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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Natalie Merchant

I don't know of any band that was worse-named than 10,000 Maniacs. They were one of my favorite groups of the '80s--I saw them in concert five times, I think--but despite the name, which suggests some kind of heavy metal schlock, they instead were dominated by their vocalist, Natalie Merchant, who wrote songs that defied categorization, but were mostly what might be termed adult contemporary, albeit backed with the excellent guitar playing of Robert Buck.

After she left the group, I picked up her first few solo albums, which were in a similar vein but gave up any pretense of being rock and roll, as Buck's guitar was gone. Instead she sort of rolled into the Lilith Fair genre, along with Tori Amos, Sara McLachlan, and others who were noted for being sensitive singer-songwriters.

Merchant is now in her 50s, her long dark hair streaked with gray, and he has released her first album of original material in almost a decade. Self-titled, it is a gorgeous record, full of haunting melodies and elegiac lyrics.

She wrote all the songs and produced them as well, and she has an unerring ear for instrumentation. My favorite song on the album is "Black Sheep," which in keeping with the record, is in a minor key, but the use of a mischievous clarinet gives the song a bit of humor, which is otherwise lacking here.

Other songs are considered with ghosts or the end--the last song is literally entitled "The End:"

"That will be the end of arms stretched wide, of begging for bread, of emptiness inside. And the sea, so wide and treacherous, and the land, so dark and dangerous, so far left behind. That'll be the end of the war, when we finally lay down the barrel and the blade and go home."

A nice, melancholy end to a melancholy album. If that isn't depressing enough, we get "It's A-Coming," which could be the anthem of pessimism:

"It's a-coming. Wild fires, dying lakes, landslides, hurricanes, apocalypse in store like nothing ever seen before. It's a-coming."

Other songs, in a similar mode, are titled "Seven Deadly Sins" and "Maggie Said." The upbeat numbers are the opener, "Ladybird," in which the title bird is urged to spread wings and fly, and "Go Down, Moses," a biblical allegory relocated to New Orleans. There is also "Lulu," a tribute to silent-film actress Louise Brooks.

Though Merchant may not be optimistic, lyrically speaking, she has couched her sentiments in beautiful music that can be uplifting. Her distinctive, throaty voice, which I hadn't heard in a while, at times soars in majesty. This is a fine album.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Asylum

I tend my Netflix queue as if it were a garden, moving things around, grouping DVDs into themes, and then putting something new at the top because I have to see it now. There are films that I add and they stay at the bottom, slowly working their way up the ladder, until finally they see the light of day and find themselves in my mailbox.

Just such a film is Asylum, a 2005 film that I added to my queue in, wait for it, 2005. I must have added it because I read the novel it's based on, and left it alone, and it moved upward, one position at a time. I always have the full 500 discs in my queue, so that's why it can take nine years to get to the top.

Asylum is based on a novel by Patrick McGrath that I read a long time ago. It was a decent book and it makes a decent movie. Set in a British mental hospital in the 1950s, it asks interesting questions on the difference between love and passion and obsession.

Natasha Richardson stars as wife of the new deputy something-or-other, Hugh Bonneville, at a posh hospital. The most tenured doctor, Ian McKellen, was passed over for the job, but maintains a polished charm. Richardson, bored, is entranced by one of the patients that is entrusted to work on her greenhouse. He is Martin Csokas, an intense sculptor who's in the booby hatch for killing his wife out of jealousy.

They are attracted to each other and begin an affair. When McKellen indicates that Csokas isn't being released anytime soon, he escapes, and it becomes apparent to everyone that Richardson had an inappropriate relationship with him. She starts taking trips to London to see him in his hideout, and eventually leaves Bonneville and their son for him.

This is one of those movies that a viewer can question the protagonist's actions, such as why a woman would throw away everything with a man who stabbed his wife to death, but these doubts are useless when trying to fathom the human mind. I dare say most of us have been obsessed with something enough that it caused us to make foolish decisions; Richardson's are just magnified. A tragedy late in the film finds her admitted to the asylum along with Csokas, but obsessions are hard to get rid of.

Asylum is stylishly directed by David Mackenzie. The performances by Richardson, Bonneville and Csokas are solid, but special attention is due to the great McKellen, who plays a man you never quite know what he's up to.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cold in July

Another rural noir film, Cold In July, set in east Texas in 1989, is a fun, violent romp, but is ultimately overwhelmed by its silly ending. Directed and co-written by Jim Mickle, there are lots of guns, crooked cops, and a pig farmer/private eye played by Don Johnson.

The film begins when mild-mannered frame shop owner Michael C. Hall hears an intruder. He nervously loads his weapon, and shoots and kills the burglar. The dead man had no family except a father (Sam Shepard) who was recently released from a long prison stretch. The first third or so of the movie is a Cape Fear-like exercise as Shepard subtly threatens Hall and his wife (Vinessa Shaw) and young son.

But then the film takes an intriguing turn that I don't want to get too far into. Suffice it to say that Hall, Shepard, and Johnson (who drives a car that has cattle horns on the front grille) team up in an odd squad of vigilantes. Who would have thought that Hall, who is so good at playing someone ineffectual in the first half of the film, would prove to be a dead-eyed killer, or that Shepard, after so many years in jail, would be such an avenger of the meek and exploited?

Those are just a few of the plot problems. The other is that the second half involves a snuff-film outfit. Snuff films are a fiction that only exists in movies and pulp novels, like Satanic cults. But according to this film, they do a brisk trade in VHS (I loved seeing a top-loading VCR--where did they find that?).

But even with all that, the film is still pretty good. Most of it is due to Johnson and Shepard. Johnson, wearing a cowboy hat, is a hoot, with all the good lines. Shepard, who has gone from rugged leading man to rugged old curmudgeon, is pretty damn scary.

If you can turn off your plausibility meter, Cold in July is ghoulish fun. Mickle shows a good eye for detail and framing, such as a house in the distance while a squad car pulls into the foreground, or point-of-view shots from the driver of a car, moving through the woods at night, headlights illuminating what is to come.

My grade for Cold in July: B-.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Times Square

I've been in Times Square hundreds of times, but last Sunday, before and after seeing Of Mice and Men, I took a look around and soaked up the sights and sounds. The intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, Times Square is the most-visited tourist attraction in the world, and perhaps nowhere else is there such a cross-section of humanity.

I first came to know Times Square in the early '80s, when it was still a crime-ridden cesspool. But, being fascinated with the tawdry and pornographic, I was drawn to it. When I came home from college I took the train to Penn Station, then hiked up to the Port Authority to take a bus home to Jersey. The bus station is always the worst part of any town, and 8th Avenue and 42nd Steet was no exception. The block of 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth was one of the worst in Manhattan, full of peep shows, porno theaters, and hookers. Some nights I would walk down that block just for the thrill of it, the equivalent of jumping out of an airplane for others.

I remember a place called Peepland, which I think is where the AMC Empire is now, or maybe Dave and Buster's next door. Peep shows were a favorite of mine--you bought yourself some tokens, went into a booth, inserted a token, and a door would slide up, revealing a window. A naked woman was inside, and if you tipped her (shoving a dollar bill through a crack beside the window) she'd push her vagina right against the glass. Later, I found a home in Show World, right across the street from the bus station, a Disneyland of sex. They had more elaborate booths, where the window was full-length, and you could talk to the girl. They also had live sex shows, and a theater where touring porn stars would perform. I saw Tiffany Mynx blow smoke rings out of her pussy there.

Times Square, since then, has been cleaned up, mostly due to Rudolph Giuliani and Disney. The porn theaters, including Show World, are gone. There were a few old-time palaces that were run down and showing porn or other schlock. They have been renovated, and one of them, now called The New Amsterdam, in the current home of Aladdin on Broadway.

There is a bit of nostalgia for the old porno Times Square, but it's certainly better for business, and besides, we can watch our porn at home now. There's no real replacement for the peep show palaces, though.

So today Times Square is kind of a perpetual carnival. A relatively new thing is the wandering characters, and I don't mean crazy people (they're still there, but not as many). Like Hollywood Boulevard, where unsavory people wearing costumes hustle for tips, Times Square has the same thing--Mickey Mouse, Betty Poop, Hello Kitty, Elmo, several Spider-Men. There was a woman in patriotic gear who I realized had nothing on top except for paint, surely pushing the law. For a moment I was outraged--children could see this! Until I remembered that I would have loved to see her as a child. One long time Times Square character, the Naked Cowboy, who wears nothing but boots, a hat, tightie-whities, and a guitar, is still there. There were two other guys calling themselves Naked Cowboy--either the original guy is franchising, or he failed to trademark himself.

