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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Hemingway & Gellhorn

I'm not sure who decided Clive Owen would make a good Ernest Hemingway. In Hemingway & Gellhorn, which chronicles the author's relationship with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, Owen often looks more like Groucho Marx than the legendary Papa, giving a cartoonish performance where almost all of his lines are written and spoken like aphorisms.

This film, an HBO drama, was directed by Philip Kaufman and stars Nicole Kidman as Gellhorn. It has the feel of a sprawling adventure, as the two covered the Spanish Civil War and World War II. But unlike other films of this type, Hemingway & Gellhorn seems like kids playing dress up. Maybe it's the absurd beret that Owen wears.

The two meet in Key West in the '30s. He's already a famous writer, living with his second wife, the skittish Pauline (Molly Parker). We don't get any info on Gellhorn, even though the film is told from her point of view, as a flashback. I take it she was from high society. She's invited to a meeting at his house where John Dos Passos (David Strathairn) urges action on the atrocities in Spain. She decides to go, getting accreditation from Colliers even though she's never covered a war before.

The two fall in love in Spain. Hemingway sees her as the female version of himself--rough and tumble, brave, and also with "legs that start at her shoulders." In a scene that is too comic to be real, they have their first fuck while their hotel is being shelled, plaster dust falling on their naked bodies.

The relationship can't last, though, because Hemingway's masculinity, his most important thing to worry about, is threatened by her success. He even gets her job at Colliers to cover the Normandy invasion. She goes anyway, posing as a nurse, and is the first reporter on the beach. He meets Mary Welsh (Parker Posey) and Gellhorn wants a divorce.

Though Owen is miscast, the film does find the right target on Hemingway, who was a selfish bully. He is so concerned about his own manhood that he has to challenge it in others. I believe there are no fewer than three men he accuses of being gay (including Orson Welles) during the film.

Hemingway & Gellhorn just doesn't work as a whole, though. It's flat and not very exciting, even in the battle scenes. And for good performances as Hemingway, check out Corey Stoller in Midnight in Paris.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Morning Phase

I first listened to Beck's Morning Phase in the morning, specifically just after sunrise, and it was a perfect introduction to this gorgeous record (whatever Kanye West thinks).

I haven't been fully devoted to Beck over the years. I have some of his albums, all the way back to his first, when he burst on the scene with "Loser." That song in no way prefigures the lush orchestrations and meditative pulses of Morning Phase. I hesitate to call it "New Age," because I think that's become a pejorative term, but this record does not contain pop tropes, and there's no recognizable electric guitar until a burst at the very end.

Mostly Morning Phase is a collage of sound, with strings, acoustic guitars, and drums. After a serene opening instrumental called "Cycle," the album appropriately kicks off with "Morning:"

"Woke up this morning
From a long night in the storm
Looked up this morning
Saw the roses full of thorns"

Then we move into one of the best songs here (though there are no bad ones), "Heart is a Drum," which contains the lovely line, "Your heart is a drum, keeping time with everyone."

As I said, each cut here is sublime, with standouts being "Say Goodbye," "Blue Moon," (he dared to re-use that title and gets away with it) and "Blackbird Chain," which is a love song in which he states, "I will never, never, never, never refuse you," which is an interesting way of putting an emotion. I must also commend "Wave," a soaringly beautiful song using a string orchestra, which does put one in mind of a beach. I sat listening to this just now and felt incredibly moved, though I can't pinpoint why. If I were a film director, I'd like to give Beck a call and see if he would score my film.

Beck, once an alt-rock oddity, has no transcended onto another plane. Like Bjork, there are no boundaries to what he might be able to do--films, operas, what have you. I look forward to hearing what's next.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Beyond the Lights

Beyond the Lights is a fairly standard show-biz melodrama that is lifted by a strong performance by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who should be on everyone's watch list as the next big thing.

She plays Noni, a Rihanna-like singing star who, as the film gets going, has been featured on songs by a crass white rap star, but hasn't released an album of her own. She is sexed up, with revealing outfits and a lavender weave. Her manager is her mother (Minnie Driver), who is the basic monstrous stage mother, something we've seen since the days of Gypsy.

After Mbutha-Raw wins a Billboard Award, she gets drunk and tries to take a swan dive off her hotel balcony, but is saved by a cop (Nate Parker). He's basically an Eagle Scout--his dad is the police captain (Danny Glover) and he's being groomed to run for office. But the two, in true movie fashion, forge a relationship.

Though the script, which is by the director, Gina Prince-Bythewood, is nothing special, I did like how it honed in on a few things: namely, the vacuousness of entertainment journalism and the vulgar sexualization of female singers. Many entertainment reporters appear as themselves, and perhaps they were unwittingly showing how ridiculous they are, acting as if the behavior of stars is more important than world politics, their insincerity dripping as they ask somberly, "How are you?"

And, in a very good scene, Mbutha-Raw performs on the BET Awards Show with the rapper, who is supposed to rip off a coat and cavort with her in lingerie, but she refuses. Later, in what I imagine is a telling scene for black women, she picks out her weave, showing Parker her real hair. When they part, he tells her he gives her one week before she's back with the weave, her "face down and ass up."

That aside, Beyond the Lights is nothing new. We've seen the angle of big star dating regular Joe before, and Parker, though a stolid presence, is no match for Mbuthu-Raw's star power.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Big Hero 6

I've seen all five of the nominees for the 2015 Best Animated Feature, and I found the winner, Big Hero 6, to be the weakest. Oh, it's acceptable fare, the perfect place to put a kid in front of the screen or TV, and there's nothing bad about it. But I thought it was not terribly original and even derivative of much better movies.

Set in San Fransokyo, a hybrid of San Francisco and Tokyo (which allows for easy mixing of Japanese and other races), it concerns Hiro Hamada, a 14-year old genius who is wasting his talent on "bot-fighting," a kind of cockfighting except with robots. His older brother Tadashi urges him to see his college robotics lab (why it took him so long is a mystery) where Hiro sees all sorts of amazing things done by Tadashi's friends. He wants in.

To get in, he has to invent something amazing, so he does, introducing microbots, little robots that when in a group ask as a colony, controlled by neural transmitter--you think it, it becomes it. A head of a conglomerate wants to buy it, but Tadashi's professor urges him not to. Then there is a tragic fire, and Hiro forgets about his robots.

Later, he will rediscover Tadashi's project, Baymax, a "healthcare companion" who looks like the Michelin Man. He can scan a body and prescribe remedies, but assists Hiro in finding what became of his microbots--they are controlled by a villainous man in a Kabuki mask. Together with Tadashi's friends, they use their technical know-how to form a superhero group and defeat the villain.

Like I said, nothing wrong with this, but nothing transcendent, either. The superhero stuff reminded me of The Incredibles, a far superior film, and the "boy and his robot" thing has been done to death, starting way back with Will Robinson in Lost in Space. The design of Baymax is at least different--he's vinyl and white, much like a beanbag chair.

The messages of the film aren't very sophisticated--don't kill someone out of revenge, mostly, and the ending sets up an obvious sequel or three. This is the first combo of Walt Disney and Marvel and it feels corporate to its bones.

I would rank the Animated Film category thusly: Song of the Sea, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and then Big Hero 6. But none of the them match The Lego Movie, so this year's award is one of the most outrageous in recent memory.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Holes (2003)

A while back I wrote that I was teaching Holes in my sixth grade class. All the while they were clamoring to see the film version, even though many of them had already seen it. So yesterday and today I watched it with them--three times, one for each class.

Actually I had already seen it, when it opened in 2003. Directed by Andrew Davis and with a sterling cast, I thought it was an underrated little gem back then, and I still do, as it is a mostly faithful adaptation of the book and at times is rather moving, and has a lot to say about loyalty and friendship.

To recap, Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf) is falsely accused of stealing a valuable pair of baseball cleats. He is sent to a camp in the middle of the Texas desert, where every day he and the other boys are expected to dig a hole, for character building, they are told. The overseer is an odd duck that wants to be called Mr. Sir (a very funny Jon Voight), and a counselor who is alternately nice and nasty (Tim Blake Nelson). The whole thing is run by Sigourney Weaver, but of course she's not having them dig holes for nothing--there's buried treasure out there.

Stanley learns a lot about himself as he tries to get along, and makes friends with Zero (Khleo Thomas), who doesn't talk much and just digs holes. They end up in grand adventure, where they climb a mountain shaped like a thumb learn about the healing power of onions. Oh, and did I mention there are flashbacks to Latvia and the Wild West, with Patricia Arquette as a bandit called Kissin' Kate Barlow?

