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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dean Martin

I've always considered Dean Martin to be an under-rated performer. For one thing, he never seemed to mind playing second-fiddle. When teamed with Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack, he eased into the comfortable role of being a lovable drunk, even though he was never an alcoholic, and didn't like staying up all hours (he preferred going home to his wife and kids). When he was partnered with Jerry Lewis, he was the straight man, letting Lewis do all the antics. He did grow tired of this, though, and ended the lucrative act.

Martin did become a star in his own right. He had a number of acclaimed film roles, such as Some Came Running and Rio Bravo, and a string of James Bond knock-offs in the Matt Helm series. Then he had a long stint on television as host of a variety show and celebrity roasts, where again he played up the barely awake, louche persona that he had crafted so well.

Therefore, I fear his reputation as a singer isn't what it's used to be. I have no idea what people under 40 even think of when they hear the name Dean Martin, if they know who he is at all. But it's singing that is his greatest legacy. I picked up a copy of his greatest hits, and while some of the songs are really moldy oldies, like "Standing on the Corner," his vocal styling, combined with his eternal essence of cool, make him timeless.

Martin's signature song was "Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime," which knocked the Beatles' A Hard Days Night off the top of the charts, and was his theme song thereafter. He also recorded many Italian crooner standards, the kind that put you in mind of a trattoria with red-checkered tablecloths and Chianti: "Volare," "That's Amore," and "Mambo Italiano." Other songs are more interesting, such as "Memories Are Made of This," which is fantastically arranged by Lee Gillette (and hit number 1 in 1955), "Houston," by Lee Hazlewood, a kind of Roger Miller-type song about a guy down on his luck, and "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," an upbeat number that starts out "How lucky can one guy be?" which sums up Martin's life and career in a nutshell.

Not on this record are his Christmas standards, mostly secular, all dealing with bad weather: "Baby, It's Cold Outside," "Let It Snow," and "Winter Wonderland." Another song not on here is "Who's Got the Action", which is my favorite of his. Listening to this just makes you feel like you're the in-crowd. Fortunately I have it on my Ultra-Lounge "Vegas, Baby!" collection.

Martin, who was born Dino Crocetti in Steubenville, Ohio. He died in 1995 at age 78. He always seemed to be having a good time.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Locke

Here's a challenge: make a movie that is shot entirely inside a car, with only one character on screen, having a series of phone conversations, and keep it from being tedious. Not only that, but make it gripping and suspenseful, even though it has nothing to do with crime, but instead what is at stake is a marriage and the pouring of concrete at a construction site.

That is what Steven Knight has done with Locke, which transcends its gimmick to be one of the best films of the year. Of course, Knight had an ace in the hole, with his main actor being Tom Hardy, who without leaving his car seat gives a commanding and heart-breaking performance.

Hardy is the title character, a construction foreman. The movie begins with him starting up his BMW, turning on his Bluetooth (the mind reels at what this character would have done before the invention of the mobile phone). He has made a decision, and deals with it in a series of phone calls. It soon becomes known that he has, during a one-night affair, impregnated a woman, and despite missing a key moment in a major construction project, he will drive from Birmingham to London to be there when the woman gives birth.

As he drives, he talks with the mother of his child, a woman described as "fragile," his wife, to whom he must break the news, his boss, who flips out, and his subordinate, who must take over for him (he will provide the comic relief). Throughout, Hardy, playing a man gifted as a manager, tries to maintain his cool. He is willing to lose his job and his family to do the right thing.

So why not just make this a radio play? Beyond that, Knight has chosen not to show the callers, instead focusing on Hardy. Somehow, with the aid of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, he has made this film visually interesting. The drive is done at night, and the lights reflecting off the windshield, the passing vehicles, the GPS screen, all providing a festival of color and light. The editing, by Justine Wright, excels for being non-obtrusive. I have no recollection of any particular shot lasting for more than thirty seconds, nor of the cuts being too quick.

But as you might imagine, Hardy is the pillar of this film. His character is a man of conviction, and has made a decision and is ready to live with the consequences. It's unusual for a film to be built around a man's integrity, but Locke is just such a movie, and it's kind of refreshing. I do wonder, though, just what kind of accent Hardy is using. It's not precisely English, Scottish, or Irish. If anyone from the UK reads this, maybe they know. Welsh?

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Library

I was intrigued by the news that Steven Soderbergh was directing a play called The Library at the Public Theater. Yesterday, on the last day of the limited engagement, I saw it. I have mixed feelings about it.

The play is by Scott Z. Burns, who has collaborated with Soderbergh on the films Contagion, Side Effects, and The Informant! It is about a Columbine-like school shooting, and features Chloe Grace Moretz as a survivor of the massacre, who is accused by a witness of revealing where other students were hiding to the killer.

Columbine, much like 9/11, has become a dividing point in our culture and history. There is before Columbine and after. There have been other works styled after the shootings, most notably Gus Van Sant's Elephant. The Library, though, ultimately has less to say about what the increasingly common spree killers means in our collective psyche than it simply is a "he said, she said" puzzle.

Performed on an antiseptic, almost bare stage, The Library begins with Moretz, already on stage as the audience files in, lying on metal table, as if in a morgue. We hear recorded voices of her doctors as they save her life. She was hit with a shotgun blast by a pizza delivery man and former student, who went into the library and killed a number of students. Another survivor (Daryl Sabala) remembers hearing a student praying before she was killed, and then Moretz tell the killer that there were other students hiding in an A.V. closet. Those students were all killed.

Moretz is painted as a villain in the national press, especially after she accuses the praying student of being the one who tipped off the killer. That girl's mother (Lili Taylor) a Jesus freak, sanctimoniously denies this, offering Moretz her forgiveness even after she writes a best-seller, calling Moretz a liar.

Clearly Burns was inspired by the girl who supposedly said she believed in God before she was killed at Columbine, which has since been called into question. True believers may not like the way Burns paints the religious as unwilling to see the truth, but I had no problem with it.

Soderbergh directs the play oddly. As I said, the stage is largely bare, the lighting and sound harsh. But the differing approaches to the acting struck me as strange. Moretz, now 17, is terrific, but seems like she's in a different play. Her parents, played by Michael O'Keefe and Jennifer Westfeldt, speak their lines in a formal, almost artificial way, while Moretz is very naturalistic, emotionally fragile, and authentic. Except for one moment, when he breaks down upon reading that his daughter thinks he doesn't believe her, O'Keefe plays a man who seems like he's not emotionally engaged.

I think the artists in this country still don't how to respond to Columbine or its successors, like Sandy Hook. We've gotten some lip service, glancing at the issue, but we haven't gotten to the heart of it. The Library is a good play, but it doesn't choose to come to any conclusions.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Inequality for All

What is the biggest issue facing the United States today? I'm of the belief that it is income inequality--the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots. Robert Reich, the former U.S. Secretary of Labor, thinks so, too, and spells it out in the documentary Inequality for All. I'd been wanting to see this film and I had the chance yesterday when it screened at my local Unitarian church.

Reich, who now teaches at UC-Berkeley, points out that though salaries for the top percent of income-earners in this country has climbed dramatically, wages have remained stagnant since the late '70s. This had led to a shrinking middle class. Problem: 70 percent of the U.S. economy is consumer spending, and if there is no middle-class the economy will continue to take a huge hit.

The richest 44 Americans make us much money as more than half of the rest of the population, which is pretty mind-boggling. Reich doesn't begrudge their wealth; he is a capitalist, and recognizes that talent and gumption should be rewarded. But he is concerned with what they do with their money--they don't really spend it. They may have huge mansions and yachts, but they don't fuel the economy like the middle-class; most of their money is in offshore accounts. They also don't pay taxes like the rest of us. Warren Buffet points out his tax rate is about fifteen percent, less than the receptionist at his firm.

After the halfway point out the film, Reich pulls out what is perhaps most dangerous about income inequality--it's erosion of democracy. Due to horrible, far-reaching decisions by the Supreme Court, spending on financial campaigns is now largely unlimited, allowing the super rich to have undue influence (on both left and right). It could be argued, in fact, that we no longer have a democracy, but instead a plutocracy.

This has not always been this way. Reich, in his classroom, puts up a chart of income equality, and it's like a suspension bridge. It was highest in 1928 and 2007, both years before a market crash. It dips during the post-war era, when unions were strong and the tax rate was higher--it was 91 percent during Eisenhower's administration, but only about 35 percent now. This chart also correlates with the prevalence of unions, which at one time was about one in three workers, but is now challenged at every turn. But in this post-war era, prosperity was high--helping the middle-class, like the tide, lifts all boats. It is not a zero-sum game.

