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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Realistic Joneses

That a play like The Realistic Joneses is on Broadway is something of a miracle, so although I wasn't totally satisfied with it I'd like to encourage more like this, just to break up the tedium of revivals and jukebox musicals. A surreal suburban comedy by Will Eno, with direction by Sam Gold, The Realistic Joneses is consistently funny--I just don't think it's as profound as it thinks it is.

That three of the four actors in this production are big names is surely one reason why it has had a nice run on Broadway. The fourth actor is a well-known playwright who also won a Tony last year for Best Actor. He is Tracy Letts, who plays Bob Jones. As the play opens, he and his wife Jennifer (Toni Collette), are enjoying a peaceful star-filled night in their backyard. When they here what sounds like raccoons coming through their garbage cans, it is instead new neighbors, also with the name Jones. They are John (Michael C. Hall), a king of non sequiturs, and Pony (Marisa Tomei) ditzy but sweet.

Of course, by naming all of his character Jones Eno is striking at the heart of the suburban milieu, going back to the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses," which was once about the super-rich but now can be simply outdoing each other on the best weed-killer. The other key word in the title, realistic, also is ironic, as this play is not the slightest realistic, though it is at is surface level--two couples, one older and more set in their ways, the other exuberant and borderline rude.

The play has all four characters interact in various pairings, as each spouse forms an attraction to the opposite spouse. We learn that Bob, basically a grouch, has a degenerative disease and his reaction is to ignore all information about it. John also harbors secrets that I won't share here.

I laughed out loud at several lines of this play. Most of them are earned by Hall, such as when he says after Jennifer blurts something out, "That’s what separates us from the animal. You never hear animals blurting things out. Unless they’re being run over by a car or something.” There is also a master class in comic acting when Hall and Letts share a moment in the middle of the night, looking at the stars and dealing with a motion-activated light.

There is also something of a sense of doom, mostly through the sound design. At times, between scenes, it sounded like an alien ship was about to land. Because we don't see any other characters, it's almost like one of those Twilight Zone episodes where we later find out these are the only four characters in the world, or something like that. But the play never really goes anywhere, and ends on the banal agreement that mints are good.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Shot All to Hell

On September 7, 1876, eight men rode into the small town of Northfield, Minnesota. Their intention--to rob a bank. What happened next has been a part of Western lore ever since then.

In Mark Lee Gardner's wonderful, meticulous book Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape, we learn about everything there is to know about this robbery and the subsequent manhunt for the bandits. I've read books about Jesse James before, but this is so detailed and so well written that I was dazzled.

This is not a biography of James or his brother Frank, or of the Younger Brothers (Cole, Jim, and Bob). We get sketches of their earlier lives, particularly how they rode with guerrillas during the Civil War, and how they pulled off the first daylight bank robbery in United States history. But the action really starts earlier in 1876, with a train robbery at Rocky Cut, Missouri. Gardner describes the events, and although no one knows for sure who was behind it, it is clear that the evidence points to the James Gang.

Then why Minnesota for their next job? That state doesn't exactly suggest the Wild West, even in 1876. I was surprised to learn that the gang took the train there. They did look at other banks in Minnesota, but Gardner pinpoints the reason the First National in Northfield was chosen: "One of the bank's large investors was Adelbert Ames, a Union Civil War general and Radical Republican who until only recently had been Mississippi's governor. Ames had been derided by Mississippi Democrats as a "carpetbagger" and despised by Southern whites for his pro-black Reconstruction policies." But why Minnesota in the first place? Gardner speculates that the James boys may have been looking for revenge against Samuel Hardwicke, a Pinkerton agent who led a raid on the James homestead that killed their younger brother and maimed their mother. Jesse may have planned on assassinating Hardwicke.

Once the robbery begins, Gardner's talents are evident, as he breaks it down almost second by second. It only lasted seven to ten minutes. What foiled the plot was the citizens' suspicions of the strangers in town to begin with, and then a clerk named Joseph Heywood, who refused to open the safe. He was shot dead in cold blood by Frank James (this is Gardner's supposition based on voluminous evidence--no one in the gang ever gave up Frank). Heywood was hailed as a hero, but of course today no business would expect a man to lay down his life for something like money.

The Northfield citizens didn't lay down, pulling out their arms and shooting it out with the crooks. After the dust had settled, one other Northfield citizen was dead and two of the gang, Clell Miller and Bill Chadwell, were also dead. "According to one account, so many people wanted to see the dead robbers that their bodies were displayed for a short time in Mill Square, which became packed with gawkers, sheriffs and police officers from nearby towns, newspaper reporters, posse volunteers, and Northfield's own citizens, both children and adults."

The rest of the book, a good chunk of it, concerns the escape and manhunt. Northfield telegraphed nearby towns, who formed posses. Gardner highlights the vanity and incompetence of two rivals police chiefs of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and the hesitation of some of the posses, once they realized they were chasing the most notorious outlaws in the country: "Fear of the robbers rattled quite a few of the men and boys who made up the posses. 'Many, of course, were there who started in the chase as they would go upon a chicken hunt,' commented one reporter, 'made brave by the excitement of the moment, but worse than useless in case of actual service.'"

The remaining six outlaws made there way through unfamiliar Minnesota forests, yet somehow eluded capture, telling farmers that they were a posse themselves. But Bob Younger, badly wounded during the robbery, was slowing everyone down. The Youngers and Jameses separated, and eventually the Youngers were captured. Jim took a bullet in the mouth, and Charlie Pitts, who stuck with them, was killed.

The James boys made their way into Iowa, and eventually into the safe haven of Missouri, where many regarded them as heroes. The Youngers would plead guilty to avoid the death penalty, and were sentenced to life in prison. Frank and Jesse James took different names and tried to live quiet lives, but went back to robbery, teaming up with the Ford brothers. Bob Ford would kill Jesse for the reward money. Frank, amazingly, never came to justice for the Northfield raid. To his dying day he maintained he had never been in the state of Minnesota.

This book is a must for Wild West buffs, such as myself, and for general history readers, as it perfectly captures a time and place. I'll close with Gardner's summation: "Thanks to what...the dozens of dime novels that came later, his brother Jesse had become the most famous--and most popular--outlaw on the planet. And, somewhat ironically, a big part of that legendary status had come the defeat in Northfield. If nothing else, Jesse and Frank's wild ride through a thousand manhunters cemented their reputation as among the most remarkable and notorious outlaws to ever live."

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Lazaretto

Oh, Jack White. You may be feud-happy, and you don't sound like a lot of fun at a barbecue, but damn you make good records. The latest is Lazaretto, and I haven't been able to get enough of it this past week.

Once again, White's music is rooted in Americana, with several touches of Appalachia and twelve-bar blues. But he manages to make it sound contemporary, with sterling arrangements and powerful vocals.

To set the tone, he kicks things off with a reworking of a Blind Willie McTell song, "Three Women."

"I got one in California
And one back in Detroit
But my woman in Nashville
Cashes the bottle with her daddy all night."

We then go the more modern and experimental title tune, which is all over the map, sonically speaking, only to go back to the hills for "Temporary Ground," a gorgeous tune accompanied Lillie Mae Rische on fiddle and backing vocals.

There isn't a bad song on this album, but some more of the highlights are a rousing instrumental, "High Ball Stepper," and a comic song of lost love, "Just One Drink":

"You drink water
I drink gasoline
One of us is happy
One of us is mean
Well I love you but
Baby why don't you love me?"

But I think my favorite track is the raucous "That Black Bat Licorice," which is kind of the whole enterprise in one song, the best of White's zany enthusiasm for old style music but dressed up in the duds of today. It also includes the words hypocaust, avuncular, histrionic, and rhymes Columbo and Dumbo.

I've said it before, I'll say in again, White is the most interesting rock musician working today, and Lazaretto finds him on top of his game. Unfortunately, he's not touring anywhere near me this time around. I have yet to see him live and I imagine that would be quite an experience.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Batman

Another milestone anniversary this week is the 25th for Batman, released on June 23, 1989. I distinctly remember seeing it on opening day, and then had to see it a few days later. I wouldn't call it a great film, but it captured my imagination. Today it is significant as a touchstone in the way movies are marketed and how summer blockbusters have dominated the business.

I was interested to read that Tim Burton was hired to direct this based only on his first feature, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, and the film was only greenlit after the success of Beetlejuice. It's hard to remember when Burton was a gamble, as was the whole idea of a comic book film. Other than the Superman films, Hollywood was still innocent in basing its entire economy on sequels, superheroes, and reboots.

After so many iterations of Batman, it is also to be remembered that before this film, the Batman fresh in everyone's mind was the camp TV series of the 1960s. To take it dark, as this film did, although still with comic dialogue, was something of a risk.

I love the look of the film, with Oscar-winning art direction by Anton Furst and Peter Young, and the whole Grand Guignol style Burton brings to it. Theoretically set in the present day, what with batplanes and batmobiles, it seems timeless, given the German Expressionist architecture and pre-war look of the cars.

What bothered me was the seeming lack of plot. To briefly summarize, a vigilante is striking terror in the hearts of the criminal underworld of Gotham City. He is Batman, secret identity of Bruce Wayne, and, as almost everyone in the Western world now knows, the lone survivor of a mugging that killed his parents and set him on a path to justice.

