Follow by Email

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

More She & Him

Last year I rhapsodized about the duo known as She & Him, which consists of actress Zooey Deschanel and musician and producer M. Ward. They have a new record out, so I picked that up as well as a Christmas album they did three years ago.

The seasonal disc, called A Very She & Him Christmas, is a lovely collection of songs pertaining to Christmas, although completely secular. There are some recognizable standards, such as "The Christmas Waltz,"  "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Sleigh Ride," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Silver Bells," and The Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick."

There's nothing terribly daring about the arrangements. I was struck by the gender reversal in "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which is normally sung as the man wanting the woman to stay, but this time it's Deschanel imploring Ward not to head out in the cold. There's a nice version of "Blue Christmas" with only a ukulele as accompaniment.

The new album is She & Him Classics. Both of these albums deny us the wonderful songwriting of Deschanel, but she wraps her lips around some old standards and some of them are terrific. I particularly liked her "It's Not For Me to Say" and "Unchained Melody." Ward gets into the act with his own solo, Charles Aznavour's "She." Ward has a raspy voice like an old New Orleans' jazz musician, but it fits with Deschanel's voice and his solo here is surprisingly good.

The album ends with the old World War II chestnut, "We'll Meet Again," which I've been hearing all over the place. It ends the film Dr. Strangelove, which I just watched again, and was the song Stephen Colbert chose to end his show.

Both of these albums are nice, safe music that your grandparents would like. I think the term that used to be used for this style is easy listening, and reminds me of hi-fi sets that were built into TV sets. And that's not a bad thing, as long as Deschanel is singing. Hopefully she'll have some new songs for their next effort.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Almost Famous

I remember that when I first saw Almost Famous upon its release in 2000, I liked it very much. I liked it even more, I think, watching it again for the first time. What writer-director Cameron Crowe does best is reproduce a time period, 1973, when rock and roll the dominant musical style, as well as a religion. The film abounds in nostalgia, but it also has a heart and, even if you weren't around during the heyday of classic rock, I think you can still feel the excitement.

The story is an autobiographical one. Crowe's stand-in, William Miller (played well by a wide-eyed Patrick Fugit) is a rock-obsessed 15-year-old. He strikes up a friendship with Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the editor of Creem magazine, and gets some writing jobs. He is contacted by Rolling Stone, and Fugit, having met the up and coming band Stillwater, suggests a story about them. Rolling Stone hires him to cover their tour, not knowing he's just a kid.

Back at home, Fugit's mother (Frances McDormand), who has old-fashioned virtues (she throws out a Simon and Garfunkel album because she's sure they're on pot) allows him to go, having already driven her daughter (Zooey Deschanel) away. She's nervous, as she should be, given the rather lax morals of those in rock and roll. But he is accepted by the band, warily, as they realize he is "the enemy," but take him under his wing, as do a group of teenage girls, who declare they are not groupies, but "Band Aids."

These girls are led by Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who has a relationship with Stillwater's lead guitarist (Billy Crudup). Fugit has the adventure of his life hanging around with all of them as they head from city to city on an old bus. He sees everything--when Crudup attends a party at kid's house in Topeka, takes acid, and jumps off the roof into a swimming pool--or when the band, on a private jet, encounter violent turbulence and see fit to confess all their sins.

In addition to capturing a time period (the costumes and sets are so evocative) the film also digs deep into the characters. The screenplay is just about perfect, and that springs from well-developed characters. While Fugit, who is just a kid, is like the eye of the storm, he is surrounded by bolts of lighting. Everyone involved manages to create a world in which they live, from Hoffman to Crudup to Jason Lee as the lead singer, who feels threatened by Crudup's popularity. Hudson, who has never really equaled her performance here, is so touching as a girl who has created her sense of self-worth by living near famous people ("they are more interesting," she says).

But, it's really all about the music. As someone who is a little younger than Crowe, and remembers vinyl records, I get this completely. When Deschanel leaves her stash of records for William, and he leafs through them--The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix--why, it's enough to give a Baby Boomer a nostalgic stroke. And is there any scene that evokes more love of music that the bus ride, with all riders hating each other, breaking out into song to Elton John's "Tiny Dancer?"

Seeing this 14 years later also found me amused at all the actors who had bit parts who are now noteworthy, especially on TV: Rainn Wilson (from The Office), Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family) and Pauley Perrette (NCIS). Also appearing is a very young Jay Baruchel, as the world's greatest Led Zeppelin fan.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Big Eyes

Tim Burton has, for the first time in 20 years, left behind the supernatural and returned to real life, and he has done so with the same writers who did Ed Wood, which I think is his best film. Big Eyes is not on that level, though it is another film about the fringes of pop culture.

Margaret (Amy Adams) is a single mother and struggling artist. At an art fair she meets the smooth talking Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), and she marries him in a whirlwind romance. Walter paints street scenes in Paris, while she paints waifs with saucer-sized eyes that, while disturbing, still manage to pull people in.

Eventually her paintings start to catch on and sell. Problem--he's taking credit for them. Since this is set in the late '50s and early '60s, when women artists weren't taken seriously, she agrees to the ruse (a priest tells her that she should obey her husband). Keane is a great publicist and marketer, and the paintings become world famous, leading to larges sales via reproductions. It's a cottage industry that includes cups, dolls, and other bric-a-brac.

This can not stand, and she will soon break free of him, and when she asserts that she has painted every single one of the paintings, it all goes to court, where the judge hits on a sensible solution.

This is one of Burton's least Burton-like films. Ed Wood, while telling a true story, still had enough weirdness that one could see Burton's fingerprints. This is a much more straight story that ends up being about business and feminism. It's a decent film, but without much in the way of uniqueness. A documentary might have been more informative

But of course a documentary would have denied yet another wonderful performance by Amy Adams. She is pitch-perfect here, as a woman making the brave decision to leave her (first) husband and try to be an artist, raising a child and living in the creative hot spot that was San Francisco. Unfortunately, Waltz does to Adams as an actor that Keane did to Margaret as an artist. He so overwhelms the picture with overacting that the weight of the performance grew tedious.

I do give the film a thumbs up, if only for Adams and the marvelous production design. It's images that I'm left with, such as a suburb in northern California that looks a lot like the one in Edward Scissorhands, or a busy street in San Francisco. The climax in the courtroom is very well done, though it does give us a scene in which Waltz, representing himself, puts himself on the witness stand and hops up and down from lawyer's table to witness stand. Woody Allen did that in Bananas.

As for the paintings, I faintly remember the Keane pictures' popularity. They kind of set a model for other artists, ranging from Andy Warhol (he was a big fan) to Thomas Kinkade. An art critic, played by Terence Stamp, resolutely says they are not art, and I have to agree with him, but they certainly were a pop culture curiosity. I wouldn't want one hanging on wall, though. I'd think it was always watching me.

My grade for Big Eyes: B-.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

My Fair Lady

Mary Poppins wasn't the only musical set in Edwardian England to be nominated for Best Picture. My Fair Lady, which won the Oscar, was based on the Broadway musical, which in turn was based on George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion. My advice--read or go find a production of Pygmalion.

My Fair Lady is one of those bloated road-show musicals that the '60s were famous for. It's long (almost three hours), has impeccable production and costume design, and is exceedingly tasteful. The music, by Alan Lerner and Frederick Loewe, is full of songs that have become standards. But my problem is in the script--Henry Higgins is just too much of an asshole.

For those who don't know the story, Higgins is a professor of phonetics. As the film opens, he's spying on a Cockney flower girl, Eliza Dolittle (Audrey Hepburn), taking down her speech patterns. She is insulted, but later seeks his help in improving her speech so she can work in a flower shop. Higgins' friend, Colonel Pickering, bets him that he can't turn Hepburn into a proper lady in six months.

Woody Allen had a joke in his stand-up act that went, "I've been removing the music and lyrics from My Fair Lady and turning it back into Pygmalion." Shaw was not a romantic, and Pygmalion is less about a May-December romance between complete opposites than a commentary on class. He even wrote an afterword to the play that says that Eliza will end up with Freddy Eynsford-Hill, who's kind of a drip but at least loves Eliza for who she is.

Rex Harrison won an Oscar for his portrayal of Higgins, and he did succeed if he set out to make the man a monster. He takes Hepburn into his home, but then browbeats her continuously. When he does realize he wants to be with her, it's with the song "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face," which does not say he loves her, but he's grown use to her, like an old sweater. When she comes back to him she does not, I'm sorry to say, shoot him.

The film was directed impeccably by George Cukor, the legendary "director of women," and he finally won his Oscar. The musical numbers are staged without much daring. The best two are those involving Stanley Holloway as Eliza's father, Alfred P. Dolittle, who gives the film desperately needed freshness. His songs, which have both been running through my head since I saw the film, are "With a Little Bit o' Luck " and "Get Me to the Church on Time," which finds the poor Dolittle forced to marry his common-law wife.

