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Monday, March 31, 2014


The Biblical story of Noah seems a perfect subject for a film director--it's about a man who is obsessed with a vision. Director Darren Aronofsky has been interested in Noah since he was a schoolboy, and his film, Noah, is concerned with a man so blinded by his mission that things gets tense among the family. In a way, it reminds me of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, which is from a man crazy enough to make a film about a man who's crazy.

I just now read the text of Noah from the Bible. It took me about five minutes. Clearly, Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel had some padding to do or it would be a short subject. They looked in other texts (all the world's major religions have flood myths) and did some invention on their own. We get a lot of the Sunday school stuff we all know: a man receives a message from God (that word is never spoken in the film, it is always "the creator") that the world will be destroyed by flood, and he is to build an ark where he, his family, and two of every animal on Earth will be housed in in safety until the waters recede.

So we get more. Noah, played with ferocity by Russell Crowe, is a vegan who lives apart from other men. He chooses not to be part of the society that is ruled by Tubal-Cain, who calls himself king (played by Ray Winstone). Winstone, irked by Noah's craziness, believes he might be right, so he wants the ark. Noah is aided by giants, actually angels who are encrusted with rock, looking like stone-age transformers, so when Winstone and the wicked people about to be destroyed start feeling the rain, they want on the ark. The resulting battle between these stone giants, The Watchers, and the mob is pretty impressive.

The rest of the film deals with Noah starting to go all Abraham and Isaac. Here's where Aronofsky makes a bold choice that has gotten him into trouble in some eyes. Noah interprets that the creator has decided that the world is better off without mankind at all (this is a viewpoint I think everyone rational can agree with), which makes his children unhappy, especially his son Shem's wife Ila (a character created for the film) who his pregnant.

Noah is a film that is big and grand and just a little bit crazy, like it's main character. The film is shot in muddy colors--I don't remember much in the way of bright colors--and dour and grim. There are a few twinkly touches, provided mostly by Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah, Noah's grandfather.

It is not a reverent or particularly irreverent film--only those who believe in the literal interpretation of Genesis could object. I find it interesting those articles that document what Noah gets wrong--that's like saying a movie about King Arthur, Hercules, or Santa Claus gets things wrong. We can't believe this story--from the opening title card, we see that Adam and Eve had three sons. So who were the mothers of their children?

The film does get the brain working, wondering about a creator who decides to destroy his own creation, in essence, a mulligan, and then decides he's never going to do it again. One can also ponder the difference between good and evil, and why someone like Noah was chosen, and what it means to be innocent.

The performances are solid. Crowe pulls out all the stops, for better or worse. Jennifer Connelly is his wife (with amazing looking teeth for a time before dentistry) while Emma Watson, excellently leaving behind her days as Hermione Granger, plays Ila. She has a scene near the end that I won't spoil that is absolutely gut-wrenching. Noah's older sons are played by two young men with matinee idol looks. In the Bible, it is said that Noah's sons were on the ark with their wives, but Aronofsky turns things into a telenova by denying Ham and Japheth mates, which means we're all descended from an incestuous relationship, which may account for why we're all so screwed up.

My grade for Noah: B-

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Great Beauty

Winner of the most recent Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, The Great Beauty is a movie with big ideas, the kind of film that can't be discussed until a certain amount of time is allowed for intellectual digestion. After more than 24 hours, I'm still not sure I have a handle on it.

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, the film can and has been described as an updated version of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, with a bit of Antonioni's La Notte sprinkled in. The subject of all these films is the decadence of Rome's social elite. Sorrentino doesn't hide the homage to Fellini, with surreal elements like a giraffe, a 104-year-old nun, and even a dwarf.

The protagonist is Jep Gambardella, played by Toni Servillo. After an enigmatic (and never explained) opening scene involving Japanese tourists, the film switches to his 65th birthday party, a frenetically edited scene that has visceral vitality. Servillo is a journalist covering the cultural beat, although he did write one novel in his 20's, but never wrote another one.

Over the course of the film, Servillo will survey his life, remembering his first love (he learns that she dies, and that she always loved him, even more than her long-time husband) and living the high life, a creature of the night. Though he lives in Rome, which is shown off to great effect (he has an apartment overlooking the Coliseum) he is jaded. Late in the film, we learn the meaning of the title--he hasn't written a book because he hasn't found the Great Beauty, but of course beauty is all around him.

This is a film that requires concentration. I respected it more than I liked it--it asks viewers to look for meaning, and I'm not sure it's always there. For example, the film's last section involves that nun, a Mother Teresa like figure called "the Saint," who is visiting Rome, along with a factotum who does all the talking for her. Italy, of course, is an extremely Catholic country (Fellini never shied away from including clergy in his films). Maybe it takes a Catholic sensibility to get the significance of this section, except for the humorous aspect of a Cardinal, once the greatest exorcist in Europe, now unable to talk about anything but cooking.

Jep is single and childless, and has a couple of relationships in the film. He sleeps with a younger woman, but steals away, because "when you turn 65, you don't waste time doing things you don't want to do." Later he will befriend and then sleep with the daughter of an old friend, a woman who is still a stripper at age 42 who has medical problems.

There are also little tributaries of plot concerning Jep's friends, like a man who wants to mount a theatrical performance and is basically ignored by his girlfriend, a woman with a mentally ill son, and a count and countess who hire themselves out for social events.

The Great Beauty is haunted by the specter of death, but is also quite funny. Servillo gives a performance in a part that we might imagine Marcello Mastroanni in, but he makes his own--we would love to hang out with him, chatting on his terrace with his friends. He also has a gimlet eye, such as when he interviews a performance artist, a woman who runs naked into stone walls.

One effect this film will have--if one has been to Rome, one will want to return after seeing it, or, with people like me, who have never been, there will just be further fuming that we haven't gotten there yet.

Saturday, March 29, 2014


Getting back to my year-long look at Mexican culture, I turn to the 1994 album by Cafe Tecuba, called Re. When I first heard of the album, it was described as the Mexican Sergeant Pepper, and while it isn't Beatlesque in the way the Beatles used orchestral music, it is in the sense that the 20 songs on the record are incredibly diverse, though all with a Mexican flavor.

Since the liner notes and lyrics are all in Spanish, I can't tell a lot about the band or what they are singing about, but with music it doesn't really matter. I have been listening to this record all week and each time it is pure joy, as every song has something to offer. But the the range of the band is impressive. Consider a stretch of tracks early on. "La ingrata" sounds like traditional Mexican music, what you might get serenaded with at a Mexican restaurant. Then comes "El cicion," which has a funk groove, followed by "El borrego," which wouldn't be out of place on Headbanger's Ball. This, in turn, is followed by the lovely acoustic number"Esa noche," and then comes "24 horas," which has an ELO-like pop sound.

There is a little bit of everything on this album, and uses traditional (and unconditional) Latin instruments such as the jarana, guitarron, and melodeon. The vocals are by Rubén Isaac Albarrán Ortega, who has the high-pitched nasal sound common to Mexican speakers, but he has at home screaming heavy metal lyrics as he is too softly intoning a simple song like "El balcon." 

I think my favorite song on the record is "Tropica de cancer," a title which is easily translated enough. I took the lyric and put it through Google translate, and instead of a wistful love song, it appears to be about the oil drilling industry in Mexico. These guys must be kind of deep. A great record.

Friday, March 28, 2014


After watching so many adaptations of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, I was keen to see Austenland, not the least of which was because it stars Keri Russell, one of my biggest all-time celebrity crushes. It is, sad to say, an unfunny, incompetently directed mess.

Russell stars as a hapless woman (she's 30, and not married! Omigod!) who has a fixation on all things Jane Austen, including Regency-era furnishings and a full-size cutout of Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. It's always amusing to see beautiful actresses try to play socially awkward people, and I'm afraid Russell just can't convince me that she has a hard time finding a date with a good man.

Russell blows her entire life savings on a trip to England to the title place, where she will be immersed in the world of Jane Austen. The place is run by Jane Seymour, who runs a tight ship (no modern gadgets allowed) and staffed by actors who will give the lady visitors a bit of romance. Russell is accompanied by a brash American (Jennifer Coolidge) and is torn between two men--JJ Feild, who plays the diffident Mr. Darcy character, and a servant, Bret McKenzie.

The film is directed by Jerusha Hess, who would seem to have no idea of how to construct a film, as the pacing is awful and the editing is abrupt and capricious. There is a kernel of an idea here--that living in a fantasy world is no substitute for the real thing, but the notion is botched by a lame screenplay and sub-standard performances, especially by Georgia King as a vulgar guest, who appears to have been given no direction at all.

Thursday, March 27, 2014


My girlfriend's son is 13 years old. He is typical in many ways--he loves Call of Duty, has a fascination with zombies, but he is also a fan of My Little Pony. My girlfriend was concerned about this, but she's come to accept it. He may well be a Brony.