The script was adapted by the author, Louis Suchar, and it's faithful but makes changes that I think help, such as giving more time to Stanley's parents. The ending is very satisfying. And while LaBeouf may be making a spectacle of himself these days, it's easy to see what attracted moviemakers about him in the first place, as he's very good here.

Holes is a terrific film all around, especially for teens and the adults who love them.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012

Certainly gaining the weirdest title of the year award, Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012 (as it shown in the film) is a quirky indie, which are legion, but this one at least shows spark of originality and some heartfelt performances from its two leads.

Michael Cera, looking like a hipster Harpo Marx, is the ugly American in Chile. We don't know anything about him except he's bunking with Champa (Juan Andres Silva) and in pursuit of mescaline made with a certain kind of cactus. He and Silva and his two brothers had a plan to drive up north of find the cactus, but Cera impulsively invites a free-spirited woman who calls herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman) to come with them.

The writer and director, Sebastian Silva, avoids some cliches. For example, instead of piling Hoffman into the Suburban the boys use, and making it a more conventional road picture, she meets there after taking a bus, holding back the character's impact. Also, Hoffman's shrewd performance (much of the script was improvised from outline) keep Crystal from being a walking cliche. Sure, she doesn't shave her armpits, she's free with her nudity (Hoffman has two long extended nude scenes), and she's convinced the world will end on December 21, 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar, but she also seems like a real person.

Cera also gives a smart performance. Through much of the film is a complete jerk--Silva and his brothers can hardly stand him--and when he realizes that Hoffman is coming he treats her horribly, ridiculing her beliefs. But, whether it's the cactus or his own self-consciousness, his exterior cracks as he trips in the Chilean desert.

I really admired Hoffman, though. Apparently she was based on a real person that Silva (the director) knew, and you could see in Hoffman's performance the pain and regret that she might have had to lead her to this point. A long monologue about when she was raped almost seems overkill, as we didn't need to heart it. But Cera's character did, as he was unable to see much beyond the edge of his nose, even as he babbled about Huxley's Doors of Perception.

While this film could have done with a less precious title, but I found it interesting and richly authentic, even if the 2012 part is now dated (hey, we survived!)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Song of the Sea

Tomm Moore, a director of animated films from Ireland, now has two Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature. Following up his Secret of the Kells comes Song of the Sea, another film rooted in Irish myths. It's a beautiful, enchanting film.

This time the subject is selkies, among other things. These are Irish mythical creatures that are both seal and human. We also get fairies, a giant who has been turned to stone, and an owl witch. For kids (and adults) who love this kind of theme, it is well worth searching out.

The story centers around Ben, a boy of about nine. We see him much younger, when his sister is about to be born. He is excited, and promises to be the best brother ever. But his mother disappears after the baby, Saorsie, is born, and the two kids live with their father on a rocky outcropping in a lighthouse.

Saorsie doesn't speak, and has a thing for the water, which Ben is terrified of. One day, when their mean but well-meaning granny is visiting, Saorsie goes for a nocturnal swim, where we find out she is a selkie, as her mother was. Granny finds her washed up on the beach, and convinces the dad to let her take the kids to the city. Ben does not like this one bit, and resolves to escape and go back, especially to find his loyal sheepdog, Cu.

Along the journey back Ben finds out that the stories his mother told him are true, when he meets fairies and other mystical creatures. He realizes he has not been a good brother, and does his best to save his sister as she starts to fail--she needs her selkie coat.

Song of the Sea might not be ideal for kids who want fast-paced action. It is slow and measured in parts, but at times utterly beautiful, especially in scenes involving the water. It was a worthy nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ted Cruz

It's hard to believe, but we didn't have our first official hat in the ring for the 2016 presidential election until yesterday, when Ted Cruz, senator from Texas, announced in front of a throng at Liberty University, where they believe Earth is only 6,000 years old. But wait--the crowd had to be there--the students were forced to go.

Cruz is perhaps the most odious of the potential candidates, but that's a high bar, given the things that Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson have said. I see Cruz as a minor candidate, Michele Bachmann 2.0, garnering a small but fevered fan base, and he and the other right-wing kooks will devour each other while the big-money candidates, most likely Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and possibly Marco Rubio, will float to the top.

Cruz is an interesting case. Judging by his resume, he's a brilliant legal scholar, but he seems to be confused about the Constitution, saying this about the Obama administration: "This is an administration that seems bound and determine to violate every single one of our bill of rights. I don’t know that they have yet violated the Third Amendment, but I expect them to start quartering soldiers in peoples’ homes soon." Like many Tea Party radicals, he seems to think the government should stay out of our lives, except in the instances of pregnancy and marriage.

He is also a climate change denier, who now thinks it's all a hoax because it used to be called global warming. But it is getting hotter, and has gotten hotter every year for several years now. Last year was the hottest year on record. Just because it snows doesn't mean there's a grave threat facing the world right now. Of course, Cruz is not a scientist, he just ignores them. Time to shudder: he's on the Senate Science Committee.

From what I've read, Cruz is hated by most of his fellow Republican lawmakers. His slash and burn style, threatening to shut down the government over everything, has not earned him much congeniality points. He is one of those "principled" kooks, who care not for the normal functioning of society, but would rather blow it all up in the name of some vague shibboleth.

It's hard to imagine Cruz getting elected--his reputation for stupidity and not playing well with others precedes him. He is behind the curve on gay marriage and net neutrality, and his idea to close the IRS down and put them on the Mexican border is bizarre (who would collect taxes, the border patrol?) He opposes Obamacare even after he enrolled in it, and his views on immigration are just a tad hypocritical--he's an immigrant, but from Canada, which I guess is okay. It's just those dirty brown Mexicans he wants to keep out (and ISIS, who I guess have all sorts of cells in Tijuana).

As for the Canada thing, most think because he is the child of a U.S. citizen, he is consider a "natural born citizen," which the Constitution requires for a president. But this is interesting, because Barack Obama, who was of course born in Hawaii, has faced accusations that he was born in Kenya, and thus was ineligible to be president. But no one disputes his mother was an American citizen, just as Cruz's is. Oh, the delicious irony!

I last wrote about Cruz when he recited the text of Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor, totally misunderstanding the meaning of the book. Cruz won't win the White House, but he should provide comedians lots of fodder for late night television. I imagine Jon Stewart is rethinking his leaving The Daily Show.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Breaking the Girls

Here's a movie that is at cross-purposes: it's meant to be one of those movies that you see on Cinemax late at night, with two hot girls making out. But the problem is, there is no nudity, and we get the absurd situation where women are clutching sheets to their bodies when they sit up. If you're going to make a movie like this, go for the gold. Plus, the movie, on its own merits, is bad, but that's to be expected.

"Directed" by Jamie Babbit, Breaking the Girls (the title makes no sense) is essentially the lesbian version of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Law student Sara (Agnes Bruckner, looking like the poor man's Katherine Heigl) has had a run of bad luck, mostly caused by the snooty Shanna Collins. She meets Alex (Madeline Zima) in a bar. Alex is a rich party-girl and a lesbian, who takes a shine to Bruckner. After she gets Bruckner interested in Sapphic romance, she suggests that Bruckner kill her nemesis, her stepmother (Katherine Levering) and Alex will kill Collins. Bruckner thinks nothing of it until Collins ends up dead in a swimming pool.

Of course this film has none of Hitchcock's skill. The script bends over backwards to provide twists--just who is playing who? When I thought it was over there was one more twist, and while it was clever it forgot to actually make sense in the beginning.

There is a lot of PG sex, as I said, which must have been a marketing decision, as anyone who has seen Californication knows that Zima has been gloriously nude before. She and Bruckner are not bad, but the film is so ridiculous that they are their nice bodies can't keep it afloat.

Also, why are movie lesbians usually depicted as evil, back-stabbing bitches?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts

I've had a very tumultuous weekend, but the good part was as I was driving around Las Vegas, I was accompanied by the sound of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, the third Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee I will be writing about.

Jett is one of the great rock and roll chicks, and I mean that most lovingly. Being a woman in rock usually gets you pigeon-holed, but for forty years Jett has been playing straight ahead garage rock without having to play second fiddle to sexual posing. She is sexy, but not in a sex kittenish way. She's nobody's sex object. In her seminal hit, I Love Rock and Roll, she's the seducer, sizing up a boy by the jukebox and pouncing on him, wearing her red leather jumpsuit and kohled eyes. And she gives a great feline yowl.

In Do You Want to Touch Me she flashes herself in a bikini, but she does it rebelliously, as if telling the executive who asked for it to go fuck himself.