Meanwhile, a gangland boss (Jack Palance) sends his "number one guy" (Jack Nicholson) to destroy records at a front company, a concern called Axis chemicals. Palance knows that Nicholson is sleeping with his girl (Jerri Hall) and sets him up, and both the police and Batman arrive. Nicholson ends up falling into a vat of chemicals, turning his skin white, his hair green, and his face in a permanent smile. He calls himself the Joker.

Nicholson takes over the criminal enterprise and wreaks havoc, but without much forethought. There's some business about poisoning toiletries, vandalizing paintings in the museum, and then releasing poison gas at a festival via large character balloons. It's hard to fathom what his end game was. But I sort of got it this time--he's just plumb crazy. There is no method to his madness. But there are numerous plot inconsistencies. Why, when Nicholson comes to kidnap Vicki Vale in her apartment, does he leave without her? How easy is it to rig a major museum with knockout gas? How did the Joker's henchman get to the top of the cathedral? How inept can Commissioner Gordon be? As for the corrupt cop Eckhardt, why not just hang on a sign on him reading "Corrupt Cop?"

The film also suffers from Prince songs that aren't needed and seem out of place. Thankfully the Wagnerian score by Danny Elfman makes up for it, it's one of my favorite scores ever.

Despite the plot problems, I do love this film. The casting of Michael Keaton, normally a comic actor, was very controversial. He was fine, though he basically is the second lead. Burton is interested, as he should be, with the Joker, and Nicholson, allowed to run free, does wonders with the role. Nicholson only took the role with certain financial considerations, and it made him a very rich man, but he is so fun to watch. Many moments seem to be improvised, as if the camera were left running after cut was called, such as after he shoots Palance he says, "What a day." Some other of my favorite lines of his: "Never rub another man's rhubarb," "Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in, where a man dressed up as a bat gets all of my press? This town needs an enema!" or "He stole my balloons!"

The theme of the film is the duality of man, as both men have double identities. Although Nicholson's character was always a crook, as the Joker he becomes an artist of crime, while Keaton, interestingly, may be portrayed just as crazy. He seems very unhappy, even with his relationship with photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger), which is a drag on the film (also not helping is Robert Wuhl's comic reporter). Keaton plays Batman not as a noble do-gooder--he doesn't hesitate to kill. It was this dark tone, following only by about twenty years the comic TV series, that gave some hesitation.

But what I'll take away from are certain moments that are classics of their type, such as the moment when Nicholson, his back to us, sees himself in a mirror in the low-rent plastic surgeon's office. Or the entire ending on top of the cathedral, a mixture of the epic and the lowdown (chattering teeth and a "You wouldn't hit a man with glasses.")

While paling in its scope with Christopher Nolan's trilogy, Burton's Batman still holds an important place in Hollywood history, and is still a fun film to watch (mostly because of Nicholson).

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Chinatown

Although "Noir" is a style that was prevalent from World War II to the '50s, there have been ample examples of "neo-noir;" hundreds, I would expect. But I don't think there's any finer than Chinatown, both as an example of classic noir and as a great film. It was released 40 years ago this week (in a bit of mind-fucking, it has been longer from the release of the film until now that it was from the events of the film to the release).

When us older people maintain that the 1970s was the best decade for film (and it was, there should be no argument) here is an example. Roman Polanski, who despite his peccadilloes is a great director, was basically left on his own for this film, as were so many great young directors of the time. He was making an homage to a certain type of film, but it was very adult, very uncompromising, and while he had to argue to give it the unhappy ending it had at least he got his way.

The film began as a script by Robert Towne (he would win the only Oscar the film would win), who turned down a chance to write The Great Gatsby for Robert Evans; Evans made this instead. It was written for Jack Nicholson, who hadn't yet cemented his status as leading man; this film would do it. He and Polanski had been longing to do a film together, and despite having to come back to California only a few years after the murder of his wife, Polanski did the film.

A deliberate throwback, Chinatown is a film that follows the rules yet seems perfectly fresh, even today. It has many elements in common with a host of other private eye films. Nicholson is Jake Gittes, who specializes in taking photographs proving infidelity. He is hired by the wife of the water commissioner to prove he's running around. Only when he later meets a woman who is the actual wife and the commissioner ends up dead does Gittes realize he's in a far bigger situation.

Towne channels Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett in his private eye trappings. Gittes is a knight errant--he's duplicitous, but has a code. He comes across a menagerie of thugs and villains, including Polanski himself who slices Gittes' nostril (the wounding of the hero is a common trope in both the Western and the private eye film, as is the vicious beating he will later take). But most villainous is Noah Cross (John Huston), who used to own the water department and is now working a scam to send water to the dry orange valleys of the northwest, after having bought up the land at a dirt cheap price.

Of course there is a femme fatale, with Faye Dunaway as Mrs. Mulwray. But she is not a scheming black widow in the usual sense. Her motives are purest of all, taking care of an innocent young woman.

Chinatown also has an enormous literary quality, and though it isn't based on a novel it seems like it is. The title itself, as well as being the location of the climax of the film, is a metaphor for the dark side of humanity, a place where Nicholson had some sort of tragedy, which remains unspoken. "Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown," the last line spoken, has come to be an appropriate response for any condition that is beyond human control. Chinatown, in this sense, is the cruel hand of fate.

Unlike classic noir, Chinatown was shot in color, and since it's Los Angeles, often in very bright sunshine. But there is evil under the sun, in the dry river beds and dusty orange groves. If Polanski doesn't use shadow, he uses excellent framing, such as when Nicholson, his back to us in the background, reveals information to Huston, who is in the foreground, facing us. Clearly Huston had not realized the extent of the information Nicholson had, and his face, though hardly moving, registers this.

There are also numerous instances of Towne's superior dialogue. It's easy to see he wrote it for Nicholson, as it is not much a stretch for him. "Don't eat the Venetian blinds, we just had them installed on Wednesday," is one of his first, to "I almost lost my nose. I like it. I like breathing through it." When he and Dunaway visit a nursing home and pretend they have an aged father, you can almost see Randle P. McMurphy.

Also, there is the part of Noah Cross. What a combination of writing and acting. Huston plays the banality of evil, a courtly gent who is nonetheless evil to the core (and purposely mispronounces Gittes' names as "Gitts"). I love a scene late in the film when Nicholson asks him how much he's worth, and Huston says, "I have no idea." More than ten million? A smile, and "Oh my, yes." But more chilling is when Nicholson confronts Huston with the knowledge that he raped his own daughter. "You see, Mr. Gittes, most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they're capable of ANYTHING."

If you haven't seen Chinatown, what are you waiting for?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Amores Perros

Aside from Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo Del Toro, the most prominent Mexican director these days is Alejandro González Iñárritu. Like the other two, he is now a Hollywood director, but his film debut made quite a splash in 2000.

Amores Perros (Life's a Bitch) is, like this subsequent films, 21 Grams and Babel, a triptych film, with multiple stories linked by a single incident. In this case it is a traffic accident in Mexico City. The only other uniting factor in these stories are the presence of dogs.

The first story concerns Gael Garcia Bernal as a young man who is in love with his brother's wife. They begin an affair, and he tries to make money so they can get away. He discovers that his dog is a great fighter, and enters him underground dogfighting competitions, earning a great deal of money. After he has vanquished the dogs of several of a local gangster's, the angered man puts a bullet in Bernal's dog. Bernal stabs the man, and he and his buddy must flee. The chase ends with a horrible crash.

The second story concerns the other victim of the crash, a fashion model (Goya Toledo). She has just moved in with her lover, who has left his wife. They have a new apartment, overlooking a giant billboard of her in her new campaign. They also have a small pampered dog.

After the accident, she is in a wheelchair, and while playing catch the dog gets lost under some loose floorboards, where he remains for weeks. The ensuing tension, plus Toledo's declining health, make the relationship suffer intensely.

The third story concerns a bystander of the crash. El Chivo, (Emilio Ecchevaria) who was a revolutionary, now lives as a vagrant, his hair and beard long and matted. He has a menagerie of stray dogs that he tends to, but in reality he is a hired assassin. He gets an assignment to kill a young man, but the accident distracts him. He learns more about the man and finds that his own brother has hired him to kill him.

Amores Perros was an international sensation when it was released, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It still holds up pretty well, but I wonder if it hasn't lost some its luster due to other films using the same technique, including Iñárritu himself. Still, the film has undeniable power, such as when Ecchevaria leaves a gun between the two brothers, our imaginations allowing us to play that out, or the scene in which the killer leaves a message for his daughter, who presumes him dead.

As mentioned, dogs play a critical role in the film, and there are many scenes of dog violence, which are unsettling. I would assume that none came to any harm in the making of the film, but it's still jarring.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Ernest and Celestine

Every year, it seems, the Academy's animation branch reaches out to nominate a film that is not made by a big studio. For every lackluster The Croods, we get a delightful film that I otherwise wouldn't have seen, like Ernest and Celestine, a French-Belgian production based on characters from a popular children's book series.