I've never seen My Little Pony, which is a 30-year-old cartoon show that was designed to sell toys to little girls. But it has somehow managed to attract an audience of older boys and men, who call themselves Bronies. This initially sounds creepy, like Plushies, those guys who dress up like stuffed animals and have sex. One might imagine that these guys are gay, or pedophiles, (and certainly some are probably gay) but I've done some research and I'm kind of impressed that men would embrace something like this which is otherwise embarrassing.

Apparently the show, which is now called My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is not completely geared toward young girls any more. To take their word for it, it's well written, funny, and enjoyable for everyone of all ages. They like it to the extent that there are actually conventions, called Bronycon. I have to believe that the show isn't that good, but is a way for these boys and men to project their rejection from the cliches of manhood. It not only takes bravery to come out as a Brony, but a rebellious streak as well.

I believe my girlfriend's son does not wear My Little Pony stuff to school: that would be social suicide. But I would never want him to turn against something he likes because others think it's not cool. Let your freak flag fly, Bronies!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Broken Circle Breakdown

I knew nothing about The Broken Circle Breakdown, one of the nominees for this year's Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, other than that it was about Belgian bluegrass musicians, certainly a first. But very quickly it becomes apparent that it is a film about a sick child, and I gave a silent "Oh no." These kind of films, no matter how artful, are traps for the viewer, because they are so shamefully manipulative, daring the viewer to watch critically.

This one lays it on thick. A six-year-old girl has cancer, and her parents, who are in a bluegrass band, care for her dutifully. We see flashbacks of how they first met and married, which is kind of interesting, but despite the unusual bluegrass angle and the mother's multiple tattoos, it's a hospital drama.

Then the movie gets more interesting, as the film focuses on their grief. Didier (Johan Heldenbergh) loves American culture and music, but he comes to understand just how Americans are held hostage by religion when he watches President Bush veto the stem-cell research bill (Belgium has no such restriction). He becomes more angry and has a full-blown breakdown during a concert, blasting religion. Elise (Veerle Baetens) draws more inward, choosing to see her daughter in the stars or in the identity of a bird. Knowing that the odds on a marriage surviving the death of a child are slim, we know what's coming, but it manages to be interesting.

Heldenbergh wrote and starred in the play on which it was based, and the film is directed with a sure hand by Felix Van Groeningen. However, and maybe this is just me, I never figured out the significance of bluegrass to the story. It seemed kind of random. I guess it could have been any American music--Dixieland or zydeco could have substituted. It's nice to listen to, though, and Heldenbergh and Baetens are excellent leads, as well as fine musicians.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


I've been wondering about unicorns lately. A few days ago I heard a familiar old song, "The Unicorn," sung by the Irish Rovers. I hadn't known it was written by Shel Silverstein. It posits that there are no unicorns any more because they literally missed the boat; they were playing in the rain when Noah's ark set sail. I have to think that the upcoming film Noah will not include this part.

"You'll see green alligators and long-necked geese
Some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees
Some cats and rats and elephants, but sure as you're born
You're never gonna see no unicorn"

So where did unicorns come from? I'd say they are the most recognizable mythical beast other than dragons. A quick look on the Internet reveals the legend probably began in India, or at least was taken from Greek writers discussing a one-horned beast from India. The Bible mentions unicorns, at least in some translations, as does Shakespeare. But what were all these people talking about? Marco Polo wrote about a one-horned creature, but was clearly describing a rhinoceros. How did an ugly old cuss like the rhino become the beautiful white creature in fantasy art?

The unicorn is part of the Scottish coat of arms, and was an animal that came to be representative of innocence and purity, and could only be captured by a virgin. I would say that today the unicorn is a symbol that is prevalent in art and literature favored by girls, or women who have a strong interest in fantasy, Wicca, and crystals. I'm kind of surprised Stevie Nicks has never written about unicorns.

I didn't find a really good answer on the Net for why. Of course young girls romanticize horses. There are many possible reasons for this, including a yearning to be free, or more crudely, one of sexual awakening. But a unicorn is no ordinary horse. Like fairies and princesses, many girls long for this kind of fantasy, which is largely nonviolent (vampires and werewolves have also been a more recent interest of teen girls, which I'm pretty sure is sexual).

For boys, I don't think there's a comparable interest. When I was a kid it was soldiers, cowboys, and monsters--but when I say monsters, I don't mean vampires like Edward in Twilight, I mean nasty brutes like Dracula and Frankenstein and The Wolf Man. When we played we used aggression--army men battling, cowboys and Indian or cops and robbers shooting it out. If we had purloined a sister's toy unicorn it would have been put to use in battle.

I'm not a child psychologist by any means, but it does make certain sense if one believes the biological instinct of women as nurturers and men as hunters is still in our DNA. The unicorn has become a symbol of benevolence--not necessarily a mother or child figure, but one that is in a certain symbiosis with the sensitive among us. A poster of a unicorn on one's wall certainly indicates an aspect of a personality far different than someone who has a poster of Call of Duty, for example.

The unicorn holds an appeal because it's imaginary, but could be real, and wouldn't it be neat if they were.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

It's a challenge to make a movie about great men. Though it won a bushel of Oscars, I didn't find Gandhi all that compelling, and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, is also lacking in the narrative department. It's a nice history lesson (provided it's all true) but there's just something a little too stately about it, a little too rote, to make it sing.

Directed by Justin Chadwick and starring Idris Elba as Mandela, the film covers his life from his boyhood to his election as President of South Africa, about as unlikely a rise as any of this century. He was a lawyer, defending other blacks in court, as white witnesses blanched at even being spoken to by a black man as an equal. Initially opposed to politics, his friend is beaten to death by white policemen and the death is noted as from "congenital syphilis." Eventually he is recruited into the African National Congress, and after a decade or more of attempting to negotiate equal rights, he turns to sabotage.

He is captured and tried, and the judge, who could have sentenced him to death, decides life in prison is better. This decision by this unnamed judge probably saved South Africa from complete destruction, as Mandela became an indispensable man in the passage of power from white to black.

We then see his 27 years in prison, with little victories like getting long trousers to bitter moments like receiving tragic news from home. He and his cohorts maintain there stance, and he refuses P.W. Botha's offer of release on the condition that he reject violence. Instead, he will be released a national hero in 1990 by F.W. de Klerk, and then be the key figure as blacks gain the vote.

All of this is interesting, but could have been a documentary. I do admire that the film does not make Mandela perfect. We see his philandering, and he isn't shy about his being a leader. We also see the dark side of Winnie, his second wife, who was a hero but is now pretty much a disgrace, as while Mandela was in prison she led a campaign of violent revenge, particularly upon her own people, with necklacing, a vicious form of execution that involved putting a tire around someone's neck and lighting it on fire.

I think the best part of the film is showing how Mandela was the man, the only man, that could lead a peaceful transition. He refused to seek revenge, surely knowing that revenge does not change the past, and his call for the Truth and Reconciliation hearings saved South Africa from more of a slaughter than there already was.

Elba and Naomie Harris as Winnie both give fine performances, and I can't really pinpoint anything wrong with the film, it just kind of goes along without transcending its subject matter. Today I spoke to my boss, who is from South Africa (a white woman), who told me that when she was young she had no idea who Mandela was, because of censorship. He was far more famous here in the U.S., where there were rallies to free him.

Sunday, March 23, 2014


I admit the only reason I went to see Divergent was the presence of Shailene Woodley, one of the better young actresses working today, who has the added bonus of being easy on the eyes. An adaptation of an example of one of the better known of the hot trend in YA fiction--the post-apocalyptic dystopian bloodsport story with a strong female protagonist--Divergent makes for a very long, sluggish film that has some pretty good action sequences but some cockeyed sociology.

The film is set in Chicago, many years after a devastating war. The residents don't even know if they're the only people left on Earth, so it's a pretty small population. To keep peace, they are grouped into five factions--Erudite (the smart), Amity (the hippie farmers), Dauntless (the army/police), Abnegation (the selfless caregivers) and Candor (the legal system). You choose your faction as a teenager, after undergoing a test (sort of like the sorting hat in Harry Potter), but despite the results of the test, you are free to choose your faction, and it doesn't have to be the one you grew up in (a parlor game for those who see the movie is to speculate on which one you would choose--I would go for Erudite, because it seemed like the one with the less manual labor). Those who have attributes of more than one faction, called divergents, are threats to the state, because they don't conform, and are hunted down and killed.

Even for science fiction, this is pretty hare-brained, because a society like this wouldn't last for five minutes, and because you can choose to leave your faction of origin there would be a lot of cross-breeding, thus divergents would be the norm, rather than the exception. So this whole set-up gets the biology and politics wrong, but I guess we just have to go with it, because it's a long movie.

Our heroine is Tris (Woodley), who grows up in Abnegation, where they are so self-denying that they only can spend a few moments in front of a mirror before it's locked up. Her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) hope she stays with them, but after her test reveals she is divergent (the tester, Maggie Q, tells her this but keeps mum) Tris picks Dauntless. The next huge section of the movie shows her in boot camp, which mostly consists of her getting pummeled.