The film includes a lot of media clips and interviews. We see a lot of the objections to this thinking by the right, represented by Fox News, which usually screams "class warfare" and "socialism." One idiot host calls Warren Buffet a socialist, which prompts Jon Stewart to wonder if he knows what socialism is. We also see a lot of the argument that taxing the rich is bad because these are the "job creators." Reich points out that the real job creators are the consumers, who buy goods and services. Many of the top rich people are financiers, who create practically no jobs.

In addition, there is Reich's story. He has a genetic condition that makes him very short, and he has dealt with it humorously all his life. He was Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton (whom he met on the boat over to England, as both were Rhodes scholars). Therefore there may be a little too much congratulation of the Clinton administration. But I find Reich to be one of the more articulate spokesman of progressives. I follow him on Facebook and his posts are fascinating to read. After he left Washington, he thought about running for governor of Massachusetts, but found he didn't have the stomach for the dirty business of electoral politics. All I can do is daydream about him being president.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Babes in Arms

1939 is considered by many to be the greatest year in Hollywood history, and one of the biggest box office earners of that year was Babes in Arms, directed by Busby Berkeley and starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. It is the quintessential "Hey kids, let's put on a show!" movies. But I'm not sure it's remembered as well today as other films, and that may be because of a giant black hole in the movie that I'll discuss in a moment.

Rooney won two special Oscars: one as a juvenile in 1938, the other as an honored old-timer in 1982. He was also nominated four times, the first being for Babes in Arms, when he was only 19. At first you wouldn't think this was an Oscar-type role, but when you give it a second thought, you can see what the voters were thinking.

Rooney stars as Mickey Moran, the son of vaudevillians, with greasepaint in his veins. His dad and other entertainers have all bought homes in a quiet suburban Long Island town. But, as we know, vaudeville died out (a phrase "as dead as vaudeville" entered the language). The old folks start a revival tour, leaving the kids at home. A meddling busy-body (Margaret Hamilton, her second such role that year) tries to put the kids in a state work school. Rooney, along with other kids, mounts a show to prove that the younger generation can succeed.

Some of this works pretty well, some does not. Garland is Rooney's girl, and has the lead in the show, until a former child star (June Pressler) puts up the money for the show, and he has to give her the lead. There's lots of talk about never quitting, and being troupers, and the somewhat strange conviction that you should never give up on your show business dreams, even if it means you can't support yourself or your family.

It's all fairly innocuous, cornball fun, except when we see the show. It's a tribute to minstrels, complete with blackface, the full shuck-and-jive deal. It's highly offensive, and I'm sure this is why the film is not on television much. In today's perspective, you watch slack-jawed, like the audience at Springtime for Hitler.

But Rooney is terrific, and it's not the usual Best Actor role. He is, of course, irrepressible, a dynamo of energy. In one scene, he shows his actors how to play a scene, doing impersonations of Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore (and plays Cleopatra).

This film was based on a Rodgers and Hart musical, but little of their score remains. The most notable song is "Good Mornin'," which was later used to great effect in Singin' in the Rain.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Love Finds Andy Hardy

Mickey Rooney was the biggest box office star of the late '30s and '40s, and much of that is attributable to his role as Andy Hardy in a series of 15 films. It all started in a film called A Family Affair, about the family of the kindly and wise Judge Stone, but like Fonzie in Happy Days, Rooney's irrepressible Andy soon came to the fore, and in the third picture, from 1938, Love Finds Andy Hardy, he was the undisputed star.

Today the film is extremely quaint, but in a pleasurable way, like looking at the yellowing snapshots in an old photo album. It's a time capsule of a much more simple era, idealized, of course. The conflict is over who Andy takes to the Christmas dance and whether he can scrounge up enough money ($8) to buy a used car.

In this installment, Andy, who is about sixteen, finds himself juggling three different girls. His steady girl, Polly (Anne Rutherford) is visiting her grandparents over the holiday. Rooney's pal also has to leave town, so he agrees to pay him the money he needs to take out his girl (Lana Turner), to keep other boys at bay. Meanwhile, the girl next door (Judy Garland) has a crush on Andy, and maneuvers so he will take her to the dance.

It's all inoffensive fun, and Rooney, who was a kind of genius at this, shines. He's like a bantam rooster, strutting his way through the action, barely able to keep still, a flood of words at the ready. The rest of the cast pales in his wake, although Garland, pre-Wizard of Oz, shows her incredible appeal playing the dowdy kid.

A few things made me laugh out loud, such as when Rooney tells his father (Lewis Stone, looking way too old to be a father of teenagers) to get with the times. "It's 1938!" Or when Stone says about telegrams, "They're here to stay!" A big scene has Stone and Rooney getting help from a neighbor kid in sending a message via ham radio, and Stone is so impressed. "I never though I'd see the day," he says. I wonder what he would think of Skype?


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Under the Skin

I'll say this about Under the Skin, I've never seen anything like it. Directed by Jonathan Glazer (his first film in nine years, after Birth), it's a strange configuration of images and sounds, provocative while edging close to tedium. While it was not exactly quickly paced, I was never bored, and instead was kind of in a hypnotic trance.

Scarlett Johansson stars as some sort of alien who is impersonating a human. Under the opening credits we hear her practicing words, and then removing the clothes from a corpse and putting them on. She then heads out into a Scottish city, driving a van and picking up men. Once they are led into her web, they are immersed in some sort of liquid and harvested.

Later, she will grow more curious about her body and want to become human. She feels sorry for one of her potential victims, who is severely disfigured. She wanders into the countryside, pursued by another alien, disguised as a motorcyclist. She tries to eat food, tries to have sex, but it doesn't work, so she heads deep into the woods.

This is the perfect role for Johansson, since it is almost completely impassive (why would she affect an English accent in Scotland, though? Bad information?) Glazer uses her face to great effect, and of course, the film has stirred some buzz because she is nude for the first time.

Much of the rest of the cast are amateurs. They were shot candidly as Johansson picked them up, and then later told about the film. Some of them are quite bold, as they are depicted nude and with erections (something that is almost never seen in nonpornographic films).

So what to make of this? It is not a film for everyone. There is almost no dialogue (and what there is is almost imperceptible due to heavy Scottish accents). None of the characters are named. Almost everything I wrote about the plot is surmised, as there is no exposition, no narration, no title cards. It's provocative in that it is a reversal of the way our civilization preys on women--this time, it's the men who are preyed on. The aliens have it quite right--men will do almost anything for a pretty girl, and these men are led to their doom by their own tumescence pointing ahead of them.

Under the Skin also comments on what it is to be human. Johansson can't eat or make love, but she does learn emotion, such as empathy, love, and fear. If she wanted to achieve her goal, she succeeded--but at what price?

The film is mesmerizing in its images, shot by Daniel Landin, and music score, by Nica Levi. It's drawing mostly praise, including some who call it a masterpiece, while others have called it horrible. I lean toward the former, but I'm not sure I would want to see it again. It did get under my skin, as in some ways it's a very disturbing film.

I find it difficult to assign a grade to something like this, but I'll give it a try and assign it a B+.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Game of Thrones, Season 1

As I wrote on my post about George R.R. Martin's book, I finally got around to watching the HBO series, Game of Thrones, finishing the first season a few nights ago. I wasn't enthralled with the book, determining I won't read the succeeding books, but I was with the show, which is excellent television, another example of this golden renaissance of the boob tube.

What the series is able to do is smooth out the fan-boy stuff and get down to brass tacks. The plot is the same, as labyrinthine as ever, with enough characters to keep both sides of the Atlantic employed. What's different is it has a keener edge. This is like Tolkien combined with Shakespeare's history plays. The maneuvering is easier to watch, and easier to enjoy.

I won't get too involved with plot summary, as it would take me all night. The island of Westeros has seven kingdoms, but are ruled by one sovereign, who sits on the iron throne, forged from swords. We start with King Robert on the throne (Mark Addy, in full on Henry VIII mode). He trusts Eddard Stark (Sean Bean) of the House of Winterfell, but Stark realizes that Addy's wife's family, the rich and sleazy Lannisters, want to put their son Joffrey on the throne, even though he is the product of an incestuous relationship between the Queen (Lena Headey, wearing a perpetual scowl) and her twin brother Jamie (the too handsome Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). That's just scratching the surface, as there are numerous other subplots, including something mysterious going on beyond the massive wall in the north, to an army of Mongol-like warriors, led by the Targaryens, children of the "Mad King," killed by Jamie Lannister, who want the throne back.

