Follow by Email

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Last Days in Vietnam

One of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature at the last Oscars was Last Days in Vietnam, directed by Rory Kennedy. It's a very focused film on one aspect of a very large topic--the Vietnam War. But the film is centered on, as the title suggests, the last days, meaning that period after the Paris Accords in 1973, when the U.S. pulled its troops out of Vietnam, and then what happened after that.

Last Days in Vietnam is a very meat and potatoes documentary--it's talking heads mixed with stock footage. The interviewees are those that were there when the U.S. embassy was evacuated in 1975, and thousands of South Vietnamese refugees attempted to escape as well. They wanted out because they had worked with Americans, which meant prison or worse once the North Vietnamese took over Saigon.

A cease fire had been settled in '73, but the Viet Cong weren't done. After Nixon resigned, they invaded the South (according to the film, they thought Nixon was a "madman" and were afraid of him). New President Ford wanted money to go back in and stop them, but Congress, following Watergate and the general distaste for war after Vietnam, said no. It was the only time Press Secretary Ron Nessen heard Ford swear.

As the Viet Cong encroached, Ambassador Graham Martin pooh-poohed talk of a need for evacuation, stoically and foolishly balking at plans that would have been far easier than what they ended up using--helicopters. Refugees were dropped in the courtyard on the embassy, and then taken out to ships at sea. Even South Vietnamese pilots absconded with helicopters, which were then pushed off of American ships like so much garbage.

Eventually Martin left, looking haggard and defeated, but the U.S. stopped taking any more refugees. Eleven Marines were left behind, too, hearing the Viet Cong on their way. They were on the roof of the embassy, waiting for a rocket to take it out, when a last helicopter finally showed up.

This is all told in crisp, no nonsense style. The witnesses were those who where there, such as a captain who promised all the Vietnamese they wouldn't be left behind, but then was ordered to break his promise, and the CO of the U.S. Kirk, which accommodated most of the refugees. What comes through with all these military men is that they were concerned with the refugees wholeheartedly--no one was turned away (many escaped by boat later). The entire enterprise rang with such humanity that I had to swallow my cynicism.

Also interviewed, besides Nessen, was Henry Kissinger, who, whatever you feel about him, speaks honestly and forthrightly.

This film is an episode of PBS' American Experience, and it shows, as it's not visually interesting, beyond the startling images of some of the stock footage. Kennedy simply lets the words and pictures tell the story, and for the most part that's fine, although at times it seems a little dry.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bark

One of our greatest practitioners of the short story is Lorrie Moore, and her latest collection is called Bark. The title word can be taken several different ways, and all appear in her stories, whether it's the sound a dog makes, the skin of a tree, or the name for the outer shell of the brain, which is gray, but contains the white matter inside.

Moore's stories are almost always about marriage, divorce, and parenthood, and there are eight stories here that are roughly about those topics, although one, an outlier, actually has a ghost. All of them have her deliciously skewed sense of humor, and while the story may be one of great sadness, there is always a line that amuses, usually the first line, such as "Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other." Or: "Tom arrived with his suitcase, It's John Kerry sticker died not even say 'For President,' so it seemed as if if John Kerry might be the owner or designer of the bag."

Not all of the stories hit high with me, but about half of them I thought were just about perfect. The opener, "Debarking," is about Ira, a divorced man back in the dating game, who somehow ends up in a relationship with a peculiar woman. "Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily around it--a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends."

I was also very fond of "Foes," which saw an old married couple invited to a party in Washington. The man ends up seated to a conservative lobbyist, and stuck with her, spars with her on politics. He's from Chicago, so he says, even though he lives in Michigan, and doesn't like Washington: "An ostentatious company town built on a marsh--a mammoth, pompous chit-ridden motor vehicle department run by gladiators. High-level clerks on the take, their heads full of unsound sound bites and falsified recall." I could study that sentence for a week.

The longest story is called "Wings," and deals with a pair of failed musicians renting a house. The woman, while walking her dog, meets an elderly neighbor and, in spite of herself, strikes up a friendship with him. My favorite line from this story: "She had once found in her grandmother's shelves her mother's own frighteningly marked-up copy of The House of Mirth. The word whoa appeared on every other page."

The last story, "Thank You For Having Me," is the quirkiest, starting with the lead character's reaction to the death of Michael Jackson to a country wedding interrupted by a motorcycle gang. There is a sweet, visceral relationship between the narrator and her fifteen-year-old daughter, and an acute observation of wedding fashion: "The bridesmaids were in pastels: one the light peach of baby aspirin; one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam. What a good idea to the have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding."

A few stories didn't resonate with me. I did enjoy "Referential," which I had read in an earlier collection, about a mother with a deranged son, much more this time than the first. But "The Juniper Tree," which features a ghost, seems like a failed experiment for Moore.

Even so, I found this a solid collection, and Moore remains one of my favorite contemporary authors.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Ex Machina

I read an interview with Alex Garland, writer and director of Ex Machina, who said that when he started on the project, there hadn't been any movies about artificial intelligence since Steve Spielberg's A.I. Then, as his movie was being made, a rush of them surfaced: Chappie, Big Hero Six, Her, Transcendence, and Automata. Some of these are about how robots are our friends, but most, as they have since the notion was invented with books like I, Robot, have been a fear of A.I. It all goes back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein--don't play God, or it will bite you in the ass.

That's the kind of movie Ex Machina is, but it isn't clear from the beginning. A young coder (Domnhall Gleeson) is plucked from his job at a large Internet search company and whisked to the deep woods, where the owner of the company (Oscar Isaac), a peculiar genius who likes vodka, Jackson Pollock, and working out with a punching bag, awaits him. Gleeson has won a lottery to spend a week with the great man, but not just to pal around and shoot pool. Isaac wants Gleeson to test his latest robot with the Turing test.

The Turing test is when a person determines whether he is speaking with another person or artificial intelligence. If he can't tell the difference, then the test is passed. So he meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with a pretty face but visible circuitry. This confused me--usually when one hears of the Turing test it's through anonymous electronic messages. It's not much of a test when the tester can clearly see the subject is made of wires.

Anyway, Gleeson gains a crush on Vikander, and I won't spill any more. There's an "ah-hah" moment that anyone with half a brain will see coming, but as for the very end, it surprised me and was immensely satisfying. I was pretty much absorbed through the whole thing. Most of the movie is only the three characters, and there's lots of power plays going on.

This is pretty heady stuff, and requires some thoughtful attention, which I appreciated. It's the kind of movie you can argue with your friends for hours about. The motives of the characters, including Ava, are intriguing and can't easily be discerned.

The acting is all first-rate, though Vikander, by definition, has to be pretty one-note, but she is while also showing shades of intelligence. Gleeson has to play a guy who is increasingly depicted as a sad sack, and his shoulders seem to slump as the film goes on. It's Isaac, though, who steals the show. I have no idea what Sergei Brin or his ilk do in their spare time, but I can easily imagine it's like what Isaac is up to, where electronic wizardry surrounds him. He's a guy who you can never quite trust, and is too smart for his own good. It's hard to believe this is the same actor who was in Inside Llewyn Davis and A Most Violent Year. He's the real deal.

My grade for Ex Machina: A-.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

I've been enjoying Roz Chast's cartoons in The New Yorker for years. Mostly they are depictions of the average person in an average living room--an overstuffed sofa, an antimacassar, a table lamp, and bad wallpaper--struggling against the inanities of life.

In Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Chast gets personal. In this memoir, presented mostly in comic book form, with some photos and straight text, she tells the simultaneously sad and funny story of how she dealt with her parents in their final years. I have yet to deal with with my own parents in this manner, but some of it resonated with stories about my grandmothers, and there is a kind of universal truth about it--the children and parents swap roles, especially the older they get.