The casting of Hepburn is a bit of Hollywood lore. Julie Andrews originated the role on Broadway, and even though Hepburn did not have a great singing voice she got the gig. Her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon (she also dubbed Natalie Wood in West Side Story). Hepburn did not get an Oscar nomination, but Andrews did, and won, for Mary Poppins.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Mary Poppins

Mary Poppins is the first film I remember seeing, and since, judging by the release date, I would have been only three and change, I doubt there was any other before it, unless I had been taken in as an infant. Our family also had the soundtrack album, which we played incessantly, so I have a sentimental attachment to this film. I was pleased to see that the film holds up, and its charms are not just nostalgic.

The other wrinkle with Mary Poppins is seeing it after seeing the behind-the-scenes Saving Mr. Banks last year. I let out an exhalation of humor upon seeing, listed in the opening credits, "Consultant: P.L. Travers." And how.

Most of the success of this film is due to Richard and Robert Sherman, who wrote the songs. Almost every song in the score is still known to us. "Chim-Chim-Cheree" won the Oscar for Best Song, but "Spoonful of Sugar," "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," "Let's Go Fly a Kite," and "I Love to Laugh" are cemented firmly into Western culture. I think the best bit of songwriting is Mr. Banks' theme, "The Life I Lead," which by the end of the film is heart-rending. Because we know, from Saving Mr. Banks, that the movie is about him.

That's the curious thing about this film. Mary, played brilliantly by Julie Andrews in her film debut (she won the Oscar for Best Actress) is not a character per se but a force of nature. She has no arc--she's "practically perfect in every way" and does not change. She comes and go with the wind, and has no back story or development. The same could be said of Bert, her friend and co-conspirator, who has many jobs but seems to exist outside of the film (he addresses the audience directly). No, this movie is about Mr. Banks, and how he comes to realize what's important in life

As such, that's not a very original message. Mr. Banks plays a banker who likes his life peaceful and pleasant. His wife (Glynis Johns), is in the suffragette movement, which he tolerates, but his household is run by a staff, and his children are to be patted on the head after he returns from work and sent to bed. Mary is there to help him see the error of his ways.

The scenes that I found boring as a child--the bird woman, the visit to the bank, and Banks' long walk to get fired--are what I find most touching as an adult. Indeed, Banks, slowly making his way to see Mr. Dawes, the ancient president of the bank, while the music swells, is deadly to a three-year-old but devastating to a man of 53.

The magic realism of the film is also enchanting, although the visual effects are primitive compared to today. The sequence in which Mary, Bert, and the children jump into one of his sidewalk chalk drawings isn't as enthralling to me today, partly because of the poor animation. And of course Dick Van Dyke, as Bert, supplies one of the legendary bad accents, though he's loose-limbed enough in the dancing scenes.

Andrews, as Mary, manages to play a woman who is severe but is also fun. I think she was sexed up for the film, as there's just the slightest of romantic interest between her and Bert (she pointedly tells him he's wonderful because he doesn't take advantage--hmmm). She's not called on to do any gesticulating, but her facial expressions are so deliciously subtle that she can be read like a book. And, of course, her singing is heavenly (and it's her own voice--more on that in tomorrow's post).

But David Tomlinson as Banks really steals the show. His expression, with his drooping brow and wispy mustache, is just perfect, and his transformation is cathartic. "A wooden leg named Smith" indeed.

I'd say I had a good start at the movies.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Foxcatcher

I loved Bennett Miller's first two films, Capote and Moneyball. Therefore I was disappointed with his third, Foxcatcher, which, like the first two, is based on true events. Unlike the other two, there is no real heart to the film, and instead is just about a very strange man who is not all that interesting.

Steve Carell, weighed down with makeup, plays John du Pont, a scion of the wealthy family. He would seem to have a host of mental problems, including megalomania and a severe mommy issue. While his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) favors horses, he's taken a shine to wrestling, and has built a state of the art training facility.

That's where the Schultz brothers come in. Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave (Mark Ruffalo) have both won Olympic gold medals. But as we join Mark, he doesn't seem to be living much of a life. He trains, but lives alone and eats ramen noodles by himself. Dave has a family and coaches at a college.

When Tatum is contacted by Carell to be an anchor in his training program, he is thrilled. Another layer of the film is that of brothers, as Tatum has always believed himself to be in his brother's shadow. Ruffalo refuses to join Carell, citing family issues, so Tatum bonds with Carell, willingly allowing the man to be his mentor.

Here's the problem--no person would spend five minutes with Carell, at least as portrayed in this film, and not realize he's as mad as a hatter. Carell's performance, while interesting in a technical way, does not influence me. It's really a stunt performance. From Carell's first appearance in the film, the rest of the action is just a downward slide to its tragic climax.

The movie looks great. The photography by Greig Fraser is top-notch, especially the scenes at Foxcatcher farm in Pennsylvania. One scene, that has Carell leading horses out of a barn into a fog, is pretty amazing. But the script, by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, comes up short. It pokes around at why du Pont is the way he is--mostly because he's trying to please his mother--but mental illness isn't that easily solved. Reading about the true story, I see that there were other factors that led to the climax that are not even hinted at in the film, and should have been.

Tatum and Ruffalo give much better performances. Tatum, his jaw jutting forward, gives us a view of the athlete who knows no other life. He lumbers, his body like a coiled spring, his mind set on only the basics. Ruffalo plays a much more rounded man (there is no indication of a love life for Tatum) who wants the best for his brother and his family, and gets sucked in to Carell's insanity.

While the film looks great (and kudos to those who taught Tatum and Ruffalo how to wrestle) it's as Gertrude Stein defined Oakland: there's no there there.

My grade for Foxcatcher: C+.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Miracle on 34th Street

Since I was looking at Maureen O'Hara pictures this fall, I figured a good choice for my Christmas movie this year would be her 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, which, amazingly, I don't think I had seen before, at least not all the way through. I did see a TV remake about forty years ago, with David Hartman and Sebastian Cabot as Kris Kringle.

I think everyone knows the story, even if they haven't seen it. A kindly old gent (Edmund Gwenn, who won an Oscar for the performance) styles himself as the Santa, the genuine article. In reality he lives in a retirement home in Great Neck, but the doctor there feels he is doing no one any harm.

When Gwenn goes to the Macy's day parade and finds the Santa soused to the gills, he reports this to the parade organizer (O'Hara), who hires him on the spot. He's such a hit that they keep him on as department store Santa.

Gwenn is so kindly he will send shoppers to other stores to get what they want (a cameo by Thelma Ritter as one of the shoppers is terrific, as she always was). This turns out to be a marketing boon, as Macy's is seen as the "store with heart" (to be truthful, this was one of the great product placements in movie history. Gimbel's must have seethed).

But the store psychologist has a bug up his ass about Gwenn, and seeks to get him committed. O'Hara's burgeoning romantic partner, John Payne, takes his case, and everyone is leery about having Santa sent to the nuthouse, especially the judge (Gene Lockhart), who is running or re-election.

All of this is really secondary to the main theme--that faith is better than reason. O'Hara's daughter (Natalie Wood) has always been taught that there is no Santa. She has absolutely no imagination at all, in fact, which I think is taking it too far--I would think it would be impossible to have a normal child who doesn't have any kind of imagination. Wood wants to believe in Santa, and asks him for a house in the suburbs.

The issue of faith normally appears in religion. In this film it's defined in believing in something despite common sense, which might as well apply to believing in a God (or gods). Believing in a god is akin to believing in Santa Claus, but in my view, believing in Santa is far more innocuous, as no one has gone to war over who's vision of Santa is correct.

The film was directed by George Seaton and won another Oscar for screenplay, but truth be told, the film isn't that good. The pace is choppy, the lead performances are flat (except for Gwenn's) and the message muddy.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Dr. Strangelove

The third film nominated for the Best Picture of 1964 would have gotten my vote, as it's one of my top ten movies of all time. Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is a black comedy that satirizes something that people were pretty edgy about in those days: the threat of nuclear war.

Only fourteen months before its release in January, the U.S. had faced down Russian in the Cuban missile crisis. That same year, Fail Safe, a film that has roughly the same plot, played the whole thing deadly serious. But Kubrick, who I think is one of the great geniuses of film, decided to play it for laughs, and fifty years later it's still uproariously funny.

The plot centers around an Air Force general, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) having gone mad. He thinks the fluoridation of water is a communist plot, corrupting Americans' bodily fluids, or "purity of essence." He decides to invoke Plan R, which sends a wing of B-52s to attack Russian targets.

When the Pentagon gets wind of it, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers, in one of three roles) gathers everyone in the war room to find out how to stop it. This includes General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the ex-Nazi scientist of the title (also played by Sellers). Meanwhile, one plane manages to get through, piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens), who has no idea that it's all a mistake.

The script, which was co-written by Terry Southern, was based on a book called Red Alert, but as usual with Kubrick, the source is only a suggestion. Dr. Strangelove doesn't even appear in the book, and the movie is much more jokey. The tone of the film walks a tightrope liked Phillipe Petit, veering between the lowest, MAD Magazine style humor (the Russian premier is named "Kissoff") and a kind of Playboy Magazine smutty tone (the opening scene shows a B-52 being refueled in the most sexual of ways).

