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Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Nude Vampire

For this ghost and goblin season, I planned a Netflix festival of the films of Jean Rollin, who made several nudie horror films, mostly in the '70s. However, the first one was so jaw-droppingly awful that I may cut the festival short.

The Nude Vampire, made in 1970, is the kind of movie that defies description. It is incompetently acted, photographed, edited, written, and directed. It is the kind of movie that is best enjoyed with the company of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, or at least under the influence of hallucinogenics, which it appears to have been made under.

It's hard to know where to start listing all the bizarre things about this film. It starts with a bunch of people in masks taking a blood sample from a naked woman, also wearing a mask (we get one shot of just her boob, as if to tell us--"this is the most important part of the scene"). Then we cut to a young woman, wearing nothing but orange lingerie, escaping from a mansion and wandering the streets. She is chased by men in animal masks (one of them is wearing a chicken mask, and let me tell you, try as one might, one can't make a person wearing a chicken mask look scary). A young man attempts to rescue her, but she is shot and the masked men take her back.

This young lady is the vampire in question, though she is never nude. The lingerie is see-through, though, so there's nothing left to the imagination. She is played by a young lady named Christine Francois, and she never says a word during the entire film. Apparently she has a rare disorder where she can only feed on human blood, and she is immortal (shooting her has no effect).

The young man's father is in league with scientists who are trying to replicate her disorder, so they can be immortal. To feed her, they are in cahoots with a suicide cult, which the young man spies on. We see a young woman, chosen at random, who smilingly puts a gun to her head and pulls the trigger (it is the most bloodless point-blank head shot in the history of movies). Francois then drinks her blood.

Eventually we meet a man in a white cape, which looks like a tablecloth, who reminds me of that cult leader Marshall Applewhite. The young man tries to rescue the girl, with the help of the cape guy, and a pair of twins who are employed by the father, sort of like pets.

During this time period, before porn was so readily available, there were a lot of films made with gratuitous nudity that were dressed up to resemble legitimate cinema, but were usually god-awful. This is one of them. There are lots of bare breasts, or barely concealed breasts (I don't think a bra is worn during the whole film). The twins wear matching costumes I will attempt to describe--they are tops that look like Alexander Calder mobiles, and the father moves around the dangling pieces like beads on an abacus.

The Nude Vampire, despite all the tits, is almost completely free of eroticism. Except for a scene with a painter and his nude model, there is no hint of sex. There all isn't much blood, and no frights. Still, I can't say that it was ever boring. It may have more WTF moments per minute than any movie I've ever seen.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

This Is the End

The most notable information in the credits for This is the End is that it is based on a short film by its writers and directors, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. I haven't seen this short film, but I have seen the feature-length film, and I'm sure the short packed more of a punch. As funny as the feature can be, it's spread way too thin.

The terrific premise has a group of actors, led by Rogen, playing themselves and dealing with the apocalypse. Rogen hosts his buddy, Jay Baruchel, who hates Los Angeles. After a great afternoon of video games and weed, Rogen drags him to a party at James Franco's house, where all sorts of performers, mostly associated with the films of Rogen, are attending, including Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, and Michael Cera. For awhile they poke gentle fun at each other, mostly Cera, who is portrayed as a first-class asshole.

Then some kind of earthquake hits, and people are sucked up into the sky by a blue light. Baruchel, who has a working knowledge of the Book of Revelation, thinks it's the apocalypse. Anyhow, most of the partygoers are killed, falling into a huge pit formed in Franco's front yard. The remaining hunker down in Franco's mansion, bickering with each other and trying to survive.

The best part of the film is how the actors make fun of themselves, amplifying the personality traits of how we think they are. Franco is a pretentious prima donna, Hill is an obsequious phony, and Danny McBride is, well, horrible. Rogen, given that he wrote the thing, comes off best, a good guy, while Baruchel is sort of the hero, but also an insufferable scold.

That being said, a little of this does not go a long way. I imagine the actors had more fun with this than the general public. There were some really great scenes--my favorite was when an axe-wielding Emma Watson takes refuge in the house, but leaves after overhearing them men talking about raping her. Hermione Granger wield an ax and the work "fuck" is priceless.

Other bits aren't as successful, such as a long colloquy between Franco and McBride about where to aim one's ejaculation, or when Hill becomes possessed by a demon, and Baruchel attempts to exorcise him. Little toss off lines work best, such as when Hill, demon-possessed, starts spouting Latin, and Franco thinks it's Hebrew. "I went to Hebrew school for six years," Rogen says, "and that's not Hebrew."

The film also attempts to have a moral, as each character must prove themselves worthy of the rapture. That's kind of lame, as are the special effects. I think this film's spiritual ancestor is Ghostbusters, which of course was much better and more accomplished. This Is the End, though, is mildly amusing and not a bad way to kill an evening.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

O Pioneers!

Willa Cather's novel of life on the prairie, O Pioneers! turns 100 this year. I had never read Cather before, so didn't know what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised by how this book hasn't really dated that much. The writing is frank and fluid, and life in Nebraska in the late 1800s is presented without sentimentality, but with a touch of heroism.

The novel concerns the Bergson family, Swedish immigrants who farm the Nebraska plains. In the opening chapters, the father dies, having struggled to turn his farm into a success. The land, so fertile today, wasn't easy to farm back in those days--it took modern methods to get the crops to flourish.

The book then jumps ahead some sixteen years, when the daughter, Alexandra, is running the farm. She has not married, but has a strong friendship with a neighbor, Carl. Her two brothers, Lou and Oscar, have farms of their own, and resent that it is Alexandra's efforts that made the farm successful to begin with. The youngest son, Emil, breaks the chain of farmers, and has an adventure in Mexico before coming back home for a spell before he plans on attending law school.

This is not a book necessarily about struggle--there are no scenes of Indian attacks, or locust swarms, or any other disaster that most stories like this include. Instead, it focuses on character, mainly that of Alexandra, Emil, and Marie, a Czech neighbor who has married the pig-headed Frank.  Emil and Marie carry on a flirtation that leads to tragedy, while Alexandra's relationship with Carl ends (at least temporarily) when her brothers chase him off.

Cather is very clear about her opinion of Lou and Oscar, who come off very badly. In addition to dashing Alexandra's hopes of marrying Carl, there is a fiery scene in which they tell her that it was a mistake for her to inherit a third of the farm, as woman shouldn't be in business. She basically tells them to go to hell; her name is on the deed, and it was her innovations that kept them afloat. Alexandra is one of the better heroines of American fiction--she's smart, strong, and has impeccable common sense. Cather says of her: "There was about Alexandra something of the impervious calm of the fatalist, always disconcerting to very young people, who cannot feel that the heart lives at all unless it is still at the mercy of storms; unless its strings can scream to the touch of pain."

Of course Cather, who grew up in Nebraska during the time period described, is full of anthropological details about the people who lived there. A few choice observations: "There is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon," and "Young farmers seldom address their wives by name. It is always 'you,' or 'she.'"

Beyond this, the writing is just gorgeous. I'll close with this passage that begins Part III, which is beautiful, and a perfect use of the right words and sentence structure: "Winter has settled down over the Divide again; the season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring. The birds have gone. The teeming life that goes on down in the long grass is exterminated. The prairie-dog keeps his hole. The rabbits run shivering from one frozen garden patch to another and are hard put to it to find frost-bitten cabbage stalks. At night the coyotes roam the wintry waste, howling for food. The variegated fields are all one color now; the pastures, the stubble, the roads, the sky are the same leaden gray. The hedgerows and trees are scarcely perceptible against the bare earth, whose slaty hue they have taken on. The ground is frozen so hard that it bruises the foot to walk in the roads or in the ploughed fields. It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in that dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever."

Monday, October 28, 2013

The Counselor

The Counselor has a big-name director and an all-star cast, but it got some people buzzing because it is the first screenplay by celebrated novelist Cormac McCarthy. There has been a checkered history of novelists writing screenplays. Most of them have adapted their own works, or worked for hire, like William Faulkner. A novelist writing an original screenplay, not on spec, is unusual and reason to prick up one's ears.

Unfortunately, McCarthy has crafted a screenplay that is long on attitude but short on coherence. Ridley Scott, who directs, does the best he can, but one wonders if he and McCarthy had any story conferences, where Scott may have asked McCarthy, "Just what the fuck is going on here?"

The plot concerns drug cartels, a common enough subject in films today. These guys have become the de facto villains of the modern era, replacing Nazis and even eclipsing Arab terrorists. If there's anything we understand about life from movies, it's don't cross a drug lord from south of the border.

