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Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Best American Comics 2014

I really enjoyed this year's volume of The Best American Comics, and that's due not only to the comics themselves but to the guest editor, Scotdt McCloud, who helpfully assembled the book by theme and wrote some very informative introductions.

The first section has some big names in the comix biz, beginning with Jaime Hernandez and a kind of Miami noir story "Crime Raiders International Mobsters and Executioners," and Jaime's brother Gilbert, with a story of young alienation, "Marble Season." Charles Burns is represented with a portion of his novel, "The Hive," and R. Crumb and Aline Komisky-Crumb contribute "High Road to the Shmuck Seat." The shmuck seat, I've learned, is the seat in the restaurant that faces away from the door, and thus the occupant can't see what is going in the restaurant. There is a lovely panel where Robert is getting blown by Aline, so, NSFW.

Raina Telgemeier's "Drama" is another story of the awkwardness of adolescence, and Tom Hart's "RL," about a couple that has a child that dies, is excerpted with a section that shows the perils of moving before your real estate sale is final. I liked this bit: "The New York arc requires you to either make exponentially more money--or get out. Where is up to you: New Jersey, Long Island, or Westchester, all of which require you to ruthlessly keep your attention, money, and nerves focused on New York, whose bloody, swollen billboard eyes remain fixed on you in return."

"Saga, Chapter 7," by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples, is a more traditional fantasy comic (there are no superhero comics included, but that is due to some sort of legal problem--McCloud declares Marvel's "Hawkeye" the best of the year).

McCloud also includes a section of Chris Ware's Building Stories, which I wrote about last year.

In the historical area, there are excerpts from comics about civil rights leader John Lewis, the Carter Family, and the history of hip-hop.

Sometimes the comics here are very strange. I loved, loved, loved Michael DeForge's "Canadian Royalty," which must be the work of a very interesting mind, while I couldn't make heads or tails of Theo Ellsworth's "The Understanding Monster--Book One," which has a floating head through most of it. In a section McCloud calls "The Kuiper Belt," there are some very avant garde comics, which are mostly interesting because of the art, especially Victor Caro's "Bittersweet Romance," and Aidan Koch's "Blue Period." Gerald Jablonski's "Schweinhund" is so text heavy, though, that I couldn't read it, as it would require a magnifying glass.

The volume ends with a daily strip, now defunct, called "Cul de Sac" which I unfortunately have never seen before. It was written and drawn by Richard Thompson until he couldn't do it anymore, because of the effects of Parkinson's disease. McCloud includes the last week it ran, which was a repeat, and I enjoyed the main character of Alice, who is kind of reminiscent of Bill Watterson's Calvin. The last strip, a Sunday colored one, talks about the dying art form of comic strips, which is sadly true. As fewer and fewer people read newspapers, the placement of those strips in them becomes a desert island of sorts. Of course comic strips can still be read on the Web, but one has to search them out. There are no funny pages anymore.

But, as witnessed by this fascinating collection, the art of comics is still thriving creatively.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

That Obscure Object of Desire

The sixth and last collaboration between Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere was 1977's That Obscure Object of Desire, which, on its face, is a misogynistic rant, but upon further thought probably isn't that far from the truth for many men.

Based on a fin de siecle novel by Pierre Louys, the film begins with a distinguished-looking businessman (Fernando Rey) hurriedly leaving his house in Seville, Spain. He is aboard a train when a woman races after him. He tips a conductor, who gives him a bucket of water, which he promptly uses to drench her. His seatmates on the train are perplexed, to say the least, so he entertains them with his story as the train heads to Paris.

It turns out that the young woman, Conchita, was originally a chambermaid of his. She quits after one day when he gets overly affectionate. The two will then spend a few years of being apart and together, but all the while she will not sleep with him. He tries everything he can think of to get in her pants, even paying her mother, but she resists, even wearing a canvas chastity belt which he struggles to remove.

Essentially, she is a classic cocktease, spurning his advances while telling him she loves him. He is, in essence, a pig, as he is much older than she is and though he says he loves her, it's really only because of her great beauty--what could these two have to talk to each other about?

The film is notable for two things. One, Conchita is played by two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. Bunuel did this almost accidentally, as another actress dropped out and he didn't want to be caught short, but he turns it into a creative exercise. Bouquet and Molina occupy the part interchangeably, sometimes in the same scene. But, they do not play the part identically. Molina is much warmer, and looks the right age, while Bouquet has an icier demeanor.

Secondly, throughout the film there are random scenes of terroristic violence. Apparently Bunuel was fascinated by this going back to his days in '20s Paris, and he intersperses the film with bombings and shootings by radical European bands. This foreshadowing eventually becomes obvious, but gives the film a political veneer that makes it more interesting.

There have been many films about men obsessed with women who, in their right mind, they would have nothing to do with. I can think of The Blue Angel off the top of my head, but there are a lot more. It's easy to tut-tut as a viewer and say that no man would ever subject himself to that sort of behavior, but can I really say I wouldn't do the same thing?

That being said, the scene in which Rey beats Conchita up does not stand up given the thirty-five years that have passed. Though it may provide a catharsis for both character and viewer, it's just not right, especially when he tells his listeners on the train, "So you can agree that she deserved that licking?" No, no she didn't.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Phantom of Liberty

After their success with The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere had free reign to do whatever they wanted, and it shows in The Phantom of Liberty, from 1974. A shaggy dog story, that follows one character from a scene into another scene, starting in Napoleonic Spain and ending in a zoo, The Phantom of Liberty is funny, never dull, and most of all, surreal.

It would be hard to summarize the film but mostly, like its predecessor, it takes shots at the bourgeoisie. Memorably, there is a long scene in which upper-class parents are told that their daughter is missing, even though she is right in front of them. They take her to the police station to report she's missing, and the police inspector says it's good that she's there, so he can get her description right. I would guess this is a commentary on the cluelessness of some rich people.

Another scene takes place in a law class in a police station. The policemen act like children, pinning things to the teacher's back, and the teacher has a flashback that has people sitting at the table on toilets, but eating in privacy.

The whole film has this impish quality, leading us places and then turning it around. For example, a long stretch of the movie concerns a country inn, where a young nurse on the way to see her sick father spends the night because of a storm. Also staying there are a group of monks, whom she ends up with in a poker game; a young man and an older woman, who turn out to be nephew and aunt, and in an incestuous relationship; and a hatter and his assistant, who favor S&M, and delight in displaying this to the monks' mortification.

This kind of "create your own adventure" model would be done later by Richard Linklater in Slacker, and the surreal comedy is very reminiscent of Monty Python, but it's hard to say who is copying who. The poster, seen above, certainly suggests Terry Gilliam's animation.

The Phantom of Liberty is not classic cinema, but it's a fun diversion, and I wish more directors would take interesting chances like this.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Whiplash

Whiplash is a fascinating, sizzling film that gets at a profound question: just how does one nurture greatness? To believe the character of Terence Fletcher, played toweringly by J.K. Simmons, it's through humiliation, insult, and basic brutality. He is easily seen as a villain. But is he? Is there a different responsibility for the teachers of genius? As he says, "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job.'"

The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, in only his second feature. As with many great films, it takes us to a place most of us would have no conception of: the highly competitive world of a jazz band at a music conservatory. Miles Teller stars a freshman at the school (something like Julliard) and we first see him on his drum kit in a practice room. He is having a grand old time (drumming does look fun, until the hands start to bleed) when an almost spectral figure in black enters the room. This is Simmons, who is always scouting these rooms for new players in his prestigious band.

Teller eventually gets there, but the combat begins right away. Simmons finds Teller's vulnerabilities--his mother left when he was a boy, and his father is a failed writer--and exploits them. He does this with everyone, whether it's their physical size, sexual orientation, or ethnicity (notably, there are no women in the band--come to think of it, there have been very few female jazz instrumentalists) and squeezes the best out of them through abuse. Teller's first inkling is when Simmons hurls a chair at him when he can't get the tempo right. Teller sheds a single tear, and Simmons mocks him: "Oh no, you're not of those single tear people, are you?"

This kind of teaching is reminiscent of scandals in college and high school athletics, where coaches have lost jobs over mistreatment of players, whether it's hurling balls or calling them names. It somehow seems more rarefied in the dignified hallways of the conservatory, but Simmons, his bald head shining, thickly muscled under his black t-shirts, makes a monster nonetheless, a jazz Lex Luthor. Even when the movie attempts to humanize him, when he remembers a student who died, there's a fly in the ointment.