Her severe trainer (Theo James) comes to admire her pluckiness (but of course), even though she is kind of a disaster when it comes to fighting. She helps her team win in a war games competition because she's the only one bright enough to climb to the top of a Ferris wheel (apparently seizing the high ground wasn't taught in training). When she undergoes mental tests, it's apparent to James that she's divergent, but guess what! So is he!

The climax of the film has Woodley and James escaping the clutches of Kate Winslet, who is the head muckety-muck of Erudite, who want to use Dauntless as their army to seize power from Abnegation. There are more books, and a good box office will mean a sequel.

If they do make a second picture, I encourage director Neil Burger (if he's the next director) to speed things up a bit. Two hours and twenty minutes is way too long for this sort of thing. There were also too many hallucination sequences (the future society is big on serums that make you do this). Woodley, who has to endure comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence of The Hunger Games, makes a completely different type of heroine--she's much more average than the self-sufficient Katniss Everdeen, but more than holds her own in the role, projecting a sort of "how did I get myself into this" vibe that may just be the actress and not the role.

The success, or lack thereof, of Divergent will determine if more of these pictures are made. There are lots more book series out there, including a trilogy that begins with Pure, which I read last year and would make a pretty good movie. Probably a better one than Divergent.

My grade for Divergent: C-.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


My seventh and last post about this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees is about Nirvana, the band of most recent vintage, who were inducted in their first year of eligibility. There can be little controversy about their election, because even though they recorded only three studio albums, there impact on the music scene is immeasurable.

I've already written about their first two studio albums, Bleach and Nevermind, so this week I've been listening to the three other discs they made: their third and last studio album, In Utero; their live album, MTV Unplugged; and a collection of unreleased stuff, Incesticide. This only reinforces my belief that they were the best group to come out of the "grunge" scene of Seattle, and that they were the best band of the '90s.

It is especially poignant to write about them now, as it is just a few weeks shy of the 20th anniversary of Cobain's death (and the case has now been re-opened). Like many great artists, Cobain's was a tortured soul, reflected in his music. I have one friend who dismisses their music as "whining," which is certainly true, but I think the entire rock oeuvre is pretty much based on teen angst. Cobain's was much more extreme.

The band was formed by Cobain and Krist Novoselic in Seattle in the late '80s. They went through a series of drummers before alighting on Dave Grohl in 1990. Their first record, Bleach, didn't do much, but they exploded with Nevermind, prompted mostly by the song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and its accompanying video of a high school janitor and a cheerleading squad.

Their music was a winning combination of punk and melody, which blossomed in Nevermind. In Utero, which isn't as strong a record in its entirety, does have the best songs they did, in my opinion: "Heart-Shaped Box," "Pennyroyal Tea,"  "All Apologies," and "Dumb." Ironically, the lyric from that last song, "I think I'm dumb, or maybe just happy," didn't seem to work for Cobain.

"Heart-Shaped Box" is my favorite Nirvana song, a sinister number with a creepy guitar riff that has a line, "I wish I could eat your cancer" that gets to me everytime. "Pennyroyal Tea," about Cobain's chronic stomach pains (that particular herb tea is said to be a tonic for stomach ailments) is raw and aching, and "All Apologies," done with acoustic guitar, is a breathtakingly beautiful lament about life in general, which gives us the great inscrutable phrase, "aqua seafoam shame."

Incesticide is a kind of odds and sods record of songs that are otherwise not an album. It includes a much more punk version of "Polly," the song about torture, and one of my favorites, "Sliver," about a young boy being dropped off at his grandparents' house and immediately chanting, "Grandma take me home." This silly little song has a perfect musical moment--it starts like a ditty, but then has a precisely placed squeal of guitar feedback that announces it's not a novelty song.

MTV, back in the day, was actually a relevant part of the music scene, unlike the cultural blight it is today. Many artists made live albums in their "Unplugged" series (though not all stuck to the title rule). Nirvana's is one of the best, and I listen to it often. It's not just for their owns songs that they do, but the interesting cover songs. They cover David Bowie ("The Man Who Sold the World"), The Vaselines ("Jesus Doesn't Want Me for a Sunbeam") and three songs by the obscure Meat Puppets, the highlight being "Lake of Fire"--"Where do bad folks go when they die, they don't go to heaven where the angels fly, they go a lake of fire and fry, see 'em again 'til the Fourth of July."

My favorite cut on the record is the last, a rendition of Ledbelly's "Where Did You Sleep Last Night." That Cobain loved Ledbelly just seems so right, and he tells a short story about how the Ledbelly estate offered the late singer's guitar for $500,000. Cobain asked David Geffen to buy it for him, but was turned down.

Nirvana is a great what-if band. Grohl, who stepped out from Cobain's shadow, formed The Foo Fighters and has had great success. If Cobain had lived, one wonders if Grohl would have ever been given a voice. If so, they might have become the Lennon-McCartney of the era. But we will never know. We do have Cobain's short output, but it will last forever.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Grandmaster

I've never taken a shine to martial arts pictures. It may be the cultural differences, or it may be annoying things like how one man takes out a bunch of fighters because they don't rush him; instead they just step up one by one. But in there own way, martial arts movies are just as valid as Western genres like the western and the gangster film, but with an Asian sensibility, about honor as much as flying fists.

Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster is just such a film. It is a very stylish kung fu movie, where the kung fu is the main thing. It is based on a real person, Ip Man, a Chinese kung fu expert who went on to teach Bruce Lee. We follow his story against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China, and it is a lush, beautiful film that deeply resonated with me.

Tony Leung is Ip Man. There is some explanation of how North and South China used different styles of kung fu. Ip used Wing Chun, but other styles are shown, each having its own master. The Northern Grandmaster, Gong, (Wang Qingxiang) visits the south, and finds Ip Man a worthy opponent. He hopes to unite the two halves of the country against the impending Japanese invasion, but it's unclear how kung fu is effective when the enemy has guns.

The film then skips over the war years rather hurriedly, and finds Ip Man in Hong Kong in 1950, where he teaches kung fu. He meets again Gong's daughter, (Zhang Ziyi) who is a doctor and hooked on opium. She tells him how she avenged her father's death against his rogue successor, Ma San (Zhang Jin) in a showdown on a train platform. This scene, as stylistic and thrilling as a gunfight in a Western, is bravura filmmaking, with all elements--editing, cinematography, costumes, and fight choreography, coming together to scintillating effect.

But The Grandmaster, to me, never transcended its set pieces. The others include the opening fight scene, in which Ip Man defeats a crowd of fighters in the rain, or when he and Ziyi have a playful fight in a brothel, trying not to break anything. That scene is as romantic as a dance between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The stuff between the fights is a bit turgid, and perhaps better suited to someone who understands the cultural importance of kung fu to the Chinese people. Still, I give this film a high recommendation, for Wong's direction, the photography of Philippe Le Sourd, the fight choreography of Yuen Woo-Ping, and the heart-stopping beauty of Zhang Ziyi.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Las Vegas Noir

"People come from all over the world to do dumb, dangerous things in Sin City, whether it's someone locking himself in a Fremont Street motel to kick a nasty heroin habit, hooking up to an oxygen tank in a last-ditch scheme to double his nest egg at the downtown slots, or shooting a weekend porn flick that goes disastrously wrong once a rabid pit bull is introduced." So writes Jarret Keene and Todd James Pierce, the editors of Las Vegas Noir, one of the entries in the Akashic Noir series. This series is story collections from cities as varied as Brooklyn to the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Since noir is my favorite genre and Las Vegas my favorite city of the imagination, it was a natural for me to read.

Unfortunately, that sentence is more interesting than most of the stories presented. Some of them aren't really noir, such as Bliss Esposito's "Guns Don't Kill People," which has a suburban housewife wanting to teach her son how to shoot, and some are just poorly written. Some stories have promise, and play like opening chapters of a novel, but then trail off, such as Todd Goldberg's "Mitzvah," which has a man masquerading as a rabbi.

There are few little gems here that are self-contained stories, the best of which is "Crip," by Preston L. Allen. The theme--a killer for the mob has a soft heart for a child (this is as hold as the hills, and was basically the plot of the film Leon) is well-written and succinct. I also liked the off-kilter nature of Jose Skinner's "All About Balls," which finds an anthropology student at a convention in Las Vegas stumbling upon a community of Mexican Indians, with disastrous results.

Of course there is a story about Area 51, with Janet Berliner's "The Road to Rachel." Befitting the weird legacy of the place, it has to do with ostriches.

Some of the stories don't really have much to do with Vegas, but aren't bad stories, like Vu Tran's "This or Any Desert," which takes place in Chinatown (it could be a Chinatown anywhere), or "Murder is Academic," by Felicia Campbell, about a serial killer targeting literary women (the ending of this story is pretty bad, though).

