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Friday, January 31, 2014

Despicable Me 2

The second of the nominees for the Best Animated Film Oscar is Despicable Me 2, which is something of an oddity since the first Despicable Me was not nominated. I haven't seen that film, but I think I knew enough about it that I was able to watch this without any confusion.

Gru, (Steve Carell) the former super-villain, is now happily domesticated, caring for three adorable girls and running a jam and jelly business. But a new villain, who has stolen a formula that turns animals into ravenous beasts, is on the scene, and a spy agency enlists him for his help. He is teamed with a goofy partner (voiced by Kristin Wiig), and they know that the perpetrator is a store-owner in a large shopping mall.

Like I said, I haven't seen the original, but I kind of liked this. It has an amiable charm to it. I think the best thing about it is the minions, little yellow creatures that are like Oompa-Loompas, with squeaky high-pitched voices and ever-present goggles. I know they have been a merchandising hit, and are getting their own film (and there will be a Despicable Me 3).

Although certainly made for children (there are plenty of fart jokes), the script, by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, has plenty of winks to the adults in the audience. I saw references to Carmen Miranda, the Village People, and Love Boat's bartender.

So, all in all, not a bad film to get dragged to by the kids. I watched it, and I don't have any kids.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Some Nights

In my increasingly futile attempts to keep up with current popular music, I took a listen Some Nights, the album by Fun. The song "We Are Young," which was so ubiquitous even I had heard it, was quite catchy, so I figured the rest of the album might be good. I had a mixed reaction.

The songs by Fun are indeed very catchy. The album begins with the title song, and almost immediately one is thrust back to the '70s, as the vocal harmonies sound just like Queen's. But the rest of the album abandons that idea, and instead has a more Coldplay feel to it, with songs that have a kind of tick-tock rhythm, especially "One Foot," and "All Alright." But later, to my horror, the over-use of Auto-Tune, a device I find abominable, makes Fun sound like a boy band.

Still, the album grew on me, and I listened to it twice through last night. "We Are Young," which one the 2012 Grammy for Best Song, is indeed terrific, with a fantastic hook, as is "Carry On." All of the songs have something good to say about them, except for the Auto-Tune nonsense, and the lyrics are sweet and uplifting. I mean, besides "We Are Young" and "Carry On," which are songs of positive thinking, we get "It Gets Better" and the aforementioned "All Alright."

But I have to return to Auto-Tune. I read up on the device on Wikipedia, and realize that it is more prevalent that I had thought. I may have albums by artists who use it without my knowledge, but Some Nights is the first album I've purchased that I knew immediately what was up. My strong preference is for music that is actually played on instruments, and singers who actually sing. The lead vocalist, Nate Ruess, has a fine voice that is not needful of adjustment.

So, it is with strong reservation that I recommend this album, even for old hippies like me.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Midnight Blue Over Mexico

Midnight Blue Over Mexico, by D.S. Land, was a freebie I picked up on my Kindle, and it didn't take me long to read. Therefore, I am not unduly upset that it is thoroughly inept. It's the literary equivalent of one of those movies that is so bad it's good.

The book is a thriller that purports that wireless communication is causing global warming. A pair of young scientists head to Mexico to monitor what they call "drones" (not the unmanned attack rockets) that cause interruptions to the power grid. A woman, June Rise, gets framed as being a terrorist, and ends up a fugitive, trying to prove her innocence.

The plot is implausible, but not completely ridiculous, but unfortunately the writing is at a high-school level. According to his bio, Land is an adult, which is somewhat surprising. There are many howlers, almost one on every page, but I think my favorite is: "They walked to the porch and John unlocked the door with the keys Peter had given him. He pushed the door open, causing it to swing into the foyer." Gee, thanks for letting me know all that!

There are also a lot of typos, including: "I certainly didn't have anything to loose."

Midnight Blue Over Mexico was worth the free cost, but not a penny more.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Croods

It's that time of year when I take a look at those films nominated for Oscars that I haven't seen, which means mostly animated, documentaries, and foreign films. I hadn't seen any of the nominated films in the Best Animated Film category, probably because I don't have kids.

I start with DreamWorks' The Croods, a passable if overly frenetic story of prehistoric man. The film was directed by Kirk DeMicco and Chris Sanders, with a screenplay by them, and John Cleese, of all people. Suffice it to say it is not anything like he is known for.

The film's title family is a group of cavemen. The dad (voiced by Nicolas Cage) believes in caution to the point of obsession, while his daughter (Emma Stone), wants to explore the world around her, despite its dangers. But their world is changing (the opening sequence suggests that it is Pangaea breaking apart) and she meets a more evolved boy (Ryan Reynolds), who along with the family, look for a better place to live.

This film is mostly directed at small children, as the pleasures for adults are few and far between. The humor is mostly slapstick, along with some funny animal sidekicks (a sloth named Belt likes to vocalize the notes "Dun dun dun" for moments of great import). The voice cast is good, with Catherine Keener and Cloris Leachman as the older females in the group.

But I'm not sure about the message of the film, which says that one shouldn't be afraid. Cage is seen as overly cautious, "Never not be afraid," he says frequently, but at the end he's changed his mind, and says to Stone, "Never be afraid." The truth is somewhere in between--of course don't live life afraid of everything, but fear is a necessary component of survival.

Also, I'm unsure if any experts were consulted on this. I don't know this off the top of my head, but I doubt man was on the scene when Pangaea broke up, and there's some species here that are pretty fantastical. I did like the early whale that still had legs. I'm sure Richard Leakey would have lots to argue with.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Invisible Woman (2013)

Just to be clear, this post does not refer to the film of the same name released in 1940. It has no elements of science fiction--instead it's reference to invisibility is social, not scientific.

It tells the story of Ellen Turner, who was the mistress of Charles Dickens. It is the directorial debut of Ralph Fiennes, who plays Dickens, and is something of a feminist look at how women were treated in the Victorian era.

As competent as the film is, I can't help but wondering, two days later, "So what?" The screenplay is by Abi Morgan, who also wrote The Iron Lady and Shame. I can't help but wonder what the angle Morgan was trying to take--that it's a man's world? This is not new information.

Fiennes, as Dickens, is at the height of his popularity, and putting on a play by his friend Wilkie Collins in Manchester. An actress (Kristin Scott Thomas) brings along her three daughters to be in the play as well. Dickens is taken with the youngest, Ellen, or Nellie (Felicity Jones). Dickens' wife (Joanna Scanlan) has grown heavy and is not an intellectual match for him. He is ever drawn to the company of Jones, so much so that Thomas, understanding that Jones is not a great actress, should become his mistress. In something of a business transaction, Jones is packed off to Dickens.

While their relationship is meant to be a secret, whispers abound, and Scanlan knows about it. But Dickens eventually separates from her, and we at least do see the pain his indiscretion causes. But he remains a jolly figure, adored by the public. Jones has to live a secret life, and eventually will take another name and marry, her relationship with Dickens skewed to becoming merely a childhood acquaintance.

As a director, Fiennes knows his best asset is Jones' face, and it is lovely to look at. Her performance is more than adequate, but the whole thing has a kind of arid feel to it. We do see some sex scenes (obliquely), but there isn't a lot of passion expressed between anyone. As for the influence she had on Dickens, there is a suggestion he changed the ending to Great Expectations because of her, but I'm unconvinced.

I wonder how anyone decided to make this a movie at all. It was based on a book, which I'm sure is of interest to Dickens scholars and those who study the history of women in Victorian England, but it doesn't make for a crackerjack entertainment. The Invisible Woman is okay but dull.

My grade for The Invisible Woman: C.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Summer With Monika

Summer With Monika, a 1953 film by Ingmar Bergman (which was one of his favorites) has been given a lovely Criterion release. As with many of Bergman's early films, it follows a usual plot but has undercurrents of rebellious genius.

The story is outwardly simple. Two young people--Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson) are in dead-end jobs. They decide to chuck it all and, stealing Harry's father's boat, head to the Stockholm archipelago, on a kind of open-ended vacation. Of course this ill-thought out idyll comes to a less than ideal ending, as Monika gets pregnant, they run out of money and food, and must return to the work-a-day world. They have the baby, and Harry tries to get ahead by going to night school, but Monika, restless, gets bored and depressed.

This film caused a sensation because of its frank attitude about pre-marital sex, and a bit of fleeing nudity by Andersson. It helped give the Swedes a reputation as free-thinking on sexual issues. The film was purchased by an American producer of exploitation films, cut down to 62 minutes, and retitled Monika! Story of a Bad Girl.

