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Saturday, November 30, 2013

An Object

I had never heard of No Age until reading a recommendation of their album An Object in, of all places, Playboy. I took a chance and I like it.

The group is made up of two guys, Randy Randall and Dean Spunt. The sound is hard to classify, as it's a hybrid of many different styles. There's an element of punk in their, from The Ramones to The Buzzcocks, but also a modern noise element.

Most of the songs are very hard-driving and perfect for head-banging, if you're into that sort of thing. The best guitar lick is on "C'mon, Stimmung," while "No Ground," "Defector/ed," and "Lock Box" also kick ass. The closest thing to a pop song is "I Won't Be Your Generator."

Many of the songs have cryptic titles that invite all sorts of speculation. What are we to make of "Circling with Dizzy," "A Ceiling Dreams of a Floor," or "My Hands, Birch and Steel?" The vocals are buried deep down in the mix, and have a droning quality, but at times the lyrics are intriguing (the band has kindly put in lyric sheets on cards, which I read were hand-stuffed by the band themselves). "Running From A-Go-Go" is a nifty little poem that seems to be about a lonely truck driver:

"Long drive
tears in your eyes
I want to go off that road again.

Truck stop in the middle of the world
I don't want to be alone again.

So much trash
You wouldn't know
Bullshit on the stereo
It's cold when the motel's home
One more night alone again.

The closing song, "Commerce, Comment, Commence" is a mind-blower. It is mostly noise, a building crescendo of samples, that could be the sound of the end of the world or maybe the beginning. To listen to it is to feel like being swallowed by noise. It also has a cryptic but poignant lyric:

"In waiting
Time opens up
Like the back of
a pick-up truck
There is no here
when there is no where."

Friday, November 29, 2013

Now You See Me

Now You See Me, a surprise hit from earlier this year, is an entertaining if ridiculously far-fetched film. It deals with magicians pulling robberies, and if you like magic you'll probably like it; if you don't, you won't.

The film opens with vignettes of four magicians doing their acts at various levels of success. Jesse Eisenberg plays a card magician, Woody Harrelson a mentalist and hypnotist, Dave Franco a pickpocket, and Isla Fisher an escape artist. They are contacted by a mysterious figure, who employs them to work together. They become famous Las Vegas stage musicians as a foursome ("The Four Horsemen") and stun everyone by somehow robbing a French bank while in Las Vegas.

This brings them the attention of FBI agent Mark Ruffalo, along with Interpol agent Melanie Laurent. Added to the mix are Michael Caine, as the Horsemen's financial backer, and Morgan Freeman, as an ex-magician who makes money revealing other magicians' secrets. Everything is tied to a magician who disappeared trying to do an escape from a locked safe dropped into a river.

The film is full of twists and turns and shifting allegiances and has a final twist that I didn't anticipate. I like magic, to a certain extent, if it's the more cerebral Ricky Jay or Penn & Teller type (no David Blaine or Copperfield for me, thanks). The script, by a trio of writers, has a certain affection for magic and magicians, as those featured here steal from the rich and give to the poor.

But magic doesn't work well in films, because we already know that film is a type of magic. Stage magic works better, because the special effects aren't so obvious. Misdirection is the key to magic, and that doesn't work in film because film is an art form that focuses the viewer on a specific thing.

I also eye-rolled a bit at the extent of the magicians' exploits, including a finale that seems to have involved Con Edison. Where they got the funds to stage all this is a mystery. Another trick involved Woody Harrelson somehow getting control of a New York City bus. Right.

The film did excellent counter-programming business this early summer, and a sequel is scheduled. I might check it out, if only as a rental.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars

Soon to be a major motion picture, The Fault in Our Stars is a young adult novel about a teenage girl with cancer who falls in love with a boy with cancer. Now that sounds awful, like a teen-aged version of Love Story, but it is to John Green's credit that he has written a book that transcends age demographics, and resists sentimentality.

Our narrator is Hazel Lancaster, a sixteen-year-old girl with cancer. She is living on borrowed time, forced to lug around an oxygen canister, and home schooled. She is remarkably clear-eyed about her situation: "Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying."

Her parents, especially her mother, are smothering, and urge her to get out more. She does, attending a cancer support group, where she meets Augustus Waters, a beautiful boy who lost a leg to cancer, but is otherwise in good health. He is instantly smitten, and the romance gets started, in fits and starts. He introduces her to his favorite movie (V for Vendetta) and she to her favorite book, written by the reclusive Peter Van Houten, a novel that famously ends in the middle of a sentence.

Augustus, who has not used his "wish" from the Genie Foundation (obviously a stand-in for the Make a Wish Foundation) arranges to use it so he and Hazel can fly to Amsterdam, meet Van Houten, and find out what happens to the characters in his book after the abrupt ending. Of course, things don't go as hoped, and there's the inevitable, given that we're talking about kids with cancer, tragic turn.

I liked this book a great deal, although I think some of the hosannas are a bit much. It is very well written and very funny at times, but it's a bit precious. Hazel and Augustus are very precocious, especially Augustus, who is one of those guys who is always "on," such as responding to questions of how are you by saying, "Grand." I can see how this book may be very popular with girls, as Augustus is idealized. Here is how he professes his love to Hazel: "'I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll have, and I am in love with you." Wow.

Green has done his research on kids with cancer, and this book is a model for how to deal with anyone with a terminal disease, because most of us without one have no clue how to behave around someone in that situation. We get certain insights into their daily lives, such as: "Cancer perks are the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don't: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver's licences, etc."

The film, coming out next year, will star the amazing Shailene Woodley as Hazel. I can't wait for that.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

From Hell

There have been some bad films made from the graphic novels of Alan Moore, From Hell is not one of them (though he thoroughly disavowed it). A fictional recreation of the Jack the Ripper case, directed by The Hughes Brothers, it's stylish, suspenseful, and though its conclusion about the identity of the Ripper is probably false, it has all the details right.

The greatest deviation from the real story is the depiction of Inspector Frederick Abberline, the lead policeman on the case. Here is played as an opium fiend by Johnny Depp, who also solves crimes by visions (this is perhaps incorporating the character of Robert James Lees, the psychic who was played by Donald Sutherland in Murder By Decree). To satisfy the Hollywood demands for a romance, Depp is in love with Mary Kelly (Heather Graham), who was the Ripper's last victim, but is here given a second chance at life.

As with Murder By Decree, we are led to believe that the Ripper murders are intended to keep secret the Duke of Clarence's secret marriage and child by Annie Crook. In Murder By Decree she was a maid, but here she is a Whitechapel prostitute, and the five victims are her friends who know the truth. Moore, in his book, also makes several connections with the Freemasons (this is also in Murder By Decree), including the juicy coincidence that one of the girls was killed in Mitre Square, and that the "Juwes" included in the Gholston Street graffito may not have been a reference to Jews, but instead to the betrayers of the Freemason's founder.

All that is fun stuff, and the Hughes brothers, along with their designers, create a rich Victorian London.

I saw this when it first came out in 2001 and it holds up well.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Building Stories

Ostensibly, Chris Ware's Building Stories is a graphic novel, but really it's more like a collection. It comes in a box about the size of a breakfast tray, and has 14 distinct items: a standard graphic novel, a few cardboard strips, a newspaper, booklets, pamphlets, what looks like a board game, etc. They can be read in any order, and thus each person, depending on the order they choose, will have a different experience with it.

Mostly the "book" is about a woman, who I think is not given a name. She has one leg, the result of a childhood accident. Throughout the timeline of the story presented here we see her from her teenage years to approaching middle age. She has a boyfriend, who impregnates her, gets her an abortion, and dumps her. She then lives in the top floor of a three-floor apartment building in Chicago, where she lives a lonely existence working in a flower shop. Then she finds love, marries, and has a daughter.

Throughout the pieces of the book we hear her experience a variety of stories--the time she was an au pair for a rich couple; her relationship with her first boyfriend; her father dying of cancer; when she and her husband move to the suburbs; and when her best friend commits suicide.

There are also peripheral stories concerning the other occupants of the building: a feuding couple on the second floor, and the landlady, an elderly woman on the first floor. I read a few pieces early on that dealt more with these people, but as I read on they faded from view and it all focused on the one-legged woman.

There are also a couple of pieces that deal cartoonishly (not a pejorative here) about an anthropomorphic bee named Brandon. I didn't quite get the parallel, although he is picked on and eventually becomes trapped in a basement, his fate unknown.

As interesting as the construction of the set is, it's kind of hard to get one's mind around it. Reading this woman's story in bits and pieces, and not in a pre-set order, is a bold choice, but at times disorienting. Also, Ware's illustrations are at times hard to follow, as they don't follow a strictly left-to-right, top-to-bottom pattern, and even with arrows pointing us along the way, I got confused.

The main character can also be very self-pitying. She's a former art student with thin skin, and abandons her artistic ambitions and then regrets it. The main graphic novel opens with a spread that has her thoughts when she's at her lowest: "I just want to fall asleep and never wake up again. Is it possible to hate yourself to death?"