If they do a Las Vegas Noir 2 I'd be willing to take a chance, but the stories should be more specifically about the city. I didn't get the sense of the place from this collection.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Along Came Polly

Perhaps the best indication of Philip Seymour Hoffman's greatness as an actor is that he managed to elevate an otherwise tepid romantic comedy like Along Came Polly by playing that old cliche, the wacky best friend of the hero. This film is not good, but whenever Hoffman is on screen it not only is tolerable, but enjoyable.

But he is not, alas, the center of the film. That falls to Ben Stiller, playing his usual neurotic self. This time it's even written into the script--he's a risk analyst for an insurance company, so therefore he doesn't take any.

As the film begins, he marries Debra Messing, his "perfect woman." Of course we know that will end, as it's Jennifer Aniston on the poster, but how? Well, Messing will fall in love with a French scuba instructor on their honeymoon (Stiller is too afraid to go scuba diving). He comes home with his tail between his legs, and decides to take a chance by dating Aniston, who is his opposite--a woman who makes no plans and lives on the edge, which mostly means eating peanuts in a bar and salsa dancing.

Along Came Polly is so formulaic it's nauseating, not only because of an elaborate scene in which Stiller befouls her bathroom after eating ethnic food. But director John Hamburg is to be given major props for getting Hoffman as the buddy. He plays a former child star who is now a slob with pretensions of being a great actor. He has some great moments, especially on the basketball court, when he shouts "Let it rain!" as his shots bang wildly off the backboard. There's also some amusing moments as he plays Judas in a community theater production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but also wants to play Jesus at the same time.

When an actor can take a secondary role and elevate himself above the dross, it shows a great skill. He will be missed.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

A Weak Bench

Almost a year ago, I wrote about the early line on the Republican presidential race for 2016. A lot has happened, but not much has changed. The candidates appear to be pretty much the same, but some of the names have moved up, some down.

What's striking about the field is that there is no front-runner. As I wrote last year, Republicans are all about front-runners. Democrats tend to hold free-for-alls, with someone out of left field ending up the nominee. This time around, the parties have switched, with Democrats having a huge front-runner, Hillary Clinton. If she runs, there may be token opposition, but she will be the biggest non-incumbent favorite for a presidential nomination that anyone can remember.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are a bunch of midgets skirting about Clinton's ankles. They have some names in the news, but no one with her kind of prestige. But, this time next year, there will be announced candidates, and the fog is clearing.

A poll about a month ago taken of Republicans saw Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin as one-two. This is purely name recognition, because it's highly unlikely either will give up their television salaries. More accurately, the annual C-PAC conference gave their straw poll vote to Rand Paul, the eye doctor (though he isn't certified) turned senator who has seemed to corner the market on the lunatic fringe, beating out fellow nutflake Ted Cruz (last year I wrote that Cruz couldn't run, because he was born in Canada. This is still unclear).

There are many other names floating in the conservative ether. There's Paul Ryan, the losing VP candidate of 2012, and fellow Wisconsan, Governor Scott Walker, who made a name for himself as a basher of unions. Another governor is Bobby Jindal, who has moved on from his disastrous Republican response to the State of the Union a few years ago, and is now a person confused about the First Amendment--you see, he thinks the Duck Dynasty guy can say whatever he wants about gays, but MoveOn can't put up a billboard criticizing him.

Then there's Marco Rubio, the Latin hope, who is trying to live down a moderate response on immigration to his Tea Party brethren. He may end up being a consensus choice, if only in reaction to the party rapidly losing the Latin vote. I see him more of a natural VP selection.

But the biggest change over a year has to be rise and fall of Chris Christie. Last year I thought the conservative wing wouldn't go for him, because of his cuddling with Obama after Sandy. But Christie seemed to gather strength, perhaps because he looked like the candidate most likely to beat Hillary. But the bridge scandal, among others, has perforated his balloon. He may still run, but it's hard to imagine someone with his thin skin making it through a campaign without a major gaffe.

The Republicans may be a nest of Tea Party hornets, but who still really controls the party? Wall Street. They picked Mitt Romney, who tacked right to appeal to the bloodthirsty base. Christie may have been Wall Street's choice, but it's likely they will look elsewhere. Paul, Cruz, Rubio, Jindal--they are unlikely Wall Street picks. So I'm left thinking what I was last year--that Jeb Bush may be the nominee. This would probably be disastrous--another Clinton vs. Bush race? But until Wall Street coalesces around another candidate, just who I have no idea, that may be the result. Then again, maybe this is going to be a year similar to 1972, when the Democratic Party collapsed on itself and nominated an extremist. We saw what happened then.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Let me start by saying that The Grand Budapest Hotel, even though it is only March, is surely going to be my favorite film of the year. Now that I think about it, it's probably my favorite film of the decade, so far. In Wes Anderson's career it is his triumph, so far, a film that hits all the desired points with alacrity--laughter, poignancy, death, fear.

It should also be said that it is thoroughly a Wes Anderson film. For those who find him unbearably precious, you may be sent from the theater screaming. We get all his tropes--the fussy attention to detail, the use of a static camera as figures run across it, the use of title cards, the bold use of Crayola colors (a shot of a people in a crowded elevator painted fire-engine red may be the quintessential Anderson shot).

But this film has much more gravitas than other of his films. Many of his films confront death--The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited--but this is more. The Grand Budapest could be said to be about the death of a way of life.

The titular hotel is set high in the mountains of Zubrowka, a (fictional) Eastern European nation. Many reviews have said that the story is a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, but there is even one more layer, so it is like a Russian nesting doll. It begins with a young girl reading a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel next to the grave of its author (which is decorated with hotel keys). We then see that author (Tom Wilkinson) recording his thoughts on the book. He takes us back to the 1960s, when his younger self (Jude Law), visiting the hotel, which now looks like a concrete bunker, and befriending the owner (F. Murray Abraham). Over dinner, Abraham tells Law the story of how he came to own the hotel. As Abraham says, it all starts with M. Gustave.

We then go back to 1932, when the hotel looks like a wedding cake. The concierge is Gustave H., played with an amazing flourish by Ralph Fiennes. He is training a new lobby boy, Zero, (Tony Revolori), who is the younger version of Abraham. There is a rather intricate plot involving a murdered dowager, a painting, and a murderous bodyguard, but that is really all beside the point. What's important is the character of Gustave, the loyalty between he and Zero, and the drumbeats of war.

Anderson has a lot of fun creating a fictional Tyrolean Alps, with funny German names, but the setting and time can't be avoided--this is in pre-holocaust Europe. The signs are there--trains stopped at random, a demand to show papers, uniforms with lightning bolts on them. I laughed many times at this film, but I also felt uneasy. The clash between the unflappable dignity of Gustave and the inhumane horrors that are to come raise the hair on the back of the neck.

There are a host of other characters, many famous faces. Anderson uses many of his stock company, like Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, and Adrien Brody in small parts. In larger roles are Jeff Goldblum, Saorsie Ronan (as a bakery girl with a birthmark shaped like Mexico on her face--only Anderson could get away with something like that), Harvey Keitel, and Willem Dafoe as the merciless bodyguard (he throws a cat out a window). Murray is part of "The Society of Crossed Keys," a wonderful concept of Anderson's, a fellowship of concierges who use fancy phones to ring each other when another is in trouble.

But the movie is held blissfully aloft by Fiennes. What a heartbreaking, beautiful performance. I just so happened to see him a few days before as a vicious serial killer in Red Dragon, so what a display of range in less than a week. His Gustave is one of the great character of recent film, a gallant and civilized man who has a weakness for perfume and a convivial sense of honor. He is imprisoned for the murder of the dowager, whom he has slept him: "I sleep with all my friends." When Zero goes to visit him, he sees that his face has been damaged by fisticuffs. Zeo asks him what happened. "What happened, my dear Zero, is I beat the living shit out of a sniveling little runt called Pinky Bandinski. You should take a long look at his ugly mug this morning. He's actually become a dear friend."

That's the essence of Gustave--he's at home with the crowned heads of Europe or prisoners. He is sort of like Zero Mostel in The Producers--he gives old ladies their last thrill--but he doesn't do it for monetary gain as much as he does to give--and receive--love. This is much like the film itself, which bathed me in a kind of love, the kind that I don't often feel in movie houses.

My grade for The Grand Budapest Hotel: A.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bullet Over Broadway (the Musical)

Given the success that Mel Brooks had with The Producers on Broadway, it only seems right that Woody Allen would try the same thing with his film, Bullets Over Broadway. Both deal with the subject of Broadway itself, and both were directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman.

The huge difference is that Brooks wrote original songs for his musical. Allen, perhaps without that gift, has chosen to use existing songs from the period the play is set--the roaring '20s. Thus, we have a sort of jukebox musical, before jukeboxes were invented. The result is a mixed bag--some laughs, mostly smiles, and some dead spots.