But beneath the seemingly simple melodrama there's something else lurking here. I think the film has to do with freedom, and just what that means to different people. Harry and Monika, both under twenty, think they can just go off in a boat and live a magical life, an attitude I think many teens have, but eventually Harry has to grow up, but Monika doesn't. In one scene she tries to steal food from a farm, and is momentarily caught by the family. She appears feral, an animal of sorts.

There's also an odd but interesting scene in which another guy, who is a rival of Harry's, comes across their boat and damages it, setting fire to it. Harry arrives and they have a sort of primitive fight, as if they are fighting over Monika. Later, Harry will arrive home early to find Monika in bed with this same guy.

Bergman had great affection for the film, partly because he and Andersson had a relationship at the time. The camera does love her, and even though she is immature and just a bit crazy, she's the kind of woman that a certain type of guy can't help but fall for. Andersson would make many other films with Bergman, all the way to Cries and Whispers and, finally, Fanny and Alexander.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Swann's Way

Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, or perhaps more accurately translated from the French, In Search of Lost Time, is one of those works that is on the bucket list of many literary types. However, after reading the first volume, Swann's Way, I would rather kick the bucket than endure the next six volumes.

Talk about a slog. The introduction warns that many readers find it difficult, but I did not heed the warning. It is not difficult in the way that say Finnegan's Wake is difficult--it has correct sentence structure--it's just incredibly boring. Pages go by when I realize I haven't gleaned anything--I might has well be looking at Norse runes. Looking over the synopsis on Wikipedia, I see a different book than the one I read.

The book is most famous for its scene in which the unnamed narrator has a rush of memory following dipping a cookie into some tea: "And soon, mechanically, oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of another sad day to follow, I carried to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had let soften a bit of madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside me."

The narrator remembers life in a small French town in the 1880s. A Mr. Swann, a man of Jewish extraction, lives nearby, and is entertained at his home. He is a boy, and upstairs in bed, and kicks up a fuss when his mother doesn't kiss him good night. The second part, titled "Swann in Love," is a flashback to when Swann courts Odette, who in the end turns out to be quite the slut. Swann marries her anyway, and in the third part, the narrator is besotted by their daughter, Gilberte.

Sometimes I fancy myself erudite, but this was beyond me. Perhaps the problem is the minimal use of paragraph breaks, which tends to make my eyes go funny. I don't want them like Dr. Seuss, but long passages need to be broken up just to give our minds a chance to reset. Occasionally the writing is quite beautiful, particular when Proust describes a floral scene: "We stopped for a moment in front of the gate. Lilac time was nearly over; a few, still, poured forth in tall mauve chandeliers the delicate bubbles of their flowers, but in many places among the leaves where only a week before they had still been breaking in waves of fragrant foam, a hollow scum now withered, shrunken and dark, dry and odorless."

There are also, especially during the middle section, bon mots about love that stand out amid the dross, such as "She belonged to that half of the human race in whom the curiosity the other half feels about the people it does not know is replaced by an interest in the people it does," or "Swann did not try to convince himself that the women with whom he spent his time were pretty, but to spend his time with women he already knew were pretty."

Swann's Way was translated by Lydia Davis is a new translation, with the other volumes to come by other translators. She has dutifully footnoted the text, as many artists, writers, and historical personages of all types are defined for those of us who would have no clue. It is a smashing job, but it just went over my head. I will not be returning for future volumes.


Friday, January 24, 2014

The Myth of the American Sleepover

I suppose one has to excuse that The Myth of the American Sleepover, a 2010 film written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, reminds a viewer of so many other movies: American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, Superbad, just to name a few. It's the last weekend of summer vacation, and all over suburban Detroit kids are gathering. The girls are having sleepovers, the boys are reading nudie mags and wandering the streets, like dogs in heat.

This film is quite a bit different from the others, mostly in tone. The Myth of the American Sleepover is perhaps the dullest teen movie ever made. These kids don't get into any real trouble--they drink, and make out a little--but there's no actual sex, no ribald escapades, no body liquids exchanged. Instead Mitchell seems to have some sort of point to make, but I'm not sure what it is. At one point a character talks about the myth of teenage life, but it really didn't make much sense.

The film is basically about four kids: Maggie, who will be going to high school, who has a crush on the older boy who works at the swimming pool; Scott, a college man who becomes obsessed with finding twin girls he shared a moment with back in high school; Rob, who tries to find a beautiful girl he saw in the supermarket (this is a pretty direct rip-off of a plot line in American Graffiti); and Claudia, a new girl in town who is dating a senior, and gets revenge on another girl with the use of Ouija board.

These stories are all told with the sullen intensity of a Russian novel. Contrasted with the other films, this one is not much fun. I did like that most of the actors actually look the age they are supposed to be playing, but others things rang false. I'm not sure what time period this is in (that there are no cell phones indicates it's in the past), but it just seemed off to me. I'll buy that there's a hangout where kids make out, but I don't believe that cute girls go there, stake out a spot, and wait for boys to come, like hookers in the windows in the red light district of Amsterdam.

I do remember acting like some of the kids do in this film, but with the benefit of age I just want to tell them, "Lighten up. It's all downhill from here."

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Peter Gabriel

My second post on this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees is on someone I actually like, and have been listening to reverently for almost thirty years. He is Peter Gabriel, who is already in the Hall for being a member of Genesis, and is now being inducted as a solo artist.

I have already written about Security, which I think is his best album. This was his fourth solo album. The first two, both called simply Peter Gabriel, really aren't that noteworthy, except for the song "Solsbury Hill," which has become ubiquitous in its use in films. It is about his leaving Genesis, which was a difficult period in his life.

His solo career really blossomed with his third album, still just called Peter Gabriel, but which fans refer to as "Melt," do to the image of his melting face on the cover. It is a masterpiece of sorts, with many of the songs in a darker mode, taking the points of view of society's marginal characters. We get "Intruder," about a burglar, "Family Snapshot," about a presidential assassin, and "Lead a Normal Life," about someone in an insane asylum. It also shows off his furthering interest in African music, with innovative use of percussion, and one of the best crafted rock songs of the era, "Games Without Frontiers." It closes with a song of political awareness--"Biko," about the murdered South African activist Steven Biko:

"You can blow out a candle
but you can't blow out a fire
once the flame begins to catch
the wind just blows it higher."

Security saw a growth in his popularity, with the hit "Shock the Monkey" and even more use of Afro-Caribbean influences. But his biggest smash was the following album, So, from 1986. It contained his biggest hit single, "Sledgehammer," a departure for him in that's it's basically just a fun pop song with numerous sexual double entendres. The innovative video has the distinction of being the most often played on MTV. Also on that album are the hauntingly beautiful "Mercy Street," about poet Anne Sexton; "In Your Eyes," a great love song that got extra traction by being used in the film Say Anything (think of John Cusack holding up that boom box) and "Big Time," another funny song, this time about mindless ambition:

"I've had enough, I'm getting out
To the city, the big big city
I'll be a big noise with all the big boys
There's so much stuff I will own
And I will pray to a big god
As I kneel in the big church"

His next album was Us, which wasn't quite as good as So, and is really his last album of standard rock music until Up (which I have not heard). It tried to cash in on the "Sledgehammer" roll with "Steam," but the best cuts were "Digging in the Dirt" and the eerily beautiful "Blood of Eden," which I think is about the losing of virginity. This song had additional vocals by Sinead O'Connor.

Gabriel has spent most of his time since then in a variety of projects, many involving world music. In 1989 he did the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and has also done music for Rabbit-Proof Fence and Wall-E. His latest project is You Scratch My Back/And I'll Scratch Yours, in which he covers artist he admires and they cover his songs. I picked up the latter disc, interested to hear how others do his songs, and it's pretty interesting. David Byrne does "I Don't Remember" in a falsetto, Regina Spektor "The Blood of Eden," Arcade Fire "Games Without Frontiers," and Lou Reed takes "Solsbury Hill" and transforms into something completely different, giving it the Velvet Underground-style drone.

Gabriel is to be admired for never resting on his laurels, despite commercial success or lack of it. Even when he went for the top of the charts he did it with style, as "Sledgehammer" is about as much fun as one can have listening to a song. His flamboyant days as front man for Genesis, when he shaved his head in a bizarre style and wore flower costumes, gave way to a more sedate presentation. Now he's a man almost 64, bald and goateed, looking like your hip uncle, but he's still working on the edge of discovery.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Gilligan's Island

The death last week of Russell Johnson ignited some reminiscing among people of a certain age, namely baby boomers, about Gilligan's Island. Johnson played the Professor, one of seven castaways on a desert island. His death now leaves only two cast members living.