Jett got her start as a member of the notorious Runaways, created by Kim Fowley. Jett was not the front woman of the band, Cherie Currie was. But Jett was the one that survived the roller coaster ride, and started her own band, the Blackhearts. The original lineup was her, Gary Ryan, Eric Ambel, and Danny O'Brien. She hit it big in the late '70s and early '80s with the above hits, as well as "Bad Reputation," one of the great wind-it-up-and-spit-it-out hits, a cover of Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover," and the gloriously titled, "I Hate Myself for Loving You."

Jett's later career saw her branching out a bit, covering Sly and the Family Stone on "Everyday People," appearing in a film as well as performing the song for "Light of Day," and even covering "Love Is All Around," the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore Show. And though her style has always been traditional bad-ass rocker, she has absorbed and influenced many different genres, from punk to riot grrls.

I've been listening to her greatest hits album, so I'm not sure if she ever succumbed and did a ballad. She comes close, at least lyrically, on her song "Androgynous." Jett's sexuality has always been ambiguous--I think that's intentional--but she gives hints when she covers Sweet's "A.C.D.C."

Jett is now 56 years old and still rocking like there's no tomorrow. As I think I mentioned in my post about the movie The Runaways, a guy I knew had her sign his arm and he made it permanent with a tattoo. I think this is completely appropriate.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Rose That Grew From Concrete

In my quest to become relevant to my students, I read a book of poetry by a rap star who's been dead for almost twenty years. Still, he is still well-known even to the urchins who were born well after he died, enough to correct me when I pronounced his name "two-pack" rather than "two-pock."

Tupac Shakur is one of the biggest-selling artists of all time, even though he died at 25. Many of his albums came out posthumously, which became a grim joke. But he was also a poet, and his collection, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, while not particularly sophisticated poetry, is heartfelt and reflects where the man came from and what he experienced.

These poems also reflect the black experience. Many of them are dedicated to black heroes, like Nelson Mandela or Malcolm X, or iconic victims of white violence, like Yusef Hawkins. In "For Mrs. Hawkins," Shakur writes:

"This poem is addressed 2 Mrs. Hawkins
who lost her son 2 a racist society"

In "Government Assistance or My Soul," Shakur tackles the cycle of government assistance received by inner-city blacks:

"It would be like a panther
asking a panther hunter
4 some meat, all
High school dropouts R not DUMB
All unemployed aren't lazy
and there R many days I hunger
But I would go hungry and homeless
Before the American Government gets my soul"

He doesn't turn a blind eye to self-inflicted wounds of black society. In "Tears of a Teenage Mother" he writes:

"He's bragging about his new Jordans
the baby just ran out of milk
He's buying gold every 2 weeks
the baby just ran out of Pampers
He's buying clothes for his new girl
& the baby just ran out of medicine
u ask money for the baby
and Daddy just ran out the door"

Shakur's politics are stimulating, but his poems about love and growing up are even better. In "The Fear in the Heart of a Man," he writes:

"against an attacker I will bravely take my stand
because my heart will show fear 4 no man
but 4 a broken heart I run with fright
scared 2 to be blind in a vulnerable night"

That a strong black man admits to fear and tears is brave and important.

The title poem is the best of the collection, and though the metaphor may be clunky and obvious, it's still quite affecting:

"Did u hear about the rose that grew from a crack
in the concrete
Proving nature's laws wrong it learned to walk
without having feet
Funny it seems but by keeping its dreams
it learned 2 breathe fresh air
Long live the rose that grew from concrete
when no one else even cared!"

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Violet & Daisy

I found Violet & Daisy, written and directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, to be a frustrating film. Casting two young and nubile actresses as teenage contract killers would seem to be something for the trench-coat crowd, and indeed, the marketing for the film centers on this. I can think of a few other films that did this, such as the throwaway Sugar and Spice and the more lofty Spring Breakers. 

But Fletcher, who also wrote the somber Precious, pumps the film so full of pretentious psychology that it takes any fun out of it for pervs and instead it becomes a dreary slog.

The title pair are played by Alexis Bledel and Saorsie Ronan. We don't know how a pair of college-age girls became assassins, it's just understood. We see them mow down an apartment full of bad guys while dressed as nuns, hardly breaking a sweat. They then get a job to kill a guy who robbed money from important people. He made it very easy to be found, which any moviegoer should realize means something's up.

Indeed, the guy turns out to be James Gandolfini, in sad sack mode (he, of course, also plays vicious sociopath pretty well, too), who has cancer and wants to commit suicide by hit man. Of course, he doesn't expect young women, and the three end up spending the day together, as the girls can't bring themselves to kill him. There are a few subplots, such as Bledel going out to buy bullets and ending up in the middle of a robbery, and then there are some rival hit men, but the whole thing is a waste of time. The shooting scenes are a rip-off, and not a good one, of Quentin Tarantino.

Fletcher seems more attuned to the three-character drama he has going. Gandolfini, who was almost never bad, makes for compelling viewing, as he is pining for a daughter who has disowned them, and sees the girls, especially Ronan, as a replacement.

This isn't enough to sustain the film, which isn't shot very well, doesn't make a lot of sense (why would girls who are shown as indiscriminate killers in the first scene set up as softies later in the film) and other than Gandolfini, not very well acted. I liked Bledel very much on Gilmore Girls, but she's woefully miscast here (I read that she got the part after Carey Mulligan backed out, a good move).

And then there's the thing about their names being flowers. Bledel's old partner was named--wait for it--Rose. If I put that in a screenplay I'd cross it out almost immediately.

The film was shot in 2011 but sat on the shelf until 2013, understandably.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Heart on My Sleeve

Heart on My Sleeve is a perfect title for Mary Lambert's album. She's a singer-songwriter from Seattle who explores her past and present as a lesbian who grew up in a Christian household. She's prime Lilith Fair material, making me think of sensitive female singers such as Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan.

This is a decent record, but I'm not the primary audience. I did enjoy the snappy opener, "Secrets":

"I've got bi-polar disorder
My shit's not in order
I'm overweight
I'm always late
I've got too many things to say
I rock mom jeans
Cat earrings
Extrapolate my feelings
My family is dyfunctional
But we have a good time killing each other."

But there are moments when the writing is a little too high-school-girl doodles, such as in the spoken word track, "Dear One":

"I am a bed of calla lillies
I will make a house for you and fill it with evergreens
I will paint sunsets on every wall
So you can only see beautiful things"

Then again, she can capture the imagination with just one line, such as the opening line of the title track: "Let me be your porchlight."

The most intriguing track is a cover version of Rick Springfield's cheesy '80s hit "Jessie's Girl." Lambert slows it down to a torch song tempo, and given the gender switch, the song sounds much more powerful and poignant than it ever did thirty years ago.

So while Mary Lambert may not be the artist of choice for fiftyish men, I do admire her talent enough to strongly recommend her to those who like this sort of thing, and to especially listen on a dark, rainy night.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


"She picked up the axe and flipped it expertly, feeling for the familiar move and sway of its weight with more grace and better precision than the the most experienced of lumberjacks. It was almost lovely, the way she turned it between her hands--almost divine, how the light sparked off it and bounded back into the sky."

Yes, this is a novel about Lizzie Borden. Cherie Priest has scored points for originality by combining the real-life axe murderess (alleged, to be technical) with the style of H.P. Lovecraft, who wrote about the Cthulu Mythos--beings from deep beneath the sea. It kind of works.

Maplecroft, so named for the mansion that the Borden sisters moved into after Lizzie was acquitted and they inherited their father's money, implies, then spells out, that Lizzie killed her parents (actually a father and step-mother) because they were turning into some kind of fish-like beings. The sisters have researched these creatures, occasionally having to kill them (the axe works best) and then parboiling them in a cooker in the basement.

Emma, Lizzie's older sister, has written articles on marine life under a pseudonym, and corresponded with a Dr. Zellicoffer of Miskatonic University (an institution well known to readers of Lovecraft). She has also sent him a sample, one that has turned him into one of "them," and he has come to look for her in Fall River, leaving a trail of dead behind him.

This is the set up, and I would have never thought Lizzie Borden could have been turned into an avenging heroine. Priest writes in the florid, ornate style of Lovecraft, redolent with odors; "The sample smelled like pickled death. It stank of rot and fire, as of something imperfectly fermented. The fumes were thick in my nostrils, and I bit my tongue fiercely to keep myself from sneezing. Almost as if the contents emitted some noxious, dizzying gas, my vision became light and my concentration waned."