Sunday was a beautiful day, and about six o'clock the Square was humming with activity. The sidewalks were elbow to elbow with people. Tourists everywhere, including many sailors--it's Fleet Week--and they were all over in their dress whites. A stage was set up at the south end, and a rock band made up of sailors were performing. When I get close enough I like to check out the patches on their arms, to see what ship they're on. Many were on the U.S.S. Cole, which was bombed in 2000. Glad to see it's back on the sea.

There's really no place like Times Square, for good or ill. It has been the gathering place for crowds for over a century--first called Longacre Square, then changed to its current name when the New York Times moved there in 1904. The Times has gone a few blocks away, but One Times Square is still the name of the building where the ball is dropped every New Year's Eve (and you won't catch me there at that time, no thank you). Before it was the crossroads of America, it was farmland, and not too long before that, probably good hunting ground for the natives.

America is represented by a lot of places, from the rolling prairie to the top of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific shore, but one can't help but feel that America can be found right there, right in Times Square.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Passed

Maybe it's because I've seen three Marvel adaptations in the last eight weeks or so, but I was wholly unimpressed with the latest X-Men film (the fifth, sixth, or seventh, depending on whether you count Wolverine's outings), subtitled Days of Future Passed (do the Moody Blues get anything for stealing that title?) I haven't loved any of the X-Men outings, except for maybe the first one, feeling that they just try too hard and overwhelm the viewer with gravitas with a capital G.

I have seen them all, though, somehow. In this one, which returns original helmer Bryan Singer to the director's chair, we get all of the iterations of X-Men in one fell swoop--the original group, with old Professor X (Patrick Stewart)and Storm and old Magneto (Ian McKellen); the second wave, with Colossus and Kitty Pryde, etc.; the third wave, Iceman and Havok and some I forgot about, and the younger version of the originals, with James McAvoy as Professor X, Michael Fassbender as Magneto and Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique. Of course, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) ties it all together. What are they going to do when Jackman says he's had enough?

The plot, which was taken from a two-issue Uncanny X-Men story from about 1980, is a hash of Back to the Future and The Terminator. In 2023, robots have hunted mutants almost into extinction. The remaining few, including Stewart, McKellen and Pryde (Ellen Page) figure that the turning point was in 1973, when Mystique assassinated a weapons inventor (Peter Dinklage), which ignited anti-mutant fervor and led to the development of the weapons. The brain trust decides to send Jackman back into the past (he's the only one strong enough to make the trip, though it's really because he's the marketable one) to stop Mystique.

(SPOILERS!)So just what is going on here? I've read one explanation on EW.com that suggests that this means that everything that happened in other X-Men movies now doesn't exist. Or is that this horrible future was an alternative one, and Wolverine going back resets it to the one we know? That can't be, though: because Professor X was dead at the end of Last Stand, and Magneto had lost his powers. (END SPOILERS)

Anyway, besides the inherent time-travel paradoxes, this film is just too assaultive. I wish they would introduce these minor characters with title cards, or better yet, they should wear nametags. I had no idea who the Asian chick that create portals was, or the dreadlocked guy. From the credits I learned they were Blink and Bishop. Have I seen them before? If so, they made no impression. What happened to Nightcrawler?

Then the film just has one loud scene after another. McAvoy and Jackman free an imprisoned Fassbender from the Pentagon, with the help of the lad who will one day be Quicksilver (who is also a character in the next Avengers movie, without being a mutant). The scene in which Quicksilver is shown disabling the guards from his point of view, set to Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," is one of the few times in the film I was engaged).

Then there's the climax, which has Fassbender dumping a baseball stadium on top of the White House and attempting to kill Nixon (he was jailed for killing Kennedy, but he tells us he was trying to save him--JFK, it turns out, was a mutant. I wonder what his power was). Can anyone tell me why actors who play Nixon are given such horrible makeup jobs? This guy looks more like Chris Christie than Nixon.

I didn't actively dislike this film, instead I'm just sort of meh about it. The acting is acceptable for comic book films, though some don't get much to do. Page spends most of the movie holding her hands to Jackman's head, and Halle Berry comes back as Storm and does her thing, which is look to the sky and roll her eyes in the back of her head. Kudos to Anna Paquin's agent, who gets her top billing for a one-second cameo.

My grade for X-Men: Days of Future Passed: C.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is one of the first classic books children read, and with good reason. It's metaphors are simple, the foreshadowing obvious, and the underlying sense of loyalty is incredibly appealing. It's also short, and I remember reading it as a kid and loving the hell out of it.

Steinbeck adapted his book into a play, changing nothing. It's been made into a movie twice, but the play has been revived on Broadway with the star power of James Franco as George, the much put-upon but unwavering caretaker of his dim friend Lenny, played by Chris O'Dowd. The two characters have entered the consciousness of American thought, as even if someone has never read or seen the story they may know about the big guy who wants to pet the rabbits.

Under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro (who also directed the mesmerizing August: Osage County), Of Mice and Men makes for a solid entertainment, touching on just the right notes of humor and pathos. Some teenage girls I saw, presumably there for Franco, were wiping away tears at the play's conclusion, and all the possible laugh lines were hit effectively. There are some interesting considerations brought by the play in this time period, notably its treatment of blacks and women.

George and Lenny are itinerant workers in California during the depression. They have had to flee the last job because Lenny, who has the intelligence of a toddler, loves to touch pretty and soft things, and one of those was a woman's dress. George sticks with him, though, and one of the work's eternal mysteries is why. He lies about a familial relationship, and there is even a joke about homosexuality, but he stays with him basically because it would be inhumane not to. For all the fretting he does about Lenny, he could no more leave him alone than he could stop breathing.

The two find a job on a ranch, but there's immediately trouble in the form of Curly (Alex Morf), the hot-tempered son of the boss. He picks fights as a matter of course, but what's worse, he has brought his new bride (Leighton Meester) to live among the men. She is a flirt, or, as George immediately sizes her up, "Jesus, what a tramp!" It doesn't take a genius to see that this will not have a good outcome.

As portrayed by Meester, Curly's wife (she is given no name) is the most interesting part of the play in 2014. Steinbeck gives her lip service--in the parlance of today, he is not interested in slut-shaming her. But there is an uncomfortable pall over the play, as her very presence is the catalyst of tragedy. In a way, it's the standard blaming of the victim in today's rape culture. Is she at fault for her own demise? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Aside from that, there is also the scene in the room of Crooks, the crippled black stable-hand. The n-word is used freely here, as it should be, for the time period would dictate it. Here Steinbeck is more enlightened, raising objections to segregation--Crooks can't go in the bunkhouse with the men--they think he stinks--but is angered by Lenny just wandering in. Of course Lenny, with the intellect of a child, doesn't know why Crooks is treated differently, one of the saving graces of his idiocy.

The creaks of the age of the play are apparent--the mercy killing of old Candy's dog, which will reappear in a different form by the end, and the rules about the showing of the gun are here, too. But the appeal of this story is in its elemental nature, the notion that humans are better when they are wanted and needed. George tells Lenny that they are different than other guys, because "I got you, and you got me."

As for the acting, Franco took some critical brickbats, but they are undeserved. He is firmly in control in a difficult role. In a way, he's like the straight man of a comedy act, Abbott to O'Dowd's Costello, the one that people dislike. As mean as he can be to Lenny, though, Franco is able to let us know that he never lacks for compassion for his friend. O'Dowd, his head nearly shaved like a mental patient's, doesn't strike me as a big man, but he is able to convince us of his strength. The role is a showier one than George's, and O'Dowd did get the Tony nomination.

Special credit should also be given to Jim Norton, who plays Candy. The scenes in which he reacts to the death of his dog, and to the death of his dream of the house with the chickens and the rabbits, is almost too painful to watch.


Sunday, May 25, 2014

Edvard Munch

Yesterday I paid a call on a local attraction that I don't visit often enough, the Princeton University Art Museum, which is about five minutes from where I live and completely free. I was moved to do so by an exhibit titled: Edvard Munch, Symbolism in Print, which was on loan from the The Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Edvard Munch is world famous for one particular painting, The Scream, which is one of the most iconic images in Western art. You can see it on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs to blow-up punching dolls. The Scream, which has been stolen a few times, was not part of the exhibit here, which limited itself to 26 pieces, all of them some kind of print, whether woodcut, lithograph, or intaglio. After focusing so much of my knowledge of Munch on The Scream, it was nice to see what else he had done.