Gilligan's Island ran from 1964 to 1967. I was too young to remember watching it in first run, but I surely watched it in syndication, where it was an after-school staple. There were 98 episodes in its three years, and I've surely seen them all. Though I haven't seen an episode in well over thirty years, they are ingrained in my subconscious.

What's interesting is that for all the cultural changes that happened in the '60s, television remained pretty much locked in the dumb-down mode. Gilligan's Island was silly and inoffensive, with each week the castaways trying to figure out some way off the island only to have Gilligan screw it up.

The show and its characters are cultural touchstones now. Most anyone over forty can sing you the theme song, which gave us the exposition, how a "three-hour tour" ended up with the "Minnow would be lost." A debate rages on about Ginger or Marry Ann?--the two young women of the cast, Tina Louise as the Marilyn Monroe knockoff Ginger Grant or Dawn Wells as the girl-next-door Mary Ann Summers. I remember one episode in which they had a beauty pageant. Skipper favored Ginger, the Professor Mary Ann, and Mr. Howell of course his wife, Lovey. Gilligan was left to break the tie and chose the island's gorilla.

The unspoken sex was also something that I think everyone wondered about. When I was working for Penthouse I mulled over writing a piece about the "true" Gilligan's Island, full of debauchery. That the show presented the castaways as not really living in hardship--the bamboo huts looked as strong as steel, the clothes they wore were neat and clean, and they had everything they needed (Ginger seemed to pack a month's worth of clothes for a three-hour trip) made everything sanitized. There was one episode in which a big-game hunter lands on the island and we get a "Most Dangerous Game" thing, with him endeavoring to hunt them all down, and there was the constant threat from "headhunters," but otherwise danger was not a big component of the show.

I'm hard-pressed to explain the continued success of the show. I don't remember it as being all that funny. I suppose the creators of the show hit on the right mix of characters, because I think most people remember them rather than the plots. Each had their own distinctiveness, and were well filled out by the actors. Jim Backus' Mr. Howell has come to be the archetype of the Locust Valley lockjaw rich guys, while Johnson's Professor took the idea of the brainiac and gave it a little wrinkle--instead of being homely, he was good looking, but still clueless about the opposite sex. The byplay between Gilligan, the skinny dumb one, and the Skipper, the impatient fat one, echoes Laurel and Hardy (the Skipper was played by Alan Hale Jr., whose father was in many Laurel and Hardy movies).

Only Tina Louise and Dawn Wells are still alive. Louise thought the show ruined her reputation as a serious actress, and has had little to do with it since then, not appearing in the reunion movies, while Wells has embraced it, even appearing (as Mrs. Howell) in a stage musical version. A major Hollywood film version has been kicking around, and why not? Only this time, I hope Gilligan and the Skipper get some action.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Passage of Power

The Passage of Power is Robert A. Caro's fourth of five volumes of the life and times of Lyndon Johnson. It is one of American publishing most significant ongoing stories, some thirty-plus years in the making. I haven't read the first three volumes, but this one gets to the juicy part. It covers five years in Johnson's life: his run, such as it was, for the presidency in 1960, his selection as vice-presidential candidate by John F. Kennedy, his election to the same, his dispiriting term as vice president, and his succession as president on the death of President Kennedy. The book ends seven weeks into Johnson's presidency, with his State of the Union address, which launched the war on poverty.

All told there will be about five-thousand pages in Caro's biography, and Johnson deserves it, as he is one of the most fascinating men in American politics. The book refers back to some of the earlier volumes on Johnson's youth and beginning in politics, namely that he planned on being president when he was a teenager. Caro, as he did in his book on Robert Moses, The Power Broker, is interested in power--it's acquisition and uses, and Johnson, perhaps more than any other president, specialized in that. He was a master manipulator in the Senate, and then as President. The one black hole in that history is his three years as vice president.

The book begins with Johnson's foray into the presidency. In 1958 he was Senate majority leader, one of the most powerful men ever to hold that office. He seemed poised to be a natural candidate for the Democratic nomination. But Caro points out two flaws in the plan--Johnson vastly underestimated John F. Kennedy, and he didn't campaign. He entered no primaries, and resolutely said he wasn't running, all the while waiting to be approached as the consensus candidate.

 "All through 1958, Johnson wavered between his yearning for the prize and his fear of being seen to yearn for it," Caro writes. Johnson, because of the business failure of his father, had a deep fear of failure. If he didn't try, he couldn't fail. Fascinating stuff for a man who reached such a pinnacle of success.

Of course Johnson didn't win the nomination, Kennedy did, and Caro paints a fascinating portrayal of the process of the selection for vice president. Caro writes of how Kennedy and his brother, Bobby (who hated Johnson, and vice versa--their rivalry was a bitter and vicious one) climbing the back stairs of the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles to Johnson's suite. Bobby Kennedy tried to talk Jack out of giving it to LBJ, but Jack stuck with it. He knew what Johnson could do--give him Texas. Caro points out that the 1960 razor-thin election results usually focus on Illinois and the shenanigans there, but Texas and its voting irregularities are perhaps more suspicious.

"Since rumors and the reports of rumors, confusion and conflicting stories, are a staple of all political conventions, the questions surrounding Lyndon Johnson's acceptance of John F. Kennedy's offer to be his Vice President, and Kennedy's decision to make (or not make) the offer to him, might not warrant as much consideration--so much effort to resolve them--as they have, for decades, been given, except that, because of November 22, 1963, the events of that long afternoon in 1960 were to affect so profoundly the course of American history."

Johnson was miserable as vice president. He attempted to make the office more powerful, but was shot down by the Senate, the body he had just left, which was painful to him. He retreated like a wounded animal, pledging his loyalty to Kennedy but spent much of the time in a prolonged sulk. He was called "Rufus Cornpone" by Kennedy's best and brightest, and the joke around Georgetown was, "Whatever happened to Lyndon Johnson?"

Caro then, almost moment by moment, presents the trip to Dallas. It reads like a thriller. Johnson in a trailing car, the sound of the shots, the secret service agent throwing himself on Johnson, the trip to the hospital, where Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, awaited the news. When Kennedy aide Ken O'Donnell came into the cubicle where the Johnsons were waiting, stating, "He's gone," and moments later Johnson was called Mr. President for the first time, an amazing transformation came over him. "He looked, in fact, for the first time in three years, like the Lyndon Johnson of the Senate floor. Now he had suddenly come to the very pinnacle of power. However he had gotten there, whatever concatenation of circumstance and tragedy--whatever fate--had put him there, he was there, and he knew what to do there."

There is a long section on what happened next, as Johnson was whisked under guard to Air Force One. It was debated whether he should fly back to Washington to take the oath, but he wanted to do on the ground in the plane, and to have Mrs. Kennedy there. Caro recounts the bizarre phone call he had with Robert Kennedy, reeling with grief, as Johnson asked him about the protocol of taking the oath. Kennedy was Attorney General, but he could have asked anyone--why bother him at this time? A few nuggets of information are available--present on the plane at the time were eventual Johnson aides Bill Moyers and Jack Valenti, who was later the president of the MPAA and can be seen in the famous picture of Johnson being sworn in, the former First Lady at his side.

The remainder of the book isn't quite as gripping, as it gets into inside baseball. Johnson managed to retain all of Kennedy's cabinet, as well as key aides Arthur Schlesinger and Ted Sorensen. He worked hard to push through bills, using his connections to senators like Harry Byrd and Richard Russell (who were out and out racists). Johnson, who was viewed with scorn and suspicion in 1960 by northern liberals and blacks, would eventually be a big champion of civil rights, and would push through the landmark Civil Rights Act. Caro writes, "Strong as was Lyndon Johnson's compassion for the poor, particularly poor people of color, his deep, genuine desire to help them had always been subordinated to his ambition; whenever they had been in conflict, it had been compassion that went to the wall. When they had both been pointing in the same direction, however--when the compassion had been unleashed from ambition's checkrein--then not only Lyndon Johnson but the cause of social justice in America had moved forward under the direction of this master at transmuting sympathy into governmental action."

The next, and presumably last, volume, will cover Johnson's presidency. Vietnam, which will undoubtedly dominate, had hardly a mention in The Passage of Power.

