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Sunday, August 31, 2014

What's the Matter With Kansas?

I write today from Kansas--Salina, Kansas, right in the middle of the state. There's a severe thunderstorm in progress. I joked with the motel clerk that this is my first visit to Kansas, and the first thing the state brings to mind is The Wizard of Oz, so hopefully I won't get sucked into a twister and get dumped in Munchkinland.

Kansas is the 30th state I've visited. I actually know what order I've visited them in, too. It's the first new state I've added in over 12 years, when I first visited Las Vegas and added Nevada, and then Arizona, when we drove across the Hoover Dam and spent about five minutes in the state. I will clip the northeast corner of Arizona on my drive on Tuesday.

My drive began today in a soft rain in Indiana, but by the time I was in Missouri it was bright sunshine. The further I got into Kansas the darker the skies to the north got. That's where the most severe weather is--Nebraska.

Kansas is the quintessential farm state. There's not much else here, especially after clearing the eastern part of the state, where Kansas City and Topeka are. I got a pretty good view of the state house (pictured above) as the interstate winded through it. There's a Brown vs. Board of Education Historical Center there. That's a lot different than when the case was decided 60 years ago, and signs reading "Impeach Earl Warren" could be found throughout the land.

When I think of Kansas I also think of the phrase "What's the matter with Kansas?" That was the title of a book by Thomas Frank. I haven't read the book, but I read an excerpt in Harper's years ago. Basically, Frank wonders why the voters of Kansas continually vote against their own interests--namely, the draconian economics of Republicans. The simple answer is Jesus. But the worm may be turning.

Sam Brownback, who once upon a time fancied himself presidential timber, became the governor and, like Popeye eating spinach, unleashed his full strength. He slashed taxes so much that the services are horrible, and his approval rating plummeted. He is now far behind in the polls to the Democratic challenger.

Even more surprising is that the Republican senator, Pat Roberts, is facing a struggle for re-election. Kansas hasn't sent a Democrat to the senate since the 1930s. Roberts received a significant Tea Party challenge for the nomination and became infamous for the information that he really doesn't live in Kansas, he just uses a friend's address, where he has a recliner ready for use.

This is my second full day of driving, and there are certain things I'm noticing, or being reminded of. One is the tease of the mileage signs. You see a city on the sign, with several miles to go, like: Kansas City 227. That number, of course, keeps getting smaller, and eventually you're there and you're on to the next big number. Today I saw a sign that said: Denver 562. Now that's a tease. Denver is still seven hours away.

I also like the way cities just sort of emerge out of the haze. Yesterday it was Indianapolis, today Kansas City. You're driving along and there's nothing but trees or suburban sprawl and then boom! You see the skyscrapers bunched together ahead of you, looming like some science fiction landscape. And you wonder, who works in all these buildings? What is life like in these cities?

I also drove by some sports arenas. I got quite close to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indy, where the Colts play. It has a Victorian feel to it, like a building in a steampunk graphic novel. Today I drove super-close to Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals play. I identified the huge crown that sits in centerfield, and the road went by and I was able to see directly into the field. Now they are playing on Sunday night baseball, and for this Tigers' fan, I hope they lose.

Tomorrow, god willing and the creek don't rise, I'll be in Colorado for my first view of the Rocky Mountains.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Highways and Byways

Today I fully embarked on my cross-country trip to Las Vegas, where I will be permanently living. After trying to figure out the best way to do it--sell the car and rent a truck, or hire a moving company--I decided to drive. It will take me four days and 2,500 miles.

Yesterday I got a bit of a head start by visiting my family in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This morning I started heading west, which meant about 60 miles on State Route 30 (which was part of the old Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road in U.S. history). Because the road is only a two-lane highway (or is a byway? You never hear the word byway much, except when paired with highway) it was a little slower going, and went up and down and some mountains. But I love these kind of roads. If I had unlimited time, I'd drive the whole way on state roads, because, as efficient as they are, interstates are completely charmless.

Along these roads, especially in rural areas like southern Pennsylvania, you see the full glory of roadside America. Antique/junk shops, roadside taverns, extremely low-grade strip joints, tattoo parlors, auto mechanics, and cow pastures (along with their piquant smell). The speed limit slows down when you head into a town, where you can tell where you are by the sign on the post office.

And then there are the really oddball places, like Mr. Ed's Elephant Museum and Candy Emporium, just a few miles out of Gettysburg. I visited with my mom a few years. Not only can you buy all sorts of candy and delicious fudge, but there are thousands upon thousands of elephant statues and figurines. No, it's not Mr. Ed who is the talking horse.

Once out of Pennsylvania I went across the sliver of West Virginia that juts between PA and Ohio. West Virginia is one of the most irregularly-shaped states in the union, and this panhandle exists because Virginia, of which West Virginia was once part of, wanted frontage on the Ohio River. It occurred to me that if Michigan is shaped like a hand, so is West Virginia--it's a fist with the index finger and thumb extended.

That part of West Virginia is only 11 miles across, but it's not the narrowest state in the country, as a portion of Maryland is only 1.8 miles across. A world-class runner could cover that in about six minutes.

Then it was on to Ohio. My father and his family came from Ohio, but I've never had much love for it. It seems to have no distinctive features, and is only a place to be passed through on the way to get somewhere else. It's called the Buckeye State, but it should be called the Speedtrap State, as the highway patrol is rapacious there. I saw numerous cars pulled over, two in one 50-yard stretch. I imagine the state economy is fueled by the fines. Somehow I made it through without incident.

I am now in Cloverdale, Indiana. Outside my motel room window is a farm of some sort. When crossing into the state from Ohio, I immediately noticed a lack of police, which made me feel more welcome. When I think of Indiana I think of a few things. It is so named because originally it was to be set aside as Indian territory, but in an early example of white men going back on their word they kept it for themselves. Of course it is the home state of many famous folks, like Larry Bird, David Letterman, Tecumseh, James Dean, Steve McQueen, John Mellencamp, the Jacksons, Ernie Pyle, Booth Tarkington, and one of my favorite adult film stars, Bree Olson.

Mostly when I think of the state I think of my favorite Hoosier, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. In his novel The Sirens of Titan he had a character say: “Indianapolis, Indiana,” said Constant, “is the first place in the United States of America where a white man was hanged for the murder of an Indian. The kind of people who’ll hang a white man for murdering an Indian —”said Constant, “that’s the kind of people for me.”

Friday, August 29, 2014

Apocalypse Joe

Apocalypse Joe, also known as The Man Called Joe Clifford, is a fun Spaghetti Western directed by Leopoldo Savona and released in 1970. It doesn't have any depth, and it has no semblance of reality, but the gunfights are structured like video games (which didn't even exist then).

Antony Steffen starts as Joe Clifford, an actor in the old west, who is also a deadly shot. He inherits a gold mine, but when he goes to check it out he finds that his uncle, who left it to home, lost it in a poker game, and also died mysteriously. The new owner (Eduardo Fajardo), is a smiling damned villain, and Steffen causes trouble for him.

The movie is so over the top that you can only smile. Fajardo sends scores of men to eliminate Steffen, but they are killed one after the other. Steffen is aided by the comic relief character, a frizzy-haired doctor (Fernando Cerulli) and the owner of the saloon (Mary Paz Pondal). But he doesn't need much help. In these films, the goons are stupid, and the hero never misses.

In the climactic gunfight, which takes up the last third of the film, the bad guys descend upon the town, but Steffen has set up booby traps, such as attaching wires to money. In a way, this is like a Warner Brothers cartoon and Steffen is Bugs Bunny.

I had fun with this movie, but it is not a great film by any means. I did like the angle that Steffen is an actor, as he not only uses his deadly accurate guns but also disguises.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Oscar 2014: Brangelina Transcendent

Unbroken
Yes, kids, it's that time of year. Not only has school started, but it's time to start thinking about the Oscars. The fall schedule is loaded with Oscar bait and surely some out-of-nowhere surprises, so let's get to it with my ridiculously early look at the contenders.

News is that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie just got hitched. Mazel tov you crazy kids! They may also be in the unique position of both having a film nominated for Best Picture--one as a director, the other as star. Pitt picked up an Oscar last year as a producer for 12 Years a Slave. Can he do it again?

In alphabetical order:

Birdman, Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (Oct. 17). The story of a washed-up movie star (Michael Keaton) who played an iconic superhero, this film just got rapturous reviews at the Venice Film Festival. May be too offbeat to actually win, but Oscar loves movies about Hollywood and it should be a lock for a nomination.

Boyhood, Richard Linklater (July 11). Some are wondering if this film has what it takes to be nominated, given that it is really an arthouse pic, but with ten possible nominees I think it's a done deal. The film is the best reviewed film of the year, and it at least made it to the multiplexes.

Foxcatcher, Bennett Miller (Nov. 14). Pushed back from last year, this film, about a DuPont heir and his creepy association with wrestlers, is getting great festival buzz. Like Birdman, may be too weird to actually win, but a nomination seems imminent.