Of course, a lot of the credit goes to Martin, who has cribbed a little from British history but created a world that is every bit as interesting as Middle Earth. I loved the detail, such as the rituals of the Night Watch, the monastic order that keeps watch at the wall. The same for the Dothraki, who are the warriors led by Khal Drogo, who has married Daenerys Targaryen (played fetchingly by Emilia Clarke). A lot of this is difficult to keep track of, but seeing it all play out was easier than reading and flipping back to the appendix.

Special credit is to be given for some of the peripheral characters and their performers. Peter Dinklage, as the "imp," Tyrion Lannister, is not peripheral--in fact he may well be the anchor of the cast. Tyrion is the character of a lifetime, and for an actor of Dinklage's stature it may well be a dream come true. He never speaks a line that isn't charming or cunning. The scenes in which he is imprisoned in the Eyrie (held by the bat-shit crazy Lady Arrys, Kate Dickie) are riveting.

I'd also like to single out the characters who maneuver through the king's court like eels. One is Aiden Gillen as Littlefinger, the other Conleth Hill, as Varys, the eunuch called the "spider." The actions of these two give the piece a Shakespearean vibe, sort of like the Wars of the Roses plays, where life was a giant chess game.

And this all is a game, though a deadly one. As Headey says to Stark, "You win or you die." And lots of people die, and the camera doesn't stint in the bloodshed. But the show is leavened with terrific humor (mostly from Dinklage) and great power. The first season ends with Clarke, naked, emerging from a fire with baby dragons crawling on her. That's a wow finish. I'll keep up with this series.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Americanah

The immigrant experience in America has long been the stuff of fiction, as each wave of newcomers has inspired their own literature, from the Irish right up to the present day, when Africans who come of their own accord have added to the discussion. With Africans, of course, comes the discussion of race. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie points out in her excellent novel, Americanah, Africans from countries who have little racial diversity, such as Adichie's Nigeria, don't think of themselves as black until they come to America, where it is then thrust in their faces.

The novel is something of a throwback, a romantic comedy of manners of a sort, but with the added layer of racial politics. Ifemalu is a girl in Nigeria who is in love with Obinze. They both seek to go to America to go to college, but only Ifemalu gets the visa. She leaves, and experiences a whole new world, not only of the strangeness of the place: "it was the commercials that captivated her. She ached for the lives they showed, lives full of bliss, where all problems had sparkling solutions in shampoos and cars and packaged foods, and in her mind they became the real America."

Obinze travels to England, where he must work under a false name, at menial labor. He cleans toilets and drives a truck. "The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain."

Ifemalu gets a job as a nanny, has a relationship with a white man, and starts a blog, detailing her observations as a non-American black: "Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I'm Jamaican or I'm Ghanaian. America doesn't care. So what if you weren't 'black' in your country? You're in America now. We all have our moments of initiation into the Society of Former Negroes. Mine was in a class in undergrad when I was asked to give the black perspective, only I had no idea what that was. So I just made something up."

I enjoyed the blog posts, which also detail the frustrations of dealing with American blacks who talk about Africa as the mother land. Eventually she will have a relationship with an American black professor, who will balk at her decision to return to Nigeria.

Much of the story, before she returns to Nigeria, is told in flashback as she is having her hair done. As it is becoming more apparent in mainstream (white) culture, hair is important to black women, African or not.

Americanah (the term is one used by Nigerians to describe a person has come back after living in the U.S., bringing the accent and Western attitude with them), is a fantastic novel, charming and angry and with its heart on its sleeve. The "will they get back together" plot of the two leads is the least interesting thing about it, and the ending was a bit of a let-down, but no bother. What was more interesting to me, especially as an American, is finding out what people of other countries feel about us. I'd say Adichie was pretty close to the mark. Her comments on racial politics in the U.S. were particularly keen: "Racism is about the power of a group and in America it's white folks who have that power. How? Well, white folks don't get treated like shit in upper-class African-American communities and white folks don't get denied bank loans or mortgages precisely because they are white and black juries don't give white criminals worse sentences that black criminals for the same crime and black police officers don't stop white folk for driving while white and black companies don't choose not to hire somebody because their name sounds white and black teachers don't tell white kids that they're not smart enough to be doctors and black politicians don't try some tricks to reduce the voting power of white folks through gerrymandering and advertising agencies don't say they can't use white models to advertise glamorous products because they are not considered 'aspirational' by the 'mainstream.'"

Monday, April 21, 2014

Harry Nilsson

Harry Nilsson, who performed under just his last name, is one of those singer-songwriters who is best known for writing songs for other people, and for the other artists who admired him. When John Lennon and Paul McCartney were asked what American singer they liked best, they both answered, "Nilsson." Nilsson became friends with all of the Beatles, and had some legendary drug-fueled adventures with Lennon, who once listened to a Nilsson album for 36 hours straight.

Ironically, Nilsson's greatest hits were written by other people. I suppose most today would know him for Everybody's Talkin', written by Fred Neil and used to great effect in Midnight Cowboy. One of the great break-up songs of all time, Without You, was a cover of a Badfinger song, but Nilsson made it completely his own.

But Nilsson excelled as a songwriter. One was a smash hit for Three Dog Night:

"One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do,
Two can be as bad as one, it's the loneliest number since the number one."

Other groups that covered his songs were The Monkees, The Yardbirds, Blood Sweat and Tears, and The Turtles. His songs are still recorded, including his hauntingly beautiful "Don't Forget Me," by Neko Case.

"And when we’re older and full of cancer
It doesn’t matter now, come on get happy
‘Cause nothing lasts forever
But I will always love you"


Nilsson was born in 1941 in Brooklyn, from a broken home. He discusses this in his first single, "1941."

"Well, in 1941 a happy father had a son
And by 1944, father walks right out the door."

After working at the computer department of a bank, he recorded his first album in 1967, and while not a huge commercial success, impressed The Beatles and scores of others. He had a string of albums throughout the '70s, going a little harder mid-decade, but also composing a children's theme album, which included "Me and My Arrow," which has ended up being used in a commercial for an automobile. He also composed and sang the theme song for the TV show The Courtship of Eddie's Father, "Best Friend," which he adapted from his song, "Girlfriend." I can still remember the song well:

"People let me tell you 'bout my best friend,
He's a warm-hearted person who'll love me till the end.
People let me tell you bout my best friend,
He's a one boy cuddly toy, my up, my down, my pride and joy."

Another song well-remembered from my youth was "Coconut," a kind-of novelty song that has inspired many theories. Is it about the remedy for a stomach ache, or is it a form of birth control? He had some other trippy songs, like "Spaceman," and "You're Breakin' My Heart," which gets right to the heart of the matter:

"You're breakin' my heart,
You're twistin' it apart,
So fuck you."

Nilsson never really hit it big, but has an important legacy in the history of pop music. He had an air of mystery--he never toured and rarely gave interviews. He died in 1994, at the age of 53.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Rio 2

I was visiting family for Easter weekend and my sister-in-law asked if I wanted to go to the movies with her and her kids, ages 7, 6, and 4. I would have jumped at the chance to see Bears, but instead it was Rio 2. Now, I had seen Rio, so I wasn't totally in the dark Unfortunately, this film has basically the same good and bad: lovely animation, boring story.

We pick up on Blu (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway), two rare macaws. They are living in a bird sanctuary in Rio, and have three mischievous fledglings. They are used to the ways of humans, and use iPads and eat pancakes. When Jewel hears that she might not be the only one of her kind, and a colony may exist deep in the Amazon, she gets Blu and the kids, along with some of their friends, to find it.

Once they do, Jewel discovers her father (Andy Garcia) is still alive, and that there are hundreds of her own kind. We get the fish-out-of-water humor, as Blu is taught the ways of the jungle by his overbearing father-in-law (the first thing is: lose the fanny-pack). 

Two things threaten their idyll: a vengeful cockatoo is after Blu, helped by a tree frog and an anteater, and the more real problem of an illegal logging operation, which threatens to destroy the birds' habitat.

As with the first film, Rio 2 is filled with light and color and swirling motion (it is again directed by Carlos Saldanha). A three-dimensional soccer game is one of the highlights. But the film dragged and is not appealing to adults. The kids enjoyed it, but there wasn't any laughing out loud--I suspect it simply held their attention.

What's most interesting is the distinctly pro-environmentalist stand the film takes. Not only is the sanctity of the rain forest and its wildlife upheld without question, the villain is heard more than once calling those who oppose him, "tree huggers," a favorite pejorative used by conservative pundits. The film was made by Fox, so I suppose that's why there's been nary a word of protest on Fox News.

