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Friday, October 31, 2014

The Best of Me

I was doing good boyfriend duty when my lovely significant other told me she wanted to see a romance. I knew there was another Nicholas Sparks adaptation in theaters, and she loved The Notebook, so I bit the bullet and we went to The Best of Me, and I'm glad to report that it wasn't terrible. It wasn't much more than a TV movie, but I wasn't rolling my eyes or tempted to throw popcorn at the screen. And it made my girlfriend cry.

In a typical Sparks situation, we have separated lovers, played at two different times by two different sets of actors. This has its built-in problems (it did in The Notebook, too--who would imagine Ryan Gosling would age into James Garner?) This time we have a teenage boy (Luke Bracey, looking a lot like Heath Ledger), the sensitive soul among a passel of violent hicks, and a rich pretty girl (Lianna Liberato) forging a romance against all odds.

They are played as adults by James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan, looking nothing like the teenagers who played them younger. Oh well. Something happened between them, and Marsden is single, working on an oil rig. Monaghan is married, but to a jerk, with a teenage son who is ready to go to college. The death of their old friend (Gerald McRaney) reunites them, and therein likes our tale.

There is nothing special about this film, and it's all fairly predictable, especially the climax, which involves a heart transplant (which seems to be completed all too easily). The actors are fine, as Bracey especially has a quality that I'm sure girls will love. For those who are susceptible to this sort of thing, it should be satisfying.

For those who aren't, like me, it wasn't the worst way to spend my afternoon.

My grade for The Best of Me: C.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Madison Stroll

I saw quite a bit of this year's World Series, the most I've seen in quite a while. This was because I'm not working, and because I live in the Pacific Time Zone now, so the whole thing was over by 8:30 local time.

This wasn't a great series; though it went seven games, only two games were close. But those two were great games, and game seven was a coronation of Madison Bumgarner as one of the all-time Series greats, and gets all sorts of arguments started about the greatest World Series pitchers of all, which makes every baseball fan's nipples get hard.

Bumgarner, a 25-year-old from Hickory, North Carolina, bears a striking resemblance to Jim from The Office, and looks like he would be right at home in a pickup truck with a blue tick coon hound in the back. He did win a pickup truck from a mumble-mouth executive from Chevrolet, but it doesn't look nearly broken in enough to rumble around Hickory.

Bumgarner was the story of the Series. The Giants would not have won without him--I can't find them now, but his numbers versus the other starters for the Giants are a stark contrast. Bumgarner won two games and saved another (this was changed from three wins about an hour after the contest), in the process lowering his ERA to 0.49 for the Series and earning the longest save in World Series history. With two other Series under his belt, Bumgarner now has a 0.25 ERA, the lowest in Series history (minimum 25 innings pitched).

Is the the greatest WS pitcher ever? He's certainly one of them. Most might concede that Christy Mathewson was the greatest. In 1905 he threw three shutouts, which is unmatched, and his career WS ERA is 0.97, with four total shutouts. But! His career WS record is 5-5, as the Giants lost three straight Series in the 1910s. Another competitor for the crown is Bob Gibson, who is 7-2 with a 1.89 ERA, two shutouts, and nine complete games in nine starts. Think about that. In three World Series, and outside of the deadball era, Gibson was never removed from a game.

Sandy Koufax had some hard luck in the Series--he has a 0.97 ERA in four series, including two shutouts in 1965, but overall a 4-3 record. Eddie Plank, in four Series, has a 1.32 ERA, but a 2-5 record. Of recent vintage, we remember Curt Schilling of the Bloody Sock. He has an impressive record, in four Series (with three different teams) of 4-1 and a 2.06 ERA, with an 11-2 overall record in the postseason.

There have been some sterling one-year wonders. I remember Mickey Lolich in 1968, who won three complete games, had an ERA of 1.67, and pitched game seven on one day's rest. I believe he is the last pitcher to start and win three games in a Series.

Bumgarner, for the record, is 4-0 with that 0.25 ERA. If he never pitches another inning in the World Series, I think he will have the distinction of greatest World Series pitcher, at least in this century.

As for the rest of the Series, as I said, most of the games were one-sided. Before Bumgarner's heroics, the laurels were earned by the hirsute Giant rightfielder, Hunter Pence (he looks a bit like the Wolfman, mid-transformation) and the roly-poly third-sacker, Pablo Sandoval, who every time I looked up was getting a hit, with authority. The Royals were carried by their fleet team of outfielders, making circus catches as a routine, especially the action-movie named Lorenzo Cain. The Royals also had a trio of unhittable relievers: Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland, each staking out an inning after the sixth. Unfortunately, in game five, the Giants got into the bullpen before those innings.

I like low-scoring games best because great plays tend to stand out more. In game seven it was the grab and flip by Giant second-baseman Joe Panik, who unlike his name, kept his cool and took a single up the middle and turned it into a double play (why did Eric Hosmer, or any runner, for that matter, slide into first base? It actually slows you down). We also get to second guess more often, such as why Royals skipper Ned Yost let Nori Aoki bat for himself in the eighth, not even hitting half his weight (there were also tongues wagging when Yost had Alcides Escobar, hitting much better, sacrifice bunt before Aoki earlier in the game).

In the ninth, with Bumgarner practically unhittable, we had some drama, which could have been spectacular. With two down, Alex Gordon ripped a single to center. Gregor Blanco and Jose Perez had a misadventure with the ball, and Gordon found himself on third. Salvador Perez had a chance to be a hero, but popped to third, where Sandoval caught the ball and fell back on his ample rump, as if taking the Nestea Plunge. But what if Gordon had tried to score on the ball that rattled around the outfield? Deadspin broke it down and calculated that if Gordon had been running full speed (he slowed around first base, naturally) and if all relay throws were accurate, he would have been out by a mile. But if he had run? Nate Silver put it that no matter what the outcome, that would have been one of the most exciting plays in World Series history. Instead, he was stranded on third.

The Giants have now won three championships in five years, and have tied the Red Sox for the most this century. Bruce Bochy has more certainly ensured his plaque in Cooperstown. The Giants were the fifth team in in the National League--the first "extra" wild card team to win it all. Though the Giants have a sort of even-number dynasty going, it reinforces the notion that once the baseball playoffs start, anyone can win, and seeding doesn't matter. I like that unpredictability.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Black Swan

Time was pirate movies were plentiful, especially during the '50s. They died out in the '60s, and didn't come back in any meaningful way, except as monumental bombs (Cutthroat Island, anyone?) until the Pirates of the Caribbean series, which interestingly hasn't spawned any imitators.

But before TV and into the '50s many pirate movies were made, including The Black Swan, from 1942, directed by Henry King. It mixes some history with some swashbuckling, although most of the movie takes place on dry land.

Tyrone Power stars as Jamie Waring, a pirate who is loyal to Henry Morgan, a real life figure (check out the rum bottle) who has been sentenced to hang. But Morgan ends up not only being pardoned, he is made governor of Jamaica. He enlists Waring as his second-in-command. But another pirate captain (the unrecognizable George Sanders) doesn't trust Morgan, and with the information given by a treacherous nobleman, sinks English ships, with Morgan getting the blame.

The subplot involves Maureen O'Hara as the former governor's daughter, who is engaged to the traitor. But Waring sets his cap for her, even though she expresses nothing but vitriol toward him. This was a common attitude in films that I'm not sure has ever gone away--the arrogance of male characters, who think if they just spend enough time with a woman, even by kidnapping her and taking her aboard a pirate ship, she will fall in love with him. I guess pirates knew about the Stockholm Syndrome.

The film is fairly generic but enjoyable. Laird Cregar, a rotund man, makes a surprisingly good Morgan, while Thomas Mitchell is fun as Power's loyal first mate. A very young Anthony Quinn has a small role. There is plenty of sword fighting and some fairly good scenes involving ships. A movie scene with two clippers bearing down on each, cannons blazing, has always stirred my blood.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

St. Vincent

St. Vincent is shamelessly manipulative, and dissolves in a sentimental puddle of goo at the end, but I liked it, and I have to admit it got to me, even though I hate myself for it.

Written and directed by Theodore Melfi, Bill Murray stars as the irascible Vince, a roguish Vietnam vet who smokes, drinks, gambles, consorts with prostitutes, and is an all-around grouch. But, of course, he really has a heart of gold. After all, he does have a cat.

This film, you may notice, is very much like Bad Santa. Both films have louses who are redeemed by watching out over pathetic little boys. Both chase off bullies. Both teach questionable life lesson (Murray teaches his young charge how to bet at the track). But Bad Santa, though it flirts with sentiment, never really goes whole hog like St. Vincent does. For example, the kid in Bad Santa is really pathetic, while the kid in St. Vincent is smart, polite, and the kind of kind anyone would love to have.