Almost all of the film takes place in the rehearsal room or theater, where it belongs. The few scenes that lie flat are those involving Teller's family, including his feckless dad (Paul Reiser) and a relationship with a pretty college girl (Melissa Beloist), whom he dumps because he realizes she'll resent him for not spending time with her--he'd rather be great than canoodle. It should be said that Teller's is not a warm and fuzzy character. He has poor social skills, no friends, and a single-mindedness that borders on psychopathy. At a family dinner, he says that he would rather end up like Charlie Parker, dead in the gutter at 34, than live to be 90 and have no one talk about him.

Of course there is a lot of music in this film. The title comes from one piece that we hear over and over again, and while I'm not a jazz connoisseur, it is right, both as a word to describe the film and an energizing piece of music. The other is "Caravan," most associated with Duke Ellington. I have no idea how much actually drumming Teller did, but if I hadn't known better and you would have told me he was a world class drummer who was making his acting debut, I would have bought it. You believe he is doing the drumming, and can feel the pain with him while he drips blood and sweat on the snare drum.

Chazelle makes the most of his chance here, and some might think it's over-directed, but I think a film about jazz music needs this kind of frenetic touch, with quick cuts (the editing is by Tom Cross) that flow with the music. The ending scene, which involves a bring-down-the-house version of "Caravan" (I won't say more) is breathtaking in its composition. Even the costumes make a difference. As I said, Simmons always wears black, save for one key scene late in the film, when he wears white.

One thought did occur to me: what would Terence Fletcher have done with Keith Moon?

My grade for Whiplash: A-.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone

The first thing you notice about Lucinda Williams on her new album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone, is the voice. My god that sounds like a woman who has traveled some hard roads! Scratchy and drawling, the closest male equivalent I can think of was Tom Waits, who always sounds like he needs a cough lozenge.

But the voice suits the music perfectly on this double disc set. The songs are bleak but hopeful, and if Williams sounds like she's down she's certainly not out. The first song, "Compassion," based on a poem by her father, Miller Williams, sets forth a manifesto of sorts:

"Have compassion for every one you meet
Even if they don't want it."

This is good to remember, given the despair on the rest of Disc 1. In two consecutive directional songs, we get an old-fashioned rip on the limousine liberals in "East Side of Town":

"You think  you're mister do-good
but you don't know what you're talking about
When you find yourself in my neighborhood
You can't wait to get the hell out
You wanna see what it means to suffer
You wanna see what it means to be down
Then why don't you come over
to the east side of town."

This is followed by "West Memphis," which is certainly about the West Memphis 3 murder case, which has been the stuff of three documentaries:

"They didn't like the music I listened to
The didn't like the way I dressed
They set me up with a forced confession
I never had a chance
They threw the book at me
At my expense
They got no common sense
But that's the way they do things
in West Memphis"

There are also some angry love songs, such as "Cold Day in Hell" and "Wrong Number," and a blast at almost everyone in "Foolishness:"

"All of this foolishness in my life, don't need it
What I do in my own time
Is none of your business and all of mine"

Disc 2 isn't as strong, but it does have my favorite song on the record and the most upbeat, "Stowaway in Your Heart":

"Thank you for giving me
A place to keep my love
I don't need nothing special
none of that stuff
I'm a stowaway in your heart
and that's enough"

Williams is a gumbo of folks and blues, and her band is top notch. This is a great record, and it reminds me that I once owned her equally good Car Wheels on a Gravel Road but I lost it somehow. Of course, I could always buy it again, but I still wonder where that went to.



Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Whither the Killer B's?

Yesterday the Baseball Hall of Fame announced the ballot for the Baseball Writers of America portion of the vote, and since I am endlessly fascinated by this I'll break it down as best I can.

Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez will surely be elected. The only question is how close to unanimous they are. Neither will be unanimous, because of a few writers with tremendous egos who think that no one should be unanimous. But they are two of the best pitchers to ever toe the rubber. They're in.

The PED gang will continue to be kept out. Barry Bond, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa will continue to be in the bottom half of the vote. Sosa, who only got 7 percent last time, may actually drop off the ballot (if he gets less than five percent).

There are a bunch of guys who don't deserve serious consideration, but get to bask in the couple months that they and the "Hall of Fame" are in the same sentence. These include Rich Aurelia, Eddie Guardado, Darin Erstad, Jason Schmidt, Jermaine Dye, Aaron Boone, and Brian Giles. These guys may not get any votes, and won't be around next year.

There is also a category of pretty-good sluggers who may get between 10 and 50 percent, but no higher: Garry Sheffield, Carlos Delgado, and Fred McGriff, who only got 11 percent last year and really deserves higher--I could easily be talked into accepting him as a HOFer. Sheffield suffers from the same problem Jeff Kent does--he was on too many teams and was seen as a clubhouse problem. Players who you can't identify with one or even two teams seem to struggle more than others who do.

But what interests me most about the vote this year is what becomes of three players, two of whom were part of the pennant-winning Houston Astros team that were part of the "Killer B's," Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. The third is Mike Piazza. All three of these guys have the numbers for Hall of Fame induction.

Let's start with the Astros (the other two Killer B's were Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran, who are not eligible yet). There are no players in the Hall who played the majority of their careers with Houston, and thus there are no Astros caps (or Colt .45s for that matter) on any plaques in the Hall. This should change this year. It is Biggio's third year on the ballot, and he was just a whisker away from election last year, with 74.8. He has over 3,000 hits, and according to Bill James, he's one of the best second-basemen to ever play the game (he was also a good catcher). I think what has held Biggio back has been the bottleneck of good players (writers can only vote for ten) and that he just doesn't seem like a Hall of Famer to some, because he was never considered an all-time great while he played.

As for Bagwell, some of this is true with him as well, but I think he has been tainted by the PED era, even though I don't know of any direct accusations, let alone suspensions. Bagwell is in his fifth year on the ballot, and the numbers don't lie: his average season was 34 homers, 115 RBIs, and a .297 lifetime batting average, which is very high for a power hitter in this day and age. Another thing that may hurt him is that his career ended kind of abruptly, after only 15 years and at age 37. This seems to bother writers, and has hurt other players, like Jim Rice, similarly. Bagwell got 59 percent of the vote two years ago, but sank back down to 54 percent last year. At this rate it doesn't seem like he's going to get in via the writers' avenue.

That brings me to Piazza, and my continuing mystification as to why it's taking him so long to be inducted. By almost any measure, he is the best hitting catcher to ever play the game: he has over 400 home runs and 1335 RBI, and a lifetime batting average of .308! The only thing that can be keeping him out is a whiff of PED use, which is blatantly unfair. He has two go-rounds, and went up to 62 percent last year, so if not this year, maybe next.

The other new face that may stand a chance at induction this year is John Smoltz. Two of the other great Brave pitchers of the '90s, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, were inducted last year. Smoltz certainly has the resume, but is clearly behind Johnson and Martinez, so will voters who are stingy consent to vote for three pitchers this year? Smoltz is 213-155, and as the benchmark of 300 wins seems to be getting more and more unlikely, that's a damn good record, especially when you add in 154 saves.

The bottleneck that I mentioned has brought some criticism from the blogosphere. Because writers have only ten votes, they may not be able to vote for every player they want, and because votes may be scattered (especially those to the PED gang) it's keeping players out. I see the point, but I'm not sure it's a tragedy. It should be very hard to be elected to the Hall of Fame, and if there is an abundance of good players, so be it. The Hall changed a rule that seems to be focused directly on this, as they cut the number of years a player is on the writers' ballot from fifteen to ten. Though they may deny it, this is certainly an attempt to get players like Bonds and Clemens off the ballot quicker, and free up the logjam.

The results will be announced on January 6th. I'm predicting it will be Johnson, Martinez, and Biggio.

Monday, November 24, 2014

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Getting back to Jean-Claude Carriere, his 1972 collaboration with Luis Bunuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, may well be their apotheosis. It received the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and is a classic of surreal cinema. I first saw it way back in college, and don't remember what I thought of it then, but watching it this time I could see why it is so  well thought of.

The "joke" of the film is that six members of the upper class are always stymied in their attempts to have a meal. The film begins with a foursome, including the ambassador to the fictional Latin-American country Miranda (Fernando Rey) arriving at a house for dinner. The woman at home (Stephane Audran) wonders why they are there. The dates have been mixed up, so the five travel to a nearby inn, where they are the only customers. They soon find that the owner has died, and he's been laid out in a nearby room.

And so it goes. Some of the meals turn out to be dreams, such as the one where the participants find themselves on stage, and don't know their lines. We also get some out of leftfield stories thrown in. When the three women are at a cafe (that has run out of tea, coffee, and milk) a young soldier asks if he can sit down and tells them the story of how when he was a young boy about to go to military school his mother appeared to him as a ghost and told him the man he thought he was his father is not, and to please poison him to death. The women don't seem to react to this story at all.