Munch was a Norwegian, born in 1863. His work, as suggested by the title of the exhibition, falls into the category of symbolism based in the time period. His family was touched early by death--his mother and sister both died of tuberculosis. Several of the prints on display dealt with his sister's illness and death, including studies of her lying against her pillow, and then a death room scene, Death in the Sickroom, the her bedroom filled with grieving family members, her hand just barely visible in the bed in the background.

Another common theme is loneliness, as we see a repeated theme of two people standing on a shore, each print titled: Two People: The Lonely Ones. And while there are romantic images--two prints are of a couple kissing, their mouths coming together as if to form one head out of two, there are also more biological representations, such as a lithograph titled Madonna, which has a woman looking somewhat ghostly, bordered by spermatozoa, and a forlorn fetus in the lower left-hand corner.

The image I've chosen to accompany this post is Anxiety, which has echoes of The Scream. It has the same feel to it, the same red-streaked sky. The Scream is often misunderstood, as some feel it is the anguished man in the picture who is screaming. But no, he is hearing a scream. This is Munch's explanation of The Scream: "I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature."

The painting, as well as this print, (which were done in the 1890s) can be interpreted as predicting the 20th century, what with its two world wars. From observing Munch's prints, it is clear that he was probably not a sunny personality. He did live long enough to see the first World War and the Nazi invasion of Norway, where many of his paintings were stolen by the Nazis. Most of them have been recovered. He died in 1944 at the age of 80.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Turn Blue

With Turn Blue, the Black Keys eighth and latest album, they have made one of the best albums of 1974. And I don't mean that as a knock, considering that there was a lot of great music back then. It's just that this is almost purely a retro record, rattling the teacups in baby boomers brains.

The Black Keys have always been two guys--Daniel Auerbach on guitars and vocals, and Patrick Carney on drums, but they have added a new member, Brian Burton (aka Danger Mouse) to play keyboards. The trio produced and wrote the music, and while it's not an outlier in their sound, it is a different kind of record, more heavily relying on keyboards and a psychedelic soul sound.

This is apparent from the opening track, "The Weight of Love," which has echoes of Pink Floyd, with an opening instrumental track (if it were played on the radio in the '70s this would be where the DJ would talk over it). The album ends with "Gonna Get Away," a generic classic-rock song, the kind that could have been made by a hundred different, barely-remembered bands of the era, like Bachman-Turner Overdrive or Foghat.

We also get the Beatlesque "In Our Prime," the funk-laden "Fever," and the rollicking "In Time," which has a great hook. Fantastic hooks have always been the purview of the Black Keys, and it's no exception here.

From what I've read, the lyrics on this album are colored by the recent divorce that Auerbach went through, but since there is no lyric sheet (there is a useless foldout poster of the cover, one of those hypno-wheels) so I can't really comment on that, as they are not easy to make out given the mix of the record.

I have the last three Black Keys albums, and as to where this fits in the scheme of things is a tough question. It certainly is different from the last two, but I can't say it's better or worse. I do now I liked it a lot, and I hope they continue to explore and experiment.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Girl Play

Here's what I learned from watching Girl Play, a 2004 extremely low-budget film: lesbians can be just as boring as heterosexuals. The film, based on a play written by its two stars, is basically two monologues amplified by a few narrative scenes, and is extremely short, but I started watching the countdown on the DVD player at about the ten-minute mark.

The stars/writers are Robin Greenspan and Lacie Harmon, who met as stand-up comedians in L.A. and were cast together in a play as lovers. They ended up falling for each other. That's not exactly a thrill-a-minute plot, so we get some other stuff, such as how Greenspan came out to her mother (in the parking lot of a Chinese restaurant) and that Harmon has commitment problems. None of this is particularly interesting, and I'll bet if you pulled any two random people off the street their lives would be more fascinating.

But it brings me no pleasure knocking this film because it's so apparent that these two women believe in their project. Directed by Lee Friedlander, it is a product of the lesbian artistic community, and there certainly are not many films focused on lesbians (when Hollywood approaches the topic, such as in The Kids Are Alright, one of them ends up falling for a man, reinforcing the "lesbian as a phase" mindset).

There are two main problems with the film, besides the fact that these women's stories are not that original. First, the performers are not that good. They do a lot of indicating, and there talent level is visible in any showcase you're likely to see. Second, the structure of the film is really awful. Instead of taking the monologues and turning it into a narrative drama, Friedlander simply fills them on stage, splicing in acted-out scenes. I imagine this might be because of cost, but what we get is the women describing scenes as we are watching them. Friedlander has apparently forgotten the "show, don't tell" rule in narrative.

There are a few amusing casting choices. Mink Stole, she of several John Waters movies, is Greenspan's mother (wildly overacting as the Jewish mother) and Dom DeLuise is the director of the play. Also, I couldn't help but be fixated on how much Harmon looks like Ed Burns. She could be his twin sister.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Blue Ruin

Blue Ruin, on the surface, seems like a commonplace thing these days--the indie crime thriller. But in a twist that makes it more interesting, it features as its hero someone who is basically incompetent, and through almost nothing but luck gets to the final showdown. It also is porn for NRA members.

Written and directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Blue Ruin, I think, refers to a car, a very banged-up Pontiac Bonneville (it even has bullet-holes). It is the home and seemingly only possession of a drifter named Dwight (Macon Blair), who takes baths by breaking into people's houses and hasn't used a comb in ages. He's jolted into focus by learning that the man who killed his parents has been released from prison. So he heads to Virginia (from Delaware), finds him, and kills him.

This all happens in the first fifteen minutes, in what would ordinarily be the plot of a longer film. But what Blair does is piss of his victim's family, and he realizes his normal sister may be endangered. He then takes steps, some smart, some stupid, to protect her. To arm himself, he calls on a high school friend, who has a cabinet full of guns.

Blue Ruin has a nice, gritty, rural America feel to it. The Cleland family, with whom Blair goes to war, live in a veritable armory, even having an Uzi under the La-Z-Boy. Though a contemporary film, it has a Hatfield vs. McCoy quality, where the law has no effect on the proceedings.

At times Saulnier gets tripped up, trying to keep straight information about the whereabouts of keys and other details. I noted on the IMDB comment page that one gentleman, correctly, points out the moves Blair makes that are completely dumb, but I think this is the point--most of us who are not used to being in shooting wars with hillbillies may not plan things out the right way, and with Dwight, who is emotionally damaged, it's amazing he doesn't get killed right off the bat. In fact, that he doesn't may be the most implausible part of the movie.

I really liked the film, though the clear light of day doesn't help it. I was amused that Blair's friend is played by Devin Ratray, who played Buzz in Home Alone, and a cameo by Eve Plumb, erstwhile Jan Brady from a generation or two ago. She wields a mean Uzi.

My grade for Blue Ruin: B+.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tristessa

Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac's work, "That's not writing, that's typing." Up to now I would have disagreed with him, as I found On the Road and The Dharma Bums to be engaging and at times thrilling well written, but as for Tristessa, a novella he wrote in 1960, well, it seems more like typing.

Ostensibly, it is about Kerouac's fascination with a prostitute and morphine addict in Mexico City. Her name is Esperanza (which means "hope"), but he dubs her Tristessa (which means "sorrow"). For 96 pages Kerouac rambles on in stream of consciousness mode, talking about hanging around with drug dealers and his friend, Old Bull Gaines (who is based on Bill Garver, not William S. Burroughs, as Kerouac makes clear), a sixty-year-old junky.

I read this book quickly, as there is really nothing of a plot. It's simply Kerouac, perhaps under the influence, riffing on several things, none of them intelligibly. At times Kerouac shows flashes of his brilliance, even if he breaks the rules of grammar: "Night before I've in a quiet hassel in the rain sat with her darkly at Midnight counters eating bread and soup and drinking Delaware Punch, and I'd come out of that interview with a vision of Tristessa in my bed in my arms, the strangeness of her love-cheek, Azteca, Indian girl with mysterious lidded Billy Holliday eyes and spoke with great melancholic voice like Luise Rainer sadfaced Viennese actresses that made all Ukraine cry in 1910."

But to show how thin a line there is between great Beat writing and nonsense, consider this: "Bright explanation of the crystal clarity of all the Worlds, I need, to show that we'll all be all right--The measurement of robot machines at this time is rather irrelevant or at any time." Huh? This seems like just a random collection of words, assembled by a non-native English speaker.

Given the sensational quality of the first edition paperback cover, shown here, I would imagine that many thought they'd get something more salacious than what they did get, if they could understand it.

Though this is a blot on Kerouac's bibliography, one does have to marvel at sentences like this one: "Living but to die, here we wait on the shelf, and up in heaven is all that gold open caramel, ope my door--Diamond Sutra is the sky."