Monday, January 20, 2014

August: Osage County (2013)

August: Osage County allows me to tackle an interesting subject: why is it so difficult to make good movies out of good plays? The play, which won a Pulitzer Prize and was one of the highlights of my theater-going life, is a modern classic. The film is so-so. Perhaps if I hadn't seen the play I would have liked it more, but since I can't un-see it I'm left with a sinking feeling of disappointment.

The film, directed without distinction by John Wells, but adapted by its source writer, Tracy Letts, is extremely faithful to the play. It's set in a county in Oklahoma during a particularly hot spell. In an old farmhouse lives professor and poet Sam Shepard, who is married to a pill-popping harpy, Meryl Streep. "My wife takes pills; I drink. That is the bargain we have struck," he tells a young woman being hired as a caretaker for Streep. She is an Indian, and in the way these things usually go, in films and plays about white characters, the character from another race usually turns out to the wisest person of all.

Shepard goes missing, and all three daughters arrive. The middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) never left town, and is now a spinster school teacher. Barb, the eldest (Julia Roberts) returns with her husband (Ewan MacGregor) and teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin). The secret is that Roberts and MacGregor are separated. The flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives from Florida with a new man in tow (Dermot Mulroney). Also in the picture are Streep's acid-tongued sister (Margo Martindale), kindly brother-in-law (Chris Cooper), and their son, the dim-witted Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

The rest of the film is this nest of vipers striking out at each other, with the Queen Mamba being Streep herself, a monstrous woman who delights in "truth telling," which is just an excuse for being mean. She gets it from her own mother, and we see it passing on to Roberts, as the two take every opportunity to battle, even coming to wrestling over a bottle of pills (this image is put on the poster, which suggests the marketing people simply wanted to appeal to the lowest common denominator).

More secrets are revealed, including a daytime drama-ish paternity issue. The dialogue is lively and profane, with one scene devoted to euphemisms for the vagina. Much of it is exactly as it is in the play, such as when Streep tells Martindale that she's "as sexy as a wet cardboard box" or another when Streep says, "This madhouse is my home!"

This isn't a bad film, but it doesn't approach the greatness of the play, and I have a few theories why. The play was well over three hours long, but of course that included two intermissions. The film is two hours, and it's not easy to see what's cut--all the highlights are there, including some new scenes, such as one at a doctor's office and another where Streep is running off into a hay field. But while I wasn't bored for a second at the play, I was restless at the film. Perhaps this is just the nature of being an audience member at a play, where one is a more active viewer. The set for August: Osage County was a three-story structure, much like a dollhouse, and at times many characters were on stage, including those who weren't actively involved in the scene. In this way, much like a three-ring circus, we choose what to look at, while a film is designed to focus our attention on a particular part of the screen (many two-shots have one face out of focus, a not-so-subtle way of telling us who we should be looking at), which makes us more passive viewers, more likely to get the jimmies.

The film is "opened up," which almost all films of plays do. The choices here are reasonable, except for that hay field scene. But the claustrophobia of a play has a way of intensifying the pressure of the action. The interaction of the characters seems more heightened. When in the play, at the end of Act II, Barb yells, "I'm running things now!" I felt the hairs on the back of my neck go up. When Roberts does it in the film, it's almost thrown away.

There is a lot of good acting here. I was particularly impressed with Roberts, who deserves her Oscar nomination. She is not afraid to get dark and ugly here (on the inside, I mean) and play a bitter, angry woman. Streep is more problematic. Her reputation precedes her, and thus we get her being her Streepiest. This is a great role for a woman of a certain age, all of which seem to be played by Streep. She's a drug addict, has cancer, and speaks her mind. Streep certainly goes to town, but there's just a bit too much show-off here. An unknown actress in the role might have been more effective, allowing us to see the character rather than Streep playing the character.

In thinking about this film, I tried to come up with examples of films that were successful adaptations of plays. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf had some of the same problems this one does, as opening it up diffuses some of the intensity. The only one I can think of that at least does the play complete justice is A Streetcar Named Desire, but I may think of others.

My grade for August: Osage County: B-.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

It Happened in Wisconsin

There's nothing like a good baseball book to chase away the winter blues. Unfortunately, Ken Moraff's It Happened in Wisconsin is not that. It's not really a baseball book, though baseball players are the characters. It's more of a political allegory--how to reconcile idealistic leftist beliefs with the real world.

The novel is set in the '30s. The Racine Robins are a D-League team that barnstorms the country, from Binghamton to Topeka, with Major League-quality players. But they aren't interested in the trappings of fame. They are committed socialists, red jockstrap players, so to speak, who turn over the proceeds of their games to the poor and to labor organizations. They are so egalitarian that they don't have a manager.

"We knew how it worked on other teams. The star slugger had special privileges, the pitching ace had a private hotel room. They might even pay certain players a larger salary--as if a batting average had anything to do with a man's needs, or the needs of his family. Can you imagine? What reason could there be to divide men like that? To sort them into grades, one more privileged than the next." This is the unnamed narrator of the book, the team's pitcher, and it's kind of a ridiculous statement. Where else but sports is a meritocracy more natural, where results can be measured? Clearly professional sports and socialism can't exist side by side, but I'm not sure if Moraff knows that or is just having a joke.

The team gets snowed in a hotel in Wisconsin. The very name of the place--the John D. Rockefeller, makes them bristle. They meet a businessman, Spencer, who says he is a fan, but is something like a metaphor for the serpent in the garden of Eden. He buys them dinner, but picks away at their beliefs, telling them they should be earning more money, so they can give the money away. He also tells them that there is such a thing as fate, but the most radical member of the team, the catcher, Ozzie, points out that that is the argument of the bosses--it's fate that some are poor and some are rich, and believing so keeps the poor people down.

Eventually Mike, the narrator's best friend, is wooed by Spencer's talk and his nubile young daughter, and succumbs to the lure and signs with the New York Yankees, the epitome of what the Robins think is wrong with the world. But this reminds the narrator, who is reminiscing while living in a nursing home, about how he let his ideals let the woman of his dreams get away. Did he do the right thing?

This is occasionally an interesting book, but overly didactic and not really for baseball fans, as it doesn't feature any actual playing of baseball. I'm as lefty as the next guy, but even I can understand how people who have more talent and more responsibility should earn more than people who don't. However, the core message of the book: "The team has to come first. Doesn't it?" is a good one, until the team must come second to the individual.

It Happened in Wisconsin is a noble effort, but an unsatisfactory one.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Glass Menagerie (American Repertory Theater)

One of the detriments of live theater, or perhaps it is a positive, is it's impermanence. Today many Broadway productions are recorded, but the performance by Laurette Taylor in the original Broadway production of The Glass Menagerie is not. It's said to be one of the great performance in American stage history. That can not be seen now, except in the memory of those who saw it. But I am privileged to have got the chance to see Cherry Jones in the same role.

The production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie currently on Broadway got rave reviews, and I finally saw it. I saw the play once before, back in the early '80s, with Jessica Tandy as Amanda Wingfield, but it didn't move me like this production did, directed by John Tiffany. The centerpiece is Jones' stunning portrayal of the family matriarch, a woman trapped in her past, and struggling with the unhappiness of her two children.

I wrote about the play here, so won't go over too much of the plot. Tiffany makes some changes, eliminating the scrim (and the missing father's portrait). The set is simple, but seems to float in an inky black darkness. Their is a pool of water around it, and when Laura, the shy sister who escapes reality into her own world of glass animals, flees the water fills with pinpoints of light--stars, I suppose. Tom, when introducing the play, describes it as a memory, and when Laura appears she comes through an opening in the beat-up sofa on center stage, and when she leaves she disappears through that same hole.

Playing Tom is Zachary Quinto, best known as the newest incarnation of Mr. Spock on film. He is magnificent, a bruised man whiling away his life working in a warehouse at a shoe company, eager to break away from the bonds of his family living in St. Louis. He tells the play as a flashback, recalling the time he brought home a co-worker as a "gentleman caller" for his sister, which leads to Laura's moment of happiness, followed by her undoing.

I've seen Jones, who is something of a legend on the New York stage (I wish she would do more film if only to let more people see her) at least three times on stage, but nothing could prepare me for her Amanda. Her voice, dripping with honey, is the first thing one notices, a dignified Southern drawl that calls to mind summers on the veranda sipping lemonade. Her recitation of the day she entertained seventeen gentleman callers, or her sales pitch to ladies on the phone to renew their magazine subscription (every ailment earns the phrase, "You are a Christian martyr) are a wonder to behold. The scene in which she learns that Laura has not been attending business school--"Deception!" she cries--palpably shows her anger, but more her concern about what will happen to Laura if she does not earn a job, or, get married.