My grade for Rio 2: C-.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Inventor and the Tycoon

The Inventor and the Tycoon, by Edward Ball, is essentially a dual biography of two men who radically changed the world, and shared a moment in history. The Inventor was Eadweard Muybridge, who, according to Ball, "invented a new way of seeing." The tycoon was Leland Stanford, who went West seeking fortune and found it, linking the American coasts by rail.

The moment they shared was when Stanford hired Muybridge to photograph horses. "That a man who photographed a horse became a piece of national, and then international, news shows something of the widespread desire for the fleetness of photography, the craving for movement, for speed and acceleration in horses, railroads, emulsions."

Photography in the 1870s was still in its developmental stages (no pun intended), and there was an age-old question that could conceivably now be answered: did horses' hooves entirely come off the ground as they ran? "What especially excited Stanford was Marey's hypothesis that all four hooves of the animal did, in fact, leave the ground during a gallop. It was a question the horse collector regarded as second only, perhaps, to conception."

Ball jumps back and forth between Muybridge's and Stanford's biographies, sometimes abruptly so, in the middle of a chapter. He also tells the story out of chronological sequence, which at times was confusing, as the other major event in Muybridge's life was being tried for murder: he shot and killed his wife's lover, but was acquitted, mostly on the barbaric tradition that a man was entitled to protect his honor. At times I had trouble figuring out if events were before or after the murder. Right now I'm still not quite sure if the horse photos happened before or after the crime.

Stanford was one of America's major magnates, and like most of them, his fortune wasn't completely on the up and up. He was governor while he secured government contracts for the Central Pacific, which would link the nation by railroad for the first time. As his fortune grew, he and his cohort became known as "the Octopus," having their tentacles everywhere, ruling by oligarchy. He and his company resisted efforts at workers' rights, but a tragedy late in life led to his establishing Stanford University (he named the town it resides in, Palo Alto).

Muybridge as the far more interesting story. He was born Edward Muggeridge, and would change the spelling of his name many times. For a time he went by the name Helios. Born in England, he left for America when he was 20 to sell art prints in New York, but then went West and became a celebrated landscape photographer. He was also a tinkerer: "he would patent several things--a clock, a shutter for a high-speed camera, and an apparatus to generate stop-motion photography, which involved equipment that filled a barn." But his most important invention was the zoopraxiscope, which he oddly never patented. It was basically the first motion-picture projector.

Muybridge was an eccentric, a man who sported a long white beard and wore clothes until they fell apart. He married a woman who worked at a photography gallery, but she had an affair with another man. Muybridge tracked him down and shot him dead, in an act of frontier justice. "The Alta California newspaper reported that there had been 560 killings in California in 1854. With a state population of 100,000, this amounts to about one hundred times the homicide rate of California during the early 2000s."

After his acquittal, Muybridge traveled the world, showing off his zoopraxiscope. Stanford, though, never game him much credit (and only reluctantly and lately paid him). Eventually Muybridge would meet with Thomas Edison. "'We talked about the practicability of using the Zoopraxiscope in association with the phonograph, so as to combine, and reproduce simultaneously, in the presence of an audience, visible actions and audible words.' They talked about, in other words, a recipe for sound movies."

Edison would basically steal his idea and set up the first movie studio in West Orange, New Jersey, and would get the whole ball rolling, but it was Muybridge, Ball asserts, that planted the seed. At the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, Muybridge had a theater, which was essentially the first movie theater in history.

The book is mostly engaging when discussing Muybridge and his inventions, less so with Stanford, who frankly isn't that interesting. The men did know each other, and were linked to the revolutionary horse pictures (they were taken by use of a series of still photographs, which of course movies were for over a hundred years), but the pairing of them seems almost random. Many books, I think starting with Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City, have sought to put two historical events together. Sometimes, as with Larson's book, it works, sometimes not so much.

But I was glad to learn about Muybridge. I'm a movie history buff, and I can't say I'd known much about him. I've heard of the Lumiere brother and George Melies and Edwin Porter (who worked for Edison), so it was nice to read Muybridge getting his due: "From Stanford and Muybridge came the first spray of images that became the stream of pictures in which most of us bathe for half our waking hours."

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935)

In tribute to Mickey Rooney, who died a week or so ago, I'll be looking at a few of his films. There are a lot of them--he had a career that lasted almost ninety years, and he made films in ten straight decades, which will be hard to top. He was the last living person who starred in silent films--he did so playing a character called Mickey McGuire (he kept the Mickey--his real name was Joseph Yule).

In 1935, when he was about 14, he played the role of Puck in Max Reinhardt's production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which also starred such luminaries as James Cagney and  Olivia de Havilland (it was her film debut, and she is the last remaining cast member still alive).

Reinhardt was a German theater director who staged the play at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was such a success that it was made into a film. Reinhardt spoke no English, so William Dieterle was co-director, but it was Reinhardt's vision, and though the special effects are crude, it still retains its magic almost eighty years later.

The play is presented straight, without moving it into a different time and place. To celebrate his wedding to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, Duke Theseus has called for a revel. A bunch of working men get together to put on a play of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. Young lovers, Lysander (Dick Powell) and Hermia (de Havilland) run off into the woods because her father wants her to marry Demetrius (Ron Alexander). They are pursued by Demetrius and Helena (Jean Muir), who is hopelessly in love with Demetrius.

They are in the magic part of the forest, the fairies' realm. The king of the fairies, Oberon (Victor Jory), is mad at his queen, Titania (Anita Louise), because she has stolen his changeling. He gets revenge on her by anointing her eyes with a liquid that will make her fall in love with the first creature she sees. This turns out to be Cagney, as Bottom, one of the actors. To make matters worse, Puck, an impudent, fun-loving sprite, has given Cagney the head of a jackass.

The fairies also play havoc with the Athenian lovers, as magic makes both men in love with Helena. All is fixed, though, and the play ends with the workers version of Pyramus and Thisbe, which is comically inept.

It's hard to screw up this play, because the comedy is so rich, and this is a fine production. As I said, it plays it straight, so we get fairies that look like fairies (though Oberon's minions are dressed like bats). Many of the cast had never done Shakespeare before or after, such as Cagney and comedian Joe E. Brown (as Flute), but they are excellent, as is Rooney, is so joyous and uninhibited in the part. I also thought Jory gave Oberon a hint of something sinister that isn't often seen.

The film was shot by Hal Mohr, who won an Oscar (a write-in winner, the last the Academy allowed), and while it is unsophisticated by today's standards, the scenes of the fairies, which are shot through shimmering filters, work wonderfully. Occasionally there is stuff that could have been cut, such as a ballet sequence, but Reinhardt and his cast milk the laughs. I actually laughed out loud and some of it, mostly the work of Cagney and Brown. The film also uses Felix Mendelssohn's orchestral music, written for the play, one of my favorite classical pieces.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Frozen

The wildly popular winner of the most recent Best Animated Film Oscar, Frozen, plays less like a Disney cartoon than an X-Men origin story. Somewhere underneath all the ice and snow is a film about female empowerment, but at the same time the lead female characters have the physiques of Barbie dolls.

Thus are the contradictions of this uneven film, directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee. It is a runaway hit, the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and received the accolades of most critics, who called it the best Disney animated film since the renaissance of the late '80s/early '90s.

I'm kind of meh about it. It certainly isn't a bad film, but it didn't do much for me. The CGI animation is visually stunning, but lacks the warmth (no pun intended) of the hand-drawn films of the Disney glory years.

The story is based, very loosely, on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen (Disney had wanted to make a film of Andersen tales back in the '40s). Two princesses, in a Scandinavian-like country, are happy, especially when Elsa, the eldest, uses her special powers: the ability to control ice and snow. But an accident that hurts the younger sister, Anna, forces the girls to be locked away in a castle. When Elsa comes of age and is coronated, she hopes not to reveal her powers, but Anna forces her hand, and she escapes into the wilderness, where her fear and rage have turned the whole country into a winter wonderland. Problem: it is summer.

Anna then goes on a trek to find Elsa, helped by an ice salesman and his pet reindeer. Along the way they meet a snowman who has come to life, who provides the comic relief.

Frozen is a musical, with songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. The most prominent is "Let It Go," which won the Best Song Oscar and was a number one hit, especially among tween girls. The song has a great hook--those three notes have been running through my head for 24 hours now--but I can't remember the rest of the song, nor any of the others. I do see why the film is popular with girls, as the film focuses on the relationship between sisters, and has less to do with romance.