Fury, David Ayer (Oct. 17). Pitt stars a battle-hardened tank commander in what looks like an old-fashioned World War II film. Pitt has been on a pretty good role lately. This is not from his production company, Plan B, but looks like a solid chance for a nomination.

Gone Girl, David Fincher (Oct. 3). Fincher's last adaptation of a smash-hit novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, did not score a best pic nod, but you can't count him out here. The book was widely read (I didn't think that much of it) and sure to be a box office hit, but will Oscar go for a pulpy murder mystery?

The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson (Mar. 7) Maybe wishful thinking on my part, as the Academy has not loved Anderson's films (except for the screenwriter's branch). This was the biggest hit of his career, but the early release date may doom it. Fingers crossed.

Interstellar, Christopher Nolan (Nov. 6). The director's branch does not like Christopher Nolan (he's never been nominated) but this could be the year. After showing love for Gravity last year, the Academy seems to have shucked its reluctance to reward sci-fi films with major awards.

Into the Woods, Rob Marshall (Dec. 25). If it's directed by Marshall, it's probably bad, but every year there seems to be great hope placed on musicals. This one, despite it's fairy tale setting, is fairly intellectual, but after seeing Nine I don't know if Marshall can pull this off. It still may get nominated, though.

Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh (Dec. 19). Going a bit on a limb for this one, a biopic of British painter J.M.W. Turner. Got high praise on the festival circuit, particularly for Timothy Spall in the title role. Oscar has shown great love for Mike Leigh before, but it may be lost in the shuffle.

Unbroken, Angelina Jolie (Dec. 25). Jolie's second directorial effort, and as baity a movie can get, being about a real hero and full of indomitable spirit and patriotism. The Academy, being mostly actors, over-rewards actors who direct, so unless this is absolutely horrid I don't see how it won't get a nomination here. Right now the de facto favorite for the win.

Also possible: American Sniper, Clint Eastwood; Big Eyes, Tim Burton; The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum; Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson; A Most Violent Year, J.C. Chandor; The Theory of Everything, James Marsh; Wild, Jean-Marc Vallee.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

7 Dollars on Red

The title of 7 Dollars on Red doesn't have much meaning, except the likelihood that it was trying to cash in on the popularity of Sergio Leone's "Dollar" pictures. This movie, from 1966 and directed by Alberto Cardone, is of far less quality.

The movie begins with Mexican bandits, led by a stereotypical Fernando Sancho, raiding a frontier house and killing its inhabitants, including a beautiful young woman. He spares the life of a baby boy, whom he takes and raises as his own son.

The boy's father, Anthony Steffen, returns home to find his wife dead and son missing. He spend the next twenty years looking for vengeance, killing bandits whereever he can find them.

In a nice twist, he and his son actually meet a few times, and save each other's life. But the son, Roberto Miali, is a hardened killer, and after Steffen kills Sancho, they face each other down in the street. Steffen realizes who the boy is, but Miali does not.

This film has only occasional spots of interest. There are a few very well done fistfights, but the gunplay is ridiculous. Many Spaghetti Westerns overdo blood, but there's hardly any in 7 Dollars on Red, as when someone is shot they clutch their chest and fall over, without a drop of the red stuff. I also found it amusing that the baby has grown up into a young man but no one else has seem to have aged.

Steffen made about 25 Spaghetti Westerns, and isn't a bad hero, even if he's no Clint Eastwood.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Doctor Sleep

Stephen King can do pretty much what he wants and get a bestseller, but he really did something risky--he wrote a sequel to one of his best books, The Shining, some 36 years after it appeared. What happened to Danny Torrance nagged at him for years, and he finally put it down on paper. The results, in the novel Doctor Sleep, are mixed.

The first few chapters tie up loose ends from the book. Danny, helped by his old friend Dick (who luckily didn't die in the book like he did in the movie) deals with some Overlook Hotel ghosts who are following him around, including the old lady in Room 217. Danny's mother dies of cancer, and he ends up a drifter and an alcoholic. He bottoms out when he steals money from a one-night stand, and ends up in a small town in New Hampshire, where he joins AA and works in a hospice. His "shining" talent is useful for helping patients who are about to die, and he earns the nickname, "Doctor Sleep."

Meanwhile, King has two other balls in the air that will eventually all meet. Roving the countryside are a group calling themselves The True Knot. They are a bit like vampires, but feed off "steam" that is given off by people who have the shining. They look normal, and ride RVs around the country, but are thousands of years old, and led by a beautiful Irish woman who wears a top hat (she is called, natch, Rose the Hat). In New Hampshire, a child is born, Abra, who possesses great shining ability. She and Dan eventually find each other, but the True Knot becomes aware of her, and they want to feed on her.

Some of this is pretty good and some pretty silly. Thematically, it doesn't match The Shining, which was a very claustrophobic book, as the Torrances were snowbound, and the hotel was almost like a prison. This book is set in the wide open spaces, and the final showdown is on the former site of the hotel, which is now a tourist trap called "Roof o' the World." At its heart, though, the book is about alcoholism, as was The Shining, only this time Dan relies on the principles of AA. King, who is open about his alcoholism, clearly feels a debt of gratitude to the 12 steps.

I was a little disappointed in the book, though. The True Knot are not very capable villains--they end up catching the measles, which they can't tolerate, and it's hard to understand how they existed for so long. What did they do before RVs, back in the middle ages? And they are repeatedly out-maneuvered by Abra. They are like the villains in a Warner Brothers cartoon--Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam--who never stand a chance, and are always blowing their tops after being outwitted. The final showdown, between Dan and Abra and Rose, was curiously anticlimactic.

I also found the power of the shining a bit vague. Abra could do just about anything, including climbing into other people's heads. I thought King used it like Batman uses his utility belt--anything he needed just happened to be there.

But it was a pleasurable read, with King's frequent asides on popular culture. To wit: "Crow was in the parlor area, paging through The New Yorker. The only things he really liked were the cartoons and the tiny ads for weird items like yak-fur sweaters, Vietnamese coolie hats, and faux Cuban cigars." I also felt a sense of dread as Abra needed to finish off Rose and her gang once and for all. Even in his mediocre novels, King still can give you a shiver up the spine.

Monday, August 25, 2014

A Bullet for the General

My Spaghetti Western festival continues with 1969's A Bullet for the General, directed by Damiano Damiani. It is in a subgenre known as Zapata Westerns, those that deal with the Mexican revolution of the 1910s.

The film stars Gian Maria Volonte as El Chuncho, the leader of a group of Mexican bandits. They steal guns and sell them to the rebels, without having any particular feeling for the cause. In the opening scene, they rob a train and are aided by a mysterious American (Lou Castel) who is wearing a business suit and a fedora. He joins up with the rebels, telling them he just wants to make money.

Castel helps them steal more guns, and as the film goes on we wonder what he's up to. Eventually it's easy to figure out, as he wants to meet the leader of the rebels, and he's carrying a golden bullet in a little case.

I found this film a little confounding, and I suspect that it was re-edited for American audiences. Apparently the word "rebel" was snipped out, reducing the political content of the film. The second half is better than the first, when the strange friendship of Volonte and Castel is pushed to its limits.

The film also stars Martine Beswick as the female member of the gang. She is a British actress best known for appearing in two James Bond films.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Happy, Fancy, and Drunk

From "Fancy"
I am putting on my pith helmet, and like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, heading into the jungle of popular culture. I saw a feature in the New York Times showcasing the five nominated videos for "Video of the Year" at the MTV Video Music Awards, which air tonight. I realized I only knew two of the songs, and thought it might be a good occasion to get out of my classic-rock cocoon and see what the kids are listening to these days.

I've written before about Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball, directed by alleged perv Terry Richardson. Released on the heels of Cyrus' notorious twerking incident at the last awards show, it further cemented her status as pop music's number one provocateur, a former Disney-Channel sweetheart turned into a tongue-thrusting, pot-loving hellion. In this video, Cyrus licks a sledgehammer and rides naked, except for a pair of work boots, on the titular object. Like Madonna and Lady Gaga before her, Cyrus is working that persona, though the song is a standard lament of lost love. The video is somewhat interesting, though the close-ups of her that frame it is a rip-off of Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U."

In discussing these videos with some young people last night I was told that the probable winner is Beyonce for Drunk in Love, directed by Hype Williams. It's a beautiful video to watch--shot in black and white, on a beach with the waves crashing in. Beyonce, wearing lingerie and holding a trophy, stumbles around singing about being drunk and/or horny, and then Jay-Z, wearing a backwards Brooklyn Nets hat and gold chains, does a rap that is completely incoherent:

"Know I sling Clint Eastwood, hope you can handle this curve
Foreplay in the foyer, fucked up my Warhol
Slip the panties right to the side
Ain't got the time to take draws off, on site
Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike
In '97 I bite, I'm Ike, Turner, turn up
Baby no I don't play, now eat the cake, Anna Mae
Said, "Eat the cake, Anna Mae!"