As Laura, Celia Keenan-Bolger is heartbreaking. When the gentleman caller arrives, Jones makes her answer the door, and the physicality Keenan-Bolger uses is terrific. She doesn't give her much of a limp (she is "crippled") which is right--Laura's problems are in her head.

Quinto, as Tom, similarly uses physicality. His shoulders are slumped, he stumbles from past to present. I took a while to get used to his Southern accent, a high-pitched wail, and his outbursts at his mother are loud and fierce.

Perhaps the trickiest role in the whole play is Jim O'Connor, the gentleman caller, who is hear played by Brian J. Smith. The whole last scene, in which he and Laura connect, is the crux of the play, and a bad performance could ruin it. At first I was put off by Smith--he plays O'Connor as a gee-whiz Howdy Doody type. But it's apparent that that's something of an act--O'Connor is a bruised man as well, a high school hero who has hit rough times and is an underachiever, hoping that public speaking classes will turn things around for him.

In that last scene, when he and Laura dance, and she will entertain hope, only to see it crushed, is almost too difficult to watch. The play is full of humor, but resolutely sad, especially when one knows what did happen to Williams' sister (she was lobotomized and institutionalized, and died not too long ago).

The Glass Menagerie is one of my favorite plays, and this production not only does it justice, it may be definitive.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Saving Mr. Hanks

"What? You got a nomination and I didn't?"
The day the Oscar nominations are announced is a day for arguments. Mostly, about who didn't get nominated, as all sorts of articles are written about "snubs." I find most of these disingenuous, as these articles point out who got snubbed, but don't go so far as to say who should not have nominated.

But as the Best Actor list was read, and a couple of names were mild surprises, I had to think--"Wow! But who didn't get nominated?" Turns out that Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio bumped a pair of old hands, Robert Redford and Tom Hanks.

Redford's snub wasn't shocking, as he didn't get a SAG nomination, but Hanks had gotten everything in sight, and his performance as Captain Phillips was his best in years, reminding everyone that he's not just a personality. The scene at the end, when he succumbs to the shock or his ordeal, is the best acting I've seen all year. He also didn't get nominated for his turn as Walt Disney in Saving Mr. Banks, but that film was almost totally shut out (it got a lone nomination for Score), with Emma Thompson also missing out on an expected nomination. Maybe voters saw it like I did--a piece of Disney propaganda. But it's hard to figure the Phillips snub. I think it was much better than DiCaprio's exuberant but shallow work in The Wolf of Wall Street.

Anyway, otherwise this year's Oscar nominations fell pretty much to form. Three films dominated, and those are the films we can expect to win the lion's share of awards: American Hustle, Gravity, and 12 Years a Slave. As for Hustle, David O. Russell is on some kind of roll. It's his third Best Picture/Best Director combo in the last four years, and the second consecutive year he's gotten four actors in all the respective categories nominations, and that's only happened 15 times in Oscar history. He should have no trouble getting actors for his films in the future.

Gravity becomes only the fifth film to get nominations in every technical category, and will probably win most of them. However, the film did not get a Best Screenplay nomination, which doesn't bode well for it's Best Picture chances. The last film to win Best Picture that didn't get one was Titanic.

12 Years a Slave, I think, is still the front-runner, getting nine nominations in all the right places. Steve McQueen is the third person of African heritage to get a Best Director nomination.

There are some other intrigues. Meryl Streep got her 18th nomination; Woody Allen his 24th (16th in Best Original Screenplay) and John Williams his 49th, which is second only to Walt Disney for individuals. There are also big losing streaks that may or may not be extended. Roger Deakins, nominated for Cinematography for Prisoners, is on his 11th try; Thomas Newman, with that Saving Mr. Banks Score nod, is on his 12th, and 82-year-old Patricia Norris, with a Costume nomination, is on her sixth, her first coming for Days of Heaven 35 years ago.

Other have an embarrassment of riches: Spike Jonze and Alfonso Cuaron both have shots at three statuettes, Jonze for writing, producing and penning the lyrics for a song from Her, and Cuaron directing, producing and editing Gravity. Megan Ellison, at 27 years old, makes us all look like slackers as she has two Best Picture nominations--Her and American Hustle.

Finally, The Wolf of Wall Street has a wonderful distinction--it's the Best Picture nominee with the most uses of the word "fuck" (I'm guessing in all its wondrous forms)--522. Someone had to count them all.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Stories We Tell

Actress and director Sarah Polley's mother died when she was 11. She's understandably interested in finding out more about her, and did something of a quest to learn about her, her father, and her siblings. She found out, quite by accident, that what the family had long joked about--her father was someone else--turned out to be true.

This is the stuff of Stories We Tell, an excellent film about one family. Early on one of Polley's sisters says, "Who the cares about our family?" but of course every family has secrets. Polley's was a big one, though. She is the fifth of her mother's children, but was born when her mother was 42. The mother had been acting in play in Montreal, but was visited by her father during the run. But it turns out she had had an affair, and Polley was the result of that union.

I won't spoil things by telling you who the father is, as it's something of a mystery. But Polley interviews all her family members about the revelation, including her father, who had to be told when the DNA results came in.

Polley, who also directed Away From Her, has a fine visual eye, and her overall thesis--that family stories are crafted and tend to morph into different forms, is an effective one. Her father, Michael Polley, provides a touching narrative that he reads aloud. But I was troubled by one thing, and I think it was intentional. The film, aside from interviews, is a collection of what look like home movies. I was watching the film and thinking to myself, it's a good thing someone took so many movies, and that they are still intact. But then I began to get suspicious, as some of the people didn't look right, and there was too much film of her biological father just walking on the street. Then we get a reveal: Polley is shown directing these scenes, and the actors getting made up.

So these scenes are re-enactments. I have no idea if any of the home movie stuff was real (there are some clips of her mother that have to be genuine, such as her singing, "Ain't Misbehavin'," as Polley is a dead-ringer for her). I get the point--truth is elusive--but for a documentary there shouldn't be obfuscation, and the scenes should have been identified as either genuine or not.

That may be seen as niggling, as the film is very well done. Her family deserved a lot of credit for allowing her to air the dirty laundry.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Maniac

Maniac is a 2012 film directed by Franck Khalfoun, a remake of a 1980 film, unseen by me, that is apparently a classic in the slasher genre. As such, the remake is a solid effort that does not transcend the sordid genre, and ends up being a passable exercise in style.

The film is shot almost entirely in P.O.V., from the view of the serial killer, played by Elijah Wood (an inspired choice). He is a lonely mannequin restorer with mommy issues. He stalks his victims and after killing them scalps them, attaching their long tresses to mannequins, which he keeps in his bedrooms (without removing the flesh and blood, which brings pesky flies).

This is all about style, as otherwise it adds nothing new to the genre. The film takes delight in showing what happens when you scalp someone, and the special effects are pretty gruesome. The ease in which he kills I think is not necessarily a plot problem (he chases down a woman in a subway, and then into a parking lot, without anyone seeing him) as an affectation--this movie is not about reality, it's about a state of mind.

Maniac makes good use of some of its interiors, such as Wood's mannequin shop. For devotees of this kind of thing, I imagine it's toward the top of the scale, but as a movie it's just so-so.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Oscar 2013 Predictions, Round 2

"If it's 5:30 AM in Hollywood, what time is it here?"
The Oscar nominations will be announced on Thursday morning, so here is my only slightly informed opinion as to how things will break down. Right now things are kind of exciting because there are no solid favorites in any of the major categories, and while some of the categories seem to be pretty well determined, others have the possibility of crazy surprises.

This year I will list my predictions in descending order of likelihood, leaving myself open for even more ridicule.

Best Picture

12 Years a Slave
Gravity
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street
Saving Mr. Banks
Nebraska
Her
Dallas Buyers Club
Blue Jasmine

Not coincidentally this is the same ten films that the PGA nominated. Anywhere from five to ten films can be nominated; there have been nine nominations the first two years of this practice. I would imagine there will be at least be nine this year. The film left out: Inside Llewyn Davis. The favorite right now is 12 Years a Slave. If Gravity couldn't win the star-obsessed Golden Globes, than it must be a given throughout the Hollywood community that 12 Years is as socially significant as it is artistically qualified. I'm not the first to call it the Schindler's List of the American black experience.