There are all sorts of great lines, the most famous of which is "You can't fight here, this is the War Room!" or Turgidson's concession that several million would die in a shooting war: "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed!" The president's conversation with Kissoff, which is all done at one end of the phone, is very funny, as the two speak like some married couple: "Of course this a friendly call!"

Sellers also plays a third role, as a British RAF officer who realizes that Ripper is insane, and tries to get the recall code from him without getting shot. Eventually he will butt heads with a Army colonel, named "Bat Guano," who is reluctant to shoot open a Coke machine to get change for the pay phone. "You're going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola company," he tells Sellers.

Viewed from today's perspective, I'm kind of surprised that a movie satirizing the military was even made back then. I read that Columbia only agreed to finance if Sellers played four parts--he was originally supposed to play Kong, but wasn't comfortable doing the accent. Slim Pickens, who was a Western actor, played the role straight (he had no idea he was in a comedy) and the scenes in the plane are all scored to a fife-and-drum version of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." When Kong realizes it's war, he puts on a cowboy hat, saying to his crew: "Well boys, this is it. Nuclear combat, toe to toe with the Ruskies." The cowboy is the image a lot of countries use for Americans, and Pickens was a brilliant choice, even if it wasn't the first.

My favorite parts of the film are those done by Scott, who plays Turgidson (another reference to sexuality) way over the top. Scott was encouraged to do so by Kubrick, only he did these scenes thinking they were rehearsal, and Kubrick filmed them without Scott's knowledge. Kubrick was right, as Scott's portrayal, like some walking erection, is comedy gold. I loved his response to a call from his mistress during the war room meeting ("I told you never to call me here!") and then, after hanging up, his guilty little boy expression.

As for the character of Strangelove, that's the one area where the film seems dated. Nazi caricatures were still in vogue, as most people remembered the war, and he was based on a number of German scientists who came to work for the U.S., such as Werner Von Braun (not Henry Kissinger, the makers insist). His shtick of not being able to control his right arm, which snaps into a salute to the Fuhrer, isn't that funny, but his description of life post-nuclear-war, with a select group of people living in mine shafts, is great, and reinforces the sexual humor of the film. For breeding purposes, women would have to outnumber men ten to one, and have to be chosen for their sexual practices, he says. Turgidson is practically drooling at this.

The ending, with Pickens riding the bomb to its target like a bucking bronco, is another iconic image from the film. The very ending, with shots of mushroom clouds set to Vera Lynn singing "We'll Meet Again," was not the original idea--that was to be a massive pie-throwing fight in the war room.

Compared to the other four films nominated that year, Dr. Strangelove was a refreshing blast of new cinema. I say that I marvel that a major studio made this film fifty years ago, hell, I would be surprised if they made it today. It's a comic masterpiece.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Becket

Moving on to the next Best Picture nominee from 1964, I turn to Becket, directed by Peter Glenville, based on the play by Jean Anouilh. The big selling point here is that it teamed up (I believe for the only time) the great British actors Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole.

This movie is great fun and acted to the hilt. But, in retrospect, it's impossible to view this film without thinking of The Lion in Winter, in which O'Toole played the same part, Henry II of England. He essentially plays him the same way--a witty but obnoxious man who enjoys being king and has very little patience (but eagerly needs love). The films, that were not made by the same people and have nothing in common but O'Toole, would make a great double feature, if only on the life of Henry II.

This film is set earlier than Lion. Henry has a favorite drinking and wenching buddy, Thomas Becket (Burton) who is Saxon, while the nobility are Norman, who view Saxons as ignorant peasants. Nonetheless, Becket is a great adviser to Henry, and is made Lord Chancellor. Henry is at odds with the church. He wants to tax them for his war against the French. Becket takes his side.

After the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, Henry has the great idea to name Becket to the post, even though the latter is not even a priest. Becket begs him not to do it, but Henry presses ahead, thinking he will have a puppet. But Becket, once installed, realizes his oath is now to God, and not the king. Henry is deeply wounded, and tries to have him arrested, but Becket flees to France on his way to petition the Pope.

This film is fascinating in its view of the loneliness of Henry--he really only has Becket to call a friend, and when he loses that, he is bereft. He is married to Eleanor of Aquitaine (here played by Pamela Brown), and he spars with her just like he will with Katharine Hepburn in Lion. He hates his children, and his debauchery is legendary, but without Becket he is like a small child. "I am bored!" he shouts.

But even though he and Becket are great friends, he always flexes his power. At one point, Becket saves a peasant girl from life as a castle whore, but Henry says Becket must grant him a favor in return. He will end up demanding the only woman that Becket was close to loving.

Becket, for his part, is a man who seems incapable of feeling anything. This is frequently mentioned, and it plays out that God is the one thing that can fill his heart. There is much talk of "honor," specifically the honor of God, and Becket, when push comes to shove, is the man who keeps it.

The pageantry of the film is gorgeous. The scene of Becket's installation is too long, but I got chills at an excommunication service (this film is set in the 12th century, and even though the nobles do anything they want, they still fear excommunication). There are scenes with hundreds of extras, but the best scenes are those that feature just a few, especially Becket and Henry's final meeting, each on horseback, on the beach in France.

Both men received Oscar nominations, as did John Gielgud for his delicious cameo as King Louis of France. The screenplay won Best Adapted Screenplay.

I visited Canterbury years ago, and there's a candle burning in the cathedral of the spot Becket was killed. It's a simple memorial (a larger, Catholic one was torn down by Henry VIII). It was very touching. However, this film is not exactly historically accurate. For one thing, Becket was not a Saxon. Anouilh discovered this only after he had started writing the play, and he decided not to change it because then he really wouldn't have a play. I'm not sure Henry ever said, "Is there no one who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" but I choose to believe he did.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Wild

"I'm going to walk until I become the woman my mother wanted me to be," is essentially the movie Wild in one line. A young woman, who spirals into drugs and promiscuity after the death of her mother, pulls it together by walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada.

This sounds like a lot of other stories we've heard, and performing a physical challenge in order to figure out who we are inside may seem a tad stale by now, but I found Wild engrossing and moving, and I give the credit to director Jean-Marc Vallee. Although at first I thought he was over-directing, I realize a few days later that if this thing had been told straight it would have been like watching someone's vacation footage.

Reese Witherspoon, who also produced the film, plays Cheryl Strayed. She and a brother have been raised by a free-spirited mother (Laura Dern), and though Witherspoon at times looks down on her mother's lack of sophistication, the two are very close.

After Dern's death from cancer, Witherspoon becomes completely unmoored, cheating on her husband (even taking on two men in a restaurant restroom) and shooting heroin. She sees a guide book for the PCT, and though she can barely lift her pack, she sets out by walking across the Mojave Desert.

Vallee, first of all, manages to make this all interesting by use of flashback and montage. We begin with Witherspoon, somewhere in the forested mountains, peeling off a blackened toenail and then losing a boot. She throws the other one down the mountain to join it. From there we learn the rest of the story, sometimes with just shreds of film, a kaleidoscope of images that work powerfully. Vallee also makes great use of music, particularly Simon and Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa." We hear the into to that song many times and when the whole song plays out it's like a catharsis.

Some of the predicaments Witherspoon finds herself in seem dialed up--a farmer, whom she initially mistrusts, turns out to be kind, while a couple of creepy hunters probably aren't. She has a fling with a hippie (she happens upon the hippie enclave of Ashland, Oregon just in time for Jerry Garcia's death) and makes friends along the way. I knew a guy who attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail, and I learned a lot about what goes into and the camaraderie among those who do it. A scene in which she is interviewed by a reporter for "The Hobo Times" is pretty funny, as she is forced to reiterate that she is not a hobo.

What is most interesting is Witherspoon's performance. Like any America's Sweetheart, she has attempted to spread her creative wings beyond the Legally Blonde persona, and it hasn't been easy for her. It's just hard to see her as a heroin-shooting slut. I don't think she ever quite gets there--she never stops being Reese Witherspoon to me--but I give her credit for trying.

My grade for Wild: B+.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Zorba the Greek

This is my eighth year of turning back the calendar at year's end to take a look fifty years in the past by viewing the five nominated films for the Best Picture Oscar. I'll start at the end of the alphabet with the only of the quintet I had not seen before, Zorba the Greek, directed by Michael Cacoyannis.

As I have seen the other four, I can know in an instant that this is the one I like least. Perhaps it's dated, or perhaps it's just me, but I found this film unengaging. During it's almost two-hour-twenty-minute running time, I kept wanting to check my email for play Words With Friends.

The story is an old one when considering the history of Anglo-Saxon culture: an uptight white guy learns to live with the help of an exotic, in this case an incorrigible Greek man who, we are led to believe, knows how to live life with gusto. Today he'd be in a beer commercial.

Our uptight white guy is Alan Bates (today he would be played by James McAvoy), who's father was Greek. He has come to Crete to check on the land left to him, and to try to resurrect a mine. Lucky him, at the port in Athens he runs into Zorba (Anthony Quinn, playing the role that would most define him). Quinn is looking for work, and while Bates' innate English skepticism keeps him at bay, he realizes he need a mining expert, which Quinn is. A deal is struck.