But her story is fairly absorbing. I liked some of Ware's touches, such as having the building itself as a character, counting up all the events: "501 tenants. 3 births. 2 deaths. 29 marriages. 178 trysts. 171 cats. 14 diaries. 886 screams. 217 punches. 106,323 breakfasts...68, 418 orgasms...469 feelings of 'being watched'...3,312 dreams of dismemberment...11,627 lost childhood memories...this building now has to admit to feeling a little bit grateful for the arrival each day of 24 more hours yet to come."

I also found his representation of marriage to be eerily accurate, especially when he depicts them sitting in the living room, each on their own laptop.

Building Stories is a fascinating work, mostly intriguing if at times too overwhelming. It might be useful to return to it someday and try to tackle it all in one long sitting.

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Natural (1984)

Some weeks ago I wrote about Bernard Malamud's The Natural, and how different it was from the movie. In this entry, I'll write about that 1984 film, directed by Barry Levinson. It follows the basic outline of the novel, and includes many details, but has an entirely different spin.

Again we follow the exploits of Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford. He is a phenom pitcher who strikes out a Ruthian figure (Joe Don Baker) on three pitches. But he is stalked by a murderess (Barbara Hershey) and disappears from view.

He emerges some years later, now as a hitter. He has been signed by the lowly New York Knights. The manager, the irascible but soft-hearted Wilford Brimley, can't believe his eyes that a player that old would be a rookie. He suspects the team's owner (Robert Prosky), of trying to sabotage the team, for if the team does not win the pennant, Brimley will lose his shares in the franchise. Indeed, the signing of Hobbs was a joke, but it turns out to be on Prosky, as Hobbs sets the league on fire with his bat, knocking his first hit so hard the cover comes off.

Hobbs becomes a star, hitting home runs and angering Prosky. So a team goes after him, including a sportswriter (Robert Duvall) who witnessed the earlier strikeout but can't place Hobbs, and Brimley's niece, (Kim Basinger), who seduces Hobbs. She also keeps time with a gambler (Darrin McGavin), who bets against Hobbs. He promptly goes into a slump, but is brought out of it by being reunited with his childhood sweetheart (Glenn Close).

Eventually the Knights go into a one-game playoff, the pennant on the line. Hobbs' old gunshot wound has acted up on him, and he's told that if he plays again it could kill him. Prosky gives him money to throw the game, but Hobbs returns it and plays. In dramatic fashion, bleeding from the abdomen, he hits the game-winning home run into the lights, and the team celebrates as sparks fly around them.

When I first saw this movie, upon its initial release, I didn't think much of it. It is extremely corny, and the ending, while emotionally satisfying, is intellectually idiotic. It completely subverts Malamud's book, but of course Hollywood is not in the business of making unhappy endings. The film retains the cynicism of the novel, but instead of Hobbs being the primary focus of the cynicism, he's the true-blue hero who bucks against it.

The film also overdoes the King Arthur imagery, which was in the book, but not to this extent. Now we have Hobbs (Roy, of course, means "king") making his Excalibur--the bat called "Wonderboy," from a tree felled by lighting. He plays for the Knights, natch. He is seduced by a dark lady (even if she does have blonde hair).

The film's other big departure is in the character of Iris. In the book, she's merely a fan. Hobbs has a fling with her, but dumps her after finding out she's a grandmother. In the movie, she's a paragon of virtue.

Despite all this, watching The Natural a second time I kind of liked it. I got caught up in the baseball part of it--the little things tickled me, like Brimley and the good-hearted coach, Richard Farnsworth, playing a version of Name That Tune in the dugout. The flannel uniforms looked right, and the stadium, the now gone Buffalo War Memorial, stood in nobly for the Knights' home field.

The supporting cast was also good and sleazy, with Duvall, McGavin, and Prosky making the skin crawl on the back of your neck. Redford was stoic, as he has been throughout much of his career, and if he was a little too old for the part, he did at least get Ted Williams' swing down pat.

The two best things about the movie are Caleb Deschanel's golden-hued cinematography, and Randy Newman's score, which is just about my favorite score of all time. You've heard it, even if you haven't seen the movie, because it's used in many trailers. In fact, I like the soundtrack album more than I like the movie.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Iceman

Michael Shannon may be the most interesting actor working today. He can always be counted on to give intense performances, even in movies that aren't quite up to his talent. One of those is The Iceman, a film from earlier this year, directed by Ariel Vromen.

The true story of contract killer Richard Kuklinski, The Iceman grapples with how a vicious killer like Kuklinski, who killed 100 or more people, could also be such a loving family man. But that's really well worn territory, going back to The Godfather or before. That's always been a dichotomy in criminals--the ability to separate their blood lust and their family ties.

Shannon is Kuklinski, and when we first meet him he is on his first date with Winona Ryder, whom he will eventually marry. They have two daughters, and live well in the suburbs. Ryder thinks he is in currency exchange, when in actuality he's a hit man for a local mob boss (Ray Liotta).

Liotta hires Shannon after roughing him up a bit in a porno film lab, where Shannon works. He sees that Shannon keeps extraordinarily cool, and after ordering him to kill a bum, hires him. Shannon becomes good at what he does, but has a short temper. Eventually he teams up with another killer (Chris Evans) who operates out of an ice cream truck, but things start unraveling.

The movie is based on a real person, but I see that there are certain things they left out, most notably that Kuklinski would practice killing by offing homeless men in Hell's Kitchen. The film tries to paint a kinder picture of the man by emphasizing his dutiful role as father and husband, but even then it's hard to see how Ryder puts up with his moods and eruptions of anger (he chases a motorist who has pissed him off with all of them in the car). The only glimpse of his background is when he visits his brother (an unrecognizable Steven Dorff) and we see that their are deep roots to his psychosis.

The film is full of surprise appearances. In addition to Dorff, James Franco pops up as one of Shannon's victims, and David Schwimmer, wearing a pony-tail and porn mustache, is one of Liotta's goons.

Though the film ultimately doesn't have any answers to Kuklinski's dual nature, it is a well-made, suspenseful film. And Shannon is terrific.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Battle Born

You'd think with a name like The Killers their music would have a sinister edge to it, but the album Battle Born, their release from last year, is more of an emo record, for sensitive teens or soccer moms who want to think they are still hip. It's not a bad record, and at times is very touching, but it's mostly background music.

I have heard of The Killers for a while, but hadn't really heard much of their music, so I took a chance on Battle Born. The songs are mostly sweeping anthems about heartbreak, sung with weepy emotion by Brandon Flowers. But many of the songs sound the same, and none really grabbed me.

Flowers has some skill as a lyricist, and if the words are reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen in their emphasis on loneliness and wind-swept vistas, they still resonate. I particularly liked "Runaways":

"Blonde hair blowin' in the summer wind
A blue-eyed girl playing in the sand
I'd been on her trail for a little while
But that was the night that she broke down and held my hand"

And "Miss Atomic Bomb":

"You were standing with your girlfriends in the street
Falling back on forever, I wonder what you came to be…
I was new in town, the boy with the eager eyes
I never was a quitter, oblivious to schoolgirls' lies
When I look back on those neon nights
The leather seats, the passage rite
I feel the heat, I see the light"

The only song that deviates from the arena-style ballad is "From Here on Out," which has a honky-tonk style flavor to it.

So, Battle Born (the phrase comes from the Nevada state flag, as The Killers are from Las Vegas) is a decent record, but I doubt I'll be listening to it again.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK

Unless you've been Rip Van Winkling the last half century, you know that it was fifty years ago today that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It was a pivotal moment in U.S. history, a gaping wound in the American psyche that has left a permanent scar.

There are many aspects of the assassination that still resonate, with two of them the most common: the suggestion of a conspiracy, and the "where were you" questions. The latter will fade in time, as already in 2013 you have to be in your mid-to-late fifties to properly answer the question. In a few decades it will relegated to the "where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor?" questions.

To answer the question, I have no memory of the event, as I was only two and a half. I did quiz my parents in the last few weeks. My mother recalls that she was shopping for linens at J.C. Penney's in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and they made an announcement over the loud speaker (you wouldn't know a Penney's would have a loud speaker) and she went home. My father was registering for classes at Eastern Michigan University, and has a recollection that a Beatles' song was interrupted by the news. Neither of them remember having me with them. My mother tells me my reaction was indignation that for the next few days the constant news coverage pre-empted my cartoons.

This was the first major news event in the era of television. By the time Kennedy's body arrived back in Washington, most Americans had heard the news. Contrast this to news of the Lincoln assassination, which would have spread out slowly, sometimes in the increment of days. Kennedy's death galvanized the nation in a single, flashing moment, something we hadn't experienced since until 9/11. For the generations who were alive and aware at the time, it has never quite been shaken.