While this film is very weird, it is also very funny. Given the title, of course, we know this a slap at the upper classes, and it is ladled on even further when we find out that the men are involved in cocaine trafficking (yet one of them says, upon seeing a man smoking marijuana) "I hate drug addicts!" Rey's home country is one of brutal oppression, and he is continuously stalked by a would-be assassin, though he always lets her go. He is also sleeping with his friend's wife (Delphine Seyrig).

These pillars of society are presented as buffoons. At another aborted meal, the four guests arrive at Audran (and husband Jean-Pierre Cassel's) house, but the hosts are amorous, and climb down a trellis so they can fuck in the garden (she is very vocal). By  the time they get back, with grass in their hair, the guests are gone, thinking they fled because of an imminent police raid. Thereby a bishop shows up, hoping to be hired as their gardener, but he is thrown out of the house while wearing working togs, but welcomed with open arms in his hassock.

Speaking of the bishop, if The Milky Way was about Bunuel's positive view of the Catholic Church, it seems to have curdled by this time. The bishop here is presented as an ignorant, vain man, and when he is called to give absolution to a dying man he finds out something that makes him ignore his vows.

The film ends with a scene that punctuates the film at various points: the six of them, walking down a country road, without seemingly a clue as to where they are going. This was Bunuel's comment on the upper class of the early '70s. I don't think much has changed.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

From up on Poppy Hill

Hayao Miyazaki wrote but did not direct From up on Poppy Hill. It was directed by his son, Goro Miyazaki, and the animation is of a different style--much more realistic and nostalgic--than Miyazaki pere's. Also, it has no supernatural elements. The script could easily have been shot as a live action film.

From up on Poppy Hill takes place in 1963 in Yokohama. Japan, still licking wounds from the war, has the next summer Olympics, and everyone is eager to forget the past and embrace the new. Umi, a high school girl, takes care of the boarding house owned by her grandmother, as her mother is studying in America and her father was lost at sea during the Korean War. Umi, though, still raises signal flags in hopes of somehow contacting him.

She meets a boy at her school, Shun, who is fighting to keep a dilapidated clubhouse, dubbed the Latin Quarter, from being razed. This clubhouse, a sort of fraternity, is home to the nerds and eggheads of the school, including a one-boy Philosophy Club. Umi takes a shine to Shun, and she and her younger sister help out in the cause.

Some paternity issues make their relationship problematic--Shun himself says it's "a cheap melodrama," and the Miyazaki's almost apologize for the plot contrivance.

This is a charming, lovely film that both presents a sensitive view of young love and a country that is turning a bend. The animation has a nostalgic glow, and everything looks warm and safe, as our memories of our childhoods look.

The English-language version of the film has an abundance of American stars, including Anton Yelchin as Shun and Sarah Bolger (well, she's Irish) as Umi, and they are joined by Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christina Hendricks, Beau Bridges, Chris Noth, and Bruce Dern.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

In Memoriam: Mike Nichols

When I heard the news that Mike Nichols had died, I thought to myself that I had seen a lot of his work. I was stunned to see, upon checking out his filmography, that I have seen all of his feature films, save one--What Planet Are You From?--and I'm sorry that I'm opening this tribute with that film, which may well be his worst.

But I've seen 17 of his 18 films, and one of his two TV adaptations, Angels in America (I haven't seen Wit). Nichols was an important film director, but he had even better credentials on Broadway, where he won nine Tonys. I saw five of his productions: The Real Thing, Hurlyburly, Waiting for Godot, The Seagull, and Spamalot. Just in those five we can see the range of his talents. Oh, and I also once saw him drop off Christine Baranski at the Port Authority.

Nichols was born a Russian Jew in Berlin, and escaped the Nazis to America in early childhood. He came of age in the Chicago improv comedy scene, and with Elaine May created a night of sketches that wowed 'em on Broadway and also earned a Grammy for the record album (Nichols was one of the few EGOT winners--Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). Many of the sketches are available on YouTube; you'd do yourself a favor to check them out.

He then went on to have the kind of Broadway directing career that someone could fantasize about: he started with Neil Simon's early works, such as Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, His Broadway career would stretch for over fifty years, encompassing not only those plays and the ones I mentioned, but the smash-hit musical Annie and his last, Death of a Salesman, with Philip Seymour Hoffman.

His foray into movies was just as audacious. The famous story about him is that he plucked Dustin Hoffman from obscurity to play Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate,  but Nichols specialized in stars. Big stars. His first film, after all, was Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with the two biggest stars on the planet--Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He would go on to work with most of the major American stars--Nicholson, Beatty, Streep, Roberts, Hanks, Ford, Williams, Travolta, Pacino. He directed Jack Nicholson four times, and if those films are not among Nicholson's (or Nichols') best, they do show off Nicholson's star power. Nichols' production of lThe Seagull, which I saw in Central Park in 2001, had six past or future Oscar winners: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Christopher Walken, and Marcia Gay Harden. Nichols didn't stint when it came to cast wattage.

But he knew how to use stars. The aberration of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (he turned down Robert Redford for the part because he thought Redford couldn't play a loser) is kind of moot by this point, because Hoffman became a star instantly.

Nichols' career certainly had ups and downs. After perhaps the best one-two punch debut in film history, with Virginia Woolf and The Graduate, Nichols tried the impossible in adapting Catch-22, which failed. The '70s were pretty much a lost decade, with high profile misses including The Day of the Dolphin and The Fortune. The '80s were a bit better, with Silkwood, Biloxi Blues, and Working Girl (his last Oscar nomination) and the '90s were okay, with Postcards From the Edge, The Birdcage, and Primary Colors. Mixed in there were a few more big duds (Nichols never did do small, indie fare) like Wolf and Regarding Henry.

His last few films included the TV stuff, and Angels in America was brilliant, perhaps his best work aside from The Graduate. I liked his last two films, Closer and Charlie Wilson's War, which again showed how well he could handle stars, whether established like Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts, or up and comers, like Portman and Clive Owen.

His films and stage productions were all over the map--comedy, dramedy, drama, farce. Will we really see someone who can, with elan, direct Uncle Vanya and Spamalot, and no one will even bat an eye? To me, though, his signature work was The Graduate. It is one of my top five films of all time and, in the revolutionary year of 1967, was one of those films that changed the history of cinema. This film appealed to young people, and while older critics sniffed at it, lines formed around the block. It was fresh, it was new, and it still is, 47 years later.

Mike Nichols lived a hell of a creative life. Anyone would be happy to have lived a tenth of it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Birdman

Just how to explain the exhilarating experience in seeing Birdman, Alejandro G. Innaritu's masterpiece? The one word that kept flitting through my brain was audacious--he takes many risks, and almost all of them pay off, in profound and thrilling ways. While the film isn't perfect, it is so chock full of life and language (perhaps too full--multiple viewings are probably required to absorb it all) and I can't think of another film that has attempted such a feat.

The plot is fairly simple. An actor (Michael Keaton), once famous for a series of superhero movies, attempts to validate his career by writing, directing, and starring in a play on Broadway (it is an adaptation of the Raymond Carver story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"). Theater geeks will enjoy the frenetic pace as the show heads into previews. An actor needs to be replaced, something goes wrong at every preview (such as when Keaton gets locked out of the theater and has to make a mad dash through Times Square in his underwear), his co-star (Andrea Riseborough), who is also his girlfriend, announces she is pregnant, and his daughter (Emma Stone), just out of rehab, works as his assistant and gives him dagger eyes at every opportunity (and those eyes are big).

But this is not a typical backstage farce. The first image we see of Keaton he is levitating in a lotus position, and has powers of telepathy. Are these real, or just the powers of Birdman, left over in his psyche. The actor who needs to be replaced is felled by a falling klieg light, which Keaton takes credit for. His producer and best friend, Zack Galifinakis, tries to hold things together, and they manage to hire a bad boy of the theater, Edward Norton (who happens to be sleeping with the other co-star, Naomi Watts). Norton is a classic narcissist and method actor (he drinks real gin on stage, and sports an erection during a bedroom scene), but is at constant odds with Keaton, especially when Norton sidles up to Stone.

Innaritu, after establishing that reality isn't quite what we think it is (in addition to telepathy, Keaton hears the voice of Birdman himself, a devil on his shoulder) the film appears to be in one long take, with tracking shots the order of the day. This gives the film an urgent pace, and also makes it like one of those "make up your own story" books, as the camera may follow a different character. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and editors Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione make this look just great, and accompanied by a jazz drum score by Antonio Sanchez, the whole thing is just electrifying.

But the film, for all it's gimmicks, does get to the heart of the matter, and that is the redemption of a man, Keaton. He was a bad father, a bad husband, and maybe not a good actor. He cashed in on three Birdman films (he turned down Birdman 4) and now wants to justify his worth. He chooses Carver because he got a note passed back to him by the writer at a college play in Syracuse, although Norton points out that he was probably drunk (and Norton later steals the story). The last act of the film veers from suicidal impulses to glory, and then combines the two.