The musical is now in previews at the St. James Theatre, so perhaps changes will be made. I have a few suggestions. The plot is the same as the film: an earnest young playwright, in order to get his play on Broadway, takes backing from a gangster, with the condition that the gangster's moll, distinctly untalented, must have a part. The playwright agrees, but it turns out that the moll's bodyguard, a common street hood, has a better gift for dramaturgy than the playwright, who realizes that art is not as important as a human life.

So far, so good. The basic pieces are all there. Zach Braff, surprisingly strong of  voice, is the playwright. Helene Yorke, a sure-fire Tony nominee, is Olive, the talentless ditz (who is an homage to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday and Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain). Marin Mazzie is Helen Sinclair, the diva role that won Dianne Wiest an Oscar, while Nick Cordero is winning as Cheech, the thug who has the soul of an artist.

But the effect just isn't the same as the film. Perhaps I would have liked this better had I not seen the film. Many in the audience clearly hadn't, as the notion of Cheech taking an interest in the play seemed a surprise to them (as did the scene in which he bumps off Olive in the play's interest). But Allen has changed lines to the detriment of the play. For instance, one scene has Cheech telling Braff that he burned down his school. Braff reacts with horror, but Cheech says that it was his science project. In the film, Cheech says to relax, it was Lincoln's birthday and nobody was there, which is funnier.

Also, by the rules of Broadway musicals, the story has to be moved forward in song. This only works sporadically. In the film, the part of the playwright's girlfriend (played by an unknown Mary-Louise Parker) was a small role. It has been expanded in the play, acted by Betsy Wolfe, who is a charming performer with a lovely voice. But the character just isn't interesting enough to have two solos. Also, the part of Eden Brent, played by Tracy Ullman in the film, is blandly played by Karen Ziemba, who has little do but hold a well-trained (or heavily drugged) Pomeranian.

The show-stopper number is in the first act. Olive flashes back to her earlier stage experience, performing an number called "I Want a Hot Dog For My Roll," a smutty song that is brought to exuberant life by Stroman, complete with four dancers in giant hot dog costumes. The other numbers pale in comparison, except for "Let's Misbehave," done by Yorke and Brooks Ashmanksas, who is wonderful as Warner Purcell, an actor with a compulsive eating habit. The sight gags of him getting fatter in each scene is silly, wonderful humor.

Ashmanksas and Yorke steal the show from Braff and Mazzie, while Vincent Pastore (Big Pussy from The Sopranos) is able as Nick Valenti, the gangster. Who knew that Big Pussy had a nice singing voice? But of course, he is Italian.

I did generally enjoy Bullets Over Broadway, though I would classify it as disappointing. The sets and costumes, by Santo Loquasto and William Ivey Long, respectively (both huge names in their fields) are terrific. The sets in particular are dazzling, such as a train car and a vintage automobile, or a theater proscenium with female statues that are actual actresses. The play is a visual feast, but not necessarily an aural one.

Of the new jokes that Allen wrote, I found one to be particularly funny, and just a bit shocking. When Braff admits to Mazzie that Cheech rewrote the play, she says that Irving Berlin keeps a negro boy in his closet that wrote most of his songs. I'll bet that somehow gets back to the Berlin estate.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Cat Stevens

"Cat Stevens has neither rocked nor rolled," read one comment on a web news item that announced that the British singer-songwriter had been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That is true; his songs are the kind of music that has been classified, to many rock snob's horror, as soft rock, or the stuff of "Lite FM." But he did have some monster hits in the early '70s, before he gave up music for Islam.

Stevens, of Greek heritage but British birth, came out of the British folk movement of the late '60s. His first hit, "Matthew and Son," has a kind of groovy British spy movie sound. But his later hits are the kind of song usually accompanied by acoustic guitar, with his distinctive angelic growl of a voice, designed to make the girls swoon. Many of his songs today are sung in liberal church services, perhaps none so much as "Morning Has Broken," or the eternally optimistic "Peace Train."

But I do like his stuff, even if it doesn't rock nor roll. He had a couple of albums that generated songs that almost every sentient person of the right age knows, like "Wild World," "Father and Son," "Moonshadow," and "Oh Very Young." I had no idea that he wrote "The First Cut Is the Deepest," which has been covered by so many others.

"Father and Son" is about the generation gap, with Stevens singing the parts of both father and son, the former giving advice, while the son sings,

"How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.
It's always been the same, same old story.
From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen.
Now there's a way and I know that I have to go away.
I know I have to go."

My favorite of his songs is "Moonshadow," which is even now running through my head. I have no idea what it's about, though. The verses are about losing abilities and the positive (I guess) repercussions:

"And if I ever lose my hands, lose my plough, lose my land,
Oh if I ever lose my hands, Oh if... I won't have to work no more.
And if I ever lose my eyes, if my colors all run dry,
Yes if I ever lose my eyes, Oh if... I won't have to cry no more."

Stevens stopped recording after conversion to Islam. He is now known as Yusuf Islam, and has began performing again. But for years he worked on humanitarian causes. For some time he was regarded as some kind of black sheep, but I think that was Islamophobia as much as anything else, as he strenuously and forthrightly condemned the attacks on September 11th. Some how he got lumped with American-hating extremists.

Cat Stevens may not be a rocker, but listening to his music is uplifting and pleasant. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Pirate Radio

In the extensive filmography of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Pirate Radio (released in the UK as The Boat That Rocked) may be the nadir. It's not a terrible film, but it's not very ambitious, and comes across mostly as a floating Animal House.

Set in 1966, when the BBC radio banned rock music from its airwaves, a number of "pirate radio" ships anchored in international waters and broadcast the devil's music to millions of British listeners. These DJs lived on the boat, a motley crew of music lovers and misfits. The government tries to find a loophole to shut them down.

Written and directed by Richard Curtis, Pirate Radio would seem to want to be a grand statement about censorship and challenging authority, but instead is a wan frat-house comedy. The DJs are fun company, but mostly one-note--there's the shy guy, the drug-addled hippie, the sexy guy who never talks, and the dim guy, who is helpfully known as "Thick Kevin." The plot uses the clunky device of having an outsider, a teenager (Jim Sturridge) sent to live with his godfather (Bill Nighy, in his customary naughty nobleman mode) on the boat. Nighy appears to the be the owner and station manager, but no background information is given on anyone, or how they got there.

The film proceeds mostly episodically, dealing with mostly unfunny occurrences such as when women visit the boat (they are shipped in like brides to lumberjacks) and Sturridge, a virgin, is offered by Nick Frost, who is fat but nevertheless a ladies' man, to have sex with his girl in the dark. Or when a cocky DJ who made a success in the States (Rhys Ifans) comes back to work on the boat, and immediately is set up as a rival to Hoffman.

Overarching it all is the attempt by the government, led by Kenneth Branagh, to shut them down. Branagh plays his part so over the top that he can't be taken seriously, and his assistant is given the name Twatt, which isn't funny even the first time.

The only real saving grace of this film is the soundtrack, a baby boomer's festival of classic rock hits, and the presence of Talulah Riley as Sturridge's love interest. I happily add her to my growing list of British crush objects.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Best American Travel Writing 2013

When I think of travel writing, I think of writers wearing cargo pants and pith helmets going to dangerous places so we don't have to. Alternatively, there's the kind of travel writer who wears tuxedos and knows wine and travels to place we'd like to, but can't afford to. There's some of that in this collection, The Best American Travel Writing 2013, edited by Elizabeth Gilbert, but the definition of travel writing becomes much more broad. There's even an article about a trip someone didn't take.

In the former category, the places we'd rather not go, thank you, we get a piece by Judy Copeland on hiking through Papua New Guinea. We learn a basic but interesting fact: "You can't walk anywhere in Papua New Guinea without risking impalement." There's also an article by Christopher de Ballaigue on cockfighting in Afghanistan, which is of course fascinating but is nothing I would want to experience firsthand. "Cockfighting is outlawed in Afghanistan, but not for the reason it is outlawed in virtually all American states and most of Europe--that is cruel. It is illegal in Afghanistan because its association with gambling brings it into conflict with Islamic law."

There are articles on the wild dogs of Istanbul, by Bernd Brunner, a snowboarding team in Bosnia by Dimiter Kenarov, and Colleen Kinder on being a Western women in Cairo--to cover the head, or to not cover the head. The bleakest article is by Maria Arana on the deplorable conditions of miners in the Peruvian Andes.

As to those places we might want to go, we can start with John Jeremiah Sullivan's tribute to Cuba, the country of his wife, with its oppressive politics and all. Then there's the running of the bulls in Pamplona, which is a pretty dumb idea but gets all sorts of idiots to do it every year, including Kevin Chroust, who has a very funny write-up about it that makes it sound intriguing. My favorite line from his article is "This is particularly scary for me because before Thursday night, the biggest bull I'd ever seen was Bill Wennington."