The plot is pretty simple: single mom Melissa McCarthy moves in next door to Murray. She ends up paying him to babysit. Man and kid bonds. There are bookies involved, and a Russian stripper/hooker (played disastrously by the normally excellent Naomi Watts). Their is not only a character with Alzheimer's, another has a stroke, doubling down the mawkishness.

The film is elevated above its trappings by Murray. I read a review wondering if Murray has ever been perfectly served by a film, and this may be the closest. He seems perfectly at home with this character. Some of the lines are vintage Murray, such as when he says prostitution is the only honest profession, or that being dead is the oldest you can be. The closing credit sequence, in which he listens and sings along to Bob Dylan while playing with a garden hose, brought me back to his work in Caddyshack. 

So do see this film, and curse yourself if you get a tear in your eye during the shameless climax of the film, which I won't even describe because it will remind me what a softie I am.

My grade for St. Vincent: B.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Belle de Jour

Also receiving an honorary Oscar this year is Jean-Claude Carriere, a highly prolific screenwriter who is best known for his collaborations with Luis Bunuel. I'll start with my look at his work with one of his best known films, Belle de Jour.

What is there to say about this film? I'm still not quite sure. It's a film about a prostitute, but it's not sexy, or maybe it's so banal about sex that is it sexy. The heroine has fantasies about being humiliated and degraded, but doesn't seem a very sexual person when she's actually with a man. The depiction of prostitution is as a business (which of course it is), with a madame as kind of a surrogate mother. In many ways, it's very fucked up.

Catherine Deneuve stars as the beautiful wife of a rich and handsome doctor (Jean Sorel). They have separate beds, and her fantasy, which begins the film, has him taking her to the country to be horsewhipped and raped by their servants. The horse-drawn carriage will then recur as a metaphor for her fantasies.

She learns from a friend that another friend is living a double life as a high-end prostitute. Another friend rudely comes on to her and suggests she give it a try, and gives her the address of a house. Intrigued, she goes there, and has to be coaxed into working there. She is given the name Belle de Jour, which means "lady of the day," since she will not work past five o'clock so she can be home for her husband.

What we see inside the house is a bunch of oddballs with strange fetishes, like the professor who likes to pretend to be a servant and gets beaten for bad behavior (Deneuve is with him, but she is not forceful enough and he says she belongs in the kitchen). Later she will form an attachment with a ruthless gangster, who will stake a claim over her. This man (Pierre Clementi) will drive the plot forward toward a quasi-tragic ending.

Bunuel directs with an almost clinical approach. The photography, sets, and costumes are mostly of neutral colors (the fantasies are of a more vivid richness), and Deneuve seems bored through the whole thing, which I think is the point. This film is really about a woman who is bored, and prostitution is a hobby she tries, like knitting or a book club. Viewed through a lens of 45 years (it was released in 1967) it's not really shocking, but I don't think Bunuel or Carriere meant to shock anybody. I think, and I may be quite wrong, that this film is about the banality of professional sex, a kind of spin off Hannah Arendt's maxim about the banality of evil. But it's quite open to interpretation, and is never boring, even though there are scenes of a highly quotidian nature.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

Last night I partook in a ritual that has been done for almost forty years: attending a midnight show of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The film itself isn't that good, but it has established a niche in a category almost to its self: the interactive movie.

The film, based on the stage musical by Richard O'Brien, was released in 1975 to almost total disinterest. Somehow, over the ensuing months, it turned into a cult classic. Audiences, perhaps bored by what was going on on screen, began shouting back to the film. People started coming in costume. "Cast" members acted out the film in front of the screen. Props were used to punctuate moments in the film.

This started in New York City, but soon spread to all over the country, making the film one of the most successful of its kind. I attended the show in New Jersey somewhere in the late '70s, but went with a group last night, including some who had never been before. It was fascinating, and somewhat heartening, to see young people who weren't even a gleam in their parents' eyes when the film was first released have continued the tradition, coming in costume and shouting at the screen.

The film itself is a valentine to the sci-fi and horror B-movies of the '50s that O'Brien loved. It has a bland couple, Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon) having car trouble on a rainy night. They come by a castle looking to use a phone. They are let in by Riff Raff (O'Brien), who is a kind of Igor figure, and see that a party of weird people is going on. Later they meet the master, Frank N. Furter (Tim Curry), a scientist who just happens to be a transsexual. He has created a beautifully muscled man, Rocky of the title.

The rest of the film's plot doesn't really hold together: Curry sleeps with both Bostwick and Sarandon, which might have been shocking forty years ago but seems tame now, and Sarandon takes solace in the arms of Rocky. Other characters pop up, such as Eddie (Meat Loaf), and the whole thing is narrated by a distinguished British criminologist (Charles Gray).

The film's plot doesn't really matter. What does matter is the colorful characters and their bizarre costumes, and the songs, most of which are pretty good. I think everyone knows "Time Warp," which amusingly has the stuffy Gray showing how the steps work. I love the opening theme, "Science Fiction/Double Feature," sung by O'Brien but the screen in a tight close up of a pair of female lips swathed in crimson.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been released on home video, and I've watched the DVD, but it really doesn't work without a raucous audience. Over the years the interaction has been codified--Brad is called an asshole, Janet a slut. When Brad says, "Great Scott!" patrons throw toilet paper into the air. I never envied the clean-up crew after a showing, but some things have given way over the years. At the screening last night, there was no food products allowed. This means that in the early wedding scene we couldn't throw rice, and late in the film, when Furter calls for a toast, singed slices of bread were not hurled in the air.

As I've only seen this film twice in a theater, I'm hardly an expert. Some have seen it hundreds and hundreds of times, and have created a community. The Vegas screening was held by a group called Frankie's Favorite Obsession, a group of twentysomethings that probably like offbeat films, graphic novels, and Dungeons and Dragons and know every line of the film. I don't know want to be one of them, but it makes me glad that they're out there.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Carmen Jones

Harry Belafonte is receiving this year's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy. His film career has been spotty--he's better known as a singer and recording artist. His one major film role was one of his first--in 1954's Carmen Jones, directed by Otto Preminger.

The film was based on the stage musical, in which Oscar Hammerstein II took George Bizet's opera and set it during wartime with a all-black cast. As the seductive Carmen, Dorothy Dandridge received an Oscar nomination, but I don't think the film ever really gels, and constantly seems to be trying, and not succeeding, at justifying its existence.

We begin at an army base and parachute factory in the south. Joe, a corporal (Belafonte) is ready to go to flying school and marry his hometown sweetheart. But, in a classic moment of bad timing, he is forced by his sergeant to transport Dandridge to prison after she starts a fight (she is one of the parachute workers). She throws herself at Belafonte, and slowly lessens his resolve. She escapes from him, but not before spending an evening of passion. He ends up in the stockade, and starts his precipitous decline.

Belafonte and Dandridge are in love, but its not good for him, as she constantly gets him into further trouble. Defending her honor, he punches out his sergeant, and has to go AWOL. They head to Chicago, where she is pursued by a boxer. She eventually takes up with the boxer, and Belafonte goes crazy. Tragedy ensues.

The best thing about this film is Bizet's music. I know almost nothing about opera, but it has three themes that I instantly recognize: the Overture, "Habanera" (an aria sung by Carmen--you've heard it too, even if you don't know the name) and "The Toreador Song," which in the opera is sung by a bullfighter. Hammerstein made the bullfighter a boxer, and lyrically it works.

What doesn't work is the pacing of the film and the chemistry between Belafonte and Dandridge. She's bad news, and it's hard to imagine he could be that stupid that consistently. I know men can really lose their minds when it comes to a beautiful woman, but man she must have had some mojo to get him to be this reckless.

I will give everyone involved credit for thinking an all-black musical had a place in our society in 1954. I do believe there is not white actor in the film, and we get to see some of the talent that was around then, including future stars like Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll.

But, the main stars, though they were singers, are dubbed by real opera singers (Dandridge was dubbed by Marilyn Horne) so that kind of defeats the purpose. Carmen Jones is an odd duck of a film--I wish it were better.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I've read almost all of Karen Russell's brief but dynamic output, and the more I read the more I'm a fan. Her latest short story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, contains eight examples of her wickedly bent imagination, with each story containing some measure of magic realism, some much more than others.

The opening and title story, for example, is another spin on vampires, but manages to be different. In this instance, vampires feed on lemons. Two ancient vampires, who as far as they know are the only two of their kind, live in an Italian village and feed off the lemons, although the weakness for human flesh is not entirely abated. "Most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno's coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won't fade away until I die (which I never will). I wear a neat periwinkle shirt, a canvas sunhat, black suspenders that sag at my chest. My loafers are battered but always polished. The few visitors to the lemon grove who notice me smile blankly into my raisin face and catch the whiff of some sort of tragedy; they whisper that I am a widower, or an old man who has survived his children. They never guess I am a vampire."