The script is credited to four writers, including Innaritu, and it is a marvel. The dialogue comes so fast and furious I can't quote it directly--there's a great bit when Keaton asks about replacements. "What about Woody Harrelson?" "He's doing the Hunger Games." "Michael Fassbender?" "He's doing the prequel to the sequel of X-Men." "Jeremy Renner?" "Who?" There are many references to current pop culture, such as when Keaton recounts being on a plane with George Clooney that experiences significant turbulence, and he thinks that if the plane goes down it will be Clooney's face on page one, not his. A scene late in the picture, when Keaton has it out with the New York Times critic (Lindsay Duncan), who has sworn to destroy his play, even if she hasn't scene it yet, is classic dialogue.

Keaton, who has been languishing for years in oddball projects, is a revelation. Though his casting is a bit meta, considering he was a comic book star twenty years ago, the performance owes more to Beetlejuice than Batman, as he is called upon to be manic often. I loved a scene in which he destroys his dressing room (through telepathy), and then Galifinakis enters. "Hey, what's up?" Keaton says, as if is nothing is wrong.

The rest of the cast is great, too. I loved Naomi Watts as a woman finally making her Broadway debut and wincing at everything seems to be falling apart, and Norton is a sly scene-stealer, an obnoxious heel who reveals he is only truthful on stage. And Stone, wow, after seeing her in so many Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm roles it was great to see her stretch and play someone fairly unlikable (though hot). Amy Ryan has a few good scenes as Keaton's ex-wife.

I will nitpick a bit about the supporting characters. Norton and Watts are not given complete character arcs--they fade away in the last act. There's a lesbian kiss that comes straight out of left field and is never mentioned again. But I dare say I won't see a more original film this year, and right now Birdman is battling it out with The Grand Budapest Hotel as my favorite film of the year. What do they have in common? Originality.

My grade for Birdman: A.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Am Legend

I Am Legend is one of the seminal works in horror/sci-fi literature. Written by Richard Matheson in 1954, it basically introduced the concept of "zombie" stories, although that word is never used in the book (nor is it used in the film that was inspired by it, Night of the Living Dead).

The slim book is the story of Robert Neville, who believes he is the last man on Earth. He lives in a heavily fortified house in Los Angeles. By day he is free to do anything, as long as he stays within drivable distance from his house to return by nightfall. At night is when "they" come out.

Neville refers to them as vampires, but in our parlance of today we'd call them zombies. They are victims of sort of plague that Neville is immune to--he thinks he's immune because he was once bitten by a vampire bat--but exhibit all the lore of vampires: they are resistant to garlic, die when exposed to sunlight, fear the cross, etc. What Matheson does in this book is have Neville research just what scientific reasons these old tropes may exist.

"Something black and of the night had come crawling out of the Middle Ages. Something with no framework or credulity, something that had been consigned, fact and figure, to the pages of imaginative literature. Vampires were passe, Summers' idylls or Stoker's melodramatics or a brief inclusion in the Britannica or grist for the pulp writer's mill or raw material for the B-film factories. A tenuous legend passed from century to century. Well, it was true." Matheson, in essence, tried to update the vampire based on modern science.

While the scenes of interaction with the vampires are hair-raising stuff--he goes to visit his wife's grave and finds that his watch has stopped, a bad thing since it's a cloudy day and he can't gauge when the sun is going down--what Neville mostly battles is loneliness. He drinks, he listens to classical music, he contemplates why he persists on staying alive. One section of the book concerns his efforts to befriend a dog, the only living thing he has seen in some time. Later, he will find another human, but can't be sure if she's one of them or not (she does not react well to garlic).

I Am Legend has been made into a movie three times. I have seen one of them: The Omega Man, which was very much of its time (1971). I'll take a look at the other two in the coming days.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Young Frankenstein

I was in need of a laugh, and as I was putting away my DVDs (finally the movers arrived) and as I shelved Young Frankenstein I remembered I wanted to watch it soon for its 40th anniversary. I'm about a month ahead, sue me.

Young Frankenstein is in my top ten, maybe top five, of comedies all time, and is certainly Mel Brooks' best film (I find Blazing Saddles to be over-rated). He did have a hell of year in 1974, as both films were released in that calendar year. I suspect, though, that Gene Wilder had a lot to do with it. It was his idea, and the story goes that he agreed to appear in Blazing Saddles if Brooks would direct--and not act in--Young Frankenstein.

It is, of course, an affectionate send-up of the Universal Frankenstein pictures of the '30s and '40s. They crib bits of all five movies featuring the monster (at one point a villager says "this has happened five times before") and is filmed with that luminous black and white that was common in old movies. The laboratory equipment used in the original Frankenstein was sitting in the garage of a man named Kenneth Strickfaden, who loaned it to Brooks for his use.

So what makes Young Frankenstein so good? It has a few different levels of comedy, but the most basic can be traced to the kind of slapstick made popular by comedians like Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. As I watched it again (for perhaps the tenth time) I noted how many times we get the slow burn (like the look Peter Boyle, as the monster, gives when blind hermit Gene Hackman smashes his cup during a toast). There is some vaudeville, mostly from Marty Feldman as Igor (pronounced "eye-gor"), such as when he goes a Groucho voice when Wilder asks him to take the bags "You take the blonde, and I'll take the one with the turban."

But overall there is a joyous sense of silliness through the whole thing, anchored in the performance by Wilder, who is unabashedly hammy. I can think of him now, on the platform during the electrical storm, his longish hair whipped by the breeze, wearing ridiculous goggles, shouting, "Life! Give my creature life!" as if we were one of the Booth brothers. The movie, for all its gifts, would be nowhere without his canny performance, which I think is one of the best comic performances ever put on celluloid.

But more silliness--this film actually gets away with dick jokes, "He must have a tremendous schwanzstugger" (not sure of the spelling) and the way Madeline Kahn says, "Oh my god!" when the monsters drops his trousers (it so wistful watching Kahn, who was taken from us much too soon--she's one of the great comediennes who ever lived). And really, "Wow, what knockers!" while Wilder is holding Teri Garr, her breasts in his face? I might have written that line and thought it was too juvenile, but smarter heads prevailed.

Young Frankenstein is full of set pieces and performances that are too numerous to catalog, but some of my favorites: the sad little Liam Dunn wheeled in as a medical school volunteer; when Wilder and Feldman are digging up a grave, and Feldman says, "Could be worse, could be raining," and a deluge immediately starts; "Abby Normal;" "Sed-a-give;" the entire Boyle/Hackman scene, which stands on its own as one of the greatest few minutes of comedy ever; Kenneth Mars using a German accent so thick even the villagers can't understand him; "Put the candle back!" The most famous scene is probably the "Puttin' on the Ritz" number, which is another few minutes of comic legend.

Even after so many viewings Young Frankenstein does not fail to amuse me. Wilder, though he may originated the idea, did need Brooks as a director, as the films Wilder would subsequently direct never approached the greatness of this film (I did get a great kick out of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother) when I was teen but I doubt it would hold up. Young Frankenstein was, and remains, comic alchemy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Hide Me Among the Graves

Tim Powers has written two of the best speculative fiction books I've ever read--Last Call and The Anubis Gates. I also read his book Declare, which I found to be very confusing. Unfortunately, his latest, Hide Me Among the Graves, is in the latter category.

I was sure I was going to love it. It's about the Rosettis, Christina and Gabriel, who were real life literary figures in Victorian England, being haunted by the ghost of their uncle, John Polidori, who wrote the first vampire novel (one that he concocted on the same night in Switzerland that Mary Shelley dreamed up Frankenstein). Full of spooky London nights and spectral figures, it seemed like a natural for me.

All that was there, but I didn't feel the book ever take off. It was like a prolonged tease, and there was a lot of characters running around, doing this that and the other thing but never really grabbing my attention.

Other real-life figures who are in the book are poet Algernon Swinburne and a friend of Shelley and Byron's, Edward Trelawney, who is a link between the living and the dead. We also get, strangely, Boadicea, the anti-Roman revolutionary, who is some sort of ghost who can appear very tall or very small. There is also the ghost of Elizabeth Siddal's unborn child. She was Gabriel Rosetti's wife. When she died he buried her poems with her body, and later dug them up. In Hide Me Among the Graves, the reason is quite different.

To motor the plot along are fictional characters--John Crawford, a veterinarian, and Adelaide McKee, a former prostitute. They have a daughter together, and they are trying to save her from Polidori, who wants to marry her off to the unborn son. It's all very ghoulish, but there are so many balls in the air that I just couldn't get sucked in by the story, and by the end I was just waiting for it to be over.