Chast is from Brooklyn, which Woody Allen called "the heart of the old world," and indeed her parents are old world. The children of immigrants, they are hoarders of a kind, and deniers of another. The title refers to the deflection when Chast ever attempts a conversation about what to do about their elderly status.

Chast's mother, Elizabeth, is the dominating one, who is prone to rages signaled by the words, "I am about to blow my top!" Her father, George, is the meeker one, who never learned to drive, is afraid to change a light bulb, and who chews each bite of food forty times. But the two parents are devoted, and after meeting in high school never dated anyone else, and will have a seventy-year marriage.

Eventually the reach their nineties. George has senile dementia, and when Elizabeth has to go to the hospital (she falls from a ladder changing a light bulb he won't) he's beside himself, as Chast has to tell him every so often that Mommy is in the hospital, because he forgets. His anxieties (especially about bank books, some to accounts in banks that no longer exist) drive Chast bats, but then she feels guilty about it.

It has become time to move them out of their apartment in Brooklyn, where they've lived for almost fifty years. Chast finds them a retirement home ("the Place") near her in Connecticut. The cost is huge--$14,000 a month--not covered by insurance, because incredibly their insurance didn't transfer from New York to Connecticut (who wants to go back to that?) We then get a very amusing section as Chast, an only child, has to clean out their place, taking what she wants and then telling the landlord to sell or throw out the window the rest.

After he too falls, his health declines. He gets bedsores, which is unpleasant to think about, and is in great pain, and wants out, but Elizabeth is determined to put on a happy face and urge him on. But he dies at the age of 95. Elizabeth recovers somewhat, but then her health declines, too, and she too has dementia, telling Chast some wild stories, such as how her mother-in-law tried to kill her several times, Here is the text of one:

Elizabeth: Your father died before you were born--when I was pregnant with you. My father, Harry, said he would buy me a house, and he would live with us and babysit you while I was at work.

Roz: Mom, that's not true.

Elizabeth: Yes it is, and I SHOULD KNOW!

Elizabeth eventually fades, at the age of 97, bed-ridden and eating almost nothing but Ensure. Chast, who got along much better with her father, has complicated feelings about her mother, and I defy anyone not to get choked up when she relates one of their last conversations, when she asks her mother why she wasn't more of a friend to her. But then, in their very last conversation, they exchange "I love you's."

At the end of the book are Chast's drawings (she didn't know what else to do) of her mother's last days, and then postmortem. She closes with a few heart-wrenching paragraphs, first about her parents cremains, that are in her closet: "I like having my parents in my closet. The thought of burying their cremains in an arbitrary hole in the ground does not appeal to me. We don't have a family plot, so choosing one cemetery over another seems random. Throwing their ashes off the side of a boat makes as much sense to me as tossing them in a wastebasket at Starbucks. And decanting them into a decorative urn placed on the mantelpiece in the living is room is just...ugh."

Then, "Even though he often drove me bats, I remember my dad with great affection. In my heart of hearts, I feel as if he and I were kindred spirits. I'm still working things out with my mother. Sometimes I want to go back in time and warn her, 'Don't do that! If you're mean to her (me) again, you'll lose her forever! It's not worth it!!!' Obviously, I can't."

I haven't even mentioned the drawings, which are often delightful, full of odd little details (such as identifying objects by little word balloons). I really like the way she depicts angst, anger, or other extreme motions by her people rendered in wavy lines, as if their very bodies were coming apart at the seams.

It seems that children taking care of their elderly parents is going to be something that almost everyone can relate to. Fortunately my parents are in pretty good health and have all their marbles, and I have three siblings to share the burden. If this book is any judge, it's quite a roller coaster ride.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Green Day

My next Rock and Roll Hall of Fame write-up is on Green Day, the punk revival band that is the youngest inductee this year, and somewhat controversial, as a lot of rock snubs consider them greasy kid stuff. After listening to two albums this week, though, I had a blast.

Formed in 1986 by a then fifteen-year-old Billy Joe Armstrong, Green Day (the name taken by a love for cannabis) were part of a wave of post-punk bands in the early '90s that were dumped into the vast "alternative" genre, like Sublime, Rancid, and The Offspring. They had smash hits with their debut album, Dookie, but had diminishing returns on their next three albums.

In 2004, they rose from the ashes with the concept album American Idiot, which later became a Broadway musical and is still kicking around the corridors of Hollywood. Finally, punk was respectable, which may mean it is finally dead.

Anyhoo, I've also thought of Green Day as the snot-nosed kids of punk, forever young. They have appealed to young people--my much younger cousin was a huge fan when she was a tween (her parents, my aunt and uncle, dutifully took her to a concert, earplugs firmly placed). Armstrong, with his adenoidal voice, seems like he would have fit in nicely with The Dead End Kids of a few generations earlier, looking up to gangsters like Jimmy Cagney.

But I was surprised by the level of sophistication Green Day had. The first record I listened to this week was International Superhits, and I was surprised by how many of the songs I knew. "Longview," "Welcome to Paradise," "Basket Case"--they are all imprinted on my memories of the '90s. Others I remembered but were farther back in my memory, like the terrific "Hitchin' a Ride," "Warning," with its infectious backing guitar, and the heartfelt manifesto "Minority""

"I want to be the minority
I don't need your authority
Down with the moral majority
 'Cause I want to be the minority"

Then there's "Good Riddance (The Time of Your Life), a sweet, pretty ballad that has turned out to be used as a theme for the endings of things, such as Seinfeld's last episode and many funerals (I fear that they don't know the song's true title). Depending on my frame of my mind, I can get choked up by it:

"Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go
So make the best of this test, and don't ask why
It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time
It's something unpredictable, but in the end is right,
I hope you had the time of your life."

American Idiot, which I only knew for a couple of songs, is no Tommy, which it was clearly influenced by, but it is a damn good record. There's a lot more of Armstrong's teenage suburban angst--the whole thing is a condemnation of suburbia, as young people want to escape the mundaneness of their lives. The plot, as it were, is not quite clear in the record as it was in the Broadway show, but there are a few characters. One is known as the Jesus of Suburbia, and another as St. Jimmy, so Armstrong has also introduced religious imagery into his opera.

The opening title number is a blast of fresh air:

"Don't want to be an American idiot
Don't want a nation under the new mania
Can you hear the sound of hysteria?
The subliminal mind fuck America"

There are many references to the hell of suburban life, such as:

"I read the graffiti in the bathroom stall
like the holy scripture in a shopping mall"

And the whole thing may be summed up by this line:

"I don't care if you don't care."

Later there is another strong tear-jerker ballad, "Wake Me Up When September Ends," and, in the penultimate track, "Homecoming," I get a little chill when church bells start ringing. Armstrong knows his stuff. Granted, American Idiot can be a little trite--"Suburbia is Hell" is an old concept, and did he really dare to use a worn phrase like "Boulevard of Broken Dreams?" But overall, I loved this record, and am sorry I didn't go see the show.

The band has mostly consisted of Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, (they are original) and drummer Tre Cool, who really pounds the skins like a controlled maniac. Their musicianship is quite high, making the records fun to listen to just to follow the licks, riffs, and rhythms.

So, I'm all for Green Day being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Finally it ends. What Peter Jackson began so brilliantly 15 years ago with The Lord of the Rings limps to a close with the third and last of The Hobbit films, this one titled The Battle of the Five Armies. 

As I've written in my reviews of the other two Hobbit films, whatever Jackson had working for him in The Lord of the Rings, which I found to be thrilling cinema, is not there in The Hobbit. He fundamentally changed the nature of the book, a children's adventure about dwarfs and a dragon, into a brooding, bloated story.

We begin with Smaug, the pissed-off dragon, destroying Lake-Town. Bard (Luke Wilson) manages to kill him, hitting him in the weak spot. If I remember correctly, that's how the book ends, but Jackson is just getting started with a lot of Middle Earth politics. Thorin Oakenshield, the King of the Dwarfs, is now inside the mountain with the treasure the dragon was guarding, and is going mad with greed and paranoia. The elves and humans want their share, and those pesky orcs are on the move, too.