That lesson is painfully learned by the title character, an otherwise unnamed man played by Michael Fassbender. He is a lawyer working in El Paso, but wants to get his hands dirty participating in a drug smuggling venture, masterminded by one of his clients, a louche nightclub owner played by Javier Bardem. From there on, I can't tell you much, not because it's a spoiler, but because I don't know for sure. I think that things go sour when a young man, ingeniously decapitated while riding a motorcycle, is linked to Fassbender because he bailed him out of jail at the behest of a client (Rosie Perez). But I'm not sure.

I am sure that there are other key members of the cast. Brad Pitt plays a sleazy middleman who offers Fassbender a lot of advice. Cameron Diaz is Bardem's girlfriend, who may be calling the shots. In an early scene we see her and Bardem watching his pet cheetahs hunting jackrabbits. Diaz is obviously supposed to be the human version of a cheetah, because if we didn't get it already she has a cheetah pattern tattooed on her back. Diaz is the most lively character in the film, if only for the scene in which she rubs her privates on the windshield of a Ferrari.

McCarthy often writes about good and evil, and while there is lots of evil the only good character is played by Penelope Cruz, as Fassbender's innocent fiancee. Cruz isn't given much to do other than look innocent. Everyone else is pretty much despicable, including Fassbender, who after Cruz gets kidnapped is very sorry, but of course he put her in danger in the first place.

There are a lot of novelish touches, including the sage speeches by Pitt and a long conversation between Fassbender and a cartel bigwig played by Ruben Blades, who basically tells Fassbender there is nothing he can do about saving Cruz. Evil is pretty remorseless, isn't it?

The major problem with this film, which isn't outright awful, is that one never knows what the characters are on. A septic truck, full of drugs, passes in possession from one group to another, and we never really know who is responsible for doing what. I gave up on that pretty early, and just enjoyed the sinister desert ambience, but that's not enough to sustain a film.

My grade for The Counselor: C-.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Seasons of Your Day

I was excited to learn that Mazzy Star, who hadn't made an album in 17 years, were reuniting. The result is Seasons of Your Day, and I'm sorry to say, after multiple listens, it's a disappointment.

Before listening, I went back and gave She Hangs Brightly, their 1990 masterpiece, a listen. That album had hooks galore, and made use of Hope Sandoval's sleepy voice effectively. But on Seasons of Your Day all the songs kind of blend together, and Sandoval seems to be nodding off during the recording.

The album kicks off with a church organ "In the Kingdom," one of the few places where there is diversity of sound. Most of the rest of the album consists of steel guitar and a chugging rhythm section. Only the song "Lay Myself Down" kicks it into an up-tempo mode. You'd think after 17 years the songwriting team of Sandoval and David Roback would have shown more variety.

Lyrically, the words are cryptic and poesy, like the thought expressed in a teenage girl's diary. This, from "California," is typical:

"I think I'll drift across the ocean now
Clouds look so clear in your eyes
Let me dream all my, let me dream all my friends"

Still, I didn't hate this record. The boozy sound can be good as background noise. It's just not very good for listening to while operating heavy machinery.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Red Lights

My mini Elizabeth Olsen film festival ends with 2012's Red Lights, in which Olsen has a minor role as "the girl." The heavy lifting in this film is done by Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, and, in one of his many throwaway roles of the past few decades, Robert De Niro.

Murphy and Weaver play paranormal investigators who take a profoundly skeptical view of unexplained phenomena. Weaver has spent her career debunking psychics, hauntings, and other such things. Murphy is her assistant. They work at a university, where funding is scarce. I was unaware that there were classes in how to debunk psychics--it would have been an interesting elective.

De Niro plays a legendary psychic, very Uri Geller-like, who has spent many years in retirement but is emerging for a big tour. He is blind, but is able to read minds, bend spoons, etc. Weaver doesn't want to bother with him, but Murphy is anxious to prove him a fake, even though the last critic De Niro had suffered a mysterious and fatal heart attack.

This is a great set-up, but it just doesn't deliver. Written and directed by Roderigo Cortes, it's an interesting look at the con games of psychics. But some of it just seemed odd. Weaver and Murphy are brought in to debunk a psychic, and seem to have full cooperation of the theater staff. Why, then, did the staff not know that the psychic's staff, which was feeding him information through radio transmitters, were in the booth next door?

Also, an early scene has Weaver discovering a haunting is perpetrated by a young girl who wants to leave the house she has just moved into and go home. But the girl disavows making the table raise during a seance, and Weaver says she knows. So who was making the table raise?

The ending is a let-down, as it involves not one but two scenes of exploding electronics. There's a bit of a twist at the end, but it doesn't have much impact. I was more amused by the use of cards in an experiment involving mind-reading. They are the same cards used by Peter Venkman in an experiment in the opening of Ghostbusters. When you are watching a movie wishing you were seeing another one, that's not good.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Liberal Arts

I was initially hostile to Liberal Arts, a 2012 film by Josh Radnor, but it made some interesting plot choices that elevated it to okay. But I can't really recommend it.

I saw this film because it stars Elizabeth Olsen, and she's terrific as a precocious 19-year-old, but the film is really about the character played by Radnor, a 35-year-old college admissions executive. I did not know, until seconds ago, that Radnor is the star of a popular TV show--How I Met Your Mother (I've never seen a minute of it). Here he miscalculated by starring in the film he wrote and directed. Perhaps his appearance in the film was key to financing, but it's a mistake.

Radnor plays Jesse, who we are led to believe is having a bad stretch--in the opening minutes his laundry is stolen and he is breaking up with a woman. His old college professor (the always great Richard Jenkins) is retiring, so Radnor shows up to attend his testimonial dinner. While there, he meets Olsen, the daughter of Jenkins' friends.

The film's fulcrum is on how these two come together, and Radnor is certainly conscious of how icky it all could be. The number of films, plays, and novels about older men and younger women are legion and its almost impossible to do it anymore without being A) a cliche, and/or B) an old man's fantasy come to life. Radnor, to his credit, handles it with kid gloves, first by making Olsen the aggressor, and very mature. He also makes it a non-authority figure relationship--he's not her teacher, she's not his student. They court by letter (she insists he writes her using pen and paper) and the relationship seems to be based on solid ground.

Where it doesn't work is by making Radnor almost completely the seduced. He has a puppy-dog look that just doesn't fit the material. I would have liked someone with more of an edge, someone more dangerous, that perhaps Olsen would have responded to out of something carnal rather than their shared love of Cosi Fan Tutte.

I don't want to spoil the film, but it doesn't end up where a lot of these stories do, which I appreciated. Radnor gives his character one really bad trait--literary snobbism. He finds a copy of Twilight in Olsen's room and he can't believe it. He then reads the book and chides her for wasting her time. A guy who doesn't understand the principle of the guilty pleasure must really be a drag.

The film's subplots are interesting. Jenkins' character has an arc that he has retired too soon, and Allison Janney has a small role as a professor of British Romanticism. John Magaro is a troubled student whom Radnor takes an interest in--they both value David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (though the book title, like Twilight, is not said aloud, the cover is identifiable).

The script is literate, the acting is good, and I liked a film that essentially celebrates the liberal arts college (it was filmed at Radnor's alma mater, Kenyon College). But ultimately the character Radnor played was just too much of a Boy Scout to make things interesting. A nice effort, though.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Trance

Trance is one of those movies that thinks it is smarter than it is. It's whole existence is to misdirect the audience, certainly hoping for us to exhale in an "ah hah" moment at the end, but by the end I had long stopped caring.

This film ends Danny Boyle's mini-streak of two straight Best Picture Oscar nominations (Slumdog Millionaire and 128 Hours). No, I don't think Trance has any kind of shot for the 2013 prize. It's a convoluted, overly edited film, and the only top ten it will end up in is Mr. Skin's, for the spectacular nude scene featuring Rosario Dawson and her shaved pudendum, which is actually a plot point.

Trance is about hypnotism, and so we are always wondering what we see is real or the inner part of our main character's mind. He's James McAvoy, who works for an auction house. He's an inside man on an art heist , but when he tries to double-cross his partners (led by Vincent Cassel) he gets bludgeoned in the head. Problem for Cassel is that McAvoy genuinely can not remember where he hid the painting. So the gang has him see Dawson, a hypnotherapist, to explore his memory.