As for the conspiracy, most Americans still believe there is something that they're not telling us. There are more than 500 books about various conspiracies, involving the Cubans, the CIA, the Mafia, or Lyndon Johnson. The crackpot element has been so embedded in the idea of a conspiracy that its hard to believe it could be possible any more. I read a book titled Case Closed some years ago that convinced me that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but that he was murdered by Jack Ruby, a nightclub owner who had mob ties, sure is suspicious. I mentioned last week that the Jack the Ripper murder spree is the most famous unsolved crime of all time; if this assassination is indeed unsolved, it would trump Saucy Jack.

The assassination also permanently captured Kennedy as he was--a youthful, dynamic figure who was hero to millions. We have found out more and more about him since then that has tarnished the image, and some people feel we dodged a bullet (sorry for the pun). There have been almost as many "what if" books as conspiracy theories, wondering how things would have gone if he had lived. Most think the Vietnam War would have never happened. It's a great parlor game, but it reinforces the notion that a martyred man is frozen in time.

One thinks of Caroline Kennedy today, the little girl on the pony, who is now in her fifties, the Ambassador to Japan, and the keeper of the Kennedy legacy. She has experienced a lot of tragedy in her life. May this day pass peacefully for her.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Rubber Duck to Queen's Bishop 3

The National Toy Hall of Fame recently announced their inductees. First of all, who knew there was a Toy Hall of Fame? Well there is, and it's in Rochester, New York. They started inducting toys in 1998. Some of them are specific brand names, like Play-Doh and Barbie, but others are quite broad--the "ball" wasn't inducted until 2009.

The 2013 inductees are the rubber duck and chess. Since I heard this on the radio a few weeks I've been kind of tickled by this. These two toys (although I don't know if you can consider chess a toy) are at the opposite spectrums of necessary I.Q. to play. A rubber duck only requires an opposable thumb and the requisite brain power to use it, while chess requires a decent I.Q. to learn the rules and a genius level intellect to master.

Both of them also have vague beginnings. The rubber date back to the development of rubber manufacturing in the 19th century, via methods invented by Charles Goodyear. The article on them in Wikipedia doesn't discuss the history of bath toys, but I would imagine that they became prevalent at roughly the same time, when bathing became more common (in the olden days, some people only bathed once a year--it was thought that bathing caused illness) and childhood as we know it emerged, during the Victorian era.

I don't remember having a rubber duck, though I probably did. I do remember using bath time as a time of play, but I could make do with a wet wash rag. I also seem to remember having toy boats and submarines. It's interesting to learn that the rubber duck really took off, so to speak, with the song "Rubber Duckie," by the Muppets creator Jim Henson. It has also made cultural and scientific marks--a load of 29,000 of them were loosened from a Chinese ship, and an oceanographer tracked their movement around the Pacific Ocean (some ended up in Australia, others in the Bering Strait). A giant rubber duck by Dutch artist Florentjin Hofman, which is about six stories tall, has floated in various harbors around the world.

Chess was believed to have developed in 6th century India. The first books of strategy date back to the 14th century, so this is an old game (not quite as old as the ball, but pretty old nonetheless). I taught myself to play using a book from the library when I was about 12 or so, but my level of skill hasn't advanced much from that stage. I just don't have the spatial kind of intelligence necessary for it. I can't remember the last time I played.

Now chess is considered to be the province of eccentric geniuses. I think Bobby Fischer forever associated the game, at least for Americans, with first-class loons. You can still become pretty rich and famous playing it though--Gary Kasparov, considered to be the greatest chess player of all time, has done pretty well for himself. But since Fischer, there hasn't been an American champion, so at least here in the U.S. chess isn't as big a deal. I had to look up who the champion is now--it's Viswanathan Anand of India.

Some of the nominees that didn't make the cut but should be no-brainers for future election are the Magic 8 Ball, My Little Pony, and my favorite growing up, little green army men. 


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Blockbusted

Some recent business news was actually more interesting as cultural news, as Blockbuster announced that they would be shuttering their remaining 300 brick and mortar locations.

The rise and fall of the home-video market, which Blockbuster ruled, is dizzying. At its peak, in 2004, Blockbuster had 9,000 stores, with 60,000 employees. But in just under ten years, the business will largely be defunct, as even the DVD-by-mail business, which languished in competition with Netflix, will also cease.

The span of this business existed within my adulthood, and I remember well the stages of development. I remember how exciting the concept of a VCR was, not even thinking of watching movies on it (I was excited at the prospect of taping things, as I have always been something of an archivist and a pack rat). I got my first VCR in 1984, kind of late, and delighted in taping anything at all and then playing it in slow motion, stop-frame, etc.

The video rental stores came shortly thereafter, and they were largely mom-and-pop. I utilized them mostly for adult films, though I did join a few. I remember their membership fees were ridiculously high. Most people rented, as videos for sale had absurd prices--usually about 79 bucks.

Going to a video rental place on a Friday or a Saturday night became a ritual, looking for something to watch. Blockbuster, which started as a single store in Dallas in 1985, was bought by Wayne Huizenga and John Melk, and were soon opening a store every 24 hours. Almost every town had one. I resisted them, both because they didn't carry porn and there was something evil about them, as they consumed their rivals, many of those the mom-and-pop places.

Blockbuster was unequaled until those red envelopes started showing up. Netflix, which the company declined to buy (how that would have changed everything!) was the first shot across the bow. Now there are so many ways to watch movies without leaving your living room that the brick-and-mortar business model couldn't survive. The Blockbuster in my area closed several years ago (after putting two independent stores out of business). I remember five or six years ago I went looking for a place to rent a movie that Netflix didn't have. I finally found a couple (one even still had VHS!) but they are both gone now. As far as I know, there is no place to rent a movie anywhere within 50 miles. There might be some holdouts in New York City.

All of this in less than thirty years. I'm trying to think of something comparable--a business that didn't exist before, grew to be ubiquitous, and then quickly became obsolete. I don't know if there's another. It just shows how rapidly technology, specifically the Internet, has made it easy to do things, and by doing so, has ended certain segments of commerce.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club

Ron Woodroof was the kind of guy that many people wouldn't want to know. When we first see him, he's at the rodeo, having sex with two women. Shortly thereafter, he's running from men whom he has welshed on a bet. His friend, a cop (Steve Zahn), saves him, but slugs him in the mouth for good measure.

Ron, as played with incandescence by Matthew McConaughey, is a womanizer, a heavy drinker, and a cocaine user. He hangs out in a bar that has a large Confederate flag tacked to the wall. Not only is he not a "faggot," as he proclaims, he doesn't know any.

So when he is diagnosed with HIV, he at first dismisses the notion. But then he remembers a regrettable sexual encounter, and realizes he's in deep shit. There's nothing like a death sentence to focus one's attention. Unable to get the drugs he needs in the U.S., he heads to Mexico, and with the help of an American doctor, learns that AZT, the one drug that is in the process of being approved, is actually making him sicker. He brings better drugs across the border, but to get around the law against selling them, he gives them away for free, but only to those who buy a membership. This is Dallas Buyers Club.

There have been movies about the AIDS crisis, mostly in documentary fashion, such as How to Survive a Plague. I would imagine we haven't seen Hollywood tackle the subject, because of a reluctance to use gay characters as protagonists--even in Philadelphia (twenty years ago now), Denzel Washington is the character the audience is meant to identify with. Because Woodroof was straight, the movie can be made. That being said, this is not a bad thing. I'm reminded that most of the major sex discrimination laws that Ruth Ginsberg fought against as an attorney focused on laws discriminating against men--sometimes it takes people see things from the other side to make them see the light.

Though this film is about AIDS and the medical establishment dragging their feet on treatment, the spine of the film is how Woodroof, ironically, became a better person because of his illness. A reprehensible redneck transforms into a person who not only knows gays, he grows to like them and value their friendship. And while this may sound like movie-of-the-week schmaltz, it most certainly is not. This film is tough and unsentimental, which makes the change all the more impactful.

Dallas Buyers Club was directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. The only film I've seen before by him was The Young Victoria, and nothing about that film prepared me for how good this is. With a smart script by Craig Borten and Melissa Wallack, and excellent editing by Vallee and Martin Penza, this film pulses with energy from the first frame to the last, a frozen image back at the rodeo.

But it's the acting that I'll remember. McConaughey, rail-thin and looking like a gnawed bone, is scary good. He's convincing as a reprobate, and he's convincing as a man who decides to take on the FDA. He has many memorable scenes, such as the one where he comes home to find his trailer with homophobic graffiti on it and his door padlocked. He gets a shotgun out of his trunk, blows a hole in the door, and shouts to anyone listening, "I live here!"

And there's a comedian's gifts to the performance as well. Consider the scene where he first takes AZT, which he gets from an orderly on the sly. He goes home, pops two pills just to make sure, and then has a belt of booze and snorts a line of coke.