The resulting battle is mostly tedious, full of soulless CGI. I will admit getting interested in some of the showdowns, especially Legolas (Orlando Bloom) against an orc whose name escapes me, and Azog, the chief orc, against Thorin (Richard Armitage). Legolas has always been my favorite character; he just has so much elan. In this film he catches a ride with a giant bat.

And Martin Freeman, as Bilbo Baggins, is a solid heart to the film. His farewell to the dwarfs is touching, and his courage and honesty are heartwarming. And then there's Ian McKellen as Gandalf, one of the great pairings of actor and character in movie history. I just read that Sean Connery actually turned the role down, saying he didn't understand Tolkien. Our gain.

Now that Jackson is done with Tolkien, I'll be interested to see what he does next, although his other non-Tolkien films since Rings, King Kong and The Lovely Bones, have left a lot to be desired.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Birthdays

Today I turn 54 years old. Even at this advanced age, older than three of my grandparents when I was born, I still like birthdays. I like the attention, which makes me feel like a kid.

I've had good and bad birthdays over the years. I worked for many years for a company that gave you your birthday off, which was a nice touch but also removed the obligation of the staff to throw you any kind of celebration (which of course they could still do). Another company had once-a-month birthday cake for that month's births, with your name on the cake.

Other companies didn't give a shit. I remember when I was at Supermarket News and we had a late closing. It was probably close to ten o'clock, and I had been there since nine, absolutely miserable. I turned to the art director and confessed it was my birthday, and he gave me a nice smile, but that was it.

I've had a few surprise birthday parties, but nothing elaborate. I'd kind of like to have one. I haven't had many parties at all, come to think of it. My parents threw each kid a party twice--once when we were about five, and another in our teen years. I still remember my fifth birthday party. One of the games was trying to drop a clothespin into a milk bottle. In this day and age, that seems incredibly quaint. My other party was my dad taking me and a few of my friends to a Tiger game.

The biggest surprise I've ever had on my birthday was my friend Bob led me on a wild goose chase around Manhattan. We had stops to make and thought about what we would do that night, and he said he had to go to a store at a certain address near Times Square. I was starting to get frustrated with him as I followed him around the Theater District, but then, as were entering a theater, it dawned on me. We had already gone into the building so I didn't even know what we were seeing. It was Pygmalion, starring Peter O'Toole.

As for the getting older thing, I don't brood about it. The zero years are tough, and when I stop to think that my life is well over half over is a little sobering. When you're older than the President (but not by much) it's a shot to the heart. The next person put on the Supreme Court could still be there by the time my funeral rolls around.

But I don't freak about it. I feel pretty young. I'm terribly out of shape, but I was never in particularly good shape. I can't hear that well, but I've still got my hair and it's not going gray. I'm out of touch with today's pop culture, but that happens to almost everyone. I just try to enjoy the little things and live every day one at a time. Often that is easier said than done.

So far this year no major celebrations. But yesterday, I was observing other teachers and was in the orchestra class. One little boy, who I don't even know, got wind that it was my birthday. Not much more than four feet tall, if that, he played "Happy Birthday to You" on his violin. That's all I need this year.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Coherence

Here's a little gem I discovered after it was named one of the top ten movies of 2014 by one of the film critics from Las Vegas Weekly: Coherence, an indie film written and directed by James Ward Byrkit. It's one of those single-set, limited cast films that are sometimes more intriguing than a film that spends more money on its catering budget.

Coherence is very reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode, and gets heady when it basically acts out the thought experiment of Schrodinger's Cat. Eight friends are at a dinner party. A comet is passing overhead. The lights go out in the neighborhood, except for one other house (this immediately had me thinking of the Twilight Zone classic, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"). But no, there's more afoot here. It seems that the other house is the same house these people just left, and that they are in it, or rather themselves from a different reality.

As the story moves on, the complexities multiply. One character, a recovering alcoholic, worries that his other self will come over and kill everyone after starting drinking. The mind absolutely boggles when characters realize that they are not with the people they started, even if they look the same and are essentially the same people. Finally, a woman wants to find a reality where everything is nice and good, but has to deal with the fact that there is already one of her there.

This is a really fun movie for eggheads and sci-fans (a large overlap, I know) and would make for good viewing in a physics class. The cast, completely unknown to me, all are terrific, and aside from too liberal a use of a hand-held camera, Byrkit's direction is just right.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Taming of the Shrew

Where I teach sixth grade English my kids are now learning about Shakespeare. I didn't read Shakespeare until the tenth grade. The kids I teach, as wonderful as they are, have a pretty tough time reading and writing, and to throw them into Shakespeare seems pretty ambitious to me. But I'm a Shakespeare buff, and I've done my best with the challenge.

The play they are focusing on is The Taming of the Shrew, which is not my idea of the best introduction to the Bard. It is, after The Merchant of Venice I would guess, the most controversial of his plays, in that it could be openly expressing mysogynism and sexism. But others, including many female scholars, see a kind of prescient feminism in it that I'm not sure I see. When you get right down to it, the play celebrates the total obedience of a wife to a husband. Or is it just a romantic comedy?

For the uninitiated, this is an early play, from 1590-92. It tells the tale of two sisters, one fair and virtuous (Bianca), and one fair but not so virtuous (Katharina). To be fair, Katharina is not a slut or anything, but she is the "shrew" of the title, basically a word used for a woman of bad temper. She's just extremely unpleasant to be around.

Their father, Baptista, refuses to let Bianca, the younger sister, marry before Katharina does:

"Gentlemen, importune me no further,
For how firmly am resolv'd you know
That is, not to bestow my youngest daughter
Before I have a husband for the elder."

Problem: no one wants to marry Katharina. One suitor says, "I say, a devil. Thinkest thou, Hortensio, though her father be very rich, any man is so very a fool to married to hell?"

But into town rides Petruchio, from Verona:

"I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;
If wealthily, then happily in Padua."

He is eagerly recruited by Hortensio, an old friend and one of Bianca's suitors, but he feels a duty to warn him about her. He is not dissuaded, saying he has faced roaring lions and gone to war, how could a woman scare him off. He's after the money--20,000 crowns.

The next part of the play has Petruchio wooing Katharina, which in most versions involves lots of crockery being thrown, as Katharina does not take an instant liking to this man. But he does marry her, and takes her off to his house even before the wedding banquet, declaring:

"I will be master of what is mine own.
She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house
My household stuff, my field, my barn,
My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything."

I would say that is a speech not aged well.

He packs her off to his home, where he proceeds to further "tame" her by denying her food and destroying her clothes. She does come around to love him, though, or at least learn how to tolerate him, as when he declares than sun is the moon and gets her to agree with him, and then saying it is the sun after all.

At the end, at Bianca's wedding to Lucentio (a drab subplot that I won't bother discussing), three married men make a bet to see whose wife is more obedient. Petruchio wins the bet, as Katharina makes a speech that is either horrifying or romantic, depending on your point of view:

"Thy husband is thy lord, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign, one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land...
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience;
Too little payment for so great a debt.
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she's forward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel,
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?"

So, is this the first instance of Stockholm Syndrome, or a woman who realizes, despite herself, that she's found her perfect match. Some scholars, even women, think so. They look to a line earlier, when Petruchio says, "And where to raging fires meet together, They do consume the thing that feeds their fury." Is this just an example of what every similar play or film since then--two people who hate each before they realize that they love each other?

