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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Passion

Brian DePalma is a great example of the A-list director who steadily declines. DePalma, who has made such hits as Carrie, The Untouchables, and Scarface, hasn't really had a big hit since the celebrated flop Bonfire of the Vanities. His latest project, Passion, from 2012, didn't even get a release in the U.S.

DePalma has always been a guy who borrowed from others, and this psychological thriller, which was based on a French film, is rehash of a lot of other films, including the recent Steven Soderbergh film, Side Effects (which actually came later, but it is much better). Like another of DePalma's recent films, Femme Fatale, it has an erotic tinge to it, with a teenage boy's attitude about lesbians.

The film stars Noomi Rapace as a dowdy ad women. Her boss is Rachel McAdams, and the two have a complicated relationship. McAdams, who professes to love Rapace, isn't beyond taking credit for her ideas. As the film moves along, we discover McAdams is basically a psychopath.

Late in the film there is a murder, and the film has a few twists and turns. At times it's clever, but most often it's incoherent, resorting to dream sequences as reality several times, which is a lazy way of directing.

In addition to McAdams and Rapace sharing lip lock, there is also German actress Karoline Herfuth as Rapace's assistant, who also shares a kiss with her. Herfuth is a stunning redhead, and this is what teenage boys imagine lesbians looking like. I guess some do.

Also, the title is terrible.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Purge

Perhaps one day there will be an interdisciplinary study of films that deal with income equality. Earlier this year we had Snowpiercer; on a much lower scale of quality was last year's The Purge, which already has one sequel.

The set-up of The Purge is that the government ("The New Founding Fathers," which sounds very ominous) has established one night a year as a law-free night--the citizens can do just about anything, including murder. This is said to act as a catharsis, getting all of that hate and rage out of one's system. This makes no sense to me--it would take more than one night for a lot of people, but apparently it works, as it has lowered the crime rate drastically.

But of course, as with most things in America, this disproportionately hurts the poor. The rich can barricade themselves behind security systems, so it's the poor and disabled who are exposed to the bloodlust of others. In a way, it's less an outlet for violence than it is a population control.

This is kind of heady stuff, but the movie doesn't deliver. Ethan Hawke, looking like the "after" in a plastic surgeon ad, is a security system salesman. He lives in a big house in a gated community, and plans on spending purge night locked inside with his wife (Lena Headey, in a ghastly wig) and their two teenage children. But things start to go wrong when his daughter's boyfriend sneaks inside, and even worse when the compassionate son (who looks disarmingly like Christina Ricci circa The Addams Family) lets in a homeless man who is being hunted by smarmy rich kids.

The Purge cost only 3 million and made close to 90, which made it one of the biggest earners of the last few years. Unfortunately, that 3 million shows. Essentially the film is a one-set movie, with characters sneaking around in the dark trying to kill each other. The problem is we the audience have no sense of the layout of the house, so the director and writer, James Demonaco, can have people saved at the last minute anytime he wants.

Also, the sociological framework aside, this is no different than many other home invasion movies of the last several decades, going back to Straw Dogs. The Purge may make interesting statements--the homeless man is pointedly a black man who is referred to as hunters as "swine"--but it doesn't do it very effectively.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

International Tiger Day

Today is International Tiger Day, a day designed to call attention to the alarming fact that there are only about 3,000 tigers living in the wild, down from 100,000 100 years ago. Most of this is due to the loss of the tiger's habitat, which is down 93 percent, due to encroachment by man and global warming. All tiger species are endangered, and unless dramatic action is taken, tigers may only exist in captivity in a short period of time.

I've been reading about tigers today, and there is much to be admired. They are the largest cat species, and can grow to be 11 feet long and over 800 pounds. They are instantly recognizable, and though tigers are responsible for more human deaths than any other wild animal, they still manage to be somewhat cuddly, as evidenced by a poll of children that named them their favorite animal.

Tigers have been worshipped for years, by Indian and Chinese cultures, among others, and even to this day they are representative of positive feelings and attributes, from Tigger to Hobbes to Tony the Tiger, selling Kellogg's corn flakes. Still, they are mistreated. China is keeping 5,000 animals in captivity for breeding for skins and other body parts (the penis is highly prized for therapeutic qualities, and is made into a soup).

They are also a frequently used mascot for American sports teams. It's a coincidence, but my favorite sports team is the Detroit Tigers, and the nearby college for whom I root, Princeton, also uses the tiger as a mascot. I will also admit that I always felt a little tingle whenever I read a comic book that featured Tigra, who was far too under-utilized in the Marvel Universe, methinks.

Although the lion is known as king of the jungle, there's something even more regal about the tiger. Even when the tiger is used as a villain, like Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, he is given a royal demeanor. In the Disney version, Shere Khan is voiced by George Sanders, and you can't much more aristocratic than that.

I urge everyone who reads this blog to get involved. You can start by going to tigerday.org. Spread the word.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Home of the Braves

Once again, as I have for the last 13 summers, I headed to Cooperstown, New York for the annual Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony. This year my companion was my old friend and fellow baseball fanatic Bob, and we had a blast.

Bob signed on for the trip when he learned that Roger Angell, the fiction editor for The New Yorker, but known to baseball scribes as one of the greatest of baseball writers, was to receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, given annually to recognize excellence in baseball writing. Bob and I have shared a love for Angell's writing for decades, and now that the 93-year-old wordsmith was to be awarded, Bob wasn't going to miss it. On Saturday, after the drive up and some wandering around town, we watched that awards ceremony, which is held separately from the induction on Sunday. Angell, frail but forceful, told of his love for the game--he saw his first one in 1930. Their was a full crowd at Doubleday Field, but I had a sense of intellectual smugness--how many of these people had actually read Angell's work? They were probably thinking, "Who is this old man?" But after his speech, he received a standing ovation. Maybe some of these philistines will got out and buy one of his books.

Earlier that day Bob and I did some shopping. Bob likes to collect autographs (something that doesn't interest me in the least) and several ex-players lined Main Street in Cooperstown that day selling their signatures. Bob, a Mets fan, got the autograph of and a picture with Darryl Strawberry. I was later surprised that he had forked over sixty dollars to get the signature of Pete Rose, who signed in the back of a memorabilia star. We had to go around to the alley and enter the back way, as if going into a speakeasy. I went in, too, as Bob's cameraman, but I suddenly remembered that the now banned and disgraced Rose, one of the greatest of hitters, was a childhood friend of my father's. I had to say something. While Bob was getting the autograph I mentioned my father's name to Pete, whose face lit with recognition, no doubt taking him back to his days as a boy in Cincinnati, palling around with my dad. It was a nice moment for me, and dare I say, for Pete.

On Sunday, after an early morning thunderstorm, the skies cleared up as Bob and I sat on the athletic field in town, along with 48,000 other people. After the skimpy crowd last year, which saw three men who were dead for over 70 years inducted, this year saw six living men getting the honor. Three of them, Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine, and Greg Maddux, spent the lion's share of their careers with the Atlanta Braves, and thus the crowd was awash with Braves fans, doing the Tomahawk Chop. Frank Thomas, the slugger who played most of his career with the Chicago White Sox, was the reason there were many Pale Hose fans there. Oddly, Tony La Russa did not draw many die-hard Cardinals fans (although he was a manager of the White Sox), and even more surprisingly, there were not many Yankee fans in attendance, even though their great manager, Joe Torre, was to be inducted (of course, Torre also managed the Braves and Cardinals).

I love these things, even if it is an afternoon of listening to speeches while roasting in the hot sun. Maddux went first, and his speech was as mechanical and unemotional as one of his starts. But Maddux, though appearing as boring as an actuary, seems to have reserves of a very strange sense of humor. While thanking his brother, he chose to recall that his sibling taught him science involving methane and a lighter. This was perhaps the first mention of lighting farts in Hall of Fame induction history.

Cox went next. His speech was more polished, with speaker's bureau anecdotes. Glavine's was a solid if unspectacular speech, much like his career, which was mostly in Maddux's shadow. To their credit, once the Braves were finished, many Atlanta fans stayed.