If McConaughey is good, I can almost say that Jared Leto is better. He is Rayon, who shares a hospital room with Woodroof. He is a transvestite who is undergoing an AZT trial. Leto invests so much dignity and humor in the role that it's almost too heartbreaking to watch him, and his scene with his banker father, who has disowned him, is mesmerizing. Leto also makes a very good looking woman.

Also in the cast is Jennifer Garner, as a doctor who ultimately takes McConaughey's side. She's good, too, though a bit too idealized, I think. Denis O'Hare is the bad guy doctor, but I couldn't watch him without thinking of Russell Edgington from True Blood.

Dallas Buyers Club made me laugh, made me tear up, and made me angry. It's one of the best films of the year.

My grade for Dallas Buyers Club: A.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Reflektor

Arcade Fire recently released their fourth album, and I eagerly anticipated it, as did much of the music world, for they are certainly the foremost art-rock band now working. Their last album, The Suburbs, won the Grammy for Best Album. Not Alternative Album, mind you, but Best Album, period. Would success spoil Arcade Fire?

Well, it's hard to say. This album, a double disc set, is unlike anything they have done before. And that, in my ears, is a detriment. Not because I want them simply to repeat themselves, but because they have chosen a style of music that is just not my cup of tea.

Reflektor, as the album is titled, was produced by James Murphy, formerly of LCD Soundsystem. That band, now defunct, was acclaimed by many, but I couldn't get into them because, frankly, I don't like dance music, or techno, or disco, or whatever you want to call it. Murphy's music has always been heavily rhythmic, to the point of making the melody almost non-existent. Now he's done that to Arcade Fire.

I listened to Reflektor a few times and each time I liked it less, finally having to hit eject on disc 2 after the incessant and heavy bass was making my head feel like it was split by a spike. The drumming sounds like a drum machine, not an actual person drumming. I just couldn't stomach the record.

This is a shame, because lyrically the album is quite good. It references Haiti, the film Black Orpheus, and Kierkegaard (talk about college rock). But this is all buried under the kind of music that keeps me out of clubs (among many other things).

The whole thing is also very lengthy, with some tracks as long as eleven minutes. A few stand out--"Joan of Arc" actually has an old-fashioned rock and roll hook. But Reflektor is better when I just read the lyric sheet. For example, in the song "Porno":

"Take the makeup off your eyes.
I've got to see you, hear your sacred sighs.
Before the break up, comes the silence."

I don't disagree with anyone who likes this album, it's just not for me. There are entire worlds of music that I don't like, among them hip-hop, most country, and techno. At least I still have Neon Bible, their second and, to my mind, still their best album.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Duck Soup

Eighty years ago today Duck Soup was released. It is, in my opinion, the best Marx Brothers movie, as well as being one of the best comedies of all time. It disappointed at the box office, though, and it was the last of a certain type of film for them.

What differentiated the early Marx films from the later films was the structure. Basically, Duck Soup didn't have one. It's rather slender plot involves the nation of Freedonia. The wealthy Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) will only loan the country 20 million if they appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) leader. They agree, and the scheming ambassador from Sylvania (Louis Calhern) endeavors to marry Mrs. Teasdale so there can be a takeover. Inevitably, the countries go to war.

What didn't catch on, even with the brothers themselves, was the subversive anti-war message that resonates even more in the post-Vietnam era. This is exemplified by two scenes. The first is when war is declared. It's because Calhern has called Firefly an "upstart" (worm and swine are okay). This interrupts a trial (Chico was on trial for treason) and the entire company breaks into a celebratory musical number, as if war were the greatest thing ever (it is this scene that Woody Allen's character is watching in Hannah and Her Sisters that gives him the will to live).

Secondly, the movie ends with a ten minute sequence of the war itself, which is rich comic genius. No less a figure than literary critic Harold Bloom calls it one of the great achievements in 20th Century American art. The brothers are battened down in a building (it changes from scene to scene) doing battle with the enemy. Groucho's outfit changes from scene to scene, always in some kind of military gear--from Confederate army to Napoleonic to a coonskin cap. The lines fly fast and furious, such as:




Zeppo: General Smith reports a gas attack. He wants to know what to do.
Groucho: Tell him to take a teaspoonful of bicarbonate of soda and a half a glass of water.

Or when Groucho says of Mrs. Teasdale, "Remember, you're fighting for this woman's honour, which is probably more than she ever did."

Harpo adds in by strolling the battlefield, wearing a recruiting sandwich board that reads, "Join the Army and see the Navy."

I think my favorite line is when Groucho says, "This is Rufus T. Firefly coming to you through the courtesy of the enemy. We're in a mess folks, we're in a mess. Rush to Freedonia! Three men and one woman are trapped in a building! Send help at once! If you can't send help, send two more women!" Harpo enters and holds up three fingers. "Send three more women!"

This was a trend at the time to parody the patriotic fervor of the Great War (as it was known then, World War I now). It also parodied Benito Mussolini, and ended up getting banned in Italy.

There are plenty of sight gags in Duck Soup, as well. Most famous is the mirror scene, with Groucho and Harpo both dressed in nightshirts, cap, and floppy socks. A mirror is broken and Harpo, trying to avoid being detected, apes Groucho as if he were a mirror image. Marx Brothers fans may know that during their vaudeville days the brothers would sometimes take each other's place, and the audience wouldn't know the difference. Another scene has Chico and Harpo tormenting lemonade stand vendor Edgar Kennedy, most memorably in an exchange of hats, or when Harpo sticks his feet in Kennedy's lemonade.

The film was the last the Marx Brothers would make for Paramount, and the last appearance by Zeppo, who played bland characters and didn't add anything to the act, anyway. The story goes that when they signed with MGM, Irving Thalberg told them that audiences had nothing to root for in their movies, and that they need a love story. Thus we got the next film, A Night at the Opera, with a sappy love story, but it was a great hit.

Today, critics regard Duck Soup as a masterpiece. The anarchy that left audiences bewildered in the '30s is now seen as ahead of its time. The cynicism about politics fit right in today, though, such as Groucho's song: "The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now, just wait till I get through with it! The country's taxes must be fixed, and I know what to do with it. If you think you're paying too much now, just wait till I get through with it!" The dazzling wordplay and surreal images are astounding.

I close with this account by Chico, relating how he tried to spy on Groucho to Calhern: "Monday we watch-a Firefly's house, but he no come--he wasn't home. Tuesday we go to the ball game, but he fool us: he no show up. Wednesday HE go to the ball game, but we fool him, WE no show up. Thursday it was a double-header, nobody show up. Friday it rained all day, there was no ball game, so we stayed home, we listen to it over the radio"

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Talulla Rising

I read and enjoyed very much Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, and he has written a sequel, Talullah Rising. Talulla is the werewolf whose existence surprised Jake in the first book. He had thought there was a virus prohibiting new werewolves being created, but the virus has been eradicated. Now Talulla is going lupine every full moon.

As the book begins, she's hiding out in Alaska with her familiar, Cloquet. She's about to feed when she goes into labor and pops out twins (courtesy of the now dead Jake). But vampires attack (werewolf blood is thought to help vampires endure sunlight) and steal one of her children. She's determined to get the baby boy back.

Along the way she finds out that the vampires in question are actually a splinter group that believe that the original vampire, Remshi, is back and going to begin a new reign on Earth, and that sacrificing a werewolf is key to their success. Talulla ends up working with ex-occult agents, one of whom, Walker, becomes her lover. She also finds out that there are more werewolves around, and that making one is easier than she thought.

Much of this is gruesome fun, but it's a decided step down from The Last Werewolf. Much of Duncan's style is to step back and describe the proceedings in a kind of "can you believe this?" manner. "Walker was at the top of the stairs, face rich with what he'd just seen: Me, the woman who'd been fucking him with increasing nuance and dangerous warmth, down on all fours eating an eviscerated human being."

Also, Duncan writes through the voice of Talulla, and I never was convinced that it was female voice. When I wrote erotica, I wrote as a woman lots of times, but I never thought I was fooling anybody. Talulla's thoughts are clearly a man's. It's explained away that she is taken over by wulf, who is horny as hell, but that's a cop out. 

Still, there are some fines turn of phrase in this book, even if there are too many last second rescues stemming from someone we didn't know was a werewolf bursting through a door in wolf form. And I just loved Duncan's references to pop culture, such as this music criticism: "From a floor below someone was singing with a karaoke machine, Paul McCartney's 'Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time,' completely out of tune. 'Beyond doubt the worst Christmas song ever written,' New York said to me, quietly. 'Like a request to God to end the universe.'"

Judging by the way the book ends, there will be further chronicles of Talulla and her supernatural friends and enemies. I will probably keep up, but I hope for a book that is a little more polished than this one.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Murder by Decree

Murder by Decree is, in one fell swoop, both the best film I've seen about Jack the Ripper, and the best Sherlock Holmes film. Holmes has been portrayed in dozens of films, and I haven't seen them all, but I think this one does the best job of bringing the famous character to life in a realistic manner.