I don't think so. Petruchio never does not love Katharina, or at least covet her. He never really shows her much respect. Oh, he says the right things--"Kiss me, Kate," the most famous line, is uttered three times, each one with a more rapturous reply. I think this play is a symptom of Shakespeare's time, when men did lord over their wives. I don't think Shakespeare necessarily believed this was a good thing--Katharina is a fully formed character with her own internal life, at least until that last speech, but he was speaking to the masses.

To help the kids along, I showed them the Franco Zefferelli version of the play from 1967, starring then the greatest movie stars in the world, Elizabeth Taylor as Katharina and Richard Burton as Petruchio. Of course, my kids have no idea who they were. Zeffirelli sticks firmly to the rompish comedy aspect of the play, with plenty of slapstick. Burton plays Petruchio as pretty much a drunken buffoon--in a scene that is not in the play, but is only described, the wedding, he drinks from the sacramental wine jug. In one amusing scene Petruchio announces, "I will not sleep, Hortensio, till I see her," before promptly falling asleep.

It's most a Liz and Dick show, with them rolling in a pile of wool,her decolletage on spectacular display, falling through a roof, her hitting him over the head with a pan. But it's pretty fun. The costumes are terrific (it's set in the proper time and place) and I enjoyed Victor Spinetti, so well known from A Hard Day's Night, as the foppish Hortensio.

A much later film, 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You, was a modern take on the film that I'd like to see again. Unfortunately it's rated PG-13, which I'm not allowed to show to sixth graders.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

By sheer coincidence, I finished Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See just one day before it won the Pulitzer Prize, which was yesterday. It has been a top bestseller and received almost universal reviews. So let me be the outlier and say that while I liked it, I didn't love it.

"It was hard to live through the early 1940s in France and not have the war be the center from which the rest of your life spiraled." This appears late in the novel, and is, in my opinion, a pretty obvious statement. World War II has been the subject matter of who knows how many novels and is still going strong, even seventy years later.

This book mostly alternates chapters (short ones, that would make James Patterson proud) between two characters. Marie-Laure is a blind girl. She lives in Paris with her father, who is the keeper of the keys at the Museum of Natural History. When the occupation arrives, they decamp to the seaside town of St. Malo, which will later be a site of vicious fighting after the Allies land in Normandy.

On the German side we follow Werner Pfennig, who is born in a coal-mining town and would be doomed to work there but for his genius at engineering. He is noticed after fixing a radio in seconds and sent to a Hitler Youth academy. He is young and wet behind the ears, but manages to survive it, unlike his thoughtful friend Frederick, who loves the paintings of John James Audubon and is viciously beaten by his classmates.

A third character joins later on, a Major Von Rumpel, one of those Nazis who stole art from all over Europe. He is searching for a valuable diamond called the Sea of Flames, which was last in the Museum of Natural History. It seems the Marie-Laure's father may have hidden it. But where?

The diamond bit, to use cinematic language, is a class McGuffin, the Hitchcock term that meant an item that the characters are interested in but has little to do with the theme of the film. Here, the diamond seems to be completely unnecessary, just a device to make some suspense at the end. I'll admit the suspense is gripping, as Von Rumpel closes in on Marie-Laure, hiding in her great-uncle's house, but there's just a hint of pulpiness in it.

What's more interesting is the characterization of Marie-Laure and Werner, on opposite sides, but meant to meet (of course they do--it's not a spoiler if you've ever read a book). We can understand, through Werner, that a great many of the young men who died for Germany had no idea what they were fighting for--a vague notion of supremacy, for orphans like Werner, who barely had enough to eat. "Their salutes are comical; their outfits verge on ridiculous. But Frau Elena watches the boys with wary eyes: not so long ago they were feral toddlers skulking in their cots and crying for their mothers. Now they've become adolescent thugs with split knuckles and postcards of the fuhrer folded into their shirt pockets."

As for Marie-Laure, she's a bit more idealized. She has learned her away around both places she's lived by models of the town made by her father, and of course, those models will mean a great deal. She's brave and resolute, participating with the resistance by passing loaves of bread with messages in them. She's also a devout reader of Braille--the book she reads over and over again is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. "If only life were like a Jules Verne novel, thinks Marie-Laure, and you could page ahead when you most needed to, and learn what would happen."

The books ends with two epilogues, set in 1974 and 2014. I was kind of dismayed to see that, but it turns out that Doerr holds back the sentimentality. He does not give in to certain Hollywood cliches about the inevitable meeting between Werner and Marie-Laure; it is touching and satisfying but not a catharsis.

The book, while being a page-turner, is quite poetic. There are some lovely descriptions of just simple moments, some lovely: "Those last nights in Paris, walking home with her father at midnight, the huge book clasped against her chest, Marie-Laure thinks she can sense a shiver beneath the air, in the pauses between the chirring of the insects, like the spider cracks of ice when too much weight is set on it. Some ugly: "Doors soar away from their frames. Bricks transmute into powder. Great distending clouds of chalk and earth and granite spout into the sky. All twelve bombers have already turned and climbed and realigned high above the Channel before roof slates blown into the air finish falling into the streets."

So if I don't think All the Light We Cannot See is the best novel of the year, I do recommend it, especially for those who read all they can get their hands on about World War II.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Stranger By the Lake

Stranger By the Lake is an intriguing thriller that is also an almost anthropological look at gay culture, at least among those men who cruise for anonymous sex, which I'm not sure is a stereotype gay men want to be saddled with.

The film, written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, is set entirely by a small lake. One side is populated by gay men, some of them there to swim, others to sunbathe nude, and others to head up into the nearby woods to find sexual partners. One of the visitors is Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) who is looking for love but also strikes up a friendship with Henri (Patrick d'Assumçao), an older, portly man who sits off by himself, does not go in the water, and does not undress. He is not even gay, at least when he mentions he had a girlfriend who broke up with him.

Franck ends up attracted to a dashing but somewhat sinister man, Michel (Christophe Paou), who would seem to have drowned his previous lover. At least that's what we see, and in a moment of confusion, which I think his purposeful and complex, it's from Franck's point of view. We see him peering through the trees at two men in the lake, and only one returns, and it's Michel. But is that what Franck sees? Because he goes full steam ahead into a relationship with the man, even after the body is found an a police inspector come around.

I have no idea how accurate this portrayal of French gay culture is, even if Guiraudie is openly gay. It is reminiscent of descriptions of my friends of pre-AIDS New York, where men roamed various parts of the city, including the Ramble in Central Park, looking to hook up. This is post-AIDS, but Franck doesn't use condoms. Some men stare and masturbate. In one amusing scene, a man is looking for women. Franck tells him he thinks he is in the wrong place, as there are no women in this film at all.

Their is very graphic sex here, the kind that would get an X rating if there was such a thing. It's erotic and also somewhat moving, as Franck's love for Michel binds him even when he thinks it's dangerous.  Henri, a sad but wise man, forms a platonic love for Franck that is heartbreaking. And, befitting the overall feel of the film, it ends mysteriously in darkness.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Best American Mystery Stories 2014

This is the second volume of The Best American Mystery Stories that I've read, and the same holds true: mystery is a vague term that encompasses a lot of types of stories. That's at least as chosen by Laura Lippman, this year's editor. None of these stories are the "whodunit" variety, which kind of eliminates the word "mystery" from the picture, but they are about crime and the darkness of the soul.

My favorite stories were those that had a noir edge to them, or those that were funny, or both. What I did not expect was a posthumous story by Joseph Heller, the author of my favorite novel, Catch-22, and a very funny man. He wrote a story called "Almost Like Christmas" that has no laughs at all, and is brutal in its presentation. Another tough story is "Going Across Jordan," by James Lee Burke, a very well-established crime author, about itinerant workers in the 1950s. He opens his story with the following: "Who would believe somebody could drive a car across the bottom of ancient glacial lake at night, the high beams tunneling in electrified shafts of yellow smoke under the surface, but I stood on the bank and saw it, my head still throbbing from a couple of licks I took when I was on the ground and couldn't protect myself."