Some of the prose is good gaslight stuff, such as: "'Night is your time now,' said the thing that was Polidori, with the remembered dark hair and mustache and deep-set eyes. 'You'll come to hate daylight. Your place by day will be among the tombs, and the regions under the tombs, but by night you will be a citizen of every place under the moon."

Nicely worked prose, but the plot just didn't do it for me.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Milky Way

Luis Bunuel and Jean-Claude Carriere made The Milky Way in 1969. It is about neither the galaxy or the candy bar, but instead the name of the road used by pilgrims to visit a town in Spain, Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are supposedly buried.

That sounds simple enough, but this film is anything but simple. It's one of those films that really need to be annotated, like that old show Pop-Up Video. We focus on two pilgrims, and it appears to be in the present day, as there are cars, etc. But throughout their journey time is slippery, and they find themselves at various heresies throughout Catholic history. This is an art film made for theologians.

I know nothing of the history of heresies, but was never bored by this film. I was ably assisted after watching it by a piece by Ian Christie, who explained just what in god's name was going on. At one point, the pilgrims stop in an inn and witness an argument between a policeman and a priest about whether mass is transubstantiation or consubstantiation, and when the policemen catches the priest in a contradiction the clergyman throws hot coffee in his face.

Later, they will stumble upon what looks like an orgy, which turns out to be a gathering of the Priscillian society, sometime in the early years of the millennium. In a wry scene, they come across a church where a nun is going through crucifixion, wishing to experience what Jesus did. It turns out this was the philosophy of the Jansenists, and they were firmly opposed by Jesuits, so Bunuel as a Jansenist and a Jesuit literally duel with swords over the issue.

The film is surrealistic, if you hadn't gathered, as in one scene in which a man enters a room in an inn and is told by the innkeeper never to open the door. He finds a beautiful young woman in the other bed. A priest comes knocking, but the man does not open the door, but at times during the priest's questioning the cuts go from him being in the room to not being in the room, without explanation.

There are also appearances by the Virgin Mary and Jesus himself. We first see him starting to shave, but his mother tells him not to. Late in the film he encounters some blind men, and tells them the opposite of what most of us imagine Jesus standing for.

So what to make of this film? Of course Bunuel, being Spanish, was very indoctrinated in the Catholic religion. Some found it puzzling, because it seemed to be, despite its surreal nature, a very pious film. Still, it does feature a dwarf (that's usually Fellini's gambit). I have no idea what it all means.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Wings of Eagles

I'll close the book on Maureen O'Hara (at least until Christmas, when I hope to check back in with The Miracle on 34th Street) with The Wings of Eagles, a 1957 picture directed by John Ford and starring, who else, but John Wayne. Arguably O'Hara's most notable film was The Quiet Man, with Wayne and directed by Ford, and in the last decade or so of her career she made a few more films with Wayne, such as Big Jake and McClintock!

The Wings of Eagles is Wayne's show, though. It is the real life story of Frank "Spig" Wead, who was a navy flier turned screenwriter, and in fact a friend of Ford's. The first part of the film is almost unwatchable, a melange of slapstick farce and tragedy, where we are asked to believe Wayne, then 50 years old, as a young man, one of the first naval airmen, driving around in a Stutz Bearcat and dangerously piloting a plane that ends up crash landing at an admiral's tea party.

Wead didn't see action in World War I, but spent much of the post-war period publicizing military air defense by participating in races and other competitions. But an accident, not in a plane, but falling down stairs, paralyzed him, and he spent some grueling time trying to regain the ability to walk, which he did, though helped with canes.

The film gets interesting when Wead, who tried his hand at writing pulp stories, is approached by Hollywood. Ward Bond plays a thinly-veiled version of Ford (all those shiny Oscars in his office) that is a wonderful scene for movie buffs and shows that Ford did have a sense of humor about himself. Wead is successful, and even writes plays for Broadway.

O'Hara plays Wead's long-suffering wife, who is frequently alone due to his travels. He finally lets her go when he is injured, too proud to want her at his bedside. This angle is remarkably adult for a film of this type, showing that not everything is rosy in a marriage. The two are set to reconcile when Pearl Harbor happens, and Wead volunteers for a desk job, but ends up on something of his own design, a "jeep carrier," which ferries planes and other materiel to aircraft carriers.

The Wings of Eagles is corny as hell and would have been better off not trying to be funny. Dan Dailey, as Wead's longtime friend, has some nice scenes when he won't let Wead give up after being injured, but otherwise there's too much Broadway musical in his performance.

As Wayne/Ford films go, this one is below average, but military buffs may find it worthwhile.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Cream

The news last month that Jack Bruce passed away at age 71 was a major bummer. But it did get me thinking about Cream, and since I didn't have anything by them on CD I purchased a greatest hits package. Lordy, they were good.

They were the first rock "supergroup"--that is, a group made up of members from other bands. Their name was more than a bit arrogant, as they decided they were the "cream" of the crop as far as their instruments, and who could disagree, even almost fifty years later, that Bruce on bass, Eric Clapton on guitar, and Ginger Baker on drums isn't one of the best collection of instrumentalists the rock world has ever known?

Cream formed in 1966. Clapton had quit The Yardbirds because they were becoming too mainstream. Bruce and Baker were in The Graham Bond Organisation, and they teamed up to become one of rock's first "power trios"--just a bass, lead guitar, and drums. They were all steeped in American blues, which they covered expertly, especially Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," Willie Dixon's "Spoonful," Skip James' "I'm So Glad," and Albert King's "Born Under a Bad Sign," which are all on their greatest hits album.

But Cream was also one of the authors of the '60s psychedelic movement, and created one of the decade's great anthems with "Sunshine of Your Love," That song was written by Bruce, Clapton, and Pete Brown, a poet who wrote all the lyrics for Bruce's songs. Bruce, who was normally the lead vocalist for the band, shares duties with Clapton, in a song about sex at dawn that has one of the great riffs of all time. I'd easily put in the top ten songs of the 1960s, if not the entire classic rock era.

As said, Bruce did most of the singing, frequently using an eerie falsetto, such as on "I Feel Free" and "Strange Brew," but shifting to more sinuous baritone on songs such as "White Room" and "N.S.U." I was surprised to read in the liner notes that it was Clapton who wrote the trippy "Tales of Brave Ulysses," which is a very '60s thing--a rock song about Greek myths:

"Her name is Aphrodite and she rides a crimson shell,
And you know you cannot leave her for you touched the distant sands
With tales of brave Ulysses, how his naked ears were tortured
By the sirens sweetly singing."

Tell me that doesn't make you think of black lights and beaded curtains.

Another fantastically weird song is "SWLABR," which is the stuff of a classic rock trivia question. It stands for "She walks like a bearded rainbow," and I have no idea what it's about, and certainly must have been written during a trip on something:

"So many fantastic colors; I feel in a wonderland.
Many fantastic colors makes me feel so good.
You've got that pure feel, such good responses.
You've got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard."

The band split after three albums, mostly due to the quarreling of Baker and Bruce. Clapton and Baker were part of Blind Faith, who made only one album (a good parlor game is naming all the bands Clapton was in), while Bruce, not nearly as successful as Clapton, did have a long solo career. Cream is just one of the many reasons why I contend the '60s were the best decade for rock music.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ponyo

Back to Hayao Miyazaki, and his 2008 film Ponyo, a charming if slight tale that has echoes of The Little Mermaid, Pinocchio, and Finding Nemo, with our heroine a goldfish that wants to be human.

The film starts with a magical prologue, as all the undersea creatures, from barracudas to jellyfish, are under the control of a human (or at least he used to be human) named Fujimoto. He can live both above and below water, and looks like an aged British rock star (in the English-language version, which I saw, he is voiced by Liam Neeson).

Brunhilde, a goldfish who disconcertingly has a human face, is curious about her world, and escapes from Fujimoto's watch. Later we will learn that he is her father, and her mother is sort of fairy queen of the sea, so it's best not to envision the mechanics of the little fish's conception.

Taking a ride on a jellyfish, the goldfish finds herself toward the surface, and then gets her head stuck in a jar. A little boy, Susuke, rescues her and makes her his pet, naming her Ponyo. They get a long great, but Fujimoto wants her back, railing against the humans and their destruction of the ocean.

What follows is that Ponyo, who has great powers, becomes a little girl through force of will. But this sets nature off-balance, and a great storm threatens the entire coast. Susuke's mother (Tina Fey) is quite game to accept a child that used to be a goldfish, and his father (Matt Damon) is on a fishing boat out to sea, struggling to stay afloat during huge waves.