A few of the stories are out-and-out funny, like New Yorker casuals. In "Douglas Shackleton's Rules for Antarctic Tailgating" Russell imagines the fans of the krill, who in their millennia-long battle against the whales never win, but yet the fans keep coming and tailgating. It's a pretty good satire of the modern football fan. "So how to get ready for the big game? Say farewell to your loved ones. Notarize your will. Transfer what money you've got into trust for the kids. You'll probably want to put on some weight for the ride down to the ice caves; a beer gut has made the difference between life and death at the blue bottom of the world. Eat a lot of Shoney's and Big Boy and say your prayers."

In "The Barn at the End of Our Term," Russell imagines that ex-presidents have been reincarnated as horses. But not the most famous presidents. Hear, Rutherford B. Hayes and James Buchanan reside there, not Washington or Lincoln.

But most of the stories, beyond their creative settings or plots, have urgent poignancy. "Reeling for the Empire" concerns women who have mutated into silkworms: "I'll put it bluntly: we are all becoming reelers. Some kind of hybrid creature, part kaiko, silkworm caterpillar,and part human female." This is, of course, a commentary on the use of women in the workplace, but also inordinately creepy.

"Proving Up" is another creepy story, this time a Western, about a boy's ride across the desolate prairie of Nebraska to deliver a glass window. "The New Veterans" is about a masseuse who manages to help a vet with PTSD by manipulating his tattoo. And "The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979," is about a teenage boy who somehow sees the invasion of seabirds as some kind of metaphor for his life. "Cousin Steve was participating in a correspondence course with a beauty school in Nevada, America, and to pass his Radical Metamorphosis II course, he decided to dye Nal's head a vivid blue and then razor the front into tentacle-like bangs. 'Radical,' Nal said dryly as Steve removed the foil. Cousin Steve then had to airmail a snapshot of Nal's ravaged head to the United States desert, $17.49 in postage, so that he could get his diploma. In the photograph, Nal looks like he is going stoically to his death in the grip of a small blue octopus." When I read a paragraph like that, I just purr.

The tour de force of the collection, and the anchor leg, is "The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis," which is about a group of bullies that find a scarecrow tied to a tree in a park in their urban New Jersey hell. "A scarecrow did not belong in our city of Anthem, New Jersey. Anthem had no crops, no silos, no crows--it had turquoise Port-o-Pottys and neon alleys, construction pits, dogs in purses, homeless women with powerful smells and opinions, garbage dumps haunted by white pigeons; it had our school, the facade of which was covered by a glorious psychedelic phallus mosaic, a bunch of spray-painted dicks. Cops leaned against the cement walls, not straw guards."

The boys realize the scarecrow looks like a boy the mercilessly picked on, but who disappeared. The ingenuity of this story is that Russell tells it from the bully's point of view, and he becomes ourselves, and we can empathize with him. At least I could.

Karen Russell is only 33. I am jealous and extremely admiring.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Hour of Peril

Everyone knows that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated just after the Civil War concluded, in 1865. Lesser known is that there was a credible plot to kill him before he even became president, on his way to Washington. Just how serious that plot may or may not have been, and the steps taken to protect him, are the subject of Daniel Stashower's book The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War.

There was no Secret Service in those days. Candidates and even presidents could be approached rather easily. Lincoln, after being elected with a plurality popular vote in 1860, had no official protection on his train route from Springfield to Washington. He would be passing through mostly friendly territory, but one city was a sore spot--Baltimore.

Maryland was a slave-holding state, and though it never joined the Confederacy, it, on a whole, hated Lincoln. In some towns he received zero votes. It was a hotbed of pro-secessionist fever, and even the chief of police thought that Lincoln didn't deserve any extra protection.

The fledgling Lincoln administration turned to the most famous detective in the land, Allan Pinkerton. The first few chapters of the book are a biography of the man, who was born in Scotland, lived in poverty as a barrel-maker, and then founded the biggest detective agency in the country. This is a very informative book, but the thing I'll take away is the tenacity of Pinkerton, who was firmly pro-Lincoln and extremely abolitionist (he was a friend of John Brown's).

The election of 1860 had four candidates instead of two, as the Democratic party splintered and Lincoln won without taking any Southern states. He, of course, was loathed by a large percentage of the country, who divisively called him the "rail-splitter." Dashower reports on the high volume of hate mail he received, such as this one:

"Mr. Abe Lincoln
If you don't Resign we are going to put a spider in your dumpling and play the Devil with you you god or mighty god dam sundde of a bith go to hell and buss my Ass suck my prick and call by Bolics your uncle Dick god dam a fool and goddam Abe Lincoln who would like you goddamn you excuse me for using such harsh words with you but you need it..."

Following the short biography of Pinkerton, Dashower devotes a day-by-day, almost hour-by-hour, description of Lincoln's journey from Springfield to Washington: "Over a period of thirteen days, as the president-elect traveled by train from Springfield to Washington, a makeshift, self-appointed security detail raced to uncover hard evidence of the looming peril, in the hope of persuading Lincoln to adopt 'necessary and urgent measures' before placing himself in harm's way."

Lincoln made many stops along the way and many speeches, and often the train was mobbed by well-wishers. His voice was sore from speaking, and while listening to Pinkerton's advice, he nevertheless did not take evasive measures. Not until he neared Baltimore.

Pinkerton had undercover agents palling around with pro-secessionists, including one named Otis Hillard, who eventually gave the agent information that Lincoln would not make it alive to Washington. He put him in touch with the flamboyantly named Cypriano Ferrandini, a Corsican-born barber who was said to be the ringleader. Apparently a ceremony was conducted, with men drawing slips of paper out of a hat to see who got to be the assassin. But was this all true?

What is true is that Lincoln finally agreed to take evasive measures and did not ride through Baltimore from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He, Pinkerton, and Lincoln aide Ward Lamon rode a carriage into Washington, bypassing Baltimore. Once this became known to the public Lincoln took some bad press, and the phrase "like a thief in the night" was hung around his neck. Some even thought he was disguised, although Dashower discounts this.

After Lincoln was sworn in there has been disputes with how real the threat was. Lamon and Pinkerton exchanged nasty words, with Lamon saying there was no threat at all, while Pinkerton was afraid that the train may have been forced off the tracks or mobbed by thousands. The train carrying vice-president-elect Hannibal Hamlin was boarded by ruffians, who did nothing because they did not recognize Hamlin. But Ferrandini was never arrested for anything and went on cutting hair for years.

This is a solid book, if not a scintillating one. The Pinkerton stuff is interesting, as I knew nothing of his early life. Dashower points out how ironic it is that the man who was very pro-union ended up being associated with anti-labor thugs: "Pinkerton and his men came to be reviled as strikebreakers and skull-crackers, an image that would be cemented in years to come by the ghastly carnage during a strike at Andrew Carnegie's steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, in which ten people died. This unhappy episode occurred during the tenure of his sons, several years after Pinkerton's death, but history has attached the blame to the agency's founder."

What lingers after reading the book is how almost one-half of a nation can so vociferously hate the President of the United States, so much so that the hatred spurs some, usually of soft mind, to take action. This has ever been so, and continues to be so.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

El Dia Que Me Quieras

Netflix is full of wonders. I have no idea why I added this film, a 1935 Argentine melodrama called El Dia Que Me Quieras, to my queue. It sat at the top of the queue, with a "Very Long Wait," for quite a while, finally wriggling free and into my DVD player. It's an interesting film, if not very good.

Directed by the American John Reinhardt, the film stars Carlos Gardel, who was a sensation in Argentina, and is given credit for introducing the tango craze to the U.S. He died in a plane crash shortly after making the film.

The story is rather simple and predictable. Gardel plays a singer. His father is a rich financier, but Gardel doesn't want to go into the business and refuses to marry as a business arrangement. He elopes with a dancer (Rosita Moreno) and the two live a hardscrabble life with a daughter. When Gardel needs cash because his wife is sick, his father refuses to see him, so he breaks into his office and steals the money. But the wife dies anyway.

Years later, Gardel, under another name, is a huge star. He travels with his now adult daughter (also played by Moreno) who is being courted by the son of a banker. The banker is against this, because he feels the girl is not in their class. Of course he doesn't know that Gardel is the son of the now deceased financier, who has left everything to him.

Every so often the action is peppered with songs, sung by Gardel. I couldn't help but thinking that he was the Argentine version of Ricky Ricardo. Though only 81 minutes, I found the pacing rather sluggish and the music not terribly interesting. The print is in very bad shape. Still, who knew there were Argentine films from the 1930s?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Margaret Fuller

"Margaret Fuller was nearly forgotten by the time of the Nineteenth Amendment's ratification in 1920. She enjoyed a brief vogue as a feminist foremother in the 1970s, her face appearing on T-shirts, her famous injunction, 'Let them be sea-captains!' converted into a slogan." So writes Megan Marshall in her Pulitzer-Prize winning biography, Margaret Fuller: A New American Life. Fuller, if she's remembered at all today, is known for the dramatic circumstances of her death, but at the height of the Transcendental movement of the first half of the nineteenth century she was one of the foremost writers and thinkers of the era.

