he is stopped at a police checkpoint, picks up an old man, who tells him a story of cruelty from the war; gets stuck in a traffic jam (perhaps shades of Godard's Weekend) and then picks up a teenage prostitute, who shows him a way around the tie-up.

She fully expects to ply her trade, and when he offers her money without recompense she is insulted, flinging the money in his face. He is now lost in a strange village, with the kind of faces seen in nightmares. He follows a dirt road until he stops for the night, where he is set upon by robbers, who end up knocking him out with a stick.

Then the film shifts, and I'm embarrassed to say I missed something critical. The focus point of the second half of the movie is a mute, but it wasn't until I went back and read a review in the New York Times that I found out the mute is actually the truck driver, now an amnesiac (with a full beard). I had thought he was the mute who was tagging along with the robbers, especially after a scene in which a young boy witnesses the murder of his father by Russian soldiers during the war.

That aside, the film is slow and grueling and bleak. There isn't a lot of action, but it leads up to a devastatingly brutal scene at that police checkpoint. If we are to learn anything from the movie, or from Lozitsna's world view, is that you can't trust anybody, and you'll get killed if you. There are no Kumbaya moments in My Joy.

Monday, September 09, 2013


So what to make of the long-gestating biography of Linda Lovelace, the first adult film superstar, who was also one of the preeminent victims in porn culture? Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who have won Oscars for Best Documentary Feature, its well made and heartfelt, but ultimately I have to say it's only worth a shrug of the shoulders.

Lovelace, real name Linda Boreman, was a typical young woman living in Florida, where she had moved with her parents after having a baby put up for adoption. Her mother (Sharon Stone) is rigid and doctrinaire, her father (Robert Patrick), easygoing. One day at a roller rink she meets Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), a bar owner. It was, as they say, her first mistake.

Traynor, who had a fabulous '70s Fu Manchu mustache that today would make anybody suspicious, was a classic sleazeball (and Sarsgaard seems to specialize in playing guys like that). After marrying Linda, he pimps her out, and then, in need of cash, gets her a part in a pornographic movie. The makers of the film (played with wit by Hank Azaria and Bobby Cannavale) think she's not va-va-voom enough, but when Traynor shows them a film of her talent at fellatio, they are convinced.

The resulting film, Deep Throat, was a cultural phenomenon that's hard to understand today. She and the film became punchlines for jokes by Bob Hope and Johnny Carson (a particularly cruel one gets Stone, watching alone back at home, to change the channel). Lovelace becomes a celebrity, feted by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Hugh Hefner, but she doesn't see any money, only Traynor does (enough to buy a gold Rolls Royce).

Then comes the fall, as Traynor's abuse sends her to the opposite side of the spectrum, leaving him and the industry and writing a tell-all book and finding, briefly, happiness as a wife and mother.

This is occasionally fascinating, and the film held my interest, but ultimately Lovelace is not much of a character--she's just a victim, and though it is extremely sympathetic to her, it doesn't do her justice. From what I know, she was much more complicated that the portrayal here. For instance, the film shows her furiously resisting doing a follow-up to Deep Throat, mainly after hearing how her father saw the film. But in reality she did do Deep Throat II, and another film after that. Much later in life she did a nude shoot for the magazine Leg Show, so the story in the film, which ends in 1978 or so, had a lot more twists to it.

I did admire Amanda Seyfried as Linda. She doesn't really look like her--Lovelace's face was sharp angles, while Seyfried's is cherubic--but she captures a certain inherent sorrow in the women that the script doesn't provide. The scene when she comes crawling back to Stone, only to be turned away because her mother believes a woman belongs with her husband, no matter what he does to her, is heartbreaking (Stone says in exasperation, "What next, divorce? We're not Protestants.")

The depiction of the era of porn chic, with its ridiculous hairstyles and fashions, is kind of fun, especially James Franco's deadpan take on Hefner, who experiences Lovelace's talent firsthand in the balcony during a screening of the film.

But the film is really missing more depth to its title character. What made her tick? I still don't know.

My grade for Lovelace: B-.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Among Others

Among Others, by Jo Walton, won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, the highest honor for a science fiction novel. But Among Others isn't really science fiction--it's about a girl reading science fiction.