Next up was La Russa, who seemed uncomfortable, and said as much. For man who has had to deal with the media in more than thirty years of managing, he was skittish as a man thrust into the limelight after years in obscurity. Frank Thomas followed, and was the only man to blubber on the day. He started by thanking his parents, including his late father, and the tears ran down the big man's cheeks. He ended his speech with a rat-a-tat recitation of about 100 of his teammates. Later the other Hall of Famers kidded him by handing him a phone book.

Last to go was Torre, and as might be expected, he gave the best speech. He cut to the chase, telling the crowd that he was there because of his stint at Yankee manager. He knew failure--his managerial record was below .500 before the pinstripes, and he was fired three times. He recalled the day as a player he hit into four double plays in one game. He also went over the great moments in his Yankee run, including many that must have given agita to Braves fans, because they came at their expense. Torre did forget to thank George Steinbrenner, which was the talk of the back pages in New York.

This morning Bob and I went to something called The Legends Roundtable, or something like that. Basically, it was the six men on stage fielding questions from Peter Gammons and the audience. Torre again emphasized that Greg Maddux had no pulse. They shared some stories, talked about their charity work, and the weekend was over.

I'll likely be living out west next summer, but I hope I can continue to come back east every year for this event, which is just so much fun. It's the chance to eat, breathe, and smell baseball, where fans from rival teams can break bread together, and there are no such things as PEDs, DUIs, or salary negotiations.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Little League

This week I had a great experience. My nephew, Dylan, and his team were in a tournament to determine the North Jersey State Championship in the Babe Ruth U13 league. He lives about an hour away from me, but serendipitously the tournament took place only a few miles from me, so I was able to see about two and a half games, including the championship.

Dylan is 13 and has been baseball mad for ages. His mother, my sister, is a huge baseball fan, going back to her days of loving Bucky Dent. But of her four sons, only the baby, Dylan, shared her love for the game. He's been playing for his team, the Wayne Wolfpack, for several years now.

I managed to see half a game on Saturday, which they won easily. The next day I wasn't able to see the game, in which Dylan was the starting pitcher, which he won. So they advanced to the next round, on Tuesday night. It was a taut game, which the Wolfpack won in the bottom of the 9th (their games only go seven innings) 4-3.

Thursday night was the championship. My sister could hardly contain her anxiety. The team had never gotten this far before, but have been together a long time. They were taking on the defending champs, from the host city South Brunswick. In the bottom of the first the home team scored on a run on a throwing error, and things looked bad for the Wolfpack. But that would be the last run that South Brunswick would score.

But the Wolfpack couldn't get any offense going. Finally, in the fifth inning, my nephew was up (he was playing firs base). He lined a grounder down the first base line, which was booted--safe on an error. Two sacrifices moved him to third, and then a two-out hit scored him. The game would, as the previous game did, go into extra innings.

Both teams had superb pitching (unusual for kids--I remember games from my youth where pitchers would walk in run after run, or errors would make any hit ball an adventure). But these kids knew how to pitch. It was the top of the 11th before the Wolfpack would finally put the game away, scoring four runs with two outs, taking a 5-1 lead. They would retire the side in the bottom of the inning for the win.

I'm in Cooperstown right now, after having attended the Hall of Fame induction (more on that tomorrow) and while here I always get a warm glow about baseball. I also got one while watching my nephews game, because of the way these kids were playing--for the sheer enjoyment of it. Sometimes youth sports can get ugly, when parents behave like ogres, but this was feel-good all the way. I sat with my sister surrounded by other parents, who were nervous. But they recognized how great the game is, and how much fun these kids are having.

I only played one year of little league. I was a terrible player on a terrible team. I was meant to watch baseball, not play it. So it was a lot of fun watching these kids. By the time the tournament was over I knew all their names (there are only ten players on the team--versatility is a must) and was cheering them on as if I'd watched them all year. The excitement on their faces after they won was infectious.

Later this week they head to the Mid-Atlantic Regionals near Atlantic City. I won't be able to go, but I'll be there in spirit. Go Wayne Wolfpack. I hope you win, but above all I hope you have fun.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Ramones

A few weeks ago, Tommy Ramone died. He was the last living original member of The Ramones. As far as I know, this is the first major band that has lost all its members. It has given me the occasion to consider a band that, like The Velvet Underground and The Pixies, are known more for their influence than their record sales.

I picked up a copy of The Ramones greatest hits, though, as the liner notes by Tommy Ramone indicate, they didn't really have hits, but they certainly had recognizable songs. I found I knew more than half of them, songs less than three minutes long that formed what would be called punk music.

The Ramones were formed out of a group of teenagers from Forest Hills, New York. They took the name from an alias Paul McCartney used in hotel rooms, giving themselves the last name of Ramone, though they were not related. Their look was distinctive--leather jackets, sunglasses, ripped jeans. They were not hippies. They were something different--urban, dangerous. Punk.

The highest charting single they had was "Rockaway Beach," at number 66. But they influenced an entire style of music. Along with the British bands like The Sex Pistols, they created punk music by using a minimalist approach, countering the increasingly psychedelic sound of the late '60s and early '70s. They used only four chords, simple instrumentation, and largely inconsequential lyrics. They were a successful touring band, playing over 2,000 concerts in their 22 years together.

Most of The Ramones songs were about basic teenage issues and an increasing feeling of alienation, which are not mutually exclusive. I think their most famous song is "I Wanna Be Sedated," which features a fabulous vocal by Joey Ramone, and has the universally agreeable:

"Just put me in a wheelchair
And get me on a plane
Hurry hurry hurry, before I go insane
I can't control my fingers
I can't control my brain, oh no"

If that weren't enough, they have a song called "Teenage Lobotomy," and "Pinhead," which gave the world their famous chant, "Gabba gabba hey!"

Other great songs of theirs include "Rock and Roll Radio," the lament "The KKK Took My Baby Away," the seminal "Blitzkrieg Bop," and perhaps the most emotionally resonant theme song from a horror movie ever, the title tune of "Pet Sematary":

"Don't want to be buried
In a pet sematary,
Don't want to live my life again."

They also covered many songs, ranging from "California Sun" to the theme from Spider-Man. And many artists covered their work--no fewer than 48 tribute albums exist.

Since 2001, The Ramones have all died. Joey died in 2001, Dee Dee later that year, Johnny in 2004, and Tommy just recently. Markie Ramone, who replaced Tommy on the drums, still lives.

I never bought a Ramones album or went to a concert--they weren't interesting to me, who favored the more esoteric progressive rock. But, as I've gotten older, I've become more appreciate of musicians who set a different path. The Ramones had a musical philosophy, and though it was primitive, it took the old way of doing things and reinvented them. In many ways, The Ramones were the summation of everything that had come before, and everything that has come since emanates from them.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Computer Chess

Here's an unlikely setting for a terrific movie: a tournament, held sometime around 1980, of computer programmers, competing to see who has the best chess program. But Andrew Bujalski, in his 2013 film Computer Chess, has made a bright, fascinating film about a subculture that basically changed the way we live.

Shot in black and white on a period analog video camera, the film takes place in some anonymous hotel, as men with clunky glasses and pornstaches lug large computer monitors around, talking code and the implications of artificial intelligence (one fellow, fairly accurately, says that the future of computers is dating). There is one woman present, who is repeatedly welcomed, as if her presence was as surprising as a dog's would be.

Slowly the film settles on few characters. There's Michael Papageorge (Myles Paige), an obstreperous independent programmer, who spends his nights wandering the hotel, since his reservation was lost. Martin Beuscher is part of the Cal Tech team (he's played by Wiley Wiggins, who was the long-haired Little League pitcher in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused), who discovers a glitch in his program and then resigns before a game even starts, and his student assistant, Peter (Patrick Reister), a glum nebbish.

Bujalski layers the film even more by adding another group at the hotel--an encounter group, who do new age things like restaging one's birth. This leads to a hilarious scene when Reister is lured into the room of a swinging couple. He ends up running out of the room, but will later have an encounter with a prostitute who has an interesting secret.

For those who love computers, this will seem like a trip to a museum. That's where they must have found the hardware, those monitors with the space-age design. One competitor doesn't even have a monitor--he plugs in the moves and then the results are printed. But beyond the computer stuff, the film reaches inside and finds the human heart of a technological pursuit.