She was born in 1810 in Cambridge, and received an unusual education..for a girl. Her father, Timothy, who would serve in Congress, educated her as if she were a boy, as she learned Latin early. She could not attend Harvard, but she was the first woman to use its library. She worked for a long time on a biography of Goethe, but her signature work was Woman in the Nineteenth Century, the seminal American feminist work, written five years before the conference at Seneca Falls.

Fuller traveled with some big names, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Peabody Sisters (and, by extension, Nathaniel Hawthorne) Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. But she may have been the most brilliant of them all. Emerson hired her to edit the Transcendental magazine The Dial, and later Horace Greeley made her the first female book reviewer in American history. Later, when she left for Europe, she became the first female foreign correspondent.

She was not, by anyone's estimation, a beauty. Even then, it seems, women were not as respected if they weren't stunning. She remained unmarried through most of her life, in fact, she openly disdained the practice: "As an outsider to the institution of marriage, Margaret had little reason to defend it. She had argued with Elizabeth Peabody during the first series of Conversations that for unmarried women there came a time when 'every one must give up' and plan for a single life. Now in her early thirties, Margaret half believed she had reached that point."

But Fuller had some surprises. She went to Italy to experience the Republican revolution, becoming allied with Giuseppe Manzini. Later she would meet a young Italian, Giovanni Orsino, many years younger than her, and they became lovers (it is thought that Fuller had never had a lover before him). She became pregnant, and gave birth to a son they called Angelino. Where, when, and whether they married is still a matter of speculation.

The major drama of her life was at the end. At the age of forty, the revolution lost, she, Giovanni, and Angelino set sail for the United States. The captain died of smallpox along the way (Angelino caught it but recovered). The first mate, in a storm, put the ship aground on a sandbar off the coast of Fire Island, New York. The crew and a few of the passengers swam to shore, (they were only 300 yards off shore) but Margaret could not swim. Many gathered on the shore to salvage, but no one came to her rescue. First the baby and then Giovanni were washed away."When last seen, she had been seated at the foot of the foremast, still clad in her white night dress, with her fair fallen hair loose upon her shoulders. It was over. Margaret would no longer suffer, or exult in, what Waldo had called life's 'sweet fever.'"

As poignant as her death was (it's heartbreaking to read about Thoreau, sent by Emerson, prowling the shore of Fire Island in vain for her remains--her body was never found), it's even more so when one considers her life as a whole, and how her sex cheated her out of a more prominent place in history. Marshall's book is a fine testament to her remarkable achievements, and should be the definitive biography. I will admit to glazing over at certain sections of the book, especially the stuff dealing with the Italian revolution, but for the most part I felt I knew and understood the subject.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Key Largo

Bogart and Bacall's fourth and last pairing was in John Huston's 1948 picture, Key Largo. In some ways it is their best team up. The Big Sleep might be a better overall film, but Key Largo has their sweetest chemistry, even though they don't share so much as a kiss.

Bogart plays Frank McCloud, who's on his way to Key West. He's been moorless since the war, and he stops off at the Hotel Largo to visit the father and widow of his army buddy. The father is the kind but cranky Lionel Barrymore, confined to a wheelchair. The widow is Bacall, and both are eager to hear about their loved one while he was in the army, and Bogart obliges.

The hotel is closed, as it's in the summer, but a group of odd men are staying there. They say they are fishing, but it soon becomes apparent that they don't know one end of a fishing pole from the other. It turns out they are gangsters, and the head man, who is first seen emerging from a bathtub like a sea creature, is Edward G. Robinson as Johnny Rocco. He's sort of like Lucky Luciano, who was deported. But Rocco has snuck back from Cuba to make a deal with Miami mobsters.

Of course a hurricane is coming, and they all hunker down, trying to survive it. This was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, and though it is vastly changed, the center section of the film is very stagey and full of wonderful dialogue. Bogart and Robinson have the best exchanges, as the former pays respect for the latter's accomplishments, but one can tell he says this with a tinge of sarcasm. Along with Rocco is his mistress, a washed up alcoholic singer (Claire Trevor, who won an Oscar for the role).

Once the hurricane passes, Bogart is forced to take the men back to Cuba, but Trevor passes him a gun and he takes care of business in a white-knuckled finish.

The film reminded me a lot of the film that really launched Bogart's career, The Petrified Forest, which was also about a group stranded in a hotel held hostage by gunmen. This time Bogart is the cynical good guy, similar to Rick Blaine in Casablanca, who thinks he just wants to protect his own interests but can't help but do the right thing. Bacall, who is after all his buddy's widow, shows him respect and admiration, and maybe down the line we can see the two get together, but for the duration of the film their relationship is platonic and genuinely endearing.

Robinson is a joy, even if he is kind of playing to his stereotype, first done in Little Caesar. When the hurricane is bearing down and Robinson is visibly frightened, Bogart teases him: "Why don't you show the storm your gun. If it won't stop, shoot it." Barrymore is also terrific, especially when he realizes by saving his own skin he has doomed two innocent Indians. In fact, this film is ahead of its time in treatment of natives, as it has a scene with a very old Osceola woman making a cameo, asking Bogart for a cigarette.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fury (2014)

I'll give the Nazis one thing--they established themselves as the villain forever and ever in Hollywood movies. No one cries foul when Nazis are slaughtered like sheep in films, and that includes Fury, which proves that even after 70 years, World War II is still fodder for good movies.

Fury, written and directed by David Ayer, has both new and old elements. It's new in that, like Saving Private Ryan, to which it owes a great deal, it tells an unfiltered story of war. No more do soldiers just clutch their chest and fall over; these men are decapitated and eviscerated. It's old in that it tells a basic "war is hell" story that we've heard many times over, and in the classic "platoon" structure--this time five men, from various parts of the country, forced to share the cramped space of a Sherman tank.

The film opens with one particular tank, dubbed "Fury" (I spent much of the film wondering what I would have named my tank) returning from an engagement. One man is dead, part of his face left inside the tank, The tank is commanded by Sgt. Collier (Brad Pitt), a fierce leader, and his men are Gordo (Michael Pena), a Mexican-American driver (the troops weren't integrated yet, so this is as close as we get to diversity); Boyd, dubbed Bible, a very religious gunner (Shia LaBeouf); Coon-Ass, a hillbilly who loads the shells (John Bernthal), and the new recruit, a typist who somehow got assigned to a tank (Logan Lerman).

In another echo of Saving Private Ryan, Lerman is wet behind the ears, and is reluctant to engage in warfare (this is very similar to the character played by Jeremy Davies). He fails to shoot some soldiers because they are children (it is near the end of the war, and Hitler has employed every able person to fight) and causes a man's death. Later, Pitt will make Lerman shoot a prisoner.

By the end of the film, the notion of having a conscience is pretty much gone, as Lerman is shooting pell mell and shouting, "Fuck you, Nazis!" But before that, we get some very intense battle scenes. I don't recall any film I've seen that has put the viewer in the firefight like this one does. We get the claustrophobia of being inside a tank, plus the nerve-rattling circumstance that you could get your head blown off at any second. In one scene, a German Tiger tank (they were superior to Shermans) engages with five Shermans. Pitt's remains the only tank left, and the two tanks play a kind of chess game trying to get a good position on one another.

As good as the battle scenes are, the film has an enormous crater in its second act. The army takes over a German town and has a little R&R. Pitt spies a woman looking through a window so he marches into her apartment and finds another woman, a girl, hiding under the bed. He and Lerman makes themselves at home and later Pitt will push Lerman into the bedroom with the young girl. "If you don't take her into the bedroom, I will," Pitt says. After the two consummate their relationship, the remainder of the tank crew barge in, acting like baboons. I'm not sure why this scene was added. It shows off Americans as both crude and, in Pitt and Lerman's case, occasionally kind, but the whole thing is oddly paced, written, and acted. You just want to get back to the shooting.

The climax of the film is when our five, the tread of the tank broken because of a landmine, decide to try to hold a crossroads against an SS battalion of about 300. It answers the question of how many Germans one tank can kill before they run out of ammo. There's great courage involved, but one has to wonder at their reasoning for staying. Pitt says, "This is my home," referring to the tank, and we have to speculate on what he has left behind in America, because there is no reference to a home back in the States, a flaw in the script.

The other actors are fine, with LaBeouf, for once, actually disappearing into a character (I read that he refused to shower to stay in character, which annoyed his fellow actors). Pena is one of those reliable actors who is good in everything, while Bernthal plays a character that is pretty vile, except he is given one scene of redemption.