But the film also has problems. Just where did Elsa's powers come from? I'm not the only one who thought the film smacked of the X-Men--a clever YouTube parody has her visiting Professor X. Except for Olaf the Snowman (voiced by Josh Gad), the film isn't very funny, and a reveal of a character near the end seemed way out of left field.

The best thing about the film, aside from the effects, are the voice work of Idina Menzel and especially Kristen Bell as the sisters.

As with the theatrical release, the DVD includes the short Get a Horse!, a clever film that combines the animation style of the first Mickey Mouse cartoons with the modern era, as in a Sherlock Jr.-like phenomenon, Mickey and Minnie and the villainous Peg-Leg Pete pop off the screen into a contemporary theater. Mickey's voice is provided by Walt Disney himself.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013

The Best American Nonrequired Reading series is edited by Dave Eggers, though this is his last one. The items are selected by literary-minded high school students, and boy have they done a terrific job here, as this collection was a joy from beginning to end, a mix of fiction and nonfiction, with an assortment of odds and ends.

The front section, titled The Best American Front Section, is kind of a catch-all appetizer, with poems, stories, and other short bits that defy categorization, such as comic strip by Lynda Barry, a term-paper assignment by Kurt Vonnegut when he taught writing at the University of Iowa (he ends it by writing, "Since there are eighty of you, and since I do not wish to go blind or kill somebody, about twenty pages from each of you should do neatly. Do not spin your wheels. Use words I know"), Yelp reviews of chain restaurants as if written by Cormac McCarthy (really written by EDW Lynch), and my favorite, Tweets from @seinfeldtoday--plots of Seinfeld episodes if the show were still around now, such as: "Elaine pretends to live in Brooklyn to date a cute, younger guy. Kramer becomes addicted to 5-Hour Energy. George's parents get Skype." Or, "George's boss fires him after misconstruing 'sympathy like' on a Facebook post about his divorce. 'I liked it but I didn't LIKE it.'"

The book's second part settles into short stories and essays, all of them excellent. Particularly intriguing was a story about espionage, "Black Box," by Jennifer Egan, that is written in a series of how-to paragraphs. Other fiction worth noting is Jim Gavin's wonderfully loopy "Bewildered Decisions in Times of Mercantile Terror," about two cousins, one successful and one not. Here is a sample: "Nora was tall and pale, and because of her stylish pixie haircut and listless expression men often asked her if she was a model. She had actually paid her way through college doing catalogue work, posing in cardigans next to duck ponds, but she liked to tell men that she was dying of consumption." I wish I had written that sentence.

Other fiction highlights are a tale of romance from Bulgaria, "East of the West," by Miroslav Penkov; Alexander Maksik's "Snake River Gorge," about a sinister sales group that recruits young kids into a cult; Madhuri Vijay's "Lorry Raja," about child labor at Indian iron mine; and my favorite, "Human Snowball," about one magic night in Buffalo.

On the nonfiction front, there's Karen Russell on "The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador," which is about exactly what the title suggests; "All Due Respect," by Peter Hessler, about an American journalist covering organized crime in Japan; Pamela Colloff's gripping "Hannah and Andrew," which concerns a woman convicted of murdering her foster son, and the fierce "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance," by Kiese Laymon, which should be read every time one eases into thinking that we are in a post-racial society: "We're fighting because she raised me to never ever forget I was on parole, which means no black hoodies in wrong neighborhoods, no jogging at night, hands in plain sight at all times in public, no intimate relationships with white women, never driving over the speed limit or doing those rolling stops at stop signs, always speaking the king's English in the presence of white folks, never being outperformed in school or in public by white students and most importantly, always remembering that no matter what, white folks will do anything to get you."

I highly recommend this collection to anyone who loves great writing, in whatever form.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Lorde

Ella Yelich-O'Connor, better known as Lorde, has accomplished more before her 17th birthday than most of us will in a lifetime. She's had a hit record, won a Grammy, and played with Nirvana at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. I have no idea if anyone will be listening to her ten or even five years from now, but as of this moment she's in the sun.

I remember first hearing "Royals," her signature hit, on the radio and thinking it quite good. Later, as I suspect most people did, it was quite a shock to hear that the smooth, elegant voice of that song was only 16. It was like when Steve Winwood was only a kid, but had an adult's voice on "Gimme Some Lovin'." Lorde's voice is precocious, full of age and wisdom, but emanating from a teenage Kiwi.

I've had a chance to listen to her whole album, Pure Heroine, and while it may not measure up to "Royals," it comes close. There isn't a lot of diversity on the album, with all the songs having a kind of jazzy, electronic sound to them, more than one of them beginning with what sounds like the sonar ping of a submarine. They are written by Lorde and Joel Little, who performs all of the instruments, but without ego, as there are no music solos to speak of. It's all about her voice.

Lyrically the album has some subtlety and more than a bit of high school poetry, as one might expect. "Royals," which was oddly inspired by a picture of George Brett, is sort of a modern update of the kind of song that has been around forever--money sure is nice, but it doesn't beat our love:

"We'll never be royals,
It don't run in our blood
That kind of love just ain't or us
We crave a different kind of buzz
Let me be your ruler
You can call be queen bee
and baby I'll rule
Let me live that fantasy."

The song is perfectly produced, with backing vocals by Lorde herself, producing a kind of sexy coyote howl on the word "rule." I could listen to this song over and over for an hour.

There are other songs I liked, including "Glory and Gore," "Still Sane," and "Tennis Courts," which would seem to be about kids getting freaky where "love" is more than a score.

I'll be interested to see where Lorde goes from here. A second album would help with a little more range. I don't think she'll be a one-hit wonder, as she has the voice and the songwriting chops to be in it for the long haul.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Draft Day

Let's give this to Kevin Costner--he's king of the sports movies. From American Flyer, one of his first starring roles, to Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, and Tin Cup, he's personified the American attitude about sports. And he has, now in his late 50s, continued that trend with Draft Day, a movie about the esoteric world of the professional football amateur draft.

I saw this with a couple of friends, and we all agreed that we liked it better than we thought we would. The script is funny and smart, Costner is at his best, and there are some clever twists. But we also talked about the football draft, which now generates almost as much press as the actual season does. One friend said she can't watch the draft, but I have watched it, and against my better judgement. It tends to suck you in, and you get involved with the stories of the players, the ones who sit there in the green room, surrounded by their families, waiting to get picked.

There's a lot of that drama in Draft Day. To be sure, the claims that this film could have been called "Men on Phones" is true. In many ways it's like Moneyball, although without the romantic allusions. Football is not a romantic sport. Baseball is a business, yes, but it has literary flights of fancy. There is no romance in football. It is strictly a business.

Costner stars as Sonny Weaver, in his second season as general manager of the hapless Cleveland Browns (the script originally had the team as the Buffalo Bills, who have been equally hapless as of late, but Cleveland has a much richer football history). He's had an interesting week. His father, longtime coach of the Browns, passed away, but not before being fired by his own son. His girlfriend, also a co-worker (Jennifer Garner) has told him she is pregnant. And it's draft day, and he's just a made a trade with Seattle for the number one pick.

Everyone thinks it will the Heisman Trophy winner, a white quarterback. But Costner likes a linebacker from Ohio State (well played by Chadwick Boseman). The brash coach, Denis Leary, likes a running back. Over the course of the day, Costner will deal with all those people, his image-obsessed owner (Frank Langella), his mother (Ellen Burstyn) and other teams, and try to do the best for the team.

From what I know about the draft, the action here seemed authentic, and those who treasure the art of negotiation will have a blast. But beyond that, I found the dialogue witty and laughed out loud several times. That this is a sports movie that doesn't have any sports action in it may seem blasphemous, I can appreciate that, but this film really isn't about football, it's about horse-trading.

The director, Ivan Reitman, tries to spice things up by using various camera tricks during the many phone conversations, and frankly they call attention to themselves. But aside from that, the film is easygoing and well-paced.

It probably helps to know and love (or at least like) American football to fully appreciate Draft Day, but I don't think it's essential.

My grade for Draft Day: B.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Oculus

Here's how I ended up seeing Oculus, a movie I ordinarily would've waited for DVD release. I took my car in for an oil change and a minor repair. I took it to Pep Boys, because I like their service, but it always takes a while. They are next door to a mall that has a movie theater, so I time it so I can drop the car off, have breakfast at a diner, and then see a movie. The pickings were slim this week, so instead of Mr. Peabody and Sherman I saw Oculus, a horror film that is getting decent reviews.