I've seen all of Bujalski's films (they're all reviewed on this site) and I've liked them all immensely. This one is a bit different, as it can't really be called mumblecore. Well, maybe it can, as the film was largely improvised, but it is more far-reaching in its pursuit.


Thursday, July 24, 2014

Landline

Normally I wouldn't read a book like Landline, by Rainbow Rowell, but a website I read somewhat regularly, Bookriot.com, chose it as its first group read, so I took a chance. I realized why I don't read books like these. Landline, to perhaps unnecessarily pigeon-hole it, is chick lit, and a particularly frothy example. In addition, it's a curiously retrograde when it comes to feminism.

Our heroine is Georgie McCool (the kind of name that sounds good when you think of it, but doesn't look good on the page) is a TV comedy writer. She and her longtime writing partner, Seth, have finally got a meeting about the project they've been working on since college. Problem--this means she'll have to pass on going to Omaha with her husband and kids for Christmas.

Now, I'm not married, but even I understand priorities. Georgie's husband, Neal, in what I suspect would be most couple's conversations, would say, "That's great! You're life's dream is about to come true! Don't worry about Christmas!" But Neal, who is a real pill through the whole book, gives her grief, and Georgie stays behind, feeling guilty.

Then Rowell introduces a supernatural element that turns the book into, I'm not quite sure what. Sci-fi? She uses her old rotary phone at her mother's house and when she calls Neal's parents in Omaha, she ends up talking to Neal in the past--1998, when they briefly separated before he proposed to her. She finds herself unable to understand this, and wondering if anything she'll say something that causes her marriage to not exist (and thus her two girls), like the fading photograph in Back to the Future.

I'm just not the audience for Landline. I didn't find anything about it authentic, most of all the relationship between Neal and Georgie. When they meet he's a cartoonist for the humor magazine she writes for, but he's not funny, and doesn't act like a cartoonist. He's good with the kids and a stay-at-home dad, but otherwise he's a drag. Seth, who it's easy to see is really in love with Georgie, is pretty much a cad. There are no admirable men in this book.

Georgie isn't so admirable herself. Not only does she put aside her career goals because of her husband's boorish behavior, she puts him first--when she questions the relationship, she wonders if she hasn't ruined his life, not for a moment wondering if he hasn't ruined hers.

Besides that, the book isn't very well written. It subsists mostly of dialogue, and when Rowell does write prose, she exhibits a fondness for parentheses. Consider this bizarre string of sentences: "(Kendrick was forty, only three years older than Georgie. Her mom met him when he came to clean their pathetic excuse for a pool.) (These things actually happen.) (In the Valley.)" Subplots, such as Georgie's sister coming out as gay while a pug has puppies in a clothes dryer are clumsy and uninteresting.

Landline is a dud, but it was easy to read, so it didn't bother me for long.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Caped Crusader

In case it's not circled on your calendar, today is Batman Day, recognizing the 75th anniversary of one of the most iconic characters in American culture. This date seems rather random, since Batman's first appearance, in the pictured Detective Comics No. 27, was in May 1939. Maybe someone in the DC marketing department just became aware of this.

Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, although it's touchy on who gets the lion's share of the credit. It seems that Kane had the idea for a "Bat-Man," in the rush to create superheroes following the popularity of Superman. Finger gave him the name Bruce Wayne, which came from the Scottish hero Robert the Bruce and American Revolutionary War general "Mad" Anthony Wayne.

Batman has been unique in superhero comics in that he does not have superhuman powers. In a sense, he is the capitalist hero--a plutocrat who has great intelligence and superb martial arts abilities. But as the many incarnations of the hero have proved over and over again, he'd be nowhere without his wealth. He has a mansion with an extensive lair underneath, and several gadgets, ranging from a utility belt to his own plane, to battle crime.

The other notable thing about Batman is that he is basically the antithesis of Superman. As noted by many, Superman has religious overtones, both Christian and Jew. He fights for truth, justice, and the American way. Batman, as he was created, was a creature of the shadows, a vigilante who initially killed without remorse. If anything, he was Satanic. Not only does he take his image from one of the most reviled mammals in the animal kingdom (even if that is unfair), but consider his home city, Gotham. Though described as "Manhattan below 14th Street 12 minutes after midnight on a cold November night," it is its own entity, a Gothic swamp of crime and corruption. Gotham has long been a nickname for New York City, taken from a story by Washington Irving, who take the name from an English village populated only by fools. Other locations have just a macabre association. Arkham Asylum, where Batman's enemies are locked up (however temporarily) is taken from a town used often in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

Since his creation Batman has changed with the times. In 1940 he was given a sidekick, Robin, who primarily function as Watson did to Sherlock Holmes--someone Batman could talk to, so the writers could eliminate all those thought balloons. After the comics crisis of the 1950s, when Batman was attacked for its homoerotic overtones, the character became sunnier (he had lost his gun and stopped killing in the early '40s). This led to the satiric television show of the 1960s, which angered many Batman fans but made the character world famous, as it was, however, briefly, a smash hit.

After the show fizzled, Batman was kind of in mothballs, still in comic books, and in animated series. It wasn't until the Tim Burton film of 1989 that the character was back in the forefront. This was mostly due to Frank Miller's retooling of the character as The Dark Knight, which dragged Batman from camp back into the darkness. The character has been in seven films since 1989, and right now it's likely that we will see him in perpetuity in some way or another.

What has made Batman so popular? For one, he taps into the difficult to define notion of cool. He was jazz compared to Superman's easy listening. He is much more psychologically interesting than Superman--spurred to vengeance after the death of his parents at the hand of a mugger. Of course he had antecedents, such as The Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro, but there is something uniquely American about him. He is a self-made hero (despite getting his wealth through inheritance), the perversion of the "you can do anything if you put your mind to it" ethos. While a kid, I much more wanted to be Batman than Superman, even if the latter was much more powerful.

I think he also taps into the dark side of the American dream, the secret (or perhaps not so secret) sense of frontier justice. Batman, over the years, has killed, and doesn't get too broken up about it. He dangles people from balconies, and though extremely intelligent, doesn't hesitate to use his fists. Americans, deep down, love a vigilante, though we may be outwardly horrified. During the Bernhard Goetz case, when a mild-mannered man gunned down thugs on the New York subway, Goetz was heralded by many, and I suspect that even those who denounced him inwardly had a fantasy about doing the very same thing.

Batman was also the first Freudian superhero. Not only is he an analyst's feast, but the villains he fought also were the stuff of psychology. The Joker, Catwoman, the Penguin, all freakish psychopaths that made Lex Luthor look normal in comparison. The decades long dance between Batman and the Joker can be interpreted in many ways, and I think it's the most consistently dynamic superhero/villain combination in comic book history (maybe even in American literature, dare I say).

Batman is right up there with Huck Finn, Jay Gatsby, Natty Bumppo, and Holden Caulfield as the greatest and most enduring of American fictional characters. Even if he does originate in something as low-brow and disposable as the comic book.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Justified

I've just finished watching the first season of Justified, from 2010. It's a series that airs on FX that is now heading for its sixth and last season, but I hadn't seen any of it until now.

I was attracted to it for some basic reasons. First, it's based on a character created by the late great Elmore Leonard. Raylan Givens, who appeared in the Leonard novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, is a U.S. Marshal who, as the series begins, is based in Miami. But after he shoots and kills a drug cartel member, he is reassigned back to his home state, Kentucky, which he is not happy about.

The second reason to love this series is that Givens is played by Timothy Olyphant, who was so good as Seth Bullock in Deadwood. Givens has some similarities to Bullock--they are both by the book law-and-order guys, tough as nails, don't waste words, and are quick with a gun. Givens is a bit more louche, though. Not only does he leave quite a trail of dead, but he can't keep is hands off a witness, which ends up getting his number one nemesis sprung from jail. As played by Olyphant, he is a kind of update of the classic hero, typically played by Gary Cooper.

I warmed to the show as it went along. The first few episodes are stand-alone and fairly routine, but as the season progressed it boiled down to a running storyline that paralleled two father-son relationships. Givens' father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) is a longtime crook, something of an embarrassment to Givens. In a bit of a twist, the disgusted son has rejected his father by hewing the straight and narrow.