Are the references to Ike Turner and Anna Mae (Tina Turner) a reference to wife-beating? Is he just bragging about owning a Warhol? Is he making a reference to Clint Eastwood's largely forgotten film Trouble With the Curve? This song is a depressing experience to listen to, and I really can't understand either of their popularity.

The nadir of this quintet is Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX doing Fancy. I watched this video slack-jawed, wondering who could possibly like a white girl singing as if she were black. I understand that white people have co-opted black music for over a century now, but this seems particularly egregious, as an Australian raps things like "who dat, who dat?" If I were black I'd feel like my pocket was picked.

But beyond that, it's just a dreadful song, full of obnoxious rap tropes that celebrate bad behavior:

Trash the hotel
Let's get drunk on the mini bar
Make the phone call
Feels so good getting what I want
Yeah, keep on turning it up
Chandelier swinging, we don't give a fuck
Film star, yeah I'm deluxe
Classic, expensive, you don't get to touch

The video itself is visually interesting. Directed by Director X, it's an homage to the film Clueless, with Azalea as Alicia Silverstone. I imagine that the girls who like this video are as probably vapid as Silverstone's character was.

One song I'm well aware of is Pharrell Williams' Happy, which has become ubiquitous. Written for the animated film Despicable Me 2 and nominated for an Oscar for Best Song, it's a peppy positive song that I'm sure was heard at every wedding this summer. The truth though, is not happiness, as the lyric would have it, but that this song is only interesting for about a minute. By the time it gets to four minutes, you're no longer happy and want to kill something. Williams, with his Smoky the Bear hat and bow ties, cuts a dashing figure, and has a lovely voice, but I can take only so much happiness.

The video is credited to We Are From L.A. (I don't know if that's a person or a consortium), and really is just a bunch of people lip-synching to the song, including some far-flung celebrities like Magic Johnson and Steve Carell. It certainly isn't award-worthy.

The outlier in this group is Sia's Chandelier. For one thing, Sia is primarily known as a songwriter, and is (gasp!) almost forty years old. The song has some social significance, as it is about the consequences of underage drinking:

Party girls don't get hurt
Can't feel anything, when will I learn?
I push it down, push it down
I'm the one "for a good time call"
Phone's blowin' up, ringin' my doorbell
I feel the love, feel the love

Despite the use of auto-tune, which should be banned, I found this the best song of the group. As for the video, directed by Sia and Daniel Askill, I would say it's the best as well, with some misgivings. The video features 11-year-old dance prodigy Maggie Ziegler acrobatically bouncing around a dingy apartment. Her leotard is flesh-tone, giving the quick suggestion that she is nude. The whole thing suggests pedophilia, as if she were kidnapped and held there. This makes the video powerful, but the sight of a lithe young girl in a tight leotard might end up fueling the desires of those it is condemning.

Okay, time to put the pith helmet away, I'm back on dry land. To cleanse myself I'll listen to some Pink Floyd or something. Of course, in thirty years this stuff will be known as classic. I will probably be dead by then.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss

"What have I been writing love songs for?
I don't want to write them any more" sings Sinead O'Connor on her new album, I'm Not Bossy, I'm the Boss. But, thing is, this album is full of love songs, many of them nakedly emotional. O'Connor is a woman who has become famous for her emotional instability, and she has come into a second period of greatness, as her honesty shines through.

While not as good an album as the last one, How About I Be Me (and you be you) (interestingly, the opening track on the new album is called "How About I Be Me") it's a yearning, heartfelt record with some wonderful grooves. As always, her voice, containing that charming Irish lilt combined with the piercing squeal of the banshee, is powerful.

Love does seem to be on Sinead's mind. In that opening track, she sings:

"Always gonna be the lioness
Taking care of everybody else
A woman like me needs love
A woman like me needs a man to be
Stronger than herself."

In the beautiful "Your Green Jacket," she sings about an unrequited love:

"Smelled your jacket
when you left it on the lonely post
wrapped it around me
like it was the holiest of ghosts
Oh your smell came through
Mmm, made me wish
I had my face buried in you."

And in "The Vishnu Room," which seems to take a Hindu approach, she sings:

"I love you more than I ever loved a man and I'm shy
I want to make love with you more
Than I ever wanted to."

The album also contains some great musical tracks, such as "The Voice of My Doctor," the very danceable "James Brown," and "Harbour," which like the best of her songs, starts slowly and builds to epic proportions. But by far the best song on the record is "8 Good Reasons," which appears to be her laying out why she doesn't kill herself:

"You know I don't much like life
I don't mind admitting that it ain't right
You know I love to make music
But my head got wrecked by the business
Everybody wanting something from me
They rarely ever wanna just know me
I became the stranger no one sees
Cut glass I've crawled upon my knees
But I got eight good reasons to stick around
Eight good reasons, well maybe nine now."

I'm not sure what the reasons are, but I'm glad she has them, as this is a fine record I would love to hear more from this uniquely talented woman.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Bounty Killer

Next in my Spaghetti Western festival is The Bounty Killer, also known as The Ugly Ones, from 1966. It was directed by Eugenio Martin, and it's pretty good, with surprising depth.

The film stars Richard Wyler as Luke Chilson, the bounty killer of the title. He always gets his man, as seen in the opening credits, as he tracks two men across the Arizona desert. One of them gets away long enough to tell a beautiful young woman (Halina Zalewska), that her childhood boyfriend has escaped from jail, but was recaptured and being sent to a maximum-security prison in Yuma, where no one ever returns from.

She helps her boyfriend (Tomas Milian) escape, and he holes up with his gang in her hotel in a dusty little town. The people of the town love Milian, and will do anything to keep Wyler from capturing him. This, even though Milian has now become a hardened thief and killer. Wyler compares him to Jesse James, and the townspeople remind Wyler that James was protected by his people, who were good and decent people.

But the townspeople, particularly Zalewska, see that Milian has indeed changed, and his gang are a bunch of rowdies. Milian plays the outlaw like a rock star, and give the year of release, it could be seen as a parallel to the establishment/counter-culture clashes of the '60s. In this instance, we are led to finally agree with the side of law and order, as the townspeople eventually help Wyler bring in his man.

I found the dynamic between the two men, Wyler and Milian, interesting, as neither are heroic. Wyler is only interested in money--unlike other films of the period, he never has a moment where he is doing what he is doing to help people. The film portrays Milian as charismatic, until we finally see he's a lazy good for nothing, lying in bed and drinking.

Martin has some interesting touches that resonated. In the final shootout, Wyler shoots Milian in both wrists so he can't shoot, but Milian, rather than giving up and lying in the dust, tries to work the gun with his mouth, a fitting comment on the culture of the gun.

The Bounty Killer is worth a look.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

To Have and Have Not

Following the death of Lauren Bacall last week, I thought I'd take a look at the films she made with Humphrey Bogart. They were one of the great couples in all of Hollywood history, but only made four pictures together. But what four pictures they were. I've seen three of them previously, many times.

She made her film debut in To Have and Have Not in 1944. The story is famous. She was a model, and the wife of Howard Hawks, the great director, saw her on the cover of a magazine. Hawks was equally taken, and cast her in an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's novel. Hawks had bet Hemingway that he could make a movie of his worst novel. Hemingway, perhaps aghast and amused, and asked just which one that was. "To Have and Have Not," Hawks replied.

Bogart, after years of playing heavies, had finally broken into stardom as good guys after The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. He was married at the time, to a very difficult woman. But after filming started, he impulsively gave Bacall a kiss and it was off to the races.

Bacall was only 19. She had no film experience, and visibly shook during filming. To offset this, she lowered her chin and looked upward, which gave her "the look." Hawks advised her to lower her voice, so she drove out to Mulholland Drive and read a book aloud to the canyon.

As it became apparent that Bogart and Bacall were having an affair, Hawks was angered, as he wanted Bacall. In spite, he had an affair with the second female lead, Dolores Moran.

No one who has read Hemingway's book would recognize it. The script was heavily doctored by William Faulkner, who at that time was a drunk humbly reduced to working in Hollywood. The location was changed from Cuba to Martinique, as the U.S. government did not want films showing Cuba in a bad light. The plot was changed heavily, from bank robbers to freedom fighters. In essence, this is Casablanca in the Caribbean, as Bogart plays Harry Morgan, a fishing boat captain who tries to mind his own business, but is drawn into the fight, helping the resistance. There's even a piano player (Hoagy Carmichael).

Bacall plays Marie Browning, whom Bogart calls Slim (she calls him Steve, and it turns out these were the pet names that Hawks and his wife had for each other--Bogart would forever call Bacall "Baby"). She is a pickpocket and quite possibly a prostitute, who has made her way from Brazil to Martinique. She has eyes for Bogart, and in one of the most memorable seduction scenes in all film history she lays it out pretty plain for him. "You know you don't have to act with me, Steve. You don't have to say anything, and you don't have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow."