Peter Jon Lindberg makes us all jealous with his recounting summer vacations spent on the coast of Maine. "Now and then we'll spot the shambling figure we call the Clam Man, a grumbly chap with a spongy beard, leering fish eyes, a coral-like complexion, and bearing of an insane Poseidon." David Sedaris writes about going to the dentist in France, but I don't think this qualifies as travel writing, because he actually lives there. For foodies, there's David Farley's "Vietnam's Bowl of Secrets," about searching for the recipe of a certain dish that it is said can be made only with the water from a certain well.

My favorite article was one I had read before, in The New York Times Magazine. Sam Anderson, in "The Pippiest Place on Earth," visits a theme park in England called Dickens World, which recreates the England of a certain writer, down to its bad smells and rats. He swears he's not making it up: "Dickens World, in other words, sounded less like a viable business than it did a mockumentary, or a George Saunders short story, or the thought experiment of a radical Marxist seeking to expose the terminal bankruptcy at the heart of consumerism."

I may not be running with the bulls any time soon, but I have to see Dickens World.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Red Dragon

Red Dragon was an unnecessary film, seeing as how a film had already been made from the source material, Thomas Harris' novel. But that movie, called Manhunter, directed by Michael Mann, didn't have Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector, so remaking it made sense, as Hopkins has pretty much made a career of playing the sadistic cannibal with the refined tastes.

I haven't seen Manhunter in ages, but I know it was better than Red Dragon, directed by Brett Ratner. Not to knock Ratner, who does a competent job recreating the mood of Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs. The setup is pretty much the same, as an FBI profiler (Edward Norton) turns to Lector for advice in catching a gruesome serial killer nicknamed "The Tooth Fairy." Lector wants quid pro quo, and engages in mind games with Norton, but even though this book was the first in the Hannibal series, we've seen all this before.

What helps this film is a great cast. Hopkins, who to this date has played Lector four times, is too hammy, but I liked Norton, and Ralph Fiennes as the killer is really creepy. He manages to appear vaguely normal in real life, enough to attract a blind co-worker (Emily Watson), but harbors all sorts of psychological scars, and has a bad-ass back tattoo. Also in the cast are Harvey Keitel as Jack Crawford (how many actors have played this role?) and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a scummy tabloid reporter. Hoffman, which is the reason I watched the film at this time, has a small part, but has a riveting scene in which he pleads for his life with Fiennes, which shows Hoffman's incredible gifts.

Although this is kind of palimpsest of Silence of the Lambs, it does have some thrills and chills and kept my attention.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Drowning Girl

"'I'm going to write a ghost story now,' she typed. 'A ghost story with a mermaid and a wolf,' she also typed. I also typed."

So begins Caitlin R. Kiernan's evocative novel The Drowning Girl, which starts the reader off balance by being told in both the first and third person at the same time. It deals with ghosts, mermaids, werewolves, sea monsters, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Black Dahlia murder case, among other touchstones.

The reader is in the thrall of India Morgan Phelps, or Imp for short, a woman whose mother and grandmother were both psychotic. India says, "It's a myth that crazy people don't know they're crazy. Many of us are surely as capable of epiphany and introspection as anyone else, maybe more so. I suspect we spend far more time thinking about our thoughts than do sane people."

India is fascinated with a painting by a New England artist called The Drowning Girl. It depicts a naked young woman, standing on the shore of body of water, seemingly startled by someone or something. India researches the painter, and learns that were was an incident at the river involving some unseen creature attacking a young girl.

Later, she is driving by the river at night when she spots a naked young woman standing by the side of the road. That is Eva Canning. To confuse us even further, there are possibly two Eva Cannings, and they might be mermaids. "Still, this is what I remember, that I met Eva Canning twice, once in July and again in November, and that both times were the first time we met."

I imagine this novel is catnip for a certain kind of reader, and I found it interesting in fits and starts. Narrating a book from the mind of someone who may be crazy, and is therefore unreliable, is a tough strategy, but Kiernan is successful most of the time, though I couldn't swear I knew what was going on. Also, relying on describing paintings (fictional paintings) which the reader can't see, but can only imagine, is also difficult, but this is also pulled off with aplomb.

The Drowning Girl defies usual criticism, though, because it is a challenge to the reader, a puzzle to be solved. As Imp puts it, perhaps speaking for the author, "My stories shape-shift like mermaids and werewolves. A lycanthropy of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, subjects and predicates, and so on and so forth."

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I saw the second film in the Hunger Games series, Catching Fire, two days and I still don't know what to say about it. It was the last project Philip Seymour Hoffman worked on before his death, and so we will have films featuring him until the year 2015, which will seem ghoulish by then. He has only a small but critical part in this film, as the new game designer, who crafts the 75th Hunger Games, which is supposed to be a doozy. Question: since there is only one Hunger Games a year, how does one become a game designer? Are there regional Hunger Games?

The first film was a dutiful if not slavish visualization of a very good book that combines the elements of reality television with the barbarity of war. The film picks up after Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Millark (Josh Hutcherson) have become the first co-winners, and use a charade of a love affair to whip up popularity. They embark on a victory tour of the other eleven districts of Panem (for those who need background info, I refer you to my review of the book and first film). They start to quietly rebel, much to the consternation of the president (a wonderful Donald Sutherland).

He and Hoffman agree that Katniss needs to die, and dream of something right out of reality TV: an all-stars Hunger Games. Past winners are chosen as tributes, regardless of age, but unlike Survivor or The Amazing Race, this is a game you don't want to have play twice.

As with the first film, the first half is exposition and the second half is the games themselves. The novelty of the first film is gone, but the game portion still is interesting, as this time we get a poisonous fog and bloodthirsty mandrills as dangers to be overcome. We also meet a few other contestants, such as the egghead Jeffrey Wright and the spunky Jena Malone (who offers the only sexuality in these films when she strips down in an elevator).

In certain respects, like many middle segments of a trilogy, Catching Fire is a placeholder, a bridge between the stand-alone first film and the finale (although that film, Mockingjay, will be in two parts). The most important part of this film is the last five minutes, when allegiances are revealed.

Jennifer Lawrence is in a whole different part of the stratosphere than she was when the first film debuted. She's good, and the role is allowed to breathe a little. The love triangle between her, Peeta, and her quasi-boyfriend Gale is a bit too Twilight, but I guess that's to be expected.

I will see the the end of this, just to see how Sutherland gets his (is there any doubt?) I haven't read the last two books, so don't tell me.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles

Suzanne Vega's eight studio album is Tales From the Realm of the Queen of Pentacles, and though the title suggests a Yes concept album from about 1973, it's much more sedate, though the Tarot card theme threads throughout. As an owner of all eight of her albums, I think it's her strongest since 99.9F over twenty years ago.

Again her records defy categorization, but this one is closer to the coffee-house folk that began her career. It opens with "Crack in the Wall," which is sort of an introduction to the set, as it describes seeing a world unfold in a fissure in plaster:

"A world of wonder lay without,
It was all of nature's calling,
With field and forest, clouds and sun
Cascades of salt water falling."

Different Tarot characters pop up, such as the Fool, who hates the Queen of Pentacles for her tyranny, and the Knight of Wands, who seems to be looking on scenes of devastation. I'm not quite sure what it all means, but toward the end of the album we get a song called "Song of the Stoic," which is about the acceptance of death:

"Now I turn around to face
The specter of my age
My soul it lights my body
Like a bird will light its cage

I see that lost horizon
I hope it brings me peace
I look forward to the day
At last my body knows release."

Vegas is 54, which seems young to be thinking things like this, but early in the song she sings, "More years are behind me now than years that are ahead," and when you put it that way, well, she's right.

The songs I like best don't seem to fit the Tarot theme. "I Never Wear White" is a cool indie-rock style song, explaining why, like Johnny Cash, Vega tends to wear black:

"I never wear white
White is for virgins
Children in summer
Brides in the park

My color is black, black, black
Black is for secrets
Outlaws and dancers
For the poet of the dark."

My favorite song is "Don't Uncork What You Can't Contain," an upbeat toe-tapper with elements of Middle Eastern music (it's about a genie). The last song, "Horizon (There Is a Road), is dedicated to Vaclav Havel:

"I knew a man
He lived in jail
And his tale
Is often told

He dreamed that line that he
Called the divine
And when he was free
He led his country"

The production by Gerry Leonard, who co-wrote many of the songs with Vega (although all the lyrics are hers) is top notch. I listened to this album several times over the past week and loved it each time.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

The Day of Battle

The second book in Rick Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy," following An Army at Dawn, is The Day of Battle, which covers the European theater of World War II from the invasion of Sicily to the liberation of Rome, as the Allied troops moved up the shinbone of Italy, pushing the Germans back as the Italians switched sides.

The Italian campaign doesn't get as much discussion as it probably should, since the Normandy invasion, which happened only days after the rescue of Rome, got all the headlines. But from the landing at Sicily to the end it was almost a year of brutal fighting, massive losses of life, and widespread destruction, which Atkinson captures in vivid detail.