Directed by Bob Clark, who had an interesting career (he has both Porky's and A Christmas Story on his resume), the film tackles a tantalizing what if--what if Sherlock Holmes investigated the Ripper murders? Of course, Arthur Conan Doyle didn't touch that, but Murder by Decree does, and quite well, I think.

It is 1888. The third Whitechapel murder has just taken place, and then it is discovered that a fourth murder has taken place the same night. Holmes (Christopher Plummer) and Watson (James Mason) are at the opera. The great detective has not been approached by Scotland Yard, but upon returning home they are greeted by a citizen's committee of businessmen in Whitechapel who are concerned about a loss of trade. They ask Holmes to take the case.

The angle is one that is the sexiest to Ripper fiction--that the killings were somehow linked to the royal family, in this case the Duke of Clarence, son of the Prince of Wales and grandson of Queen Victoria. I won't go into details, lest I ruin the fun, but even if it isn't true it doesn't seem too outlandish, and sticks to the details of the case as it actually happened.

What makes the film the best Sherlock Holmes movie I've seen is the relationship between Plummer and Mason. Plummer plays Holmes with some of his familiar tropes--the pipe, the deerstalker, the violin. But we don't get the the usual scenes of his amazing power of deduction. Instead, he is a fun-loving, quick-witted fellow. Watson, while erroneously presented as much older than Holmes, is a stuffy but agreeable fellow, and Holmes takes delight in ruffling his feathers. A great scene has Watson trying to corral the last pea on his dinner plate, and Holmes takes a fork and smushes it. "You squashed my pea," Watson says, indignantly.

The film also introduces pathos in the person of Genevieve Bujold (oh, she was so pretty) as a woman locked up in an asylum who provides the keys to the mystery. Holmes, usually played as a cold machine of a man, sympathizes with her, and even sheds a few tears for her, which is unusual for him.

This film looks a bit dated. The sets look like sets, and it has a TV-movie feel to it, but it's great fun for both Holmes aficionados and ripperologists.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Though slavery, and by extension, race, has been the single-most vexing problem faced by the United States in its history, the movies have never really dealt with the subject head on. There was the moonlight and magnolia romanticism of Gone With the Wind, the tawdriness of Mandingo, and the cartoonishness of Django Unchained. It was really only television, with dramas like Roots, that lifted the lid on the unsavory and inhumane nature of the "peculiar institution."

12 Years a Slave is really the first mainstream film to tackle slavery head on. It dispenses with any apologies to the Southern mentality, and backhands the small and ignorant but vocal minority that insists slavery wasn't so bad. In addition to the beatings, the rapes, the forced separation of families, and the back-breaking work, 12 Years a Slave highlights the worst part of it--the dehumanization.

Director Steve McQueen, who is black but British, brings an interesting perspective to this uniquely American problem. Wanting to make a film about slavery, his wife told him about the narrative of a man named Solomon Northrup, who was born a free black man, but was kidnapped and sold into slavery. This story gives it a different view than many slave tales, such as Roots--this man was free, and living a good life, to boot. Therefore, an audience of people taking their freedom for granted can identify with him, regardless of race. Everyone can empathize with the horror of waking from a drugged stupor in chains.

Northrup, played with fierceness by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a violinist in Saratoga, New York in 1841. The place seems an integrated paradise, as Northrup can live and shop where he wants, and white citizens have no problem shaking his hand. A pair of strangers offer him a job with a circus, and lure him to Washington, D.C., (slavery was not abolished there until 1862). He is drugged and sold to slavers, and ends up on a boat to New Orleans. Being free all his life, he is amazed at this turn of events, but of course has no papers to prove his freedom and is beaten for his troubles.

Initially he is bought by a Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), along with a woman (Adepe Oduye) who is separated from her children, and is continually bereft. Cumberbatch is relatively kind, and actually values Northrup's advice on things, which earns him the enmity of a carpenter (Paul Dano). This will lead to him being sold to Edwin Epps, who is not only evil, but crazy.

As played by Michael Fassbender, Epps is one of the more vivid villains in recent movie history. I can't quite wrap my mind around the character--we all hear about the banality of evil, but Fassbender is anything but banal. He is taken with waking up the slaves and making them dance for him, like trained animals. Fassbender is remarkably intense, but the character is almost too big for the film.

His most prized possession (and to him, they are possessions) is Patsy (Lupita Nyong'O) who can, amazingly, pick 500 pounds of cotton a day, more than double that of the men. Fassbender also rapes her on a continuous basis. His wife, Sarah Paulson, hates that her husband does this so blatantly, but he tells Paulson quite plainly that he would sooner give her up than Patsy.

Northrup has to lie low--revealing he is literate or a free man would probably earn a death sentence. He does what he can to keep his head down, but his entire existence becomes an increasingly vexing charade. Fassbender has suspicions--in fact, it's kind of a plot problem that he wouldn't have killed Northrup already, and in fact, maybe he doesn't only because it would be money down the drain.

12 Years a Slave covers many of the horrors and quirks of slavery. The biggest moment in the film is when Patsy is brutally flogged, a scene that many of the hardest hearts would have trouble absorbing. There is also the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who shows off his slaves like horses (some of them nude), and has no problem selling a mother away from her children. "My sentimentality extends the length of a coin," he says. We also see the black slave owner (Alfre Woodard), and a white man who is forced to work and live alongside slaves.

This is a terrific film, if not an easy one to watch. But, I do have my reservations. For one thing, the pacing is erratic. The film begins in media res and then reverts to flashback, but the moment chosen is not a particularly pivotal one, and by establishing Northrup as a slave from the get-go, I think it robs some of the impact of his kidnapping. Also, aside from the title, we have no sense of time passing.

And then there's Brad Pitt. Late in the film he appears in a glorified cameo, and to reveal more would spoil. But suffice it to say that the role does not deviate from Pitt's image both as a superstar and a liberal do-gooder. It's as if he arrived from the future (actually, in the film he comes from Canada). I think the role would have been far better suited to an unknown actor, and Pitt would have been more interesting in the role of a white man who betrays Northrup.

Still, this is quibbling. 12 Years a Slave is a fine film, one of the best of the year.

My grade for 12 Years a Slave: A-.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

One of my favorite comedies of all time turns 50 this month. I first saw It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World during a re-release when I was about ten. I laughed like an idiot. Even after seeing it this weekend for about the 10th time, I still have a goofy smile plastered on my face.

Directed by, of all people, Stanley Kramer, who was known for social message films like The Defiant Ones and Judgement at Nuremberg, It's a Mad, etc. World is a rarity--an epic comedy. It was over three hours long in its initial release--the DVD version is 2:40. It even has an intermission. It also has a galaxy of stars, with most of the big comedians of the time (many from television) in its cast.

The plot turns on human greed. A car, racing down a desert road, crashes. A group of motorists stop to see if they can be of assistance. The driver, a crook on the lam (Jimmy Durante) tells them in his dying moments that there is $350,000 "buried under a big W" in a state park some two hours away. The motorists, not knowing whether to believe him, at first try to come to a common ground on looking for the money and splitting it, but they can't agree, and it's every man for himself.

Meanwhile, a police captain (Spencer Tracy, looking ill) has been following the case for years, as the money is from a tuna factory robbery. He has police crews follow the motorists, knowing they will lead them to the money. So, we have a no-holds-barred race across the desert of California.

The film has almost every element of comedy known to man. Primarily it's slapstick, and it has set pieces like an opera. My favorites are when the truck driver Pike (Jonathan Winters), chases down a motorist who has crossed him (Phil Silvers, in full sneer mode). This leads him to a gas station, which is manned by Arnold Stang and Marvin Kaplan. Heeding Silver's warning that Winters is an escaped mental patient, they tie him up, but Winters gets mad and proceeds, in spectacular fashion, to destroy the entire station. Best line: when the pencil-necked Stang turns to Kaplan and says, "We're going to have to kill him."

Another great physical scene is when Milton Berle, as the meek J. Russell Finch, gets into a fistfight with British colonel Terry-Thomas. It's one of the most timorous fights you'll ever see on screen, with the highlight being when they swing at each other and connect on each other's fists.

Then there's the scenes in which Sid Caesar, as dentist Melville Crump, gets locked in a hardware store basement with his wife, dumb blonde Edie Adams. It's quite a struggle, with several highlights, none better than when Caesar takes a final swing of sledgehammer against the metal door and ends up flying off the collapsing staircase.

The comedy is of the Loony Tunes variety, with nobody getting seriously hurt (at least not until the end). There's also a great deal of verbal humor. Terry-Thomas' rant about the American obsession with bosoms, or the wonderful scene in which the motorists try to divide up the money fairly, which leads to the pot being broken down into seventeenths. Or there's just the sweetly stupid lines, like Buddy Hackett saying "There's no rush, we're just in a hurry."

This film is also a great display for stunt work, particular drivers and pilots. The amount of cars involved is epic, and the planes perform two particularly difficult stunts: one flies through a billboard, another through an empty hangar.