Lovecraft was interested not only in tentacled gods from the depths, but in madness, and Priest is, too. She has several characters narrate, but the most interesting is Dr. Seabury, who comes to learn of the horrors the Borden sisters know and he pays for it, as his mind starts to slip.

I think most have come to agree that Lizzie Borden did kill her parents, if only because it couldn't have been anyone else, but there are those who maintain her innocence. I have no idea if Priest does, but it seems likely, as she is given a sympathetic portrait. "From a certain slant, it would appear that my sister and I are the witches we're accused of being. Oh, I don't know. Perhaps the whispers have merit. What else would you call it but witchcraft--these experiments my sister undertakes in the basement laboratory, and around the walls and windows of this home? She's turning it into a fortress of superstition, but if you ask her, she'll argue that it's all science...of a kind."

I don't know how big the Venn diagram is for those interested in both Lovecraft and Lizzie Borden, but I am, and I rather enjoyed this book, though I suspect true devotees of both may have issues.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Attack

There have been many films made about the conflict between Arab and Jew in Israel, and The Attack is another fine one, taking a very personal look at the issues involved. This one splits a husband and wife, and becomes as much about the secrets in a marriage as it about politics.

Released in 2012, the film was directed by Ziad Doueiri, and based on a popular novel. The star is Ali Suliman, who plays Amin, a successful Arab surgeon living in Tel Aviv. He is secular, and enjoys all the trappings of his life among the Jews. He also has a beautiful Christian wife, Reymonde Amsalem.

The film opens with them parting for a few days, as she is heading to her grandfather's house. He accepts an award from a Jewish organization. Later, while at the hospital, an explosion is heard. Bodies are brought to the hospital. Seventeen people die, including 11 children. Then Suliman is called to the morgue. In a body bag only partially filled, he identifies his wife.

The police say she was the suicide bomber, and they naturally suspect he was an accomplice of some sorts. He maintains she must be innocent, and eventually they let him go, but insist she was the bomber. After he receives a posthumous letter from her, he realizes the police are right, and tries to find out how she could have done such a horrible thing.

I found the first half of the film more interesting, when Suliman slowly has to come to grips with the fact that he didn't know his wife half of as much as he thought he did. The detective asks him why his wife wasn't with him on the evening of his award, the biggest night of his life. Later, we see the argument that erupted over that. A person might watch this and say that there is no way a person couldn't keep that part of themselves secret, but I think they could and often do.

The second half, which has Suliman travel to Nablus, a hotbed of terrorists, is less interesting. He's on kind of a detective story, peeling back the layers of the onion to find the source of his wife's conversion, and it ends up exactly where one might think it does, based on a simple understanding of foreshadowing.

As a study of marriage, I give The Attack high marks--as a study of Israeli-Arab politics, not so much.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Mad Men, Season 3

Mad Men is coming to an end shortly, but I've just finished it's third season, and after a somewhat meandering start, it packed a powerful finish and has me ready for more seasons.

The year is now 1963. At the end of last season, a British company brought Sterling Cooper, so our recognizable cast is getting used to being run by Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). Roger Sterling (the great John Slattery) is newly married to his "trophy" wife, while trying to deal with his daughter's upcoming nuptials. Our hero, or should I say anti-hero, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), has landed a huge account, Hilton Hotels, by somehow impressing Conrad Hilton himself at a country club.

Draper, also unflappable, faces his downfall this season. In the first few episodes, he seems to be in a constant state of bemusement at what's going around him. But as he says later, he's a creative man, not an account man, as he doesn't know how to value relationships. His constantly put upon wife, Betty (January Jones) finds love with an aide to Governor Rockefeller, and then discovers Draper's deepest secret--he is not who he says he is.

There are fourteen episodes, and it covers a lot of ground. Draper has an affair with his kid's teacher, he also gets robbed by a couple of teenagers. There are office politics involving Pete Campbell, the incessant ladder climber (Vincent Kartheiser), who also has an affair with an au pair living down the hall of his building. Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) continues to be a big asset to the company, especially concerning women's products--she alone sees that an Ann-Margret knock-off is not going to sell diet soda. She will start to feel taken for granted, and think of moving on. And, in an episode that has "jump the shark" written all over it, a man's foot is cut off by a riding mower.

But the season's last two episodes kick everything into high gear. The penultimate one, and we've been waiting for it, has the cast dealing with the Kennedy assassination. We see the Walter Cronkite clip, but intriguingly they use the far-less-seen Chet Huntley footage. Betty is watching live as Lee Oswald is killed, and says, "What is happening!" which must have been on everyone's minds.

The last episode, and I don't want to spoil, even though this is about four years old, involves Sterling, Bert Cooper (the scene-stealing Robert Morse), Draper and Pryce starting their own agency, completely on the sly. Draper does this even as Betty has filed for divorce. This last episode was directed by series creator Matthew Weiner, and it's thrilling in its presentation.

I like to give awhile between seasons of a show--I'm not a binge watcher--so I won't get around to Mad Men, Season 4 for a while, but I'm already chomping at the bit for more. The way this series captures the world of America in the 1960s is so good, whether it be attitudes about race, sex, or class, that it could be used as a historical text. I suppose next season will involve the coming of The Beatles.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014

One could be excused for mistaking the latest volume of The Best American Science and Nature Writing for a horror collection. We've got articles in here on the rising tides caused by climate change, a future where antibiotics are useless, the return of measles, mass extinctions, people waking up during surgery, and even invincible ants, all raising the hair on one's head. It almost makes me glad I'll be dead before much of this kicks in.

Edited by Deborah Blum, the 2014 edition is lively reading, even for those who are not of a scientific bent, as I am. In fact, I was able to comprehend all of the articles this year--none of them were too heavy on the math. Some of them were quite benign and even poetic, such as David Treuer's "Trapline," in which he spent some time trapping beavers in norther Minnesota, or Bill Sherwont's "Twelve Ways of Viewing Alaska's Whild, White Sheep."

But a large number of the articles are causes for concern, many of them dealing with the repercussions of man's meddling with nature. Two articles mention that we are now in a new age, which is known as the Anthropocene. Elizabeth Kolbert, as part of her book The Sixth Extinction, discusses the very notion of studying mass extinctions, She points out the work of Georges Cuvier, the first scientist to posit the notion of extinctions (this before many fossils of extinct animals were found) and warns of the next one, the sixth. Roy Scranton outlines an even bleaker forecast in "Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene." But fear not! In "Bringing Them Back to Life," Carl Zimmer writes about attempts to bring back extinct species by cloning them, sort of like was imagined in Jurassic Park. But he wonders about the ethics--do we really want the sky clouded with passenger pigeons again?

In medical news, I found the scariest article to be Marilyn McKenna's "Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future." Antibiotics have to be constantly updated, because bacteria keep adapting to them (the easiest proof of evolution that there is). Pharmaceutical companies don't make money on short-use drugs like antibiotics, so aren't eager to pour research dollars into them. Which we means one day we may be back to the day when a mosquito bite, followed by infection, could kill someone. If that doesn't make you scared, maybe "The Return of Measles," by Seth Mnookin, will. It's been in the news--the nutty anti-vaccination crowd are personally responsible for the uptick in measles, which is the most contagious microbe in existence (it has a 90 percent rate of infection) which was completely eradicated. Of, if you have different fears, there's Joshua Lang's "Awakening," about patients who wake up during surgery, but can't move. They then have traumatic memories of the pain. It could make you want to high-tail it into the mountains.

On the other hand, Rebecca Solnit's article on leprosy, "The Separating Sickness," is heartening--leprosy is not quite done with, but can be easily cured, and maybe one day the phrase "treated like a leper" will be obsolete. And "TV as Birth Control," by Fred Pearce, discusses how the impact of television, particularly of strong women characters, has changed birth control rates in third-world countries. When women see fictional versions of themselves with more options than just being incubators, birth rates go down.

I read this book on a Kindle, but there is still a longing for paper, and that might be because of something in the brain, so says Ferris Jabr in "Why the Brain Prefers Paper." "Surveys and consumer reports suggest that the sensory aspects of reading on paper matter to people more than one might assume: the feel of paper and kin; the option to smooth or fold a page with one's fingers; the distinctive sound a page makes when turned. So far digital texts have not satisfyingly replicated such sensations."

When I was a kid in Texas, we knew about fire ants--my sister sat in an anthill when she was two; it was not pretty. Justin Nobel writes in "Ants Go Marching" that's there's just no good way of getting rid of them: "Eliminating fire ants seemed a bit like making cornbread: every Southerner had his own favorite recipe."