The real stars of the film, though, are behind the scenes. Major props to cinematographer Roman Vasynanov, who casts the film in a perpetual gloom; music by Steven Price, and sound design by Paul N.J. Ottosson. Those bullets and bombs sound very real, and at times I felt the need to duck.

My grade for Fury: B.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Dark Passage

I'm back with Bogie and Bacall, after an extraordinary long wait on Netflix for their third pairing, Dark Passage, written and directed by Delmer Daves and released in 1947. This is an interesting but not wholly satisfying noir in which Bogart's face isn't even seen for a third of the film.

Bogart stars as Vincent Parry, who as the film begins has escaped from San Quentin. He was in prison for murdering his wife, but of course he is innocent. He is picked up along the road by Lauren Bacall, who happened to be in the area. She also happened to be a believer in his innocence, and attended his trial. That's the first coincidence that's hard to swallow--man escapes from jail, and a stranger who is also something of a groupie happens to drive by and help him.

Through this section of the film we don't see Bogart's face, and there is heavy use of a subjective, or first-person, camera. This was previously used in Robert Montgomery's Lady of the Lake the year before. It's not just a gimmick--it's necessary because Bogart goes to a plastic surgeon to have his features altered, coming out of the bandages to look like, well, Humphrey Bogart.

The film then devolves into more coincidences. Not only was Bacall a supporter of Bogart's, but she's also acquainted with Agnes Moorehead, who gave the key evidence against Bogart. Bogart tries to figure out who killed his wife, and his best friend, as well as shaking a would-be blackmailer (Clifton Young).

The film did not to do good business. It has a strange rhythm to it, and supposedly Bogart's stance against the House Un-American Committee cost him some box office. But it's a good, if not great, film, and an interesting piece of Hollywood history. It also makes good use of real San Francisco locations, such as the Filbert Steps, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the cable cars.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton re-teamed in the 1939 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo about the deformed bell ringer of Paris. Set in the late 15th century, the film, like the novel, is a searing indictment of the mistreatment of the poor and unfortunate, and has some scenes that rouse the spirit as no others do.

The subject matter had been made into many films before, including the famous silent one starring Lon Chaney. But a film about bells should be in sound, and this one, directed by William Dieterle, gets just about every note right.

The film opens with some gypsies trying to get into Paris. The cruel minister of justice (Cedric Hardwicke) has banned their entrance, but Esmerelda (O'Hara) sneaks in. It is the Festival of Fools, and Quasimodo, the title character, has ventured out of the cathedral. He ends up being crowned king of fools.

Later, Hardwicke will find himself tempted by O'Hara, and has Quasimodo, whom he rescued as an infant, make off with her. The poor hunchback is caught, though, and has to endure a flogging.While he is left on the pillory O'Hara takes pity on him and gives him water. O'Hara is later rescued by a convocation of beggars, led by Thomas Mitchell. She ends up meeting a rabble-rousing poet (Edmond O'Brien), who falls in love with her.

She has eyes for a dashing captain of the guard, and when they head into the woods for some nookie Hardwicke follows them and kills the captain, but O'Hara is blamed. Hardwicke ends up presiding over her trial, and thinks that Satan has sent her to tempt him, so she must die. But Quasimodo swinging down out of the belltower, rescues her from the scaffold and declares sanctuary.

The climax involves hundreds of extras in an attack on Notre Dame, with Quasimodo throwing down bricks and then pouring hot lead on the marauders. Unlike the book, though, where Quasimodo and Esmerelda both die, we get a happy ending here, with Quasimodo pitching Hardwicke off the tower like a sack of grain.

I loved this film from beginning to end. It's a very political film, as Mitchell and O'Brien's characters give voice to reformer's ideas. As Mitchell says, the beggars steal very little, not on the order of the nobles. He also has a great line about Hardwicke--"Never trust a man with pinched nostrils and thin lips. The contrast between Hardwicke and the character of his brother, the archbishop, is told in brilliant broad strokes. And Harry Davenport, as the forward-thinking King Louis XI, is a delight. He favors the future, with printing presses and dissent.

But of course the movie belongs to Laughton, who is so expressive in so little words. You can only see one of his eyes, but that one is so expressive. In some ways he prefigures The Elephant Man, though he says of himself, "I am not a man. I am not a beast." At another point he says to Esmerelda, "I never before knew how ugly I was. Not until I saw how beautiful you are." The last line of the film really delivers a punch, as he sits next to a gargoyle and says, "Why was I not made of stone like thee?"

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Jamaica Inn

Another artist receiving a lifetime Oscar this year is Maureen O'Hara, the Irish actress of classic beauty and brilliant red hair. I must admit upon hearing the news of her award that I had no idea she was still alive, but she is, 94 years old.

I've written about four of her films on this blog: The Quiet Man, The Parent Trap, Buffalo Bill, and How Green Was My Valley. Her first film, though, was Jamaica Inn, directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock.

She was born Maureen FitzSimons, and it was Hitchcock who gave her the name O'Hara, figuring the real thing was too long for a marquee. She would have only been about 18 when she made this film, starring as as poor Irish girl who must go to her aunt in Cornwall after her mother dies.

Once there, she finds her aunt at the establishment of the title. Her aunt is under the thumb of the sinister Joss. She does find help from a neighbor, the courtly Sir Humphrey Pengallan (Charles Laughton). Little does she know that Laughton is the money behind a gang of wreckers (those that salvage merchandise from foundering ships) that Joss runs.

When the gang hangs a member suspected of embezzling, O'Hara saves him. He turns out to be an undercover policeman, and unwittingly enlists Laughton's aide in capturing the brigands. It's fun to watch Laughton pretending to be outraged that there are thieves nearby, when he is of course their secret partner.

This film was very unusual for Hitchcock, especially when consider his later American films. It's a period piece, for one. He does not make a cameo appearance, and the film is excessively dark, and by that I mean a literal lack of light. It may the deterioration of the print, but the chiaroscuro in this film is excessive, even by the standards of German expressionism.

Jamaica Inn was based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier, as would one of his next films, Rebecca. The latter film was much better than this one, which is really of note only for O'Hara's debut and that Hitchcock did direct it, even though it's not up to his standards.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Princess Mononoke

A few weeks ago the Academy announced who will be receiving their honorary awards, and I'll be taking a look at some of those artists' films. First up is Hayao Miyazaki, the well-respected Japanese animator. I've already seen his Oscar-winning film, Spirited Away, but his most popular film, at least in Japan, is the 1997 film Princess Mononoke.

I saw the 1999 American version, dubbed by fairly well-known Western actors such as Billy Crudup, Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson, and Minnie Driver. I congratulated myself for recognizing Billy Bob's voice without knowing who it was.

The film is a fantasy adventure epic set in the Muromachi period, when Samurai roamed the countryside. We begin in the village of the Emishi, who were a a tribe of people living in the northeast corner of Honshu. They are attacked by a demon, which is in reality a boar god that has been penetrated by an iron ball of hatred. The last prince of the Emishi, Ashitaka, kills the demon, but not before being wounded with a curse that will kill him, unless he can travel very far and have the forest spirit cure him.

Along the way he comes across a mining town run by a woman known as Eboshi. She has cut down the trees in the forest in order to mine, and was the one who turned the boar god into a demon. She is at war with the animals of the forest, including a wolf clan. A teenage girl, San, rides with them, as she was raised by the wolves.

Ashitaka tries not to take sides, but insists that humans and nature can live together in harmony. San tries to deny her humanness, while Eboshi is only interested in making money, though she does reach out to employ former brothel girls and lepers. Indeed, one of the greatnesses of this film is there are no real good guys or bad guys--everyone has valid points. The only real villain is Ji-go, a mercenary masquerading as a monk, who wants to steal the head of the forest spirit to trade to the emperor.

Having grown up on Japanese cartoons like Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion, I recognize the style of animation--the very large eyes, mostly. Miyazaki, unlike many anime animators, does not overly sexualize his characters, although there is a spark between Ashitaka and San. (Crudup and Danes, who later married in real life, voice these two characters). The message about balance with the environment is profound and timely, as the complete rape of the forest will do no one any good, animal or human.

Of the Miyazaki films I've seen, such as Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke is more straight ahead adventure, without many of the flights of imagination I normally associate with him. The demon is quite something, a collection of worm-like tendrils that envelop their host. Many of the creatures in the film have a basis in Japanese mythology.

This was the most popular movie in Japanese history until Titanic came along.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Letter to Three Wives

A Letter to Three Wives, from 1949, is probably best know today, if at all, because it's an Oscar curiosity--write and director Joseph Mankiewicz won for Best Screenplay and Best Director, but the film did not win Best Picture, losing to All the King's Men (Brokeback Mountain was the last film to do this). It's a sudsy examination of the then still new suburban culture of America, interesting for its anthropological foray into the lives of loves of the upper-middle class.