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In Old Arizona

In Old Arizona is a film from 1929 that is historically interesting for two reasons: it was the first "talkie" Western, and Warner Baxter won the Oscar for Best Actor for it, only the second one given. Other than that, it's not a very good film by today's standards, even if it was nominated for four other Oscars, including Best Picture.

Baxter plays The Cisco Kid, a bandit created by O. Henry (the character would later be a staple of 1950s TV). He wears a brocaded caballero outfit and has a pencil-thin mustache, but thankfully this Columbus Ohio-born actor does not lay it on thick with the Mexican stereotypes (actually, according to the film, Cisco was born in Portugal).

The film begins with Cisco holding up a stage coach, but not robbing the passengers. He does take a pin from a lady, but pays her for it. He takes the gold box, though. The army sends a bumptious sergeant (Edmund Lowe) after him, and there's a comic scene in which the two meet in a barbershop and strike up a friendship, as Lowe has no idea who he is.

Later, Lowe will seduce Cisco's girl (Dorothy Burgess, in a dreadful performance). She is extremely fickle, especially when there's a $5,000 reward at stake. After a light comic touch for the entire film, In Old Arizona ends with a dark twist.

Although it was the first Western talkie, with scenes shot outside (microphones were stationary, as the boom mike hadn't been invented yet), almost all of the film is shot indoors, in long, pointless scenes. We get one where Cisco is back with Burgess, and wants ham and eggs. Then Burgess visits the saloon and she and Lowe exchange insults in a long scene (Lowe acts in a laconic style that one might think influenced John Wayne). I kept waiting for Western action, and there's only a few seconds of it, when cattle rustlers try to kill Cisco but he gets them instead. This scene is shot at a great distance.

As I said, at least the film doesn't pile on ethnic insensitivity. We get an Italian barber who speaks-a like-a this, and a quick shot of Chinese launderers chattering, but there's nothing about the film that is offensive. Well, maybe the treatment of the lead female, who is a minx that seems to care about nothing but herself. But that hasn't changed much in the eighty-plus years since then.

In Old Arizona was co-directed by Raoul Walsh and Irving Cummings. Walsh was supposed to star, as well, but before filming he was in an auto accident (a jackrabbit jumped through his windshield) and he lost an eye. He still went on to have a great Hollywood career, making films like High Sierra and White Heat.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Godzilla

Godzilla was created 60 years ago out of Japanese atomic-age anxiety that is perfectly appropriate--after all, they remain the only nation to be attacked by atomic weapons. The character went on to have many different incarnations over the years. During the '60s he was a good guy, starring in several cheesy movies where he battled other monsters. I remember these fondly from my youth, especially Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, but they are Mystery Science Theater 3000 fodder these days. Then came the earnest but misguided remake in 1999, in which Godzilla was a slithery reptile that ended up under Madison Square Garden.

Now the big lug is back in a throwback to the original, a cautionary tale about radiation and messing around with nature. Most of today's natural disaster movies have been around global warming, so a radiation-based one is a bit nostalgic, perfectly in step with the Cold War being revived by Russia's misadventure in the Crimea. At its heart, though, this newfangled Godzilla is still a cheesy monster movie, dressed up in formal attire.

The movie was directed by Gareth Edwards, who previously made the film Monsters, an indie monster movie that was mostly about immigration. As with that film, the monsters are held back toward the end, but this time it has less to do with cost than strategy. The prologue is in 1999 (coincidence that this was the year of the last Godzilla flop?) when some sort of electromagnetic disturbance causes a nuclear power plant to topple. American engineer Bryan Cranston loses his wife (Juliette Binoche, in a surprisingly brief appearance) and years later he will be out of work, one of the tinfoil-hat brigade, raving that the government is hiding something and it wasn't an earthquake that destroyed the plant.

His son, a navy lieutenant (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), newly back to the States after a deployment, leaves his cozy domesticity with wife Elizabeth Olsen and bails his dad out of jail after the old man is arrested for trespassing on the quarantined area around the plant. Son thinks dad is nuts, but accompanies him on another trip, where they both find that there is no radiation in the area. They are again arrested, but scientists Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins know he's telling the truth, and fill him in.

I'll leave it there. The science may be murky, but it's thoughtful. The upshot is that there are three beasts that feed off of radiation. Two look like giant katydids--one erupts out of a pit in Japan, the other at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Apparently they are male and female and looking to mate. In the process they destroy Honolulu and Las Vegas.

The third beastie is Godzilla himself, looking thick in the middle but bearing mankind no ill will. Watanabe urges the authorities to let the big ugly guy take care of the big bugs, as he is "nature's balance." Meanwhile, the destruction is on massive scale.

I found Godzilla to be effective in fits and starts. A lot of it dragged, and it was amusing how Taylor-Johnson always found himself right in the middle of it. I mean, they send him home from Japan and he has a layover in Hawaii--just in time to see it obliterated. Olsen, for her part, is a nurse in San Francisco--guess where the final battle takes place?

These extraordinary coincidences are just part of the cheesy fun, and I must say the creation of the creatures is exemplary. Many of the monster battles take place at night, and in the San Francisco fog, which gives them an eerie quality. The first glimpse of Godzilla takes place at night, when he is illuminated by flares, and it's quite striking. It's also great they gave him his trademark screech.

So long as the monsters are on screen this is a good film, but the human element is lacking. Watanabe mostly stares into the distance, and Olsen, a good actress, is in a thankless role. But overall I give the film a slight thumbs up. The last shot, a very poetic one, leaves the door open for what is now an almost certain sequel. Perhaps Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, redux?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

I skipped the second installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, being underwhelmed by the first. I caught it on DVD yesterday, and while it's heaps better, it still pales in comparison to The Lord of the Rings.

Subtitled The Desolation of Smaug, the film continues the quest of 13 dwarfs, a hobbit, and one wizard trying to steal a jewel from underneath a dragon in the heart of a mountain. Along the way they tangle with giant spiders, ticked-off elves, and murderous orcs, who trail them and attempt to stop them, directed by a mysterious figure known as the Necromancer.

Some of this in J.R.R. Tolkien's book, much of it isn't, and as with the first film, it inflates The Hobbit, which was a smiple children's adventure story, into something more epic and dark, which Lord of the Rings was (there is a theory that LOTR was a metaphor for World War I). This grim tone just doesn't fit, and makes watching it seem like a duty rather than a pleasure.

But there are some highlights, notably Smaug himself, who appears at the end of the film. He is an articulate dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), and his tete-a-tete with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) is the best part of the film (as was the scene between Bilbo and Gollum in the first film). The special effects are the best here, as well.

The rest of the film is a bit of a drag. The sequence with the elves isn't very good, as it introduces a character that is not in Tolkien, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a kick-ass elf who develops an attraction for the one cute elf. Orlando Bloom, one of the Fellowship of the Ring, returns as Legolas. There is also a long section set in Laketown, which is corrupt and ruled by Stephen Fry, and I don't remember this from the book, either.

While the dragon looked good, I didn't like the way the orcs looked, or the beasts they ride, which looked animated. The orcs, incidentally, must be the world's worst fighters, for they are routinely defeated by just a few elves or dwarfs. They are like the expendable red shirts in Star Trek.

The film does have one of the best lines I've heard in a long time: "Why are there dwarfs coming out of our toilet?"

I guess the main problem with this trilogy is that Jackson seems to have made it because he could, and there is no underlying intention behind it. It's both too respectful and has too much hubris, as he has constructed scenes that are only referred to in the book. I suppose I'll end up watching the third installment, eventually, but don't burn to do so.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Charles Mingus

My horoscope in Las Vegas Weekly said I should listen to some free jazz, suggesting either Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, or Sun Ra. Never one to turn down a helpful suggestion, I bought a copy of Mingus' best work. I'm not much of a jazz expert, but I know what I like, and I like this.

Mingus was a practitioner of many styles of jazz, at least according to his Wikipedia article. He was a double-bassist and bandleader, and delved into what was known as hard bop, and also free jazz. What is free jazz? Well, Wikipedia says, "Defining and discussing free jazz is complicated." I guess the simplest way to describe it is as a rejection of forms that were laid down by those who came before, and experiments with rhythms and other aspects of jazz, relying heavily on improvisation.

To a jazz neophyte, it can be scary, and you wonder when you slide the disc in whether it will just be a cascade of noise. This is anything but. The selections on the CD I chose are melodious and are either swinging or serenely melancholy. 

Mingus was born in 1922, and was bi-racial. He worshiped Duke Ellington and aspired to a cellist, but it was impossible for a black man in those days to play classical music for a living, and the cello was not yet a jazz instrument. He applied what he knew of the cello the bass, and became known as a prodigy. He played something called Third Stream, which combined jazz and classical.