I think my favorite article is Corey S. Powell's "The Madness of Planets," which is about how chaos really is the norm in cosmology. For instance, Jupiter, it is thought, was roaming around untethered in the solar system. "Fortunately for us, Earth had not yet formed when Jupiter was on the move; if it had, our planet might have plunged into the sun or spun off into dark oblivion." Jupiter smashed through objects that were there, including "thick swarms of icy comets and asteroids." This sent water-rich objects onto Earth's surface as it was forming. "Whenever you take a swim, or just take a drink, you are benefiting from the solar system's foundational instability."

All of this was news to me. Fascinating news.

Friday, March 13, 2015


As I mentioned in my post on Mad as Hell, the book about Network, it made me want to see Network again, and I'm pleased to say it holds up extremely well. The primary reason is the script by Paddy Chayefsky, which contains some of the most limber dialogue I've ever heard in a film.

It is 1975, and America is in turmoil. There  have just been two assassination attempts on the president. Inflation is high, as is unemployment. And at UBS, the fourth network, Howard Beale, (Peter Finch) their graying eminence, has just been fired with two weeks notice.

He takes his first opportunity post-sacking to tell the audience he will kill himself on the air. That gets him pulled off the air immediately, and his friend, president of the news division Max Schumacher (William Holden) fears for his sanity. He allows him one more chance, but Beale tells the audience he's run out of bullshit.

This catches the interest of Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), the head of entertainment programming. She notes that Beale has drawn extra ratings, and wants to keep him as some sort of  "a mad prophet exposing the hypocrisies of America." Much to Schumacher's chagrin, this works, though they are attracted to each other (this is the weakest part of the script--I just can't see him falling for her). She takes over the show, and it turns into something of a circus, with soothsayers and gossips, but "it's a fat, big-titted hit."

This leads Diana to bolder shows, such as The Mao-Tze Tung Hour, which features a terrorist group called The Ecumenical Liberation Army, who film their own bank robberies. But her ride ends when Beale bites the hand that feeds him, and the president of the parent corporation (Ned Beatty) tells him "he is meddling with the primal forces of nature." Diana and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), a corporate henchman, decide the only thing they can do is have Beale killed. "This was the story of Howard Beale: the first known incident of a man killed because he had lousy ratings."

So what makes Network so great? The dialogue, as I said, is the start. The whole film is quotable, from all of Beale's rants, including the spectacular "Mad as Hell" speech, and the stunningly intelligent repartee between Schumacher and Diana. She is a soulless person--when they go on a romantic date all she can talk about his business. He tells her, "You're television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer." She doesn't disagree, as her world is ratings and shares.

Then there is the scene when Schumacher tells his wife, Beatrice Straight, that he's leaving her for Diana. This scene won Straight an Oscar, but it was almost cut, and fighting had to go to keep it in. She tells Schumacher: "This is your great winter romance, isn't it? Your last roar of passion before you settle into your emeritus years. Is that what's left for me? Is that my share? She gets the winter passion, and I get the dotage? What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to sit at home knitting and purling while you slink back like some penitent drunk? I'm your wife, damn it. And, if you can't work up a winter passion for me, the least I require is respect and allegiance. I hurt. Don't you understand that? I hurt badly."

Secondly, this is superbly acted film. Five performers received Oscar nominations, and three, Dunaway, Finch (posthumously), and Straight won. Finch is towering as a man fluttering in the wind like a loose door, but I think my favorite performance may be the bombastic turn by Duvall, who embodies every management cretin I've ever come across. When Schumacher tells him, "Fuck you, Hackett," the look on Duvall's face is priceless.

The director is Sidney Lumet, who mostly keeps out of the way, and was an old pro even then, so every shot is seamless, particularly the "Mad as Hell" scene, which uses an upward view as Beale stands and says, "I want you to get up and go to the window." I actually replayed that scene while watching the DVD, it's one of the best sequences ever put on celluloid.

As mentioned in the book review, what makes Network so interesting almost forty years later is how prescient Chayefsky was. With the utter inanity of reality shows to news as entertainment, UBS was a blueprint for Fox News, although all the networks have been guilty of turning the once august business of TV journalism into a side-show. I shudder to think of what Chayefsky would think of it today. And I loved the scenes of the arch liberal Angela Davis stand-in negotiating a contract. "Don't fuck with my distribution rights!" We're all capitalists under the skin.

Network is a very special film, one that started as dark satire and ended up as an accurate prediction. If you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What Is Pop Culture?

Last night I attended a fascinating lecture by UNLV professor Brandon Manning on incorporating pop culture into the classroom. But it was a much larger subject--what is pop culture? What does it have to do with our lives?

Pop culture is everywhere, and unless you're a monk it's inescapable. Music, TV, social media, movies, fashion, it's a large mass that sits on top of us like a fog. Of course, it can be for good for ill. Pop culture has changed the world, both for good and bad, and whether it's good or bad is still argued about (there are those who think the entire 1960s were a mistake, and clearly music was at the vanguard of the change).

Manning, in answer to a question, pointed out that pop culture is not just contemporary. He taught a course on black pop culture and it started with minstrel shows all the way to hip-hop. In some way I wonder if pop culture of the past, especially of our ow youths, is simply nostalgia, but there's no doubt that it informs who we are. He talked about how many TV shows and movies show teachers as idiots, while in my day, teachers were heroic, on shows like Room 222, Lucas Tanner, and The White Shadow. "Then came the '90s," Manning sighed.

When it comes to pop culture in the classroom, one is on a razor's edge. In college, you can play anything, like Nicki Minaj's "My Anaconda" or a Louis C.K. rant about white privilege ("Of course it's better to be white.") Teaching sixth grade, I have to be careful. I tried showing some things today, such as Weird Al Yankovic's parodies, particularly "Word Crimes," which takes the smutty "Blurred Lines" and turns it into a primer on proper English. My kids don't know Weird Al, but they know the songs he's parodying. Then I tried showing  Meghan Trainor's All About That Bass, which has no profanity and, on the surface, has a positive message about girls' body images. All my kids understood that, but Manning posed some deeper questions that would go over my kids' heads, such as why are their black back-up singers, and isn't the rotund dancer being mocked for his body image?

The one thing that is clear is that I have to learn this stuff. I can't quote Bob Dylan or The Beatles, which are to them like Rudy Vallee would be to me. I do have one girl who is into Nirvana, which is kind of amazing considering Kurt Cobain has been dead for over twenty years. These kids are into the Little Einsteins theme song (I had never heard of this show before) and various hip-hop stars that seem to all blend into one for me, and who all use the word "nigga."

But I know there is good rap out there. During the lecture someone mentioned Tupac Shakur's poetry, and I bought a copy of his book with my Amazon ap. He is from Las Vegas, and has something of legendary status here. I'm going to start teaching how to analyze text soon, so why not start with what the kids know?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


How do you follow up one of the most popular albums of all time? That problem was facing Fleetwood Mac after their monster-selling album Rumours, which sold 40 million copies. Two years later, in 1979, they released Tusk, which is thought of as one of the biggest busts in rock history. In some ways, that is correct, as it only sold 4 million copies, and was the most expensive album to make up to that time. But in retrospective, it is some ways their best album, and the view of it has come around almost 180 degrees.

Fleetwood Mac, in its most recent iteration (which has lasted almost forty years), has always been a three-headed beast, with songs by Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, and Stevie Nicks. It is never more so that on Tusk, which in a way is like The Beatles "White" album, which is an album of four solo artists. Each songwriter has five to seven songs, intermingled in a haphazard order. But each songwriter is at their greatest talent here, and their most representative. For instance, Stevie Nicks is at her most Stevie-Nicksiest on Tusk.

It was Buckingham who was responsible for most of it, as the band basically let him have his way in the studio. The title is a euphemism for penis that the men in the band used; Nicks threatened to quit the band if they used the title, but I guess she backed down. The production is much sparer than other Fleetwood Mac albums, except for the very experimental  and weird title track, which used the USC marching band.

Things kick off with one of McVie's trademark love songs, 'Over and Over," which are almost always simple and pure sounding. Then we get one of Buckingham's standard songs, "The Ledge," which to me, like many of his songs, sounds like a wind-up toy. His songs are almost always full of guitar. I saw him in concert and he had five guitar players, and the sound was like a sledgehammer, but pleasantly so.