And it is decent, but not revelatory. The story is pretty simple--it's about a haunted mirror. The action cuts back and forth between two time frames--the present, when a young man (Brenton Thwaite) is released from the loony bin. He's picked up by his sister (Karen Gillan), and it unfolds that eleven years earlier, his mother and father went crazy. The father killed the mother and Thwaite killed the father.

Gillan has always been show it was the mirror's fault, and has the research to back it up. Since it first appeared in the record, everybody who has owned it has come to a grisly end. She's purloined it from the auction house where she works and taken it back to the family house, where she will prove that it is supernatural and destroy it.

Directed and edited by Mike Flanagan, Oculus succeeds because of its sense of dread. Sure there are ghosties that pop up, but it almost doesn't need them. I also liked the way Flanagan cuts back and forth in time, sometimes including both time periods in the same shot, as if the past and present were haunting each other.

The film was ideal for my purpose--a way to passably kill some time. It doesn't transcend the genre, and nor did it stick with me--I didn't come home and cover up my mirrors, for example. I did like Gillan, she kind of reminded me of Jennifer Lawrence. She also hits my two favorite crush areas--from the U.K. (Scottish) and a redhead!

My grade for Oculus: C+.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Stephen Colbert

Who had the best week ever this week? Well, a candidate is surely Stephen Colbert, who was named the replacement for host of the CBS Late Show, only a week after David Letterman announced his retirement. For the last two days Colbert's face has been everywhere, as everyone, from TV critics to Rush Limbaugh, has an opinion on the subject. Why not me?

I do think Letterman was the greatest late-night host in the history of TV, and will post on him when his retirement is nigh. But the alacrity of Colbert's hiring seems to indicate that he was the only choice. How he will fare and what it will mean for the "late night landscape" is fun to speculate about.

To start, unlike The Tonight Show, which has an almost sixty-year history, The Late Show was created for Letterman, so the only legacy is his. It's hard to remember, but before Letterman took the gig, CBS was running reruns of cop shows at 11:30. ABC didn't have a late-night host, either. NBC, with Johnny Carson, had owned late night, and when Letterman started his show on NBC (after a creative but ill-timed morning show) he broke new ground there, as well.

Now the channels are littered with hosts, with two networks having two shows, and basic cable in the game, too. Jon Stewart, who was not the first host of The Daily Show (that honor goes to the now-forgotten Craig Kilborn) established a beachhead, and Colbert spun off at 11:30, using his buffoonish right-wing character to satirize conservative hosts like Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly.

New York magazine posted some of the reviews of his show's debut, most predicting it was a one-trick pony and wouldn't last. But Colbert, never breaking character, created a classic. I remember the first time I remember thinking, "I've got to watch this show." He took down a particularly loony Glenn Beck segment, and as he does with these things, his character agreed with it while also making it look completely stupid. Since then he's done a kind of performance art, with his exposure of the inane loopholes in PAC laws, or his run for "the president of South Carolina."

When the rumors started about Colbert as new Late Show host began, I and many others wondered if he would continue the character of "Stephen Colbert." He is an actor, not a stand-up comedian, as almost every late-night host has been. Can he succeed being himself? Know one knows for sure, but I have every confidence, as the man has probably only shown us one side of himself. Jon Stewart mentioned that he "gears he hasn't used yet." Colbert is an accomplished musical theater performer, so we can expect to hear him singing a lot more.

But what about his politics? Most late-night hosts criticize both parties, and to be fair, Colbert didn't hesitate to make some Democrats look foolish. But it's hard not to see that Colbert leans left (Letterman, later in his career, showed his lefty stripes as well, with his feud with Sarah Palin and going much further with mocking George W. Bush than Obama). This has what has ignited the firestorm on the right fringes, with Rush Limbaugh claiming that CBS has stuck to it America's heartland, where ever that is. Colbert will now be interviewing starlets and and sit-com actors, while the authors and intellectuals that graced his stage at Comedy Central likely will not be asked on. It's hard to be political while chatting with Selena Gomez.

But who knows? I'm excited to see what he and his writers come up with. I will miss "Stephen Colbert," though, the way he adjust his eyeglasses and addresses his audience as "nation." It was one of the greatest characters in the history of television, right up there with Archie Bunker, Lou Grant, and Fraser Crane.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Open Secret

Open Secret, directed by John Reinhardt, is a noir film with a wrinkle. It's also a socially-conscious film, an expose of small-town anti-Semitism. Released in 1948, there were a handful of films (most notably Gentleman's Agreement) that took on this issue, and the idea worked its way down to the B-films. Open Secret is not very good, but it is fascinating, historically.

The film stars John Ireland and Jane Randolph as honeymooners who are passing through town. They crash at the apartment of Ireland's old army buddy. When the buddy disappears, Ireland starts investigating, and notices that the town seems to run by a group of white men who are angry about "foreigners." Ireland reports his friend's absence to the police sergeant, Sheldon Leonard (who has an Italian last name), and then he has incriminating photos developed by the Jewish camera-store operator (George Tyne).

The film has some interesting stylistic touches. As a noir, it is full of shadows. But the print on the DVD is in sad shape, and there is an abundance of scenes of people opening and closing doors. It's only 67 minutes long, but it seems like five more minutes could have been trimmed in editing without losing a thing. The acting is also pretty cartoonish (a young Arthur O'Connell, as the ringleader of the anti-Semites, is an exception).

The film is more interesting as a social document. It doesn't overtly address the issue--people who are not white Anglo-Saxons are just referred to as "foreigners," until late in the film, when the words "kike" and "wop" are used. Of course the film takes the stance that this is wrong-headed thinking--the missing friend has pamphlets with titles like "Were the Nuremberg Trials Fair?" which in 1948, would have been a controversial statement.

What's perhaps most disturbing is that there are still people like this today, the type of people that Tweet that a foreigner has won Miss America when it was a woman of Indian descent, born in this country. Some people never learn.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fort Apache

When Shirley Temple died two months ago, I was tempted to watch some of her films. I'd seen many of them as a little kid years ago--I have distinct memory of watching Heidi (not sure if it was the airing that pre-empted the football game). I decided against it, figuring they don't hold up except for purely nostalgic reasons, and are far too saccharine.

However, I did have a film of hers in my Netflix queue, so I moved it up, where it languished labeled "Short Wait" for weeks, perhaps demanded by others seeking to see Temple films. But it's hardly known as being a Shirley Temple film--it's Fort Apache, directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda and John Wayne.

That Shirley Temple was in Fort Apache is sort of an odd thing. It ended up being one of her last roles, filmed when was about 18. She met her first husband, John Agar, during the filming. Still charismatic and dimpled, Temple has a few nice scenes as the willful, spoiled daughter on Fonda's fort commander, but she's not the main focus here.

Fort Apache is one of Ford's best Westerns, the first in his so-called "Cavalry" trilogy, released in 1948. It's one of the first Westerns that didn't treat the Indians as mindless savages, and Fonda's character is one of remarkable nuance.

The setting is the eponymous fort in Arizona, post-Civil War. Fonda has been assigned to it, and he's not happy, moving from Europe to a dusty backwater. A widower, he takes his daughter, Temple (vividly named Philadelphia Thursday), and she does her best to make a home. But the others in the fort resent his presence. Wayne, as Captain York, the provisional commander, gives him a chance, but Fonda is by the book and is looking for glory--namely, capturing the renegade Apache leader, Cochise.

The film starts as a kind of comedy of manners--Fonda's uptight Colonel dealing with the lax discipline of the fort. Agar, as the lieutenant just in from West Point, is immediately drawn to Temple, and vice versa. Some of Ford's stock company--Victor McLaghlen and Ward Bond--are on hand, with Irish brogues and a thirst for whiskey. An amusing scene has McLaghlen and his cohorts, ordered to destroy a barrel of moonshine, picking up a ladle and announcing they have a lot of work to do.

The film takes on a more serious tone as it leads to a full scale battle, shot, of course, in Monument Valley. Wayne has talked Cochise into returning from Mexico to the reservation to talk peace, but Fonda wants to attack him, enraging Wayne. The film presents Fonda as the symbol of arrogant ignorance, not caring about the customs of the Apache, just the letter of the law. But Fonda is not a martinet (he even says so at one point). He is a man unable, even if he wanted to, of relaxing his standards.

As with all Ford films, it's impeccably shot. The exteriors were shot in infrared film, which makes the clouds look even more dramatic. Although there is a bit too many ballroom dances, and Temple and Agar, despite their real-life romance, don't exhibit much chemistry together, the film is vibrant.