The choice of Sicily, which would be called Operation HUSKY, was not a foregone conclusion. Some in command favored Sardinia, Churchill was obsessed with Greece. The Americans agreed with Napoleon, who said that Italy should only be invaded from the top, like a foot going into the boot. But it was a closely held secret, and Operation Mincemeat, involving a corpse laden with false information, was used as a ruse.

Atkinson follows the allies as they slog across Sicily, with George S. Patton colorfully leading the way, slapping a few soldiers and getting in trouble along the way. After taking Sicily, they land at Salerno, and then make the painful crawl northward, getting bogged down as the Germans held a strong line around Anzio. Squabbles between commanders, notably American general Mark Clark and British general Harold Alexander, exacerbate things. Clark was vainglorious, and forever had to live down a fiasco at the Rapido River, and was keen to be the first riding into Rome.

We also learn about the bombing of the abbey at Monte Cassino, which was founded by St. Benedict himself. There was much dithering about whether to destroy such an important historical building, and reading about this so soon after seeing The Monuments Men was interesting. In the end, though, it was thought that Germans were hiding in it, and it was reduced to splinters.

Atkinson relies on many first-hand accounts, from Audie Murphy to Ernie Pyle to Eric Sevareid to Bill Mauldin to the average G.I. We learn about soldiers from various nations who did their part, such as Canada, New Zealand, India, and the Berbers from North Africa, who were particularly fierce fighters, and well appreciated until they started raping women. Also, "It was said that in Sicily they took not only enemy ears as trophies but entire heads."

The book is not stilted academic prose, as Atkinson writes in narrative style, accounting for the weather and flora. At times his prose gets a little too purple, using Crayola as a thesaurus: "The dappled sea stretched to the shore in patches of turquoise and indigo. Beyond the golden ribbon of sand, the Sele plain spread in a silver-green haze. But there the arcadian vision abruptly ended in banks of gray and black smoke, and a pale penumbra of fire hinted at violent struggle and death ashore."

Better is "Toward Naples they pounded, long columns of jeeps and truck and armored cars with German coal-scuttle helmets wired to the radiators as hood ornaments. British military policemen in red caps and white canvas gloves waved them north beneath the rocky loom of Vesuvius, through Nocera and Angri and Torre del Greco. Jubilant crowds strewed flowers beneath their wheels, and priests in threadbare cassocks crooked their fingers in benediction."

Friday, March 07, 2014

Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

There are two reasons I wanted to take another look at Bullets Over Broadway, which I hadn't seen since it first opened. It's the 20th anniversary of the film, and in a little over a week I'll be seeing the Broadway musical based on the film, so I wanted to refresh my knowledge of it.

Bullets Over Broadway is perhaps the last successful pure comedy that Woody Allen has made, as such other attempts like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Small-Time Crooks fell flat. It is an ice cream soda of a film, effervescent and thoroughly refreshing, both a valentine to Damon Runyon and an expression of Allen's comic point of view.

Set in 1928, John Cusack stars as David Shayne, a young playwright in the Clifford Odets mold. He has a new play, but is unwilling to compromise his vision--"I'm an artist!" are his first words. But his producer (Jack Warden) tells him that serious plays don't make money.

We then enter the world of mobsters. Big boss Nick Valenti (a wonderfully reptilian Joe Vitelli) has a mistress, a talentless chorine played by Jennifer Tilly. He will bankroll Cusack's play, but only if Tilly has a role. Cusack eventually says yes. Tilly's bodyguard is Cheech (Chazz Palmintieri), who keeps an eye on rehearsals from the back row. Eventually Palmintieri will turn out to be the theatrical genius, offering suggestions and eventually rewriting the whole play. Cusack realizes he's no artist--at the end of the film he heads back to Pittsburgh.

In addition to this, there are wonderful elements of the backstage comedy, as the cast members of the play offer up their bits. Dianne Wiest, as the diva Helen Sinclair, is the most prominent, and she won as Oscar for the role. She's given to cigarette holders, cloche hats, and broad pronouncements. Today, whenever I mention the film to anyone, the first thing I hear is her repeated line, "Don't speak!"

We also get an amusing storyline involving Jim Broadbent as an actor with an eating problem, and Tracy Ullman as the second lead toting around a chihuahua. But the heart of the film is Allen and co-screenwriter Douglas McGrath's (but it's clearly Allen's) world view--art is everything.

Cusack may be the part Allen would have played if he were younger, but I think Rob Reiner, as his bohemian friend, is spouting Allen's message. Reiner is uncompromising--he has written 20 plays, none produced. "I write plays that are not meant to be produced!" he says proudly. Early in the film he says that artists create their own moral universe, and later will say "guilt is bourgeois crap." The central moral dilemma of the film, (spoiler) when Palmintieri bumps off Tilly to improve the play, is key. Cusack is outraged, and leads to his decision to quit being an artist. But you have to wonder if Allen really takes Palmintieri's view. This was especially relevant consider this film is a few years after his scandal, in which he said, "The heart wants what it wants."

But even without that analysis the film is pure joy. There are too many lines to mention, but I'll end with this, spoken by Harvey Fierstein as Wiest's manager: "He's working on a vehicle for Helen for next season. She plays Jesus' mother. It's a whole Oedipal thing. He loves her... wants to do in the father... well you can see the complications."

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Jack Goes Boating

Following Philip Seymour Hoffman's untimely death last month, I thought I'd take a look at his films that I hadn't seen before. I found out that he had made a lot of films in a relatively short time span, and that I'd seen most of them, which tells me he had a good eye for material.

The one film that he directed was Jack Goes Boating, released in 2010. It also stars Hoffman in the title role, a sad sack limo driver who embarks on a tentative romance with another sad sack (Amy Ryan) while the relationship between his best friend and his wife fall apart.

Hoffman, in many of the eulogies in print on on the Web, was proclaimed the greatest actor of his generation, which I think is a bit of hyperbole, especially since I didn't hear much of that while he was alive. In the last few years he branched out, but for much of his career he played a similar kind of role, perhaps because of his body type. He was frequently the slumping slacker type, a victim of the unmerciful universe. When it came time to direct a film, he gave himself perhaps the ultimate of this type, as Jack is a guy who doesn't seem to have much going on for himself.

The film, adapted from a play by Bob Gaudini, does give Jack the chance for growth. We are led to believe that his relationship with Ryan is a first, and he endeavors to better himself, learning to swim and to cook. But in an overwrought finale in which he attempts to cook a meal, everything falls apart.

Jack Goes Boating is a low-key, hipster kind of movie (the music is by Brooklyn hipster band Grizzly Bear) and wears well in its brief ninety minutes. The performances are good, especially John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega as Jack's friends. For the audience, Hoffman's death is saddest when we think of what he could have done, as in films like The Master he broke free of the sad sack image. He was working on a second directing job when he passed, it would have been interesting to see what he could have done with it.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Oscar 2013: The Show: Just Regular Folks

The 86th Academy Awards, which aired this past Sunday, got the highest ratings in ten years. I'm not quite sure that is, since the show itself was a dull slog, had no surprises, and was hosted by a woman whose schtick is to be desperately liked. I suppose Ellen DeGeneres is liked, especially by the target demographic--women. After all, this telecast is unofficially known as the "female Super Bowl," and Ellen brings in the women.

I have two streams of commentary here. One is on the show, the other on the winners. I'll start with the latter. There is almost nothing to say, because there were no gasp-inducing surprises. I got 20 out of 24 right. When the biggest surprise among Oscarphiles was the winner of the Best Animated Short, then it's pretty much a routine evening.

But while the winners weren't a surprise, some of them were meaningful. Alfonso Cuaron was the first Latino to win Best Director, and 12 Years a Slave was the first Best Picture to be directed by a black (who also was one of the statuette-winning producers, another first). I think we also saw the birth of a star in Lupita Nyong'o, who won Best Supporting Actress. This category has been known to be a curse (Mia Sorvino, anyone?) but I got the impression we'll see a lot more of Nyong'o. She seemed like she was born to be there, dancing with Pharell and getting a hug from Liza Minelli on her walk to the stage. Could we see a black actress grab the attention of moviegoers like Jennifer Lawrence or Julia Roberts before her? I hope directors, writers, and producers are thinking of projects for her right now.

Nyong'o's speech was the best of the night, graceful and humble. In fact, there were a lot of good speeches, and nobody got played off, even when they went way over time. Jared Leto, looking like a Christ as a waiter, managed to give his mother heartfelt thanks, referenced the tumult in Ukraine and Venezuela, recognized the millions dead of AIDS, and gave his rock band a plug. Cate Blanchett did go there, thanking Woody Allen, and Matthew McConaughey gave a three-minute mini-performance, describing how his father is dancing in his underwear in heaven, and then ending with a bizarre spiel of how himself in ten years is his own hero. Cuaron had the best unintentional laugh when he thanked the "wise guys" of Warner Brothers.