Continuing with noir, how can you beat an opening like Ernest Finney's "The Wrecker": "I'm sitting at the bar in the semigloom of the Silver Dollar, as far away as I can get from the loud music. A babe comes through the door. It's still before nine; too early for anyone else to eyeing the sign taped to the bar mirror: NOBODY'S UGLY AT 2 A.M." Unfortunately, the story doesn't match that socko start.

Other authors from outside the mystery genre participate. Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Proulx takes us to the founding of Quebec in "Rough Deeds," which showcases chicanery in the logging business and has a grisly end. Roxane Gay has "I Will Follow You," which is about twin sisters who are very close, even though one marries a no-goodnick. The story is both menacing and a tad funny, such as when the narrator describes her brother-in-law, Darryl: "Carolina married when she was nineteen. Darryl, her husband, was a decade older, but he had a full head of hair and she thought that meant something." Or, "Darryl worked nights managing a small airfield on the edge of town. It was a mystery how he had fallen into the job. He knew little about managing, aviation, or work."

Also in the funny vein, there is Nancy Pauline Simpson's "Festered Wounds," set in a small Southern town in the year 1900, with a sheriff investigating the death of a man who took a header from a railroad bridge. It's full of cornpone humor like saying of the undertaker, "Penrose could make a ninety-year-old scrofula victim look like a Floradora girl.

Also set at the turn of the century is "The Covering Storm," by David H. Ingram, which has a man planning to commit the perfect murder, but he's undone by something unforeseen: the devastating hurricane that pummeled Galveston, Texas.

Two very good stories concern fathers and sons. Russell Banks' "Former Marine" has the title character spending his retirement robbing banks, but his son is a policeman. An even better story is "Pleasant Grove" by Scott Loring Sanders, which also is about a bank robbery and a father and a son, and is very, very dark: "The events of those few days, of the truck crashing, of him taking the money, of finding out the man's identity, of then blowing the guts out that same man, his father, of dragging him through the snow and burying him him in a makeshift grave, all of those events had haunted him." Any story that contains the words "makeshift grave" is bound to be dark.

Perhaps the best story is one that really can't qualify as a mystery, or even a crime thriller, but it's here. That's "Snuff," by Jodi Angel. It's about a teenage boy who is over at some friend's house with some boys watching what they think is a snuff movie. He ends up needing a ride, so calls his sister, who picks him up and hits a deer. It's dead, but it's pregnant, and she tries to deliver the fawn. It's a great story that connects on a number of levels. But I do believe there has never an authenticated snuff film ever found by law enforcement.

So, this is a pretty good collection. I can't go without mentioning Charlaine Harris, the author of the novels that True Blood is based on, with "Small Kingdoms," about avenging teachers. As a teacher, I can relate.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Headhunters

When The Imitation Game was released I had never heard of Morten Tyldum. And why not? He had never made an English-language film before. But he's a big deal in his home country of Norway, where he helmed the highest-grossing picture in that nation's history, Headhunters, which I watched last night.

Tyldum was obviously raised on Hollywood films, because Headhunters is right out of the Hollywood playbook. A little Hitchcock, a little Scorsese, a little Peckinpah, and a lot of violence, Headhunters, adapted from a novel by the popular Scandinavian author Jo Nesbo, is a thrilling entertainment.

The story is told from the point of view of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a successful corporate headhunters. He has a very lavish lifestyle, though, and a beautiful wife (Synnøve Macody Lund) that he thinks he needs to shower with gifts. So he moonlights, but not as a bartender or pizza delivery guy, but as an art thief. He has a guy in the home alarm business, and they team up to steal art and replace it with reproductions so they may never notice the switch.

Of course this will all go horribly wrong, and this happens when he tangles with Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). The two will end up in a dance of death that leaves a long body trail, including a dog's and a pair of obese twin policeman.

What Tyldum, his screenwriters, and Hennie do so well is make us change our minds about the lead character. Brown is the kind of guy you'd like to punch in the face--arrogant, supercilious, in short, a real prick, and that's even before you consider he's a thief. But as his struggles mount--at one point he is running through the woods, caked in shit, your opinion of him starts to change. As he grows, you actually start to root for him.

The film works on almost levels. It's a clever thriller (pay attention to what gun is used where) and a gentle love story. Lund makes a nice debut; she has a strange resume--model and film critic. Coster-Waldau, best know for playing the evil Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones, is a character that also makes a change, or at least our perception of him does.

As I said, there are a few plot holes. Some of them are whisked away in a clever manner, some are not addressed, such as does everyone in Oslo use the same home alarm company?. Brown also survives a hellish auto accident that Mythbusters proved he could have not. But hey, it's a movie.

There is a Hollywood remake in the works, and this makes perfect sense. But I bet they screw it up.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag

Some years ago I read the first in the Flavia de Leuce series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and it's taken me this long to get to the second in the series, The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley.

As with the first novel, our heroine is Flavia, a precocious eleven-year-old who has passions for chemistry and death (she'd like to write the definitive book on decomposition). As the book opens, she's lying in a cemetery, imagining her own funeral (she's viciously teased by her older sisters, who tell her she was adopted).

Flavia stumbles upon a broken down van, owned by a traveling puppet show. They are impressed to give a show in the local church, and somebody ends up dead. The police, specifically Inspector Hewitt, are on the case, but so is Flavia, and she outsmarts everybody.

As with the first book, there's a lot of English whimsy going on here. These kind of mysteries are called "cozies," and are marked by a lack of violence (aside from the murders) and a genteel attitude.

However, I was a bit disappointed with this one. Perhaps because Flavia was not a surprise I found her a bit more tedious than the first book, and at times downright annoying. But she does have a great wit: "I have to admit though, that Cynthia was a great organizer, but then, so were the men with whips who got the pyramids built." Or, "The problem with we Luces, I decided, is that we are infested with history in much the same way that other people are infested with lice."

The puppeteer's death intersects with the hanging of a five-year-old boy some years earlier, so this does get grimmer than some of its type. And I find it hard to believe that a grown woman (not a little person) would actually have the same size feet as a five-year-old, which is a central clue to that crime.

I'm not sure I'll read any more in the series. Well, maybe one more to see if Flavia actually grows (will she stay eleven, and will it be 1950, forever?)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Back to the Future Part II

I put Back to the Future Part II on my Netflix queue because it's gotten some press this year--it's 2015, the year that Marty McFly goes into the future, thirty years, from 1985. Yes, we are all that old. Watching the film again, though, I saw that the 2015 portion of the film was very short, and that the intricate and very ingenious script spanned all of Marty's stops--1955, 1985, and 2015.

These films were huge hits, and if anyone needs reminding, well, I'll try. In the first film Marty goes back to 1955 and has to bring his parents together or he will cease to exist. At the end of that film, there was a gag ending that Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) showed up in his DeLorean and told Marty (the great Michael J. Fox) that his kids needed help in 2015. The makers of the first film never intended that to be a jumping off point for a sequel, as they had no idea how the first film would succeed. But when it was a smash, the sequel idea was a no-brainer.

So Marty goes into the future and stops his son from being a jailbird. But Biff, Marty's nemesis, now an old man, figures out what's going on and takes a sports almanac back in time 60 years, so his younger self can become rich by making bets. When Marty and Doc return to 1985, it's like when Jimmy Stewart went to Potterville--a seedy urban nightmare dominated by Biff's casino.

So Marty and Doc have to go back to 1955, trying not to run into their selves, and keep Biff from getting the book. The plot is complex enough that Doc has to explain it on a chalkboard. Interestingly, the taking sports results back in time seems like an easy way to riches, but in Stephen King's book 11/22/63, when a guy tries the same thing, he's savagely beaten by bookies. That's probably closer to the truth.