Nicks doesn't arrive until the fifth track, with "Sara." This was the big single from the album, a very quiet song that she recently verified was about an abortion she had of a baby fathered by Don Henley. I think the five songs she does on this album are five of her best, reaching from different parts of her psyche. There's her "Welsh Witch" stuff with "Sisters of the Moon," a hard rocking song:

"Intense silence
As she walked into the room
Her black robes trailing
Sister of the Moon"

She has a very good pop song called "Angel," and then two crushing beautiful songs, "Beautiful Child," and my favorite, "Storms," which starts with a soft guitar and quietly builds, just like a storm. In fact, the word storm does not appear until late in the song:

"So I try to say
Goodbye my friend
I'd like to leave you with something warm
But never have I been a blue calm sea
I have always been a storm."

McVie and Buckingham aren't as interesting lyrically, but the sequencing of the album usually has one of Buckingham's hyper ditties following of Nicks' emotional ballads, which provides for an exhilarating listen.

Tusk sold only one tenth of the copies of Rumours, and didn't have a number one single, while Rumours had four. But if I was forced to make a Sophie's choice, I'd take Tusk with me to the desert island.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sundays and Cybele

I'm not quite sure I've seen a movie like Sundays and Cybele, the winner of the 1962 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Well, it reminds me of some other films. I thought quite a bit about Beautiful Girls, in which Timothy Hutton is enchanted by a 14-year-old Natalie Portman. In this film, a mentally fragile veteran falls in (platonic) love with an 11-year-old girl.

Directed by Serge Bourguignon, it stars Hardy Kruger as a fighter pilot who, upon crash landing in Indochina, thinks he might have killed a young girl. He is recuperating in small apartment, living with a nurse he met in recovery. He likes to spend his time at the railroad station, watching the trains. One day a man and a girl get off, wondering where the convent is. Kruger follows them, and realizes that the man is turning his daughter over to a convent school. He also figures out that the father never intends on returning.

Kruger then passes himself as the father and visits the girl every Sunday. She takes to him immediately, and has a crush on him like only a young girl can, talking about their relationship in adult terms. She fears he will abandon her, and one day when he has to go on a social visit, she is devastated.

The nurse he lives with learns about the girl, but realizes its innocent as she watches them, hidden, frolic in the park. Kruger's friend, a sculptor, also supports the friendship, but even in the more innocent days of 1962, tongues wag, and the ending becomes tragic.

Sundays and Cybele is about two people connecting while society frowns at them. I noted the many different ways Bourguignon uses various modes of perception. The first time we see Kruger it is through a train window, a iris of sorts. Then we see people looking through frosted windows and even a wine glass, which Kruger views his so-called friends. The most stunning example of this is when Kruger is headed toward the convent for the first time, and we see him from a truck and its side mirror. Thus we can see the future as well as the past in the same shot.

Kruger is fine in a part that requires mostly stoicism (Bourguignon wanted Steve McQueen, who was too expensive). Patricia Gozzi is the girl, and she had a brief career following, but she's quite good as Cybele. Incidentally, the French title of the film is Sundays in Ville d'Avray. The girl's name is a secret both to Kruger and the viewer, and we don't find it out until the end of the film. But for some reason the English-language title puts her name right in the title. Go figure.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Mad as Hell

There are movie lines that live forever, and their creation is usually some kind of alchemy. For instance, the line "I'm as made as hell,and I'm not going to take this anymore!" came to writer Paddy Chayefsky, but he never thought it would stick in pop culture. Fortunately, for those who have seen it and loved it, as I have, there is more to his film Network than just that line.

Dave Itzkoff tells the story of Network, soup to nuts, in his book, titled of course, Mad As Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. It is a straightforward account of how Chayefsky came up with the idea, how the film was cast and shot, and how it was received and remembered.

"Network was a bundle of contradictions, the last gasp of an era of populist Hollywood filmmaking as expressed by a man who never subscribed to the movement; it used the resources of one mass medium to indict another and, beyond it, the degradation and emptiness of contemporary American life," Itzkoff writes. He starts with a biography of Chayefsky, who began in the Golden Age of television, and then transitioned to movies when his teleplay, Marty, was made into a film and he and it won Oscars. He had various successes and failures, including another Oscar for The Hospital in 1971, when he came upon the idea of writing about television.

Itzkoff covers this area well, getting his hands on Chayefsky's notes and early drafts so we can see the evolution of the story. Chayefsky teamed with producer Howard Gottfried and the movie was shopped. Chayefsky suffered no fools and was not about to make changes, but the film landed at MGM, Sidney Lumet was hired, and the casting process began. There were three main characters: Howard Beale, the "mad prophet of the airwaves," Max Schumacher, the old-school TV producer who bemoans the changing world, and Diane Christensen, representing the new wave, where anything on TV can be sold like beer.

"For Beale, his mad prophet of the airwaves, he envisioned Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gene Hackman, Sterling Hayden, or Robert Montgomery; Max Schumacher could be played by Fonda or Hackman, or by William Holden; and Diana Christensen seemed ideal for Candice Bergen, Faye Dunaway, Ellen Burstyn, or Natalie Wood." Holden and Dunaway would get the parts, but Beale went to the unlikely Peter Finch, an Australian by way of England and Jamaica who had to convince all involved he could do an American accent.

Itzkoff covers the filming on almost a daily basis, and notes such struggles as Dunaway's recalcitrance, particularly about a sex scene with Holden. How much nudity there was had to be negotiated, and when Dunaway went back on it, she was almost fired. Another actor, Roberts Blossom (who would later play the old man in Home Alone) was axed as Arthur Jensen, the head of the corporation that owns the Network. He was replaced by Ned Beatty, who would utter perhaps the film's second-best known line: "Because you're on television, dummy."

Then we see the surreal events surrounding the death of Finch, who died in January of 1977, just two months after the film's release. He left behind a Jamaican wife, and there was much discussion of who would be allowed to accept a potential Oscar. Peter Bogdonavich, who was producing the telecast, did not want a repeat of dark moments like Marlon Brando sending up a woman in Indian garb to refuse an Oscar.

The book then covers the reception of the film. It was hailed by some critics, such as Vincent Canby, and panned by others, such as Pauline Kael. The reception by the TV news industry was alarming to Chayefsky--he never intended it be an insult. He had received full cooperation of the networks before the film--he shadowed a network producer while writing--but almost the whole industry came down on him, even Walter Cronkite, whose daughter had a role in the film.

Network would be nominated for ten Oscars, including five of the film's actors, tying a record. It also tied a record by winning three acting statuettes (the other was A Streetcar Named Desire), with Dunaway winning Best Actress; Beatrice Straight a surprise winner for Best Supporting Actress (her speech was almost as long as the length of her part), and Finch winning his posthumous award. Chayefsky accepted, but waved up Finch's widow, to hell with everyone. Chayefksky also won for Screenplay, his third Oscar. The film lost Best Picture to Rocky, a much more feel-good enterprise.

Itzkoff devotes his last chapter to the prescience of Network. Almost everything that Chayefsky envisioned came true: television news is now completely entertainment. "Where nationally televised news had been a once-nightly ritual, it has since grown into a twenty-four-hour-a-day habit, available on channels devoted entirely and ceaselessly to its dissemination. The people who dispense these versions of the news seem to take their direction straight from the playbook of Howard Beale: they emote, they inveigh, and they instruct their audiences how to act and how to feel; some of them even cry on camera."

What Itzkoff doesn't touch on is that Chayefsky foresaw reality television, with the Ecumenical Liberation Army getting a weekly show in which they commit a new crime every week, cameras rolling. We haven't gotten quite that far yet, but we've come close.

The film has made me want to see Network again, for the fourth or fifth time; it's number one on my Netflix queue. It's part of what we old-timers call the greatness of the 1970s, the best decade for American film, when good films actually were at the top of the box office: Network was one of the most profitable films of the year, while it probably couldn't get made today.

And one fun fact to close: Finch did his "Mad as Hell" monologue in one take. They started a second, but he stopped midway and told Lumet that he didn't have any gas left in the tank.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

I think most people would consider A Streetcar Named Desire as the best film made from a Tennessee Williams play; it is certainly the most famous. But don't forget 1964's The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston. While without the fanfare of Streetcar, it has big stars at their finest and is immensely entertaining.

I discussed the play here, and don't want to go over old ground. The play is pretty much intact, though the German family has been excised (the play was set in 1940, but the movie seems to set in the present). The play is opened up, though, to some extent, in that a scene of Shannon's (Richard Burton) crack up is shown, complete with exiting parishioners. Because we see more of the tour than just the end point, we also see more of the tension between Shannon and the prim Miss Fellowes (Grayson Hall, who received an Oscar nomination). Boy does Hall knock that one out of the ball park. You've never seen someone wound so tight.