Sure, there's some supernatural elements to the book, notably fairies and some magic, but most of it is the diary of a Welsh girl at a private school in England, and all the books she reads. And she reads a lot of books, and lets us know what she thinks of them. It reminded me of a girl I once knew who wrote in her diary every night the last song she listened to on the radio.

But Among Others isn't a bad book. The girl, Morwenna, is good company. She's fifteen, and crippled from an auto accident. She has left Wales to live with her father, who she does not know, in England. She attends a rigidly authoritarian school, where she doesn't fit in, and escapes in her books. Fortunately her father is a big sci-fi fan, and he has a big library, and she finds succor in the school and town libraries. "Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization," she rightly says.

As we read along, Mori, as she's called, mourns her dead twin sister (killed in the same accident) and worries about her mother, who apparently is some sort of witch. Mori ran away from her, but we don't really know the whole story. Her father's sisters are also some kind of witches, as they try to get Mori's ears pierced, which means that it will eliminate Mori's ability to practice magic.

Mori does cast a spell--to make friends. She's convinced this spell gets her invited to the science fiction book club at the library, where she meets a cute, interesting boy (perhaps the biggest fiction of this book is that girls would go to a science fiction book club).

The interesting thing about the book is the fairies. Mori has no trouble seeing them, because she believes in them (shades of Tinkerbell, though there is no clapping of hands). "Fairies tend to be either very beautiful or absolutely hideous. They all have eyes, and lots of them have some recognisable sort of head. Some of them have limbs in roughly human way, some are more like animals, and others bear no resemblance to anything at all."

But the problem with the book is that I kept waiting for something to happen. It just goes along, listing books and authors, Mori's trips to town, her trip back to Wales for Christmas, etc. The only action comes in the very end, and its rushed, as if Walton's battery was running low on her computer (or, since the book is set in 1979-80, maybe her typewriter ribbon was running out of ink).

Among Others, in addition to its awards, has some rapturous reviews, and I think that's because it's for a special audience, those who have read The Lord of the Rings several times and consume sci-fi/fantasy novels like peanuts. Of all the book she mentions, which must be in the hundreds, I've only read a few. I'm just not in the demographic to full appreciate the book.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

My Head Is an Animal

Of Monsters and Men is an Icelandic rock band. Their album, My Head Is an Animal, had been on my wish list for a while, and I finally got around to buying it. It's terrific.

The group sings in English, and their sound is almost Celtic. The band I thought of most while listening was the Scottish group from years ago, Big Country. That's because OMAM's sound is big and sweeping--they pile on the overdubs (favoring the choral "Hey!") and lots of instrumentation, including brass and accordion.

Lyrically, the group favors a kind of holistic mysticism. The "animal" in the album's title is key--almost every song contains a reference to some sort of woodland creature or other, whether it's wolves, foxes, owls, tigers, or lions. They also reference crying seagulls and sharks.

The only other Icelandic group that made it big in the U.S. was The Sugar Cubes, and while OMAM don't necessarily sound like them, their lead singer, Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir, both sounds and looks like Bjork. She has that breathy, little girl voice that tends to break, and she has the pixie look that Bjork has.

The best songs on the record are those that don't stint on what the band does best--go big. The two songs with airplay that I've heard, "Little Talks" and "Mountain Sound," are wonderful. The former seems to be a conversation with a mental patient, and the second just about getting away from it all. "Mountain Sound" is so joyously rendered that it's hard not to feel good upon hearing it.

My other favorite is "Your Bones," which really hammers home the Celtic folk-rock sound, with lyrics like: "In the spring we made a boat out of feathers out of bones, we set fire to our homes, walking barefoot in the snow. Distant rhythm of the drum as we drifted towards the storm. Baby lion lost his teeth now they're swimming in the sea." I don't know what it means, but I like it.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Deadwood, Season 3

I finally finished watching the third and final season of Deadwood, which aired on HBO in 2006. It was kind of a chore--though the series was cancelled because of high production costs, it was spinning its wheels, adding characters for seemingly no particular reason and bowing under the weight of its florid language.

This season was dominated by the town against George Hearst, the real-life mining magnate (and father of William Randolph) who wants to buy the large and profitable gold mine from Alma (Molly Parker). While there, he engages in a tense, mostly cold war with Al Swearingen (Ian McShane) the profane and colorful owner of the Gem, the town's saloon, and the taciturn Sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), who at one point drags Hearst off to jail by his ear. Hearst, played by Gerald McRaney, was a real person, but his family can't be happy with this potrayal, which basically says he was close to inhuman, caring about nothing but gold.