Bates is treated like visiting royalty, as the townspeople hope to profit by the re-opening of the mine. The men stay in a hotel run by Lila Kedrova, who has been married several times (all to admirals) and is now living in loneliness. Quinn hopes Bates will take her, but he ends up seducing her, though to her it means much more.

Bates, on the other hand, is intrigued by "the Widow," (Irene Papas) who is still in mourning clothes, and rejects the attention of the son of the mayor of the town. This will lead to no good, and showcase's the barbarity of a very religious people.

The film's strength is Quinn's performance. He was a go-to guy for any ethnicity (he wasn't a lick Greek, as much as he was Arab in Lawrence of Arabia) but commands the picture. Bates is pretty much a non-entity, and Kedrova over-acted her way to an Oscar.

I think if the film is remembered at all it's for the final scene, with Quinn and Bates dancing on the beach (this was memorably parodied in the SNL short that showed John Belushi as the only living Not Ready for Prime Time Player. Why did he live? "I danced!"). The Greek music, composed by Mikis Theodorakis, has now become a staple at sports stadiums when a rally is needed.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I close the book on Jean-Paul Carriere with his co-authorship (with director Philip Kaufman) of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, an adaptation of the novel by Milan Kundera. It was a very classy production that didn't do much business in the U.S., but was a smash in Europe. Producer Saul Zaentz thought this might have been because no one in America had been invaded and occupied.

The movie is a love story set against in Prague in 1968, when the Russian tanks rolled in and Prague Spring came to an end. But the love story is paramount, and involves three people: Tomas, a hedonistic doctor (Daniel Day-Lewis); Sabina, an artist "who understands him best" (Lena Olin), and Tereza (Juliette Binoche), the mousy girl from the country who Tomas, almost despite himself, marries.

The film was released in 1988, but it seems longer ago, because though this film is based on a novel by a European and has a largely European cast, it is by all definition a Hollywood film. That, plus it is extremely erotic, and uses its eroticism to not only supplement its story, but as its foundation. Mostly this is the characterization of Sabina. She favors lovemaking while wearing a bowler hat and with the use of mirrors, and her scenes with Day-Lewis still manage to pack a wallop. Another scene charged with eroticism is when Olin and Binoche use each other as naked models. Criticism that Olin and Binoche are playing the idealized sides of the female coin--one a seductress, the other a virginal companion, is fair, I think. This is a man's film.

At the time I remember this was thought of as a sexy movie, but also a movie of ideas--the title itself refers to Day-Lewis's thinking of life as light, while Binoche thinks of it has heavy. But it wasn't considered pornographic or any such thing. It was the tail end of an era, that got its start in the '60s and then flowered fully in the '70s, when Hollywood films used nudity and sexuality as part of the palette.

Of course, there is still plenty of eroticism in films--Nymphomaniac and Blue Is the Warmest Color are two recent examples--but they aren't American. Except for a few major actresses, nudity seems to be verboten, as if it's somehow scandalous. I don't think any actress trained in the theater would mind nudity. And this goes for men, too (Day-Lewis does not show his manhood in this film).

Anyway, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a good film, which crosses between the love triangle (although Olin and Day-Lewis are never a romantic couple, and don't want it that way) and the political situation. I think a great moment is when Day-Lewis and Binoche are having a fight about his many infidelities and she runs out of the apartment and they find the Russian tanks moving in, which kind of makes any domestic squabble seem irrelevant.

Also, Binoche's character is tied to the Czech identity. The couple escape and he is thriving in Geneva, but she writes him a note, telling him she is weak, so she is going back to the country of weaklings. He follows her, which means his career is at an end, because he refuses to bow down to the Communists and retract an article he wrote.

The best thing Kaufman does in this movie, along with his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, is use the faces he his given. There are three great faces in this film, starting with Day-Lewis, who has a wolfish look. Consider the scene where he first spies Binoche in a spa swimming pool, and he follows her, his predator eyes under heavy brows, as she makes her way to the bar that she tends, until she glimpses him. Her face, so dewy and puppy-like (a dog plays a great part in the film), open and innocent, which makes it all the more crushing when she's betrayed. And Olin's, round and inviting, even more so when her head is topped with the hat.

The film loses a lot of air when the pair move to a farm and live a rustic, simple lifestyle. This may be because Olin has left the picture, and it turns out that she is really the fulcrum it rests on. Still, this is an admirable film, if not a particularly exciting one (intellectually, I mean).

Friday, December 19, 2014

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Still working my way through the films of Hayao Miyazaki, I turn to one of his earliest, 1984's Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and I think it's my favorite so far. It's a lively adventure with, per his wont, a pro-environmental message.

We are in a time after wars that incinerated the Earth. The "toxic jungle" has taken over, where insects have grown to giant size and spores instantly poison people. Humans have settled into safe zones, including the Valley of the Wind, where Nausicaa is a princess. She has learned to live in harmony with the jungle, being able to communicate with giant caterpillar-like creatures called "ohmu."

The Valley gets caught between two warring cities, though. One, ruled by a bad-ass queen with a golden artificial arm, wants to burn the jungle down. Nausicaa has to play both sides, enlisting the aid of a young soldier to save the day.

In addition to his morality tales about nature, Miyazaki was also way ahead of his time on using female protagonists. It was a big fucking deal when Pixar finally had a female lead character, but Miyazaki has been doing it for years. Nausicaa is a great character, a girl who defines plucky. She's fearless but smart, and true to her principles. If I had a little girl I'd show this movie to her annually.

The film was re-released in 2005 with another all-star English-speaking cast. Allison Lohman is Nausicaa, Uma Thurman the wicked queen, with Patrick Stewart as the Valley's hero and swordsman. Shia LaBeouf is the young soldier, pre-wacky days.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Best American Poetry 2014

Once again I've taken a dangerous trip into the world of poetry, a land that I admit I have very bad footing in. This year the Best American Poetry series was edited by Terrance Hayes, who provides a lively introduction in the form of an "interview" with an academic, and we learn the interesting numerical correlation between the number of characters in a Tweet (140) and the number of lines in a sonnet (14). Coincidence?

As for the poems themselves, it was the usual mixed bag of many I liked, and many I had no clue as to what they were trying to say. Rather than come off like an obtuse poser, I'll just comment on the poems I liked. Several of them have dynamite opening lines, such as Erin Belieu's "Birds":

"It's all Romeo and Juliet--

hate crimes, booty calls, political
assassinations.

Who's more Tybalt than the Blue Jay?
More Mercutio than the mockingbird?"

Or the simple opening declaration:

"It takes an American
to do really big things."

This is in the poem "Control" by Rae Armantrout, and in those nine words I felt the entire history of the Western world rush by me.

Or Traci Brimhall's "To Survive the Revolution":

"I, too, love the devil. He comes to my bed
all wrath and blessing and wearing
my husband's beard, whispers, tell me who
you suspect. He fools we the same way every time,
but never punishes me the same way twice."

My favorite opening line is from Marty McConnell's "vivisection (you're going to break my heart)," which is really nothing more than a breakup poem:

"the frog ready for inspection, skin flaps
opened and pinned back, organs

arrayed for the taking--this is how
I approach you"

Many of the poems reflect race in all its problems and manifestations, such as "News from Harlem," by Kwame Dawes, Camille Dunghy's "Conspiracy (to breathe together)":

"Last week, a woman smiled at my daughter and I wondered,
if she might have been the sort of girl my mother says spat on my aunt
when they were children in Virginia all those acts and laws ago."

There are poems from the Latin perspective, such as Ray Gonzalez's "One El Paso, Two El Paso":

"The violent border, I assumed, though the boundary
line between the living and the dead was erased years ago."

And even from the ironic white point of view, Tony Hoagland's "White Writer":

"It's been pointed out that my characters eat a lot
of lightly-braised asparagus
and get FedEx packages almost daily.

Yet I dislike being thought of as a white writer.
I never wanted to be limited like that."

A few of the poems are ingenious word puzzles. I have no idea what Anne Carson's poem "A Fragment of Ibykos Translated 6 Ways" is about, but I was intrigued by it. Ibykos was a poet of antiquity, and we get several different translations of one of his poems, although each gets filtered through something increasingly more surreal, such as Brecht's FBI file, a piece of Samuel Beckett's End Game, signs from the London Underground, and from the author's manual for a microwave oven.

And I really liked Jon Sands' "Decoded." I can't really quote anything from it, because it exists really only in its totality, but it is two poems in one, with each line separating a pair of words by a slash, so you can read each poem down, rather than across. "OK Cupid," by Major Jackson, is shaggy dog of a poem, that reminds me of the nursery rhyme "Mockingbird," which never ends. Jackson's poem is a series of comparisons about dating:

"Dating a Catholic is like dating a tribe
and dating a tribe is like dating a nation
and dating a nation is like dating a football star
and dating a football star is like dating a new car"

And so on, for another few hundred lines. It's a gas.

My two favorite poems of the collection are, in reverse order, Sandra Simonds' "I Grade Online Humanities Tests," which is at first whiff seems like a funny poem about the travails of a grad student, but has a real bite to it:

"I grade online humanities tests
at McDonald's where there are no black people
and there's a multiple choice question
or white people about Don Quixote
or Asian or Indian people."