Gravity picked up seven awards, most below the line, as expected. The winner of Best Picture was still a big question right up to the moment the envelope opened, as 12 Years a Slave had only won two awards thus far: Nyong'o and screenwriter John Ridley. But as many predicted, 12 Years pulled it out, because it was a more important film.

Now, for the show. I found it to be long and boring. The hero theme was meaningless, as the clips shown seemed random. DeGeneres had a pretty good monologue, but the comedian who never offends actually seemed to do so to Minelli, calling her a drag queen.

For the rest of the show, DeGeneres just seemed to be winging it. I found the pizza incident tacky. DeGeneres was, I'm sure, trying to show us that those millionaire performers are just regular folks, and would appreciate some chow. But the spectacle of these one-percenters tossing money into a hat (Pharell's hat) was disturbing. It's nice that Harvey Weinstein kicked in $200, but at the same time, it seemed like it was just rubbing it in that they're rich and we're not. At least Ellen did give the delivery guy a $1,000 tip.

The other big moment was the selfie that Ellen took with many of the front-row spectators. It's a kind of fascinating snapshot, as it has some very big stars, Kevin Spacey with a goofy look on his face, and a young black man in front who years from now will mystify those who look at it. He is Lupita Nyong'o's brother Peter, who seized the opportunity and blocked Angelina Jolie.

Of the musical performances, I did like the Best Song nominees, but why Pink, of all people, to perform "Over the Rainbow?" I suppose this was an attempt to get the young crowd, but Pink seemed a random choice--were Taylor Swift and Katy Perry busy? Pink's voice is okay, but nothing exceptional. If they were looking for someone who has a fantastic voice and has actually been in a movie, that need only look in the audience for one of the presenters--Kristin Chenowith.

The presenters were a mixed bunch, from young stars like Emma Watson to the older and nearly forgotten, like Goldie Hawn. Kim Novak garnered a lot of Internet buzz for her incoherent appearance and atrocious plastic surgery. Another person getting a lot of comments was John Travolta, who had one job--to introduce Idina Menzel. Instead he introduced "Adela Dazeem," which inspired someone to create a web site that will Travolta-ize your own name.

This is the Oscar ceremony in the age of social media, for better or worse.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Lego Movie

I never played with Legos as a kid, but after seeing the gloriously fun The Lego Movie, I'd kind of like to play with them now. This film, which is a very long commercial for the Danish toymaker, is also much, much better than it has any right to be. The company, which could have just put out a piece of crap, hired writer/directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord, who made a movie that has filled the vacuum of the declining Pixar.

The film is about imagination and thinking outside the box, but is also very meta about it. Our hero, Emmet (voiced by Christ Pratt), is a typical figure who lives his whole life following his instruction booklet. His world is run by Lord Business, who in Murdochian way owns everything, from the TV show (that repeats the same gag line every show) to the cameras that spy on everyone. It's a toy version of 1984, but Emmet is not a rebel. He sings along with all the other characters that "Everything Is Awesome."

But there are rebels, including Wildstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who is in search of the "piece of resistance" that will stop Lord Business from using a weapon that will end the world as they know it. Emmet, who is boring and bland, turns out to be "the special," who is prophesied to stop the destruction. Along with a few sidekicks, including Batman, Emmet learns there are many worlds besides his, and that a mysterious man upstairs controls everything.

This film works on so many levels it's dizzying. It goes beyond the usual animated films that have two levels of humor--for the young and old. Yes, there are many pop cultural references. There are also scholarly references (one visited place is Cloud Cuckoo Land, a nod to Aristophanes). But it's also an intriguing philosophical puzzle, especially when it is revealed who the man upstairs is (no spoiling here).

Most of all it's laugh out loud funny. Much of the humor. oddly, comes from Will Arnett as Batman, who is played as kind of a dick. He's Wildstyle's boyfriend, and says things like, "If this relationship is going to work out between us I need to feel free to party with a bunch of strangers whenever I feel like it. I will text you." Also very good is Liam Neeson as Badcop/Goodcop, who by switching his head around changes his attitude. I also liked Nick Offerman as Metalbeard the pirate, who offers this: "The first rule is never sit on a pirate's face."

Because Lego has so many licenses, there are many familiar characters here, including Superman, the Green Lantern (he's annoying), Milhous Van Houten and Dumbledore. In a kind of celebrity cameo, we get some Star Wars figures, who come to an ignominious fate.

The film has many similarities to the Toy Story films, although these Legos are not aware that they are toys. But, judging by its quality and its box office success, we can be sure to see many more films to come.

My grade for The Lego Movie: A-.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Oscar 2013: Best Director, Picture: Gravitas

Usually the winner of the Oscar is a foregone conclusion well before the ceremony. The DGA award is the usual clincher--it's the most accurate predictor of the Oscar. But this year most Oscar prognosticators agree on who will win Best Director, but not on Best Picture.

For years, a split between the Best Director and Best Picture Oscar was fairly rare--about one year in ten. But in the last fifteen years it's happened five times, so it can't be seen as an anomaly any more. It seems that Academy voters are now differentiating what they deem good direction and what they deem is the best film. Frankly, it's kind of mysterious to me, but it's happening anyway.

Everyone is sure that Alfonso Cuaron will win Best Director for Gravity. The film is a technological marvel, and will probably sweep the below-the-line categories. Cuaron had to make it over several years, waiting for the technology to be invented. It's such a visual marvel that many are willing to overlook the story problems (except the writer's branch, which did not give it a nomination).

Cuaron would be the first Hispanic to win a Best Director Oscar. If he doesn't win, history would likely be made by Steve McQueen winning for 12 Years a Slave, which may very well win Best Picture. So why doesn't McQueen have a better shot, which would make him the first black to win the award (he's only the third nominated)? I suspect it's this new found spreading-the-wealth mentality. 12 Years a Slave may win Best Picture because it's a Serious Subject Movie, while Gravity, ironically, doesn't have the gravitas necessary to win Best Picture. Also, frankly, 12 Years a Slave does have some directing problems in pacing and structure.

The other three nominees for Best Director don't figure to win. Martin Scorsese finally got the monkey off his back seven years ago, and The Wolf of Wall Street will get shut out tonight. David O. Russell picks up his second straight nomination for American Hustle, but will probably win Best Original Screenplay. And Alexander Payne, nominated for Nebraska, would be an earthquake-level shocker.

Will win: Alfonso Cuaron
Could win: Steve McQueen
Should win: Steve McQueen
Should have been nominated: Jean-Marc Vallee, Dallas Buyers Club

In the Best Picture race, it's really a coin toss. Most think that 12 Years a Slave will win, though McQueen will not, and it's because 12 Years a Slave is more of a Best Picture type film. Although Gravity is not really science fiction (there's nothing about it that couldn't happen, I guess) it's nerdy enough to qualify, and no science fiction has ever won an Oscar. Still, I would not be surprised at all if it wins, as it is much more of a crowd pleaser than the didactic Slave, which is also much more difficult to sit through.

Of the other seven films, American Hustle seemed to be a player at one point, after winning the SAG ensemble award, but then again so did The Birdcage. It's stock has dropped a lot after losing the PGA, the DGA, and BAFTA (they award two--Best Picture and Best British Picture; 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, directed by an Englishman, while Gravity, directed by a Mexican and starring Americans, won Best British Film).

If we go by the directing nominations, we can surmise that the next two in the voting will be The Wolf of Wall Street and Nebraska. Wolf is far too debauched and controversial to win, while Nebraska is too cranky and bleak.

The other four films, without directing nominations, figure to settle at the bottom. In the late fall I thought Captain Phillips had a chance to be a spoiler, but it got no director nomination and even Tom Hanks, the former golden boy himself, got skunked. Dallas Buyers Club will get two acting awards, but that's all, even thought it's my personal favorite. Her, which I think does qualify as science fiction, is a player in the Original Screenplay category, but will not win Best Picture, and Philomena is the trailer, the film that was probably the last pancake off the griddle.

Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Could win: Gravity
Should win: Dallas Buyers Club
Should have been nominated: Inside Llewyn Davis

My complete predictions:

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Best Actor: Matthew McConnaughey
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o
Best Original Screenplay: American Hustle
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
Best Foreign Language Film: The Great Beauty
Best Animated Film: Frozen
Best Cinematography: Gravity
Best Editing: Captain Phillips
Best Production Design: Gravity
Best Costume Design: The Great Gatsby
Best Song: "Let It Go"
Best Musical Score: Gravity
Best Documentary Feature: 20 Feet From Stardom
Best Documentary Short Subject: The Lady in Number 6
Best Makeup and Hairstyles: Dallas Buyers Club
Best Animated Short Subject: Get a Horse!
Best Live Action Short Subject: Helium
Best Sound Editing: Gravity
Best Sound Mixing: Gravity
Best Visual Effects: Gravity