A narrator, called Addie Ross (voiced by Celeste Holm) describes the town, which is not named, but it's 28 miles from the big city, has a main street, and then a street for the country club set. There's also a street for those on the way or the way down. We meet three of her friends: Debby (Jeanne Crain), Rita (Ann Sothern), and Lora Mae (Linda Darnell), housewives who are spending the day on an outing with underprivileged children. Before they embark on a boat, they are handed a letter from Addie--she has left town, and has run off with one of their husbands.

While the women attempt to keep a good face on the outing, we get a flashback for each one of them. Crain met her rich husband (Jeffrey Lynn) in the navy during the war. She is a farm girl, and in her flashback she is extremely nervous about attending the first dance at the club. Sothern is married to a schoolteacher, Kirk Douglas. She has gotten a job writing for the radio, and has invited the boss over for dinner, where she makes a pretentious fool of herself. Darnell is a young woman from the wrong side of the tracks who is scheming to marry Paul Douglas, her employer and the owner of a chain of drugstores. All the men speak fondly of Addie, who is something of an idealized woman. Smartly, Mankiewicz never lets us see her.

While this is all top-shelf melodrama, Mankiewicz does show great skill with the camera. I marveled at some of the use of deep focus and framing. And some of the dialogue is quite good, especially the segment with Sothern and Douglas. He's an educated man who believes that radio is a sign of the downfall of civilization. God knows what he thought of television.

I was intrigued by Darnell, who was a stunningly beautiful woman. Though she has an exotic, Spanish look, she was a girl from Texas whose mother pushed her into show business. She was one of those actresses whose personal life was for more interesting than anything she played on screen, and she ended up in a downward spiral of alcohol and drugs before dying in a fire in 1965 at the age of 41.

Monday, October 13, 2014


While I was back in New Jersey moving this week I had a CD of the best of Parliament in the car. It was the perfect choice, as this group, variously known as Parliament or Parliament Funkadelic, are an instant mood elevator.

My music interests are very ethnocentric. While listening to classic rock stations in the 70s and 80s there wasn't a lot of black artists played, except for Stevie Wonder. Therefore I had only a superficial relationship with the marvelous style called funk. It's a mixture of soul, R&B, and jazz that has a strong emphasis on rhythm rather than melody, but unlike hip-hop, which I don't care for, I find funk very musical, as it has elements of rock and roll.

Parliament was founded by George Clinton back in the '50s, when they called themselves The Parliaments (named after his favorite cigarette). Over the years the band members changed (when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fifteen members were included, a record), the name changed, and the group developed a wild, flamboyant stage presence, with out of this world costumes and a psychedelic influence.

My favorite P-Funk song, and one of my favorite songs of all time, is "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)," a glorious record that has to be heard to be believed. It mixes five different grooves, each one eminently foot-tappable, so that everytime I listen to it I have to stop what I'm doing, or at least play drums on the steering wheel.

Other highlights of their career are Flashlight, which somehow manages to make an unforgettable hook out of two notes, and P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up), in which we learn that the law around these parts is that we have to wear sunglasses so you "feel cool." The African-American accent says the word "cool" in a great, well, cool way, drawing out the diphthong into two syllables and almost swallowing the end L sound.

P-Funk could very political, too. In Chocolate City, Clinton speaks over a groove and talks about cities that are "chocolate," that is, a majority black. At that time, 1975, Newark, Gary, and L.A. and Atlanta were either majority black or close to it, and D.C. is the "capital." Clinton prophesizes that one day, "Ali will be in the White House, Reverend Ike Secretary of the Treasury, Richard Pryor Minister of Education, Stevie Wonder Secretary of Fine Arts and Miss Aretha Franklin First Lady."

As pointedly political as they could be, P-Funk were also silly. There were sci-fi overtones, and Clinton took on an alien persona as "Star Child," and we hear that in Mothership Connection (Star Child). There is also a song called Agony of DeFeet that is all about taking one's shoes off.

Parliament Funkadelic are a great gift to the world. Their musicianship and sense of style and rhythm are second to none. They should be a lot better known than they are.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Oscar 2014, Best Actress: Who's Due?

Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Oscar nerds know that a performer does not always win for their best performance. There is a game of catch up played by the Academy that can sometimes last for decades. The best example is when Jimmy Stewart was passed up for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939. He won the next year for an almost supporting performance in The Philadelphia Story, beating Henry Fonda's far superior work in The Grapes of Wrath. It took Oscar 41 years to even nominate Fonda again, when he won for On Golden Pond.

Another example was brought up in a discussion with a guy the other day. We were talking about Denzel Washington movies, and that he won for Training Day. "That's because they screwed him over for Malcolm X," the guy said. There is some truth to that, I think, and I asked him if he remembered who beat Washington that year. "Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman!" Yes, and that was for one of Pacino's hammiest performances. But he was due.

There are a couple of actresses in this year's hunt that could be seen as due. It may not be about who was best this year, but who deserves it based on their career achievement. Here are my guesses, in alphabetical order:

Amy Adams, Big Eyes: Adams, only 40, has been nominated five times already. She seems to be loved by the Academy, but not too much, as she's never won. She's fast approaching Deborah Kerr territory, and Kerr didn't win until she got an honorary Oscar in her old, old age. This role is in a Tim Burton film, and while those aren't Oscar magnets he has directed one Oscar winner (Martin Landau in Ed Wood).

Julianne Moore, Still Alice: The favorite right now. Moore has been nominated four times without winning, but is older and probably more respected than Adams. She's in two movies this year that have drawn interest, Maps of the Stars and Still Alice. In the latter she plays a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Maybe she should start writing her speech now.

Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl: The film itself may drop a bit in the Best Picture race, as most see it as a good entertainment but nothing more, but Pike should be on everyone's lips come nominations. It's a pleasure to watch an actress play good old fashioned psychotic evil, and Pike nails it.

Reese Witherspoon, Wild: Witherspoon produced Gone Girl, and I've spent some time imagining her in the role of Amy, and I think she would have been great. But she's in this film about a woman who undergoes changes while hiking the Pacific trail. Witherspoon kind of disappeared from good films after Walk the Line, and she seems to be back in a big way.

Shailene Woodley, The Fault in Our Stars: I have to take a risk somewhere, and it's here with Woodley, who has been impressing critics with her roles. She was snubbed for The Descendants, but headlined two major box office hits this year, including TFIOS, where, of course, she played a girl with a disease.

Other possibilities: Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything; Emily Blunt, Into the Woods; Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year or The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby; Hillary Swank, The Homesman; Anne Hathaway, Interstellar. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Leaving Jersey

I'm about to call it a night on my last full day as a resident of New Jersey. Those who are following the story know that I decamped for Las Vegas at the beginning of September, but though I have my Nevada driver's license and what not, all my stuff was still in Jersey. Today the movers came and took it all away, what little of it was left after I disposed of most of it. Tonight I'm at a friend's house, and tomorrow I fly back to Vegas for good.

I don't think of New Jersey as my home state--I was born in Michigan, moved around a bit, and then back to Michigan to spend my formative years of 12-16. But I have lived in New Jersey 37 of my 53 years, a statistically significant number. Yet it's always seemed temporary. When I was in high school and college I always thought I'd live in New York City, but that phase has passed--I've never made enough money to do that. My roots never really grew here, but I can't say that it's been a bad 37 years.

I've lived in four places in the state. I started in Ringwood, in the upper north, where I went to high school. It has a suburban feel, even though it's miles from any city. It's almost entirely white, and only one kid in my graduating class was Jewish. It was a safe place, where you could leave your doors unlocked, even when you went out. There are plenty of parks and lakes and beautiful vistas.

From there I went to college on Long Island for four years (and met a lot of Jews), but I still spent holidays and summers in New Jersey. After college I moved with my friend Bob (whom I' m a guest of tonight) and lived in an apartment in Kearny, a bit of a rundown city outside of Newark. I commuted to New York City at my first job, didn't own a car, and had to walk everywhere, including up three flights of stairs. Bob and I were like the odd couple, except we were both Oscar. An exterminator used to make monthly visits (the place was overrun with roaches) and shook his head and said we needed a woman to take care of us.

I moved on to Jersey City, where I lived eight years. It was a studio apartment, with a huge kitchen, a pretty good sized bedroom, but no living room. It was convenient to the city--I could walk a block or two and see the NYC skyline--but after being burglarized twice I wanted to get out of the urban jungle. That's when I moved to where I left today, Plainsboro, just outside of Princeton.

I enjoyed the 18 years I lived there. It's a real nice location, being near Princeton yet not too far from New York. It's green and has plenty of places for hiking. New Jersey has a horrible reputation mostly based on the view from it's major artery--the New Jersey Turnpike. It is true that a stretch of that road, from Newark Airport or thereabouts into New York City, is a nightmare of industrial squalor. But most of New Jersey is wilderness. About a third of the state is covered by the Pine Barrens, a place where hardly anyone lives. The beaches are beautiful, if frequented by knuckleheads from Staten Island, and places like Cape May, Lambertville, and Bordentown are really nice.