The other relationship is between the Crowders. Boyd Crowder (an excellent Walton Goggins) is Givens' old friend, but, as the season begins, is running meth in the Dixie Mafia. Givens shoots him, but doesn't kill him, and Goggins has a jailhouse conversion. But Givens (as well as the audience) can't ever be sure Boyd is on the level or not. His father, Bo (M.C.Gainey) leaves prison and attempts to back to running the drug market, but Boyd tries to put a stop to it. This all leads to a terrific showdown between both sets of father and sons in the last episode.

The series, created by Graham Yost, is credited to being based on Leonard's story "Fire in the Hole," but I recognized other sources. One episode is a very truncated adaptation of Riding the Rap, and an episode with Stephen Root as a gun-happy judge is loosely based on Leonard's novel Maximum Bob. Leonard wrote mostly about south Florida and Detroit, though, so this Kentucky setting seems fresh. At its heart, its about criminals who aren't that smart and heroes who are flawed but stalwart.

A few things are handled a little clumsily, such as Givens' relationship with the witness (Joelle Carter) and his ex-wife (Natalie Zea). A few characters disappear after a few episodes. But some episodes are drolly funny, such as one about how Givens loses his beloved cowboy hat and how he gets it back.

I will definitely take a look at the subsequent seasons.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Lone Survivor

Sometimes it's a mistake to watch the extras of a DVD. Lone Survivor, directed by Peter Berg, is an above-average war film, with almost nonstop, pulse-pounding action and superb editing. But, on the other hand, in telling the true story of a Navy Seal who was the only survivor of a failed op to capture a Taliban leader, the film puts the viewer in the position of having to feel some kind of swelling patriotism. It's like fans at Yankee Stadium being forced to sing "God Bless America."

The DVD extras bend over backwards paying tribute to the fallen Seals who are represented on screen. That's all well and good, but when we are told repeatedly that the director and actors "had to get it right," I felt a little queasy. This is a movie, not a documentary, and while I appreciate the families of those who lost their lives wanted to see their sons represented accurately, this was a film for mass consumption. Lone Survivor edges too far into jingoism. I'm no supporter of the Taliban, for sure, but the black and white nature of the film was off-putting.

The film recounts Operation Red Wings, which had four seals, played by Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, and Emile Hirsch, being dropped in to take out a Taliban leader who had just killed 20 Marines. They are discovered by three goatherds, and a debate takes place over what to do with them. Kitsch, as the senior officer, lets them go and aborts the mission, but the goatherds scramble down the mountain and soon our heroes are surrounded and vastly outnumbered. They get in a shooting fight, and before Wahlberg is the only man left many Taliban are killed (some of this looked a bit too much like a video game).

Wahlberg ends up being taken in by friendly Afghans, to whom he owes his life. This part kind of got to me, because at least the film showed that not every Muslim in the world hates Americans. There was even some humor here, as when Wahlberg asks a small boy for a knife, and the boy returns with a waterfowl. "That's not a knife, that's a fucking duck," Walhberg says, exasperated.

The film opens with Navy Seals in training. These guys are tough--I wouldn't have lasted two minutes when I was their age--and I'm thankful that they're there when they need them. What these four guys went through is brutal. Not only were they all shot several times, but they survived not one but two ass-over-tea kettle falls down a mountain slope. But I'm also leery of anything that plays to patriotism--as Oscar Wilde said, "Patriotism is a virtue of the vicious."

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Here's a good way to realize you are watching a great movie--by the time the movie is well into the action, you don't even think of how good or bad the movie is, because you're too in the moment. That's how I felt about Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which just might be the best summer blockbuster since Raiders of the Lost Ark.

A sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I liked a lot, Dawn outdoes it in every way. Most of this is due to an extremely intelligent script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver, which, dare I say, even manages to be profound. Of course, a lot of credit goes to Matt Reeves, who manages to keep this thing from degenerating into a Michael Bay explosion fest, and the acting of Andy Serkis, who I will elaborate on below.

The film takes place ten years after the end of Rise. Most of humanity is dead, due to a disease that was tested on apes. Called the "Simian flu," it spread around the world. Meanwhile, a colony of intelligent apes, those experimented on, live peacefully in the forest north of San Francisco. They have advanced, learning to use fire, domesticate animals, and build shelters. They are led by Caesar (Serkis), and have a strict moral code--"Ape Not Kill Ape." (So they haven't completely mastered English grammar).

Caesar and his friends think that mankind must be wiped out, but one day out hunting a pair of chimps stumble upon some humans, and one ape gets shot. The humans have survived the plague, living in a colony in Frisco. They are trying to see if a hydro-electric dam can still be used to generate electricity, so they can find out if there are any other surviving humans. Problem--the apes don't want them around.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, on a small scale, a primer on diplomacy and the folly of both man and ape to fuck things up by prejudice and stupidity. While watching, you feel a crushing sense of sadness at how things play out, feel embarrassed at being human, and also see how ape and human are pretty much alike. At one point Caesar says, "I thought ape better than human. Now I see we are alike." Ouch.

Both sides have the good guy and the bad. For the humans, we have Jason Clarke and Keri Russell, who understand that the apes are to be reasoned with, while on the bad side we have Gary Oldman, who thinks they are just animals and is inclined to kill them. For the apes, Caesar is badly assisted by Koba, an ape who so maltreated in captivity that he hates humans, and accuses Caesar of loving them more than apes. This earns him a thrashing from Caesar.

The film is extremely rich. Not only is it gripping, but it thought-provoking. We can think of all sorts of real-life situations that the film alludes to, right up to the current headlines in Gaza, where two sides just can't get along. There is also a scene that is daring in its execution. Koba, on a mission from the apes home, penetrates the humans' home. In order to appear nonthreatening, he adopts typical chimp behavior, as if he was a circus animal. I thought of how many groups have resorted to cultural stereotypes, such as Stepin Fetchit or Charlie Chan, to assimilate. It's a funny scene, but it has powerful depth.

I was impressed also that my bullshit detector didn't go off much, given that it's a movie about apes with superior intelligence. At one point I wondered why they didn't smell humans who were hiding, but I see on a few web sites that the sense of smell of chimps has deteriorated over generations (just like it has in humans). There is a pretty whopping coincidence when Clarke finds just the ape he needs at the moment, but given the overall smartness of the script, I'm willing to forgive it.

In closing, I must comment on Andy Serkis, who is given top-billing. He is the actor who has now specialized in these motion capture roles, from Gollum to King Kong. There is never any question in the mind of the viewer that Caesar is a real ape, even if he is completely created out of computer effects. Serkis is masterful not only in moving like a chimp, but in his facial expressions. In fact, I was amazed that I had no trouble differentiating between the different apes, a testament to all the motion-capture actors.

My grade for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: A.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Lost in the Dream

The War on Drugs' latest album, Lost in the Dream, is a curious hybrid. They sound very much like Arcade Fire, and employ a space-agey Pink Floyd sound, but also reminded me of Bob Dylan, if he had a band that played a lot of reverb guitar.

This album is mostly the work of Adam Granduciel, who writes, produces, and sings lead vocals with a nasal twang reminiscent of Dylan. According to Wikipedia they are included in the "shoegazer" genre, but I dispute that, as most of their music is not doleful, and despite having a song called "Suffering" is rather joyous.

The Arcade Fire influence can be heard in a couple of tracks. "Red Eyes," in fact, is the best Arcade Fire song of the past few years, including everything on Arcade Fire's last album. "Burning" is also faux Arcade Fire. The Dylan influence can be heard most strongly on "Eyes to the Wind." There's a harmonica and pedal steel guitar on that track, but also something called space rhodes and arp omni II, which I doubt Dylan has ever used.

Pink Floyd can be heard in tracks like the instrumental "The Haunting Idle," and "Disappearing," which has a wonderful Floydish guitar riff.

All in all this is a luscious, pleasant disc to listen to, but since I've mentioned so many other acts in this post I can't call them incredibly original. I would discuss the lyrics, but the lyric sheet is written in a handwritten scrawl that is impossible to read. As the title suggests, it's mostly about dream states, and maybe about hallucinogenics.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Best American Essays of 2013

When I think of the word "essay," I think of a piece of factual writing, which could be about anything from the post-Soviet economy of Uzbekistan to the mating rituals of Hottentots. But according to the folks at the Best American series, especially guest editor Cheryl Strayed, an essay is a personal reminiscence. In essence, what we have here is the Best American Memoirs of 2013.