I remember seeing this film the first time, in 1989, and walking out of the theater wondering what year it was, it was that compelling. Fox and Lloyd are one of the the screen's great teams, and the films have such a high octane energy that they fly by.

So what did the film get right and wrong about 2015? Certainly wrong about flying cars, and as of yet, no self-altering garments or shoes. The technology for hoverboards exists, but they are not yet available to the masses (and probably would never be safe). Video phoning, what we may think of as Skype today, is certainly omnipresent, but faxing is hopelessly obsolete. What most futuristic films from before the Internet-age missed out on was, of course, the Internet. There are also no robotic waiters, and thankfully no Jaws 19. As for sports, the film did see a Miami baseball franchise, but as for the Cubs winning it all in 2015, it's too soon to tell.

For those of us around in 1985, 2015 did seem a long way off. It's like thinking of 2045 now, and who knows if I'll even live to see that year. It is a lot of fun to look at our "fake" future and see how they got it.


Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Rover

It's funny, but movies shot in the Australian Outback all seem to be good, at least the ones I've seen. I'll add The Rover, a film by David Michod, which is set in the near future after "the collapse."

We don't know anything about the collapse, but it seems economic rather than nuclear or biological. There is still electricity, and people still drive cars (as a new Mad Max film comes up, I'm reminded again of how dumb people are when they have limited resources but use them frivolously. Of course, that describes us right now in 2015, doesn't it?) But there's desperation in the air, and nobody seems to be having much of a good time (or bathing).

Guy Pearce is our hero, of sorts. He lives in a ramshackle building, and has a car. A trio of men, who have just fled some sort of crime (one is bleeding badly) have a crash in their truck and take Pearce's car. He comes out and, after getting their truck back on the road, chases them. They are armed, though, and knock him silly.

Eventually he finds a young man, badly wounded, who tells him the truck he has is his brother's. He's Robert Pattinson, looking as unlike Edward in Twilight as possible. Pearce has to get him stitched up just to find out where his brother has gone--he really wants his car back. The two form an uneasy alliance, as Pattinson realizes his brother left him to die.

The dialogue is spare--this is the kind of movie where people ask questions but don't get answers, and the action is pretty brutal--Pearce's character is not sentimental. We finally find out a bit more about him when he's arrested, but it's almost unnecessary. He comes from a long line of loner anti-heroes, and fits in quite nicely.

Michod also made Animal Kingdom, which got great reviews, but I think this film is much stronger (it is also unburdened by heavy accents, although I'm a bit puzzled why Pattinson uses an American southern accent). I am keen on seeing what Michod does next.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sexxy

Finally I hit the Las Vegas strip on Saturday night, well, almost the Strip. I was at the Westgate, which used to be the Las Vegas Hilton, which is not precisely on Las Vegas Boulevard but close enough. I was out on the town with my girlfriend (we're back together again, though not living together). Her friend had free tickets to a show playing there called Sexxy.

I may be wrong, but I think Las Vegas is the only place in the world that has what is called the "topless revue." Not even New York has this sort of entertainment, which is basically a very fancy strip club act. The difference is that there is no stuffing dollar bills into g-strings, no private rooms, and no lap dances. Also, the performers are far more talented. But they do go topless. The Venn diagram of the women in this show are, good dancers, willing to show tits.

The show was conceived and choreographed by Joanna Ramos, who is one of the dancers. She shows just how athletic pole dancing can be. Usually girls at strip clubs just kind of swing lazily around a pole, but Ramos, who is sleek and muscular, did some things on it that defy gravity. Another woman, called Svetlana, with long red hair, was even more acrobatic, pulling herself aloft on two red silks, winding herself in and out of them, all while suspended some thirty or forty feet off the ground. It made me nervous to watch.

The music was part old-style Vegas, with numbers like "Hey, Big Spender," and some more interesting choices, such as Veronica Marrero dancing to Bjork's "Oh So Quiet" while wearing a French maid outfit (which eventually came all the way off). Ramos' other big number was performed in a bathtub full of water, which she treated at times like the parallel bars in gymnastics.

Another highlight was a singer, Gabriella Versace, who I thought was going to stay fully clothed, but in her last number she proudly displayed her ladies. She has a great voice, and sang the hell out of "It's a Man's World."

The show was also interesting in that it didn't have any other performers, such as a comedian or hypnotist or ventriloquist. There was a comedic break when a guy was pulled out of the audience--in the show I saw, a bearded heavyset guy who looked like William Gaines--and he of course is put in a chair and teased by the dancers, and given a light whipping with riding crops. He was having the time of his life.

It's an interesting hybrid of a show--certainly without the toplessness this show would not be as popular, or even exist, but most of the audience was couples. Clearly, what happens in Vegas does stay in Vegas, as women get a little more adventurous when they come here.

I liked the show quite a bit, even after considering the boobies.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Empire of Sin

Gary Krist, in his history of the sordid side of New Orleans, uses the following epigraph: "It is no easy matter to go to heaven by way of New Orleans." Krist then shows us why the reverend who said believed the way he did, and by gum, he's right.

Empire of Sin covers the years from the 1880s to the end of Prohibition. To start with, one has to understand that New Orleans is, in terms of American cities, a horse of a different color. "Thanks to its unique history, in fact, New Orleans scarcely seemed American at all. Founded as a French outpost in the early 1700s, the city had come of age under Spanish rule in the latter half of the eighteenth century, giving the place a distinctive Franco-Latin character that still manifested itself in everything from its architecture to its municipal administration."

New Orleans also had a different way of looking at race. "In the Louisiana of the early 1870s, black citizens could vote and serve on juries. Schools were desegregated, and interracial marriage was legal. Blacks and whites rode on the same streetcars, frequented the same parks and lakeside beaches, and often lived side by side in he same neighborhoods." But, of course, there was still racism. New Orleans was the epicenter of the Plessy v Ferguson case, which codified Jim Crow laws, and the first crime Krist writes about, the murder of a a chief of police by the "Black Hand," an Italian crime group, resulted in the mass lynching of many Italians, simply because they were Italians.

Krist nimbly intertwines stories of sensational crimes like that one, a history of the demimonde of the city (most notably a district called Storyville) and the creation of jazz, all of which connected to the other. I liked all of these parts, so leaving one for a while was not a letdown, and I'm hard pressed to decide which part is best.

Since Krist subtitles his book Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans, I'll start with sex. Storyville, which was set aside for vice, was basically a Disneyland of sex. Brothels operated freely, hundreds of them, with white, octoroon (a woman who was one-eighth black) or entirely black. "In the seven or eight years that the District had been open, it had developed into a vast, well-functioning factory of sin, as lucrative and efficient as any lumber mill or city gasworks in the country. Its 230 brothels, 60 assignation houses, and scores of one-room cribs could by now process the raw materials of male sexual desire at an astonishing rate of speed." Five minutes, apparently, was a long time to spend in one of those places.

Tom Anderson was the "mayor" of Storyville, who had legitimate oil industry ties but also a major crook who ran many of the dens of iniquity himself. Josie Arlington was one of the major madams, as was Lulu White, and they became quite rich. Over time, though, reformers began efforts to root the sin out of the area, and by World War I the era was pretty much over.

As for jazz, Krist writes about its origins, which are murky (the word jazz, or jass, especially). "What exactly were they all playing? Critics would argue for decades about what the new music actually was. They traced its lineage to African, Caribbean, French, and/or Spanish roots, to ragtime, to various religious forms, and to secular traditions like the blues. But in a way, it was utterly new--music created largely by untrained musicians without much experience in any formal tradition." It was also completely American, one of the first true American art forms.

Krist chronicles the development of jazz through it's innovators, all from New Orleans, such as Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Joe Oliver, Kid Ory, all the way up to Louis Armstrong. But it's kind of sad story. Whites, of course, condemned the music, at least until they could see that it was a tourist interest in the 1920s (and, as Ken Burns' film showed, whites were then credited with creating the form). Most of the New Orleans musicians left the city behind, heading to Chicago or other cities where they weren't harassed. Some never returned. Armstrong returned to get the key to the city, but had to stay in a blacks-only hotel.