As you can see, it's stream of consciousness, and mentions a poem by James Franco, Elliott Smith, and the Crown Vic.

The best poem, in my estimation, is Patricia Lockwood's "Rape Joke." I actually had heard of this poem, as Lockwood's youth and sex appeal had helped her get a lot of publicity in places where poets are usually verboten. It's obviously about an incident in her life that must be painful to deal with.

"The rape joke is that you were 19 years old.

The rape joke is that he was your boyfriend.

The rape joke it wore a goatee. A goatee."

Lockwood is telling her story in the context, I think, of the controversy about whether "rape jokes" can be funny. By doing so, she slyly puts humor in the poem:

"The rape joke is that you had been drinking wine coolers. Wine coolers! Who drinks wine coolers? People who get raped, according to the rape joke."

Lockwood is also aware of what writing this poem, which by my guess was the most famous poem written in 2013:

"The rape joke is if you write a poem Rape Joke, you're asking for it to become the only thing people remember about you."

Just last night I went to a social gathering of a writer's group I recently joined. Some people there wrote poetry, something I have never seriously attempted, because when I even think about it I can sort of imagine how horrible it would be. If I did write poetry, it would have to be the regimented kind, that rhymes and whatnot. I read these poems and see how every detail must be sweated over--the way the line breaks, whether capitalization is used, the indentations (I have attempted to reproduce my samples as closely as possible). All of this is done with the greatest forethought, and it all mystifies me.

Perhaps this line is the closest to the poet's creative life, from Greg Wrenn's "Detainment":

"In the undisclosed desert facility,
They strapped me to a steel table
and told me to recite the poem that
would save the world."


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

T. Rex

These past few weeks I've been listening to the greatest hits of T. Rex, which basically means I've been listening to Marc Bolan, who was the single constant member of the group, which formed in 1967 and existed until Bolan's death in 1977.

Today they are associated with the "glam rock" period, along with David Bowie. Their first producer, Tony Visconti, also was Bowie's producer, and the similarities are strong, especially in the presentation, as Bolan favored top hats and feather boas.

T. Rex had a string of hits during the '70s, most notably Get It On, which featured that fuzzy guitar and androgynous vocals, and 20th Century Boy, which was like many of Bowie's songs--a young man trying to find his place in the time he lives.

My favorite of their hits is Jeepster, which has an irresistible bass line and an irresistible pet name for a girl. What girl wouldn't like to hear "Girl I'm just a Jeepster for your love?" It would be the perfect wedding song for a glam couple.

The collection I have is two discs, so there's a lot of stuff on here I'd never heard of, and a lot of stuff I suspect were not really hits. Bolan was a fanciful lyricist, with titles like "Ride a White Swan," "King of the Rumbling Spires," "By the Light of the Magical Moon," "King of the Mountain Cometh," and "Dandy in the Underworld." He also wrote about the young and being young, in such songs as Children of the Revolution:

"Well you can bump and grind
If it's good for your mind
Well you can twist and shout
Let it all hang out
But you won't fool the children of the revolution."

Or the soaring Teenage Dream:

"The Wizard of Oz and the bronzen thief
Ruled my girl with Teutonic teeth
But all was lost when her teeth turned green
Whatever happened to the teenage dream?"

I think their most heartfelt song is Cosmic Dancer, which I first heard as the opening credits song for Billy Elliot, which was most appropriate:

"I danced myself out of the womb
Is it strange to dance so soon?
I danced myself into the tomb"

In the early '70s T. Rex were very big, attracting a post-hippie audience, and working with collaborators such as Elton John and Ringo Starr. But a subsequent album was heavily criticized for ripping off Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, as Bolan sang as an alter-ego of himself. He withdrew from public life, getting fat and drunk, and in 1977 was killed in a car accident just shy of his 30th birthday.

Today T. Rex is mostly remembered by other musicians. They and Bolan have received shout-outs in songs like The Who's "You Better You Bet" ("and I drunk myself blind to sound of old T. Rex") and Bowie's song for Mott the Hoople, "All the Young Dudes." They heavily influenced groups like The Smiths and even as late as the '90s Oasis was paying homage with a lick lifted from "Get It On."

Listening to T. Rex is like going back in time, as no one is making music like that today. It's joyous and silly and at times quite moving. Marc Bolan is another rock and roll tragedy, but at least he lived long enough to make some great songs.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Bride of Frankenstein

In his audio commentary, film historian Scott McQueen calls The Bride of Frankenstein "the perfect horror film," and I can't disagree. Not only is it the rare sequel that is better than the original, but is also a classic in its own right.

The film was released in 1935, even though there was a clamor for a second film immediately after the first in 1931. The script went through many changes, and director James Whale only agreed to do it after a "one for you, one for me" deal with Universal. Thankfully he did do it, for his genius shows everywhere.

At the burning windmill, the site of the end of the first film, we find out that Frankenstein's monster is still alive, having taken refuge in an underwater cave. He kills the unfortunate parents of the little girl he drowned in the first film, as the father wants to see "his blackened bones." He goes on a rampage, murdering across the countryside.

Meanwhile, the recovering Henry Frankenstein is visited by an odd duck, a former teacher of his, Dr. Pretorius. The old scientist, who was "booted" out of his position, wants to show Frankenstein his work--growing little people out of seeds. They live in bell jars, and when I saw this movie as a kid I was very creeped out by it, and still am.

Pretorius wants Frankenstein to team up with him on making a mate for the creature, but Frankenstein refuses, so Pretorius, with help from the monster (whom he meets coincidentally in a crypt) kidnaps Elizabeth, Frankenstein's wife, to extort his help.

There is so much to love in this film. We get a prologue that ties the film to Mary Shelley (played by Elsa Lanchester), and then the rest of the film is lean and taut, with no fat. There's some comedy, notably from Una O'Connor (whom Whale used to similar effect in The Invisible Man) and Ernest Thesiger as Pretorius. In today's retrospect, we can see that Thesiger was playing Pretorious as a flamboyant gay man (Whale was gay), a kind of type that dared not speak its name then. But he was some great lines, like when he offers Frankenstein gin ("It's my only weakness") and telling his fellow graverobbers to leave him alone in the crypt ("I like this place").

The film was also controversial for some of it's religious iconography. In one scene the monster is trussed up in a crucifix pose, but as McQueen points out, Christ was a redeemer and the Son of God, while the monster is the son of man, and redeems nothing.

The film looks smashing. The cinematography, which couldn't be any better, was by John J. Mescall, who was a great artist when he was sober. The editing, by Ted Kent, is also magnificent, particularly in the bride's creation scene, which has more cuts than I could count.

The acting is better than average for this sort of thing. Besides Thesiger, Colin Clive returns as Frankenstein, but Valerie Hobson, only 17 years old, replaced Mae Clarke as Elizabeth. But Boris Karloff is given much more to do as the creature. He is able to speak a few words, and his scene with the blind hermit (beautifully played by O.P. Heggie) makes you forget the Mel Brooks parody, as it so touching.

The ending, when Lanchester has her second role as the unfortunate bride, is full of pathos (and a hairdo that may be the most famous in film history). Even she rejects the monster, and poor Karloff decides to blow it all up (why would they make a lever that destroys everything?) He tells Clive and Hobson to "go, live!" while condemning himself, Lanchester, and Thesiger. "We belong dead."

This was the last Frankenstein film for both Whale and Karloff, and the many sequels afterward never approached this film's greatness.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Double Down

Democrats still smarting from the 2014 midterms would do well to bask in the nostalgia of the 2012 election by reading Double Down, Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's gossipy and sesquipedelean account of the contest, which begins almost the minute after the 2008 election, with Republicans sharpening their knives, and ends after the 2012 results, crying into their beer. Although this is a largely an even-handed book--Barack Obama comes under close scrutiny and there's lots of faults on display--the book is largely the story of an inept campaign run for one Willard Mitt Romney, who is the centerpiece of the text.

After a short prologue following Obama's disastrous debate in Denver, the story proceeds chronologically. The authors, in discussing the Republican race, basically frame it as a hunt for "anyone but Romney," which fails. They go over four would-bes who were won't-bes: Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, and Hailey Barbour. At times it seemed like no one wanted in: "With a vulnerable Democrat in the White House and a winnable election on the horizon, many of the GOP's most adept and accomplished potential candidates had decided not to bother."

They then cover the slog up to the primaries and beyond, as several candidates go up in flames, like Herman Cain, Rick Perry (who couldn't remember the three cabinet posts he would eliminate), and John Huntsman, who gets an entire chapter, despite his irrelevance. I think he gets more ink that Rick Santorum, who actually ended up finishing second. There is also a lot of fun stuff about Newt Gingrich, an egomaniac who actually thought he could win, even with his affairs and suggesting we build a colony on the moon.

On the Democratic side, there's far less drama, although we do get some choice stuff about VP Joe Biden, whom the authors call "Uncle Joe": "Joe was perfectly aware of the widespread caricature of him as a clownish gasbag. He understood that the image was largely self-inflicted but hated it all the same, and he was intensely concerned that being vice president would only exacerbate the problem. Biden even had a name for the trap that he was determined to avoid: the Uncle Joe Syndrome, which would leave him looking not only buffoonish but irrelevant."