All of the other regulars are around, but none of their plot threads are very interesting. Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert) falls into a romance with Joanie Stubbs (Kim Dickens), the ex-whore; Cy Tolliver (Powers Boothe) recovers from a stab wound, and grows slowly mad with rage at being treated as a lackey by Hearts; E.B. Farnum (William Sanderson), sells his hotel to Hearst, and delivers a few of his self-pitying monologues, and Doc (Brad Dourif) has a debilitating lung disease.

New characters are introduced, such as Jack Langrishe (Brian Cox), also a real person, an actor who brings his theater company to Deadwood. As if the character of this show weren't already speaking in a faux Shakespearean tone, Cox trumps them all. Also, bewilderingly, two of the Earp Brothers show up for a few episodes, but they make no impact.

None of the magic from the first two seasons are here in the third. The language almost becomes a parody of itself, and the motivations of the characters, and their alignments, seem to be constantly shifting. There are a few memorable moments, mostly involving violence: Swearingen's henchman, W. Earl Brown, has an epic streetfight with Hearst's henchman, and Swearingen viciously kills one of Hearst's agents.

Because the series ended without a chance to sum everything up, there is a sense of incompleteness. It was thought a TV-movie or two would rap things up, but that didn't happen. They never did get to the huge fire that devastated the Chinese community.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Love Goes to Buildings on Fire

The knock on the 1970s is that it was a shitty decade for music, particularly coming after the brilliance of the 1960s. When I first started buying music in that decade, it was of older stuff like The Beatles, or groups that tipped their hat to them, like Queen and ELO. Will Hermes, who is about my age, also came of musical age in the '70s, but he lived in Queens, just a subway ride away from Manhattan, were exciting things were happening.

In his book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire, he recounts the five years, from 1973 to 1977, that music coming out of New York changed the landscape. And while most of the music (except for one artist) didn't get much airplay, it did "change music forever," as he adds in his subtitle.

Hermes styles the book as a diary, starting at the turn of year in '73 and ending with the end of 1977. He cuts a wide swath through all genres--rock, jazz, salsa, classical. He notes that three of the most influential styles of music were born during those five years: punk, disco, and hip-hop. And some of the most influential venues, such as CBGB and Studio 54, first opened their doors during that period.

The spectrum is so wide that you sometimes need a scorecard to keep track of everyone. I was most interested in the conversations about rock. Much of New York's rock scene came out of the sounds of The Velvet Underground: "The Velvet Underground never made it big, but their aesthetic had a lasting effect. In a sense, the '70s began with them." Hermes outlines the creation of the influential Television, which was formed by Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, as well as The Ramones, The New York Dolls, Blondie (whom he describes as the least likely of the groups from the CBGB hey-day to hit it big) and then Talking Heads, who gave the book its title (it was their first single). It gets a little heady imagining all these bands prowling New York at the same time, opening for each other, checking out each other's shows.

The main characters in the rock sections are Patti Smith and Bruce Springsteen, who had high respect for each other (they collaborated on Smith's only hit, "Because the Night"). Springsteen, of course, is the only superstar to emerge from this group. Hermes writes of when he and his guitar player, Steve Van Zandt, drove down to Philadelphia to see Elvis shortly before he died. Hermes notes that Springsteen went on to reach Elvis-like heights, but without the fall.

Aside from rock and roll, there was plenty going on in New York in the other musical worlds. In jazz, Miles Davis went experimental, and jazz lofts were the hotbeds, with artists like Cecil Taylor. Spanish music was huge, with salsa the rage, and artists like Willie Colon and Celia Cruz dominating. In classical, it was the experimental sounds of Steve Reich and Philip Glass which were interesting, especially Glass's collaboration with Robert Wilson on the four-hour long opera, Einstein on the Beach.

But perhaps the most lasting impact from the decade came from hip-hop and disco, which Hermes links: "hip-hop and disco were born of the same rhythmic gene pool." This, even though culturally they came from different places. Hip-hop and rap came from DJs like Grandmaster Flash, spinning records in public places, stealing electricity from city lampposts. Disco spawned from the gay bathhouse scene, and I'm old enough to remember the impact it had, as the tropes of gay culture became "in." After the film Saturday Night Fever was released, in late '77, it was so huge that it couldn't help but suffer a backlash: "Racism, homophobia, and sexism informed the backlash, no doubt, but so did a lot of terrible music churned out by hacks and promoted by aesthetically bankrupt broadcasters."