Movies that rely on hypnotism already have more to go to convince me, because I'm not sure I believe in it. I can't be hypnotized, buy McAvoy sure can be, without much effort. Dawson is soon on to the scheme, and wants to be included, and she soon has everyone playing to her tune. This is a problem because Dawson, though a stunning woman, doesn't have the acting chops to carry this off.

The twist ending is sort of clever, but as I said, I didn't really care by that point. McAvoy is pretty much a blank. Cassel is the only interesting character, and there are moments of comedy, sometimes unintentional, that make the film interesting.

Trance is a big dud for Boyle.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Facebook vs. Google

The World Series starts tonight, and I'm oddly not really interested. This despite the prospect of a very good series; both of these teams are very good and there's little to separate them. They are both the league leaders in wins, which means they would have been in the Series even in the old days, when there were no playoffs.

Once my team, the Detroit Tigers, is out, I usually shift to another team to root for. Often it's the American League, but it might be a team that is a decided underdog (I'm a good bleeding heart liberal, after all), or a team that hasn't won in years. But this year, it's a tough call, because both of these teams have little to inspire my allegiance.

Once upon a time, comedian Joe E. Lewis said rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for U.S. Steel. Well, neither the Yankees nor U.S. Steel are in the position they once were. Instead, it's corporations like Facebook and Google that dominate the business world, and teams like the Red Sox and Cardinals that dominate baseball. Each of them has won two titles in the last ten years, and one of them will be the first to win three this century.

Both of them also have insufferable fan bases, the kind of fans who think their team does things "the right way." That they are right is beside the point. Red Sox fans used to be the tortured poets of New England, the kind that wouldn't root for the Yankees because that would be too easy, and rooting for a perennial loser was the flinty thing to do. Now, they have become monsters, the kid who loses some weight and whose acne clears up, and is all of sudden dating beautiful girls and spurning his former nerd friends.

Cardinal fans are a different story. They are the kind of fans who have a kind of baseball purity that they think is special. St. Louis is a great baseball town, and these are devoted fans, but they can get awfully self-righteous about it. They are that family down the street that are so perfect you can't help but hope they suffer some sort of tragedy, like a flesh-eating virus.

So, Facebook vs. Google, who do you root for? I honestly don't know. I suppose the Red Sox have more personality, if only because of those god-awful mountain man beards. It's hard to hate David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia is kind of a throwback player, and they have bounced back quickly from the Bobby Valentine nightmare season. So I guess I'll root for them.

I have even less idea who will win. Both teams are well balanced, but I think Boston has an edge. They have a better lineup and a deeper pitching staff. The key player may be Koji Uehara, who looks as dominant a relief pitcher as anyone since, well, Mariano Rivera. If the Cards are going to win, they'd better get a lead. I'll pick the Sox in seven.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Silent House

Now that I'm such a close acquaintance of Elizabeth Olsen, I thought I'd Netflix some of her other roles. She's best known (other than being the sister of Mary-Kate and Ashley) for Martha Marcy May Marlene, but has made a few other films. Like many young actresses on the come, she has done an obligatory horror film.

Silent House, directed by Chris Kentis and Laura Lau, is one of those single-setting films that are beloved by bottom-line producers. It is also told in real time, with the suggestion that it is a single take (like Hitchcock's Rope, it is not really one take, but manipulated to seem like one).

Olsen plays a young woman who is helping her father and uncle renovate a house, which of course is old and creaky. We are told that there has been a problem with squatters, so when Olsen hears a noise the father goes to investigate and ends up knocked out cold. The film then follows her as she eludes the attackers, and of course the ending has a twist.

Silent House, as an exercise in style, is kind of interesting, as not only is it a single take, and shot only with natural light, but it's all from Olsen's point of view (usually a hand-held camera behind her). As a story, it's weak, as there's no particular rhyme or reason to what she does, and the ending is convoluted and unconvincing.

Hopefully Olsen is done with this sort of film, and will move on to bigger and better things.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Romeo and Juliet (Classic Stage Company)

You can't screw up Shakespeare, not completely, no matter how much you try. I learned that at the Classic Stage Company's production of Romeo and Juliet, directed by Tea Alagic. Even though the result is uneven, to the say the least, I was still leaning forward at the end, even though I and every other literate person knows what happens.

This has gotten some terrible reviews, but it isn't an outright disaster. True, it's another example of a modernization without any rhyme or reason, but it isn't boring, which is the worst sin in theater. The cast is uneven but enthusiastic, and it was a crowd-pleaser, emphasizing the humor. But there are moments when you just have to wonder what everyone was thinking.

The set is a gym floor, with a set of chairs in the back. These chairs only come into play when Lady Capulet makes like Bobby Knight and hurls a few. The costumes are modern, but inconsistent--Romeo is in jeans and sneakers, but Tybalt is dressed like a lion tamer. The swords are mimed, but blood packets are used, which are collected from a bucket at the edge of the stage, as if a water balloon fight was being prepped. Lady Capulet wears tight fuchsia pants, matching leopard-print blouse and shoes, and smokes an e-cigarette. And, as seen above, Romeo wears a giant Winnie the Pooh head to the masked ball.

Romeo and Juliet is a very familiar play, and there's only so many times you can do the Renaissance Italian thing, I get that. But Alagic just seems to be flinging stuff at the wall to see what sticks. In addition to the costumes not being consistent, we've got a smattering of Spanish. The nurse, played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, does the full Puerto Rican thing. Over at the house of Capulet, Tybalt, in addition to his Siegfried and Roy outfit, speaks in a Spanish accent, pronouncing Romeo with an accent on the first syllable, like Alfa Romeo. No one else among the Capulets is Spanish.

So I have no idea what Alagic was trying to do, other than be different. The cuts, as there must be cuts, are also interesting--gone are the Chorus, the death of Paris, and the servant Peter in his entirety. Instead we do have the Friar's explanatory speech at the end, which is usually cut because, after all, he's telling us what we already know. But I liked it because it emphasizes the Friar's culpability, and allows Lord Capulet to wipe his bloody hand on the Friar's face. I also liked Benvolio being given the part of Balthasar at the end, which makes perfect sense.

The cast also de-emphasizes the poetry. Elizabeth Olsen, as Juliet, declaims very little. Never have I heard the line, "parting is such sweet sorrow" said so matter-of-factly. Romeo, played by Julian Cihi, is very good at making the poetry sound like casual speech. A few actors still give it the Edwin Booth style, notably Daniel Davis as the Friar, who is the highlight of the show. Before the show started, a girl behind me said, "I hate the Friar. He screws everything up."

A few of the scenes are very good. The scene in which Juliet is verbally abused by her father and told she will marry Paris is done very well, with Olsen at her most girlish (though 24, she's convincing as a teen, if not a 13-year-old) and David Garrison, wearing a Hefnerian smoking jacket, is really mean.

But more scenes are botched. The worst member of the cast is T.R. Knight as Mercutio, who is the best character of the play, and is supposed to make us sad because he's killed. Not in this instance. Knight plays him as if he's escaped from an asylum, and calls to mind Professor Irwin Corey.

Romeo and Juliet is hot again, with another production uptown starring Orlando Bloom, and a new film version with Hailee Steinfeld (which has rewritten the dialogue, so I'll pass for now). It's too good a play to ruin, despite certain attempts.

Incidentally, earlier in the day I saw Olsen in Kill Your Darlings. I waited afterward and got her autograph, and told her so, adding that she had been a big part of my day. I made her laugh. I'm a little in love.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Kill Your Darlings

I think the Beats are appealing subjects for movies because, in addition to the sex and drugs, there is is the irresistable fact that the three giants of the movement, the holy trinity of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, really did know each other before they were famous. How many idealistic college students have spent late nights imagining they would revolutionize literature? These guys actually did it.

Kill Your Darlings focuses mostly on Allen Ginsberg, as played by Daniel Radcliffe, and his friendship with Lucien Carr, an ancillary figure who was sort of to Ginsberg what Neal Cassady was to Jack Kerouac. Carr never wrote anything, but turned Ginsberg on to Rimbaud and a dissolute lifestyle. He also committed a murder that was a key moment in the Beat beginnings.

The film was directed and co-written by John Krokidas, making an assured debut. It is marvelous in capturing New York during the war years. Ginsberg, a somewhat sheltered boy who grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, has his eyes opened when he attends Columbia. Carr is a fellow student, and introduces him to the burgeoning counterculture, as cleverly represented by use of a subway map. They go to the "dangerous" areas--Christopher Street, where Ginsberg's roommate warns him the "fairies" are, and Harlem, where he discovers jazz and benzedrine.