Best Director

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
David O. Russell, American Hustle
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Spike Jonze, Her

The Academy usually matches the DGA four-for-five, and I'm ejecting Martin Scorsese for Spike Jonze, on something of a hunch. The first three on this list are locks, with Alexander Payne another possibility. The favorite might be McQueen--he would be the first black to win--but the Academy might do like the Globes and split, giving Cuaron due to the technical achievement of Gravity.

Best Actor

Chiwitel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Robert Redford, All Is Lost
Bruce Dern, Nebraska

This quintet has been solid for about a month now, though it's a very strong year, with people like Forrest Whitaker, Leonard DiCaprio, Christian Bale, and Joaquin Phoenix capable of getting nominations in lesser years. There's no front-runner at this time, and Redford, who would normally be the sentimental favorite, may not even get nominated, judging by the SAG snub. Apparently he's not that well loved.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
Judi Dench, Philomena
Amy Adams, American Hustle

Yes, I'm leaving Meryl Streep off, as August: Osage County's underwhelming reception and Adams being in a big smash combine for her getting in ahead of the legend. This is Blanchett's to lose, but Adams, having gotten five nominations in nine years without a win, may be able to pull of the upset.

Best Supporting Actor

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
James Gandolfini, Enough Said

I feel confident about the first four, but the fifth could go in about half a dozen different directions. I'm leaning slightly toward a posthumous nod for Gandolfini, as there are no other strong contenders. Of all the acting categories, Leto is the strongest front-runner right now.

Best Supporting Actress

Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
June Squibb, Nebraska
Oprah Winfrey, The Butler
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

Again, there could be someone from left field nominated here, like Margot Robbie or Jennifer Garner or even Scarlett Johansson's voice-only work from Her. It will be interesting to see if J-Law's world domination extends to winning two Oscars in consecutive years, which is a rarity. Right now I think Nyong'o will win.

Best Original Screenplay

American Hustle
Her
Blue Jasmine
Inside Llewyn Davis
Nebraska

Hard to break into this group, and the screenwriter's branch is not above giving a smackdown to big films that have script problems, like Titanic or Avatar, so Gravity should be left out. American Hustle will win.

Best Adapted Screenplay

12 Years a Slave
Captain Phillips
The Wolf of Wall Street
Philomena
Before Midnight

The question is whether August: Osage County will get in ahead of Hawke, Delpy and Linklater before another Before movie (they were nominated last time out for Before Sunset). 12 Years a Slave is the prohibitive favorite.

Best Foreign Language Film

The Great Beauty, Italy
The Hunt, Denmark,
Two Lives, Germany
The Grandmaster, Hong Kong
Omar, Palestine

Having seen none of these, it's just guesswork, but the Italian film seems like the favorite.

Best Animated Feature

Frozen
The Wind Rises
Monsters University
The Croods
Ernest and Celestine

Best Documentary Feature

The Square
The Act of Killing
Blackfish
Cutie and the Boxer
Tim's Vermeer

Best Cinematography

Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
12 Years a Slave
Nebraska
The Grandmaster

I'll be back on Friday with my reactions to the actual nominees.


Monday, January 13, 2014

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

The most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice was in 2005, in a well-received and Oscar-nominated film by Joe Wright. I've seen this film now three times, and this time it was interesting to view it in context with having read the book and seen previous adaptations. After seeing a nearly six-hour version, I marveled at the economy of the script by Deborah Moggach, which manages to hit on almost every plot point, yet barely exceed two hours, even while allowing for quiet, contemplative moments.

The story is the same. This time Elizabeth is played winningly by Keira Knightley, who received an Oscar nomination. Some thought her too attractive to play Lizzie, who is not as beautiful as her sister Jane (here played by Rosamund Pike, and as to which of these women is more attractive is a question that requires much more study), but Knightley perfect captures Lizzie's sparkle. She isn't her father's favorite for nothing. And as her father, Donald Sutherland almost steals the show as Mr. Bennet. His scene with Knightley, at the end of the picture, when he realizes that Lizzie is in love with Darcy, is very moving.

As Darcy we have Matthew Macfadyen, who is younger than Colin Firth was and while perhaps not as Byronically handsome, is more realistic. Also unlike Firth, he doesn't last as long in his attempt to conceal his love for Lizzie--he's a goner early on. He also doesn't appear to be as rigidly misanthropic as Firth. This is either a problem or not, depending on your point of view.

Also in the cast are Brenda Blethyn, more restrained the most, as Mrs. Bennet, Jena Malone as the flirty Lydia, Carey Mulligan in an early role as the weepy and giggly Kitty, and Judi Dench as the imperious Lady Catherine.

What Wright appears to be doing here, in a truncated version of the novel, is to merely enjoy the romance. The photography by Roman Osin emphasizes the English countryside and the music by Dario Marianelli almost swoons with romantic tidings. In the old days, and even today I guess, this would be called a women's picture, as Pride and Prejudice itself is considered a women's book, but I enjoy it for its almost singleness of purpose--to celebrate how two people come together in happiness. It's a nice break from the rest of life.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Her

Well over fifty years ago, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers wondered in song, "Why do fools fall in love?" This is a questioned that has vexed poets, philosophers, and neuroscientists for millennia. Although Spike Jonze, in his marvelous new film Her, doesn't have an answer, it takes an intriguing new angle at the question.

Set in the near future, the film concerns Theodore Twombly, an everyman sort, though an unrepentant romantic. His very job is writing letters for those who can't write them themselves (they are advertised as handwritten, but of course are just printed in a cursive font). He is still getting over the dissolution of his marriage to the fragile Rooney Mara, and getting along as best as he can.

Then he gets a new operating system for his computer. After answering a few questions, the most prominent being on his relationship with his mother, his system is online. It has a female voice, calls herself Samantha, and sounds like Scarlett Johansson.

I can only imagine Jonze got the idea from the prevalence of artificial intelligence in our lives that have anthropomorphic voices, mostly female, like Siri or Garmin. What would happen if these systems were so complex that they became sentient--would they be capable of feeling emotions? Would they be capable of loving? Could they be loved? While some may be reminded of the dark side of this equation, with HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I was reminded of an early Kurt Vonnegut story, "Epicac," in which a computer is programmed to write love sonnets, becomes self-aware, realizes it is in love and that that love can not be returned, and shuts itself off.

Her is a lovely, melancholy, and extremely thought-provoking film. As Twombly, played with nerdish intensity by Joaquin Phoenix, realizes he is in love with his operating system, we are along on the journey, piecing it out whether it is crazy or not. Samantha, as voiced by Johannson, is not a person, but aside from corporeality provides Phoenix with everything he needs. She even tries to add physicality to the mix, hiring a surrogate to stand in for her during lovemaking, in a scene that is exquisitely creepy. Most people in Phoenix's life, like his best friend (Amy Adams) don't find anything wrong with it--he even goes on a double date with a co-worker, three people and a smartphone sitting on a picnic blanket.

It is notable that only Mara that calls him on the essential problem--dating a computer program is avoiding the complexities of a romance between two human beings.

There are many reasons to like this film, among them the production design by K.K. Barrett and costume design by Casey Storm. This film is set in the future, but not so far that we have to endure jumpsuits and jet-packs. In fact, despite the technology, the film has a retro look to it. Phoenix's high-waist pants have been most remarked on, but it does have a 1950s feel to it.

But the most remarkable thing about the film is the script, and the way the plot unfolds. It could have ended in any number of Twilight Zone-like twists, but I'm glad that everyone I thought was coming did not, thus being a film smarter than me. Twombly's character is not written as a stock sad sack, and the implications of the romance are explored in a number of ways that are fascinatingly played out.

What is perhaps most depressing about the film is that this is the way we are headed. In the film, crowds of people walk to work, ear buds firmly in place, talking to unseen systems, oblivious to their surroundings. Her, while a film dripping with romance, posits a very lonely planet in the future.

My grade for Her: A-.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Everly Brothers

It's an unhappy coincidence that a CD of The Everly Brothers greatest hits was in my car already when news came that half of the pair, Phil Everly, passed away. This news prompted me to listen to the CD right away.

The Everly Brothers were huge in the late '50s and early '60s, a bridge between Appalachian country and pop and rock. They were even more important as influences on artists to come, such as the Beatles and Beach Boys, and were covered by artists like Simon and Garfunkel and Linda Ronstadt. But what stands out about them are their exquisite harmonies.