The chemistry between the two is electric. She has a lot of great lines. In one scene Bogart is holding Moran, who has fainted. "What are you trying to do, guess her weight?" she chides him. He says "She's heftier than you think. Better loosen her clothes." Bacall replies, "You've been doing all right."

Another wonderful aspect of the film is Walter Brennan, as Bogart's drunk friend Eddie. He's a rummy, who Bogart feels great affection for, and also has the price of a drink for him. Brennan has a hitch in his walk and is fond of asking people, "Was you ever bit by a dead bee?"

The film pales in comparison to Casablanca, but will always be important in Hollywood history for the teaming of Bogie and Bacall. The "whistle" scene is known by almost everyone, even if they haven't seen the movie. It was even satirized in a Warner Brothers cartoon. That's the mark of importance.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Minnesota Clay

I was wrong--I'm not done with Sergio Corbucci. I got my hands on a copy of his very first Spaghetti Western--Minnesota Clay--from 1964, starring American actor Cameron Mitchell.

Mitchell plays the title character, who at the start of the film is in a prison labor camp. He was the fastest gun in the West, but has been imprisoned for a killing he did in self-defense. The man who could clear him is now ruling a small town as a very corrupt sheriff.

Mitchell escapes, and heads back to his home town in New Mexico. The Italians seem to have a tough time with American geography--Mitchell says the federal soldiers won't follow into New Mexico, but of course they could. I also wonder why a man born and bred in New Mexico would be called Minnesota Clay.

Anyway, Mitchell finds that he has a daughter, young and beautiful and a spitting image of her dead mother. The town is caught between a war between the sheriff and Mexican bandits. Mitchell contrives a plan to bring the soldiers to town to arrest the sheriff, who will clear his name. Meanwhile, the head bandit's woman (the marvelously named Ethel Rojo) plays both sides against the other.

The film has all the earmarks of the Spaghetti Western--the lurid reds, the abrupt editing, the cruel villainy. Mitchell huffs and puffs a bit, but has some great stoic lines, like "The cemetery is full of men who have been taught to shoot." Oh, and I forgot to mention that Mitchell's character is going blind, and the final shootout with the sheriff and his men takes place with Mitchell hardly able to see a thing, and relying on sound. Pretty good stuff.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Five

Horror, I think, is my favorite genre, but it's not often done right. I have started many horror novels only to be disappointed quickly. In this collection, edited by Ellen Datlow, there are some of those stories that are just so overloaded with literary aspiration that they don't generate any chills, but overall I found most of the work very worthwhile.

Datlow has been the pre-eminent editor of horror and fantasy fiction for decades now (and, full disclosure, a former colleague of mine). She notes in her introduction that she has included three zombie stories, almost apologetically, but that they are told in unique ways. I agree. Two of them are about zombies who have been cured (somewhat) and are back in society. The better of these is "Magdala Amygdala," by Lucy A. Snyder, which is also the most gruesome of the stories, and provides a detailed description of a zombie slurping up someone's brain--while they are still alive (and a willing donor).

Other standard categories of horror are included. We get a first-rate ghost story in "The House on Ashley Avenue," which seems rushed at the end, as if it were a sketch for a longer novel. "The Crying Child," by Bruce McAllister, gives the weird Satanic rite in a village story, this time set in Italy. For werewolf fanciers, there's "Wild Acre," which instead of focusing on the werewolf focuses on the guilt of the man who survived an attack that killed his friends. The ingenious "Final Exam," by Megan Armstrong, tells a story of Lovecraftian monsters, but as the title suggests, in a multiple choice quiz.

Some of the stories I found fairly incomprehensible, such as "Pig Thing," by Adam L.G. Nevill, "Bajazzle," by Margo Lanegan, and "The Pike," by Conrad Williams. But these are more than made up for by the excellent "Mariners' Round," by Terry Dowling (which is more fantasy than horror) and "Frontier Death Song," by Laird Barron, which uncovers a legend I hadn't heard of, the Wild Hunt.

But the story I liked the most, and I found the most chilling, was "Some Pictures in an Album," by Gary McMahon, in which a man describes seventeen photos he finds in a box after his father's death. The photos depict some sort of inhuman demon, and foretell the man's horrible fate. I still get a little goose-pimply thinking about it: "Again, we have the black door. It's half open, and this time a thin, pale hand can be seen gripping its edge. The fingers are too long, and there are only three of them but with too many joints. The knuckle bones jut out unnaturally. The skin is a sickly yellowy shade of cream." I'm leaving the lights on tonight.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Wizard of Oz

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the release of one of the most beloved movies in film history, The Wizard of Oz. There is little left to say about it, critically or historically, but that's not going to stop me.

The film was not a box office success when it was released in 1939, though it was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won two (both for music). It had a couple of re-releases, but it wasn't until it started to be shown on television that it became the most viewed film in the history of eyeballs (I have only come across two people who have never seen it, and one of them was recently arrived from Turkey). It's first airing was in 1956, and was the first film to be aired uncut on a network (prior to that, movies were only shown on local affiliates). It started airing annually in 1959 until the 1990s, and now that it is owned by Turner it pops up every so often.

For old fogies like me, the telecast of The Wizard of Oz was a major event, as it was the only way to see it. Every year it drew huge ratings, and I remember anticipating it keenly. I distinctly remember watching while sitting cross-legged right in front of the tube, and when the credits came on feeling a rush of exhilaration.

The film is now a cultural touchstone of great immensity. So many of its lines and situations have been firmly embedded in our cultural ethos that it's as if they have always existed:

"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
"Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?
"I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too."
"Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"
"Who rang that bell?"
"Surrender Dorothy"
"I do believe in spooks."
"I'm melting!"
"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"

And many, many others.

Historically, the film is a treasure trove of lore that has filled several volumes. Based on the turn of the century book by L. Frank Baum, it had been made into a film many times before, including a silent version in 1925 with Oliver Hardy as the Tin Woodsman. MGM's Sam Goldwyn bought it as a property for Eddie Cantor, who was to play the Scarecrow. Casting tales are legion--producer Mervyn LeRoy was pressured to use Shirley Temple as Dorothy, but Fox wouldn't loan her out. Deanna Durbin was also considered, before Judy Garland was cast. Originally Ray Bolger was to play the Tin Woodsman and Buddy Ebsen the Scarecrow, but Bolger had been inspired to enter show business after seeing the show on stage in 1902, and had always wanted to play the Scarecrow, so they switched. Ebsen turned out to be allergic to the paint used in his makeup, and got so sick he was in an iron lung, and was replaced by Jack Haley. Ed Wynn was offered the part of the Wizard, but turned it down for being too small. W.C. Fields was approached, but contract negotiations dragged on, so Frank Morgan was cast. Gale Sondergaard was cast as the Wicked Witch of the West, but when the film's conception of her was changed from beautiful to an ugly hag, Sondergaard ankled, and contract player Margaret Hamilton was cast.

Some of the lore has varying degrees of truth. Possibly true is that Morgan, looking through old coats for the perfect one to wear, found a tag inside the pocket indicating it belonged to Baum himself at one time. Not true is that you can see a Munchkin who had hung himself in the background of the apple orchard scene. It's actually some sort of crane.

The film went through many different scriptwriters. The book has no Kansas sequence, and actually happened to Dorothy and was not a dream, so the alternate identities--Elmira Gulch and the farmhands--were created for the film. It's hard to know who wrote what, but Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf are the credited screenwriters. The directing credits are also complex. Although Victor Fleming retains the sole directing credit, Norman Taurog, Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, and King Vidor all worked on it. Cukor served as a consultant, and may have been the one who nailed down the concept, but Fleming replaced him. Fleming also replaced Cukor on Gone With the Wind, and also got the sole credit. Vidor finished the picture, directing most of the Kansas sequences.

So what has made the film so enduringly popular/over these 75 years? I think it boils down to a few reasons. One is the fantastic music. I would venture to say that it is the best music ever written strictly for a film, and that "Over the Rainbow" is the best song ever written for a film. The songs were written by Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, and Harburg, according to some, wrote much of the dialogue to go with the music. Some of the songs, like "It Really Was No Miracle" and the whole Munchkin song medley, take the place of dialogue. There are no bad songs. Even the interstitial music, such as "Optimistic Voices" (the music playing as the friends head up to the Emerald City) and the chant of the Wookies, the Witch's guards, have become instantly recognizable.

Secondly, the theme resonates. There is no place like home, but you can't find that out until you've been someplace else. Dorothy's adventure is thrilling and dangerous, and at the end she could have stayed, but her familial roots pulled her back, even if it was to sepia Kansas (and, by the way, Toto still faces destruction--I doubt Elmira Gulch was willing to let bygones be bygones. Just what happened to Toto?)