Ginsberg also meets William S. Burroughs, whom he first sees in a bathtub, sucking on a canister of nitrous oxide. Burroughs is a friend of David Kammerer, a scholar who has come to New York to be near Carr, whom he has a sexual obsession. Carr, who is straight, tolerates this because Kammerer writes his college papers for him. Ginsberg, who is a closeted gay, also develops a crush on Carr, and it's easy to see why. In addition to his wild lifestyle, as played by Dane DeHaan he looks like a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

Later Ginsberg will meet Jack Kerouac, a former football star and merchant marine. Played by Jack Huston, he is a baby-faced reprobate, married to a woman (Elizabeth Olsen) but completely irresponsible. Together, spurred on by Carr's passion for Yeats, they will endeavor to create a "New Vision" of literature.

This film is very affectionate toward its characters, especially Ginsberg. He is the son of a poet (David Cross, in a bit of canny casting, considering he played the younger Ginsberg in I'm Not There), and a mentally ill mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh). He challenges the establishment, citing Walt Whitman as he argues with a professor about rhyme and meter in poetry. And he's game to the stunts played by the more dangerous Burroughs, Carr, and Kerouac, such as breaking into the Columbia library to replace the items in a case with more deviant work, like that of Henry Miller.

For those not interested in the Beats, or in the passion for literature itself, this film might not be of interest. It also portrays a big part of gay history, in that the murder case points out an odious law. It's a bit too slavish to the notion of worship of the Beats to transcend it to be better than just a boutique film.

Radcliffe, who is admiringly doing his best to divorce himself from the legacy of Harry Potter, is quite good, as is the whole cast. I've never seen Dexter, so I was trying to figure out who played Kammerer, who almost steals the show as the erudite man undone by his sexual obsession, and then had an "ah hah" moment when I saw the closing credits.

The title refers to a maxim in writing that basically means discard those elements of your writing that you are too attached to. It's a good title, as here it shows how this can also apply to life in general.

My grade for Kill Your Darlings: B.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Quadrophenia

Pete Townshend was nothing if ambitious. He and The Who were in the forefront of the rock opera--thematic albums whose songs told a story. Tommy, released in 1969, is their most popular, but Quadrophenia, released 40 years ago, is, if not equal to Tommy, a monumental work of popular music.

The story told is not quite as apparent as Tommy. Without a story in the liner notes, we might not have any idea that the songs are linked, except for the repeating musical motifs. A film made in 1979 further helped it all make sense. It's the story of a teenage boy in the mid '60s in England, when youth had broken into two factions: the mods and the rockers. Our boy, Jimmy, is a mod, who wears the new fashion, as outlined in "Cut My Hair:"

"Zoot suit, white jacket with vents,
Five inches long
I'm out on the street again
And I'm leaping along
Dressed right, for a beach fight
But I just can't explain
Why that uncertain feeling
Is still here in my brain."

The Who, as pointed in the story, weren't mods but were popular with mods. Jimmy sees them at the Hammersmith Odeon. He has been diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and does "leapers" (speed). He is getting kicked out of his house, and goes to Brighton, because he loves the sea.

The title Quadrophenia refers to Jimmy's four-part personality, each of which is based on one of the members of The Who, and outlined by a theme. Roger Daltrey is the tough guy, John Entwhistle the romantic, Keith Moon the lunatic, and Townshend as the self-described beggar and hypocrite.

Okay, so all of that is pretty ambitious, but it isn't necessary to know to appreciate the music, which is really more of a symphony than an opera. The songs tell a story that isn't always clear--"The Punk and the Godfather," a classic-rock radio staple, is still unfathomable to me, but listening to the album on a ride to and from New York City last night (repeated a few times because of traffic delays) I found myself more absorbed in the lush music. Townshend has always been a songwriter who has deep connections to the music that came before him, and the use of horns and strings make Quadrophenia an orchestral rock masterpiece.

It is, though, bordering on the pretentious, but just escapes it. The songs are very solipsistic--almost all the songs are about the ego--"I," "Me," or "My." There really isn't an "other" involved, the one song about love, which is the best known song of the collection, "Love, Reign O'er Me," doesn't seem to be about loving someone else, but loving one's self. But, of course, you really can't love someone else properly without loving yourself first, can you?

Sonically, this record is just about perfect. The instrumentation is breathtaking, and the instrumentals--"Quadrophenia" and "The Rock"--are every bit the equal of Tommy's "Overture" and "Underture." The rock numbers, such as "Can You Feel the Real Me," "5:15," and "Doctor Jimmy," are blood-pumping classics. And "Bellboy," which is Keith's theme, and if we are to believe the film, is about a mod leader who is reduced to menial labor, has a particularly sharp sting.

"Love, Reign O'er Me," the closing song, is the most beautiful on the album, and perhaps the most beautiful song Townshend ever wrote. It begins with the sound of thunder crashing, and artfully makes use of the homonyms of "reign" and "rain," as Jimmy wants to be bathed in the soothing balm of water/love:

"On the dry and dusty road
The nights we spent apart alone
I need to get back home
To cool, cool rain.
I can't sleep and I can't think
The nights are hot and black as ink
Oh, God I need a drink
Of cool, cool rain."

This is the soundtrack to a certain generation of baby boomers, and I don't think it's quite been equaled in the forty years since then for beauty and poignancy.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Oscar 2013, Best Supporting Actor: Bad Hair Day

Handicapping the supporting acting categories this far out can be difficult, as its hard to know, without seeing the films, what roles will be the kind that will grab attention, or how big the roles are. Generally, films that are acclaimed will pick up more nominations, although there is the occasional supporting nomination that comes from a movie that has no other nominations, but that's rare.

There are only a few films in the Oscar hunt that have not been seen by critics, so word has filtered out. Interestingly, the one film that may dominate Best Supporting Actor, American Hustle, is one of them. In alphabetical order:

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips. In the spirit of Harold Russell and Haing S. Ngor, this category has bestowed nominations on non-professional actors who play roles suited to them by special circumstances. Abdi, a Somali immigrant, beautifully plays the ringleader of a group of pirates. That he manages to show the character's humanity may get him a nod.

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle. Just ask Javier Bardem about how an embarrassing hairdo can get you an Oscar. Cooper, as an FBI agent, sports certainly the worst hair since Bardem, shown in the picture above. When I saw the trailer this scene drew appreciative laughs.

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave. As the chief baddie in this slavery drama, Fassbender, who has been hovering around Oscar recognition for a few years now, figures to score a nod.

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club. Yes, Jordan Cattelano is back. Leto has a showy role as an AIDS-afflicted drag queen. Cross dressing, like bad hair, is prime Oscar bait. And he's supposed to be very good.

Jeremy Renner, American Hustle. Renner is another character in this film with hair that needs to be seen to be believed. As the corrupt mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Renner's coif looks like it was sculpted out of driftwood.

Also conceivable: Daniel Bruhl, Rush; Harrison Ford, 42; James Gandolfini, Enough Said; Tom Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks; Geoffrey Rush, The Book Thief.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Thief

The Thief is an intermittently interesting thriller that is undone by either some ham-fisted writing or an atrocious translation.

The plot follows a familiar crime template: the expert free-lancer is forced to work for a big crime boss. This time it's a pickpocket, who narrates, a guy who makes a good living lifting the wallets of the rich while riding on subway trains. An old friend gets him involved in a robbery, and he can never quite figure out why he is employed by the shadowy boss.

The book is written by a Japanese writer, Fuminori Nakamura, and is set in Tokyo. It's also a very nihilistic book, the overarching theme being our lives our controlled by others. A long story is told by the villain in which a king decides to write out the life story of a man, and then, by manipulation, he makes that life come true. Certainly this is of interest to writers of fiction, because that is essentially what they do.

The pickpocket is the kind of guy who has no attachments, but he does befriend a boy who is forced to shoplift for his mother, who is a prostitute. This attachment ends up being used against him. The world, Nakamura is telling us, is a brutal and unfeeling place.

I would have liked this book more but the writing is poor, and I imagine much of it is the translation, such as this passage: "I heard the laughing cries of a group of children my own age. A boy with long hair was holding a little toy car. It was bought overseas, he shouted in a piercing voice. Operated by a small controller he held in his hand, the sophisticated car sparkled brilliantly as it went racing around." That's bad.