Ponyo would probably best be enjoyed by children about 5-8, as its charms for adults are mostly in the visual area. Miyazaki himself makes the connection to The Little Mermaid, but I kind of noticed that it's Finding Nemo, except that Nemo doesn't want to go back to her dad.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Alice Munro: Selected Stories

Alice Munro, last year's Nobel Laureate, was the first to win that award for primarily writing short stories. She has written one novel, but it is her stories that have occupied her sixty-year career. I've read a few of them over the years, but plunged knee-deep into her work with a copy of Selected Stories, which culls 28 of her best stories over the arc of her career.

Munro, a Canadian, is also a writer who very rarely leaves behind her home, specifically rural Ontario, near Lake Huron. I would have to go back and check, but I believe everyone of her stories in this collection is set there, with perhaps a few deviations to Toronto or Vancouver. Many of the stories are firmly rooted in rural life, such as "Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You," "Ottawa Valley," "Postcard," "Simon's Luck," or "Royal Beatings." A few have recurring characters, like Rose, who grows up in simpler times, but has just as complicated a life as anyone today. In one of the Rose stories, "The Beggar Maid," the first line is: "Patrick Blatchford was in love with Rose.This had become a fixed, even furious idea with him. For her, a continual surprise."

Other stories show the dichotomy of country and city life. "The Chaddeleys and Flemings" is a wonderful story about old aunts who visit a woman now living in Vancouver. "The Moons of Jupiter" deals with a young woman visiting her dying father in a hospital in Toronto. "White Dump," another of the best here, deals with folks living in a lake house on Huron, and one that gets the familiar phrase, "drove up from Toronto." This is the same with perhaps my favorite of all the stories, "Lichen," in which a man visits his ex-wife with his new wife in tow, and there is nothing amiss about this.

Some of my other favorites: "Fits," about a couple who are found dead by a neighbor, who for some reason doesn't tell anyone in town about it; "Dulse," set in a resort town on New Brunswick, which is where Willa Cather spent her summers, and "Miles City, Montana," about a Canadian family driving across the U.S. who narrowly avoid a tragedy in the town of the title. I also loved "Turkey Season," about a girl who gets a job on a turkey farm.

Munro's characters and plots are deceptively simple. They are about people who anyone can identify with, those people who show up in old photo albums and you realize they each have a story. She can also write a devastating sentence. I was stopped dead by this one: "'I love this house,' she says with a soft vehemence.'" Soft and vehemence would seem to be opposites, but yet I can just hear this woman's inflection. Or, "Everything he told her could easily have been a lie," which is sort of a primal truth in fiction, but rarely exposed so well.

Here are some other pearls: "Ladner did not own a dog. He was his own fierce dog." "The idea was--Sophie's idea always was--to make her own son look foolish. To make him look a fool in front of his wife wife and children. Which he did, standing above Sophie on the veranda, with the shamed blood rising hotly up his neck, staining his ears, his voice artificially lowered to sound a manly reproach, but trembling. That was what Sophie could do, would do, every time she got the chance."

I'll close with the opening of one of my favorites, "Differently." "Georgia once took a creative-writing course, and what the instructor told her was: Too many things. Too many things going on at the same time; also too many people. Think, he told her. What is the important thing? What do you want us to pay attention to? Think." The punchline comes two paragraphs later: "The course was not a total loss, because Georgia and the instructor ended up living together."

I will add that possibly Munro's best-known story "The Bear Went Over the Mountain," which was made into a well-received film called Away From Her, was for some reason not included here.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Interstellar

So often Christopher Nolan has been accused of making films that have no emotional depth (which I think is pretty much true). He has made another film, Interstellar, that is full of gear and gadgets and scientific jargon, but this time has added a veneer of soft gooey sentiment. At one point, a character is basically summarizing the song "All You Need Is Love." Nice try, Nolan, but it doesn't work.

Not that Interstellar doesn't provide an audience with a decent evening/afternoon. The plot is intriguing: the Earth is dying, due to a blight that has wiped out most crops and created a new dust bowl. The only solution is to find a new home for humanity. NASA, which is operating secretly, has identified 12 possible planets, all accessible through a wormhole near Saturn. They've narrowed it down to three. A crew of four heads out to check them out.

There is a lot of science in this movie, and I won't pretend to know what is accurate and what isn't. I do know that prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has given his seal of approval, although he doesn't even know what they're talking about when they say "solving the problem of gravity." The film also contains a closed time loop, which is a dangerous but favorite plot point.

Where the movie fails is it's attempt to be human. This time around it's love, love, love. Matthew McConaughey is the pilot on the mission, and he spends all his time worrying about his family (mostly his daughter--the son, who grows up to be Casey Affleck, is kind of left out). His daughter (Jessica Chastain as an adult) grows up to be a part of the team, working under main scientist Michael Caine. His daughter, Anne Hathaway, is on the mission, and reveals at one point that she wants to go to a certain planet because she loves the guy who's on it, basically risking the future of mankind for her own selfish reasons. But, she basically says, to hell with numbers--it's all about love.

Interstellar requires a great deal of attention, and an advanced degree might help. But those who have trouble with simple algebra, like me, can still get caught up in the story, when it doesn't start singing "Kumbaya." The first planet is covered with water about as deep as a wading pool, except when skyscraper-high waves crash down. This planet is near a black hole, and thus time is altered--for every hour spend on it, seven years of Earth time go by, which makes a visit need to be short and efficient. The second planet, which looks like the ice planet Hoth, has a surprise visitor (this actor, whom I won't name, loves making unbilled cameos) who is seriously whack. His character's name is Mann, which is a bit obvious.

The film ends with McConaughey in a black hole, and time becomes a physical space, which is all theoretical but pretty neat. I won't go into any more details, but mind you you've been in the theater for over two and a half hours by this point.

As is pointed out all over the Internet, Interstellar is full of plot holes. I will only point out one, since it's at the beginning of the movie. McConaughey and his daughter (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy, and credit to Nolan for casting a child who actually looks like Chastain) find NASA by deciphering binary code left by wind-scattered dust on the girl's bedroom floor. Question: if McConaughey was the best pilot they had, and knows Caine, and lives less than a day's drive away, why didn't they just pick up the phone and call him? Were they really set to fly to a wormhole near Saturn without their best pilot?

There's a lot more where they came from.

Interstellar is clearly Nolan's homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. There's the hint of advanced alien races helping us, there are chatty robots, there's a trippy ending. But Interstellar doesn't have the mind-blowing qualities of that film. It does have some of the wooden acting, though.

I liked Interstellar in doses, and recommend it for those who like sci-fi and all matters cosmic.

My grade for Interstellar: B-.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Deja Vu All Over Again

Jim Kaat
Here I go again with my annual Veterans' Day post, saluting not the actual veterans who fought and died for our country, but for the comparatively meaningless exercise of a handful of people electing those passed over by the baseball writers to the Hall of Fame.

This is the fifth year of the tripartite carousel, in which one particular era is analyzed every three years. This year we're back to the "Golden Era:" players, executives, mangers, and umpires who worked primarily between 1947 and 1972.

Six of the ten players on the final ballot are returning. The highest vote getter last time was Jim Kaat, who many may know as an announcer. He's now 76, and has been waiting a long time to see if he gets in. He only missed by two votes three years ago, so he just may be the front-runner for election this year.

I have no major problems with Kaat; he does have 283 wins. But that comes over 25 Major League seasons. Of course, he spend the last five years or so of his career as a relief pitcher. His highest Hall of Fame vote by the BBWAA was 29 percent, which is pretty high compared to some of the other people on this ballot.

Also returning are Gil Hodges, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Ken Boyer, and Luis Tiant. I went over these candidates in more depth three years ago, and I think only Hodges deserves enshrinement. But why oh why are Boyer and Tiant back on the ballot? They received less than three votes last time out. There has to be a time when players like this are not considered any more.

Now, on to the four new names on the ballot, in alphabetical order:

Dick Allen: Allen was a good hitter, with a .292 lifetime batting average, 351 home runs, and 1,848 hits, but that's just shy of a Hall of Fame career. Why Allen really won't get in is because he was a pain in the ass wherever he went. and won't get any votes out of sentiment. He only played 15 years.

Bob Howsam: As I've mentioned before, the Hall is starting to take longer looks at general managers, which is a good thing. Howsam's claim to fame was building the Big Red Machine, the Cincinnati Reds of the 1970s. He also GMed the St. Louis Cardinals during each of their pennant years in the 1960s. He also had quite a career in football, founding the Denver Broncos. I think Howsam is a decent candidate, but I'm kind of mystified why Buzzie Bavasi, who was behind the helm for much of the Dodgers' success, isn't back on the ballot.

Billy Pierce: Pierce was a reliable hurler who won 211 games, mostly for the White Sox. He won 20 games in a year only twice, and in his five years on the BBWAA ballot never got more than 1.9 percent of the vote. He gets a solid no from me.