I don't know if it's still published, but there was a magazine called New Jersey Back Roads, which sounds like a contradiction in terms, but that's the reality of New Jersey. It's a beautiful state, with a diverse population. There are some parts you wouldn't want to be caught dead in, and in the end it didn't have enough jobs to keep me. But I'm not embarrassed or ashamed to have spent three-quarters of my life here. In many ways I will miss you, New Jersey.

Friday, October 10, 2014


It's an interesting coincidence that I saw Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Ayad Akhtar, at the Lyceum Theater last night on the heels of the controversy about the debate on Islam between Bill Maher and Ben Affleck. Even liberal lions like Maher are now taking a dim view of Islam, lashing out at the violent tendencies of the religion. Unlike conservatives, who agree with Maher on that point, Maher is dismissive of all religions.

Akhtar's play is about a man of  Pakistani descent, born Muslim, who has basically renounced his religion and has become comfortable living in the Western world. Amir Kapoor, born in the United States, is an extremely successful corporate lawyer, married to a blonde American woman. In the first scene, he outlines his beef with Islam to his nephew, who wants him to help defend an Imam imprisoned on suspicion of raising money for Hamas. Amir tells the boy that of an incident involving a Jewish school friend, and how he has no wish to revert back to being devout.

To placate his nephew and his wife, Emily, who is an artist fascinated by Islamic culture, Amir does attend a hearing for the Imam, and gets his name in the paper, along with the name of his heavily Jewish firm. This leads to friction at work, where the partners discover that he was born with the name Abdullah, not Kapoor. That evening is a dinner party, which will be the heart of the play, in which Amir's co-worker, Jory, and her husband, Isaac, a Jewish art curator. As one can imagine, fireworks erupt.

This is heady play, with extremely pungent dialogue. It does have a wee bit of contrivance--after all, the dinner party has a Muslim, a white Protestant, a Jew, and an African-American, hitting all the quadrants. That sounds like a playwriting exercise (or the set up for a joke), but Akhtar walks the tightrope of staginess well, never slipping into overt preachiness.

Akhtar, who is a Muslim, gives Amir numerous speeches of his distaste for the religion of his birth, and then has the white and Jewish characters trying to defend it, turning things on their head. He points out that Islam itself means "submission," and that according the Quran, art is not valued, and that it was written as a guide for behavior in the seventh century, so that fundamentalist groups are trying to turn the clock back. He also points out that Quran accepts wife-beating, a point that will resonate later in the play,

But, on the other hand, Amir can't get the Muslim out of his bones. In some very incendiary dialogue, he remembers that though horrified by 9/11, he couldn't help but feel a blush of pride, which disgusts him.

The dinner party ends with two secrets revealed, one of which is a bit of a cliche that I could see coming, and Amir's life spirals out of control. It's an interesting commentary on a man trying to escape his upbringing, which may well be impossible.

The play was directed crisply by Kimberly Senior, after productions in Chicago, Lincoln Center, and London. I read the script on the train ride home and was interested to note differences between the published version and the Broadway version. Nothing major, but for a playwright it's interesting to note word changes. For example, Amir talks of when a school girl he had a crush on left for a week on vacation, it changes from "I was a mess," to "I was abject." The latter is far more pretentious, I guess. Amir is not an easy guy to like even at the beginning of the play, and it doesn't get better for him.

Amir is played by Hari Dhillon, who captures that obnoxious glibness very well. One scene that was added to this production is after he snaps at his nephew (played by Danny Ashok) and then embraces him and apologizes to him. Those few lines gave the character some much needed humanizing.

As Emily, Gretchen Mol is willowy and almost translucent in her whiteness. As a mixed race couple it's easy to assume that Amir is the one with a fetish for the exotic, but it's clear that Mol's interest in Islamic art may have led her to Amir. Josh Radnor is Isaac, and he has fun with the some of the Jewish humor lines, such as when he finds a copy of The Denial of Death in the Kapoor's apartment and points out that it was a book Woody Allen gives to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Karen Pittman, as Jory, I found a little more strident than perhaps necessary, but then she is playing a woman who rose out of the ghetto to become a high-powered lawyer.

With all of the jukebox shows and light comedies found on Broadway, it's lovely to know that intelligent works like this have a home on the Great White Way. The theater was filled, and the audience seemed to be paying rapt attention. Disgraced is an excellent work, much recommended.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Gone Girl (2014)

Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher, is the hot novel adaptation of the fall. You can read my book review here, and since Gillian Flynn, the author, adapted her own book, there are no major differences between the two. In the hands of Fincher, though, I ended up liking the movie a bit more than the book, perhaps because it's more entertaining watching despicable people than reading about them.

A quick summation: the Dunnes are an unhappily married couple exiled from New York to Nick's hometown in Missouri. They are both out of work. On their fifth anniversary, Amy goes missing. The cops, led by Detective Boney (a terrific Kim Dickens) investigate, and all signs point to Nick's guilt. A media circus descends.

The first half of the film is alternated by current events and flashbacks to the couple's beginnings, as narrated by Amy's diary. But can we believe what we are seeing? A reveal about halfway through changes everything. I knew what was coming, but Fincher does well with it (I was completely taken by surprise in reading the book). Therefore it would be unseemly of me to discuss any more of the plot here lest I ruin the effect.

This film is ideal for Fincher's cold examining eye. Because the two main characters are liars with slippery moral centers, there is no need for warm and fuzzy, which Fincher is not interested in doing. The film unspools in a methodical, police procedural vein, and the more we learn about the two characters the less we like them. That being said, most viewers will probably root for one or the other, if only because we are living out our vicarious evil selves.

Ben Affleck was a perfect choice for Nick. Affleck has always exceeded as playing bland, nonthreatening handsome men. Nick is something of a doofus, a weak-willed guy who is usually depicted in beer commercials. Rosamund Pike is Amy, and this is quite a revelation for an actress most associated with British films. I can't go into too much about her character because of the reveal, but suffice it to say she makes for one the great villainesses of recent years.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. In addition to Dickens, who serves as sort of the moral compass of the film, Carrie Coon is a standout as Nick's twin sister, who stands behind him no matter what. "I was with you before we were born," she says. Neill Patrick Harris is amusing as a former boyfriend of Amy's, who is so rich his lake house has heated floors. When a character tells him she wants to go to Greece with him, he replies with delight, "Octopus and Scrabble?" which I think would make a great band name. Tyler Perry, as Nick's lawyer, steals every scene he's in, summing everything up late when he says of Nick and Amy, "You two are the most fucked up couple I've ever met and I deal with fucked up people for a living." Kudos also to Missi Pyle, who does a wicked Nancy Grace impersonation.

The ending, which disappointed me in the book, is fundamentally unchanged here. It makes sense psychologically, but not for a thriller. The book and the film are very cynical about marriage, likening the inhabitants to prison inmates. Affleck says to Pike at one point: "Yes, I loved you and then all we did was resent each other, try to control each other. We caused each other pain." She coolly replies: "That's marriage." Anyone thinking about getting married may have reason to pause after seeing this film.

Gone Girl is a crackerjack entertainment (it's fairly long, and takes a while to wind up) but it doesn't transcend its airport book trappings. It's not on a level with Fincher's Social Network; it's more along the lines of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It makes for a good date night, although married couples may be wary of each other on the drive home.

My grade for Gone Girl: B+.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Moving Out

I'm writing this at a McDonald's taking a break from day one of my move. Those who follow my story know I moved partially to Las Vegas last month, but left the bulk of my belongings back in Jersey. I'm back, after finishing my teacher training, to sift through the detritus of my life and try to pack it up.

Moving is listed as one of the most stressful periods anyone can go through. Usually it has a positive spin to it--"movin' on up to the East Side, to that deluxe apartment in the sky." Certainly each of my moves--this is the fourth--has been another peg forward in the game of Life. But there is just so much shit to deal with, so many other people to rely on, so many ways for it to go wrong.

Technology has made a lot of things easier. You can change addresses for most things on the Internet. I got a moving company and just confirmed my reservation--I had a mortal fear of awaiting them on Saturday morning and them not showing--and I've got a storage space to keep my stuff (my girlfriend's house is already stocked with furniture, so I'm keeping my books and assorted bric-a-brac in storage for the nonce).

The difficulty is going through an apartment where I've lived for eighteen years and attempting to pack it up or throw it out. Mostly it's throw it out, and I've felt some pangs. When I threw my collection of 45s out it hit me--I've had those for forty years, and even though I have nothing to play them on it's sad to see them go. I am chucking out a bedroom set of dressers that I've had since I was a kid--I never bought my own bedroom set as an adult--but I'm glad to see them go, because the drawers haven't worked right for years.