Third, the three companions are an example of what came to be known as camp--so ridiculous that they are funny, and, along with Garland, the reason the film is so popular in the LGBTGQ community. I watched with a special eye for that this time, after reading earlier this year that the Cowardly Lion, played by a straight man, Bert Lahr, was actually a well-known stereotype at the time, the "Nance," an effeminate gay man. The Tin Woodsman also seems to be light in his tin loafers, making the Scarecrow the butch one. Note how many crying men are in the film. The Tin Woodsman, the Lion, and the Wizard's gatekeeper weep copiously (again, the Scarecrow is the only one who doesn't). In this day and age, one could see the effeminacy of the characters as making sure the audience doesn't think of any romantic entanglement with Dorothy (something Larry Flynt so vividly did in a x-rated pictorial in Hustler). I found it interesting to read there was an extra scene written, but never filmed, with Hunk (the Scarecrow's alter ego) heading off to agricultural college, Dorothy sending him off, suggesting a future romance. Maybe that's why she tells the Scarecrow "I'm going to miss you most of all."

Part of this camp humor is so much fun, especially the whole scene after the Wizard is unmasked, and he gives the three males what they want, essentially satirizing American mores. "They've got what you haven't got"--whether it be a diploma, medal, or testimonial, which, one realizes, are meaningless, and it's action that matters.

The film does feel dated in some areas, notably the special effects. I still find the twister scene effective, even if that is nothing but a lady's stocking being turned by a fan, but the backdrops are so crudely drawn and the owls and vultures in the haunted forest look like third-rate carnival spook house effects. But the flying monkey scene still works, as does the scene when the Wicked Witch is on her broomstick--it still gives me some chills. Also, the restoration of the picture makes the wires visible, especially in the Lion's tale in the "King of the Forest" number. But so what? I still love Bert Lahr saying, "I'd thrash him from top to bottom-us."


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Navajo Joe

The fourth and last film directed by Sergio Corbucci in my Spaghetti Western festival is Navajo Joe, from 1966. It is my favorite of the films so far, perhaps because it feels more American than any of the others.

To start, it stars American actor Burt Reynolds, before he was a big name. He had played a half-breed Indian on the old TV show Gunsmoke, and his dark good looks made him a natural to play the title character, a solitary Indian bent for vengeance, in an era before actual Indians were used as actors.

The film begins with a band of cutthroats, led by Aldo Sambrell, massacring an Indian village. They are selling scalps, at a dollar a head, but the local sheriff wants none of it anymore since Sambrell is killing women and children. So they turn to robbing a train, making off with half a million in cash that is earmarked by the government for a small town (presumably in the southwest somewhere).

All the while, this gang is stalked by Reynolds, who picks off a few here and there. He agrees to help the townspeople get their money back, but he's more interested in killing Sambrell, who murdered his wife.

Though there are elements that are just plain stupid--why a train loaded with soldiers as escorts doesn't smell a rat when a pile of logs is neatly placed across the tracks I'll never know--Navajo Joe unfolds with expert pacing. Reynolds is a bit of a superman, outdoing the bandits at every turn, but he is capable of being hurt and captured (as seen in the poster, he is hung up by his heels).

Sambrell makes an extraordinarily vicious villain--he kills a minister after the man thanks him--and the final showdown between he and Reynolds is worth the build-up.

The film was scored by Ennio Morricone (some of his soundtrack was used to great comic effect in Alexander Payne's Election), but for some reason he is credited as Leo Nichols.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Perfect Pussy

Here's a tip: don't Google "Perfect Pussy" at work, especially the images. Here's another tip: if you want to clear the room of AARP members, put on Perfect Pussy's album, Say Yes to Love.

Now, I'm an AARP member, and I kind of like the album, but it is a noisy assault on the eardrums. It is, to be sure, punk rock at its rawest, with snarling guitars, vicious drums, and vocals that sound as if the singer is wrapped in burlap. It recalls the days of going to see bands in sweaty, dimly lit clubs.

The title of this album, Say Yes to Love, sounds like it might belong to Celine Dion, but Perfect Pussy is the anti-Celine Dion. None of the songs, save one, could be called melodic. In fact, tracks one and two sound completely alike to me. The lead singer, Meredith Graves, who by appearance is a pixieish young woman, screams into the mic as if she were a she-devil from Hell. The lyrics, which are completely unintelligible, are revealed to be quite poetic when read on the lyric sheet.

From "Driver":

"I know nothing lasts forever
I know that hurt can go and on
Cause I eat stress and I shit blood
and buddy, I'll tell you, it never gets better"

If that's a bit too Bukowski for you, there's this from "Bells":

"We can speak the words of women and angels
But without real love, it's just sad noise
I can open my heart and let everything out
but that won't save me--I'll just be empty"

The only song that slows down enough to have a melody and to be vaguely understood is "Advance Upon the Real":

"I've been god in a rose, I've been woven into quilts
and a hundred bad songs, and I've done so much wrong
and because of me you don't like that one band anymore"

Perfect Pussy is the kind of band you listen to when you've had it with the world and need to be hear loud, brutal punk music. It's kind of a shame that Graves' vocals aren't mixed better so we can actually hear what she's singing.

Now, I'm going to look at the images of perfect pussies.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Hellbenders

Another Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci is 1967's The Hellbenders ("The Cruel Ones" in the original Italian). It stars Joseph Cotten as the leader of a very small band of confederates looking to resurrect the cause, though it's not precisely clear how he's going to do it.

Cotten, with an anguished look on his face that suggests him thinking, "I've worked with Welles and Hitchcock, what am I doing here?" and his three sons ambush and massacre a convoy of soldiers escorting a large cache of money. With this money Cotten wants to rebuild the Confederacy. He, like Django, is using a coffin as transport, hiding the money in the casket while a woman, presumably a whore picked up in a nearby town, poses as the widow of the invisible body inside.

When they need to replace the woman the "good" son goes to town and finds a card sharp (Norma Bengell). She isn't sure what she's in for, and alternately helps and hinders the ragtag bunch.

As with the other two Corbucci films, The Hellbenders is an okay Western. It has its share of violence--that opening massacre kills off about 30 soldiers--and shows a couple of hangings and an attempted rape in the gritty, nihilistic style that I'm quickly associating with Corbucci. The ending, which results in pretty much everybody dead, is when the film comes close to a poetic tone, as a wounded Cotten struggles to stay on his feet and collapses on a river bank across which is his destination.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic--and by extension, spiritualism--has long been a recurring theme in Woody Allen's work. He was an amateur magician as a boy, reflected in his play The Floating Light Bulb, and magicians and mediums have appeared in his work throughout his career. Just off the top of my head I can think of A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Scoop, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, Oedipus Wrecks, and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.

Now he is has made his definitive film about the subject, one would hope, with Magic in the Moonlight. Basically the movie is a dialogue about the rational mind versus the mind that believes in the unseen world, and whether a person is happier when one hangs on to delusions. This might make for an interesting conversation over drinks, but not a very good movie.

Colin Firth, in a bad performance, plays a famous magician (in a bit of tone-deaf racism, he disguises himself as a Chinese man, complete with Fu Manchu mustache). He is also an arrogant prick, and is well-known as a debunker of fraudulent mediums (much like Houdini was--the debunker part, that is). A colleague (Simon McBurney), takes him to the south of France to attempt to debunk an American spiritualist (Emma Stone), who has charmed a rich family.

Firth tries to discover her tricks, but can't, and eventually comes to believe she's the real thing, which opens his mind to wonders he never considered and briefly makes him a better person. I won't go any further than that, but any smart person will figure out how it will end.

I think Magic in the Moonlight was meant to be a comedy, but it has no laughs. There are some mild japes here and there, but only one thing made me laugh, when a psychiatrist says of Firth, "He is a very unhappy man. I like him." Most of the film is made up of Firth's many speeches about the folly of believing in anything but the rational world. I agree with him, but he quickly grew tiresome.

Almost saving the picture is Stone, who is at her most winsome here. I swear her eyes were enlarged by CGI--she's like one of those Walter Keane paintings. Stone, who has specialized in light comedy like this, is now due to play something more serious, as she's kind of wasted here. The movie forces her and Firth together, and they have absolutely no chemistry (as well as being about thirty years different in age). They are the least convincing pair since Allen and Helen Hunt in Jade Scorpion.

There are many other common Allen tropes--the film is set in the '20s, so we get a lot of period music and the idle rich just kind of wandering around. For a Woody Allen film, the pace is also very bad. Some scenes last a beat or two too long, and the the whole thing is discomfiting. Allen seems to have a good film every other time out of the box lately, so maybe he should just pass on every other idea, and throw it back into the pile.

My grade for Magic in the Moonlight: C-.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Django

Perhaps the most famous Spaghetti Western that was not directed by Sergio Leone is Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci and released in 1966. It gave Quentin Tarantino his character's name (which was taken from jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt) and inspired dozens of sequels, although only one was official.