But other parts are not the translation, such as the big boss making a speech about how robberies are only successful with good planning. Well, thanks, Captain Obvious.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Company You Keep

Directed by its star, Robert Redford, The Company You Keep is an engaging cat-and-mouse story that attempts to discuss great truths about political activism, commitment, principles, and maturity, but is ultimately undone by script weaknesses. Some of them are cowardly, others are simply mathematical errors.

The film begins with a housewife, Susan Sarandon, being arrested by the FBI. Turns out she's a long-time fugitive, one of the Weather Underground, a radical group that operated in the '60s and early '70s. She had wanted to turn herself in, but was caught after the phone was tapped of an accomplice, who approaches a lawyer, Redford, to represent her.

This sets a young reporter, Shia LaBoeuf, after Redford, who is in reality another of the Underground living under a false identity, wanted for killing a bank guard during a robbery. Redford has a young daughter, whom he places with his brother, while he runs. LaBoeuf and the FBI try to track him down, while Redford seeks another of the group who can clear his name.

I've always enjoyed films about people eluding capture, and this one is fun, with Redford one step ahead of the FBI. But ultimately it's all cotton candy, no meat, as the film has some big holes in it. One of them is cosmetic, but is vexing to me. Why do they keep referring to events as "thirty years ago"? If the film is set now, the events would be 40 years ago. Is everyone that bad at math? I tried to figure out if the film was set in the late '90s, but nothing indicates that (Sarandon is arrested at an Esso station, and I thought they went out in the '70s, but gas is $3.84 a gallon) and modern gadgets such as laptops and smartphones are used with impunity. There's also the extremely modern angle of newspapers being in financial trouble.

The other problem is a cop out, and looms larger. Redford, it turns out, is trying to clear his name because he wasn't at the bank that day, and is innocent. So he was a good radical and didn't really hurt anybody. Sarandon makes a jailhouse speech that she would do it all over again, which disgusts the FBI but at least gives the film some balls, but then Redford makes a big speech at the end about he gave up the cause because he grew up. It reminds me of a film starring Robert De Niro called Guilty by Suspicion, set in the McCarthy era, in which De Niro was falsely accused of being a communist.

This film had no opening credits so it was fun to see the parade of stars pop up. Stanley Tucci, Chris Cooper, Anna Kendrick, Terrence Howard, Julie Christie, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins--every ten minutes or so, another pleasant moment of recognition. For the fans of indie films, Brit Marling makes a key appearance. Redford obviously has a lot of pull among actors to be in his films, too bad there wasn't a better script.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Natural

It's always fascinating to read the 1-star reviews of books generally considered classics on Amazon. It's a haven for philistines and the clueless. For The Natural, one of the best baseball books ever written, the naysayers mostly focus on how the book is different from the movie. Of course, the book came 32 years before the movie, and the movie completely distorted Bernard Malamud's intention.

Published in 1952, The Natural was something of a parody. As pointed out by Kevin Baker in the introduction to the edition I read: "Up until perhaps a generation ago, most public libraries still held shelves full of boys' sports novels. They were a venerable line of American hack writing, churned out relentlessly by sportswriters and novelists."

These books were about heroes, and imparted important life lessons. Malamud's book does none of that. His "hero," Roy Hobbs, is driven only by his hunger for fame, glory, money, and sex. Of course Robert Redford didn't play it that way.

I will refrain from here on in discussing the movie, which I will write about shortly. It retains the basic structure of the book, except for the ending: a young phenom, Hobbs, is on his way to try out with the Cubs. He happens to be riding on the train with "the Whammer," a Ruthian figure. While the train waits out a delay, Hobbs takes up a challenge to pitch to the great player, and strikes him out on three pitches. A woman, who has a fetish for shooting great athletes, ends Hobbs' dream by shooting him in the gut in a hotel room.

We cut to several years later. Hobbs is mounting a comeback, this time as an outfielder. We know nothing of what he has been up to the interim, but he still has the home-made bat he calls "Wonderboy." He signs with the New York Knights, mired in the second division and managed by the perpetually worried Pop Fisher, who has athlete's foot on his fingers. When the team's regular left fielder crashes into a wall and later dies of his injuries, Hobbs takes over, and in his first game he literally knocks the cover off the ball: "Wonderboy flashed in the sun. It caught the sphere where it was the biggest. A noise like a twenty-one gun salute cracked the sky. There was a straining, ripping sound and a few drops of rain spattered to the ground. The ball screamed toward the pitcher and seemed suddenly to dive down at his feet. He grabbed it to throw to first and realized to his horror that he held only the cover. The rest of it, unraveling cotton thread as it rode, was headed into the outfield."

Malamud's version of baseball, set in the pre-integration era, is probably too realistic for comfort. The owner of the team is a corrupt judge who is a skinflint. The sportswriter who covers the team, Max Mercy, is desperate to find out Hobbs' past, and comes to loathe him. A gambler is a little too intimate with the the team. And Hobbs, well: "The fans dearly loved Roy but Roy did not love the fans. He hadn't forgotten the dirty treatment they had dished out during the time of his trouble. Often he felt he would like to ram their cheers down their throats. Instead he took it out on the ball, pounding it to a pulp, as if the best way to get even with the fans, the pitchers who had mocked him, and the statisticians who had recorded (forever) the kind and quantity of his failures, was to smash every conceivable record."

The novel does follow a standard sports story template, with Hobbs leading the Knights on a rise in the standings. He then goes in a slump, but retains his form long enough to lead the team to a one-game playoff for the pennant. He is approached by the Judge to throw the game for a huge payoff. During that game he goes back and forth on whether he will honor the deal or not. Redford hit one into the lights. I'll leave it to the reader to find out whether the literary Hobbs does.

Malamud, basically, took the great American pastime and painted a portrait of the downside of the American dream. Hobbs lusts for everything, including the niece of Pop Fisher, Memo Paris, who had been the girlfriend of the player he replaced. This is the weakest part of the book, this romance of fits and starts; sharper is his fling with a fan, Iris Lemon, whom he has sex with, despite her revelation that she is a 33-year-old grandmother, which disgusts him. He is a thorough cad, a corruption of the American hero.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of the book is when Hobbs develops an insatiable hunger for food. "The Knights had boarded the train at dinner time but he stopped off at the station to devour half a dozen franks smothered in sauerkraut and he guzzled down six bottles of pop before his meal on the train, which consisted of two oversized sirloins, at least a dozen rolls, four orders of mashed, and three (some said five) slabs of apple pie. Still that didn't do the trick, for while they were all at cards that evening, he sneaked off the train as it was being hosed and oiled and hustled up another three wieners, and later secretly arranged with the steward for a midnight snack of a long T-bone with trimmings, although that did not keep him from waking several times during the the night with pangs of hunger."

I read that as a nightmare version of the American dream, a capitalist, consumerist monster who is driven by desire. This overeating lands Hobbs in the hospital during the last three games of the season, and he is weakened as he bats in the playoff game. He is a victim of his own lust.

Reading this book is not recommended for those who see only the romantic in baseball, or in America, for that matter, and you may want to take a shower afterward. Malamud clearly knows the game--there is nothing in it that rings false, baseball-wise--but he emphasizes the most unsavory aspects of it. But, as we baseball fans know even during labor strife and disgust over PED use, the game remains the literary pastime of the nation. This passage, when Hobbs strikes out the Whammer, is just brilliant:

"The third ball slithered at the batter like a meteor, the flame swallowing itself. He lifted his club to crush it into a universe of sparks but the heavy wood dragged, and though he willed to destroy the sound he heard a gong bong and realized with sadness that the ball he had expected to hit had long since been part of the past; and though Max could not cough the fatal word out of his throat, the Whammer understood he was, in the truest sense of it, out."

Monday, October 14, 2013

Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass cements his status as the best director of white-knuckled thrillers that don't pander to the least common denominator with Captain Phillips, the true story of a U.S. freighter that was hijacked by Somali pirates. The pressure in this film starts almost immediately, and doesn't let up, even through the cathartic ending.

Tom Hanks stars as the titular captain, who commands the Maersk Alabama, taking food supplies for African charities from Oman to Mombasa. To do so, the ship must pass through the Somali Basin, a haven for pirates. He's on the alert, and even conducts a drill.

The boarding of the ship is masterful filmmaking, as the freighter is unarmed, but uses a variety of methods, primarily shooting water out of hoses. But they are boarded nonetheless, and most of the crew hides in the engine room, but Hanks, keeping cool, stalls and does everything he can to get the pirates off the ship. But he is taken hostage when the pirates take to the sea in the lifeboat. They are then pursued by the U.S. Navy.