Ava Gardner, older but still radiantly beautiful, is the slatternly Maxine, the owner and manager of the hotel where Burton brings his tour group of Baptist women, including a teen (Sue Lyon, following up her role in Lolita) determined to seduce Burton, much to his consternation. Also staying there is Hannah Jelkes (Dorothy Kerr) a quiet scene-stealer. She plays a chaste spinster, but Burton is drawn to her, suspecting that they share the same kind of soul.

Huston, who was enamored of Mexico, and even gave up his U.S. citizenship to live there, directs nimbly. His philosophy was to direct as little as possible, and since he worked with big stars he wanted them to find the characters. Burton is especially funny, a man who says he is at the end of his rope (as is the iguana being fattened for the slaughter) and constantly besieged. He seems to want nothing more than quiet time on the hammock, at least until he meets Kerr.

Williams hated most of the film adaptations of his work, but did visit the set and added a key scene. When Lyon bolts into Burton's room, he drops a glass, and paces the floor, oblivious to the cuts on his feet, giving him something of a Christ-like stature. He is not Christ, of course, and will give his cross necklace away to Kerr, so she can hock it. But there is something of Christ deep within him, yearning to break free.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Man's Best Friend

I haven't written about my dogs yet. Well, they're not my dogs, they belong to the family with whom I live. But I'm going to be moving out soon, and I will miss them terribly.

From left to right they are Oreo, a 1-year old shih tzu, Petrie (or Pete), a ten-year-old dachshund, and Paco, a six-year-old bichon/poodle mix (we think). As you can see, they are completely adorable.

Oreo and Paco, being the younger boys, pal around together and play fight all the time. Petrie is the senior member of the group, and only occasionally gets involved in the tomfoolery. He is more reserved, but sometimes I will spend a lot of time with him. Recently he was shaking a bit--maybe it was too cold inside, and I wrapped him up in a blanket and held him like a baby.

Oreo, as a puppy, is the most rambunctious. He jumps, he chews, he begs, he has been known to poop in the house, but you look into his eyes and all is forgiven. He is extremely loving, and is almost always cuddling up to someone in the house. But I hate when he begs. He'll actually put his front paws on your leg, and when you tell him, "No!" he'll give you a little bark of dissatisfaction.

Paco was a rescue of sorts. We're not sure what he went through his first few years of life, because he is afraid of certain things, like his food dish. But he's my favorite. I look into his eyes while I'm talking to him and I almost feel like he's understanding what I'm saying. He also seems to love me the most out of three. He's the most likely to come lay with me in my bed. I feel a kinship to him somehow, as if he knows my secrets.

I'm not the first to wax rhapsodic about a relationship between man and dog. But it is one of life's great treasures. I've never had my own dog as an adult--I was allergic (I don't seem to be now) and I didn't want to have one while I lived alone, cooping up a dog in an apartment all day. I had one as a kid. Her name was Betsy, and she was a Dalmatian, and after 35 years I still miss her. She was so sweet, and unlike most Dalmatians, was very laid back, which I think she got from us as a family.

Dogs have such a fascinating evolutionary history. First of all, it's hard to believe that a chihuahua and a Rottweiler are the same species. But they all developed from the same ancestor, a wolf-like creature who hunted. Eventually some of these creatures figured out that being a companion to man, and getting fed by him, was a lot easier than hunting. The evolutionary trait that has led them to this is the ability to "read" people. Because dogs have learned to give unconditional love, they have become essential parts to many households. A hundred years ago, dogs did a lot of work, and weren't allowed in the house, but now they have turned almost completely into creatures that are designed to do not much more than love people.

Of course, certain traits remain. Dogs will mark their territory, and the barking they do at anything that gets near the house is age-old from their instinct at protecting what is theirs. Petrie, who as a dachshund was bred to go down into badger dens, still likes to burrow. He will climb on the bed and nose under the blankets, sometimes until he is completely covered. Shih tzus were bred for Chinese royalty, and sometimes Oreo will strike a regal pose, even if he is named after a cookie.

When I get my own place, I will look into getting my own dog. As a teacher I get out early so the dog wouldn't have to be alone for too long. A good dog can chase away the worst blues.

Friday, March 06, 2015


What a pleasant surprise Laggies turned out to be. A 2014 film directed by indie whiz Lynn Shelton stars Keira Knightley as a woman in her twenties who can't quite make the leap to adulthood. She ends up in a bizarre friendship with a teenager (Chloe Grace Moretz) who helps her find her footing in life.

That sounds awful, I know, but it plays much better. First of all, Knightley has never been better. It was disconcerting to hear her in an American accent--I don't think I've heard that before. I so identify with her Britishness that when I chose the film on Netflix I assumed it was a British film. Her character, Megan, is completely adrift. She has a Master's degree but does nothing but twirl a sign for her father's tax business. She is starting to feel alienated from her core group of friends, which is a problem since her long-time boyfriend (Mark Webber) is part of them.

Her best friend (Ellie Kemper) gets married, and the night of wedding she ends up at a grocery store. Moretz is one of a group that asks her to buy alcohol for them. Something about them touches the adolescent in Knightley, and she ends up hanging out with them. After Webber proposes, she freaks out and hides in Moretz' house, where she meets her single dad (Sam Rockwell).

Now, the impending romance between Knightley and Rockwell is telegraphed a mile ahead, but it's the only thing about the film I could see coming. The two women form a bond, a kind of older sister-younger sister thing. Knightley accompanies Moretz to see her estranged mother (Gretchen Mol) and dispenses romantic advice. She pretends to be Moretz' mother at a school meeting, and then later takes the blame for a road accident. In all, Knightley is kind of the fairy godmother for Moretz that any girl would like to have.

But the film is about the fairy godmother, not Moretz. We see a very clear-eyed version of a kind of slacker that isn't addressed often this honestly in films. Shelton and writer Andrea Siegel have fleshed out a very interesting and very divided character, one who wants to cling to the past while at the same time realizing it's an anchor around her.

Sure, some of this seems far-fetched--would a dad really let an adult woman hang out with his teenage daughter? And would an adult woman really go to a high school prom? But Laggies is mostly intelligent, enough to gloss over these incredulous moments. I recommend it highly.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Stevie Ray Vaughan

A great baby boomer debate is who is the greatest rock guitarist. Hendrix? Clapton? Beck? Page? Santana? Duane Allman? The esoteric answer might be Robert Fripp. The Gen X answer might be Eddie Van Halen.

But the greatest blues rock guitarist? Stevie Ray Vaughan, hands down. He is the next Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee I'm posting on.

I'll admit I didn't know much about him before listening to The Essential Stevie Ray Vaughan. Blues is not something I listen to very often. The only song I was familiar with, ergo the only one that gets mainstream radio airplay, was Pride and Joy, which is just about a perfect rock song. But I was happy to find that this double disc is a constant pleasure, and proved to me that Vaughan deserves to be discussed in any conversation of great guitarists, no matter the genre.

Born in Texas, Vaughan achieved his greatest fame as part of the band Double Trouble. He took over the vocals as well as the guitar sometime during the band's development, and he sings all the songs here, except for the instrumentals. Many of the songs cover blues greats, such as Buddy Guy, and he also covers Jimi Hendrix, most notably on a burn it up of "Voodoo Child," and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."

But, like "Pride and Joy," there are some Vaughan compositions that are terrific. I'm thinking especially of an instrumental called "Riviera Paradise," which has such beautiful guitar playing that it almost took my breath away. Other terrific tracks are "Texas Flood," an old blues standard that Vaughan made his own, and "Cold Shot," which is more rock and roll.

Vaughan died in a helicopter crash in 1990 at the age of 35. In one of rock history's strangest events, Vaughan was touring with Eric Clapton in Wisconsin. He happened to get on the helicopter that crashed. Not to be too morbid, but if Clapton had gotten on the wrong helicopter, rock history would have certainly changed. Unfortunately for Vaughan, not only was his talent snuffed out much too early, he's kind of slipped into obscurity, at least for those who don't know any better.

If you're like me, and an ignoramus when it comes to blues, check out Stevie Ray Vaughan immediately.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

"Viva Las Vegas," written by Doc Pomus, is a classic song. written by Doc Pomus and Morton Shuman. It has become the de facto theme song for Las Vegas, and one of Elvis Presley's most identifiable tunes. There are scores of cover versions, from The Dead Kennedys to Shawn Colvin's, my particular favorite. However, the 1964 vehicle for which the song was written is a pretty bad movie.