Many of these essays follow the same template: they link a personal memory to a concrete set of facts. The best of these are John Jeremiah Sullivan's "Ghost Estates," which ties together his search for his Irish roots with the burst of the Irish housing boom and the work of John Millington Synge. Another is the extraordinary "The Book of Knowledge," by Steven Harvey, who links the children's encyclopedia of the title to his faint memory of his mother, who killed herself when he was 12. Yet another example of this tactic is "When They Let Them Bleed," by Tod Goldberg, who recounts his childhood adversities while remembering the death in the ring of boxer Duk Koo Kim at the hands of Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini.

Death is, as one might expect, a big topic here. There are also essays by Vanessa Veselka, on girls murdered while hitchhiking ("Highway of Lost Girls") and Michelle Mirsky's "Epilogue: Deadkidistan," dealing with the death of her child. There's also "Field Notes on Hair," Vicki Weiqui Yang's essay about losing her hair during chemo treatment for a brain tumor.

I appreciated the funnier essays. The lead off one is "Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel," by Poe Ballantine, on the weird comings and goings at a rooming house. He recalls that his landlady's dead husband was "a big-game hunter, he had labeled all his Cryovacked packages in permanent black marker: ELK, ELEPHANT, BLACK BEAR, ZEBRA, GAZELLE. So far I had been reluctant to try any of it for fear that Mrs. Vollstanger had actually killed, dressed, and Cryovacked her husband."

Another funny one, although also scary, is Matthew Vollmer's "Keeper of the Flame." Vollmer's father, a dentist, takes him to visit one of his patients, who keeps one of the largest collections of Nazi memorabilia in an underground vault. Another funny and scary one, and my favorite in the whole collection, is "What Happens in Hell," by Charles Baxter. He tells the story of how he had a driver while in San Francisco, a Pakistani man who tells him all about Hell. Later, the driver will fall asleep at the wheel, and Baxter recounts the harrowing accident he gets into. "But all I could think of then and now was, That expert on Hell almost got me killed."

Other highlights are "The Art of Being Born," by Marcia Aldrich, a memoir of a pregnancy, told to her newborn child. This kind of thing usually is fodder for women's magazines, but it's much better than that, and has a rollicking tone: "I woke up late, having spent the night beached on the couch in the living room, memorizing the distinguishing signs of every rash chronicled in Dr. Spock's baby book, until nodding off around six. The book lay open to cradle cap, flaking patches of skin on the tops of newborn heads, which might be 'cracked, greasy, or even weeping.'"

Not every essay here grabbed me. Dagoberto Gil's "A Little Bit of Fun Before He Died," about a garrulous writing teacher colleague, wasn't all that well focused, and I think the subject wasn't as interesting as Gil thinks he was. And frankly, I have no idea what was going on in J.D. Daniels' "Letter from Majorca."

I'll finish with Zadie Smith's "Some Notes on Attunement," how a black woman became a huge fan of Joni Mitchell: "I can't listen to Joni Mitchell in a room with other people, or on an an iPod, walking the streets. Too risky. I can never guarantee that I'm going to be able to get through the song without being made transparent--to anybody and everything, to the whole world. A mortifying sense of porousness." The best of these essays do exhibit a mortifying sense of porousness, perhaps for the author, but enrichment for us.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Long Riders

Okay, so finally I found a film about Jesse James that at least approaches historical accuracy. The Long Riders, made in 1980 by Walter Hill, featured the gimmick of having actual brothers play brothers: James and Stacy Keach as Jesse and Frank James; the Brothers Carradine, David, Keith, and Robert, as the Youngers; Dennis and Randy Quaid as Ed and Clell Miller; and Nicholas and Christopher Guest as Bob and Charlie Ford. But the movie does transcend the gimmick, as it's a better than average Western.

The movie starts with the James-Younger gang in full operation. Ed Miller is kicked out of the gang for shooting an innocent bystander, which almost gets Jesse killed. James Keach makes a great Jesse--his piercing blue eyes are reminiscent of the photos of Jesse, and the script correctly portrays him as the organizer of the outfit.

The film then follows the futile attempts of Pinkerton agents to catch the gang. The raid on the farm of Jesse's mother is true--a torch tossed inside the house explodes, killing their half-brother. We also see an innocent member of the Younger family murdered by a Pinkerton agent. While the film does not engage in making heroes of these guys, we can at least see their source of anger.

Finally they decide to head to Minnesota to rob the Northfield bank. In another touch of accuracy, and despite the title, we see them take the train, not ride horses. The robbery is portrayed fairly accurately, though they did scout other cities and were undone because they were too conspicuous--the long leather dusters they wore were out of place in Minnesota.

The shootout is too melodramatic, with a citizen being shot off a rooftop, and much of it done in slow motion, in Peckinpah style, but it scratches the itch of one who wants to see that sort of thing in an oater. The subsequent manhunt is boiled down to just a few minutes--the James and Youngers traveled together quite a ways before separating.

The film did tell me one thing I didn't know. Cole Younger is seen having a relationship with notorious soiled dove Belle Starr (played by Pamela Reed). I figured that was nonsense, but sure enough, she grew up alongside the James and Youngers, and may have been married to Cole's uncle. The fight Younger has with her husband, Sam Starr, is probably pure fiction.

The ending, in which Bob Ford shoots James, seems tacked on and rushed, as if they were running out of film. Of course, this was presented as its own movie, the fine The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is up to now the best and most accurate of the films about the James-Younger gang.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Are You My Mother?

The term "comic book" seems kind of reductive to me. It's been usurped by the more serious-sounding "graphic novel," but Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?, borrowing a line from Dr. Seuss, is not a novel, it's a memoir. Following up on her book about her father, Fun Home (which I haven't read) she has turned to her other parent, and crafted something of a masterpiece.

This book, which she calls "A Comic Drama," is a thick stew of many different ingredients. Mostly it's about psychology. Bechdel begins each chapter with one of her dreams, and has extensive depictions of her sessions with two different analysts. She extensively quotes from psychologist Donald Winnicott, who did groundbreaking work on the mother-infant relationship, and the "object relations theory." I don't pretend to understand it all, and I admit I got confused when Bechdel got into the "true self" and the "false self," but nonetheless I was intrigued by her own self-exploration of her relationship with her mother.

Bechdel, who is a lesbian, never has had to consider maternity on her own. She writes: "Sort of how I'd understood human reproduction as a child, I was an egg inside my mother when she was still an egg inside her mother, and so forth and so on. A dizzying, infinite regress. There's a certain relief in knowing that I am a terminus."

Other works cited are Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, and Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, which the elder Ms. Bechdel had a part in as an actress. But lest this sound too heavy, it is full of brio, as Bechdel is a constantly engaging narrator. She is also amazingly candid. While changing some names, she deals honestly with her relationships, and is unafraid of dealing squarely with her mother. In one scene she describes, at age seven, when her mother told her she was too old to be kissed good night.

Much of the book is dealing with how her mother is going to deal with the book about her father, and then how she will deal with this book. I'm very impressed--I don't think I could write about my parents. Not while they are alive, anyway.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Snowpiercer

As a solution to global warming, a chemical is released into the atmosphere. It works too well--freezing everything, wiping out almost all life. A few thousand people remain, all living on a perpetually moving train, which circles the Earth once a year. Where you live on the train is based on your socio-economic status: the rich live up front in luxury, the poor live in the back, in squalor.

This is the premise of the highly entertaining and thought-provoking Snowpiercer, from director Bong Joon Ho. Not only does it work as a pure action film, but it's a pretty devastating political allegory, as it can easily be seen as a parallel to the burgeoning income inequality in the U.S. these days.

As the film begins, Curtis (Chris Evans, looking like The Edge when he wears his knit cap) is plotting a revolution, along with his sidekick, Jamie Bell, and his wise mentor, John Hurt. When they realize the soldiers probably don't have any bullets, they storm forward on the train. Each car offers new discoveries (this will also remind viewers of a video game), whether it's the food car, when they find out exactly what the gelatinous protein bars they eat are made of, or a car full of axe-wielding, balaclava-wearing thugs.