As for murder, there's plenty of it. In addition to the police chief killing, Krist writes about Robert Charles, a black man who held police at bay, killing a few, for several days. The Black Hand (which Krist maintains its distinct from the Mafia) were active over the period, including a sensational kidnapping and murdering of a child. Then there was the Axeman, a possible serial killer who dispatched his victims with an ax while they lay asleep. The true identity of this killer, if indeed it was one person who perpetrated all the crimes, is still unknown.

This was a fun book to read. I've never been to New Orleans, but of course it's not like that anymore. As mentioned, city fathers realized that the allure of this seedy side of the city brought in tourists, so the French Quarter was Disneyfied. But prostitution is not legal (as one wag said, you can make it illegal, but you can't make it unpopular) so it's strip clubs that line Bourbon Street now. Corruption was rampant, and life was pretty cheap, but there's something about the excitement of these years, when you could hear jazz in its infancy, and where going to a brothel was like going to a bar, that is incredibly alluring. It seems like a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

It's weird how some actors appear in films together in totally different contexts I just saw White Bird in a Blizzard where Eva Green and Christopher Meloni have a very unhappy marriage. They are reteamed in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and while they aren't married, they do share a frenzied hump.

Sin City was Richard Rodriguez and Frank Miller's paean to noir and graphic novels. It was, to me, an exercise in style over substance, sizzle without the steak. They came back last year with a sequel, with some of the same characters and some new ones, but in the same style, which makes it look like a black and white comic book. I have to say I liked this one better.

As with Sin City, there are three intertwining stories. One involves a young hot-shot gambler (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who tries to take down the corrupt Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Another has stripper Jessica Alba, with help from the freakishly tough Marv (Mickey Rourke) also trying to take down the senator. The central story is Josh Brolin getting involved with his ex, Green, who is the titular dame.

These stories had a little more oomph, and were far less over the top (last time there was a serial killer who looked like the Mr. Hyde version of Tweetie Bird). But of course there is plenty of violence and mayhem, and stylized fighting scenes that have the bad guys' henchmen mere fodder for the good guys. There are many arrows through heads.

It's also very indulgent and more than a little misogynistic. Alba is an interesting case. She's a stripper who doesn't strip (Alba does not get nude in films) and is presented as sort of helpless until, lo and behold, she has the fighting chops of a ninja. And Green, as the femme fatale, makes up for the lack of nudity, by being nude almost all of the time, and one of those dames that has a dollar sign where her heart should be.

The film, which Rodriguez shot and edited, has that great look, though, with stylized black and white, except for certain things, which are vivid color, like Green's blue dress and blue eyes. Blood is usually seen as white (but not always). Of the new characters, I favored Dennis Haysbert as Green's vicious chauffeur. Christopher Lloyd has a cameo as a seedy doctor (visits to back alley doctors are a noir staple, but this one is really done well). Bruce Willis reappears, but as a ghost, so you can't really be killed off in Sin City.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Ringo Starr

Continuing my look at this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, I turn to Ringo Starr, who is now a double inductee, having also been inducted as a member of The Beatles.

The Beatles are one of the great contributors to our civilization, at least the last fifty years of it, and Ringo is a part of that, even if he is the least prolific of the quartet. He only wrote two songs by himself ("Don't Pass Me By" and "Octopus' Garden") and was always sort of seen as the sad sack of the group. Many think of him as the luckiest man alive, given that he was the last asked to be in the group, replacing the fired drummer, Pete Best, who is thought to be the unluckiest man alive.

But Ringo was asked to join The Beatles because he was a terrific drummer, very underrated. He wasn't like a John Bonham or Keith Moon--there is only one drum solo I can think of on a Beatles record--but he made the drums a key part of the rock and roll ensemble. He usually sang lead on one song an album, most of them written by Lennon and McCartney, and usually written especially for him and his limited vocal range, such as "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Yellow Submarine."

This induction is about his solo career, which has been quite rich. He had two number one hits in the U.S.: "Photograph," which he co-wrote with George Harrison, a minor masterpiece, and a cover of "You're Sixteen (You're Beautiful and You're Mine)," which today seems an unfortunate choice of titles.

I've been listening to his greatest hits album, called Photograph, and discovering how talented the man really is. In addition to those songs, he had hits with "It Don't Come Easy," "Back Off Boogaloo," and a cover of "Only You (And You Alone)." He recorded another George song, "Wrack My Brain," (it's distinctly a Harrison composition), and John Lennon wrote him a song called "I Am the Greatest," which is a tongue-in-cheek number:

"I was a part of the greatest show on Earth
For what it was worth
Now I'm only thirty-two
and all I want to do is boogaloo."

I remember when his cover of Hoyt Axton's "No-No Song" was a big hit. A testament to sobriety, Ringo writes in the liner notes that may have been so, but he was hardly sober during the 1970s.

Ringo's voice, often maligned, can be at times quite beautiful. I think of a song called "Beacoups of Blues" or "King of Broken Hearts." And he's quite good on country and western numbers, such as his duet with Buck Owens on "Act Naturally" (which he also did as a Beatle).

Part of The Beatles mystique is that each of the group seemed to represent a different part of the human condition. They were each born in a different season (Ringo in the summer), and as Tom Robbins wrote, you can basically divide all of humanity into who their favorite Beatle is. I'm sure there are those who favor Ringo (the merchandise featuring him was the biggest seller during the height of Beatlemania), and I would imagine those people are the kind who take a cheery optimism through life. After all, he survived two deadly bouts with illness, but he's still standing, still performing, still recording, acting like he is the luckiest man alive.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

White Bird in a Blizzard

As regular readers of this blog know, I am intrigued by Shailene Woodley. I think she's one of the best young actresses working today, with a great naturalistic style and an unconventional beauty. She's had some big hits lately, but everyone is allowed a stinker that disappears without a sight, and that is White Bird in a Blizzard.

The film was directed by Gregg Araki, who has made some great films, like Mysterious Skin. This is a misfire, although it is not terrible, mostly due to Woodley. She plays a 17-year-old girl (she's starting to get too old to play teenagers) who is fairly normal until her mother (Eva Green) disappears one day. She's left with her sad-sack father (Christopher Meloni), and they attempt to get on with their lives, realizing she's probably not coming back.

As the film points out, in flashback, Green was pretty nutty, so Woodley simply things she flaked and left, and reacts in a kind of petulant way, acting out with sexual behavior (she seduces the grizzled cop, Thomas Jane, who is handling the case). Her father, whom she always thought of as a wimp, begins to exhibit bizarre behavior, especially years later, when Woodley is in college.

As a character study of a girl going through a loss, White Bird in a Blizzard is interesting but unsatisfying. There are some glaring problems. Woodley has two friends, one an obese black girl (Gaboure Sidibe) and a flamboyantly gay man (Mark Indelicato) who seem straight out of the diversity casting office. Sidibe, who was so good in Precious, can hardly say a line in this film.

Secondly, anyone who has half a brain will see where it's going. Let's put it this way--anytime a freezer is prominently shown in a film, we know what will happen. There is a slight twist involving Woodley's high school boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez), but anyone who knows Araki's work won't be totally shocked.

I admire Woodley for taking the role, considering she goes nude in graphic sex scenes, which is kind of brave these days for a young actress on the come, considering she certainly knows that stills will live on the Internet until the end of civilization. Here's hoping that her next project will be better.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

We Are the Best!

Before We Are the Best!, the only other Lukas Moodysson film I'd seen was Lilya 4-Ever, and let me tell you, these films couldn't be more different. While that film was a depressing tale of a woman in white slavery, We Are the Best! is a joyous little story of a teenage punk band. The only thing in common that they have is they are both terrific.