The finale is exquisite. All of the men in the chase end up on a collapsing fire escape. A fire truck comes to the rescue, but they overload the ladder, which then careens about (all to the circus-like music of Ernest Gold) and flings them, one by one, to an inglorious end. Silvers ends up in a Murphy bed, which slams shut. Winters ends up in a cement mixer. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson ends up in the arms of a statue of Lincoln. Tracy crashes into a pet store, where he is licked repeatedly by a great Dane.

The cast is large and extremely funny. Some play it way over the top, but it works, especially Ethel Merman as Finch's braying harridan of a mother-in-law. Also great are Dick Shawn, as her beatnik lifeguard son. There are scores of cameos included, from Jerry Lewis to Buster Keaton to the Three Stooges.

I would say I've laughed out loud more at this film than any other. Now when I see it I start laughing knowing a good scene is coming up. It has never really been duplicated--a few years ago a film called Rat Race tried, but showed how difficult it is to catch lightning in a bottle like this.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers got rave reviews, and was on many best books of the year list, but I resisted reading it--I just didn't want to read a book about poverty in India. But I'm glad I finally did, because her book is not a hand-wringing expose, it's simply a chronicle of how people, in no matter what situation, do their best to survive.

For four years Boo lived among the people of Annawandi, which isn't really a city. It's a ramshackle slum that grew on land owned by the Mumbai airport. "The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked in from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport. The work complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brush-land across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live."

Boo focuses mostly on two families. The Husains are Muslim, and are ruled by their indomitable mother, Zuhreisa. The family is in the scavenging business. They buy and sell the trash picked by others, including Sunil, who I believe is in orphan. They live next door to, and share a wall with, Fatima, a one-legged woman who, naturally, is known as One Leg, and is quite promiscuous, though she has a husband.

The other family is also run by a woman--Asha. In fact, she is sort of the boss of the undercity, the solver of problems, the person who others go to for assistance. She is also busy with lovers (the husbands in this book are by and large ineffectual) and has a daughter, Manju, who attends college.

The Husains and Fatima feud with each other, until one day, construction on the wall drives Fatima into a fury. Mr. Husain, Abdul, and an adult daughter threaten Fatima. She decides to douse herself with kerosene and light herself on fire, probably to try to blame it on the Husains. But she ends up dying instead. The three Husains are arrested, and Zuhreisa goes into overdrive trying to save her family and her business.

In the home of Asha, ambitions were also alive. She was tied into everything, sort of like a Mafia don. She owed allegiance to the "corporator" of the village, and the political party. "She had felt herself moving ahead, just a little, every time other people failed...But the facts of her days had barely changed. She was still living with a drunken husband in a cramped hut by a sewage lake. Her vanity--a quality she had passed on to all three children--was being undermined. She had failed to crack the code of the wider city, while at home, many of her neighbors had started to loathe her."

Other characters showcase the plight of the poor. After the Mumbai terrorist attacks, tourist business drops off, and this, plus the worldwide economic crisis, reaches even Annawandi. Sunil turns to thievery. Boo writes a wonderful passage about him: "Every month that passed, he felt less sure of where he belonged among the human traffic in the city below. Once, he had believed he was smart and might become something--not a big something, like the people who frequented the airport, but a middle something. Being on the roof, even if had had come up to steal things, was a way of not being what he had become in Annawandi."

We also hear the sad story of Manju's friend Meena, another teenage girl who is doomed to an arranged marriage, and is constantly beaten, once by her brother for failing to make him an omelet. She takes drastic measures to relieve her torture.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers (the title takes its name from a billboard outside the community that promises eternally beautiful floor tiles) does not gawk at the poor, but instead finds the common thread of humanity within. There is a lot of humor among them, even ironic, such as when the death of a horse brings in camera crews and protests: "The forces of justice had finally come to Annawandi. That the beneficiaries were horses was a source of amusement to Sunil and the road boys."

Boo is a gifted writer, and manages to make Annawandi seem oddly beautiful, even if it is a place no one would want to visit: "The pale sun lent the sewage lake a sparkling silver cast, and the parrots nesting at the far side of the lake could still be heard over the jets. Outside his neighbors' huts, some held together by duct tape and rope, damp rags were discreetly freshening bodies. Children in school-uniform neckties were hauling pots of water from the public taps. A languid line extended from an orange concrete block of public toilets. Even goats' eyes were heavy with sleep. It was the moment of the intimate and the familial, before the great pursuit of the tiny market niche got under way."

Monday, November 11, 2013

Managing Expectations

For the fourth straight year, I'm spending Veterans' Day contemplating the finalists for the veteran's portion of the Hall of Fame ballot. Also for the fourth year, the rotating time period system is being utilized, and we've come around to the "expansion era" grouping again.

This system, while it seems to be working in getting people elected, has its inherent flaws. For instance, of the 12 finalists, there are seven holdovers, and none of them has thrown an extra pitch or had an extra at bat. Only two of them, Dave Concepcion and labor leader Marvin Miller, had as many as half of the votes last time out (anyone with under 8 votes didn't have their vote total announced). So, one might ask, why are Steve Garvey, Tommy John, Billy Martin, Ted Simmons, and George Steinbrenner back on the ballot? Is it a matter of keep trying until you get in?

The BBWAA, which votes in the recent retirees, has a system in which if a player does not get at least five percent of the vote, they're off, forever. They can then be considered by the veterans' committee (Simmons is an example--he lasted only one year on the BBWAA ballot). But then, if the veterans' committee rejects you resoundingly, why be allowed back? It's a strange system.

In my post from four years, you can read about my opinions of the holdovers. Only Marvin Miller, in my opinion, deserves induction.

There are five new names on the list, and three of them are no-brainers, three of the most successful managers of all time. What's interesting to see is whether all three will get in this first year, or whether the voters will hold back. If so, which one goes first, second, etc.? There are also two new players to be considered. In alphabetical order:

Bobby Cox: Cox managed 29 big-league seasons and had 15 first-place finishes, including 14 straight division titles (excepting 1994, which was ended prematurely due to a strike). At 2,504 wins, he is fourth all-time, and won five pennants and four Manager of the Year awards. The only possible knock is that he won only one World Series, which may make him the odd man out in the first go-round. He shouldn't be, though.

Tony LaRussa: Managed 33 years, and is third in all-time victories. Took three different teams to the playoffs, and won six pennants and three World Series titles, and is one of two men to win it all in both leagues. He has earned a reputation as the intellectual manager, and it's hard to argue with his success. Unquestionably the highest ranking candidate in this year's finalists.

Dave Parker: This is the Cobra's first year on this ballot, after spending the maximum fifteen years on the writers' ballot, where he never topped 25 percent of the vote. He was surely a great player, with 393 homers and a .290 lifetime batting average, but that's just not enough to get him in.

Dan Quisenberry: Another player who had only one appearance on the writers' ballot, getting only 3 percent of the vote. For about six years he was a dominant relief pitcher in the game, leading the league in saves five times. But he only played 12 years, with 244 lifetime saves, and compared to the totals now put up, that's paltry. Sadly, he died of a brain tumor at age 45, but he does not deserve enshrinement.

Joe Torre: Almost makes it in on his player stats alone: 252 homers, 2342 hits, .297 lifetime batting average. But add his managerial record, and he's a slam dunk. What's interesting is that until he was named Yankee manager in 1996, his managerial career was marginal. He managed the Braves to a division title in 1982, but his stints with the Mets and Cardinals were without success. But oh did he lead the Yankees to glory, winning four championships in five years, and a total of six pennants. He then won two division titles with the Dodgers.

Torre, some say, lucked into the position, and anyone with that kind of talent could have won. Maybe, but nobody else did win--he did. And he has received credit for being the kind of low-key manager that the team required. Anyone who doesn't vote for him has rocks in their head.

I'm guessing the three managers will all get in, and no players will. Miller, who missed by one vote last time, has since passed on. It would be nice if they finally got this right, but I doubt it.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Lou Reed

When Lou Reed died two weeks ago, I must admit I was a little taken aback by the outpouring of media coverage. I mean, he was no household name, and had only one top 40 hit. But he was one of those musicians who is honored more for his influence and integrity for record sales. He was a true rock and roll visionary.

I knew who he was, mostly for that top 40 hit, "Walk on the Wild Sild," and a few other songs. I bought a vinyl copy of the celebrated Velvet Underground and Nico album many years ago, but listened to it only once. Perhaps I just wasn't ready for it. To address this injustice, I purchased The Essential Lou Reed, which Reed put together himself, and I realize how great he was.

In some ways, he can be described as the punk Bob Dylan, even though he wasn't really punk--he was proto-punk. All punk bands owe him a great debt, but so do the glam-rock groups of the early '70s and art-rock groups that developed in that same decade. He was a poet, like Dylan, but specialized in writing about the misfits, the dispossessed, the discarded. He wrote compassionately about junkies, transvestites, transexuals, the poor, the overlooked. And he did it while playing a mean guitar.