Directed by Benjamin Renner, the film details the unlikely friendship between Ernest, a slacker bear, and Celestine, an inquisitive mouse. In the world of the film, bears and mice are mortal enemies (I'm kind of confused by this--I thought mice feared cats, but there's nary a pussycat to be found). Mice live underground, and are taught to fear the The Big Bad Bear, while bears live above ground, and hate mice, except when they come in the form of tooth fairies to take their children's teeth. I know, it gets kind of weird, especially when we find out that mice use the bear's discarded incisors to replace their own.

Anyway, Celestine is fascinated by bears, and doesn't believe the ursine hyperbole. Ernest, a one-man band who has awakened after hibernation, is ready to eat Celestine, but instead she leads him to a candy store, where he pigs out. He escapes the police, and they hide out in his cabin in the woods, bonding. When the police (both bear and mouse) find them, they are tried.

The film is utterly charming, and ideal for smaller children. Adults with taste will enjoy the nature of the animation, which is keeping with picture books--it has a watercolor look, without a lot of great detail, which is in direct contrast with some of the Hollywood animation. There's also a nice message that basically echoes Rodney King: "Can't we all get along?"

The DVD I saw is a English dub version with some big names in the voice cast: Forest Whitaker as Ernest, and also Lauren Bacall, William H. Macy, and Paul Giamatti. It's a lovely film.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Shining

I've read a lot of Stephen King's books, but it would take a stalwart to read them all, as there are about 50. But I'm missing some of this early standout works, the ones that made his reputation. One of them was The Shining, his third book, published in 1977. The book has in many ways been eclipsed by Stanley Kubrick's film version, which I will revisit in a few days. But for now, I will focus on the novel.

In many ways, it is a personal novel for King. He was dealing with his own demons, namely alcoholism. A stay in a hotel in the Colorado Rockies, and a nightmare involving his then three-year-old son gave him the impetus to write the book about a man, much like himself, who is on the skids. Jack Torrance has been fired from his job as a teacher after assaulting a student. He has a history of anger--he once broke his son Danny's arm--and has landed a job as a winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, deep in the mountains, completely inaccessible in the winter snows.

He is there along with his patience wife Wendy and Danny, who has a gift. The genial hotel cook, Dick Halloran, sees it right away: "'You got a knack,' Halloran said, turning to him. 'Me, I've always called it shining. That's what my grandmother called it, too. She had it. We used to sit in the kitchen when I was a boy no older than you and have long talks without even openin our mouths.'"

At first things seem fine. Jack discovers a scrap book of the hotel's history in the basement and becomes absorbed in the past, with the murders that took place there. A wasp nest, seemingly empty, comes to buzzing life. Then one day Jack seems to notice that the topiary hedges, shaped like animals, start coming a little too close for comfort. But all bets are off when Danny visits the forbidden Room 217: "So he pulled the shower curtain back. The woman in the tub had been dead for a long time. She was bloated and purple, her gas-filled belly rising out of the cold, ice-rimmed water like some fleshy island. Her eyes were fixed on Danny's, glassy and huge, like marbles. She was grinning, her purple lips pulled back in a grimace. Her breasts lolled. Her pubic hair floated. Her hands were frozen on the knurled porcelain sides of the tub like crab claws." That will make your hair stand on end.

The second half of the book has Jack slowly enter madness, the hotel taking him over. He hallucinates (or does he?) a masked ball (which reminds us of Poe's Masque of the Red Death) and though he is on the wagon and there is no alcohol in the place, manages to get liquored up. Danny, using his power, contacts Dick in Florida, who makes a mad scramble to get back to help him.

The Shining is just a great horror novel, but what makes it transcendent (and different than the Kubrick film) is that it is grounded in the horrors of real life--how a man's failures can haunt him and drive him to violence. Of course, King also has a way with homey language. There aren't too many pop culture references here, as there are in some of his later books, but he can stop me dead with a lovely phrase like "it smelled of grease and oil and gasoline and--faint, nostalgic smell--sweet grass." Yes, I get that, I can smell it right now.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

Okay, just to get it out of the way--I did not cry while watching The Fault in Our Stars. Directed by Josh Boone, and based on the wildly popular novel by John Green, many reviews of the film have cited that it is a three-or-more hankie picture. But if I didn't cry, I did come to admire the movie, as it slowly eroded my cynicism into dust.

I did read the book, and the the film is incredibly faithful. I forgot some of the sequence of events, so when I wondered whether the film would cut the visit to the Anne Frank House (where our two leads share their first kiss), oops, there it was, in every detail. I'm sure this is to avoid angering a legion of the books fans, but also the book was written in a cinematic style, and though it's a little long, the film doesn't suffer by that fidelity.

But it does suffer from, at least through the first half or so, in its fidelity to the character of Augustus Waters. Played with a kind of facile charm by Ansel Elgort (a name that seems like an anagram of another name), he is the boy that the film's narrator, Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) meets and falls in love with. He's outgoing and cocky, and though he's lost a leg from cancer he still seems perfect in every way. Naturally Woodley is overwhelmed by his attention, but if I were her dad I'd be wary, as he speaks like a confidence man.

The two meet in a cancer support group, and the film, like the book, is full of inside dope on cancer sufferers. The film also claims to be a different sort of romance, one that doesn't need Peter Gabriel songs, which is both a knock on the superior Say Anything and ignorant of the many sappy songs on this soundtrack. She has cancer that requires her to use an oxygen tank at all times, and her cannula becomes part of her face, almost like a bow in her hair or long earrings.

The crux of the film is their visit to Amsterdam to meet the reclusive author of Woodley's favorite book. The author is played by Willem Dafoe (when I read the book I pictured someone much more wormy, like Wallace Shawn). Things don't go well on that front, but the two have an idealized trip that climaxes, so to speak, with a tasteful sexual encounter. Of course, in a movie about not one but two kids with cancer, there is bound to be a sad ending, and that we get.

There are two things that pushed this movie into a thumbs-up. One is how the film acknowledges the way teenagers see things as all or nothing. Today, at the ripe-old age I am, I listen to teens say that they are going to have so many kids and live in a house that has this or that and do this or that job, with a kind of certainty that makes an adult's inner eyes roll, as they don't know how life can fuck up plans. There's some of that here, too, but with these kids there isn't a long future to look forward to, and epic pronouncements aren't just a by-product of youth, they are appropriate and necessary. So when they end up writing eulogies for each other, it doesn't come off as twee, but deadly realistic.

The other reason to praise this film is Woodley, one of the best young actresses working today. What's so good about her, as it was in The Spectacular Now, is that she is so un-actorly. Whenever there's a chance to chew scenery, she takes a different approach, making Hazel much more authentic. Also, as in The Spectacular Now, she has a great way of responding to a boy telling her she's beautiful. Woodley has being embarrassed down pat.

I also liked Laura Dern, as Woodley's mother. As Woodley says, the only thing worse than being a kid with cancer is having a kid with cancer. Dern captures the difficulty of being in such a situation. And she kind of looks like she could be Woodley's mother.

My grade for The Fault in Our Stars: B-.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Lydia Loveless

When I hear the name Lydia Loveless I think of Lydia Lunch, but the two couldn't be more different. The former is a hot new singer/songwriter who plays rock and roll flavored country, or country flavored rock depending on your point of view. In the terminology of today, this is alt-country, but unlike others in the genre, like Neko Case or Jenny Lewis, Loveless emphasizes the country more than the alt.

I've been listening to her latest album, Somewhere Else, which is pleasant if unspectacular.

What's most distinctive about her is her voice. She's from Columbus, Ohio, not exactly the land of cotton, but she has a nasal twang that would not be out of place in a honky tonk with a Confederate flag tacked to the wall. And though her sound is pretty straight forward rock, with some steel guitars for atmosphere, the voice makes every sound chicken-fried.

As a songwriter, Loveless is not particularly distinctive. Most of the songs are generic, with humdrum titles like "Really Wanna See You," "To Love Somebody," and "Hurts So Bad." The one song that pops out at me is "Verlaine Shot Rimbaud," which may seem like a lit major's pretension, but contrasted with the other songs it is a plaintive cry in the dark--"Verlaine shot Rimbaud, because he loved him so...that's the way I want to go." Loveless includes a poem by Verlaine on the inside of the CD booklet. Since she's only 23 she can be forgiven for admiring these two enfant terribles.

The only cover version is Kirsty MacColl's "They Don't Know," which was a hit for Tracy Ullman years ago. It's a sparkly British pop tune, but Loveless, with her dynamic voice, gives it new shading.

Somewhere Else is a good album, and I'm interested to see how Loveless grows as a songwriter.


Friday, June 20, 2014

Omar

Omar is the fifth and last of the Best Foreign Language nominees from 2013 I've seen, and it may be the best. It was an entry from Palestine, the country without a homeland, and showcases the nature of their struggle, this time in the occupied West Bank.

Omar, our hero, is a baker who, along with two others, plan to strike back against their Israeli occupiers. Omar lives in a section of town separate from his comrade, Tarek, and Tarek's sister, Nadia, whom Omar is in love. He must climb about a fifty-foot wall to see them, and while he usually does this without incident he is occasionally shot at or detained and abused by Israeli soldiers.