But most of this is about Romney, and is almost preternatural ability to make mistakes. "From Bain and his tax returns to his array of Richie Rich gaffes, Romney's public image had taken a hellacious beating. His campaign had shown itself to be capable enough, but also insular and thoroughly tactical. His fund-raising operation was impressive but spent, and the campaign was running on fumes. The Republican base was wary of him; independents thought far worse. Maybe most problematic, the man who set out to run as Mr. Fix-It on the economy had saddled himself with far-right positions on a panoply of social and cultural issues that put him in a bad way with critical voting blocs: women, Latinos, young voters."

Outside issues also plagued Romney. Clint Eastwood's bizarre performance art at the convention in Tampa made heads spin--it made Romney's campaign manager, Stuart Stevens, vomit. Then Hurricane Sandy, like some divine intervention, made Romney disappear from the news a week before the election, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie's bear hug and high praise for Obama made Republicans gasp with horror. Some were sure that the storm cost Romney the election.

I think the most fascinating part of the book is the debate section. It really is interesting that debates, which only began being de rigeur about 36 years ago, are now such an important part of the election. Obama did bomb in Denver, giving the Romney team a huge boost. I found it interesting how Obama, who to the world seems like a cool cucumber, hated debates, and his team bent over backwards to try to get him to loosen up. At one point he told his staff, after a bad mock debate, "I can't do this." But the second debate, at Hofstra University, turned the tables,as Obama wiped the floor with Romney.

There are a lot of fun facts in the book, such as that Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, was known by a code name ("Fishconsin") and that Christie was considered for the job but wasn't forthcoming with certain documents. Like flies on the wall, the authors come up with juicy tidbits, such as Tim Pawlenty's view of Michele Bachmann and vice versa: "(Bachmann considered Pawlenty a weak-kneed fraud; he disparaged her as 'dangerous' and 'insane.')"

A surprise character in all this was "The Big Dog," Bill Clinton, who ended up working harder than anyone thought for Obama's re-election. He knocked 'em dead with his speech in Charlotte at the convention, and had lots of wisdom: "Democrats want to fall in love; Republicans just fall in line." Or, about Romney: "Romney's ineptness staggered Clinton. After the release of the 47 percent video, he remarked to a friend that, while Mitt was a decent man, he was in the wrong line of work ('He really shouldn't be speaking to people in public.')"

The authors also employ a kind of smart-ass, tongue-in-cheek style that makes the book seem more trivial than it might be. There are books about the election written by serious journalists, but they don't have great similes like: "Four years earlier, the idea of McCain standing behind Romney--unless he was preparing to slit his throat--would have seemed as likely as a terrier reciting Tennyson."

In the end, of course, Obama prevailed, by a larger margin than anyone predicted (except Nate Silver, who gets no mention): "The size and sweep of Obama's victory staggered the Romneys and their people. Twelve hours earlier, they had been convinced that Mitt would prevail--or, at worst, that the race would be a nail-biter. Instead, the Democratic incumbent was on his way to an emphatic 51-47 percent win, in which he carried all but one of the battleground states (North Carolina), pocketed 332 electoral votes, and outdistanced Romney by five million popular votes out of 129 million cast."

I'm sure that Halperin and Heilemann are already compiling notes on their 2016 book, and with potential candidates like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, there should be lots of laughs and gaffes. I probably will only be able to read it if it has a happy ending, though.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

I Am Legend (2007)

The third film made from Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend, and the only one to keep the title, was Francis Lawrence's 2007 big-budget action pic starring Will Smith as Robert Neville. This time, Neville is a research chemist in the army, working on a cure for a plague that has wiped out almost the rest of humanity, turning them into aggressive, ravenous beasts.

The core of the film is the same as the book and the other two films: a virus has turned everyone into vampire-like creatures who only come out at night, leaving one man to survive. With this one, though, Smith plays a man who has a purpose--the discovery of a cure. He also has a companion (a dog) who makes things a lot more palatable. Smith treats Manhattan, which is closed off from the mainland, as a private playground, zooming around in a sports car, hitting golf balls off the Intrepid, or hunting the increasing deer population with high-powered machine guns (there are also lions, presumably escaped from the Central Park Zoo, but Smith doesn't show any worry about them).

At night is when the creatures, or "Darkseekers," come out. In a prologue, Emma Thompson appears as a doctor who has reprogrammed the measles virus so it cures cancer. But what a side effect! Everyone except those like Smith, who are immune, turn into monsters. They aren't strictly vampires--there's no garlic or mirrors--nor are they zombies, as they are alive. Smith catches one every so often to test a new cure.

I Am Legend held my interest over its taut running time. I liked that they did give Smith a touch of madness, which would be true of anyone left alone for three years, dog or not. For the most part, nothing struck me as ridiculous, although Smith's lab in his beautifully appointed home on Washington Square seemed unlikely, as were his never-ending supplies (including rats). The action scenes are well done and suspenseful, and there's a spiritual twist at the end that, while convenient, at least sets the film apart from its predecessors.

If you asked me which film was the best of the three adaptations, I'd be at a loss. The Last Man on Earth is the closest to the book, while The Omega Man was the most fun, and I Am Legend the best production. You'll have to see all three to decide for yourself.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Frankenstein (1931)

Universal's film adaptation of Frankenstein in 1931 was the fourth such made from Mary Shelley's novel. The only one that is still extant was the first, from the Edison Company, in 1910. But the '31 version, directed memorably by James Whale, is the one that stays with us, as it has fixed the image of the creature in our minds for all time.

Of course, the book and film have very little in common. At a mere 69 minutes, Whale's tale leaves out much, and starts in media res with Henry Frankenstein (for some reason his name is changed from Victor) and his humpback assistant, Fritz (not in the book, and more known to us today by the name of Igor) graverobbing. Frankenstein (played to the hilt by Colin Clive) has already determined in his mind what he is going to do--now he just needs the raw parts. Later, Fritz (Dwight Frye) fetches a brain from a medical college, but ends up with the abnormal one.

The creation of the monster, which is told summarily in the book, is a major deal in the film. Clive has set up shop in an abandoned watchtower, and has a whole bunch of electronic equipment (designed by Kenneth Strickfaden--none of it did anything but light up). His father, a Baron, his fiancee Elizabeth (Mae Clarke) and his friend, Victor (in the book, Victor's friend was named Henry), and his professor think he's gone mad. He has, if delusions of being God are madness.

Frankenstein is full of great, iconic scenes, and this is the first one, when the corpse, zapped by electricity, twitches his finger. Clive's reaction--"Now I know what it feels like to be God" was censored in a re-release, but this is the Shelley novel boiled down to one sentence. He may know it is to be God, but the real God will punish him for it.

The next great scene is the unveiling of the creature, played so iconically by Boris Karloff (listed in the opening credits as ? and in the closing credits simply as Karloff). Whale proves himself the master in one of the great screen entrances of all time, as Karloff backs into the room, then turns--and Whale makes three successive cuts to a close-up. Audiences shrieked with horror, as they had no idea what he would look like, and Karloff, with his eyelids taped down, his bridge of molars taken out to further shrink his cheeks, was simply mesmerizing.

The poor devil is mistreated, prodded by fire from Frye, and breaks free. The third great scene is when he comes across the little girl, who does not judge him by his looks, and they play together. But after she throws flowers into the lake and they float, unfortunately Karloff does not understand surface tension, and throws her in (she would have done well to have had swimming lessons, as she only goes a few feet off shore). The scene of her dunking was also cut on re-release.

Here is where a longer film would have helped. The grieved woodcutter brings his drowned daughter to town, demanding justice. But no one has seen the monster, at least it is not presented that way, so why does a crowd gather so quickly? When Karloff invades Clive's home and attacks Clarke, I'm left to wonder how he knew where Clive lived--did he use a phone book?

But the climax is great, with the battle between creator and creation in the old windmill, the monster going up in flames, the scientist flung onto a blade. Sadly, the studio demanded a happy ending, but I guess that's okay, because we then got an even better sequel, which I'll discuss in the coming weeks.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Danton

Jean-Claude Carriere went on to write many more films after the death of Luis Bunuel. A couple of them, The Tin Drum and The Return of Martin Guerre, I saw in initial release, but right now they are not available from Netflix. One film I missed, but I wanted to see, was Danton, directed by Andrzej Wajda.

The film is set in the dark days following the French Revolution, in what is today known as the "Reign of Terror," when revolutionaries became as tyrannical as those they displaced. The guillotine gets a heavy workout, as government groups known as "The Committees," headed by Maximilien Robespierre, clamp down on dissent, including newspapers.

Georges Danton, a hero of the revolution, maintains that freedom means freedom, and that The Committees have to go. Robespierre's cabal urges Danton to be arrested and executed, but Robespierre hesitates, thinking he is too popular with the people. Finally, though, after an internal struggle, Danton is arrested and put on trial, but it is a sham, as he is allowed no witnesses and journalists are allowed to take no notes.