What sets this apart from other films like it is that the pirates, especially the leader, played by Barkhad Abdi, are not portrayed as simple-minded villains. We cut from Hanks driving to the airport in Vermont to the Somali village, where men gather round to be picked for crews to get ships. It's basically the local economy. Abdi answers to the local warlord, and thus has some pressure on him to bring in money, much like a salesman needing to make his fourth-quarter numbers.

Much of the film is the interaction between Hanks and Abdi (the pirates are played by actors recruited from the Somali community in Minnesota). There is a certain respect between them, from the chilling moment that Abdi says to Hanks, "I am the captain now." Abdi carries a certain dignity with the role, as indicated when he says, even after the jig is up, "I can't give up now," or when Hanks wonders aloud that certainly there must be more he can do for money than kidnap. "Maybe in America," Abdi says, a line that probably doesn't look good on the page but has a resonance in Abdi's tone.

This whole film, from the moment Hanks spots the pirates, is almost unrelieved tension. Interestingly, it continues in a fascinating coda. Normally one might expect the film to end with Hanks' rescue, but it keeps going, into his examination by a Navy doctor. Hanks reminds us of his skills as an actor in this scene, as he movingly portrays a man in shock, shaking uncontrollably, covered in blood (not just his own) and unable to answer the simplest questions. It's almost as if Greengrass were allowing the audience to calm down, as well as Hanks.

A few things bothered me, but they are personal things. I'm kind of embarrassed to admit that when the might of the Navy enters the scene, I felt a sense of jingoistic pride, and those portions, while no doubt authentic, carry the whiff of a Naval recruitment commercial. Also, in the long run, this film doesn't really say anything, other than it sucks to be a Somali. It's simply a very well-made action film, where stuff doesn't blow up.

My grade for Captain Phillips: A-.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

I've had occasion to think about death lately. Not my own, but two of my best friends' mothers have died in the past month. Yesterday I attended the funeral of one of them and, like an anthropologist, I curiously noted some of the rituals in how we handle death.

For something that we all know is going to happen (man is the only animal that is said to be aware of its mortality, but I wonder about dolphins), human beings are pretty freaked out by death. One of the mothers' deaths was expected, the other was not, but in each case the experience is nonetheless shattering. It is so unnerving to people that you can't really talk to them normally--grief is the ultimate excuse for bizarre or intense behavior.

In reacting to the death of a loved one, there are number of factors at work in discombobulating us. When it's an unexpected death, there is the suddenness of it all. One of my friends' mother was 76 and not in the greatest of health, but she was not critically ill, and died of a massive brain bleed. I had breakfast with this friend just about ten days before, and we were discussing my other friend's mother's death, a woman who had dementia and died after a period of months. I mentioned that this second friend, who had moved her mother into her house and whose life essentially revolved around her, was going to experience a sense of liberation when the grief wore off.

So I mentioned to my first friend that when her mother went she would experience the same thing (she drove her to dialysis three times a week). "But your mother isn't on death's door," I mentioned. Little did I know.

All cultures have extensive rituals concerning death, more so than births, marriages, passages into adulthood, etc. I suppose the easy answer for that is that death is the ultimate mystery--as Shakespeare wrote, it's the "undiscovered country" and no one has come back to tell us about it. Because of this uncertainty, mankind has created an entire mythos surrounding it, with most cultures creating religions that comfort us on where the dead go. At the Methodist funeral I attended yesterday, there was talk of being with Jesus. This is only natural, for someone standing up in front of a room and telling the assembled that the person lying in the coffin in the front will simply be worm food.

At least that's what I believe. We are biological material, and there is no afterlife. For some people that's not easy to process. In Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen's character's doubts lead him to try suicide. Conversely, again referring to Hamlet, it kept the Prince of Denmark from offing himself, uncertain about his fate.

I spent some time on Wikipedia looking at the entry of "Personifications of Death." Almost all cultures have them, with the Western version usually called the "Grim Reaper," a gaunt figure (sometimes simply a skeleton) wearing a dark cloak and carrying a scythe and hourglass. In some cultures, the reaper can cause death, but in others he's a kindly angel, there to guide the deceased to the other side.

The accompany picture is of the angel of death in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal. He decides to bargain with his intended, a knight played by Max Von Sydow, by wagering the knight's soul in a game of chess. Allen parodied this in his one-act play, "Death Knocks," by having death and his victim play gin rummy.

At the funeral yesterday we heard the 23rd Psalm, which includes: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." Yes, we will die, we are told, but don't freak, because God will take care of you. Half of that, I believe, is true. We do walk through the valley of shadow of death, every day. But be comforted by the fact that it is the fate of all of us, every living creature on the planet.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Talking Heads: 77

After reading Love Goes to Buildings on Fire last month I was inspired to listen to some of the music discussed. One of them is the album by Talking Heads, named after the year it was released. I have it on vinyl, as I do all Talking Heads albums, but have nothing to play it on, so I picked up the CD. It is as fresh as it was 36 years ago.

Talking Heads was formed in New York City by way of the Rhode Island School of Design, where David Byrne, Chris Frantz, and Tina Weymouth were alumni. Frantz was a drummer, and urged his girlfriend, Weymouth, to learn bass. Keyboardist Jerry Harrison, a member of the Modern Lovers, joined later.

They played New York clubs, including the legendary CBGBs, and signed with Sire Records. This was their debut album.

Talking Heads were not a punk band, and later were included in the all-encompassing label of "new wave." They are also called avant-garde, but their music, mostly written by Byrne, is firmly rooted in the pop idiom. The opening track, "Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town," is a ridiculously catchy pop song, with interesting touches like a steel drum. The closing track, "Pulled Up," is also a straight ahead rocker that is inordinately exuberant.

But some of the songs are off the beaten path, such as "No Compassion," a song about a guy who isn't interested in other people's problems:

"Other people's problems they overwhelm my mind
They say compassion is a virtue, but I don't have the time."


"Who Is It?" has some guitar playing that cuts against the grain and challenges the listener, while "Tentative Decisions," while a rock song, interrupts the melody with twist and turns.


Lyrically, this album is best example of Byrne's tendency to write ironically, though you are not completely sure he's being ironic, because of the guileless quality of his vocals (and his look, which was chess-club geek). The lyric from "No Compassion," is an example, but is best expressed in "Don't Worry About the Government," where the irony starts with the title and goes on:


"Some civil servants are just like my loved ones
They work so hard and they try to be strong
I'm a lucky guy to live in my building
They own the buildings to help them along."


The most famous song from the album is "Psycho Killer," which is right up there as the band's most recognizable song, period. It's told from the point of view, presumably, of a crazed murderer, beginning with Weymouth's sinister bass line and then:


"I can't seem to face up to the facts
I'm tense and nervous and I
Can't relax
I can't sleep 'cause my bed's on fire
Don't touch me I'm a real live wire"


The chorus, and one of the verses, contains French, a marvelously bizarre touch, and the line "Qu'est-ce que c'est" (which means "what is it," a refrain from "Who Is it?"), which Byrne pronounces with emphasis, has come down through the years as one of the coolest uses of French ever in a rock song. Not that the list is long, but still.

I picked up on Talking Heads when their second album came out in 1978, when I was graduating from classic rock to the new-fangled, and they were the headliner of the first concert I ever went to, in 1979. I would classify them as the best band of the 1980s, even though they had three great records in the '70s (so I guess I'm saying they are the best band from the period 1977-1986). Talking Heads: 77 is a fun record to listen to, as well as interesting historically.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Black Count

"The life of General Alex Dumas is so extraordinary on so many levels that it's easy to forget the most extraordinary fact about it: that it was led by a black man, in a world of whites, at the end of the eighteenth century...He rose to command entire divisions and armies. It would be 150 years before another black officer in the West would rise so high."

So writes Tom Reiss in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas, son of a wayward French nobleman and a Haitian slave, was a real-life action hero who is best known today for being the father of novelist Alexander Dumas, author of celebrated novels like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but his own life seemed like the stuff of fiction.

Reiss spins a compelling tale of Dumas' unlikely rise. After his birth on Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, a French colony, he was brought to France by his father as a teen. He spent his young adulthood as a person of privilege, despite his skin color: "At twenty-four, Thomas-Alexandre was conversant with Caesar and Plutarch, well versed in contemporary theater and in Palais Royal gossip, and, of course, an expert horseman and fencer. But he had not worked a day since stepping off the ship." Dumas goes on to enlist in the military, where he will have a meteoric rise to general.