Shirley Temple's post-film career was exemplary, so there's certainly no regret by anyone that she didn't continue it. Frankly, it's hard to see her expanding upon the cutie patootie that she was as a child, and perhaps she had no interest in expanding. But she does fine in Fort Apache, even though she is a footnote to an otherwise classic Western film.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Executive Action

I think the first belief in a conspiracy in the assassination of John F. Kennedy happened a few second after the shots were fired in Dealey Plaza. Those beliefs have not subsided fifty years later--I think I read somewhere that a majority of people think that there was a conspiracy, though nothing has been proven.

I'm still on the fence. I read a book some years ago called Case Closed, by Gerald Posner, that had me convinced that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. But the one thing that's always nagged at me is Jack Ruby--a man with ties to organized crime takes out Oswald, for the lame excuse that he wanted to spare Mrs. Kennedy a trial. I am dubious.

There have been a few films about the conspiracy, the most prominent being JFK, by Oliver Stone. But the first was 1973's Executive Action, directed by David Miller, with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. One of the credited story authors is Mark Lane, whose book Rush to Judgment is one of the seminal tomes on a conspiracy.

We've heard a lot of theories--the Mafia, the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover, Cubans, Lyndon Johnson, or a combination therein. This film posits that it is a right-wing cabal of former intelligent agents, politicians, and businessmen who, dismayed at Kennedy's left-leaning policies (namely, the nuclear test ban treaty, withdrawal from Vietnam, and sympathy for the black race) have decide to take "executive action" and assassinate him for the good of the country.

This is all set up very well. They meet in the home of Robert Ryan (it would be his last film). They are all the kind of guys you see at country clubs, true-blue Republicans, who wear suits and ties even in casual moments. We don't really know who they are, or what they do--it appears the the ringleader, played by Burt Lancaster, is a former black op specialist, and that Will Geer is a southern oil tycoon. He is resistant, but the others need him, presumably for his money. When Kennedy announces a withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, he's in.

They concoct a plan using Lee Harvey Oswald as their patsy, and in precise detail we see how they framed him, using a double (they also prefigure Oliver Stone's claims that the famous photo of Oswald with his gun was faked). One of the unnamed conspirators has ties to the White House, for he says he will convince the right people to take the motorcade through Dealey Plaza, including making a nonsensical sharp turn that takes the car right by the Texas Book Depository.

The film is interesting, and has a chilling aspect, even if the conspiracy theory is a fantasy. Trumbo writes this so well that we feel it easily could happen. Of course, the suspense isn't really there--at times I imagined someone stopping them, but of course we know that won't happen.

There are a few bizarre problems--how did a man who did not work at the Depository manage to walk right in, unseen, and take his place by the window? The film shows the conspirators watching the motorcade on television, but of course it wasn't televised, making the Zapruder film so important.

There are people who spend their entire adult lives studying the assassination, without coming to any solid conclusions. I think, with time and the deaths of so many involved, this will remain an unsolved mystery. But Executive Action, at a trim ninety minutes, would make a good double-feature with JFK.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Enceladus

In astronomy news this week it was announced that Enceladus, which sounds like an item on the menu at Taco Bell, but is actually a moon of Saturn, has a body of liquid water, an ocean under its icy crust. At one time, it was thought that Earth was the only object in the solar system that had liquid water. Why is this important? Because water is the key ingredient in life.

Frankly, I had never heard of Enceladus before. At first I thought it was a newly discovered moon; it has 62, so far. But no, this one was discovered by William Herschel in 1789. It just hasn't gotten as much press as Titan or Hyperion. It is only 500 kilometers in diameter--one seventh the size of Earth's moon, but the sixth-largest of Saturn's moons. The Cassini spacecraft observed in 2005 that it shoots plumes of water out of its poles, which then led to the discovery that the source of the plumes was an ocean, thereby exciting scientists who think that this could be the most ideal place for extraterrestrial life.

But beyond that, I love hearing about places like this. I'm not a big sci-fi geek, but imagining outposts like this one fire up the imagination. If every moon, asteroid and the like could be inhabited, it would be so cool, the way we think of exotic countries now. I mean, we don't know much about Turkmenistan, but we know there are people there. What if all of space were like this, each one having its own character? The old Lost in Space TV show simplified this, as there was the planet of hippies, the one where vegetables could talk, etc.

Learning about Enceladus also compelled me to learn about the name. Enceladus is a name from Greek myth (at first, the planets were named for Roman gods, their moons for Greek gods, but this has been fudged over time). He was a giant, or Gigante, one of the children of Gaia, fertilized by the blood of a castrated Uranus (these Greek myths sure are lurid). The first discovered moons of Saturn were named after the Titans, who were children of Uranus and Gaia, but Enceladus doesn't seem to be technically a Titan.

Anyhoo, like other Gigantes, he had serpent-like lower limbs and dragon-like feet. He was killed in the battle of Olympians by a spear thrown by Athena and buried in Sicily. That he had a moon named after him is probably his most lasting legacy.

But think, think! of what it would mean if some microbe were discovered to be swimming around in Enceladus' frigid water! Then Enceladus would be a name on everyone's lips.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Mamas and the Papas

John Phillips was, by many accounts, a reprehensible human being. But he was a genius in one area--harmonic arrangements. For the three years he was the creative force behind The Mamas and the Papas, he and his band mates crafted some of the best pop of the already rich 1960s.

The band formed when Phillips and his wife, Michelle, teamed up with two members of a band called The Mugwumps, Cass Elliot and Dennie Doherty. They all came out of the folk-rock scene, the same DNA pool from whence The Byrds and The Lovin' Spoonful were born. The group, backed by Lou Adler, made their debut in 1965, and ended up producing six albums. They had two masterpieces: California Dreamin' and Monday, Monday, plus a number of other hits, both written internally and covers of other songs.

The group lasted for three acrimonious years, and has one of the most lurid Behind the Music stories of any rock band. Phillips, after Michelle had an affair with Doherty, fired her from the group (while they were still married). Elliott was in love with Doherty. Like Fleetwood Mac, who has the second-best Behind the Music episode, they wrote songs about the in-fighting.

The sound is unique in rock history. The harmonies are exquisite, and the lyrics, while not brilliant, have their moments. "California Dreamin'" starts with "All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray. I've been on a walk, on a winter's day. I'd be safe and warm, if I was in L.A. California dreamin', on such a winter's day." The song is rendered in a minor key, making the whole thing sound almost like a requiem, and it casts the singer's longing for warmer weather as en existential crisis.

"Monday, Monday" is also something of a crisis song. Mondays, of course, have been disparaged in groups ranging from The Carpenters to The Boomtown Rats, but the way Doherty, who also sings "California Dreamin'," gives the song a quality that makes us think he may be on the edge of suicide.

"Monday, Monday
Can't trust that day
Monday, Monday
Sometimes it just turns out that way
Oh, Monday morning
You gave me no warning
Of what was to be."

The group's other standouts include some of the songs written about their various affairs. Go Where You Wanna Go. now used as a theme for allergy medication, is like Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way," with two band mates singing to each other--one of them saying "hit the bricks" while the other makes excuses for her adultery. It's a terrific song, with a great string opening. I Saw Her Again Last Night. while appearing to be about a guy not wanting to lead a girl on, is instead about when Phillips saw Michelle sneaking into Doherty's hotel room. The song has a happy accident, at one point Doherty appears to stop and start his vocals, which was an engineering error. It was kept in because it gives the song an added frisson of improvisation.

They even had a song about their own history, Creeque Alley;


John and Mitchie were gettin' kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind;
Zal and Denny workin' for a penny
Tryin' to get a fish on the line.
In a coffee house Sebastian sat,
And after every number they'd pass the hat.
McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin' higher in L.A.,
You know where that's at.
And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Zallie said, "Denny, you know there aren't many
Who can sing a song the way that you do; let's go south."
Denny said, Zallie, golly, don't you think that I wish
I could play guitar like you."
Zal, Denny, and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl)
And after every number they'd pass the hat.
McGuinn and McGuire still a-gettin higher in L.A.,
You know where that's at.
And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

When Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore
But she changed her mind one day.
Standin' on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike,
"Take me to New York right away."
When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps;
Called John and Zal and that was the Mugwumps.
McGuinn and McGuire couldn't get no higher
But that's what they were aimin' at.
And no one's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Mugwumps, high jumps, low slumps, big bumps -
Don't you work as hard as you play.
Make up, break up, everything is shake up;
Guess it had to be that way.
Sebastian and Zal formed the 'Spoonful;
Michelle, John, and Denny gettin' very tuneful.
McGuinn and McGuire just a-catchin' fire in L.A.,
You know where that's at.
And everybody's gettin' fat except Mama Cass.