The crew of revolutionaries include the security systems designer, Song Kang-Ho, and his daughter, Go Ah-Sung. They are both addicted to a drug called Kronole, which is industrial waste that is inhaled. Some of the nasties that are encountered are the hilarious Tilda Swinton as Minister Mason, who deals with the back-end passengers by telling them that everyone is in their place, and that they are not hats, they are shoes.

It is always those in power that tell the powerless that everything and everyone has its place, which of course keep them in power. It's when that is questioned, as it should be, that revolutions happen. And the quest of the downtrodden in Snowpiercer is kind of thrilling. I'm not sure Mitt Romney would like it.

Bong, who directed The Host, shows great visual flair, as well as telling a powerful tale. Early in the film, the denizens of the rear of the train, who living in a gray world, are visited by a woman in a bright yellow coat. The use of color is so audacious that I almost couldn't concentrate on what she was doing, but it signified something important--the further up the train the rebels move, the more color there is.

The train's operator is Wilford, played by Ed Harris, in a role that is similar to his TV director in The Truman Show. He's described as divine by Swinton, and has never visited the rear of the train, living alone in the engine room. When Evans and Harris finally meet, the film loses a little, as we've seen these kind of confrontations before, where the man in power tells the powerless man the truths of life. The ending, also, doesn't make a lot of sense, and fails to make the point that the entire film was leading toward.

Still, this film is dazzling. My grade for Snowpiercer: B+.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The 5th Wave

The big YA adventure novel last year was The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey. It is soon to be a major motion picture, and is another tale of an Earth that is devastated by something. Only this time it's not nuclear war, but an alien invasion. Only the aliens aren't what we expect them to be.

I found this novel something of a trial, and a chore to finish. Part of the problem was its multiple points of view. We start with Cassie Sullivan, a typical 16-year-old who is on her own after losing her whole family. She hopes to find her younger brother, who was taken away by the army.

Then the narrative switches to Ben Parish, who is being trained by the military to fight the aliens. Much of this section didn't strike me as authentic at all. Would any military train children as young as five to fight aliens? There is a reveal that turns this on its head, but it still seems far-fetched.

Cassie will later be rescued by a handsome young man named Evan Walker, although she can never trust him because she's not sure he's really human. Talk about a relationship problem. Some of this is for girl readers, I suppose, although I like to think smart girls are above this kind of treacle.

Above all, the book just isn't written all that well. It didn't move at a good pace, and the characters aren't sharply drawn. Occasionally Yancey hit on a line that I liked, such as, describing the humans trying to defeat the aliens, "It's like a cockroach working up a plan to defeat the shoe on its way down to crush it." But if the odds are that stacked against humanity, any victory would only seem preposterous.

Furthermore, the book doesn't really end, but stop, as I'm sure there are sequels in the works. I will skip them.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid is more historically accurate than Jesse James, but not by much. Given it's time of creation, 1972, it's use of the the James-Younger gang and their botched robbery attempt is, like many Westerns of the period, a metaphor for modern times, and writer-director Phil Kaufman doesn't seem interested in telling the true story, even if it is far more interesting than what is on the screen here.

In this film, the main character is Cole Younger (Cliff Robertson), who is portrayed as the leader of the gang. The state of Missouri is voting on a full amnesty for the gang, but Jesse James (Robert Duvall) wants to hit the "biggest bank west of the Mississippi" in Northfield (the gang actually didn't originally target Northfield, and looked at many banks in Minnesota).

So four of the gang (at least the film gets the personnel and their names right) head up to rob the bank, and the Youngers head after them to stop them. But then the railroads pay off the legislature, and the amnesty is off, so Younger decides to rob the bank after all.

Many Westerns of this period, which might be called revisionist Westerns, weren't about the West at all, but addressed the controversies of America at the time. This really started with The Wild Bunch, and there was also Soldier Blue, Little Big Man, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians. This one, I suspect, is about the corruption of America. It came out before the truths of the Nixon administration's crimes were exposed, but it was a bit prescient.

Instead of being a shoot 'em up about a bank robbery, Kaufman writes a perplexing angle--Younger enters town posed as a cattle baron. He finds out that the bank has no money, because the townspeople don't trust banks. So he strikes a deal with the bank owner to fake a shipment of gold, which will give the people confidence that their money is backed. Cole Younger thus becomes both the outlaw on the street and in the boardroom.

The film does get some things right--it kills off the correct two members, although Jim Younger was not shot in the mouth until after the robbery, and the actors are far too old for their roles. Duvall plays Jesse James as psychotic, which wasn't really true--James planned the crimes, and had a head for business. But since Robertson is listed as an executive producer perhaps he wanted to take the glory of playing the guy who planned things.

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid is not a very good movie--it has typical '70s stylings, including lots of abrupt editing, and it is not historically accurate, but it is a good example of the politics of film in the early '70s.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails

I was listening to the NPR show "Only a Game" and heard about The Baseball Project, a collection of musicians from bands such as REM, The Young Fresh Fellows, and Dream Syndicate, and how they've put out two albums of songs that are exclusively about baseball. Of course I had to sample their ware, and I started with Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails.

The relationship between rock music and baseball is a slender and fragile one. Of course there's John Fogerty's "Centerfield," but when he was honored by the Hall of Fame some years ago I couldn't help but think that the assembled players wondered who this scruffy guy was. Baseball at its heart is conservative, clinging to tradition, while rock music is progressive and experimental. But rock musicians, just like the rest of us, are not immune to the charms of baseball and its lore.

The songs are written by Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn, and the subjects range from the early retirement of Sandy Koufax to the louche ways of Black Jack McDowell. There's a song completely in Spanish about Fernando Valenzuela, and another about the legacy of Curt Flood, who challenged the reserve clause, ruined his career, yet paved the way for the riches of players today. This song is called "Gratitude," and has Flood singing from the beyond in a most sarcastic way.

Another song is "The Death of Big Ed Delahanty," a turn of the century player who mysteriously fell off a train bridge. The song is a raucous ballad:

"The night watchman said he'd seen a man
Ended up wearing his bowler hat
He heard a splash but he didn't see him fall.
For a week no one found a clue of him.
What good's it do to question death when it makes a bad call?
But I don't think he killed himself.
I think some strange notion drew him to Niagara Falls
Across the curve of day and night
Like the perfect arch of a high fly ball."

My favorite song on this record is "Harvey Haddix," about the luckless Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher who pitched nine-innings of perfect ball, but there was no score, so the game went into extra innings. He ended up pitching 12 perfect innings, but lost the game in the 13th, therefore he is not considered among the pitchers who have hurled perfect games. When the song was written, there were 17 such pitchers, and the lyric manages to get them all in there. Now there are 23 pitchers who have done the deed, and that doesn't include Armando Galaragga, who got screwed out of one by a bad call from an umpire. Perhaps there's a song in that.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Jesse James

After reading Shot All to Hell, the account of the James Gang's attempt to rob the bank in Northfield, Minnesota, I figured I'd take a look at some Hollywood representations of Jesse James and his cohorts. I start with 1939's Jesse James, a technicolor film starring Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank. It was a smash it, but it is a glorious whitewash of the truth, ludicrously anti-historical, and appears to have been written by James himself.

To start, the film begins with the James boys as simple farmers. No mention is made of their life in the Civil War as part of Quantrill's Raiders. Instead, they are defending their land against the unscrupulous railroad company, in the person of Brian Donlevy. When James shoots Donlevy in the hand, a warrant is sworn out for him, and in the attempt at capture, Donlevy tosses a grenade into the house, killing their mother (Jane Darwell). Okay, here's the truth: James' mother was wounded in an attack (she lost an arm) but it was in a raid by Pinkerton agents, because James was already a bank robber.

There are long stretches of the film that are completely fictional, such as when Jesse turns himself in and then Frank breaks him out of jail. The script indicates that they hit only the railroad that killed their mother, justifying their actions. It is true that Missouri media, mostly an editor named John Newman Edwards, built up the James' reputations as modern-day Robin Hoods. Here he's represented by the Major, played comically by Henry Hull.