How was this possible? Reiss explains that though France had a large slave empire, it's national identity, with an emphasis on liberty, equality, and fraternity, made it the first nation in the world to outlaw slavery. Then, with the revolution, came a remarkable disregard of skin color when it came to advancement in society.

Dumas believed in the revolution, which occurred in 1789, and fought for the revolutionary army, which battled several European nations. As the commander of the Army of the Alps, he won a great victory against the Austrians at Mont Cenis, and distinguished himself at the siege of Mantua (one of the book's strengths is the coverage of the ever-shifting geopolitical state of Italy).

Of course, when writing about France at this time period, the name of Napoleon Bonaparte pops up, and here is where the book gets really interesting. Napoleon will praise Dumas for his victories, but the two will get on each other's wrong side. Dumas accompanies Napoleon on his Egyptian campaign, which was really a major bust (the fleet was destroyed by Admiral Nelson in the Battle of Alexandria) but somehow Napoleon returned a hero. Dumas, who perhaps had been seen as a rival by the future emperor, left Egypt in disgust to go home, but got captured after coming to port in what was then the Kingdom of Naples, where he was imprisoned.

Reiss, who wrote the book based on his childhood fascination with the memoir by the Alexandre Dumas the writer, of course points out the parallels with the general's life and the novels of the son. The most obvious is Dumas' imprisonment, and its similarities to Edmond Dantes' in The Count of Monte Cristo. He is imprisoned for no stated reason, and treated abysmally. He will get sick (going deaf in one ear and blind in one eye) and will never fully recover. But eventually he is released and sires the boy who will tell his story.

This is a great read, greatly enhanced by its style, which is decidedly unstuffy. Not only does Reiss boil down some big subjects in edible portions, but he has some great asides. The footnotes are some of the best reading--there are some great tidbits in them, on topics as varied as the Maltese falcon, the decapitating qualities of the Mameluke sword, the history of the enema, and the doctor who theorized that masturbation caused blindness.

Reiss also enables us to get invested in Dumas, so that when we read about how the strides the revolution made in equality (he spends equal time on the Terror, when you could lose your head quite easily) were undone after the rise of Napoleon: "There were many things wrong with the French Republic at the time of Napoleon's coup, but there was one thing most modern people would see as marvelously right: it offered basic rights and opportunities to people regardless of the color of their skin."  But under Napoleon's reign these rights slowly eroded, until they were but a memory.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Oscar 2013, Best Actor: The Old Men and the Sea

This year's frontrunners for the Best Actor Oscar are a mixture of newcomers, revived careers, and old favorites, including two superstars starring in tales on the high seas. In alphabetical order:

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave. Ejiofor has been around for a while now (he was terrific over a decade ago in Dirty Pretty Things) but he's certainly not a household name. But given the buzz this film and his performance has been getting, Jennifer Lawrence had better start to learn how to pronounce his name.

Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips. Hanks has been out of the Oscar picture for well over a decade, since his last nomination for Cast Away. He's back with a vengeance this year with a likely nomination for this film about modern-day piracy, as well as a possible twofer for his supporting role as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks.

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers' Club. With such a bright future that seemed to be squandered on bad romantic comedies, McConaughey's comeback will probably see his first nomination, as an AIDS patient. He also has a chance at a supporting nomination, for either Mud or The Wolf of Wall Street.*

Robert Redford, All Is Lost. Hanks is a kid compared to Redford, a matinee idol from a generation ago who is now an eminence grise. He is the only actor that appears in this film as a man lost at sea. Redford has won two Oscars, but not for acting. He won for directing Ordinary People and a honorary Oscar. In fact, he has only received one acting nomination, forty years ago for The Sting. 

Forest Whitaker, The Butler. I'm not sure about this one, and I wasn't impressed with the performance, but if the film gets traction Whitaker may get swept up along with it. This is one of those characters that thing happen to, rather than instigating them, and a lot of times they don't get nominated.

Also conceivable: Christian Bale, American Hustle; Bruce Dern, Nebraska; Leonard DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street*; Idris Elba, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom; Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station.

* The Wolf of Wall Street may move to 2014, as it will miss it's November release, due to a 180-minute length. Time will tell as whether it be ready for a Christmas release. 

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

42

Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., the most important person in the U.S. civil rights movement was Jackie Robinson. When he broke the color barrier in Major League baseball in 1947, it was a quantum leap forward in the perception of blacks in America, and though it would take several decades to gain the equality that blacks have now, Robinson's courage planted the seed.

In 42, a decent but frustrating film by Brian Helgeland, the hero of the day is really Branch Rickey, the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who put himself on the line to champion Robinson. There is certainly a truth to this--without a white general manager to sign a black player, nothing would have happened--I wonder at the golden glow that surrounds Rickey in this film, while Robinson, though exhibiting remarkable restraint, is almost second-fiddle.

Rickey, played by a hammy Harrison Ford, is determined to sign a black player. He and his assistants pore over the resumes of great black players, and they pass over a few for various reasons: Satchel Paige too old, Roy Campanella too sweet-natured. Josh Gibson, perhaps the greatest hitter in Negro League history, isn't mentioned, but he was passed over for being too unstable (he would die in 1947).

Robinson is chosen because he played in integrated sports in college, and though tough, he can keep his poise when it's necessary. Robinson, played well by Chadwick Boseman, is of course overjoyed at the prospect, and proposes to his girlfriend Rachel (Nicole Behairie). He starts at the minor league team in Montreal, but he will really have to put up with shit when he gets to the majors. It starts with his own team--a petition is drawn up that the Dodgers won't play with him.

Then the manager, Leo Durocher (Chris Meloni) is suspended for immoral behavior (laughable as that is today). Burt Shotton (Max Gail, Wojo from the old Barney Miller show) is dragged out of retirement, and slowly the Dodgers realize Robinson will help them win. His most visible supporters were Eddie Stanky, Ralph Branca, and Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black), though a son of the south, sees the injustice and makes a public gesture by putting his arm around Robinson during warm-ups at a game in Cincinnati.

There's some pretty disturbing stuff in this film. A diatribe of invective by Phillies manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) is pretty hard to take, and reduces Robinson to tears in the dugout runway. Rickey comforts him, in a scene that smacks of Hollywood revisionism, but it is true that this was why Robinson was chosen--he wasn't the best Negro League player, but he was able to hold in his rage.

The film gets the baseball right, and as far as I know it doesn't rewrite the facts as far as games are concerned. For example, Robinson doesn't get a home run in his first at bat--he walks. But then he steals second, third, and scores on a balk when he rattles the pitcher. The actors look good playing--it never occurred to me that they weren't doing things correctly.

But the emphasis on Rickey here is a bit puzzling. The narrative spine of the film isn't whether Robinson will make the majors--that happens halfway through--but why Rickey is doing it. He keeps saying that it's all business, and certainly the Dodgers' willingness to sign black players kept them in the upper division for a generation. But a speech near the end when Rickey reveals an incident from his pass is oatmeal psychology. Even if it's true it's too pat.

But, as baseball movies go, 42 isn't bad. We still haven't had the movie Robinson deserves, though.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Gravity

Praising a film for its special effects is dubious, it's almost like standing in front of a painting and saying, "Wow, what a great frame!" Special effects, as advanced and amazing as they can be, are filigree when it comes to film--the story is what matters. Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, has terrific special effects, and, fortunately, also a pretty good story, one that is old as the written word itself--survival.

The tale unfolds in space, where we are told in a title card that life is impossible. A team of astronauts is repairing the Hubble space telescope, but why a medical doctor (Sandra Bullock) is doing it is inadequately explained. The mission commander (George Clooney, looking like Buzz Lightyear) is frolicking with a jet pack, hoping to break the record for longest space walk. But then a warning from Houston: a Russian satellite has exploded, and the debris is heading their way.

Bullock and Clooney will be the only survivors, and for a few moments Bullock is flipping through space, unattached to anything, which must be just about the worst terror imaginable. Clooney tracks her down, and they make their way to the Soyuz, hoping to find a way back to Earth. (Who knew space was so crowded with vehicles that can get you home?)