Though this is a play about the French, it is heavily Polish. The release date, 1983, tells us that this was when the Solidarity movement was struggling against the Soviet Union. Also, in a casting curiosity, Danton and his followers are played by French actors (with Gerard Depardieu as Danton) and Robespierre's followers by Polish actors (with Robespierre played by Wojchiech Pszoniak). The acting is uniformly brilliant. Psznoniak plays Robespierre not as a cardboard villain but a conflicted man, believing in the revolution but succumbing to fear. He is a stiff man, accused of being a virgin by Danton, and not a lot of laughs.

Depardieu gets his chance late in the film, when he speaks himself hoarse at his trial. His Danton is something of a rock star, in stark contrast with Robespierre, a hero who is not averse to thinking of himself that way.

Beware, this film is extremely talky (it was based on a play) but I found it to be thrilling. It moves very fast and if full of ideas. Danton is both exciting and nourishing.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Crossing Purgatory

I love books about the Old West, but sometimes they just don't seem authentic to me. However, Crossing Purgatory, by Gary Schanbacher, is thrillingly authentic, as it chronicles a man who leaves his life behind in Indiana in the 1850s and heads west.

Thompson Grey is our hero. He had gone east to ask for a loan from his father, as he had big ideas for his farm. Refused, he goes back home to find his wife and sons in the grip of a disease. They all die, so he buries them and just starts walking west.

He is all the way in Missouri before joining a wagon train. The captain, named Upperdine, likes Grey's work ethic, and hires him to continue on across Kansas. There have been a lot of books and films about the westward migration, but this one really was effective, capturing the fear and the boredom: "Much of the walking was spent in silence, the creaking of wheels, the squeal of the brake lever on steeper downgrades, an occasional shouted command. They made good time, twelve, fourteen miles a day, dust always with them, coating their clothes, hair,"

Grey becomes friendly with a family from Ohio, the Lights. Tragedy strikes, though, and he is left feeling responsible for the surviving family members. He and the Lights head to Upperdine's spread near the Purgatoire River (I did some figuring and this appears to be southeastern Colorado). Grey works the land, and then they are joined by Upperdine's partner, Benito, who has left behind his placita in New Mexico with his family to try to make it on this new land.

There have also been a lot of books about new land, and the attraction to it. This book is also exceptional in expressing that concept. The oddly configured family deals with various obstacles--locusts, freak snow storms, bandits, and a badly timed broken leg, but they endure. Grey, still haunted by what he left behind, can't decide if he wants to push on or stay and realize his dream. "He felt as ease in his labor, a liberation to be lost in motion unforced and effortless and so closely part of his nature. But, occasionally, that same movement triggered memory, and his mind would wander back to other reaping, other fields, and his rhythm would break, the scythe moving with an uneconomical jerkiness, and he'd find himself hacking at the ground. He'd stop, drop the tool, move his hands to the small of his back, stretch, knead flesh on muscle, attempt to return to the here-and-now, his breath, taking in this air in this place at this time, and after a while, he'd take up the scythe and continue on."

Crossing Purgatory is beautifully written, and I appreciated that while Schanbacher can certainly be lyrical, he exercises restraint and doesn't go overboard. This is especially true of the dialogue--these people are not verbose, and say exactly what they mean and no more. I find some Westerns (I'm looking at you, Deadwood) have their characters sound like they swallowed dictionaries. This book is a refreshing change.

I would actually like to know more about the fate of these characters, so perhaps a sequel or two is in order. I was particularly fascinated by Upperdine, who can't stay still long, and repeatedly returns to the trail, where he likes to make deals, but isn't hesitant about using a gun.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Kiki's Delivery Service

From 1989 comes Hayao Miyazaki's Kiki's Delivery Service, a sweet, largely uncomplicated film about a young witch who starts her own delivery service--why not? She can fly on a broomstick, which sure beats traffic.

In the scheme of Miyazaki's films that I've seen so far, Kiki's is for small children, as the conflict is minimal, though there is some peril at the end regarding a blimp on the loose. What strikes me as interesting about it is that Kiki does not need to hide her witchiness. She simply announces she is a witch, and everyone is fine with that. Western attitudes, perhaps affected by hundreds of years of fear of witchcraft (whatever that may mean) may have warped our view of them. Even in comic situations, like Bewitched or Bell, Book, and Candle, the witch has to keep her identity on the down low.

The English-language voice cast, as always, is star-studded, with Kirsten Dunst as Kiki, Phil Hartman as her wisecracking cat, Debbie Reynolds as a kind older lady, and Janeane Garofalo, an artist who lives in the woods and gives Kiki some life lessons about how to use her power, and how sometimes it comes and goes.

All in all, a nice film, a little dull for adult audiences.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Frankenstein (Novel)

What is the hold that Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, published in 1818. written two years earlier when she was 18 years old has on us? The story of its creation is fascinating enough (I know of two movies about it and several novels)--Shelley, along with her husband Percy, the writer and doctor John Polidori, and Lord Byron, were staying together in Switzerland. They had a ghost story writing contest. Mary had a dream about a scientist who creates life and is immediately regretful. Polidori, using scraps of Byron's tale of a vampire, wrote The Vampyr, the first romantic vampire novel. Thus, two of the most enduring figures in horror literature and cinema were born out of one incident.

I've read Frankenstein now at least twice, and seen many movies, almost none of which bear any resemblance to the novel (the Kenneth Branagh version comes closest). Shelley tapped into something primordial in her story--the usurpation of God by creating life. At the time, galvanism, or the use of electricity to prompt spasms of life in dead frogs, was being experimented on, which surely gave Shelley the spark (sorry for the pun) of inspiration, as did Milton's Paradise Lost and the myth of Prometheus, who created mankind in Greek myth and gave him fire (the novel was initially subtitled "The Modern Prometheus").

Beyond the lust for the power of life and death, the novel, as our many of the film adaptations, is sympathetic to the creature. Indeed, Victor Frankenstein does not give him a name, which steals from him an identity. Throughout the book he is known as "monster, wretch, demon, fiend, devil." From this reading, I really saw how much of a dick Victor Frankenstein is. He leaves his creature to run loose, where it becomes quite an intellectual (that always gave me pause--he speaks better than the man who created him) and then, when asked to create a mate, after which we will retire to South America and leave the world of humans, he is turned down flat.

Children have a fascination with famous monsters, and I think there is something of an empathy. Sure, Frankenstein's monster can be scary, but he's also pitiable, lonely, frightened, and discriminated against merely because he is ugly. The story he tells of lurking by the cottage of a family, helping them anonymously, learning the language from them, but then being rudely shunned when they finally see him, is one of the more heartbreaking in literature. No one, no one, gives the monster the slightest bit of kindness, except for the blind man in the cottage, who of course can't see him.

Therefore, Shelley's novel carries with it quite a damnation of the human tendency to shun the hideous in appearance. I don't know about others, but when the creature starts killing off those close to Victor, I was kind of rooting for him. Was it Shelley's intention to make her hero a bumbling cad? After all, when he marries Elizabeth, his longtime love, the monster tells him that he will be there on his wedding night, Victor stupidly leaves Elizabeth alone, where of course the monster kills her. Can a scientist who brings the dead to life be any stupider? And his spurning of his creation flies in the face of any sense of humanity, in that we are programmed to care for our offspring, even if they are hideous--a "face only a mother could love." Victor lacks this humanity, and is a selfish oaf.

Another aspect of the book that is interesting is the epistolary framing device--the story is told in letters by Robert Walton, a polar explorer, to his sister. He finds Victor chasing after the monster in the Arctic, and then Victor tells his story. When the monster tells his story to Victor, we thus have a twice-removed tale, which would ordinarily leave it open to many misinterpretations or flat-out untruths. But Shelley's style, the Gothic romance, allows for people to have eidetic memories.

The book is a classic only for it what it created. It was not well-reviewed, but was a smash nonetheless. The first stage version came as early as 1823, and the first film version in 1910, and they haven't stopped coming. Besides the popular Universal film series in the '30s and '40s, and the British Hammer films of the '50s and '60s, they don't stop, whether X-rated (Andy Warhol's Frankenstein), serious but campy, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, directed by Kenneth Branagh, and parody, Young Frankenstein. Frankly, the parody is the best film ever made of the Frankenstein tale, on a par with Bride of Frankenstein, which is the best of the Universal series.

The book has its problems. I read it as part of a complete collection of the works of Percy Shelley, on the off chance that he actually wrote it, or at least helped a great deal. This may be a case of simply misogyny--how could a teenage girl possibly write this--but once read it is full of the kind of language a well-educated teenage girl could write. Germaine Greer scoffs at the idea that Percy had anything to do with it, saying it's a bad novel. Granted, there are some strange passages. We spend much too time dithering over the framing of Justine, the Frankenstein's maid, over young William's death, and the backstory of the people in the cottage is completely extraneous.

The language itself is of the time--florid, with curlicues not found in today's speech. "I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch--the miserable monster whom I had created."

The monster is no less silver-tongued: "But it is true that I am a wretch. I have murdered the lovely and the helpless; I have strangled the innocent as they slept and grasped to death his throat who never injured me or any other living thing. I have devoted my creator, the select specimen of all that is worthy of love and admiration among men, to misery; I have pursued him even to that irremediable ruin." Here's an example of a father/son relationship that isn't solved by chatting about baseball.