Maury Wills: Shortstops are tough to evaluate. Wills did have over 2,000 hits, which is pretty good for a shortstop, and a .281 lifetime batting average. He was best known as a base-stealer, getting 586 lifetime and holding the single-season record for over ten years. He only won two Gold Gloves, though. He did receive decent representation during his time on the BBWAA list, getting as high as 40 percent. It wouldn't be a crime if he was elected.

So, I would vote for Hodges only. I have a feeling he will again fall short, though, and only Kaat will be  elected.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Best American Short Stories 2014

Once again this year I've read with great pleasure the annual Best American Short Stories. This year's volume was edited by Pulitzer-Prize winner Jennifer Egan, and she's selected twenty stories that manage to cover a range of styles and locations, from the soul-sucking of the modern day office to England in the 1300s.

Some of my favorite writers were included. T.C. Boyle is included for his story "The Night of the Satellite," on what seems to be an innocent night for a couple out that turns into a possible relationship ender, and Karen Russell leaves the Florida swamp to write from the point of view of "Madame Bovary's Greyhound": "A dog's love is forever. We expect infidelity from one another; we marvel at this one's ability to hold that one's interest for fifty, sixty years; perhaps some of us feel a secret contempt for monogamy even as we extol it, wishing parole for its weary participants. But dogs do not receive our sympathy or our suspicion--from dogs we presume an eternal adoration."

Speaking of dogs, the venerable Joyce Carol Oates is represented by "Mastiff," in which a couple come across a very large dog on a hiking trail: "The woman stared at the animal, not twelve feet away, wheezing and panting. Its head was larger than hers, with a pronounced black muzzle, bulging glassy eyes. Its jaws were powerful and slack; its large, long tongue, as rosy-pink as a sexual organ, dripped slobber. The dog was pale-brindle-furred, with a deep chest, strong shoulders and legs, a taut tail. It must have weighed at least two hundred pounds. It's breathing was damply audible, unsettling."

Another veteran short story writer, Ann Beattie, appears with "Indian Uprising," about the relationship of a woman to her former professor. I was particularly struck by this passage, which is full of so many odd details that the writing jumps off the page: "Egil, back in college, had been the star student of our class: articulate; irreverent; devoted to books; interested in alcohol, bicycling, Italian cooking, UFOs and Apple stock. He'd been diagnosed bipolar after he dove off the Delaware Memorial Bridge and broke every rib, his nose, and one wrist, and said he was sorry he'd had the idea." This is about a character who doesn't even figure prominently in the story.

A couple of name writers have stories here that I didn't care for. I had no idea what was going on in Joshua Ferris' "The Breeze," and Nell Freudenberger mixes in a little magic realism in "Hover," in which a young mother literally hovers off the ground. I didn't think the mixture of styles worked.

From authors that are new to me, I particularly enjoyed "God," by Benjamin Nugent, which has nothing to do with theology but is instead a kind of winsome tale of frat brothers who nickname a girl "God" because she writes a poem about one of the brother's premature ejaculation. "Bedding her was, for a Delta Zeta Chi brother, what bedding Shania Twain would be for a Southerner of what bedding Natalie Portman would be for a Jewish person; he was belly to belly with the most major figure in the Delta Zeta Chi culture."

Another great story, although one that will completely depress you, especially if you work in an office, is O.A. Lindsey's "Evie M.": "Back to work. Somebody left the coffee machine on all night, so the break area smelled burnt, and the pot had a veneer of tar-stuff on the bottom. I picked it up and looked into it, considered scrubbing it, considered smashing it into the brush-steeled sink, my knuckles grinding the shards, but then put it back and trod down the long hall to another break area, where I poured a cup." Yeah, I've lived that.

I've narrowed my favorites down to three, each of which cover a lot of years and could easily be expanded to novels, and have a cinematic quality that I confess to favoring. One is "At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners," by Laura Groff, which covers the life of a man born in the Florida swamp to a strange father who collects snakes. Two others are about music. David Gates' "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me" is set in the world of bluegrass musicians, and Brendan Matthews "This Is Not a Love Song" is told from the point of view of an acolyte of a punk rock singer.

The series editor, Heidi Pitlor, is to be congratulated on another fine edition.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Our Man in Havana

Carol Reed made three films adapting Graham Greene's words--The Third Man, Fallen Idol (both reviewed on this blog) and Our Man in Havana, which was released in 1959. It is the slightest of the three, a droll but punchless spy parody that had the timeliness of being set in Cuba and released just after Castro's revolution.

The film is set pre-revolution. Alec Guinness lives in Havana as a vacuum cleaner salesman, trying to make a living for his daughter (Jo Morrow). He is approached by a very stiff-upper-lipped Brit (Noel Coward, very funny) to be a spy, or, as Coward puts it, "Our man in Havana." Guinness thinks he's being ridiculous, but the extra money gets him to take the job.

He is expected to make reports and recruit other agents, which he is hapless at doing. His cynical German doctor friend (Burl Ives) suggests he just make it all up, and he does, but then London sends him a secretary (Maureen O'Hara) and when his fantasies strike too close to the truth, danger lurks ahead.

Our Man in Havana has its moments, especially when Coward is on screen, but never really lifts off. It's amusing, but at the end, when real bullets are fired, it kind of sours. Guinness basically plays a straight man, which is a bit of a waste of his talent, but Ives is very good.

So--see The Third Man and Fallen Idol first, before Our Man in Havana.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Trick or Treat

Halloween, like many holidays on the Western calendar, began as a a pagan festival that piggy-backed on a Christian holy day. But the origins of the day are rich, as Lisa Morton notes in her interesting if dry book, Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween. But, Morton writes, "Halloween is surely unique among festivals and holidays. While other popular calendar celebrations, including Christmas and Easter, have mixed pagan and Christian traditions, only Halloween has essentially split itself down the middle, offering up a secular or pagan festival on the night of 31 October and sombre religious observance on the day of 1 November."

Halloween can be traced to the Celtic Irish festival of Samhain. Morton debunks the notion that this has anything to do with Satanism--Samhain means "end of summer," and was a festival that celebrated the harvest. Over time it developed that the Celts believed it was also a day that the dead could pass over into the world of the living, but there was never anything evil about it. She also debunks the notion that Halloween had anything to do with a Roman festival called Pomona. She notes that some histories of the day are completely wrong, including one that mistakenly believes that the Romans conquered Celtic Ireland.

When Christianity took hold, the church did something smart: "The Church had found that conversion was far more successful when attempts were made to offer clear alternatives to existing calendar celebrations, rather than simply stamping them out." Thus Samhain was tied to All Saints' Day and All Soul's Day, which are not frivolous days on the Christian calendar, but at least in the West, they have been subsumed by the antics on Halloween.

Halloween in the early British days was centered around fortune telling. Much of the ways the Scottish did it were listed in Robert Burns' poem "Hallowe'en" (the word Halloween is an abbreviation of "All Hallow's Eve, but the correct apostrophe has been dropped over time). Once the holiday began popularity in America, though, fortune telling was replaced by pranks. Many of the Irish traditions did come over, though, including the Jack O'Lantern: "The legend of Jack, the blacksmith who outwits the Devil, appears in hundreds of variants throughout both Europe and America, and typically ends when Jack dies and, being denied entrance to either Heaven or Hell, instead wanders the earth with his way lit only by an ember held in a carved-out turnip." Pumpkins, being larger and plentiful in the New World, became the replacement for turnips.

Between the world wars, Halloween became less of an adult holiday and more of one for children. The tradition of trick or treat, meant to lessen the widespread vandalism and pranking, began to take root in the 1920s, with Anoka, Minnesota the first American town to hold an annual Halloween parade.

Morton then covers how other countries celebrate the holiday, with those that are primarily Catholic emphasizing All Saints' Day. Mexico, of course, has Dias de los Muertas, the Day of the Dead, which has influenced Halloween with its skull imagery. Interestingly, in Israel and Australia the holiday has never really caught on.

Her last part of the book deals with Halloween in popular culture, from Robert Burns to Tim Burton. Some works, which never mention Halloween, have come to be associated with it, such as Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hallow," Bram Stoker's Dracula, or any of the works of Edgar Allan Poe (I was interested to learn that Stephen King has hardly ever used Halloween in his vast works). Books that have used the holiday are Ray Bradbury's The Halloween Tree.

In films, Morton hits the major ones, such as John Carpenter's Halloween and Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. She also writes the popularity of certain figures, who previously had nothing to do with Halloween, from the advent of monster movies shown on television, and their ghoulish hosts, like Elvira.

Morton also touches on the growing industry of haunted house attractions, which began modestly with Disney's Haunted Mansion to a major industry all over the country, and the objections to Halloween from religious figures. Morton then notes: "Some reverends, among others, have countered by suggesting that if Christians are to ban celebrations on the basis of their pagan origins, they might want to start with Christmas and Easter."