Franco Nero stars as the title character, a typical one--a drifter and loner. He is intriguingly dragging a coffin behind him (and is walking--there were a shortage of horses for filming). He comes upon some Mexican bandits horsewhipping a prostitute. They are killed by red-robed wearing Americans, whom Django kills. Turns out these are racists led by a former confederate soldier. They killed Django's wife, and he wants revenge.

This film may have the highest body count I've ever seen. It was banned in Britain for many years for its violence. It's not particularly gory, except for one scene when a man's ear is sliced off and then stuck in his mouth, but there may be more dead bodies than there are minutes in the film (91).

The film was shot in Italy but set in Tombstone, and it has lots of mud, which was accurate for the plains but I'm not sure how much mud Tombstone gets. Nero, who has incredible baby blue eyes, was only 23 when he shot this film, and doesn't do much emoting. There is some stereotyping with the Mexicans--they are crude, dirty, and lecherous.

Still, the film has great style. The music for this film was done by Luis Bacalav, wro co-wrote the delightful theme song, which was also used by Tarantino in Django Unchained.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd, published in serial form in 1874, was Thomas Hardy's first successful novel, and the first that he set in the fictional county of Wessex (although the name is only used once). It is about one woman's struggle to find love, and it is also about sheep.

Bathsheba Everdene is the proud, headstrong woman who inherits her uncle's farm. She is young, beautiful, and unmarried. Another local sheep farmer, Gabriel Oak, asks her to marry him. We are in a different world here, where marriage is mostly a business arrangement. Oak doesn't know Bathsheba, but she is beautiful and he is rich. But when a disaster befalls him and he loses all his sheep, he has to swallow his pride and go to work as Bathsheba's shepherd.

Another bachelor farmer, William Boldwood, then turns his attention to her. He is the tragic figure of this novel, a man who becomes so obsessed with Bathsheba that he becomes a pathetic figure. But, in a twist that could be discussed for hours, it was a prank played by Bathsheba that gets his interested in the first place--she sends him a Valentine with the words "Marry me" written on the seal.

Boldwood presses for her hand, but she steadfastly tells him she does not love him. One could get the idea that Bathsheba is a feminist heroine, but then she loses her head to a dashing but callow soldier, Sergeant Troy. In a blatant metaphor, he impresses her with his swordplay, flicking his blade all around her but not touching her. Oak sees what a disaster this is, and tells her so, and she fires him, only to take him back when he is the only one that can save her sheep from bloat.

She does marry Troy, and he turns out to be a first-class cad. He was really in love with Bathsheba's former servant, Fanny Robin, who is pregnant with his child. He tells her frankly that he loved Fanny much more than her, but since they are already married there is nothing she can do about it. "All romances end at marriage," is Troy's maxim, one that caused me to stop reading in my tracks. Just how true is that statement?

The book will end with a death and another wedding, in what could be termed melodrama, but first rate melodrama. I, however, enjoyed the droll comedy of much of the first half of the book. Bathsheba says, "'Well, what I mean is that I shouldn't mind being a bride at a wedding, if I could be one without having a husband. But since a woman can't show off in that way by herself, I shan't marry--at least yet."

These kinds of comments about marriage run throughout the book. This book is much later than Jane Austen, by about sixty years, but some of the same social regulations are in place. Bathsheba, though, is a woman of means by inheritance, and in some ways is a feminist character, since she doesn't need to marry for financial security. But in other ways she is not, especially in the way she handles her fixation on Troy.

Late in the book, Hardy describers her thusly: "She was of the stuff of which great men's mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, hated at tea parties, feared in shops, and loved at crises." It's interesting he should lay out this basic description in the closing pages of the book, long after we have made our own impression of her. Much of this is contradicted by her actions--she goes to pieces at crises, for example, and seems unable to come to a decision about her love life.

Still, I liked this book. For a Victorian novel it's pretty accessible. I found the character of Boldwood to be indelibly etched--he is the kind of guy who appears to be kind and polite but really is a proto-stalker, and by the end of the book is just a wretch.

I've only read one other Hardy novel, Tess of the D'urbervilles, and that was over thirty years ago, so I don't remember much. I would like to read more.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

It seems that the Marvel Cinematic Universe can do no wrong. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, The Avengers--all huge hits. Now they've even gone and taken a minor Marvel property and turned into another tentpole. Marvel has more tentpoles than a campground.

Guardians of the Galaxy, which was hardly a blip on the Marvel publishing schedule, is the latest monster hit from the comic book company. It is a slightly different approach than the other films, in that it is a space opera in the mold of Star Wars rather than a superhero film, but fundamentally it's the same template--wisecracks, action sequence, sentimental moment, wisecracks, repeat, repeat, repeat.

The film chronicles a gang of misfits that get together and save the universe. Peter Quill, who calls himself Starlord, is a scavenger hired to find an orb. That orb is also being sought by a major baddie--Ronin, who wears a hoodie and has some interesting black paint on his face. He is working for Thanos, who Marvel watchers may remember was seen in the post-credit sequence of The Avengers. Ronin sends one of Thanos' adopted daughters, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), who looks like the Jolly Green Giant's daughter, to fetch the orb, but Gamora has betrayal on her mind.

Meanwhile, Rocket, a bounty hunter who happens to be a genetically modified raccoon, is after the bounty on Quill. Rocket's partner is a humanoid tree, Groot, who is his muscle, though can be kind of sweet at times, and knows only three words--"I am Groot." Later this group is joined by the muscle-bound Drax (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Ronin.

The similarities to Star Wars are many. Quill and Rocket both have Han Solo qualities (with Groot as the Chewbacca character). The Kree, Ronin's race, are something like the Sith, with Thanos as the Emperor. But Guardians of the Galaxy is also buried in the Marvel tradition of wisecracks and use of popular culture. The story is contemporary, and Quill carries around a cassette tape of '70s hits, mostly one-hit wonders like "Come and Get Your Love" and "Hooked on a Feeling." That's the kind of wit the film has. Sometimes it's very funny, and the film succeeds as a comedy.

It does not succeed as an action picture. The script, by director James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, has plenty of laughs, but the plot is warmed over boilerplate sci-fi. I mean, an orb that can destroy the universe? How subtle. And the planet that is threatened looks like Disneyworld (of course the Kree are dark and scary). The action sequences--a prison break, a chase through the Disneyworld planet, the final confrontation--are all pretty routine.

A few sequences show some originality, such as a mining world inside the severed head of a celestial body, with Benicio Del Toro as "The Collector." I also liked the character played by Michael Rooker, Quill's mentor, who has a trained arrow. But mostly the film gets by on its jokes. Quill, played effortlessly by Chris Pratt, is great company, a guy who fancies himself a space outlaw (when someone does call him "Starlord" he happily sighs, "Finally!") and Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, provide most of the good lines.

The movie is stolen, though, by Groot, who is briefly voiced by Vin Diesel, perhaps the world's least likely voice actor. Groot, as was Chewbacca, is an archetype--the sidekick, the kind of friend that every kid wants, usually to ward off bullies. Groot has a sweet nature, but can seriously kick ass, too. And I believe that if any line is remembered from any film this year by future generations, it will be "I am Groot."

This film is getting raves as if it were the second coming of Star Wars,  but it's not quite that good. I didn't like it as much as The Avengers, Iron Man 3, or Captain America 2. But I welcome more films, perhaps with more original plots. And the inevitable team-up of this group with The Avengers ought to make the biggest salary payments in the history of films (because by then, Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, etc. will be commanding major paydays).

My grade for Guardians of the Galaxy: B.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Great Silence

For the next few weeks I'm going to watching some Spaghetti Westerns, or Italian Westerns. They were made in Europe, mostly by Italians, in the '60s and '70s. Most notably are the ones made by Sergio Leone, such as his "Man with No Name" trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West, but there were more than 600 made in twenty years, so there are plenty more to view.

After Leone the most prominent director of these was Sergio Corbucci. His The Great Silence of 1968 shows how diverse the casts could be. He is Italian, the film was shot in the Pyrenees, and his two leads are a Frenchman and a German. It has many of the prerequisites of the genre, including a score by Ennio Morricone, but it has one of the bleakest endings I've ever seen.

The "Silence" of the title is a mute gunman, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. He hates bounty hunters, because they killed his parents and slit his throat, making him unable to talk. The film presents bounty hunters (often called "bounty killers") as evil, blood-thirsty scum, in particular one called Loco, played by Kinski (playing a character called Loco seems like typecasting to him). When Loco kills the husband of a black woman (Vonetta McGee) she hires Silence to kill him.

In some ways this plot is similar to Unforgiven, but just in the idea that a woman is hiring a man to kill another man. What's more interesting is the multiple layers here. Silence hires himself to kill bounty hunters, but that makes him a bounty hunter as well, just a specialized one. I guess he was also sort of like Dexter.

Unlike many of the Spaghetti Westerns, is not set in the desert but in the deep snows of Utah, which Corbucci makes excellent use of. The film is dubbed, and sometimes very badly, but I expect I'll be getting used to that.