Tarek and another man, Amjad, who is a bit of a comedian (he does a killer Brando impersonation) have plotted to kill a soldier. They do so, but have been betrayed, as they are fingered and chased through the streets. Omar is captured, and an Israeli agent offers him immunity if he'll help him. Omar takes the deal, but is working as a double agent, as he and his friends plan an ambush. But that goes awry, and Omar realizes that the traitor is one of the three of them.

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad, Omar is a genuine white-knuckler, using the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as its political context. Some of the scenes are extremely well done, such as those with Omar racing through the streets, one step ahead of his pursuers. There's a twist at the end involving incontrovertible math about a baby being born that I didn't quite get, leading to a shock ending that left me a little unsatisfied, but perhaps some one out there can explain it to me.

The actors are good, with Adam Bakri as Omar, Waleed Zuaiter as the Israeli agent, and Leem Lubany, lovely and winsome as Nadia.

If I had a vote, I would have been torn between Omar and The Great Beauty, and probably come down on Omar, as it was more consistently excellent. It was a good year for nominees, though, as all five had some level of excellence.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Missing Picture

Over the next two days I'll have caught up with all of the nominees for last year's Best Foreign Language Oscar. First up, from Cambodia, The Missing Picture, a unique documentary by Rithy Panh.

Whenever we read books or watch films about dystopian futures, like Divergent or 1984, we may forget that it's already happened. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975, it was a waking nightmare, and the population was "re-educated," mostly by making them work in the rice fields, and banning private property. Artists, intellectuals, and anyone expressing freedom of though or espousing Western or capitalist ideals were executed. All the people were allowed to own was a spoon. "How can you revolt," we are asked, "when all you own are black clothes and a spoon?"

Rithy Panh was thirteen when the takeover occurred, on April 17, 1975. He watched his parents and siblings die, and was put in a work camp, which he called "a tomb guarded by a man with a felt hat." He endured fierce hunger, and watched people who were sick tended to not by doctors, as Western medicine was banned, but by those who practiced medicine as an idealogy.

What is unique about this film is the method the story is told. With voiceover narration (there is a French version and an English one) Panh uses a combination of archival footage and, ingeniously, clay figures made to represent the people in his story. It is not claymation, as the figures don't move, instead large dioramas are constructed to show the pictures that are in Panh's mind.

Sometimes it's easy to judge a film by its message, and in that case The Missing Picture is indeed powerful. However, even at only 95 minutes it feels too long, and might have packed more punch as a short film. I found my mind wandering during some of the film, as it is fairly slow moving.

Still, it's a sharp reminder that horrors like these are not just the by-product of sci-fi writers. It's real, and it's happened, and could happen again.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, is a rarity in the book business: a smash hit and a literary success, placing on many best-of-the-year lists and winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Though that makes it sound like a consensus classic, it is not, for there are many literary types who loathe the book. Just recently an essay in Vanity Fair pointed out the critics, mostly highbrow types, who have excoriated the book.

So where do I come down? Well, it may not be literarily tony, but The Goldfinch is a great read. Is is literature or is entertainment? Does it matter? I'm reminded of a post on slate.com by a numbskull who said that adults should be "embarrassed to read" YA literature. I say you shouldn't be embarrassed to read anything, except for child porn or KKK pamphlets.

I think the reason a lot of literary snobs don't like The Goldfinch is that is heavily plotted. Many have noted the Dickensian aspects: it is a bildungsroman about an orphan, who over the course of 700 pages must redeem himself. Our hero, Theo Decker, goes from New York to Las Vegas back to New York to Amsterdam, all while feeling guilty about the death of his mother, and cherishing an object that is his last connection to her.

The book begins with Theo and his mother, with time to kill before seeing his school principal about a suspension, ducking into the Met. A terrorist bomb goes off, killing her. An elderly gent, dying, gets Theo to promise he'll take care of a small painting, "The Goldfinch,"  by Carel Fabritius (it didn't occur to me until much later that it is a real painting). Theo, dazed, walks out of the museum, holding the painting, which he hides.

As his father's whereabouts are unknown, he takes refuge with the family of his friend, the geeky Andy. This section is one of the book's best, as Theo tries to get comfortable in this family of rich New Yorkers, although Andy is thrilled to have him: "Sometimes I wondered exactly what it might take to break Andy out of his math-nerd turret: a tidal wave? Decepticon invasion? Godzilla tromping down Fifth Avenue? He was a planet without an atmosphere."

Theo then meets one of the two other major characters of the book. Hobie is a furniture restorer and the partner of the man who died next to Theo in the museum. Hobie will be the Mr. Micawber of the book, endlessly kind, a father figure for the ages. Theo also meets Pippa, the old man's niece, who was injured in the blast. She will become the book's Estella, the girl that Theo will always long for but never have (although Pippa is nowhere as nasty as Estella).

Theo's father reappears and moves him to Las Vegas, where the old man is trying to make a living betting on sports and living with a trashy blonde named Xandra. Vegas is catnip to writers, almost as much as New York, London, or Paris, as it is totally unlike any other place in the world. Here is Tartt's take: "What would Thoreau have made of Las Vegas: its lights and rackets, its trash and daydreams, its projections and hollow facades?"

There Theo will meet the other major character of the book, its Artful Dodger, Boris, a Ukrainian immigrant who is Theo's classmate. They hang out like the Huck and Tom of the 21st century, getting high, shoplifting, eating junk food, and living mostly unsupervised. A tragedy will cause Theo to return to New York, but Boris will re-enter the picture, and how.

This is about only the first half of the book. Theo returns and works with Hobie, and we learn about the antique furniture business. All the while Theo hangs on to the painting, afraid he will get arrested, but unsure how to return it. This will all lead to the least impressive part of the book, a clash with international art thieves in Amsterdam, including a shootout. I have to downgrade this book from five to four stars based on the unsatisfactory nature of the ending.

Many critics have cited Tartt for use of cliches, such as "tip of the iceberg." But she also has a lovely way with a simile, such as "I might have liked Xandra in other circumstances--which, I guess, is sort of like saying I might have liked the kid who beat me up if he hadn't beat me up." Or, "Then another guy appeared, much much younger and much much bigger...Malaysian or Indonesian with a face tattoo and eyepopping diamonds in his ears and a black topknot on the crown of his head that made him look like one of the harpooners from Moby Dick, if one of the harpooners from Moby Dick had happened to be wearing velvet track pants and a peach satin baseball jacket."

The Goldfinch may not be the Great American Novel, but it's absorbing, frequently funny, and never dull. Whatever your taste in literature, read it when you have a chance. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Best American Sports Writing 2013

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a sportswriter. I loved sports (still do), but was a terrible athlete, and since I had a talent as a writer it seemed a logical ambition. But I'm glad I didn't pursue it, as it seems to me that having to write about sports and all its warts would crush one's fandom. I mean, who wants to write about steroids, concussions, salary caps, and DUIs?

In The Best American Sports Writing 2013, edited by J.R. Moehringer, some of that comes through. The pieces here are all features--no game reporage, which is what I considered sportswriting when I was a kid. As series editor Glenn Stout puts it: "The kind of writing that was once 'only' about sports filled thousands of newspapers every day. That doesn't happen much anymore, because now readers ask for more; outcomes and easy answers are often not enough, and that includes writing that is only about sports. That is, I think, one reason that readers have undeniably fled from the kind of writing that once first came to mind whenever anyone mentioned the word "sportswriting."

In fact, very little in this book is about anything that happens on the field of play. The closest is "The Most Amazing Bowling Story Ever," about a fellow that was going for a 900--that's three consecutive perfect games. There's also Karen Russell's "The Blind Faith of the One-Eyed Matador" (it also appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013):  "Soon everyone can tell from the bull's ragged breathing that the end is near. Padilla and the bull are staring into other's faces with an opaque intimacy...It's almost sunset now; the planks of blood down the bull's back look violet."

Of course, whether bullfighting is a "sport" is subject to debate, the same with strongman competitions, but "The Strongest Man in the World," by Burkhard Bilger, is fascinating nonetheless. On the other hand, bicycling is definitely a sport, but Bill Gifford's "It's Not About the Lab Rats" is all about Lance Armstrong's duplicity. It's the kind of thing I would have hated writing. The same for Jason Schwartz's "End Game," about Curt Schilling's financial woes.

The book is thematically arranged, so two "dead teen" stories (one is about a basketball player who dies on the court of a heart attack, the other a baseball player in a car accident) are back to back, as are a string of stories about long-distance running. One is Barry Bearak's "Caball Blanco's Last Run," about a long-distance runner who started a race in Mexico but died while running through the desert, another is Dan Koeppel's "Redemption of the Running Man," about a man who may or may not have run around the world: "What does it mean to run around the world? Give the idea a moment's thought, and you'll soon conclude that it is unimaginable, perhaps impossible," and then there's the simply titled "Running," a memoir by Cinthia Ritchie, that is one of the best descriptions of the joy of running I've read: "Growing up on a farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, I ran through the fields and pastures, down the hilly dirt roads, across the marsh and through the narrow, cold creek. Arms outstretched, eyes slit against the sun's glare. I ran in cheap Kmart sneakers, kicking them off in midstride, the grass warm and dry against my bare heels, callused tough and hard as an animal's. Sun hot, air smelling of hay and dust  and sweet cow manure. I ran because I loved the feel of wind on my shoulders, loved my hair scattering my face, loved the wisdom of my knees instinctively bending to absorb the shock of rocks and hard, narrow gullies."