This was a very interesting book to read, and will inspire a lot of CD buying. At times the writing is a bit clumsy: "Aside from those who hated it, it seemed no one could get enough of the disco sound--certainly not radio programmers, who were riding the 4/4 high-hat-drive beat like perky hookers astride weary johns." But I liked his way of describing New York then, which was at its most seedy--indeed, Hermes surmises that the cleaning up of New York curbed the creative juices of the city. He weaves in the other aspects of New York during the time, such as the graffiti artists, the blackout, Son of Sam, and the continuing financial crisis.

He also puts himself in the narrative, which is risky but pays off, I think. I liked little asides like: "It's hard to convey the extent to which drugs were a part of life in New York during the mid-'70s," or when he attends a Led Zeppelin concert at Madison Square Garden and realizes these guys are old--in their thirties.

I recommend this book to those who lived through the scene, who will nod in recognition, remembering how vile the bathroom was at CBGB, and those who weren't even born yet, as it really puts you there, and you can imagine the hot, sticky nights, the sounds emanating from dank little clubs.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Short Term 12

Although it mines territory of a typical Afterschool Special, Short Term 12 is much better than that, viewing its subjects with a kind of tough love. It is also exceptionally well acted, particularly by its lead, Brie Larson.

Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the film takes place in a group home for troubled teens. Larson is the head of the line staff, which means she's not a therapist, but makes sure the kids are watched over with great care. Her second-in-command is also her live-in boyfriend, played shaggily by John Gallagher, Jr.

As the film begins, the exposition is laid out by having a new guy (Rami Malek) on his first day. Gallagher tells a story about chasing after an escaped kid while also having a bout of incontinence. We are introduced to a handful of the kids, each of whom has a different problem. Most notably is Marcus (Keith Stanfield), who is about to turn 18 and will thus have to leave.

Shortly thereafter Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) arrives. She is prone to cutting herself, so has to leave her door open at all times. She is sullen and not interested in making friends. Larson, who sees herself in the girl, tries to reach out to her.

As the film progresses, and we see how Larson's job is both rewarding and demanding, it is revealed how her past butts against her future. She finds out that she is pregnant, which is not welcome news. We learn that she experienced a childhood not unlike those in her care. Gallagher is frustrated because she won't let him in, not taking the advice she gives to her charges every day--talk it out.

This is very good film, with very few missteps. At a certain point Larson suspects that Dever is being abused by her father, and makes a move that seems out of character, but then it makes sense in a cathartic conclusion. All of the major plot threads, involving Marcus, Jayden and Larson/Gallagher, are handled intelligently and, given the circumstances, with very little sentimentality. Marcus is a rapper, and the rap he writes and performs (written by the actor himself) is actually pretty good.

Larson is a revelation. I've only seen her in a few things, such as 21 Jump Street and, just the other day in The Spectacular Now. Her character has incredible depth, and it's not just from the writing. The pain she goes through is written all over her face.

I have no idea what the future distribution for this film will be, but I hope it goes wide and gets some recognition.

My grade for Short Term 12: A-.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Spectacular Now

The big take-away from The Spectacular Now is that Shailene Woodley is going to be a big star. In some ways, she's paralleling the ascent of Jennifer Lawrence--regular on a TV series, strutting her stuff in a small indie, then being everywhere in a sci-fi dystopian movie based on a popular young adult novel. Woodley had a head start in movies, though, with her debut in The Descendants, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination.

The Spectacular Now is a better-than-average teen movie, which also has a star-making turn from its male lead, Miles Teller (who was so good in Rabbit Hole). But Woodley really steals the show, convincing us that she's the kind of high school girl that nobody notices. I can still hear her embarrassed laugh when Teller tells her she's beautiful, or the way she says "okay" to any suggestion that Teller makes, even when he asks her to a family dinner with ten minutes notice.

The film is ostensibly about Teller, who plays Sutter Keely, the most popular kid in school. At the film's outset, he describes a certain fall from grace, when his equally popular girlfriend (Brie Larson) breaks up with him over a misunderstanding. Teller reminded me a lot of Lloyd Dobler from Say Anything--he's cocksure with a gift for gab, but in this case he's also a complete lush. He carries around a convenience store soda cup that is fortified from a flask. He drives drunk so often that a member of MADD might go mad watching him.