"Walk on the Wild Side," perhaps the most unlikely top 40 hit ever, is what most will know him for. It was about five members of Andy Warhol's Factory scene, and had references to oral sex, male prostitution, and transexuals. It has a lovely jazz sound, with a seductive bass line and brushes against the snare drum, ends with a sax solo. But the tribute to Warhol's "superstars" are what make the song great:

"Candy came from out on the Island
In the backroom she was everybody's darlin'
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, Hey babe
Take a walk on the wild side"

Of course Reed wrote about drugs, and his death at 71 probably had something do with excess in that area. Some of the songs were obviously about drugs, such as "I'm Waiting for The Man," "Ecstacy," and "Heroin:"

"Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it's my wife and it's my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I'm better off than dead"

Some songs, though, are about drugs surreptiously. "Perfect Day" appears to be a love song to a woman, but apparently it's also about heroin. The lyrics were posted by the Vatican's social media person, not realizing that. Oh well, it's nice that the Vatican even knew who Lou Reed was.

"Perfect Day" is a beautiful song, and one of many lovely melodies that Reed wrote. Others include "Satellite of Love" and "Pale Blue Eyes." "I'll Be Your Mirror" is a terrific love song--about a person, not a drug.

Reed also wrote some straight ahead, danceable, upbeat songs, such as "Sweet Jane" and "Rock 'N' Roll:"

"One fine mornin', she puts on a New York station
and she couldn't believe what she heard at all
She started dancin' to that fine-fine-fine-fine music
ooohhh, her life was saved by rock 'n' roll"

But Reed's greatest legacy is a lyricist, which earns the comparison to Dylan. His songs could be angry, such as "Caroline Says," about an abused woman, or "Dirty Blvd.," about a young boy growing up in a welfare hotel:

"No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything
they dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard
Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I'll piss on 'em
that's what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses, let's club 'em to death
and get it over with and just dump 'em on the boulevard "

Then there are just passages that make the head spin with their imagery and wordplay, and the influences of the great writers, from Shakespeare to William S. Burroughs. I think of "NYC Man":

"The stars have shut their eyes up tight
The earth has changed it's course
A Kingdom sits on a black knight's back
As he tries to mount a white jeweled horse
While a clock full of butterflies on the hour
Releases a thousand moths
You say " leave" and I'll be gone
Without any remorse
No letters faxes phones or tears
There's a difference between
Bad and worse"

I was most knocked out by a song called "Street Hassle," which is eleven minutes long and includes a monologue spoken by Bruce Springsteen (but he wouldn't allow Reed to credit him, which certainly kept sales down). It has three sections, which are united by a haunting theme played by a string quartet, which serves as a sort of ticking clock, or perhaps more accurately a beating heart. The lyric is a masterpiece typical of Reed's writing: aching, broken, and beautiful:

"Love is gone away
Took the rings off my fingers
And there's nothing left to say
But, oh how, oh how I need him, baby
Come on, baby, I need you baby
Oh, please don't slip away
I need your loving so bad, babe
Please don't slip away"

Reed the man has slipped away, but his music remains.




Saturday, November 09, 2013

Jack the Ripper


A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that it is the 125th anniversary of the killings attributed to Jack the Ripper. From the end of August to November 9, 1888, an unknown person murdered five prostitutes, which have come to be known as the "canonical" murders (others think he killed more, still others less). Today, 125 years ago, the body of Mary Kelly was discovered, completely mutilated and eviscerated.

The case of Jack the Ripper (the name came from a letter that is today considered a hoax) has been endlessly fascinating since then. The article pointed out that there are numerous tours that lead the interested through Whitechapel, the section of London where the killings took place. I took such a tour when I visited London over 20 years ago (today it is a largely Bangladeshi neighborhood). Apparently the business is much more flourishing today, as competing tours bump into each other, and some liven things up with guides in period costume.

So what is the hook here? A few things, I think. First, it is one of the great unsolved crimes in history, and is unlikely, given the destroyed evidence, to ever be solved. There are as many theories as there are those with theories, with suspects ranging far afield, from some anonymous Jewish leather worker to the Queen's grandson, the Duke of Clarence (this last suspect, though thoroughly exonerated, makes for the best fiction on the case, and is the subject of the best movies on the subject, which I'll take a look at in the coming weeks).

Secondly, the time period seems to go hand in hand with the mystery. Victorian gaslight England is catnip to some, especially literary types. Dare I say there is almost a romantic aspect to the case, even though the women were streetwalkers and the killings were excessively brutal. Googling images of Jack the Ripper bring up several photos of men in capes and top hats, standing in pools of light, their victims beneath them on bloodstained cobblestones. It is the same period as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, and at times almost seems like yet another bit of fiction.

The case also has an almost fictive collection of ephemera that is common knowledge to those called "ripperologists." There are the letters sent, which may all have been hoaxes (the "From Hell" letter, pictured above, may be authentic), and the Goulston Street graffito, a handwritten message on a wall above a clue which was amazingly ordered erased by the police because it might have incited anti-Semitic violence. The victims and dates of the crimes are all well-known, having occurred toward the end of the months in question, including two on one night, "the double event."

It is these victims that have induced some outcry. In can be easy to start thinking of Jack the Ripper, whoever he was, as a fictional character, like Dracula or the Phantom of the Opera, and it can be fun to go on these tours. But a good tour guide will caution that these five women were all very real, and suffered horribly gruesome deaths. So the Disneyfication of it can be tasteless and disrespectful. I hope I can remember that as I continue to be fascinated by it.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Oscar 2013, Best Supporting Actress: Minority Report

In the 85 years of Oscar, there has never been, in any particular acting category, more than two black performers nominated in the same year. That has happened about ten times, the last time in 2006. This year there's a chance that that record will be broken, in Best Supporting Actress. It appears a lock that the record will at least be equaled.

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle: The popular star follows up her Oscar-winning year with the sure to be a smash hit Hunger Games sequel and this small role in another David O. Russell film as a tough-talking dame. Right now it appears she can do no wrong.

Lupita Nyong'O, 12 Years a Slave: Lots of high praise so far for this actress. I'm seeing the film this weekend--don't know much about her role. Apparently she's in a brutal rape scene.

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County: Roberts hasn't been nominated since her win for Erin Brockovich thirteen years ago. She may suffer from category confusion here--it's a role that is on par with Meryl Streep's, but the studio may push for Supporting for her, and she may fall through the cracks.

Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station: This is the nomination that would set the record, and it's iffy right now. The movie seems to have not gained much traction, and will need precursors to emerge as an Oscar contender. She's very good, though.

Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels' The Butler: The performance is nothing special, and it's an almost superfluous role to the film, but she is Oprah. She was nominated for The Color Purple, the last time two black performers were nominated for Best Supporting Actress (the other was her co-star, Margaret Avery, who is now forgotten). Right now, she may actually be the front-runner, at least until someone else grabs attention.

Also conceivable: Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine; June Squibb, Nebraska; Jennifer Garner, Dallas Buyers Club; Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave; Margo Martindale, August: Osage County.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies

In Hilary Mantel's multi-volume story of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII, Wolf Hall could be said to be the rise of Anne Boleyn, and Bring Up the Bodies to be the fall. It ends with her beheading, and the quick subsequent marriage of Henry to Jane Seymour. Cromwell, the centerpiece of these books, worked hard to make Anne Henry's bride, taking on the Pope; in this volume he works just as hard to bring her down.

What spurs him on? Loyalty, or perhaps a sense of survival. Early on he says of Anne that just looking at her makes his head wobble.  No one's life is safe in the court--it must have been nice just to be a dirt-poor peasant, you only had to worry about starvation, instead of being put to the rack.

It's hard to imagine that another telling of Anne Boleyn's downward spiral could have something new to say, but this book is amazingly good. It's better than Wolf Hall, if only because it was easier to follow (even the characters have trouble knowing how everyone is related, including Cromwell: "All these people are related to each other. Luckily, the cardinal left him a chart, which he updates whenever there is a wedding").

Again Mantel uses the present tense, and again she liberally uses pronouns; "he" refers to Cromwell exclusively. He seizes on Henry's fascination with Jane Seymour, and like the lawyer he is, seeks to undo everything that he worked for to get Henry annulled from Katherine of Aragon. Key is an accusation by Anne's brother's wife, Lady Rochford, that Anne has had lovers, including her own brother. Cromwell interrogates the accused lovers, and they all go to it, executed in one day, while Anne goes the next.

Bring Up the Bodies reads like a political thriller, and has stunning dialogue and descriptions. Being inside Cromwell's head is the only place to be, as the king is getting old and dull--he's almost a shadow figure, and is purposely an elusive creature here. Cromwell behaves like a man who sees himself as an actor in play. When someone mentions a particular women, he thinks things that made me laugh out loud: "Margaret Pole, that haggard papist battleaxe?"