Whatever strengths or weaknesses Shelley's book has, she was onto something. Has there been any other novel, except Bram Stoker's Dracula (the two are kind of bookends, though they were written two generations apart) that has ignited such a force in popular culture? And she was only eighteen. And maybe had some help from Percy, or maybe not.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Panic in the Year Zero

Sharing a disc with The Last Man on Earth is another apocalyptic tale, Panic in the Year Zero, a 1962 American International cheapie directed by and starring Ray Milland that turns out to be pretty good.

Milland and his family, wife Jean Hagen, son Frankie Avalon, daughter Mary Mitchell, have just started a vacation into the California mountains when they see bright flashes. Later, what this means becomes clear when they see a mushroom cloud over Los Angeles. Sporadic radio reports indicate that the country is at war, and Milland snaps into survival mode. After nixing a return to the city, he pilots his family deep into the mountains, but not before stocking up on provisions, which requires him to actually steal from a hardware store at gunpoint.

I found the film to be fairly realistic about what would happen in such a situation. There would be panic, looting, and indiscriminate mayhem. Milland, as the representative of everyman, has his family as a paramount concern, and tells his doubting wife that he will re-enter civilization when it returns. But he realizes that he is turning into what he finds contemptuous.

The only real evidence of a low budget here is that there is a coincidence at coming across the same people miles away from there are first spotted. Other than that, the action is gripping, the danger real. I remember a TV film called The Day After that told basically the same story in several hours and a lot more star power, but it wasn't much better than this short, effective film.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

The Accursed

Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most acclaimed of American authors, and also one of the most prolific, but somehow I hadn't read any of her novels until The Accursed. I must say I was drawn to the subject because it is set in Princeton  (where she lives and teaches), where I lived near for almost twenty years, and a ghost story.

"The eruption of evil in Princeton, New Jersey, was but a single expression of a multiple Curse, or Horror--the eruption of Evil into the world of humankind, from which we must be saved by one stronger, more courageous, more 'inspired' than we are." So writes Oates about her tale of something weird and deadly going in the college town in the years 1905 and 1906, when a curse seems to fall upon the residents, especially the scions of one Winslow Slade, the (fictional) former governor and university president who harbors a dark secret.

The Accursed reminded me a great deal of E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime, which was set in the same time period and at its heart was about race, but his book had no ghosts or vampires. As with Doctorow, Oates uses many real-life characters, most prominently Woodrow Wilson, who was then the beleaguered president of the university; Grover Cleveland, the former president who lived in town; and Upton Sinclair, the socialist author of The Jungle, who lives in poverty in a farmhouse near the city.

The "curse" Oates writes of is really the curse on America--the curse of the treatment of blacks by whites. The book opens with a young seminarian pleading with Wilson to do something about the lynching of a black man in nearby Camden, but Wilson, southern by birth, racist by choice, says there is nothing he can do. Wilson is battling with another Princeton official, Andrew West, over the soul of the college, and given his propensity for strokes he is fretful about his health. There is a funny chapter on Wilson's visit to Bermuda, where he meets Mark Twain, and also has an affair with a woman named Cybilla Peck (I believe his mistress's actual name was Mary, but Oates has higher purposes with Cybilla).

The curse manifests itself in different ways, mostly on the grandchildren of Winslow Slade. His granddaughter is abducted during her wedding by a mysterious figure named Axson Mayte, a name so odd I thought it might be an anagram. She is taken to the "Bog Kingdom:" "The Bog Palace, staffed by 'servants'--and these creatures that seemed but part-human!--repulsive, yet piteous. They were misshapen, female and male alike; of greatly varying ages, but mostly older; their skins were ghastly-pale, like the underbellies of frogs or snakes; their grieving eyes were dark-shadowed and hollow; their manner craven and abashed yet sly, even furtive." She will die in childbirth, some saying that she gave birth to a large black snake.

All four of Slade's grandchildren will come to an untimely end, and at the funeral of one of them he reveals his secret, which has to do with the death of a black woman way before the Civil War, but even then he withholds his part in it. There are other manifestations--a Princeton professor goes balmy, thinks that Sherlock Holmes is real (and is visited by him) and attempts to kill his wife and infant. Another man kills his invalid wife. Yet another is done in after stepping on a jellyfish in that same Bermuda. And not one, but two vampires seem to be stalking the town.

The book is very much tongue-in-cheek, written in the florid Gothic style, with some funny lines like when Oates writes of Mrs. Cleveland: "It grieved the handsome dark-haired woman too, that her aged husband did everything so slowly. 'It will take him forever to die! He is so absent-minded.'"

Oates, with her use of Sinclair, also writes a great deal about socialism, and an entire chapter is devoted to his disappointment upon meeting Jack London in New York City, and frankly I didn't get the connection. Though I enjoyed this book very much, it never did tie together for me. The curse is never really "explained" to my satisfaction. One granddaughter is flung out of her bedroom window and over a wall, but we don't know who did it. We don't really know who Axson Mayte is, or the mysterious Count van Gneis, who also seems to be around whenever something creepy is happening.

By all means read The Accursed. If you have ever lived in or near Princeton, you will enjoy recognizing the places and some of the names of those whose names now mark streets. Those who enjoy Gothic novels, even faux ones like this, will also get a kick out of it. But I don't think it's quite the sum of its parts.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Toms River

I lived in New Jersey for over 35 years and I'm kind of embarrassed I didn't hear this story. I only knew Toms River as the home of a Little League champion and the last exit on I-195 before the shore, but for years it was the loci of a struggle between chemical companies and local parents whose children had an abnormally high rate of cancer.

Dan Fagin, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, has written an exhaustively researched story that at times is exhausting to read. He leaves no stone unturned, whether it's the founding of the town to a basic history of epidemiology. He dutifully takes us through each phase of the story, starting with the use of coal tar to make chemicals for dying fabric, which is the function of a factory that a Swiss company named Ciba set up in Toms River in the 1950s: "The monument to coal tar chemistry that Ciba raised in the New Jersey pinelands was like no manufacturing complex the company had built."

Being it was the 1950s, the company was welcomed with open arms, and there were several jobs. It was only slowly, over the years, that noticeable effects took place, starting with the workers: "The first people to make the connection between the malodorous tap water and Toms River Chemical were plant employees...For them, the smell was nauseatingly familiar. They knew it from the factory's own drinking fountains, which drew from company wells that had been tainted with dye wastes since the mid-1950s. Almost no one drank from the fountains of Toms River Chemical--not more than once, anyway--and now the familiar smell was in their water at home, too."

To add another wrinkle, Fagin tells us the story of minor hoodlum who took money to dump toxic chemicals. He promised a small amount of money to a struggling egg farmer named Reich, and dumped several barrels of chemicals that he had obtained from Union Carbide. Those barrels leaked into the groundwater, and found their ways into the wells of the Toms River Water Company.

It wasn't until the 1970s that a noticeable uptick in childhood cancer surfaced. One such child was Michael Gillick, and his mother, Linda, became an advocate and a thorn in the side of many government agencies over the years. Ciba, like any corporation looking to make every cent possible, denied accusations that they had anything to do with cancer, and then had the bright idea to dump directly into the ocean. This spurred the reaction of Greenpeace, who had a pair of intrepid souls climb a Ciba water tower and unfurl a banner, giving Ciba more unwanted publicity.

Fagin's book goes through the stages--first the battle against Ciba, which eventually shut down all manufacturing (and moved it to Alabama) and then on to state and federal agencies, whose chemists had to figure out just what it was that causing this cancer cluster (one prime culprit is something called SAN trimer, but there so many chemical names that would make great plays in Scrabble that I can't possibly summarize them). Eventually the townspeople who were not affected were getting angry with those who were, as they were seen as driving away tourists and making Toms River the butt of a joke, another Love Canal. When the Little League team won the World Series, one parent waggishly said, "It must be something in the water."

The final stage is the legal one. The parents hired Jan Schlichtmann, who was already famous for the case that inspired the book and movie A Civil Action. Schlichtmann was left ruined after that case, and resolved to try to settle this one. I won't give away what happens, but I don't think I'd surprise anyone to suggest that the parents don't get anywhere near what they lost.

The book is so chock full of information that at times it becomes confusing--if this were made into a movie it would certainly skip over some parts. At first I questioned why he included so much medical history--how exactly does Paracelsus figure in this? But it was fascinating nonetheless. For example, a doctor with the magnificent name of Percival Pott first put two and two together that chimney sweeps--boys who were sent down Victorian chimneys, often naked, coming out coated with coal dust--were developing high rates of scrotal cancer. Or, "In 1854, when John Snow decided to investigate the cause of the cholera epidemic in the Soho section of London, he walked ten blocks from his office on Sackville Street to the heart of the outbreak zone and started knocking on doors. Within four days, he had pinpointed a likely cause and launched modern epidemiology."

Though this a well-written book, it is somewhat disheartening. There are heroic efforts described, by parents, researchers, and attorneys, but it remains true that really can't get full justice when it comes to battling large corporations. And there may well still be toxic chemicals leaking from Reich farm.