Broke, busted, disgusted, agents can't be trusted,
And Mitchie wants to go to the sea.
Cass can't make it; she says we'll have to fake it -
We knew she'd come eventually.
Greasin' on American Express cards;
Tents low rent, but keeping out the heat's hard.
Duffy's good vibrations and our imaginations
Can't go on indefinitely.
And California dreamin' is becomin' a reality...

Some of the covers the band did showed off the group's wonderful voices. Cass Elliot had a hit with "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and "Dancin' in the Street," while Doherty performed "My Girl." All of the group teamed up for "Dedicated to the One I Love."

The Mamas and the Papas were a vocal group--only Phillips played an instrument, usually strumming a guitar during performances, often wearing a ridiculous fur hat. The other musicians weren't part of the "group."

Michelle Phillips is the only one left. Elliott died first, of heart failure when she was just 33. For years it has been erroneously described that she died choking on a ham sandwich, a cruel joke since she was a large woman. Phillips, a heroin addict and lover of underage women (according to his daughter McKenzie, that included her), received a liver transplant and died in 2001. He also wrote the hits "San Franciso (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) and The neo-Beach Boys hit, "Kokomo." Doherty died in 2007.

The Mamas and the Papas are perhaps the best example of the notion that beautiful things don't necessarily come from the most ideal circumstances. But their music, particularly the golden four-part harmony, is still eminently listenable today.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the latest in the seemingly never-ending Marvel Universe series, is more of a political thriller than a superhero movie, but it is a blast nonetheless. With a plot "ripped from the headlines," it takes a dim view of government surveillance, and has a Hollywood legend playing his first villain. It has great action--including superb car chases and terrific fight choreography--and typical comic book quips.

The film has Cap (Chris Evans) still adjusting to life after being frozen for sixty plus years (he's made a list of things he needs to check out, ranging from Star Wars to Nirvana). We start out with Cap and Black Widow (a glamorous and sly Scarlett Johansson) taking on pirates on a freighter. Johansson steals a thumb drive, and eventually Cap learns from the director of SHIELD (Samuel L. Jackson) that an Operation Insight is ready to launch. This operation will send up three advanced heli-carriers that will spy on people, including Americans, and eradicate them before they have a chance to do anything bad.

Cap, being a good civil libertarian, immediately objects. The project is the baby of Robert Redford, as the Secretary of some sort of international peace project. Am I really spoiling anything to reveal that Redford has darker motives?

Anyway, Captain America and The Black Widow have to go underground after a shocking murder (but, as a Marvel writer once told me, remember that with Marvel, no one stays dead except Uncle Ben) and the two, along with a new ally, Anthony Mackie, team up to stop Redford and his associated baddies.

The biggest baddie is the title character, a relentless killer with a metal arm. To add a further wrinkle, once his mask comes loose Cap realizes they've met before.

So that's the plot, which is involved but easy to follow, and takes a direct slap at the NSA, and upright liberals will nod in righteous agreement. There is also an affection for vets, as Mackie plays one back from Iraq who is assisting other vets. He ends up being Falcon, who was Cap's sidekick in the comic books in the '70s, but here has a different reason for being called that (there is no actual bird, as there was in the comics).

I had a lot of fun with this. The film doesn't drag, and even when it has cliches, such as when a villain, who has been uploaded into an old computer, reveals the whole conspiracy, I kind of grinned at the absurdity of it. The chemistry between Evans and Johansson worked, and Jackson, who's Nick Fury usually steps into these films for five minutes for exposition and then leaves, is given a lot to do, including a whiz-bang sequence in which he comes under fire in a heavily-armored SUV. The directors are Anthony and Joe Russo, and they slow an aplomb for action films.

Note: the requisite teaser after the credits introduces two new characters who will appear in the next Avengers film. In the comics, they are the children of Magneto, who is now a character with a different studio, so I don't know how this parentage will be handled. Also, make sure you take notice of an epitaph on a tombstone near the end of the film. It has the best inside joke of the movie.

My grade for Captain America: The Winter Soldier: B+.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Lost Everything

Here's yet another book about the collapse of society following some sort of calamity, but instead of nuclear war it's the rising tides caused by global warming. I read Lost Everything, by Brian Francis Slattery, because it won some award, but I didn't find it award-worthy. It's a dull, dreary book that I soldiered through, much like the characters as they fight for survival.

Set in the Susquehanna River valley, the book focuses on disparate characters. The rising of the oceans seems to have dissolved life as they knew it. "The ocean knocking on the door, about to let itself in. It took maybe seventy years. A growing beat, they say, of stronger and stronger storms, a long chain of hurricanes, until the walls gave way and the streets went under, buildings fell. Savannah. Atlantic City. A freak storm in Boston. A ragged swath carved out in New York. the remaining cities cringing with every change of season, every gathering of clouds, waiting for the Big One."

The Big One is an approaching storm from the west that is rumored will wipe out everything. But meanwhile there's a war going on--the military versus a resistance movement, but it escaped me what the causes of the conflict were.

The story is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who relates most of this second-hand, which is an off-putting and frustrating approach. We get multiple viewpoints, the most prominent a man called Sunny Jim and his friend, a minister named Reverend Bauxite. They are headed up the Susquehanna to get to Jim's son in Binghamton, New York, where he is housed with his sister, Merry. Jim's wife was a rebel who died in a suicide bombing of a bridge. So we get a kind of Huckleberry Finn river story, as the two board a ship, the Carthage (that it is named for a fallen civilization is surely not a coincidence) that has a variety of other passengers.

We also get the viewpoint of some soldiers as they move across Pennsylvania, including one, Sergeant Foote, who has gone undercover on the Carthage, looking for Sunny Jim. She ends up in a relatioship with an unnamed con artist.

The writing is spare and grim, and full of incomplete sentences, which annoyed me. I didn't really care about any of the characters, and found much of the book unpleasant. There are some vivid descriptions of freak violence, such as this one: "He was driving a decades-old sedan on the back road from Lisle to the highway, found the animal standing in the middle of the road after midnight. He laid on the horn, jammed the brakes, and the deer turned toward him, charged the car. The first hoof put a tight, deep dent in the hood. The next went through the windshield, through the driver's skull. Then the deer was up and over the roof, down the other side, and Mr. Dave was leaning back in his seat, mouth open, eyes staring upward. Hands draped over the wheel. The car went another twenty yards, then listed left and rocked to a gentle stop on the side of the road."

That has some good writing in it, which Lost Everything could have used more of.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Y Tu Mama Tambien

What a difference ten years make. After making the English-language films The Little Princess and Great Expectations, Alfonso Cuaron returned to his home country of Mexico in 2001 to make Y Tu Mama Tambien, which earned him and his brother Carlos an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. It was an international success, and also became known for its explicit sexuality, but upon a second viewing last night I marveled at its impeccable structure and dialogue.

The film is basically a Penthouse letter come to life. Two recent high school graduates, Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, see off their girlfriends as they head for a European vacation. As with Solo Con Tu Parejo, the film begins with two people having sex, which sets the tone. The two boys are bored and horny, and at a wedding meet Luna's cousin's wife, a pretty and somewhat older Spaniard (Maribel Verdu). When her husband confesses adultery, she impulsively takes the boys up on an offer to head to a secluded beach.

So what we have here is both a road picture and a coming of age picture, but Cuaron and his brother Carlos are able to elude the cliches (mostly). The boys can't believe their luck, and Verdu is a fantasy come to life, as she quizzes them on their sexual histories. Eventually she takes Luna to bed, which drives a wedge between the boys, and she remedies that by having sex with Bernal, but the boys are still in competition, confessing that they have slept with each other's girlfriends.

Through all of this we get periodic, novelistic voiceover narration that places the film in context with Mexican history. It is 1999, when the seven-decade ruling party loses an election, and there are protests in the streets. Luna's father is a politician, and unlike many Mexican films, we see right into the upper class of that country. The narration offers us information on peripheral things, such as why a man has been run over by a bus, or what happens to a bunch of pigs that destroys the travelers' campsite.

And the film is sexy. The film opens with two sex scenes, and the scene in which Verdu seduces Luna is the kind of thing that any teenage boy (and former teenage boy) can't help but getting aroused at--"Take off your towel." Later, there will be the threesome that alters the boys relationship.

Cuaron then went off to Harry Potter land and his status as a big-shot director, but Y Tu Mama Tambien (which means "And Your Mother, Too") is the centerpiece of his career.