What makes Gravity effective is the sharing of the sense of dread at being marooned in space. The effects are so good that I didn't even spend any time thinking, "How'd they do that?" but instead just suspended disbelief--the reptilian part of my brain just assumed I was watching people float in space. Shots from Bullock's point of view, through her visor, the sun reflecting through it and her vital signs displayed on the periphery, were very effective, especially in 3D (yes, I forked over the extra five bucks to watch in IMAX 3D, the first time I've done so, but Gravity may need to be seen in 3D to get the full effect). Then, then the scenes of her floating around inside Soyuz in her underwear were wonderful, for more than just one reason.

Still, Gravity is not the best film of the year, or will even make my top ten. It has lots of cliches, such as the tapping of an gauge to reveal that it's really on zero, or giving Bullock a dead child to mourn. Many have noted that Bullock says the thing she likes about space most is the silence, but the soundtrack is a cacophony, with egregious harm done by Steven Price's score. A more daring choice would have been to have no score at all, and let us understand what a vacuum really sounds like.

But the film moves briskly--it's only 90 minutes, a wink in time compared to most Hollywood prestige pictures, and the tension is palpable. Bullock fully commands the screen, as she is alone for a good chunk of the picture. Clooney plays his usual self, a charming rogue, the kind of thing he could do in his sleep.

As for scientific accuracy, Neil deGrasse Tyson plays the role of buzzkill. He did enjoy the movie, though.

My grade for Gravity: B+

Saturday, October 05, 2013

La Terra Trema

When thinking about the post-war Italian neorealists, the films Bicycle Thief and Open City come most ready to mind, but Luchino Visconti's La Terra Trema ("The Earth Trembles") should be added to the list. Commissioned by the Communist Party, it's a docudrama about "man's exploitation of man"--specifically, the plight of fishermen on the coast of Sicily.

Using locals as the actors, the film is set in the fishing village of Aci Trezza. The dialogue is not in Italian--"Italian is not the language of the poor"--but in the local dialect. And it's a very angry film about how the old ways are immutable.

The story centers around the Valastros, a family that has sent men to the "bitter sea" to fish for generations. The father died at sea, but the grandfather and the sons all head out every night to cast their nets. The oldest brother, 'Ntoni, who has seen some of the world while in the army, is disgusted by the way the wholesalers don't offer a good price. He tries to organize protests, even going so far as to throwing the wholesalers' scales into the ocean.

He can't get agreement, though, as too many are set in their ways. He mortgages the family home to buy his own boat, to eliminate the middle man. But a storm damages the boat, and the family slowly falls apart, as no one will hire them, and the sisters in the family see their marriage prospects disappear.

This is a very bleak film, as the second half of the film chronicles the steady decline of the family's fortunes, without relief. The second-oldest brother leaves the country to become a smuggler, one sister is seduced by the local police sergeant, ruining her reputation, and the other sister realizes she can not marry the man she loves because she is too poor. But still, the film's message seems to be that with cooperation, things could be accomplished, and 'Ntoni only fails because he goes it alone. "It is just a matter of time, as the worm said to the stone, I'll bore a hole through you yet," is a proverb repeated throughout.

The use of actual locations and amateur actors, as with many Italian neorealist films, gives it an authenticity that can not be duplicated. Some of the acting is a little stiff, but it's more than compensated by the verisimilitude. The lifestyle of the villagers, which hadn't changed for decades (shoes seemed to be a luxury) is brought vividly to life.


Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Forty years ago today Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was released. I was 12, just the right age to be in the midst of John's popularity, which was the biggest pop music craze since Beatlemania. I got the album that year for Christmas, along with a portable record player, and both saw a lot of wear and tear.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the apex of John's career, a magnum opus that encompassed two albums and 17 songs. It was, incredibly, his second album of the calendar year, with Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player, coming out in January. It spawned a number of hit singles, but is best played as a collection.

I hadn't heard this album in probably thirty years, but when I played the CD this past week I remembered every note. I also remembered holding and looking at the album cover, a triptych, with each song getting an illustration.  A couple of them were sexy, at least to a tween, and some of the songs had references to sex that were kind of titillating. I think "All the Young Girls Love Alice" was the first song I had ever heard specifically about a lesbian.

What's great about this album is that John, as well as his lyricist Bernie Taupin (who deserves equal credit for the greatness of the record) were, like The Beatles, not interested in establishing any one particular style. They explore a number of genres, from reggae to heavy metal. The album opens with the spooky instrumental, "Funeral for a Friend," which even today I find chilling, and breaks into the hard rock "Love Lies Bleeding." That first side (speaking in vinyl terms) ended with the elegy for Marilyn Monroe, "Candle in the Wind," which could have been written in any era (and later became a hit all over again after the death of Princess Diana and a tweaking of the lyric).

"Candle in the Wind" is just one of the songs about Hollywood. I count four, with minor mentions in other songs. The title track, which was also a big hit single, is about a man disillusioned by stardom:

"So goodbye, yellow brick road,
Where the dogs of society howl,
You can't keep me in your penthouse,
I'm going back to my plough,
Back to the howling old owl in the woods,
Hunting the horny-backed toad,
Oh I've finally decided my future lies,
Beyond the yellow brick road."

There's also the terrific "I've Seen That Movie, Too," which has lovely orchestrations and a wonderful vocal by John. When I was a kid I didn't care for this song, but as an adult I see it's sophistication. Then there's the poignant "Roy Rogers," about a simple man with a hum-drum life who takes pleasure in watching old movies:

"Roy Rogers is riding tonight,
Returning to our silver screens,
Comic book characters never grow old,
Evergreen heroes whose stories were told,
The great sequin cowboy
Who sings of the plains
Of roundups and rustlers
And home on the range.
Turn on the TV, shut out the light
Roy Rogers is riding tonight."

The album also has some great characters, with John assuming the first-person role of many of them. Some of them, given John's Hobbit-like physical appearance, seem ludicrous today, but worked back then. "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting," about Taupin's growing up in Lincolnshire, has John playing the part of a young tough:

"A couple of the sounds that I really like
Are the sound of a switchblade and motorbike
I'm a juvenile product of the working class,
Whose best friend floats in the bottom of a glass."

Or "Social Disease," which casts Elton as a louche scoundrel:

"I dress in rags, smell a lot,
And have a real good time,
I'm a certified example
Of a social disease."

There are about a dozen masterpieces on this record, an incredible batting average. I only dislike one of the songs, "Dirty Little Girl," which isn't very good melodically and misogynist in its lyric:

"Someone grab that bitch by the ears
Rub her down scrub her back
And turn her inside out.
'Cause I bet she hasn't had a bath in years."

A few other notable songs on the album are "Bennie and the Jets," which was the one number hit of  '73 in the U.S. and a send up of rock fandom and culture, and the enigmatic love song "Harmony," which may be my favorite song of the collection:

"Harmony and me,
We're pretty good company,
Floating on an island
In a boat upon the sea.
Harmony, gee I really love you
And I want to love you forever
I dream of never ever leaving Harmony."

John would have a few more hit albums following, but his mega-hyped release in 1975, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, didn't meet expectations, and his career slowly starting ebbing into something else. Of course, he's still a big draw and a major star, but his days at the top of the pop heap were over.

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, as far as I'm concerned, was his greatest achievement, and the best pop album of the decade.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Gone

Gone is a cracklingly good police procedural that starts as a simple carjacking case, but turns into something far more complex. It features Mo Hayder's series detective Jack Caffery, who is a no-nonsense cop in England's West Country.

I'm always wary of missing children stories--films on the subject are almost always bad, as they give in to manipulation. But Gone is different. Instead of centering on the parents' anxiety and grief, it focuses on the police investigation, and in this case the police are constantly behind the maneuvers of the criminal.

That being said, Hayder does explore the parents' situation. Two girls have been snatched, and the perpetrator has also done this to two other families. Eventually Caffery figures out that the kidnappings are not random, and the families must have something in common. Hayder writes a terrific scene in which one of the mothers gathers them all to try to figure out just what the connection is. The dialogue and descriptions are perfect, and you feel like you're in the room with them.

There's a parallel plot involving a detective from the underwater rescue team, Flea Marley, who goes looking for one of the girls in an underground canal and gets trapped. These chapters take the book in a different direction--the plucky survivor--but are also very well done.

I probably missed out on some of the effect of the book because I haven't read any of the other books in the series. Caffery and Marley are covering up a crime that may have been from a different book, and have a previous romantic relationship. I also got the drift that Caffery had a brother who died or went missing. There's a character called The Walking Man, a father who is on a futile but never-ending quest to find his daughter.

But even without previous knowledge I enjoyed this book immensely, and it's the best thriller I've read all year.