I also have to get rid of a sofa bed, but no charity wants it. It's a monstrously-sized thing; I can certainly understand. I hate to just put it out by the trash, but that seems to be the only thing to do.

I also have to face that I am extremely slovenly. I'm finding all sorts of garbage: old Chinese menus, bills, receipts, a king's ransom in coins, pens, pencils, photos, and loads of lint. Each item gets a quick scan for saveability--most gets put into the extra-large black trash bags. I want to try to save family photos, but any book I've already read and can't imagine looking at again gets tossed. My collection of LPs is probably going to go, too. I could take them over to Princeton Record Exchange to see if they want to buy them, but I doubt it's worth the trouble.

I wish I could say this is my last move but it won't be. My girlfriend would like to move to a smaller house on one level in a different part of Vegas. She is the opposite of me--the house is spare of furnishings and clean as a pin. Already she sees a change in me. I will never be a neat-freak, but now that I am living with someone I will have to dial back my hoarder instincts.

The movers come on Saturday. I have two and a half more days to pack and toss.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones

I've read almost all of Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder novels, including A Walk Among the Tombstones, but happily it was long enough ago that I had forgotten all the details. Therefore I watched this film adaptation, written and directed by Scott Frank, with eager suspense. It's an extremely hard-boiled private eye mystery, just the way I like 'em. It even gives shout-outs to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

Frank, who has done well by Elmore Leonard in two films, does Block even better. There was Scudder movie released many years ago, Eight Million Ways to Die, with Jeff Bridges, that was not a success. Perhaps now, with Liam Neeson as Scudder, still with some of his Taken attitude about him, will get a series going, even if he is a bit old for the part.

Scudder is a former cop who has left the force due to alcoholism. The books consistently mention his AA meetings, and many of the plots start with people he meets there. So does this one, as a fellow alcoholic presents him with a problem: his brother's wife has been kidnapped. The catch: the brother (Dan Stevens) is a drug dealer. Apparently a couple of psychos are snatching the significant others of prominent dealers, figuring they won't go to the police. But these guys are really interested in cutting up their hostages into little pieces.

The film is set in 1999,  (the book was published in 1992). The specter of Y2K, which we now was harmless, looms across the plot. It's impossible to update Scudder, because he doesn't fit in the digital age. He always uses pay phones, for example, and I believe there are no pay phones on the streets of New York City anymore. He befriends a homeless black teen who actually can use the Internet and fancies himself Scudder's partner. This plot thread is a bit of a liberal fantasy, but Frank keeps the sentimentality to a minimum.

This is a grim movie. There are some lighthearted moments, mostly with the black kid, but overall it presents the city as a grid of mean streets. Justice is subjective--in fact, there are no police involved in this film at all. The tone and color pattern of the film--mostly grays--will not have you whistling a happy tune, and the closing song, a torch version of Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" by Nouela, is the perfect music to grab your coat by.

Frank is also to be congratulated for an extended scene that reminded me of the baptism scene in The Godfather. This time a young woman, at an AA meeting, recites the 12 steps. This is cross-cut with the climactic shootout in a Brooklyn cemetery, and then the denouement in a house a few miles away. It's powerful stuff.

Neeson brings the proper world-weariness to the role, though he starts the film with a New York accent that he gives up on in toward the end, his Irish brogue emerging triumphant. Stevens, who is best known for Downton Abbey, is unrecognizable as the drug dealer.

My grade for A Walk Among the Tombstones: A-.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Tamara Drewe

I read Thomas Hardy's novel Far From the Madding Crowd this past summer in anticipation of a film adaptation starring Carey Mulligan coming sometime soon. It turns out there was sort of an adaptation in 2010, called Tamara Drewe. If you've read the novel, you can pick out minor details from the novel, though it's set in the modern day.

The movie, set in the English countryside, concerns the young woman of the title (Gemma Arterton) returning to her country home after getting a nose job. The neighboring farm doubles as a writer's retreat, owned by an arrogant and successful mystery writer (Roger Allam) and his long-suffering wife (Tamsin Greig). They have a hard-working horticulturist, Luke Evans, who used to date Arterton.

Numerous other characters are entered into the mix. Arterton, an entertainment journalist, falls in love with a vain rock drummer (Dominic Cooper). A well-meaning but weak-willed American scholar, played by Bill Camp, (who is writing a book on Hardy, natch) is in love with Greig, and despises Allum for his infidelities. And two teenage girls, who worship Cooper, act as plot manipulators through their actions, notably by sending an e-mail from Arterton's computer (has she not heard of a password?)

I liked most of the film; it's kind of breezy, well acted, with a nice light tone set by director Stephen Frears. The film is actually based on a graphic novel, which in turn was based on Hardy's book. You won't get too far making comparisons--much is changed, starting with the heroine's name. Tamara Drewe is a nice name, but it doesn't match Bathsheba Everdene. It's fairly clear that Evans equals Gabriel Oak, Cooper is Sergeant Troy, and I suppose Allum is Boldwood, thought it doesn't all gel. The teenage girls are wholly an invention of the film.

The film is weighed down by the cliche of the aging writer bedding young women. I don't doubt that it goes on, but it's so common in books and films that it just doesn't have any dramatic weight anymore. I imagine it was included because Hardy had a weakness for young women--according to Camp, Hardy had an affair with one women, and then later her daughter.

I was teaching a lesson recently about foreshadowing, and how it's in almost every movie one sees. Usually it has to do with guns and other weapons, but here, in an unusual occurrence, it has to do with the dangerous nature of cows. I kid you not.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water, from 1962, was Roman Polanski's first feature film. It was a successful debut in that it was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but was not well-received in Soviet-dominated Poland, which prompted Polanski to leave.

The film is a taut, seemingly simple story involving only three actors. Leon Niemcy and Jolanta Umecka are a married couple who have planned to spend the day sailing. They drive, stoically, along the road, when a hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) hails them down by standing right in the middle of the road. Niemcy is angry, but ends up giving him a ride anyway. When they get to the marina, he invites the boy to sail with them.

Over the course of 24 hours there will be something of a battle of wills between the two men. It's clear that Niemcy invited him aboard to display his dominant nature and knowledge of sailing, as Malanowicz knows nothing about it, and claims not to know how to swim. Niemcy orders him about, making him a big shot in front of his wife. She appears to be very plain in the opening of the film, wearing librarian glasses, her hair in a bun, but once in a bikini, her hair down, she is quite attractive, and seems to be a prize for the man who can win her.

The title object is a knife belong to Malanowicz. He says it is good for the woods, not for water, but comes in handy when the boat hits a sandbar. Later it will prove to be the tipping point in the struggle between the two men.

The film was difficult to shoot, given the practical problems of shooting outdoors (it was shot in the Polish lake country). The acting is problematic. Niemcy was an accomplished actor, but Malanowicz was new, and Umecka was an amateur, spotted at a municipal Warsaw swimming pool. Her amateurism shows, as the character is largely passive through the two thirds of the film, not asked to do anything but look good. She and Malanowicz have a key scene together late in the film, and it lacks the passion it should have had.

Knife in the Water is a good psychological drama, observing the unities of time and space, as most of it is set on the boat. The ending makes for a good post-film discussion, as the married couple sit in their car, wondering which turn to make. In a way it reminds me of the end of 400 Blows. It's not a freeze frame, but it's a frozen moment in the characters' lives.

Saturday, October 04, 2014


For all of the 35 years or so that The Pretenders have existed, the only thing consistent about them was Chrissie Hynde. For many years, she was The Pretenders. For whatever reason, her latest album, Stockholm, is classified as a solo album, the first of its kind. As such, it's kind of Pretenders-lite.

In one of the songs, "Sweet Nuthin," she sings, "I don't need a lie, to see your other side. You can save it for your solo album." I can't imagine this material was saved for a solo album, since she's been the only singer and songwriter in The Pretenders history.

The songs are all okay, but none meet the expectations of a Pretenders fan. They are not particularly interesting musically, nor lyrically. The opening song is called "You or No One," and has a chorus that goes:

"I just wanna be with you always
I wanna be around you always
I just wanna be with you or no one
Making it, you or no one."

Now, those sound like lyrics that are in a high school girl's notebook. I don't know how any, let alone a pro like Chrissie Hynde, can write them with a straight face. But then, on the same record, she has a song called "You're the One." She's doubling down on the cliches.

More interesting is "Adding the Blue," which makes references to Monet and Van Gogh and S. Clay Wilson, a seminal figure in the underground comix world. The song is a nice meditation on failed life seen in an artist's terms. I also liked "House of Cards," which is a rich song.

On the whole, Stockholm is an okay album. I just wanted more from Hynde, considering her fantastic output over the years.