Elvis stars as a race-car driver, Lucky Jackson, who is in town to drive in the Las Vegas grand prix. He wins a bundle at the crap table, enough to buy a motor he needs. But he loses the money in a hotel swimming pool. That pool is managed by Ann-Margret, who is pursued both by Elvis and a slick Italian race driver, Cesare Danova. She ends up falling for Elvis, though, and of course he wins the race.

I found the film horribly dated, unfunny, and boring. It's under 90 minutes but seems twice that length. The only time the film works are in a few of the musical numbers, notably Elvis singing the title tune and his rendition of Ray Charles "What'd I Say?" There is some sparkling choreography and Ann-Margret's dancing.

But the rest of the film is such a dud. Elvis was not much of an actor. His flat line readings and laziness are evident here, especially in a woeful supposedly comic scene in which he is the waiter for Ann-Margret and Danova's date. There are also some terrible plot inconsistencies, such as, at the beginning of the film it is imperative that Elvis buy the motor, because someone else wants to buy it. But what seems like weeks later it's still available. And how long do drivers show up before a race and then do nothing but lounge around the pool?

The race at the end, which goes through actual Vegas-area locations (how did they get permission to drive across the Hoover Dam, or downtown?) is well done, with some great stunt driving. But it's too little, too late. I understand that Elvis fanatics may love this picture, but not I.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

We Are Called to Rise

I read We Are Called to Rise for a couple of reasons: one, it is set in Las Vegas, and even before I lived here I was fascinated by any books set here and two, even in the short time I have been there, I have managed to see the author, Laura McBride, in person twice. The second time she was a speaker at the Las Vegas Writers' Club meeting. I bought her book and got her to sign it, and we briefly discussed the depiction of Las Vegas in The Goldfinch.

I only wish I liked the book more. It's good, but a bit precious, with an ending that's manipulative and far-fetched. And though it's set in Vegas, and written by a woman who lives and grew up in Vegas, in could have been set anywhere, except for a few passages that get to the core of the place, like this one: "I like Las Vegas best early in the morning, when the valley stretches out peacefully below a blue sky, when the knife-edged hills that surround are pleated with the shadows of sideways slicing sun, where a great quiet sits softly over the tiled roofs, the disheveled cottonwood, the miles of empty roads."

Ostensibly, this book is about the war in Iraq, and how it affects two different men. There are four characters narrating the book: Luis, a soldier who, after a traumatic incident, tries to kill himself; Avis, a middle-aged woman who is recently divorced and the mother of a son just back from Iraq; Bashkim, the eight-year-old son of Albanian immigrants who operate an ice cream truck; and Ruth, who volunteers for a child welfare agency. They will all come together in one blindingly horrific incident.

To McBride's credit, that incident comes out of nowhere, but is also inevitable, and I realized only what was happening words ahead of it occurring (a bad writer would foreshadow so intensively that it's not a surprise). But I found the denouement a bit under-cooked. I admire her sense of optimism, but I couldn't swallow what happened.

There are so many books and movies about PTSD that this one seemed to have nothing new to say. There are interesting moments between Luis and his psychologist, and the character of Avis, who is the most fully developed in the book, could have stood a book all her own. In the opening chapter, she is nosing around her lingerie drawer, naked, and finds a gun. It is at that moment that her husband tells her he's in love with another woman. She says, "I grew up, the bastard child of a dirt-poor mother, in downtown Las Vegas. I raised my son in town nicknamed Sin City, in a place most American families wouldn't dream of bringing their children, in a state where prostitution is legal and gambling is sacrosanct."

When McBride hits on these moments, describing the Las Vegas that tourists never see, I felt an exhilaration. I just found the plot that drove the narrative a little wanting.

Monday, March 02, 2015

The Judge

The Judge, a potboiler that managed to snag Robert Duvall an Oscar nomination, has David Dobkin as the credited director. But it seems to me that the director was Captain Obvious, as everything about this film is cliche-riddled and maudlin. Occasionally the fine performances win over, but not often enough.

Robert Downey Jr. is a hot-shot lawyer, the kind that only defends guilty people because "innocent people can't afford me." He's called back to his small Indiana hometown to attend his mother's funeral. He hasn't been back because of the tempestuous relationship with his father. Downey's daughter asks if her grandpa is dead, too. "He's dead to me," is the response.

Once back he reunites with his brothers, Jeremy Strong, as a mentally challenged man who uses his camera as a buffer, and his older brother, Vincent D'Onofrio, a once promising baseball player whose career was ruined when a high Downey crashed the car.

While there for the funeral, Duvall, as the father, a longtime fixture on the bench, has an incident with his car. It comes out that he struck a man and killed him, and that man was part of Duvall's worst decision as a judge. He is charged with vehicular murder, and a slick special prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) is brought in to try the case. After hiring a hapless local attorney (Dax Shepard, amusing) Duvall concedes and lets Downey represent him.

What we have here is a courtroom drama and a family drama. mashed together without artistry. Downy and Duvall's blow-ups are entertaining if unbelievable, and the courtroom scenes, based on my limited knowledge of the law, are somewhat realistic. But I refuse to believe a judge would tolerate a series of questions in which the father and son hash out their differences.

There are also needless subplots. I could have done without the character of Downey's old girlfriend, even she is played by Vera Farmiga. Then, to further that irrelevancy, we get a paternity sub-subplot. Some of the shots are straight out of a kit. One of my favorite is the shot of a funeral right after a character has died, just in case we missed that he is dead. Another is a scene in which Downey is already on a flight and has to leave because of news. In this day and age, it is almost impossible to do that, as the person's luggage would have to be removed out of security issues. Maybe Downey only had a carry on.

Dobkin played his straight for the middlebrow. It would have been nice to see a more adventurous director's take on this, although the screenplay would have had to have been deloused of the overly sentimental parts. Downey and Duvall deserved better.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Mr. Turner

J.M.W. Turner was an artist ahead of his time. He painted mostly landscapes and seascapes, but though he was painting in the early 1800s, he prefigured impressionism, and toward the end of his life, when he saw the advent of photography, he took a step toward what me might consider modern art.

He was also quite a character, a grunting bear of a man, eccentric and roguish. This is explore in Mike Leigh's film Mr. Turner, with Timothy Spall playing the artist.

A film about a painter is a tricky thing. Like films about writers, you just can't show a man doing the job, because that gets a little boring. We do see Spall using the brush occasionally (I found it interesting that he holds the brush near its end, away from the bristles--when I painted, I held it much closer to the bristles to get better control) but mostly we follow him through his life outside the studio. At least the filmmakers, due to time more than anything else, are able to use his actual works, unlike the 2000 film Pollock.

The story picks up at Turner's height of fame. His beloved father (Paul Jesson) works for him, as does a devoted maid (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he uses for sex every now and then. He seems to have no lack of money, and he's even recognized, necessitating him to take false names when he travels. He has two adult daughters from a previous liaison, and the mother of those girls visits him to upbraid him.

After his father dies, he starts an emotional slide. He cohabitates with a lovely widow who runs a boarding house in Margate (Marion Bailey) and deals with the various members of the Royal Academy, as well as a painter (Martin Savage) who is not in the Academy but rails against them for not spotting his genius. When his paintings become more and more abstract, he finds himself mocked, and even Queen Victoria piles on, calling one painting "vile."

This is all very well and good, but I found something missing in Mr. Turner. It's not the photography-Dick Pope was deservedly Oscar-nominated, as he uses his camera much as Turner used his brush. The scenes that show Turner standing in a field, making sketches, are astonishingly beautiful. Turner went to great lengths to get the right view--he even had himself lashed to a mast so he could see a storm at sea.

I think what's missing is a general sense of purpose. The plot of Mr. Turner is very episodic, and judging by what I've read, very faithful to history. Spall creates a very vivid character, what with the grunts and tics of the man, and his showing charm when he is really feeling contempt, but I couldn't quite grasp what Leigh was trying to say. The conflict doesn't amount to much--Turner was accepted into the Academy as a teenager, and until the very end no one doubted his genius. We see a young John Ruskin, one of the great art critics of the period, but he was a Turner supporter. When Turner applies a blob of red paint to one of his paintings hanging at the Academy, it turns out to be something of a ruse.

The film also has a problem of time. No dates are given. The film, based on my research, runs from 1829 to his death in 1851, but we do not get a good sense of time passing. This means that the love that Atkinson feels for him (along with her ever expanding psoriasis) doesn't have the full effect.

I will also admit to nodding off a few times. The film is well over two hours long as is not exactly bristling with activity.

I do give the films a thumbs up do to Spall's performance and Pope's photography. It's also a wonderful education on art, which we don't often see at the movie theater.

My grade for Mr. Turner: B-.