In 1952 he founded a record company with drummer Max Roach, and was part of the scene that included the giants Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and Charlie Parker. He was also known as the "Angry Man of Jazz," due to his temper. He would stop shows if the audience were talking or clinking ice cubes, and he once busted the mouth of trombone-player Jimmy Knepper, who said it ruined his embouchure.

Plagued by ALS, he could not play the instrument by the '70s, but continued to compose, and worked on a Joni Mitchell titled after him. He died in 1979 at age 56, and his ashes were scattered in the Ganges River.

Of the cuts on the The Very Best of Charles Mingus, there is a wide variety. My favorite is "Boogie Stop Shuffle," which sounds like the theme song of a suspense movie, that sounds a bit like the theme for Courageous Cat (and a little bit like the theme from the TV series Batman). "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" and "Better Git It in Your Soul" are joyous and uplifting, while "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" and "Flamingo" are reflective, the kind of thing you might hear Bleeding Gums Murphy play on a restless night of the soul.

"The Shoes of the Fisherman's Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers," in addition to having a great title, has more improvisation than most of the other tracks, and ends with what some may find just to be a random series of notes. There is also a wonderful version of Ellington's "Mood Indigo."

I'm not sure if listening to free jazz this week improved my life any, but I like discovering new things, and am happy that I have now been exposed to the work of Charles Mingus.

Friday, May 16, 2014

The Black Stallion

To conclude my look at some of the late Mickey Rooney's films, I turn to The Black Stallion, from 1979, which featured Rooney's last Oscar nomination. It is in many ways a magical film.

Executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola, when he had a lot of money and was responsible for some very interesting cinema, The Black Stallion is a poetic family film, proving that such things don't have to be treacly dross. Though excessively fanciful, it is foremost a beautiful thing to watch, with exquisite photography by Caleb Deschanel.

The film divides in two parts. The first has a boy (Kelly Reno) on a passenger ship off the course of North Africa. He is with his father (Hoyt Axton), and we don't know where they are going, or why, which lends a little mystery to the proceedings. The boy becomes fascinated with another passenger, a wild Arabian stallion, black as pitch, that is held in a stall bound by ropes.

When the ship catches fire and sinks, the boy grabs hold of the stallion's rope and is towed to shore. They are both on a desert island, and gradually the horse learns to trust the boy. For about half an hour there is a wordless section in which they bond, as the boy eventually mounts and rides the stallion. This section is so well done (the director is Carol Ballard) that it's almost breathtaking. Add to that the fine music score by Carmine Coppola, and the whole thing is damn near perfect.

The second half of the movie is after Reno is rescued. He returns to his suburban home, tended to by his confused mother (Teri Garr). The stallion, dubbed "The Black," stays in the backyard. He breaks free, though, and ends up on the farm of Rooney, who turns out to be a retired horse trainer. He and the boy become friends, and hatch the idea of getting The Black into a race. This is tricky, since he is not a thoroughbred and has no papers.

The last section, which builds around a match race between the best two thoroughbreds in the country, is pure baloney, but heartwarming (least of the problems is that Reno is allowed to ride the horse in the race). We are now in classic sports film mode, with Rooney teaching the boy, getting his second chance, and the final race is also a bit of lovely bullshit.

The film was based on a novel by Walter Farley, and is highly recommended to those who like horses, those who are looking for movies for their kids that do not insult the intelligence, and those who enjoy spectacular cinematography. As for Rooney, I must say that of all the films I've ever seen him in, he shows the most restraint. It's also a lovely connection back to one of his best-known films, National Velvet.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Young & Beautiful

Prostitution is the oldest profession, and one of the most frequent movie topics. It's been covered from all angles, and there's not much new to say about it, but Francois Ozon gives it a go in Young & Beautiful, which concerns a 17-year-old Parisian girl who plies the trade.

At first glance, this film is similar to Belle Du Jour, in which Catherine Deneuve played a bored housewife who has a side job as a prostitute. But this film takes a slightly different approach, and tries to understand the young girl's motivation.

As the film begins, it seems like a male fantasy. Isabelle (Marina Vacth) is a stunning teenage girl. Notably, the first image of her is suntanning topless on the beach while her younger brother watches her through binoculars. The family is on summer vacation. She appears to be fairly normal if a little sullen. A German boy sniffs around her and takes her virginity, and she reacts coldly.

We fast forward to autumn, and Isabelle is now a working girl. She is independent (no pimp), and shows that anyone with a little web design experience can start their own business. She makes good money, and while she runs into a few creeps, she continues to do it. That is, until one of her favorite johns dies of a heart attack while in the saddle.

The film then takes a marked turn. Isabelle is fingered by the police, and while she is not arrested, her secret is exposed to her family. Her mother (Geraldine Pailhaus) is mortified, and makes her see a shrink.

One of the problems in the early going is figuring out why she is doing this. She has no need of money, and she doesn't seem to enjoy the sex. Then it becomes apparent, especially through Vacth's interesting performance, is that Isabelle doesn't even know why she's doing it. The script eludes easy answers. Her father, who lives in Italy, doesn't seem to be the reason (she, of course, sleeps with much older men). Her mother, at one point, says, "What did we do to make you like this?" a question asked by many parents, I suspect.

But Isabelle just has an emotional black spot. After quitting the business, she takes up with a regular boyfriend, but after sleeping with him she again gets the urge to see clients.

Ozon is playing both sides of the fence. Despite his sociological viewpoint of the girl and the industry, there is the appeal to dirty old men. When Isabelle first enters the hotel room of her first client, an old man, the look on his face to see such loveliness is probably reflected in the faces of every pervy guy in the viewing audience (including me).

Still, it's a good film, and Vacth, a model turned actress, gives a very assured performance.

My grade for Young & Beautiful: B+.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Our Mutual Friend

Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens' last completed novel, published 150 years ago in 1864. It is certainly not on the level of his more famous works, such as Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, or David Copperfield--for one thing there isn't one central character--but it maintains his over-riding theme of the evil of money, as this novel is basically about two things: the River Thames, and England's strict monetary classes.

This was not an easy book to read. It has more plot threads than I would consider prudent, and in the early going it seemed like every chapter introduced a new set of characters. I found it intermittently interesting, and at times stultifying. I'm sure this is because some of it was lost on me, living in a different time and place.

This is what I know: the novel's key incident is the discovery of a body floating in the Thames. It is thought to be John Harmon, who was on his way back to London to inherit his father's estate. Presumed drowned, Harmon's estate instead goes to the "Golden Dustman," Noddy Boffin. The conditions of Harmon's father's will was that he must marry a woman he had never met, Bella Wilfer, who only wants to marry for money.

Another plot line is that of the competition for Jenny Hexam. She is the daughter of the man who fished Harmon's body out of the water (a thriving trade back then--they were called gaffers, and pulled bodies out of the drink after relieving them of their valuables). She is in love with a diffident lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn. Her brother tries to fix her up with his school headmaster, Bradley Headstone, but when she turns him down both of them go apeshit.

One other minor subplot turns the idea of marrying for money on itself. The Lammles are a married couple who each had nothing, but married each other because each believed the other to be rich. When they find out the truth, they team up as confidence artists.

There are more subplots, including an attempt by a wooden-legged man to blackmail Mr. Boffin, the nouveau riche Veneerings, and the kindly Jew Riah, who takes in Jenny when she flees from the two men vying for her. Riah is depicted as being such a good man that it is thought that Dickens was bending over backwards to atone for his anti-Semitic portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist.

Our Mutual Friend could have stood for trimming, perhaps by as much as a half. It is overkill to have so many plot threads and characters. But occasionally his genius bursts forth, such was when Boffin throws out his secretary for daring to be sweet on Bella, or the grim ending for Bradley Headstone. As usual, his descriptions are breathtaking, usually coming at the beginnings of chapters. My favorite is this one:

"It was a Saturday evening, and at such a time the village dogs, always much more interested in the doings of humanity than in the affairs of their own species, were particularly active. At the general shop, at the butcher's and at the public-house, they evinced an inquiring spirit never to be satiated. Their especial interest in the public-house would seem to imply some latent rakishness in the canine character; for little was eaten there, and they, having no taste for beer or tobacco (Mrs Hubbard's dog is said to have smoked, but proof is wanting), could only have been attracted by sympathy with loose convivial habits."

And then there are the names. In addition to the morbidly named Headstone, we get characters with such names as Twemlow, Georgina Podsnap, Fascination Fledgely, and Rogue Riderhood and his daughter Pleasant.