Some of the other best pieces here are "Did Football Kill Austin Trenum?" by Patrick Hruby, that details the growing crisis of concussions in football, and Wright Thompson's "Urban Meyer Will Be Home for Dinner," discussing the workaholic nature of college football coaches, notably Meyer, who left Florida because of stress but then went back to Ohio State, after his wife laid down a few rules.

On the more amusing side of things, we get Erik Malinowski on "The Making of 'Homer at the Bat,' the Episode That Conquered Prime Time 20 Years Ago Tonight," about the episode of The Simpsons featuring nine active major leaguers (and one of my favorite episodes), and Jeff MacGregor's "Waiting for Goodell," which re-imagines Beckett's play as about the NFL commissioner.

So if this isn't sportswriting as I imagined it, no descriptions of a ball in play, it is at least some very good writing. Covering sports isn't the same as it used to be.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Black Box Recorder

Some years ago I picked up an album by Black Box Recorder, a British synth-pop band. It was called The Facts of Life, and I enjoyed it a great deal for its cool, catchy rhythms and thinly-veiled metaphors (the opening track "The Art of Driving," is clearly about sex).

For years I had wanted to pick up another album by them, and I finally did, their next one, from 2003, called Passionoia. And again, it is full of catchy hooks and an emotionless cool that is so typically British. But I had to face something--I don't like electronic music.

Let me clarify that. If you break down pop music into two categories--those that use guitars and real drums, and those that don't, I go for the former. In a song on Passionoia called "Andrew Ridgely" (it starts with singer Sarah Nix speaking, "I never liked George Michael much, although they say he was the talented one") she proclaims, "I was brought up to the sound of the synthesizer, I learned to dance to the beat of electronic drums." Well okay, good for her, but not so much for me. Give me the slight imperfection of a drummer, and the squeal of guitars any day.

That being said, for a synth-pop band, Black Box Recorder were very good. Even though I was coming to this conclusion, I found myself humming their songs. Many of the songs have Nix speaking, such as the opener on Passionoia called "The School Song," a kind of update of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2," that features Nix reciting things a teacher says. I wasn't sure if this was mocking the educational system or embracing it. There's also a song called "The New Diana" that left me wondering, as she sings, "I want to be new Diana, lying on a yacht reading photo magazines." Now, this was after Diana's death, and it seems kind of snarky, but then other portions of the song refer to her work against landmines.

So, if I learned anything, it's that I will no longer try to make myself like electronic music. I've tried to like groups like LCD Soundsystem and Animal Collective, or even dance music such as Daft Punk. But I don't dance, I don't go to clubs, I don't use ecstasy. So, as Bob Seger sings, "I like that old fashioned rock and roll."

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Nevada Mining Towns

On my last full day in Las Vegas I packed up the car with my friend and her kids and we headed into the high desert to visit three mining towns. Two are still in existence, as towns anyway, if not as mines, while one is just a ghost of itself.

Tonopah is about a three-hour drive north. The road cuts through mile after mile of dusty desert and brown mountains, with the occasional small town in between. There's a prison at Indian Springs, and a few brothels (the Shady Lady Ranch looked particularly forlorn).

In Tonopah, at 6,000 feet elevation, the breeze is cool; thirty degrees cooler than the scorching valley below. We took a guided tour of the Tonopah Mining Park, a park devoted to the silver mine that started operation in 1960. It was pretty fascinating to see how it all worked, with deep veins in the Earth going 500 feet down, and 500 miles of inter-connected tunnels. The mine stopped operation about 50 years, but several billion dollars of silver out of the ground.

After a picnic lunch we headed to Goldfield, which, as the name suggest, was a gold mining town. Now it's a charming little town with antique stores, with a large empty hotel at the center, The Goldfield Hotel. It is said to be haunted.

Our last stop, and a place I've been wanting to go to for years, is Rhyolite. It sprung up around the Bullfrog mine, which started in 1905. Almost as quickly it went bust, and by 1920 was a tourist attraction and a movie set. Most of the buildings are in ruins, but there are two oddities that make the town one of the most visited ghost towns in the West (when we were there, unbelievably there were two other families also visiting). One is the Goldwell Museum, an open-air collection of statues. The most distinctive is a row of ghostly figures that have to seen to be appreciated.

The second is the Tom Kelly Bottle House, pictured above. Mr. Kelly started building the house in 1905, but never lived in it. He was 76 when he built it, using 30,000 bottles (mostly from Busch beer, with a few patent-medicine bottles). It was been renovated over the years, but seems in pretty good shape and kind of cozy. Today it's one of the great American roadhouse attractions.

There's something about being in the desert, the middle of nowhere, that's very appealing. Of course modern conveniences have crept in, but when you're standing in a place like Rhyolite, you can seem like you're a million miles removed from everything you've known before.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Neon Boneyard

My second day in Las Vegas was divided into two sections: first I spent the day in the great outdoors, taking a trip for a picnic lunch to Mount Charleston, which is the highest peak of the Spring Mountains and part of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. Some of the views were spectacular, and the park has rebounded from a wildfire that occurred last summer.

Then, in the cool of the evening (the temperature in Las Vegas was over 100 degrees during the day) I took a tour at the Neon Museum, informally known as the Neon Boneyard. It sprung from the "boneyard" of the Young Electric Sign Company, which kept its discarded signs in a scrap yard. Starting in 1996, the museum now has relics that have been donated and restored. In 2012, the museum opened at its current location.

The museum is outdoors, and as such there are only tours in the early morning and at night. I took a night tour, and while the signs themselves aren't plugged in and lit, exterior lights shining on them give them the illusion of being lit. A knowledgeable tour guide took us through on a one-hour journey, passing the remnants of casinos of yore, old motel signs, and signs from various businesses, ranging from a large metal sculpture of a billiards player (complete with mullet--it was made in 1983, after all) to a giant duck used for a used car lot called Ugly Duckling.

As Las Vegas has a complicated relationship with its history--the instinct is to tear something old down to make way for the new--it's important that this legacy be maintained, and the boneyard seems an apt place to do it. They have also sprinkled neon signs throughout Vegas' streets, including a large neon slipper (from the Silver Slipper casino) across the street from the boneyard.

Driving back to the hotel after visiting, we drove straight down the strip, and we viewed the signs currently in operation with a more studied eye. My 13-year-old companion, understanding perfectly the nature of quick obsolescence, wondered when these bright, flashy signs would end up in the boneyard.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Mob Museum

I'm spending a long weekend in Las Vegas, ostensibly to visit my long-distance girlfriend and her sons. This is my third trip here, and yet there will probably be no gambling involved, and not even a trip to the Strip. There's plenty else to do.

Our first stop was The Mob Museum, officially called the National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement. The museum opened just over two years ago in the Las Vegas Post Office and Courthouse, built in 1933 (and which was one of the sites of the Kefauver organized crime hearings in the 1950s). It's a big hit, and it deserves to be.

Since I was with two teens and a woman with a sore leg, we didn't devote enough time to it, as there's a lot to process. It details the origins of organized crime, mostly through immigrants (Italian and Jewish) that established criminal networks at the turn of the century. There are exhibits on the St. Valentine's Day Massacre (including the actual bloodstained wall), various kinds of weapons, the founding of Las Vegas as a gambling mecca by Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky, and the efforts of law enforcement to topple the criminal empire.

The best part for kids and some adults who still act like kids are hands-on exhibits. You can appear in a line-up, shoot a Tommy gun (with no bullets, of course), take part in a cop training scenario, and sit in the electric chair. To properly do the museum, it would take at least two hours, but we did it in one.

Later in the day we went to the top of the Stratosphere, the tallest freestanding tower in the United States, which looms over 100 stories above the desert. The views are breathtaking of course, but if that wasn't enough there are rides on top of it. For the truly brave, you can sky jump off the top hooked to a line. I went on one ride, the X-Stream, which just basically tilts the rider and shoots forward a few feet. Of course, when it shoots forward a few feet on top of a 100-story tower, that adds some dramatic effect.

And, as always in Vegas, there is the local color. I'm staying at an off-strip hotel, but it's still hopping with people playing slots, even at seven in the morning. They are a certain type of people, mostly older and disheveled, who could be mistaken for homeless in other circumstances. Men with gray pony-tails, wearing black socks with sandals, or women carting oxygen tanks. The smell of tobacco lingers--an unusual one, as back east smoking in public places has pretty much been eradicated. I've never gotten the allure of slot machines, but whatever makes people happy. To me, the fascination with Vegas is not the gambling, but the world that the gambling creates. More to come.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

About Cherry

As someone who knows more than the average bear about the world of pornography, I'm always interested to see what "mainstream" films do with the subject. About Cherry, a recent film directed by Stephen Elliott, brings some fresh perspective to its story about a girl from Long Beach who heads to San Francisco to get into porn (it's usually the other way around, geographically speaking). It's not judgmental about its characters, and approaches adult films as a legitimate business. But it also seems to have no real reason for existing, as it's mostly a character study about characters who have no motivation.