What sets this film apart is the ending, and I'll put out a spoiler alert now. All film we are expecting the showdown between Silence and Loco, and we get it. But, turning the Western genre on its head, Loco kills Silence, McGee (who has fallen in love with Silence) and an entire room full of innocent people. An alternate "happy ending," available on the DVD, was shot for Asian and North African audiences, who apparently would not tolerate anything else. I'm not sure what it says about Europeans and North Americans that we could tolerate it.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

The Voyager

Ever since the masterpiece that was Rabbit Fur Coat, I've been eagerly anticipating the latest from Jenny Lewis. The Voyager is not as good as Rabbit Fur Coat, but it as an engaging, peppy, poppy record that shows off her fine voice and clever rhymes.

The album is pretty upbeat, and from start to finish has clues that indicate Lewis' positive outlook. The opening track, "Head Underwater," says:

"There's a little bit of magic, everybody has it
There's a little bit of sand left in the hourglass"

The closing title track, which is the most ethereal of the collection, posits:

"The Voyager's in every boy and girl
If you wanna get to heaven get out of this world"

I'm not quite sure who or what The Voyager is, but it's in everybody.

The rest of the album consists of pleasant pop tunes. I'm partial to "Late Bloomer," which has a more complex structure and a lyric that is like a short story:

"When I turned 16 I was furious and restless
Got a chancy girl haircut and a plane ticket to Paris
I stayed there with Pansy, he had a studio in the seventh
Lost his lover to a sickness, I slept beside him in his bed
That's when I met Nancy, she was smoking on a gypsy
She had a ring in her nose and her eyes were changing like moonstones
She said "Open up late bloomer, it will make you smile
I can see that fire burning, in you little child."

The same could be said of "Aloha and the Three Johns," which contains this bit of poetry:

"And John's been avidly reading Slash's bio
There was a TV set smashed out in front of his room
I didn't ask, I led a solo charge down to the sea
Where the fast-food trash and tourists made me fear and loath it"

All in all, this is a pretty good record, and even after many spins I wasn't sick of it. It just leaves me longing for something on the level of Rabbit Fur Coat. That's kind of a backhanded compliment, I realize. What a burden for an artist--to make something great and then have everything you do compared to it.

Friday, August 08, 2014

The Summer of Beer and Whiskey

Every year when I go to Cooperstown I try to bring a baseball book with me for reading material, and this year I picked a good one, The Summer of Beer and Whiskey, by Edward Achorn. Not only is it well written and suspenseful, but for someone who thinks he knows a lot about baseball it told me a lot I didn't know.

Ostensibly, the book is about the 1883 season of the American Association, a league that only lasted about a decade but is credited by Achorn as solidifying baseball as America's pastime. "All over the country, it had become an open question whether professional baseball could even survive. Spectators were abandoning the sport, which seemed destined to wilt away, another American fad on its way to oblivion."

But the American Association, which was also known as the "Beer and Whiskey League," changed that. The dominant league at the time was the National League: "with its fifty-cent tickets and ban on Sunday ball, marketed the game only to the rich, or at least the upper middle class--the lawyers, accountants, and businessmen who had the freedom to take a break late in the afternoon and go out to the ballpark."

A German immigrant name Chris van Ahe, who had a thriving grocery and beer garden business, "had another idea: to welcome working men and fellow immigrants, those who toiled all week and could not break free from their jobs to attend a game."

Van Ahe founded the St. Louis Browns (to make things confusing, these are not the Browns of the later American League who moved to Baltimore to become the Orioles, but instead are the antecedents of the Cardinals) and with seven other cities founded the upstart American Association. William Hulbert, who ruled the National League with an iron fist, resolutely banned Sunday ball and alcohol, but van Ahe, who didn't know much about baseball, saw it as a way to sell beer.

Van Ahe is the emotional center of the book. Achorn describes him as "George Steinbrenner, Charlie Finley, and Bill Veeck rolled into one--haughty, temperamental, driven to win, wildly experimental, and madly in love with a dazzling show. He had a splash of Yogi Berra in him, too, which surfaced in his expression of Zen-like axioms." Late in the season, van Ahe interferes with his manager Ted Sullivan so much that Sullivan quits, leaving the team without a manager during the stretch run. Steinbrenner and Billy Martin, anyone?

Achorn covers the season in great detail. The game was not quite as we know it today--players didn't wear gloves, there was only one umpire (runners would routinely take a sharp left at second base and cut across the diamond toward home if the ump wasn't looking), batters did not take a base upon being hit by a pitch (which gave pitchers free reign in throwing chin music), it took seven balls for a walk, and when there were big crowds, the spectators could stand in the outfield.

But baseball was wildly popular, especially in the cities where the teams were winning. The '83 season came down to the Browns and the Philadelphia Athletics (not the team that today is in Oakland). Achorn covers the colorful players, such as the Browns' Arlie Latham, who had a big mouth, the young Charles Comiskey, who would one day own his own team (the AL White Sox), and Tony Mullane, known by the great nickname "The Apollo of the Box." On the Athletics were Harry Stovey (a pseudonym--he didn't want his parents to know he played the degrading sport of baseball) who was the game's early home run champion, Bobby Matthews, only five-foot-five and 140 pounds, but winner of the most games of anyone who is not in the Hall of Fame (he died of syphilis at 46), and Daniel "Jumping Jack" Jones, a pitcher recruited straight from Yale University who had an odd way of delivering the ball--he made what looked like a jumping jack, which delighted and amused spectators.

Perhaps what's most different about the game then than it is now is the way pitchers were used. Teams only had two or so, and they threw until basically their arms fell off. There were no relief pitchers per se--a pitcher just went until he couldn't go anymore. As Achorn covers the pennant stretch, the Athletics are struggling because Matthews was hurt and Jones had a dead arm. I won't spoil the result--I didn't know who won the pennant, and it was a thrilling read.

There are other interesting tidbits about that season. It was when the term "fan" was coined (short for fanatic, and it replaced the usual term of "crank") and the first Louisville slugger was made by a woodworker named Hillerich. There is also a sad chapter on the color barrier. Moses Fleetwood Walker, depending on your definition, was the first African American player in professional baseball. He played one season for the American Association, but of course had it tough. Mullane, his pitcher, wouldn't even acknowledge his signs. It was Cap Anson, manager of the NL Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) who doomed blacks in baseball by refusing to take the field with them: "Anson vowed that he would never again share field with a black man. He was determined to devote his considerable influence, for the rest of his career, to making sure that no other white professional would, either. Regrettably, he succeeded."

The American Association eventually folded, doomed by rival leagues and players who defected. Four teams--the Cardinals, Dodgers, Reds, and Pirates, merged with the National League and exist today. A few players, such as Comiskey and Reds second-baseman Bid McPhee, are in the Hall of Fame. Many are largely forgotten, such as van Ahe, whom Achorn believes should be in the Hall. I'll conclude with this passage which pretty much sums it up: "In a league of drunks, actors, minstrels stars, cartoonists, tea merchants, dreamers, newspaper correspondents, bombastic grocers, epileptics, hot-tempered Irish managers, fainting catchers, fetishistic and hard-of-hearing sluggers, great shaggy mammoths, owners playing in their street clothes, inauspicious yellow dogs, and seriously confused left-handed third basemen, anything might happen."

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Happy Christmas

Lately I've had this odd obsession with Anna Kendrick. Part of it is trying to determine whether I find her attractive or not, a silly thing since most people can determine in two seconds an answer to that question. But I find myself repeatedly looking at pictures of her. She's certainly attractive, but not in a conventional sense, as her nose dominates her face. In Happy Christmas, her latest film, it's described as "aquiline," a polite way of saying bird-like, while the rest of her face looks like an animated chipmunk.

I'll say this--she's one of our finest young actresses. In a few days she'll be 29, and there's not a long list of better performers under 30 working regularly in films today. She's already had an Oscar nomination for her terrific performance in Up in the Air, but I like that she's doing work at the ground level of indie films like Happy Christmas (she will also be in the highly anticipated film of Into the Woods later this year).

So, on to Happy Christmas. It's written and directed by the prolific Joe Swanberg, a follow-up to the wonderful Drinking Buddies, which was one of my favorite films of 2013. Happy Christmas is not quite on that level, but I watched with a pleasant glow, delighting in the naturalism of the writing and acting.

Swanberg does triple duty as the husband of Melanie Lynskey. They are a happy couple with a baby boy about to turn two (played by Swanberg's son Jude). Into their lives like a whirlwind comes Kendrick as Swanberg's younger sister, reeling from a break-up and thinking about relocating to their town, Chicago. On her first night there, she goes out with her friend (Lena Dunham) to a party and gets so plastered Swanberg has to drive over and carry her into the car.