I can only give this book three out of five stars, which seems odd since it's by Dickens, but it wasn't as perfectly structured or gripping as some of his other books, and is really only for those who have read all of his masterworks.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Here's what's good about The Amazing Spider-Man 2: Emma Stone. The rest, no so good. The rebooted series about the web-slinging Marvel hero has skipped the excellent second installment of the first trilogy and gone straight to the lackluster third, packing too many villains and a soggy love story into the script, making the whole thing too busy and too long. It was after the two-hour mark before they even introduced the last villain.

Spider-Man, to those of us who read the books, was far more interesting than he is presented here, and faced many different interesting villains. So why do we get a rehash, with yet another origin story involving the Green Goblin? He is, of course, Harry Osborn, Peter Parker's childhood friend and scion of the billionaire scientist Norman Osborn (here played by Chris Cooper, and not a candidate for Father of the Year). Harry is played by Dane DeHaan as the ultimate preppy--seeing his gradual transformation into a vengeful supervillain is like seeing Holden Caulfield do the same thing.

Osborn, who goes from sympathetic to evil over the film's nearly two and a half hours, is the spine of the film. He has a disease and thinks Spider-Man's blood will help him. Secondarily, we see Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), a dweeb but electrical genius, get saved by Spider-Man, and get a fixation on him. Later, Foxx will have a classic comic book incident--he falls into a vat of electric eels, and turns into a guy who can control electricity. He calls himself Electro. At least he didn't wear the costume that the comic book guy did, a suit with lightning bolts and a hat shaped like a star.

While Spider-Man battles these villains he's dealing with many things. His love life, with Gwen Stacy (Stone), and the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his father (Campbell Scott). It seems that he doesn't want to endanger Gwen, so distances himself from her. At least I think so. The scenes between these two exist only to serve as stop-gaps between the action, and it's only Stone's effervescence that made them tolerable. Andrew Garfield, as Peter Parker, has good moments of teenage angst, but was a little too whiny.

Anyway, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffers from overload. It's so long that it doesn't even bother to finish the last confrontation, with the Rhino (an unrecognizable Paul Giamatti, doing a Boris Badanov accent). They might as well have put up the words "To Be Continued," as many threads are left dangling. I don't want to spoil things, but Gwen's last scene in the film warmed this old comic book reader's heart, as it duplicates her fate in the comics in the mid-'70s, only moved from the George Washington Bridge to a clocktower.

I'll be there for the third installment, as Spider-Man means too much to me, sentimentally. But after five films about him, they have got to start taking a different direction. The post-credit sequence, usually a teaser about the next film in the series, actually concerns The X-Men. How about teaming Spidey with them in the next film?

My grade for The Amazing Spider-Man 2: C-.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Best American Mystery Stories 2013

"Mystery" is a restricting word. Not all of the stories in this solid collection are the "whodunit" variety. I guess when it gets down to it, they all involve crime of some sort, usually murder but not always. This has been the story for millennia, as writers have always been interested in the dark side of the human psyche--what happens when people don't abide by the rules.

Edited by popular crime writer Lisa Scottoline, we get a wide assortment of stories that involve breaking the law, by some of our finest writers and some who are new to me (and one that was published posthumously). From Michael Connelly is "A Fine Mist of Blood," which features his detective Harry Bosch. From Bill Pronzini comes a Quincannon story, his detective in 1890s San Francisco, with "Gunpowder Alley," a locked-room mystery. Joyce Carol Oates is represented with a story about an awkward teenage girl being stalked, "So Near Any Time Always," which has echoes of her famous story "Where Are You Going Where Have You Been."

From more unknown writers comes "The Ring of Kerry," which could be the plot an Alfred Hitchcock Presents show, by Dennis McFadden, and "The Don's Cinnamon," by Ben Stroud, set in 1850s Havana.

A couple of stories aren't great, but I loved the opening lines, which is in itself a fine art in the telling of noir tales. From "Smothered and Covered," by Tom Barlow: "The young girl walked into the Waffle House, alone, at 3 A.M. on a Thursday morning. We all looked up from our coffee and cigarettes, waffles, sausage and hash browns. She stood on her tiptoes to take a seat on a counter stool, picked up a menu and held it close to her face, like on of the 6 A.M. retirees without his bifocals." Now, can anyone not read that paragraph and not want to read on?

Even better is this sentence from Hannah Tinti's "Bullet Number Two," set in the Four Corners region of the Southwest: "Now Hawley had a car of his own, and Old Ford Flareside, and he opened up the engine on the highway, the windows rolled down and the blazing hot air channeling through, the sand blowing against his skin and the red cliffs of Arizona stretching into the distance. Behind his seat were a twenty-gauge Remington shotgun, a 9mm Beretta, a Sig Sauer pistol, a crossbow tire iron, his father's rifle from the war, and $7,000." That is a grand sentence.

Many of the stories here come from two magazines: Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, both of which I read as a kid and am glad to learn they are still in business. A few of them come from the Akashic location-centric noir series, including Patricia Smith's "When They Are Done With Us," which comes from Staten Island Noir. I've never been to Staten Island except to pass through it, so I don't know how true this line is: "The key to happiness on Staten Island, she decided, was to get as close as you could to the sky and makes the assholes as small as possible." This story contains one of the most repellent sons a mother could want, and could put a person off from giving birth.

My favorite two stories in this collection are "The Indian," a novella really, by Randall Silvis, and "The Street Ends at the Cemetery," by Clark Howard. The former is about a grudge between a man and his brother-in-law, that appears to be about a restored Indian motorcycle, but is much deeper. It is beautifully wrought, shattering piece of work. Howard's story is about a prison guard that gets involved with a visitor and that classic crime story trope, the suitcase full of money. This time it's the proceeds from a bank robbery, and the visitor's boyfriend, who is locked up, knows its whereabouts. A crooked FBI agent and a crooked prison warden want in on the action, and the double-crosses are fast and furious. It would make a good movie.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Book Thief

The Book Thief, based on a popular novel, is kind of a mish-mash of many different World War II tropes, and at the end of the film it proves to be unsatisfying. Directed without distinction by Brian Percival, it strains at the seams with sentimentality, even though it attempts to be unsentimental in its structure.

As with the book, the film is narrated by Death, who was very busy during the Nazi years. He tells us the story of Liesel, the daughter of a woman who is taken away by the Nazis for being a Communist. On the train journey to her new home, her brother dies, and she purloins a copy of a gravedigger's handbook at the makeshift funeral. She doesn't know how to read, but she's fascinated by the book as an object.

Her new parents are an older, childless couple. The mother (Emily Watson), is stern and severe, while the father (Geoffrey Rush) is kindly, and helps her learn to read. She takes some lumps in her first few days, especially when the other children learn she is illiterate, but a neighbor boy takes an interest in her and becomes her friend.

We follow the family over the years of the war, as the children are indoctrinated into the nationalistic fervor and longtime neighbors are dragged away for being Jews. A big part of the plot is when the family hides the son of a old friend (Ben Schnetzer) in their basement. But though there is one moment an officer inspects their basement, there is curiously little suspense over this, and it resolves itself peaceably. Another aborted storyline is when Rush, well over the age of being a soldier, is conscripted.

The other major theme is, as the title might suggest, Liesel's love of books. She is befriended by the wife of the mayor, who allows her to use their library. When the mayor puts a stop to it, she resorts to climbing in the window and "borrowing" them. Again, there is no pay-off to this, and little suspense. The same with a mean neighbor boy--you think he's going to expose someone, or do something threatening, but nothing comes of it.

The end has many deaths, but they are off-screen and hollowly anticlimactic. For as terrifying as it must have been to live through this period, the film takes an almost benign view of things.

I did like some of the performances, especially Rush and Watson. Rush has the easier to role to play, since he's the nice guy, but Watson's is trickier, as she starts as a mean old woman and must slowly thaw out her heart. Sophie Nelisse is fine as Liesel. She reminded me a great deal of Anna Chlumsky, the star of My Girl. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Allman Brothers Band

The Allman Brothers Band should be played loud. They are one of the best live bands ever, and their concerts features long, drawn out songs, some of them approaching half an hour, and though I never saw them live, I'm sure it was ear-splitting decibels. While listening to their greatest hits CD in my car this week I was compelled to twist the volume as high as I could stand it.

I've never considered myself a fan of the Allmans--the hits CD was the first time I'd bought one of their products--but I've certainly been aware of them for years. They have been a classic rock staple since they began in the late '60s, and though they only really recorded for ten years, they have an estimable body of work.