Ashley Hinshaw plays Angelina, a bright teenage girl who has an alcoholic mother (Lili Taylor). Her rock musician boyfriend suggests she shoot some nude photos with a friend of his, and after declining, she ends up agreeing, probably for the money. Then, in a move that seems out of character for her, she packs up and leaves town with her platonic friend (Dev Patel) for Frisco. She starts working for an online porn outfit, and as a cocktail waitress in a strip club, where she meets a charming lawyer (James Franco).

While working for the porn company, one of the directors (Heather Graham), a lesbian in a serious relationship with a realtor, falls for her young model, who now calls herself Cherry.

This is somewhat interesting, in a cool, detached indie film sort of way. As I said, it's not judgmental and not at all sensational, such as when Hinshaw is interviewed by the woman at the porn company as professionally if it were a job as an administrative assistant. Being a film about porn, there is some sex, with Hinshaw showing off her naked body (oddly, Graham, who is naked in almost everything, shows nothing here).

But I just didn't get the point of the whole thing. If it isn't an expose about how the porn business chews up young women, is it about how porn empowers women? It could be, but we don't really don't understand why Hinshaw does it. I hate to be a wet blanket on a film that is not sanctimonious about porn, but if that was the intention, we needed to understand Hinshaw's motives much more clearly.

The film also seems aware of its own plot inconsistencies. Graham's girlfriend catches her looking at photos of Hinshaw, and Graham has to remind her that she shoots porn for a living. "Eight years together, and this is just dawning on you?" she asks, echoing the audience. Also, Franco, playing a character who hangs out in strip clubs, has a problem with a girlfriend doing porn. That, I'm afraid, is a hypocrisy that's much more authentic.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling

It seems no matter how popular the author is in another genre, what they really want to do is write a detective novel. Stephen King's next novel is a private eye book, and J.K. Rowling, who by earnings is the most successful writer on the planet, left the kids at Hogwarts and, under a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, penned a mystery called The Cuckoo's Calling.

The book was headed for the remainder bin until the cat got let out of the bag that Rowling was the author, and it's a pretty good book, as these things go. She hits on all the tropes of a successful private eye series--the hero is hunky but flawed, there's a book full of suspects, and the climax takes place when the detective confronts the killer. There's even a plucky sidekick. The only thing she didn't do is have all the suspects in a room together at the end.

The detective is Cormoran Strike (she even gives him a great name), a boozing bull of a man who had a leg blown off in Afghanistan. He's also the son of a Johnny-Rotten-like rock star. At the book's start, he's avoiding creditors and sleeping in his office after leaving his girlfriend. He literally knocks down his temp, Robin, as he runs out the door after the girlfriend. Robin is secretly thrilled to be working for a private eye, even one as down at his heels as Strike, even though he can't afford her.

Then, as these things always happen, a case falls in his lap. He's hired by a man who is the adopted brother of a supermodel, Lula Landry (the "Cuckoo" of the title). A few weeks earlier she did a swan dive off the balcony of her apartment. The police called it suicide, but the brother wants Strike to look into it.

I'm of two minds about this book. It's well-written, and it moves well, but there's something mechanical about it. Rowling has the reader follow Strike as he moves from witness to witness, some of high standing, such as a flamboyant fashion designer, a supermodel (whom he beds--if a man wrote this, I'd chalk it up to wish fulfillment), and Lula's sulky boyfriend, and some of low standing, such as an addict Lula befriended, or her birth mother. The book is structured like a peeling onion, and Strike pulls back another layer with each chapter. There's also the requisite conflict with the police, an age-old private eye trope.

The book is set up as a whodunit, but I didn't pick up on any of the clues, so the killer's identity was a surprise. This is clearly going to be the first of a series, but I doubt I'll read any more, as it didn't resonate with me.

There's not much interesting to quote from the book, but I did highlight one passage. In an homage to Raymond Chandler, Rowling does use some vivid similes, none so much as this one: "She looked away from him, drawing hard on her Rothman's; when her mouth puckered into hard little lines around her cigarette, it looked like a cat's anus."

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Cosmos

The first season of the reboot of Cosmos, subtitled A Spacetime Odyssey, just concluded. I watched every episode, transfixed, and enjoyed the over-arching meaning of the show--that science matters.

I love science, and would have loved to have been an astronomer, or paleontologist, or microbiologist. But I was no good at science in school (and practically inept at math) so I had no choice but to end up in the humanities. But I've always had a layman's interest in these topics. I don't remember watching the initial Cosmos, hosted by Carl Sagan, but I do remember comedians picking up on the odd way he pronounced "billions."

Thirty plus years later, the show was resurrected with Sagan's heir to TV science guy, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who as director of the Hayden Planetarium has become a familiar face to talk-show viewers. He was a perfect choice, because inside this scientist beats the heart of a ham. He even had a connection to Sagan--as a teenager, he visited Sagan's home in Ithaca, New York, a would-be astronomer meeting the master.

The show covered a lot of ground in 12 episodes. From the smallest particles to the vastness of space, from biology to geology to astrophysics, from black holes to dark matter, the entire universe was fair game as a subject. Through all of it, Tyson ably explained some difficult issues so even a child could understand them.

Of course, some of these things aren't understood or agreed to by many. In an early episode, Tyson explained that evolution was a theory like gravity was a theory, and that "theory" doesn't mean we don't know. It's a fact. Later, several episodes addressed climate change, and showed how those who deny it is affected by man-made causes, mainly carbon emissions, are living in a dream world. As he said, "The dinosaurs didn't know the asteroid was coming. What's our excuse?"

A lot of this sent the so-called religious scientific community into a tizzy. The thing about science is that is dependent on objective reasoning. The true scientific method is about hypothesizing, experimentation, and determining facts without prejudice. Creationists and intelligent design folks don't follow this--they start with the Biblical stories, and work backwards. As Tyson points out, "just because you believe something doesn't make it true."

In another episode, Tyson easily debunks claims that the universe is only 6,000 years old. We can see starlight that has taken 13.5 billion years to reach us, so the universe is at least that old. Since the speed of light is not in question, it's a simple matter. Yet someone like Marco Rubio, who may be president some day, doggedly holds on to the myths of Christianity.

The show also focused on important scientists throughout history, both famous and obscure. We got Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, but we also got Jan Oort. "What does it say about our society," Tyson said, "that we know the names of serial killers but not Jan Oort?" Or Fritz Zwicky, "The most brilliant man you've never heard of," who first theorized the existence of dark matter, which makes up 95 percent of the universe. Or Clair Patterson, a geologist who correctly determined the age of the Earth and then led a campaign to rid gasoline of lead. There is also a lot of time devoted to women scientists, such as Vera Rubin, who studied the movement of galaxies, or Annie Cannon, who classified half a million stars.

It also introduced concepts to me that I'm still trying to wrap my mind around. An entire episode was devoted to Michael Faraday's experiments with electricity. But just what is electricity? What is it made of? And I don't think I can comprehend what dark matter is. Black holes are a little easier to fathom, but what about the notion that our entire universe may be inside a black hole in another universe? Or that there are multiple universes? On the biological side of things, I had never heard of tardigrades, odd looking microscopic creatures that exist by the thousands inside a dew drop, and can go without water for years.

I think the most important thing about Cosmos, certainly evident in the closing moments of this season, was that science matters. Scientists are under something of an attack today, with blithering idiots on the House Science Committee, and many politicians holding their ignorance up like something to be proud of. John Boehner says he is not a scientist. Well, John, try listening to one. Listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Immigrant

I've seen two James Gray films before The Immigrant: The Yards and Two Lovers, both of which I enjoyed. But I wasn't prepared to be knocked out as I was by his latest, set in New York in the 1920s, and detailing the experiences of a woman fresh off the boat from Poland.

The Immigrant has a number of strengths, but for me it will always come back to Marion Cotillard's face. It is a face made for motion pictures, and Gray knows that and makes hay with it. His photographer, Darius Khondji, lights her as if lit from within, as she is something of a saint. She sins, but for a greater good.

Cotillard plays Ewa. She and her sister have made it to Ellis Island, but the sister has TB and is put in quarantine. Cotillard is set to be deported because of questionable morals on the boat over, but she is rescued by Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), who is in the entertainment business. Actually, he is a pimp, but Cotillard doesn't know that.

Phoenix, in one of his best performances (by that I mean he is not chewing the scenery) cajoles her with a combination of sweet talk and menace, like many abusers, and she is soon in the life, raising money to get her sister off of Ellis Island. Along the way she meets Phoenix's cousin, a magician (Jeremy Renner), and the two enter a rivalry over her.

This is a fantastic film, but I must say the first half is better than the second. I was so taken by the recreation of 1921 New York, including what must have been on-location filming at Ellis Island (the opening shot of the Statue of Liberty through mist is a beaut) that the resulting tangled plot lines seemed a bit of a let-down. There are few too many coincidences--Phoenix showing up at church just in time to overhear Cotillard's confession is a big one. Still, the film is so sumptuous to watch. Khondji's work is nonpareil--there's a shot near the end of policemen beating someone in a tunnel, the only light there jostled flashlights--it's breathtaking.