This does not go over well with Lynskey, who had hoped to use Kendrick as a baby-sitter. Instead she continues to use Mark Webber, whom Kendrick starts dating. Soon, though, the sisters-in-law bond, as Kendrick urges Lynskey to get back to her writing (Kendrick loved her first book, even though it was over her head). Lynskey is inspired, and the two, along with Dunham, work on Kendrick's crazy idea of writing an erotic romance novel for some quick cash.

But just when everything seemed too good to be true and I was wondering if this film had a conflict, Kendrick's drinking on Christmas Eve causes more problems.

I imagine, as with most of Swanberg's films, that this script was largely improvised. It had that feeling, of actors listening to each other and responding in character. A scene with Kendrick, Dunham, and Lynskey, having drinks together, sings with authenticity, as Lynskey's armor recedes and she bonds with them. Another scene, in which the three women discuss euphemisms for body parts, is also terrific, and gave me a thrill when Kendrick said the word "clit," and pointed out that "rosebud" is a term for the asshole, not the vagina.

The film is really about women, particularly Kendrick and Lynskey.  They are at polar opposites--one a little older, with a child and responsibilities, the other a young 27, irresponsible and selfish--and how they manage to connect and forgive.  The men in this story are far less important, serving as reflectors of the women's behavior.

Happy Christmas is a terrific film, even if it didn't exactly have a perfect release date.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

Infamous for being left on the shelf for about six years, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane appears to be an attempt by director Jonathan Levine to take a standard teen slasher film and make it into an art film. This fails on almost every level, although the cinematography, by Darren Genet, is interesting, with use of filters to make a sunny day look threatening.

Mandy Lane (Amber Heard) is a girl who suddenly blossoms, drawing attention from the boys in her school. We are led to believe she was some sort of outcast before that, but the script doesn't make this clear. I suspect there is about a half hour of story that we didn't see. She has a friend (Michael Welsh) who is a loser, and when she moves over to the popular crowd he plots his revenge.

This all plays out on a cattle ranch, of all places. Heard is invited along for a weekend trip in which three boys (none of them looking much younger than 25) will try to have sex with her. But they, along with the idiotic popular girls, get picked off one by one.

If this film had a better script it might have been much more palatable. Levine directs with some intelligence but he has nothing to work with. Frankly, Mandy Lane makes Friday the Thirteenth seem like Chekhov, as none of the characters have any development. Heard has a sullen look on her face the whole film, as if she were making the film after losing a bet. There is no one to root for here.


Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Flamethrowers

As with Rachel Kushner's first novel, Telex from Cuba, I liked the framework of The Flamethrowers more than I liked the actual book. This one, her second novel, is a look at artists and revolutionaries in the 1970s, in New York City and Italy.

The book is mostly narrated by a woman known only as Reno, her home town. As the tale starts she is motorcycling across the Bonneville Flats. She will land in New York and hang with the artist crowd, acquiring a boyfriend, Sandro Valera, who is the son of a man who built a fortune making motorcycles (and tires). She will also cross paths with revolutionaries, such as the former members of an anarchist New York group called The Motherfuckers and The Red Brigade in Italy.

This sounds better than it plays out. Mostly this is due to the meandering quality of the book. Every once in a while I'd be reading and it would really grab my attention with some sterling prose, such as: "My uncle Bobby, who hauled dirt for a living, spent his final moments of life jerking his leg to depress the clutch while lying in a hospital, his body determined to operate his dump truck, clutching and shifting gears as he sped toward death on a hospital gurney."

But just as often the pace would just go flat, and my attention would start to wander. There's a wonderful section in which Reno is staying at Sandro's mother's villa, and she is mercilessly badgered by the old woman. But then, after catching Sandro in flagrante delicto with his cousin, impulsively joins the estate's driver on some sort of militant action that just kind of blurred by for me.

The book occasionally breaks into the third person to relate the story of Sandro's father, who started the company. This just bogs the book down, at least until the end, when Sandro is a young man. We learn the origin of the title, when young Sandro is fascinated with a weapon: "But then his father told him the flamethrowers were a hopeless lot. Their tanks were cumbersome and heavy and they were obvious and slow-moving targets and if they were ever caught they were shown no mercy. That's not a thing you want to be, his father said, after which Sandro continued to love the flamethrowers best, to reserve for them a special fascination, in their eerie, hooded asbestos suit, the long and evil nozzle they aimed at enemy holdouts. But he didn't know if his interest was reverence or a kind of pity." Since Kushner derives her title from this passage, this must be profound, but its profundity escapes me.

The end of the book sees Reno back in New York. The blackout occurs while she is watching a porn movie in Times Square, specifically Behind the Green Door, which pops up occasionally throughout the book. We get this information: "No one buys popcorn for a porn film. They didn't sell it. I passed through the lobby curtains into what looked like a regular movie theater, red vinyl seats, slightly sloped floor, a stained screen, smaller than I respected. Sparse audience, all male, each with a safety buffer of empty seats around him. A few glared at me, rustled bags, which long people were for some reason required to do in movie theaters, to rustle bags no matter what genre of film, Chinese opera or Mature Audience Only."

Reno rides her motorcycle through the darkened, dangerous streets, witnessing looting on a grand scale. This section is particulary haunting, and I think comes closest to what she was intending, as explained in her afterword about 1977 New York: "a period that has long fascinated me, when the city had a Detroit-like feel, was drained of money and its manufacturing base, and piled up with garbage."

I think the key to why this book isn't as gripping as it could have been--it took me a long time to finish a not-very-long book--was the central character. I'm interested in why she wasn't given a name, which lends to her formless shape. We don't really know enough about her--she reflects those around her, and is by default the least interesting character in the book.

I give The Flamethrowers three stars out of five if only because it is momentarily brilliant, almost making up for its lack of purpose.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Boyhood

Much has made of Richard Linklater's Boyhood: the fact that it was filmed over twelve years, thus showing the actors age in real time, and the near unanimous praise (Kenneth Turan thought it was merely a good movie, and almost had to apologize for it). But what I found interesting about it was not so much the fact that it allowed us to see a boy actually age from six to eighteen, but that instead of a conventional narrative it was like flipping through a photo album, or scanning one's own memory of childhood. In that way it was oddly compelling, even though there were few moments of actual conflict.

Boyhood is the story of one boy, Mason, who as the film starts is six years old. He has an older sister and a single mother, who signals to a boyfriend early on that her children come first. Mason's father has been gone to Alaska for a while (the film is set entirely in Texas), but he comes back and becomes the kind of single dad who struggles to keep a place in his children's lives. There's a great scene when he tells the kids he doesn't just want small talk, he wants real conversations.

Linklater, instead of making this a highlight reel of a boy's life, instead makes it like a patchwork quilt. Some important events are there, but others happen off-screen. Very often we get scenes that have no more relevance than that they are part of life, random events that shape us. I was particularly drawn to a scene when Mason is bullied in the boy's room. We never see him bullied again, and the kids who do it don't appear again. But it is there, as if we were roaming his subconscious and stumbled upon it. We also see a scene in which he hangs with older boys who brag about their sexual conquests. Mason tells them he has had sex, but we don't know if he's telling the truth--the loss of his virginity does not happen on screen.

It is kind of gasp-inducing to watch this film when a transition takes place. Mason goes from a cute little boy to an awkward teen in the space of less than three hours. I'm not a parent, but I gather this is about how fast a child's life appears to be to some parents. At the end of the film, when Mason is a shaggy, ear-ringed college student, we almost have forgotten how he was as a boy. This is also true with his sister (played by Linklater's daughter Lorelai). While the dad, Ethan Hawke, doesn't age physically much, Patrica Arquette, as the mom, does, changing hairstyles, putting on weight, and acquiring more weariness of life.

What "plot" there is in the film mostly concerns the marital life of the parents. Arquette marries two men--one a professor of hers, and then a student. Both, after appearing to be great stepdads, become problem drinkers. We don't see the split between her and husband number two, only when he confronts Mason after the latter comes home late. But we can hear the echo of the first scene--she puts her kids first.

Arquette is great, but Hawke has a trickier role, if that's possible. He's not the deadbeat dad, or the irresponsible dad. How great it is to see a divorced father actually being good to his children. He grows over the film--selling the GTO that seems to define him, getting married to a religious woman, having another child, and driving a mini-van. I'll be surprised if both Arquette and Hawke aren't nominated for Oscars.

As Mason is the extraordinary Ellar Coltrane. Linklater had to roll the dice on him. Not only did he have to believe that the kid wouldn't back out (his daughter wanted to--she asked him to kill her character off) but that he would grow into a decent actor. Now, Coltrane doesn't give a fantastic performance. He's not a great actor--I don't expect him to go on with an acting career of any substance, but at all times he seems to grasp what Linklater is trying to do, and is absolutely convincing.

I wouldn't give this film a 100, it's current score on Metacritic--it's not even the best film of the year (it's still The Grand Budapest Hotel for me) but Boyhood is a remarkable achievement, and unlike anything I've ever seen.

My grade for Boyhood: A-.