While Cromwell is the focal point, of course Anne is vividly created. This time I couldn't help but imagine Natalie Dormer, who played her in The Tudors, her crooked smile and bewitching eyes: "He thinks Anne's eyes beautiful, though best when they gleam with interest, as a cat's do when she sees the whisk of some small creature's tail."

Much of the book is taken up with extended dialogues, including a magnificent set of scenes with the four accused lovers of Anne, with Cromwell their interrogator. He knows that they may not be guilty: "He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged."

In the end, there can't help but be sympathy for Anne, though this emanates from the writer's 21st century perspective. She basically was killed because she couldn't bear a male heir and the king got bored with her. She was a modern woman in a decidedly unmodern era, and her legacy was her daughter Elizabeth, one of the great rulers of England. The description of her death is both shocking and painful: "The blinded head whips around. The man is behind Anne, she is misdirected, she does not sense him. There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore."

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Requiem for a Vampire

Requiem for a Vampire, a 1971 film by Jean Rollin, is for those who like their women chained to a wall. There are two big scenes--an orgy, when a bunch of burly men rape women while their hands are chained above them, and then a scene late in the film, when a nude woman is chained and whipped (by her best friend!)

This is one of the weirder Rollin films. It starts in media res, with three people in a car, with another car in pursuit, exchanging gunfire. The two girls are in clown costumes. I assumed they were making a getaway from a bank robbery or something, but later one of the girls says they were running away from school--that school must have a strict disciplinary code.

The male driver dies, so the two girls tramp about the countryside, lost. After spending some time in a graveyard (where one of them is almost buried alive) they stumble upon a castle. They find a bed and get naked together, but then are disturbed by noises. They find some vampires, who take them to their leader, who is supposedly the last vampire (he looks a lot like the old horror movie host, Zacherle).

They are bitten, but the process for changing is slow. They also must be virgins, but one of the girls (Marie-Pierre Castel) decides to foil the plan by having sex with a passer-by (she finds him in the graveyard, which begs the question why the guy just happens to be passing through a graveyard in the middle of nowhere).

As schlocky horror films go, Requiem for a Vampire is bit below average. The vampires aren't really scary--they're more like tough camp counselors. In addition to taking delight in women being raped and whipped, the film also has a basic anti-woman tone--two scenes have women leading men on chases while laughing, a way of objectifying women as teases.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

The Living Dead Girl

Now this is more like it. While no masterpiece, Jean Rollin's La Morte Vivante, or The Living Dead Girl, is a work of genius compared to The Nude Vampire. It is at least coherent, and has some shocking gore.

Graverobbers break into a crypt under a castle. They are multitasking crooks, as they are not only stealing from graves, but they are dumping toxic waste. An earthquake spills the waste, which brings a woman back to life after being dead two years. Remarkably well preserved, this girl (Francoise Blanchard) needs human blood to survive. She dispatches the graverobbers, using her long fingernails (nails grow after death, you know), and then feasts on the real estate agent selling the castle and her boyfriend, while they are having sex.

A vacationing couple take pictures of the girl, and the woman decides to investigate. Bad idea. By now Blanchard's childhood friend, Marina Pierro, has snapped into action, procuring people for her living dead friend to feed on. But Blanchard despairs at being caught between life and death, and just wants to end it all.

As horror films go, this isn't too bad. It's cheap, for sure, and the acting is wooden, but the chills are there. It is also extremely bloody. Throats are opened up, and Blanchard uses her nails to dig around in the chest cavity of a still-living woman. A scene at the end, in which she devours a throat, has some impressive prosthetics.

Of course there is the requisite nudity, but not as much as some of Rollin's other films. Blanchard, who died mysteriously in 2013 at age 58, gives the character some dignity and pathos, as well as looking good naked.

Monday, November 04, 2013

All Is Lost

J. Ch. Chandor's All Is Lost continues a theme of prestige pictures this fall. It has a lot in common with both Gravity--the struggle for survival in a harsh environment, much of it while alone--and Captain Phillips--hoping to make it alive out of a lifeboat. In fact, a Maersk tanker makes a cameo in All Is Lost, too bad it wasn't the Alabama, or otherwise we could have imagined Tom Hanks at the helm.

I liked All Is Lost a little better than Gravity, and not as much as Captain Phillips. The biggest difference between it and Gravity, aside from changing outer space to the Indian Ocean, is the dialogue. Robert Redford, unlike Sandra Bullock, has no George Clooney to talk to, and she continues talking after he's gone. Redford, aside from a few cries of "Help!" is stone silent.

Chandor has taken an interesting, and I think successful, tack on this film. In addition to not having Redford talk to himself throughout his ordeal, we get absolutely no backstory, no flashbacks, no dead children. He doesn't even have a name--he's called "Our Man" in the credits. The only glimpse of a former life is a voiceover of a note he writes, facing his death, in which he apologizes to someone. Even this is unnecessary.

Redford, Our Man, awakes on his sailboat one morning to find that a rogue cargo container, carrying sneakers, has put a hole in the side of his boat. He manages to repair it, but his radio is shot. Then a storm kicks up, and he has to decamp to a lifeboat, watching his boat sink below the waves. He is able to track his course, and sees he is heading for a shipping lane, but is unable to flag down any ships.

I had no idea whether Redford would actually be saved in this film--it was the kind of film that didn't offer easy comforts--so I won't spoil the ending. Suffice it to say that Redford has no immediate hope of survival, as he is adrift, rapidly running out of food, and his only water is out of a makeshift desalination rig. (The one moment of despair is when he realizes his jug of potable water has been contaminated by sea water).

Redford is the only cast member, and the old star makes the most of it. Even though he doesn't say more than a dozen words, he is gripping. You can see his thought processes, but without the actor indicating. He is clearly a veteran seamen, and we see him snap into action, but there are moments when he completely loses his shit (the water issue, and when a shark steals his fish, perhaps a reminder of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea). Redford is 77, and looks it, but he's fit (and must have been waterlogged).

I wouldn't call this a great film, though. While I admire it for its lack of extraneous details, this also makes it a story about one man, and doesn't transcend its subject matter. It's really just a good old-fashioned sea tale.

My grade for All Is Lost: B+

Sunday, November 03, 2013

The Best American Short Stories 2013

The short story is an interesting art form. Reading a good one can be a thrilling experience, but some stories are frustrating, because they start out great and then trail away, dissolving at the end and making one wonder, "What was that all about?"

Short story writing is certainly not a lucrative enterprise, and those who practice it are to be commended. Alice Munro, who has devoted her entire career to the shorty story, never having written a novel, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. She has a story in the latest collection The Best American Short Stories 2013, and it's one of those frustrating stories. Titled "Train," it's about a drifter who jumps off a train and finds himself on a farm run by a spinster, and he ends up staying there for years. But the story doesn't have an ending that made me finish and think, "God, that was good."

There are other stories like that in the book, which was edited by Elizabeth Strout. "Nemecia," by Kirstin Valdez Quade, is a first-person account about a young girl and her cousin in a Spanish community in New Mexico in the 1920s. Terrific writing, but no ending. Lorrie Moore, one of my favorite writers, has a story here called "Referential," about a couple with a deranged son in an institution, but, at least to me, the resolution is not complete.

I like stories with a strong narrative, and there are those in the collection. My favorites were "Chapter Two," by Antonya Nelson, a rollicking tale about a weird neighbor woman, and "Philanthropy," by Suzanne Rivecca, which has a worker at a shelter for troubled woman (and a former troubled woman herself) trying to solicit a donation from a Danielle Steele-like author. "Breatharians," by Callan Wink, is also terrific, which has a farm boy dealing with his parents' separation while on a mission to kill cats in the barn.

I also liked "The Tunnel, or The News from Spain," by Joan Wickersham, which concerns a woman and her nursing-home bound mother, and the marvelously odd "The Semplica-Girl Diaries," a sort of science-fiction story by George Saunders, which seems at first to be just a man envying his rich neighbors, but then introduces a bizarre twist. Bret Anthony Johnston has a very short but powerful story of a man and a teenage girl with "Encounters With Unexpected Animals."

Though I like narrative in my short stories, I have to admit that my favorite piece of all may be "The Wilderness," by Elizabeth Tallent, which is sort of an essay on the life on an English professor. I read this story in a Chinese restaurant on Halloween, an experience that I think I shall always remember. I could quote any part of this valentine to the study and teaching of literature, but I'll settle for this: "Her corner of the museum is in English, which she has always loved--which she will love to her dying breath. Here come students. Why do they love it? What do they want? Is the end of such love inevitable--will there be a last English major? Will he be eyebrow-pierced and tattooed, awkward as any culture's newest young hunter, a prowling, scanning searcher-boy invoking the name DeLillo; could she be that Raggedy Ann-haired anorexic cross-legged in the last chair in the line of four chairs outside the professor's door, this girl with tattered paperback upheld? They come. They are enthralled."

I was enthralled. There have been alarms raised that the humanities in academia are dying. But as long as there are wonderful writers like Tallent and others in these collections, they will never completely wink out.