Cotillard is perfect, and again, Phoenix, who can be so bloody annoying, is also perfect here as a man who is happy to exploit women but doesn't know what to do when he becomes enamored of one.

This film deserves to be remembered around award season, though I doubt it will be.

My grade for The Immigrant: A-.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

El Callejon de los Milagros

El Callejon de los Milagros is based on the novel Midaq Alley, by Naghib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel laureate. It might seem strange that a film set in Cairo would be recast in Mexico City, but it makes sense when the film plays out, as this story is as melodramatic as it gets. I mean, the film ends with a man dying in a woman's arms.

Filmed in 1994, it's one of those films that cover the same time period from many perspectives. We start in the bar owned by Rutilio, a grumpy older man who hasn't touched his wife in years. Turns out what he really wants is a young man, and he seduces a store clerk and flaunts the relationship (I found this interesting, considering Mexico is such a Catholic country). His son, enraged, nearly beats the young man to death, and flees to America.

He takes with him his friend, a barber, who is in love with Alma (a very young and luminous Salma Hayek). She is told she must wait for him to make some money in America to marry her, but instead she agrees to marry an old widower. I won't spoil it from there, but Alma makes some bad decisions.

The third story is that of Susanita, the homely landlady, who longs for a man's touch. She ends up married to Guicho, the short-fingered waiter in Rutilio's. Needless to say, this does not go well.

Those are just a few of the many characters set in the neighborhood, such a guy running a beggar's outfit, a crooked dentist, and a poet who likes to quote lines for every occasion.

Directed by Jorge Fons, El Callejon de los Milagros was selected as the second-best Mexican film ever made (only bested by Pan's Labyrinth). I can see why, but to American eyes, this film is only so-so, and it isn't nearly as good as Y Tu Mama Tambien or Amores Perros. The melodrama is so thick that I'm sure it appeals to a culture that has thriving telenovas, but at times characters seem to make decisions based on the needs of the screenplay, and not the characters inner lives. What makes Rutilio decide to obviously seduce a young man? What makes Alma decide to turn to a life of prostitution? It's unclear.

I will say Hayek is very good in the role, and it's a shame that, aside from her role in Frieda, she's never really maximized her star potential. Sure, she's become rich and famous, but mostly in roles that are eye candy.


Saturday, June 07, 2014

Julie London

When I was a kid, one of the family's favorite shows was Emergency!, and one of its stars was Julie London, who played nurse Dixie McCall. Little did I know back then she was best known as a chanteuse, a big star in 50s, singing torch songs in a whispery voice. Over the years I've heard snatches of her songs, but I bought a 4-CD collection of hers that include eight albums of hers, made from 1955 to 1958.

She was born Gayle Peck in 1926, and had a film career that began in 1944. But her first big hit, and the song she's best known for today, came in 1955 with "Cry Me a River", which appeared on the album Julie Is Her Name. This album, along with Julie Is Her Name Volume 2, from 1958, have only a guitar and bass as accompaniment, that combined with her voice makes a very languid listening experience.

Over the course of these albums she sings some standards,  "What'll I Do," "Where or When," "Bye Bye Blackbird," and "When the Red Red Robin Comes a Bob Bob Bobbin Along." To be fair, she does not have a voice of great strength or range. She herself referred to it as a "thimbleful" of voice, and to be sure it has a breathy quality that maximizes her sex appeal. An album from 1957, called Make Love to Me, is about as close to phone sex as one could get in the '50s, as the songs are ideal for listening to by lonely bachelors in the dark. Titles include "Go Slow," "The Nearness of You," "You're My Thrill," and "Lover Man," in addition to the title track.

She also made what could be called a concept album with Calendar Girl, with each of twelve songs referencing a month of the year (plus a thirteenth song called "Thirteenth Month"). My favorite is "Time for August," in which she sings off the bat, "I'm in the man of the month club." She followed that up with About the Blues, with all the songs having the word "blues" in the title, including a very good version of "Blues in the Night."

The funniest song in this collection is "Daddy," from her 1957 album Julie, "Daddy". I'm not sure if this came before or after Eartha Kitta's "Santa Baby," to which is very similar, but London really sells it. She was quite the sex kitten.

London was first married to Jack Webb of Dragnet fame, and then for many years to Bobby Troup, who produced her records and later co-starred with her on Emergency!. She made 32 albums in her career. She died in 2000.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Byzantium

You would think that after making Interview with a Vampire, Neil Jordan would have been done with vampires. But here he is again with Byzantium, a far more low-key vampire story, and though low-budget and without big stars, is very stylish and creepy.

We meet two women. One, Saorse Ronan, writes down her story every day, but then crumples the papers and throws them away. She is watched over by Gemma Arterton, who is introduced to us as a stripper. A man chases her down, but she manages to turn the tables on him and decapitate him. The women burn their apartment and head for a resort town on the coast.

Slowly it becomes aware to us that they are vampires, and have been alive for 200 or more years. Arterton is Ronan's mother, and she earns money mostly by turning tricks. She seduces a pathetic fellow in order to use his hotel (called the Byzantium) to use as a whorehouse. Ronan, who does not participate, meets a young man who falls for her. She becomes tempted to tell him the truth about her.

With every vampire movie, we must come to terms with the rules. Byzantium doesn't preserve most of Bram Stoker's, such as avoiding sunlight. But they do drink blood (but don't have fangs--they grow an extended thumbnail, which they use to puncture their victim's arteries) and have to be invited in. But they don't have super speed or strength, and aren't turned into vampires by the bite of another vampire. Instead, they must go to a mysterious island off the British coast and visit "the saint with no name."

All of this works pretty well. The island, which is visited three times in the story, is a fascinating addition to vampire lore (the source is a play by Moira Buffini), as the waterfalls turn to blood whenever a new vampire is created. There are also some playful winks at previous vampire literature, as Arterton at one point calls herself "Carmilla" and another character is named Ruthven (the vampire from John Polidor's story "The Vampyre").

Aside from a few gushings of blood and a few beheadings, this film isn't a gore-fest, but instead uses a spooky quiet to generate its thrills. I liked it quite a bit.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Ida

Ida, a Polish film released in the U.S. in 2014, is a quietly devastating portrait of identity, loss, and the figurative and literal unearthing of the truth in Poland following World War II. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, it is shot in stark and beautiful black and white.

Set in 1962, a young novitiate, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is days away from taking her vows to be a nun. Her mother superior basically orders her to visit her only living relative, Aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza). Anna was raised in an orphanage, and Wanda never responded to requests to take the child in.

When Anna visits, she finds Wanda in a state of dishabille, a man in the bedroom. When Wanda asks her if the nuns told her who shes is, what she did, I was wondering if she was a prostitute--but no, she was a judge. In short order, Wanda tells Anna that her real name is Ida, and that she is a Jew. Her parents were killed during the war, and Wanda does not where they are buried.

The look on Trzebuchowska's face at the moment is wonderful acting. It's impassive, but you can almost see the gears turning in her head, processing the information. Wanda and the newly named Ida embark on a journey into the past, finding out exactly what happened to her parents.

I won't spoil anymore, but I will say that the third act of the film is the least effective, involving Ida testing the waters of the outside world. But up until then Ida hits very hard with a minimum effort--there are no big scenes, no scenery-chewing, no hysterics. At the moment the pair find the grave of their family they simply absorb the moment, as do we in the theater.

I'm not Polish, but I do know the anti-Semitism in Poland was intense during the war, and I would imagine things wouldn't have entirely healed by 1962. So it may have an extra layer of resonance with Polish audiences. But for those of who aren't, Ida still packs an emotional wallop.

My grade for Ida: A.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Simpsons Top Ten Episodes

As a birthday gift I received a doorstop of a book called Simpsons World, which is a detailed episode guide of The Simpsons first 20 seasons. It put the bee in my bonnet that I should leaf through it and figure out my favorite episodes. Initially I thought top five, but that would have been impossible to narrow down, so I settled for top ten. Even that will be tough, as my first list contained 22 episodes. As of  today, The Simpsons has aired 552 episodes, so this is a 1-in-55 endeavor.

First thing I noticed is that this list is early-season-heavy. I stopped watching The Simpsons regularly some time ago, and realized when I hit Season 9 that I was starting not to recognize episodes; the latest one on my list is Season 6. Also, my favorites are Homer-centric, with only one Marge-centric and no Lisa-centric. I suppose that is because of testosterone, but also because the Lisa/Marge episodes tend to be more sentimental, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but I like the ones that are more vicious. Thirdly, it is evident that my favorite non-core character is Krusty the Clown, as he plays a major role in three of my top ten.

Now, in descending but almost random order:

10: "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish" Season 2. Airdate: 1/24/91. Writer: Nell Scovell. Director: Wesley M. Archer.

After eating poisonous blowfish, Homer is told he has 24 hours to live, so makes a list of things to do before he dies. The best part of this episode has Homer frantically trying to get everything done, but there are numerous gems, such as Dr. Hibbert giving him a pamphlet titled "So You're Going to Die," or Homer's video for Maggie, in which he says, "I'm speaking to you from beyond the grave" and makes spooky sounds, or his final words to Bart: "I like your sheets." Or Homer's three sentences that gets you through life: "One: Cover for me. Two: Oh, good idea, boss. Three: It was like that when I got here." The episode ends with Homer listening to the Bible on tape, read by Larry King. Of course he doesn't die, and swears he's going to make the most of his life. Cut to him watching bowling on television, eating pork rinds.