The raid at Northfield is also shown, but the disaster is chalked up to Robert Ford tipping off the authorities, which of course was not true, as Ford wasn't even at that robbery. Later, James will be assassinated by Ford right before he's ready to give up the bandit life and head to California, another untruth.

The film, even without all these inaccuracies, is kind of sluggish, bogged down by a romance between Jesse and Nancy Kelly. Power also wasn't much of an actor, frankly, and Fonda is much more interesting as the older brother.

This film was also notable for being the last made before the American Humane Society stepped in to supervise filming involving animals. In a spectacular stunt involving the James boys riding horses over a cliff, one horse was killed. No film is worth the death of a horse, least of all one that can't get hardly a fact right.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Life Itself (2014)

So what does it say about me that the most I've cried at a movie in a long time is a documentary about a pudgy film critic? Well, I found myself tearing up quite a bit at Life Itself, the film based on Roger Ebert's memoir. It's a fascinating celebration of a fascinating man, a man who lived a great life and died a great death.

The director is Steve James, just one of many unknown filmmakers that Ebert helped in his career. James directed Hoop Dreams, a film that Ebert championed and named the best film of 1994. That film, which was emotionally powerful and superbly edited, lends some of its traits to this film, though the subjects couldn't be more different.

The film covers Ebert's life in roughly chronological order, from his days as a boy reporter to his tenure editing the Daily Illini to his days as a Chicago newpaperman. Then he became a Pulitzer-Prize winning critic, and after being teamed with Gene Siskel on television, half of the most powerful film critics the media had ever seen.

Through all this we see Ebert in his last days, at first in rehab after a fractured hip, then after a bout of pneumonia. Cancer had robbed him of his jawbone, which meant the skin of his chin dangled uselessly, leaving him unable to speak, eat, or drink. We see some grueling treatment, such as suction (a tube is stuck directly down a tracheal opening). Yet his spirits remained high, mostly due to his constant work on his blog, and his wife Chaz.

From the first I knew of him I have admired Ebert. He was a great humanist--the beginning of the movie, in which he is awarded a star in front of the Chicago Theater, has him saying that civilization requires us to get know others we don't know, and that movies play a part in that--they are "a machine of empathy." We learn what a great guy he could be, mostly from his cronies in his Chicago newspaper days, hanging out until last call at a dive bar. But we also learn what we could have guessed--he tended to be full of himself, was a control freak, and could be a big baby.

Most of this is shown with his difficult relationship with Siskel. At first they hated each other. Siskel, who is knew how to press Ebert's buttons, is described by a friend as "a rogue planet in Roger's solar system." We see some of their great arguments on the show, plus outtakes of teaser ads, in which both drove the needle deeper when they make a mistake. Siskel finally says, "Join us this week on Siskel and Ebert and the Movies and the asshole."

But the two entered on such a wild ride that they couldn't help but feel closer. Siskel would later clarify his statement: "He's an asshole, but he's my asshole." My first time tearing up is when Siskel died, in 1999 (he did not tell Ebert he had a brain tumor). Siskel's widow reads the beautiful letter that Ebert wrote her, and it's heart-rending.

Later the film covers how Ebert met his wife, Chaz (it was at an AA meeting, which Chaz had never admitted before). Ebert was fifty when they married, and was immediately part of an extended African-American family. Everyone who knew him said she changed him for the better. As someone who is about to get married for the first time in my 50s, this was the second time I cried.

Of course, Ebert and James did not know that Ebert would die before the film would end, but he did, and as Ebert indicates, it makes for a better story. When Chaz describes his final moments, with the whole family holding hands in a circle, it was crying time number three.

But there's a lot more, including some laughs. Why did Ebert like the films of Russ Meyer (for whom he wrote a screenplay)? "Boobs." Martin Scorsese recalls a touching moment when he was at the end of his rope, and Siskel and Ebert invited him to the Toronto Film Festival for a tribute, and if we can understand it clearly, saved his life. Other filmmaking friends express their love and admiration, such as Werner Herzog and formerly unknown directors, like Gregory Nava, Rahmin Bahrani, and Errol Morris. Morris, who had made a small documentary called Gates of Heaven, which the two mentioned on their show three times, credits Siskel and Ebert for making his career possible.

We hear a few respectful criticisms. Richard Corliss wrote an article about the dumbing down of criticism by using a "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" system, but in retrospect he doesn't seem so convinced of it. Jonathan Rosenbaum feels that Ebert went too mainstream, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that's not true, as they both went out of their way to find and champion small films. It is true, though, that someone like Pauline Kael would have never worked with a dog, as Siskel and Ebert did.

The greatest takeaway from Life Itself is that Roger Ebert lived a great life. He was a polymath, something of a genius (he could write a fully realized review in half an hour. I can do that, too, but mine aren't near as good) and a great friend. He got dealt a tough break in his last years, but I'm sure he wouldn't have traded it for anything.

His final words, written on his blog the day before his death, were "I'll see you at the movies."

My grade for Life Itself: A.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The Conjuring

The Conjuring is a skillfully made horror film, but it doesn't raise any bars in the genre, and I don't think warrants the praise that it got upon its release last year. Really, it's just another exorcism film, and quite unfair to witches.

The setting, a remote New England farmhouse, is also hardly unique. This is based on a "true" story (the quote marks are my own, since I steadfastly refuse to believe in demons), a case of real-life ghost hunters Ed and Lorraine Warren. They are played earnestly by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga.

The family in trouble are the Perrons, with dad Ron Livingston and mom Lili Taylor. They have five girls and a dog, but we know things are bad when the dog won't enter the house.

I was bothered by certain things right away. Who buys a house and doesn't know it has a basement, especially when the basement has windows? Who walks around a house they're not familiar with it, blindfolded? And why does Taylor react so calmly when she starts getting mysterious bruises all over her body?

When things start escalating--doors opening and closing on their own, weird noises, the smell of decaying flesh--Taylor tracks down the Warrens to investigate. They immediately sense something is amiss, and research the house. Turns out a woman, related to one the Salem witches, murdered her baby and hung herself, cursing anyone who would take her land. Residents have been committing suicide since then. Now, I am not a witch, but I know that witches are not connected to Satan, as they are here, and those executed at Salem were completely innocent. I hope if there's a witch anti-defamation league they looked into this.

Taylor ends up getting possessed and Wilson has to perform an exorcism, even though he is not a priest. There's nothing about these scenes that are new are original, dating back forty-one years to The Exorcist. The film is extremely Catholic, also, with an epigraph of Warren stating that demons, the devil, and god are all real. If you say so.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A Hard Day's Night

One of my top five favorite films, A Hard Day's Night was released fifty years ago on July 6th, and it's one of those happy accidents of cultural history. Designed merely to be an exploitation of what most thought to be a passing fad, it has instead endured to be one of the best musical films of all time, as well as being a trendsetting piece of art that helped redefine film and music.

The Beatles, as well all know, struck it big in 1964. Less than a month after their groundbreaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, they began shooting this film in March. Four months later the film was released. The writer was Alun Owen, who hung around the band and got used to their Liverpudlian rhythms of speech. The director was Richard Lester, who had worked on The Goon Show, a forerunner to Monty Python that featured Peter Sellers. What resulted was a combination of British music hall, the French New Wave, with a dash of the Marx Brothers.

The plot is so simple it hardly matters. The Fab Four, trapped by their own fame, are chased by screaming teens wherever they go. They are headed to a TV studio in the south of England to shoot a special, and tagging along is Paul's grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell), "a villain, a real mixer," who is also described as being "very clean." (This was a joke referring to Brambell's best known role, as the old man on the TV series Steptoe and Son, where he is constantly referred to as a "dirty old man" [Steptoe and Son was the source for the American show Sanford and Son]).

The Beatles just want to have fun, but their stern manager Norm (Norm Rossington) tries to keep them out of trouble. But the Beatles, as this film shows, were metaphors for the enthusiasms of youth. A Hard Day's Night is all about motion. The boys are always in motion, as is the camera. There are numerous hand-held camera shots, quick zooms, and bits of surrealism. The best is that scene in the train car when they are confronted by the representation of the "establishment," the man who "rides this train twice a week." When the Beatles leave him in the car, we then see a physically impossible shot of them then outside, running after the train. That shot indicates that nothing we see can be taken as reality.