The Allmans, formed by Duane Allman and Dickie Betts, then joined by Duane's brother Gregg, along with bassist Berry Oakley and drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe. Combining the blues and country and Western, they were the architects of the subgenre "Southern rock," which flourished while I was in high school. Though I lived in New Jersey, they were lots of guys who were into it, with bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Outlaws, Molly Hatchet, Little Feat, and The Marshall Tucker Band.

Listening to them now I realize how good they were, especially in their songwriting and musicianship. Betts and Gregg Allman wrote the songs and divided the vocals. Betts had the band's only number one hit, "Rambin' Man," which has their quintessential lyric:

"My father was a gambler down in Georgia,
He wound up on the wrong end of a gun.
And I was born in the backseat of a Greyhound bus,
Rolling down Highway 41."

Allman wrote the other most recognizable song, "Midnight Rider," which was used to great effect in the film The Electric Horseman (and later covered by Willie Nelson). He also wrote the magnificent "Whipping Post," which begins in 11/4 time, and never fails to get me pumped.

The band also had a great number of instrumentals. "Jessica" is Betts' masterpiece, a seven-minute plus burst of joy, insanely catchy. I love the way it's written so that it could theoretically go on forever--the lead-in before the piano break is such a great tease. I keep waiting for it, and when it finally comes it's like a blast of refreshment.

The other great instrumental is "In the Memory of Elizabeth Reed," which to me has the Latin flavor of Santana, but again highlights the superb guitar work. Betts and Duane Allman were two of the greatest rock guitarists, and to have them in the same band was kismet.

Duane Allman died in 1971 in a motorcycle accident, but the band chugged along for a few more years. They broke up, but have reunited for tours, and Gregg Allman, who became best known to some people for having a brief marriage to Cher, recently wrote a memoir that highlighted the debauchery of being a rock star in the 1970s.


Friday, May 09, 2014

Ma Mere

Ma Mere, from 2004, is soft-core porn for intellectuals. It's sexy, and since it's French and based on a novel by George Bataille we can tell ourselves that it's highbrow, when it is really not a very good movie.

Directed not very well by Christopher Honore, Ma Mere ("My Mother") is about a very fucked-up relationship between a teenage boy and his mother, kind of the Gallic version of Norman and Mrs. Bates. He is Pierre (Louis Garrel) who is visiting his parents after spending time in a Catholic boarding school. They live on one of the Canary Islands. His father is a bastard, and when he dies early in the film his mother (Isabelle Huppert) tells him to at least pretend to be sad.

She is also a mess, promiscuous and amoral, and draws Garrel into her debauched life. First she gets her friend and lover to take his virginity, which she does right in the middle of a plaza (apparently the Canary Islands are the place to have public sex--exhibitionists take note). Then, after an orgy in which mother and son may have gotten too close, she leaves to travel and has a young girl (Emma de Caunes) stay behind to keep an eye on him, and have sex with him.

I'm not sure what Honore is trying to say with this film, other than incest is creepy. He seems to want to shock us for the sake of shocking us, so we get sadomasochism, urination, and bloodsports. Garrel's character basically reflects those who he is with, so there's no spine to him, and Huppert, a strong performer, seems lost in her whorl of perversions.

Above all, Honore has no knack for telling a story. The editing is horrible, as characters pop up without explanation and scenes start and end a beat too soon.

Ma Mere is the perfect anti-Mother's Day film.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive

Vampires have done almost every which way in films, why not as hipsters? And who better to make such a movie than the ultimate hipster indie director, Jim Jarmusch? The result is Only Lovers Left Alive, which is both a commentary on immortality and a joke.

Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as two vampires, named Adam and Eve, who are hundreds of years old. They are husband and wife (they get married every so often) but as the film opens they are living in separate cities; he in Detroit, she in Tangiers. He is a musician, his cluttered house filled with guitars and recording equipment. She bides her time in Tangiers, hanging out with fellow vampire Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Yes, the Christopher Marlowe.
She decides to come visit him, and he shows her the sites in Detroit, which mostly consists of Jack White's boyhood home. Jarmusch perfectly captures the Motor City as it is today, a decaying, largely abandoned city of feral animals and ghosts. Adam's house, a decrepit but once beautiful Victorian, is emblematic of the city's fate, as is the Michigan Theater, a former movie palace now in ruin.

The pair have long stopped feeding on humans, and get their blood from doctors. Adam pays calls on a compliant doctor (Jeffrey Wright), who works in the blood bank. They keep their identities hidden, and avoid humans (whom Adam calls "zombies"). He has only one that he interacts with (Anton Yelchin), who gets him instruments and anything else he needs.

This first part of the film illustrates the paradox of immortality. The two have been around so long they have been able to amass great knowledge--Eve can speed-read in many languages, while Adam is a musical genius (he once gave Schubert an adaggio to call his own). They have known many famous people, though not all fondly--Adam says that Lord Byron was a "pompous ass." But they are also enveloped in a fog of ennui. They never go out and experience things, though Eve would like to, as she is more likely to enjoy nature. When she finds a gun with a wooden bullet in it in Adam's house she questions why he would want to end all this.

The plot kicks into gear when, borrowing from sit-coms immemorial, Eve's wacky sister shows up. She's also a vampire, played by Mia Wasikowska. She is all id, drinking too much blood and always wanting to party. She will do something that will end Adam's reclusive idyll, and the pair will flee back to Tangiers.

I enjoyed much of this film, even if vampires have been done to death. We get some of the tropes of the genre--they can't go out at night, etc., but without some of the rigid protocol of other vampire pictures. They worry less about sunlight than drinking contaminated blood, which is another reason to stick with stuff from blood banks. Blessedly we are spared the usual vampire hierarchy, which so dominates other vampire tales, like Twilight and True Blood. I do wonder where they get all their money--Adam plays for things with wads of cash, and Eve has credit cards!

As with other Jarmusch films, the film has a dead-pan sense of humor. I had to chuckled at one line, when Adam says, "You drank Ian." When he visits the blood bank he wears a name tag announcing that he is "Dr. Faust." The film also supposes that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays--his room has a photo of the bard pinned to the wall with a knife.

Swinton, who already looks like a space alien, really looks witchy here, with long hair the color of straw, and Hiddleston looks like every punk musician who's ever worn nothing but black.

My grade for Only Lovers Left Alive: B.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

God Bless America

This is a black comedy. Black, as in gravity is so intense that light can not escape. In the first few moments of the film, our hero fantasizes about shooting a baby as if it were a clay pigeon. Black as night.

Bobcat Goldthwait is becoming somewhat of a specialist in black comedies, following World's Greatest Dad. As with that film, God Bless America points out the inanities of American culture, but this film even goes further.

Joel Murray stars as a guy having a very bad day. He loses his job because he sent flowers to the receptionist, his daughter doesn't want to see him unless he brings a gift, and his doctor says he has an inoperable brain tumor. He's ready to blow his brains out, but while channel-surfing he alights on a particularly repellent reality show about a spoiled teen. He decides he's going to kill her.

While committing that murder, he runs into a outcast teen, played by Tara Lynne Barr. They decide to go on a killing spree, shooting people that deserve it. Here Goldthwait goes after some low-hanging fruit, as the victims include a frothing-at-the mouth right-wing pundit, kids who talk at the movies, and the lowest fruit of all, the Westboro Baptist picketers. If that all isn't obvious enough, the climax occurs at an American Idol-style talent show.

Goldthwait, in the supplemental materials, says he was inspired by Network and Badlands, and that is dead-on (Falling Down, another film it could be compared to, is more about white rage). "Liberals with guns," is also what he calls it, and there is the problem with the film. Liberals, as a rule, don't go on shooting sprees, they just fantasize about it.

The film was released in 2011, before some incidents that make this film less funny. The shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, as well as the shooting involving a patron who would not turn off his cell phone, hone a little too close to the bone. But I have deeper issues with this film. Basically, it is Goldthwait vicariously living out his fantasies via his characters. Murray can't stand the incivility that has taken hold of the country, with people being mean to each other. He has several monologues about the breakdown of American civilization. But is this really new? It reminds me of Plato's complaints about the youth of today, or the song "Kids Today," from Bye Bye Birdie. Societies always have exploited the weak. Goldthwaite compares the era or reality TV to the games at the Colosseum in Rome, and says that this always signals the toppling of an empire. Maybe, but gladiators were performing in Rome at its heights, for hundreds of years.

But here's the test that I think the movie fails: imagine a couple of killers going on a spree shooting liberals, like the Tea Party gone wild. Would it be considered funny to Goldthwait if someone went after a former stand-up comic turned director? What God Bless America boils down to is smug liberals, secure in their superiority to the masses, having a laugh while watching stand-ins for people they hate, like Sean Hannity or Simon Cowell, get riddled with bullets.