There's a lot of interesting stuff here--I made plenty of notes--but the prose is rather dry and without much inflection from the author. It almost reads like a very long term paper. Many of the sections are simply long lists, with Morton only slightly changing up the language in an attempt to keep it vivid. But for those like me, whose favorite holiday is Halloween, its a treasure trove of information.

Friday, November 07, 2014

New Clowns in the Circus

Send in one clown--Joni Ennst
We liberal Democrats have been licking our wounds the last three days after another humiliating midterm election. If 2010 was a "shellacking," as Barack Obama put it, I hesitate to apply an appropriate metaphor. Maybe "annihilation." The prognosis was grim going into Tuesday, but the result was a bloodbath, with some Democrats, like Kay Hagan of North Carolina, or Independents like Greg Orman of Kansas, who were expected to win, did not. Even Sam Brownback, the much reviled governor of Kansas, won re-election.

As of today, the Alaska senate race has not been confirmed and there will be a run-off in Louisiana. If the Democrats lose both of those contests the Republicans will have a four-seat majority, the stuff of progressive nightmares. Combined with the House, they will have more members of Congress since 1929, and we all know what happened that year. There has been much soul-searching and spinning--I have learned that a lot gets down when the president and congress are of different parties (but just what gets done?), but for me I'm still--what the fuck?

Sure, Obama is not popular, but his lowest popularity rating--41 percent, is miles better than the lowest of the last two Republican presidents, both named Bush. And he was elected by a fairly healthy margin just two years ago. And I don't know about you, but to me things have gotten better domestically. Unemployment is down, the Affordable Care Act has given health care to millions who otherwise wouldn't have it, and even gas prices are down. Foreign policy has been a sticky wicket, but I can't think of a president who hasn't gotten bogged down in the mire of the Middle East in the last three decades.

So just what was this about? Anti-Obama? That seemed to the be the strategy, as the Republican Party for the last two years has offered nothing of substance except blocking the president's agenda. I can't get into the heads of those who might have voted for Obama in 2014 but voted for a Republican senator this time around. Just what the fuck are you thinking, Iowa? You voted for Obama twice, but sent bat-shit crazy Sarah Palin clone Joni Ernst to the Senate, replacing the venerable liberal Tom Harkin. This is the largest swing in all the Senate, and Ernst is sure to be the new Michele Bachmann in inspiring liberal comedians. Ernst is a conspiracy theorist, doesn't believe in global warming, used guns as props in her campaign ads, and like Palin, made sure everyone knew she loved slaughtering animals, in her case castrating pigs.

Ernst may be the most visible new clown to join the circus that is Congress, but she's far from alone. Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, besides consistently voting against the Violence Against Women Act, also has a fetish for ISIS fears, suggesting they are teaming up with those greasy Mexicans to storm across the border.

One of the bigger surprises Tuesday was the victory of Cory Gardner over Tom Udall in Colorado, where pot is legal. Gardner may not be crazy, just a slimy politician--he's the one who was for a personhood amendment (that would give legal rights to fetuses) but then flip-flopped on it when it wasn't making hay. Here's the good news from Tuesday--personhood amendments went down wherever they appeared, and by big numbers. That issue, which couldn't even pass in Mississippi, may be done for good.

In the House, where there are even more crazies, the Daily Kos has proposed the biggest new loon to be Wisconsin's Glenn Grothman, who thinks that there is a gay agenda and that schools are trying to turn your children gay. If they manage to stop boys from becoming rapists, I'm all for it. The Daily Kos thinks Grothman could be a challenger to Louis Gohmert's as America's Dumbest Congressman.

America's Meanest Congressman is Iowa's Steve King, but he could be challenged by Jody Hice of Georgia, a gun-happy preacher who thinks Islam is not covered by the First Amendment because it is not a true religion and is, of course, rabidly anti-gay.

But this all pales to the craziest Republican elected on Tuesday--a state senator from Colorado named Gordon Klingenschmitt (wasn't there a campfire song about him?), a former Navy pastor who, among other things, performed an exorcism on a woman to drive the lesbian out of her (he also claims to have performed an exorcism on President Obama, but I believe both participants have to be in the same room). He also claims that gays are in league with the devil and want us straight folks' souls, and that they will join with ISIS and behead Americans right here. When challenged on this remark, he said Democrats did not understand hyperbole. He received 70 percent of the vote.

There was some good news Tuesday. In addition to personhood going down, minimum wage raises were passed in four states, and marijuana was legalized in Washington, D.C., where the new clowns can now go one toke over the line, sweet Jesus, one toke over the line.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Castle in the Sky

Getting back to Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, I turn to one of his early works, Castle in the Sky, released in 1987. Compared to the other films of his I've seen, it's a much more straight-forward action/adventure, but it does have pirates and giant robots.

Set in a past where airships dominate the skies, a young girl is on just such a huge airship when she is attempted to be kidnapped by a pirate gang led by an old lady with long pink pigtails. At the same time she is protected by a shadowy government agent. She manages to escape out the window, but she falls through the clouds. A crystal around her neck, though, slows her down, where she comes under the protection of a boy in a mining town.

These two, Sheeta and Pazu, will then both elude the pirates and the government, as they learn that the girl and her crystal come from a mysterious floating island called Laputa. When they realize the pirates, who include the old lady and her dim but good-hearted sons, are the lesser of two evils, they team up to find Laputa (the pirates want the treasure). But the government agent has a more nefarious purpose for finding the island.

This is a grand entertainment for both young and old, and I especially liked the scene in which Sheeta's crystal awakens a giant robot who is programmed to assist her. He does some serious ass-kicking. Having robots as sidekicks goes back a long way, and I think is a primal enjoyment for children who get picked on. I always wanted the robot from Lost in Space as my personal bodyguard.

At the same time, there is something about Miyazaki's work that is off-putting to me, and I frequently checked out of the movie. As I watch more of his films maybe I can figure it out. Both Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky are over two hours long--maybe that's just too long for an animated film. I will dutifully record my findings.

The version I saw was distributed by Disney, so had American actors dubbing, including Anna Paquin, James Vanderbeek, Cloris Leachman as the old lady pirate and Mark Hamill, who went on from Star Wars to have a superlative career voicing cartoon characters, as the chief villain.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Nightcrawler

I saw Nightcrawler three days ago and I still don't know what to think. I do know it's fantastic filmmaking, and an audacious commentary on what TV journalism consists of today. It also has one of the great horrible-person protagonists of recent memory. Many have compared Jake Gyllenhaal's Louis Bloom to Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin, but Bloom may even be more sociopathic.

We don't know much about Bloom. When the film begins he steals scrap metal. He happens to drive by a car accident and is fascinated by the video crew that pulls up, led by Bill Paxton. He learns that the crews are free-lance, and sell their footage to the highest bidder. We also hear the shop-worn phrase, "If it bleeds it leads." Essentially, these guys are paparazzi, but their targets are anything that produces blood and human misery, whether they be auto accidents, plane crashes, or murders.

Bloom, who may have some sort of autism, is able to spout paragraph upon paragraph of self-help blather he's learned on the Internet, usually in a semi-robotic fashion. He starts off with a simple camera and no idea what he's doing, but he manages to get some decent footage of a carjacking victim and sells it to the lowest rated news station in L.A.. The news director is Rene Russo, who is on the hot seat, and though the footage is graphic, she leads with it.

Bloom ends up hiring an assistant (Riz Ahmed), a homeless guy who will anything for money. The relationship between these two is one of the strongest things about the movie (written and directed by Dan Gilroy). Ahmed sorts of knows Bloom is crazy, but sticks with him, while Bloom constantly berates Ahmed, but then turns around and praises him. It's sort of like he thinks Ahmed is a dog.

Eventually Bloom becomes a success, with state of the art equipment and a new car. He turns down Paxton's offer of going partners. In one of the most disturbing scenes of the movie, Gyllenhaal takes Russo out on a date, and tells her that unless she has sex with him, he will take his footage elsewhere, risking her job.

There are no ethics to be found in Nightcrawler, and for that reason this film is certainly not for everyone. Bloom is a very creepy character. First he moves accident victims for a better shot, and then, on a home invasion when he gets there before the police, withholds evidence so he can end up reaping the benefit. You may want to shower after the film, but you won't forget it easily.

Nightcrawler benefits from excellent night-time L.A. photography by Robert Elswit that reminded me a lot of Collateral. The opening shot is of a blank billboard, and then the moon hanging over the mountains, which was instantly grabbing. I also liked the percussive score by James Newton Howard.

But this film belongs to Gyllenhaal. His portrait of a man with no empathy is truly scary and unnerving. He may or may not be nominated or an Oscar, but it is without doubt one of the best performances of the year.

My grade for Nightcrawler: A-.