After a night of dipsomania after his breakup with Larson, Teller ends up passed out on the lawn of Woodley. She knows who he is; he doesn't know her, but helps her with her paper route, which is really her mom's. He likes the way she listens to him, and though he mystifies his best friend by going out with such a non-entity, he really likes her. I suspect that in the source book the character is a plain and nerdy girl--she's into Manga--but Woodley is not plain, though she does not have beauty queen looks. It's Woodley's gifts that we can believe Teller might appear to be slumming, but she is really too good for him.

Teller gets her drinking, and in a lovely, authentic scene he takes her virginity. But he still pines for Larson, who is now dating the football captain. Meanwhile, Teller's father, who walked out years before, remains a tantalizing mystery for him, and he gets his sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) to give him his number. It is this encounter with the dad, played by Kyle Chandler, that leads to the film's explosive breaking point.

This is a very good film, and given the genre it's fantastic, as high school films are a notorious dumping ground for people with no talent. It is directed with assurance by James Ponsoldt (who also directed the fine Smashed, with Winstead--he knows how to showcase actresses) and written by the team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote (500) Days of Summer. The film was shot in Georgia, and it has a lovely fetid feel to it.

Some of it is a bit trite--the film is framed as a college entrance essay by Teller, and I swear I've seen that before. The title is also not very interesting--it refers to Teller's philosophy of living in the moment, and not thinking about the future.

But I don't think the film is quite as good as Woodley and Teller, who bring it extra dimension. We can be expected to hear much more from them in the future.

My grade for The Spectacular Now: B.

Sunday, September 01, 2013


Though Kon-Tiki was a nominee for last year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language film from Norway, the version I saw was entirely in English. That's because the makers of the film shot two versions, figuring (correctly, unfortunately) that the film would do much better business if people didn't have to read subtitles. In any event, no matter what language, it's a fun, old-fashioned adventure.

The story is that of Thor Heyerdahl's, the ethnographer who theorized that Polynesia was not settled by Asians from the west, but South Americans from the east. The problem, as he discovers, is that no one thinks the South Americans of the time had sea-worthy enough boats to make the voyage, which is 5,000 miles (unanswered but also a good question is why they would make the trip in the first place). So Heyerdahl, along with a few friends, decides to build a balsa-wood raft, using only materials available to the ancients, and prove that it can be done.

This is a famous story and indeed, a documentary that Heyerdahl and crew made themselves won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1951 (the voyage was made in 1947). I don't know if there was a cry for another take on the tale, but this film, directed by Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg, is an almost constant joy to watch. After beginning with a prologue that shows a young Heyerdahl as a risk taker, we jump to his idyllic days living on a Polynesian island, along with his wife, where he first gets his idea. Then we jump to after the war, when no one will take him seriously, and he scrapes together the money for his voyage.

He takes along five fellow Scandinavians, one of who is a refrigerator salesman who goes simply because of the adventure and his belief in Heyerdahl. Indeed, Heyerdahl (played by Pal Hagen) is something of a zealot on the subject, and whose answer to any problem is "have faith." But he isn't an Ahab, and it's easy to see how he kept the expedition together, even through dark times.

And there are plenty of them. At first, the boat is off course (they are relying on the currents that the early Americans would have used). When he tells his navigator to have faith, the reply is, "I have faith, but I also have a sextant." They also deal with storms, a curious whale, and a lot of sharks. The refrigerator salesman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) starts to lose his mind, and begs Heyerdahl to lash the logs together with wire, but Heyerdahl throws the offending metal into the sea, seemingly dooming everyone on board.

Of course, as history attests, they will succeed, and Heyerdahl becomes world famous (although anthropologists still aren't sure of his thesis).

The film, shot in gorgeous locations, does a remarkable job of showing what folly this all looked like--the distance they were traveling was the equal of Chicago to Moscow--and the vastness of the ocean. A shot that pulls from the men looking into the stars all the way up into the heavens shows how insignificant we all are. We also see, perhaps for the only time, a shark eating a parrot.

This is the kind of film that doesn't seem to be made any more--the story of daring-do, with men with long beards, their sun-kissed hair whipping in the breeze. Maybe we're too cynical for it now, but it's nice to be reminded of different times.