Phil and Don Everly were the sons of Ike Everly, who was a musician from Kentucky. They were radio stars at an early age, and then had a string of hits starting in 1957. Many of them are known to us even if we didn't know they were by The Everly Brothers. Their first hit was "Bye Bye Love," written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, and is a classic break-up song:

"I'm through with romance, I'm through with love
I'm through with countin' the stars above
And here's the reason that I'm so free
My lovin' baby is through with me"

The Bryants wrote many other songs for the Everlys, most notably the beautiful "All I Have to Is Dream," "Bird Dog," and "Wake Up, Little Susie," a fascinating time capsule of '50s life in suburbia. As anyone's who heard the song knows, the singer and his girl, Susie, have fallen asleep at the movies, and it's now four A.M., and they are in "trouble deep."

"The movie wasn't so hot
It didn't have much of a plot
We fell asleep, our goose is cooked
Our reputation is shot"
 
The Everlys did write some of their own songs, such as "When Will I Be Loved," which was a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt, and "Cathy's Clown," which is my favorite Everly song but for some odd reason is not on the CD I have. It's hard to imagine why their number one single is not on an album titled "Their Twenty Greatest Hits," but I imagine copyright issues ruled the day.
 
"Cathy's Clown," which was inspired by Ferd Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite," was very influential on the Beatles, as a riff from that song was used in "Please Please Me." The song is also very mature for teenage heartache stuff, and it's about a guy who is ridiculed by others for being wrapped around the finger of a manipulative woman, and has had enough: 
 
"Don't want your love any more
Don't want your kisses, that's for sure
I die each time I hear this sound
Here he comes, that's Cathy's clown"

What is most lasting about The Everly Brothers are their exquisite harmonies. Listening to their vocals it's almost impossible to tell where one vocal ends and another begins--it's like one voice, singing two keys at once. Even though they became passe after the Brits they inspired took over the music scene, they continued to perform and tour throughout the decades.

I also think it must be unnerving for Don Everly right now. Like Tom Sawyer watching his own funeral, he is exposed to all sorts of obituaries, eulogies, and encomiums about his and brother's music, even while he is still alive.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Pride and Prejudice (1995)

Many devotees of Jane Austen cite the BBC's 1995 mini-series adaptation of Pride and Prejudice the best ever done, and it's hard to argue with them. The series, told in six episodes over five-and-a-half hours long, covers every beat of the book, and was a cultural phenomenon in England, where the final episode was watched by 40 percent of the audience.

Directed by Simon Langton, and written by Andrew Davies, this Pride and Prejudice tries to get at the heart of the book--sex and money (of course, almost all books are about those two topics). But in extending beyond the normal two hours of a film, the production is able to show more fully developed characters, and to showcase relationships that I didn't pick up reading the book (indeed, if they are even there).

To quickly summarize, the book is about the five Bennet sisters. Their father's estate is entailed, which means it can not be inherited by a woman. Therefore, the girls must marry well to prevent living a horrible life of poverty. When Mr. Bingley rents the neighboring estate, Mrs. Bennet, who is pretty much a screeching harpy, is thrilled. Tagging along with Mr. Bingley is Mr. Darcy, a glowering sour-puss whom everyone correctly tags as being far too proud.

Over the course of the series, the eldest Bennet girl, Jane, will fall in love with Mr. Bingley, but Mr. Darcy will squelch the romance, enraging the second sister, Elizabeth, who already hates Mr. Darcy to begin with. Elizabeth will refuse the proposal of the cousin who will inherit the estate, the unctious clergyman Mr. Collins, while the youngest daughter, Lydia, runs off with an officer, Mr. Wickham, imperiling the entire family's reputation. But Mr. Darcy, who loves Elizabeth in spite of himself, will save the day, and the two are wed at the end.

Elizabeth, one of the most beloved female characters in English literature, is played winningly by Jennifer Ehle (the daughter of Rosemary Harris), while Darcy was a star-making turn for Colin Firth. I believe the ladies had much to do with that, as a scene in which Darcy stumbles upon Elizabeth on his estate after taking a swim, sopping wet, is one of the most famous scenes in all of British TV. Firth certainly is a dashing figure, but early on he's so antisocial it's a wonder how he has any friends at all.

Also in the cast are Alison Steadman, a veteran of many Mike Leigh films, as Mrs. Bennet, and Benjamin Whitlow as Mr. Bennet, who is also a beloved character (and the one that may be most like Austen herself). Julia Sawalha was Lydia, and though ten years older than the role calls for, she was certainly as silly and flirtatious as the role required. What I appreciated was that the other two younger sisters, Mary and Kitty, had more screen time, with Mary, the plain bookish one, getting a lot of good lines, but still Kitty is the one who we know the least.

The mini-series actually adds some scenes, such as Darcy in London attempting to hunt down Wickham, and flashbacks mentioned in Darcy's letter to Elizabeth, explaining his relationship with Wickham. There are also shadings that either aren't in the book or I missed them entirely, such as Elizabeth's fancy for Wickham when she first meets him, and Caroline Bingley's attraction to Darcy (Caroline is one of the great snobs in literature, and here she is played to a "T" by the long-nosed Anna Chancellor).

This series requires an investment of time, but it is well worth it, and in fact I almost wish I had watched it before I read the book, which would have made the book make more sense to me.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

The Hyena

I spent Christmas with my sister and her sons. One of them is a zoology major at Michigan State, and will be an intern for an upcoming project on  hyenas. This may involve him going to Kenya, which is pretty exciting stuff.

I asked him a few questions about the hyena, which is an animal not frequently thought about. If we do think about it, it is not with positive notions. The hyena, in African and Arabic folklore, is seen as an animal that is associated with witches, or the the corporeal form of jinns. The sound that they make, which is akin to human laughter, can raise the hair on anyone's neck (even Shakespeare used the proverb, "Laughing like a hyena," and they have been known to attack humans, though it is rare.

In popular culture, one might think of the three creepy animals in The Lion King, or of Hardy Har Har, the cartoon sidekick of Lippy the Lion. In a bit of reverse humor, Hardy doesn't laugh; he's a major depressive.

But I've read that hyenas aren't all that they're supposed to be. For one thing, they are not strictly scavengers--they kill 95 percent of what they eat, though they eat just about everything of the carcass, including the bones. They are important to ecosystems, as they usually kill the stragglers, sick and infirm of the herd. This is bad for the stragglers, but is an essential part of survival of the fittest.

My nephew told me that despite their appearance, hyenas are not canines. They are most closely related to cats, in the suborder feliformia. There are four species, the spotted, the striped, the brown, and the aardwolf, which is just thisclose to being the first animal in the dictionary.

Hyenas today are limited to Africa and Asia, but were once far more widespread, as fossils have been discovered in Alaska. In fact, some anthropologists believe the settlement of Alaska was impeded by the cave hyena, which I guess feasted on newcomers.

My nephew is not exactly sure what the study is all about, but I hope it involves him hiding in a tree somewhere watching hyenas in their misunderstood glory.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

May We Be Forgiven

I've read and admired many books by A.M. Homes--The End of Alice was one of the most eye-popping reads I've ever experienced--but her latest, May We Be Forgiven, while having episodes of her weird brilliance, is mostly a disappointment.

Narrated by Harold Silver, it starts at a Thanksgiving and concludes the following turkey day. Silver is an ineffectual history professor who specializes in Nixon. His brother, George, is a big-time TV executive who is a total asshole. At the opening Thanksgiving, Silver flirts with George's wife. Later, George will be involved in an automobile accident that kills a few people. He is hospitalized, and Harold has an affair with the wife. George leaves the hospital, comes home to catch his brother and his wife in bed, and kills her.

This is a powerful opening, with the carnage leavened by Homes' distinctive black humor. But the rest of the book doesn't match it. From there Harold is subjected to all sorts of strange indignties. He gets guardianship of George's two children (and dog and cat). His wife leaves him. He has a stroke. He loses his job. He has casual sex with women he meets on the Internet. He edits previously undiscovered short stories by Nixon. He befriends the son of the couple George killed in the accident. He takes the kids to Colonial Williamsburg. He picks up a woman in an A&P, has an affair, and ends up custodian over her addled parents. The whole thing culminates in George's son having a bar mitzhav in a South African village. It all spins out like one of those "create your own adventure" books.

Some of this is entertaining, but most of it left me wondering, why? At times Homes seems to be delighting in torturing her main character: "A minute after the minder is gone, I accidentally flip a massive clot of rich black dirt into my eye, blinding myself. I paw at my face, trying to clear it. I use my shirt, get up too fast, and step on the trowel, throwing myself off balance. I crash into the barbecue and rebound--mentally writing the headline: Idiot Kills Self in Garden Accident."