9, "Homer's Barbershop Quartet" Season 5. Airdate: 9/30/93. Writer: Jeff Martin. Director: Mark Kirkland.

This one is on the list because of my love for The Beatles, as it's a parody of the Beatles' story, with a barbershop quartet called The Be Sharps. For Beatle fans, there's so much to love here. It is a flashback story, set in 1985: "It all happened during that magical summer of of 1985. A maturing Joe Piscopo left Saturday Night Live to conquer Hollywood; People Express introduced a generation of hicks to plane travel; and I was in a barbershop quartet." He's in with Principal Skinner, Apu, and Chief Wiggum, but Wiggum is kicked out and replaced by Barney, who has a beautiful tenor voice. But he meets a Yoko-like figure, which causes friction. They have a number one hit ("Baby on Board"), win a Grammy (presented by David Crosby) but break up, only to have a rooftop concert on the top of Moe's Bar. George Harrison drives by and says, "It's been done."

8. "Home the Great" Season 6. Airdate: 1/8/95. Writer: John Schwartzwelder. Director: Jim Reardon.

Homer desperately wants to join The Stonecutters, a thinly-veiled copy of the Masons. He is haunted by being excluded from clubs, flashing back to the "No Homers" club (they can have one Homer, the name of the club indicates no more than one Homer). Because Grandpa is a Stonecutter, Homer gets to join, but soon destroys their sacred parchment in the most disgusting way possible. He is kicked out, forced to strip naked (when his underwear goes up in flames, ghastly spirits are released) and drag the "Stone of Shame." This reveals a birthmark indicating he is the "Chosen One," and is proclaimed leader. I loved a lot of this episode, including the Stonecutters song, which reveal their powers, such as holding back the electric car, making Steve Guttenberg a star, and rigging every Oscar night. Things we learn: Grandpa is president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, and Homer has a long revenge list, including fat-free lard, gravity, Billy Crystal, and God. There are also monkeys dressed as Civil War re-enactors.

7. "Flaming Moe's" Season 3. Airdate: 11/21/91. Writer: Robert Cohn. Director: Rich Moore and Alan Smart.

Homer invents a delicious cocktail that Moe steals as his own, and Homer vows revenge. Moe is probably only second to Krusty as my favorite supporting character, and this one is his best episode. In the middle of the episode a Cheers parody erupts, and Bart's prank calls takes a bizarre turn when the name he asks for, Hugh Jass, turns out to be the name of an actual patron. Bart says, "I'll level with you, mister. This is a crank call that sorta backfired, and I'd like to bail out right now." Hugh replies, "All right. Better luck next time." I think my favorite part is when Homer, furious at Moe, hears his name and sees his face wherever he goes, including even imagining Maggie saying it. Also, when Marge suggests that Homer simply be happy making other people happy, he responds: "Oh, look at me! I'm making people happy! I'm the magical man from Happyland in a gumdrop house on Lollipop Lane. Oh, by the way, I was being sarcastic." Marge responds, "Well, duh."

6. "Homie the Clown" Season 6. Airdate: 2/12/95. Writer: John Schwartzwelder. Director: David Silverman.

Krusty opens a Clown school to train franchise Krustys, and Homer signs up. This finally makes reference to the fact that Krusty was drawn exactly like Homer, except with clown makeup. This one is the most recent episode on my list, but it's pure comedy gold, and has a lot of great Krusty stuff, such as him lighting a cigarette with Superman's debut comic book, or his funny city names: "Walla Walla, Keokuk, Cucamonga, Seattle," or, after flush with cash, he bets it all against the Harlem Globetrotters: "I thought the Generals were due!" Homer, as a clown, has some priceless moments, such as when he appears at the opening of a Krusty Burger and nearly beats the Hamburglar character to death. There's also a great moment when he co-hosts the Cable Ace Awards with Dick Cavett, and can't shake him. Cavett finally says, "I know Woody Allen!" I think the biggest laugh, and one of my favorite Krusty lines, is when Homer rides a tiny bicycle, but his pants get caught in the gears and get ripped off, so he is perched on the seat naked. Krusty, after a beat, says "Burn that seat."

5. "Homer the Heretic" Season 4. Airdate: 10/8/92. Writer: George Meyer. Director: Jim Reardon.

Homer decides to stop going to church, and has the greatest Sunday ever, but has a change of heart when he is saved by people of all faiths. I have a fondness for this episode, because as an atheist, I feel it gives nonbelievers a certain amount of respect, even if Homer does repent and go back to church in the end. The centerpiece is his perfect Sunday, when it's freezing outside but he sleeps in, cozy in his blankets. Then he makes his famous Moon waffles, which he wraps around an entire stick of butter. The gags about religion are terrific, such as finding out Moe's faith: "I was born a snaked handler, and I'll die a snake handler," or when Homer visits Apu and finds an altar to Ganesh, to which Homer offers a peanut. "Please do not offer my god a peanut." I also laugh every time at Ned and his sons trying to talk sense to Homer, and when they come across him on the road the boys say, "Daddy, the heathen is getting away!"

4. "A Streetcar Named Marge" Season 4. Airdate: 10/1/92. Writer: Jeff Martin Director: Rich Moore.

The episode for theater geeks, in which Marge takes the role of Blanche in "Oh! Streetcar!" the musical version of Streetcar Named Desire. If that weren't enough, there's the classic Any Rand School for Tots, and The Great Escape-inspired scene in which Maggie and the other babies plot to retrieve their confiscated pacifiers. Some great lines, like Lisa saying: "My mother the actress. I feel just like Lucie Arnaz-Luckinbill," Jon Lovitz is the guest voice of director Llewelyn Sinclair, and he uses his familiar "Actor!" voice to great effect. Anyone who knows and loves Streetcar can't help but laugh themselves silly at this one.

3. "Kamp Krusty" Season 4. Airdate 9/24/92. Writer: David M. Stern. Director: Mark Kirkland.

As you may have noticed, numbers 3-5 aired consecutively, certainly the best three-episode run in the show's history. In this one, Bart and Lisa are sent to camp, one that bears the endorsement of Krusty the Clown. But it turns out to be a horror. Here is Lisa's letter home: "Dear Mom and Dad, I no longer fear Hell, because I have been to Kamp Krusty. Our nature hikes have become grim death marches. Our arts and crafts center is, in actuality, a Dickensian workhouse." Bart remains confident that, as promised, Krusty will appear, but after a poor substitute (Barney) shows up, Bart leads a revolt. "I've been scorched by Krusty before. I got a rapid heartbeat from his Krusty brand vitamins, my Krusty Kalculator didn't have a seven or an eight, and Krusty's autobiography was self-serving, with many glaring omissions. But this time, he's gone too far!" Krusty makes it up to the kids by taking them to Tijuana.

2. "Homer at the Bat" Season 3. Airdate 2/20/92. Writer: John Schwartzwelder. Director: Jim Reardon.

I haven't mentioned Mr. Burns yet, who is in a lot of great episodes, but this is my favorite. I don't usually favor the episodes that rely heavily on guest voices, but this is terrific. Burns tries to ensure that the nuclear plant's softball team wins a match game (a million-dollar bet is riding on it) by hiring ringers. First Burns asks Smithers to get Cap Anson, Honus Wagner, or "Three-Finger" Brown. Informed that they're dead, the team is stocked with living players. A good trivia question: name the team that is fielded. I remember it to this day without checking: Don Mattingly at first, Steve Sax at second, Ozzie Smith at short, Wade Boggs at third, Daryl Strawberry in right, Ken Griffey Jr. in center, Jose Canseco in left, Mike Scioscia behind the plate, and Roger Clemens on the mound. All of them, though, except for Strawberry, meet with some misadventure (the best--Boggs and Barney getting into a barroom brawl arguing over the greatest British prime minister). Eventually, though, Burns sends in Homer to pinch-hit for Strawberry (who has hit nine homers) because of a righty-lefty match-up. Homer wins the game by being beaned.

1. "Three Men and a Comic Book"  Season 2. Airdate 5/9/91. Writer: Jeff Martin. Director: Wes M. Archer.

Here it is, my favorite, a Bart-centric episode that has he, Milhous, and Martin pooling their money to buy Radioactive Man #1 (Milhouse wanted to buy a baseball card of Carl Yastrzemski with sideburns). Once accomplished, they don't trust each other with the book, so go the Bart's treehouse, where a Treasure of the Sierra Madre scenario is played out. Some highlights: Bart tells Lisa that Casper is the ghost of Richie Rich. Lisa agrees they look alike, and speculates on his death: "Perhaps he realized how hollow the pursuit of money is and took his own life." Bart, trying to earn money, works for any old lady (Cloris Leachman). Lots of nuggets, including the lady offering Bart those old lady ribbon candies, insisting "Boys love candy!" Or, with the boys in the treehouse during a storm, Marge asks Homer to check on them. Lightning illuminates the three of them at each other's throats, but he tells her, "They're fine."