Lester, who had a made a short film called The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film, can be said to have created the modern music video format. This can be seen especially in the "Can't Buy Me Love" scene, in which the Beatles run, jump, and stand still in a field. (Again, in a bit of anti-establishment, they are run off by a stern man who tells them they are on private property).

Lester introduced many other innovations, such as the use of multiple cameras, quick cuts, and out of focus shots. In one scene in the TV studio we see the action play out in the TV monitors.

The film, of course, capitalizes on the immense appeal of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Not really actors, they are limited mostly to one-liners. I love this line by New Yorker critic Brendan Gill: "Though I don't pretend to understand what makes these four rather odd-looking boys so fascinating to so many scores of millions of people, I admit that I feel a certain mindless joy stealing over me as they caper about uttering sounds." Their barely controlled anarchy is reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, though they are only given the slightest of personalities. The strongest comes from Ringo, who has the most screen time. He has the longest "soliloquy," when he wanders off into town and manages to get thrown out of a pub and leads a woman into a deep mud hole.

But my favorite solo scene is when George, who has always known as the "Quiet Beatle" gets his moment in the sun. He wanders into the office of a marketing man, played devilishly by Kenneth Haigh. Haigh is supposed to know everything about teens, but doesn't recognize the Beatle. He offers George a chance to give his opinion about some shirts, and George says, "I'd be quite prepared for that eventuality." When George later tells Haigh that his spokesperson, a girl called Suzy, is "a drag. A well known drag," Haigh wonders if it's time for the new movement, but sees that that is three weeks away.

That's the great thing about Owun's script--it satirizes the Beatles and youth culture, but without being melodramatic about it. Yes, they are prisoners of their own success, but they don't brood about it. When they are chased by fans they smile and act as if its a lark. In the very opening, while being chased, George takes a header, but pops up beaming. These guys are having fun, and by osmosis, so are we.

A few other things worth mentioning: the performance of Victor Spinetti as the supercilious TV director with the ridiculous sweater (Spinetti would appear in all three Beatles films). He is just so right as the man who is given a little power and goes crazy with it. I love this exchange about him:

George: There he goes. Look at him. Bet his wife doesn't know about her.
John: If he's got one. Look at his sweater.
Paul: You never know, she might have knitted it.
John: She knitted him.

As mentioned, there are some hints of the sixties counterculture, such as the man on the train, the man in the field, and the very quick shot of John miming snorting a Coke bottle (Coke, get it?). There are some wonderfully absurd displays of visual humor, such as when George teaches Shake, the roadie, how to shave, or when John disappears in the bathtub.

Of course, the film can't be remembered without the music. What one has to remember is that these were new songs--the film was really shot to support the soundtrack album. And none may be so well-remembered as the title track, with an opening chord that has echoed through fifty years. The title, which came from a Ringo malapropism, was only decided on during filming. The band had to write a song with that title, and John did so, in one night. Ah, genius!

A Hard Day's Night, for me, is an impossible film to watch without putting one's self in a good mood. It is the surest form of chasing the blues I know. It managed to capture lightning in a bottle, and continues to be as fresh and wonderful as the day it was first released. I like to think of youngsters, whose parents weren't even born when the Beatles were together, discovering them through this film. I expect it will happen for fifty more years.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Hillary's Veep

Julian Castro
We're about two years away from the Democratic National Convention. We don't know even know where it will be held yet, but that hasn't stopped political prognosticators from speculating. But in this instance, it's not on who the nominee for president will be, but who will be second on the ticket.

If Hillary Clinton runs, as most expect her to, that will take all the air out of the Democratic race for president. She may get some token opposition from the left to keep her honest--I believe Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has already indicated he will run. And who knows what Joe Biden will do. His ego may be too big to quietly step aside, but I can't see him putting much dent in the Clinton machinery.

So, the only suspense may be who she picks as her running mate. I've googled a few articles to see that I'm not the only one wondering. Possible scenarios can be divided into three categories:

White men, regardless of geography: Here the candidates could be those who would otherwise run if Clinton doesn't. The top of the list seems to be Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, who I'm sure is a very capable man but doesn't exactly inspire excitement. Both Virgina senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, are also mentioned, as Kaine was one of the finalists for Obama's running mate in '08. I like Kaine's experience: he's been a mayor, a governor, and a senator.

In this camp we also have former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, who might give the ticket a Western flavor. Then there's Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, but he will certainly be biding his time for a run on his own, and wouldn't want to play second fiddle.

The next category is a Latino. Unfortunately, the Democratic party has a weak bench in this area. While the Republicans have Marco Rubio and Susana Martinez, the only Latino Democratic senator is Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who is not a prospect. Therefore it was of some interest when San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro was tapped to be Secretary of HUD. Was this to give him some Federal experience in preparation for 2016? He was the keynote speaker at the 2012 convention and a bright star on the horizon in everyone's view, but it's hard to think of HUD being a launching point to the White House. The last time a cabinet member was picked to be Vice President I think was Henry Wallace back in 1940.

Finally Clinton could down down and select a woman. There have been all sorts of articles about this, and how much that would energize the voting populace. I think there is a good chance of that, because there are far more exciting women candidates than Latino. At the top is Elizabeth Warren, who seem to have grabbed the mantle as spokeswoman for many issues, particularly the anti-Wall Street ones. But she's about as old as Hillary, and with Clinton's age, she might want to go younger. Other possibilities would be senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, or Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire.

This process is always fascinating because it is the one office where a person is selected rather than elected, and a heretofore completely unknown is thrust into the national spotlight.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Dearborn, Michigan

I'm sitting in the waiting room at Detroit Metro Airport after a long weekend visiting my father in Michigan. Michigan is the state of my birth; I was born in Ann Arbor while he attended the University of Michigan.

My home town, for lack of a better word, is Dearborn. I don't have a home town like most people do. I grew up all over the country, first in various student housing and rental homes in the larger Detroit area, then Toledo, Ohio, suburban Philadelphia, Houston. At the age of sixteen we moved to New Jersey, and, aside from four years of college on Long Island, have lived here ever since. But I spent some formative years in Dearborn.

Both of my parents grew up in Dearborn. They attended rival high schools but met and married very young. Both sets of grandparents lived there, so when we lived other places and went to visit that was the magic place. Then, when I was eleven, we moved there permanently and stayed there about five years.

Dearborn is an interesting place. It's most famous for being the birthplace and home town of Henry Ford, and still to this day it is the home of Ford headquarters, as well as the proving ground. As a rich man Ford lived in an estate, Fairlane, that is today available for tours and rental, and the company owns vast stretches of land. Many things are named for Ford--parks called Ford Field and Ford Woods, high schools called Fordson and Edsel Ford, and many roads. The most significant tourist attraction is the Henry Ford, a complex that includes the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

Dearborn was also notorious for being one of the most segregated cities in the north. It borders Detroit, but woe to any black family that tried to move in. For more than thirty years the mayor was a fellow named Orville Hubbard, who was openly segregationist--he was said that if a black family tried to move then the town responded like firemen to a fire. When I grew up there were no black kids in the schools.

So something funny happened. They kept blacks out, but Arabs snuck through the back door. Dearborn is now home to one of the largest Arabic populations in the United States, mostly Lebanese. This has caused some cultural problems, as school systems have had to deal with different dietary needs and there have been language issues.

I loved growing up in Dearborn though because it was a classic old-fashioned suburb. You could ride your bike for miles, there were sidewalks, parks, and there were remnants of a Tom and Huck lifestyle. You could into the woods and hike along the River Rouge, you could walk downtown and see a movie at the Calvin Theater or buy a magazine at the Little Professor Bookshop, or shop at the Westborn Mall.

Today Dearborn seems old and quaint. The homes are very small--most of Dearborn is made up of bungalows or Cape Cods, many of them had only one bathroom, unheard of today. Some of the main thoroughfares look a little dingy, with boarded up stores. But I still get a nostalgic kick upon visiting. It is, for lack of any place else, my home town.