The cast is good, but I couldn't get behind the film, as there's just no way to make people go on a killing spree funny, not in this time and place.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Vegas Baby!

What exactly is "lounge" music? I think there are two definitions that often intersect. One is the kind of music that flourished in the late '50s and early '60s, which took more exotic forms like the mambo and cha-cha, combined them with tiki bar Polynesian stuff, and a bit of space age, and mixed them together to make the music that we associate with bachelor pads, hi-fis, and the early days of Playboy.

The second is simply music that is often heard in cocktail lounges. This is more the sound of Vegas Baby!, one of the many offerings in the Ultra-Lounge series. I have three different CDs in the series (I just added a bunch more to my wish list on Amazon), and after listening to Dean Martin I got this off the shelf and gave it some enjoyable spins.

Las Vegas, of course, is the epicenter of the cocktail lounge. Every casino has one, often with shows deep into the night. They are usually just a singer and a small combo--no strings, just a tinkling piano, some drums (often played with brushes) and a heavy brass section. The songs are jazz standards or the equivalent, often louche.

The selections on this CD focus on either songs about the Vegas experience--money, luck, having a good time--or on performers who were famous for playing Vegas. Thus we get two Wayne Newton songs that have nothing to do with Vegas--his signature song "Danke Schoen," and "Shangri-La," which upon hearing the first few times without checking the liner notes I thought was being sung by a woman. Keely Smith and Louis Prima were also long-time Vegas headliners, and they get one song together ("That Old Black Magic"), and Smith gets one ("On the Sunny Side of the Street") and Prima gets one ("Pennies from Heaven").

There are also some heavy hitters here, including Tony Bennett and Count Basie with two numbers, Dean Martin with "Who's Got the Action?" a terrific song, even it does compare women to race horses, Sammy Davis Jr. with "Ain't That a Kick in the Head," Judy Garland with "Lucky Day," and Nat King Cole and Mel Torme to boot. The only names that are conspicuous in their absence are Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, but I'm sure that had to with securing rights. Sinatra doing "Luck Be a Lady" would have made this perfect.

There are also some singers represented here who were big at one time but not so much now. Bobby Darin, one of the quintessential lounge singers, sings "Once in a Lifetime" with the kind of verve one would expect, and closes the album with a live version (recorded at the Flamingo) of "Ace in the Hole." Some singers of an early generation, such as Steve Lawrence, Jack Jones, and Vic Damone are also here. The most contemporary artist is probably Tom Jones, with his hit "It's Not Unusual." I think my favorite of all of these songs is Peggy Lee's version of "Hey, Big Spender," with a terrific brass accompaniment.

The packaging of this CD is almost as fun as the record itself. The jewel case is covered with green felt, and an actual roulette game is on the front. The inside has some great photos of the hey-day of Vegas, with matchbooks from the great old casinos (most of them now gone, like the Stardust, The Desert Inn, the Sahara, and The Thunderbird). There's even a drink recipe, called the Royal Flush.


Monday, May 05, 2014

Fading Gigolo

If you can buy the absurd premise that beautiful, educated women would pay thousands to have sex with John Turturro, you will enjoy Fading Gigolo, written and directed by Turturro, and with a classic performance by Woody Allen. He plays Turturro's pimp.

The whole thing is laid out in the first scene, when Allen, who plays Murray Schwartz, a used-book salesman who has to close his shop, relates to his friend Turturro that his dermatologist is interested in having a threesome with her girlfriend--does he know anyone? He thinks of Turturro, not a classically handsome man but a smooth operator all the same. After some coaxing, Turturro takes him up on it, meeting the dermatologist (Sharon Stone). A business partnership is born.

This is, of course, pure fantasy, the kind a man might have dozing on a Sunday afternoon on his couch. I think we can all agree that if Sharon Stone and Sofia Vergara wanted a man for a threesome, it would be the man who was paying, not vice versa. In actuality, the film really isn't about the gigolo thing at all, but is instead a romance about two orthodox Jews.

Vanessa Paradis plays a widow. She meets Allen when he takes one of his step-kids (in an inspired twist by Turturro, Allen is keeping house with a black woman and her four children) to be deloused. Paradis, lonely and grieving, is watched attentively by Liev Schreiber, who is a safety patrol officer. He gets suspicious when Allen shows up and escorts Paradis to Turturro's apartment. The two don't have sex--he simply puts his hands on her bare skin, and will later see her hair, which is strictly taboo. They fall in love.

So if the film isn't really sure what it's about, it's fun. Allen, who decides to take the name "Dan Bongo" as his pimp name, is at his best. You never really think about Allen as an actor, because he's usually just playing the "Woody Allen" character--the neurotic intellectual. And he is that here, too, but there's something a bit more wistful about him.

And he has some great lines. When he acted in The Front almost forty years ago, another film he did not direct or write, I suspected he wrote most of his lines, and I wonder about that here, too. Or else Turturro studied Allen's films before he switched on the word processor. At one point Allen is hustled into a car by a group of burly orthodox Jews. "I've already been circumcised!" he protests. Later, he asks, "What holiday is this?" When Turturro questions his gigolo idea, he asks, "Are you on drugs?" and Allen responds, "Other than my Zoloft, no." When describing Vergara, he says, "She's a miracle of physics. I don't know she stays up."

Turturro's cameraman, Marco Pontecorvo, has also studied Allen's films, as he shoots Manhattan and Brooklyn with a special glow. It's a nice little film.

My grade for Fading Gigolo: B.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Heroes and Villains

The news the past ten days or so has been dominated by two men who have both been undone by racist comments. One is pretty much universally reviled, while the other is seen by some, amazingly, as a hero.

Cliven Bundy is a Nevada rancher who has been grazing cattle on public lands for years without paying grazing fees. He doesn't pay because he doesn't believe in the "federal government." To me this is the same thing as not paying for using a toll road on some sort of anti-government privilege, or not paying your income taxes. Bundy, basically a scofflaw on a gigantic basis, defended himself by rounding up a bunch of small-penised subscribers to Soldier of Fortune, who pointed their guns at law enforcement agents, who wisely did not shoot back, saving bloodshed.

In a sane world, Bundy would be universally blasted and taken away to the hoosegow in handcuffs, along with anyone else who pointed a weapon at an officer. But somehow he ended up a folk hero to the loony right, personified mostly by bloviating Sean Hannity. I wonder if Hannity ever considered the law enforcement agents who were on the opposite ends of those rifles, or their families, and wondered what he would say to them if they had been wounded or killed?

So Bundy is not in jail, but instead he and his "militia," who are basically hooligans, are terrorizing the nearby town. And he would still be seen as a hero if he hadn't opened his big yap and made his antebellum sentiments about blacks known. His right-wing supporters, including Hannity, Nevada senator Dean Heller, and Kentucky senator Rand Paul fled him like rats from a sinking ship.

Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, who has long been seen by those in the know as the worst owner in the NBA, made some comments in a phone call to his girlfriend/nanny/mistress/trollop that he was angry that she brought black people to a game and posed for a picture with Magic Johnson. Considering the NBA is about ninety-percent black, this was not a smart thing. Sterling has since been banned for life by the NBA, and will be pressured to sell the team. He has been an owner since 1982.

The ban, by new NBA commissioner Adam Silver, has brought mostly praise. It headed off an unprecedented boycott by the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers first round opponent in the playoffs, and has earned Silver goodwill from the players, as well as most of the public.

Those who are upset about this include idiots like Donald Trump, who blames the girlfriend, and those from the left, like Bill Maher, who are troubled that it was a private conversation, and that everyone has a right to be an asshole. I, too, am troubled about the private nature of the conversation, as I was when a voicemail left by Alec Baldwin was made public. But here is the thing: once these comments are made public, there's no putting the toothpaste back in the tube. We can't unhear them.

Many people misunderstand what "free speech" means. It means that you can't be arrested for saying something, unless it is threatening, like yelling fire in a crowded theater. It does not mean that what you say doesn't have consequences, so you can be vilified or fired for saying something. The NBA couldn't afford to let such gross comments to be made by one its owners stand. Yes, he has a right to be an asshole, and say anything he wants in the privacy of his own home, but the NBA has a right to try to protect its image. I'm fully supportive of the sanctions.

As for Bundy, he is basically Sterling in a cowboy hat. I'm not sure of Sterling's opinion of the government, but Bundy is a criminal. Once things die down a bit he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and that includes attempted assault on a federal officer. His cattle should be seized, and he should be fined the amount of money he owes us taxpayers, plus interest. That this boob has any supporters at all is just another sign that the United States has lost its soul.