Homes seems to be leaving clues throughout the book, the biggest being Harold's obsession with Nixon. He is fascinated by the man, even with all his faults, and recognizing he was a bad man. "Dick Nixon was the American man of the moment, swimming in the bitter supposition that for everyone else things came easily. He was the perfect storm of present, past, and future, of integrity and deceit, of moral superiority and arrogance, of the drug that was and is the American Dream, wanting more, wanting to have what someone else has, wanting to have have it all." Perhaps not uncoincidentally, Harold was the name of Nixon's brother who died as a young man.

While I couldn't put all the pieces together to enjoy the book as a whole, it has its moments. There are some laugh-out-loud lines, such as "I park near the Chinese restaurant. The red neon Chinese letters could spell out anything. For all I know, it says 'Eat Shit and Die' in Mandarin." Then a line will come along and take your breath away, such as: "She starts to cry. 'It's just so terrible,' she says. 'Which part?' I ask. 'Being human.'"

While Harold is redeemed at the end, the book just doesn't hold together, and I grew impatient with it very early, and rode it out to the end out of a sense of obligation rather than enjoyment.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

How the States Got Their Shapes

Have you ever looked at a map of the United States and wondered how in the world some of the borders were drawn? Why Oklahoma has a panhandle? Why Michigan has an upper peninsula that appears to belong to Wisconsin? Why the Western states are very similar in size, but California is much larger? All of the answers are in Mark Stein's informative if dry volume, How the States Got Their Shapes.

I've always loved poring over maps, especially atlases and the like. It's a bit of a wonder how I never became a cartographer (or maybe it isn't, I'm not very precise). This book is a godsend for those of who wonder why a little bit of Kentucky seems to be separated from the rest of the state, or why the southern peninsula of Maryland suddenly breaks into Virginia. It turns out that there are good reasons for all of these anomalies, usually having to do with treaties, natural boundaries, or simple human greed.

Some of the boundaries are basic, such as the 49th parallel, which is the long northern border with Canada, that was determined by a treaty with England, or the border that defined the Louisiana purchase. Some of the boundaries, such as the one that runs all the way across the country, from the northern border of Texas to the Atlantic Ocean, was determined by slavery. The reason Texas does not extend to the border of Kansas, and gives Oklahoma its panhandle, is because any state north of that latitude could not be a slave state. To keep it's slaves, Texas gave up that land (although it is true that Texas can break into five states if it wants to).

The original colonies were established by charter from the English king, and extended all the way west to the Pacific. Of course these states gave up their land to make more states--Virginia to make Kentucky, Georgia to make Alabama and Mississippi, and so on, but Connecticut actually had claims in the state of Ohio which it was reluctant to give up. Even to this day, Connecticut's "Western Reserve" has its name in a college there.

After the U.S. became independent, they sought to make the states roughly equal. One will note that from Kansas up to North Dakota, each state is roughly three degrees in heights and seven degrees in width (that is why there are two Dakota states, and not just one), and from Colorado up to Montana, each state is roughly four degrees in height. So why is California so big? Stein explains: "California violated the policy of equality among states because it could. The United States needed California more than California needed the United States." In order to keep California, and its gold, from becoming an independent nation, the U.S. let it come in as a big state.

Some quirks are due to giving states equal opportunity. The reason Pennsylvania has that bit in the northwest that borders Lake Erie is to give it equal access to the Great Lakes, the same reason that Minnesota extends to Lake Superior. Sometimes the solutions were hard come by--Michigan and Ohio actually went to war over a strip of land that contained Toledo (it was called The Toledo War). Michigan lost that, but as a consolation they received the entire region that is today known as the Upper Peninsula, which gave them shoreline on four of the five great lakes.

Some disputes lasted years, and are even still disputed today. A sliver of land between Tennessee and Georgia is still argued about. Sometimes land is just taken from a state--when West Virginia broke off from Virginia (mainly because the residents had very few slaves--the land was too rocky for plantation farming) two extra counties, that form the eastern panhandle of the state, were ripped from Virginia as well. After the Civil War was over, Virginia wanted them back, but lost in court.

This is fun reading, but often pretty stiff. Stein arranges chapters on a state by state basis, and some states aren't that interesting. It might have been better to arrange them geographically, so one doesn't have to search one's memory to remember what was said in an earlier chapter.

Also, the writing is very perfunctory. Occasionally Stein moralizes on some inequitable incidents. For instance, of the reason Utah had a bite taken it out of it by Wyoming: "Utah is the only state that Congress created with boundary adjustments that made it less equal than others. This blemish in our state borders preserves the fact that blemishes on our nation's ideals are indeed part of our history." I can think of much worse blemishes on our ideals than the fact that Utah lost land to Wyoming.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks

Here's an idea for a TV show--each week, Walt Disney, the movie-genius and creator of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, dispenses dime-store psychoanalysis and cracker-barrel wisdom, alleviating some poor soul's misery. It can be called Touched by a Mogul. The pilot has already been made--Saving Mr. Banks--in which Uncle Walt, using fairy dust and snappy tunes, makes the author P.L. Travers stop feeling guilty about her father's death.

That's basically what this film is about. As one might expect, a film from the Disney company is pretty high on their sire, as Mr. Disney is portrayed, by Tom Hanks, as avuncular, a great boss, and with unerring taste in what makes a great film. The only thing we can tut-tut about in this film is that he smokes.

P.L. Travers, the author who created Mary Poppins, doesn't fare so well. By all accounts, she was a miserable human being, but she deserved better treatment than this. As played with tightly-coiled stridency by Emma Thompson, she is seen as an alien, the only person in the film who isn't charmed by Disney and his Pollyanna worldview. If Travers, who died in 1996, had problems with the film of Mary Poppins, she must be twirling in her grave right now.

Travers, who was a girl in Australia, is just about out of money. Disney, promising his daughters that he would make a movie of her book, has been pursuing the right for 20 years. Because of her financial plight, she decides to collaborate on the project, meeting with the screenwriter (Bradley Whitford) and the composers the Sherman brothers (Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak). She objects to almost everything, from the mustache on Mr. Banks to the color red. She is especially opposed to turning it into a musical and any animation.

But she is worn down by Disney, who gets almost every concession, and since the film is today seen as a classic (rightly so) Travers is set up as some kind of monster--after all, who would hate the Disney brand? When she enters her hotel room, she is faced with a menagerie of Disney stuffed animals, including Winnie the Pooh. When she discards it she mutters, "Poor A.A. Milne." A good line, but fraught with meaning. Are we to agree with her, or to laugh at her misguided beliefs?

The film cuts back and forth between the creation of the film, and Travers' continual objections, to her girlhood in Australia, where she is the daughter of an alcoholic bank manager (Colin Ferrell) and an overwhelmed mother. It turns out that Mr. Banks is based on her father, and that there was a real Mary Poppins, her aunt, who came to live with them when her father was ill. Thus the characters have a special meaning for her, as she is reluctant to see them reduced to animals in Disney's stable.

I must admit I choked up a few times at this film--I'm not made of stone. The scene in which Travers watches the film and breaks down in tears is moving, if not shamelessly manipulative. The film leaves out what happened next: Travers approached Disney with suggestions on how to improve the film. Disney responded, "That ship has sailed, Pam," and walked away. He had what he wanted.

The film will charm many. Its scenes of how the Sherman brothers worked are interesting (such as the derivation of "A Spoonful of Sugar") and some of the dusty scenes of Australia seem authentic. But overall the film has that annoying Disney quality--that the replica is better than the original. I found scenes with Paul Giamatti, as Travers' driver, to be painfully awkward.

Thompson has an impossible job to play Travers. To erase any doubt of what we are seeing, tapes are played after the credits of the actual meetings with the creative team. But the climactic scene, in which Disney, like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting telling Matt Damon, "It's not your fault," while well-written, seems wholly phony. I found it interesting to read an interview with Tom Hanks, saying no one knows what finally convinced her to sign away the rights, but he thinks it was probably money. So the actor himself didn't believe what he was playing. And the fact that if she had had money there would be no film of Mary Poppins is kind of sad.

I give the film a slight recommendation for it's overall look, the nostalgic quality of the original film (we get welcome scenes from it), and the raw emotion, but I can't help but finding the whole thing distasteful.

My grade for Saving Mr. Banks: C+.