The setting is Stockholm, the time is 1982. Bobo and Karla (Mira Barkhammar and Mira Grosin, respectively) are thirteen-year-old girls who don't fit in. Both, upon first glance, look like boys. Karla has a mohawk, even though she is told that punk is dead. "No, it's not," she says petulantly. The girls, angered by the heavy metal they hear at their youth center, sign up for the rehearsal space just for spite, They want to form a band, despite the fact that they can't play instruments.

The two recruit a pious guitar virtuoso, Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne) who joins, mainly because she's thrilled to have friends. They cut her long blonde hair, which almost sends her mother to the police (Karla's dad jokes that he doesn't think the police can do anything about a bad haircut). The girls read an article about another post-punk band, and are able to call them up. These boys are about the girls' age, and they meet and a relationship forms between Karla and the drummer. This angers Bobo, because Karla always gets the boys, and the age-old breaker-up of bands, romantic entanglements, rears its head.

We Are the Best! is irresistible, mostly due to the two lead performances and the overall punk attitude. The girls' main song is called "Hate Sport," dedicated to their P.E. teacher (Bobo passes the basketball to the wrong team, and doesn't quite understand what the big deal is). Though this happens to be 1982, I think this is going right now with some other form of music, and has been going since the teenager was invented (sometime around World War II).  Teenagers just don't want any part of the rotten world, and will tell anyone who's willing to listen. And so it goes.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Station Eleven

Books about the end of civilization as we know it are in vogue right now. Mostly they've been in the horror or YA categories, with zombies running wild or teenage girls fighting the powers that be. Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, has neither of those things (it does have a young woman who's pretty handy with knives) and has cracked the "literature" arena, being nominated for a National Book Award.

Station Eleven begins with a production of King Lear in Toronto. The lead actor, a movie star named Arthur Leander, dies on stage of a heart attack. A young man, Jeevan, who is training to be an EMT, tries to save him. We will learn later that Jeevan was once a paparazzi, then an entertainment journalist that interviewed Leander. In the wings is a small child, Kirsten.

Later than night a flu epidemic, that originated in the European nation of Georgia, will sweep across the West, In a matter of weeks millions will die, and there will be no electricity, no air travel, no Internet. "No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films, except rarely, except with a generator drowning out half the dialogue, and only then for the first little while until the fuel for the generators ran out, because automobile gas goes stale after two or three years,"

As with all of these kind of books, the great question for the reader is, "What would you do?" In Station Eleven, the quote from a Star Trek episode, "Survival is insufficient" is the dogma. A certain number of survivors, including Kirsten, now grown up, travel up and down Lake Michigan performing music and Shakespeare. Calling themselves the Symphony (some of the characters, like the clarinet, are known to us only by their instruments). They are artists, but they are not naive, and Kirsten has two knives tattooed on her hand, indicating the number of killings she's made.

The story of the Symphony, and their encounter with a group of religious nuts led by "the prophet" is interwoven with what happened before and right after the flu. Jeevan hides out with his brother for weeks in a Toronto apartment as the flu devastates the world. Long before the flu, Leander has mixed feelings about his fame. He marries a woman from his home town in British Columbia, Miranda, who has been working on a comic book called Station Eleven, giving the novel its title and its linchpin, as it will connect two characters at the end. Another part of the book deals with a few hundred survivors trying to make a civilization living in an airport, where an old friend of Leander's makes a museum of items that were pre-flu.

Much of the book is quite wonderful, but it never really came together for me. Mandel uses the old coincidence gambit, as almost everyone in the book has met someone else in the book. The use of the comic book is risky because we can't see it, we can only read its description. It might have been interesting to actually see a comic book as part of the novel. As it is, I could only picture it, and not very well.

I also found the character of Leander tricky. He really wasn't that special--a typical Hollywood star who has married three times, has trouble connecting with his son, and wants to do Shakespeare to hone his craft. Frankly, he's kind of a bore, and those passages about his life dragged the book down a bit. There's a long section that goes by before we get back to the Symphony, and I was happy to be back with them.

This genre of book has been around a long time. The Stand, by Stephen King, is the standard bearer, and Station Eleven makes has much more modest ambitions. It's a good book, but not a great one.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Wild Tales

If there is any lesson to be learned after seeing the very dark Argentinian comedy Wild Tales, it's that karma is a bitch. The film, directed by Damian Szifron, is an anthology of six stories, each chronicling the dark side of the human soul, and dispensing punishment for transgressions.

Usually an anthology features different directors, but this is all Szifron, so there is a sameness to the vignettes, but I liked them all, chuckling like one might while reading an issue of Tales from the Crypt. There's nothing supernatural going on, but there is a kind of justice going on, as if the grim reaper were just outside of the camera, egging everyone on.

The first story occurs before the credits, and is the shortest. A flight full of people come to discover the have something in common. The second, and the weakest, is when a waitress in a small diner recognizes the customer who walks in the door. This is a very nasty story and the ending didn't work well. The third is like a particularly vicious Warner Brothers cartoon, as a man in a BMW insults a driver of a rundown vehicle as he passes him. When the Beemer guy gets a flat tire, well, I won't say more but it becomes a fight to the death.

The fourth is about a demolitions expert (Richardo Darin, one of the biggest stars in Argentina) who's life is completely  unraveled when his car gets towed. The action here is certainly exaggerated, but the fight between the individual and the bureaucracy is beautifully played, and many of us can take satisfaction in the tussle. The fifth involves a rich young man who commits hit and run murder. His father and lawyer try to arrange a deal so the family groundskeeper takes the rap, but greed and truculence interfere.

The last, and the longest and most lavish tale, involves a nightmare wedding. In a wonderful performance, Erica Rivas discovers, at her wedding, that the groom slept with one of the guests. Guys, here's a tip--don't invite women you've had affairs with to your wedding. Rivas takes a kind of delirious revenge, sleeping with one of the hotel staff and hurling the other woman into a mirror. It goes way over the top but has a perfect ending.

Wild Tales is a film for a certain sensibility. No one is particularly likable here--even Darin, the little guy fighting the system, is a hothead who should know better. This is comedy black as ink, so if you like it like that, it's a must see.

My grade for Wild Tales: A-.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Bernie

I've been hearing good things about Bernie, Richard Linklater's 2011 Texas Gothic, and I finally caught up with it and I watched with a smile permanently plastered on my face. Granted, it's not the ideal subject for a comedy, as it's a true story of a man who murders an old lady.

Jack Black is the title character, a pious mortician who moves to Carthage, Texas and soon becomes the most popular man there. He is nice to fault, the perfect grief counselor, participating in all sorts of volunteer activities, such as the church choir and the drama department at the community college.

One of his practices is to visit widows periodically after their husband's deaths, just to make sure they're getting on okay. One of these is Shirley Maclaine, who is the meanest woman in town. She doesn't speak to her family and looks like she's always sucking on a lemon. She agrees to let Bernie in for tea, and before you know it they're bosom buddies. She uses Bernie as a traveling companion, and then hires him as an assistant. He soon finds he's her personal slave, and in a fugue state, takes a gun and shoots her four times in the back. He then puts her in a freezer.

Like I said, not the stuff of a typical comedy. But Linklater has done two great things here. First is casting Black as Bernie. Black, of course, is a great comic actor, but he plays Bernie perfectly straight. This guy is the real thing--after he kills Maclaine, he takes her money and gives it away (telling people she's had a stroke and is in a nursing home). When he's caught he immediately confesses, and mounts a defense that it was not a premeditated murder, even as the zealous D.A. (a very funny Matthew McConnaughey) pursues first degree murder.

The second thing is Linklater's use of town citizens as a Greek chorus. Some of them are actual Carthage citizens, who all supported Bernie in his time of trouble. We get great homespun quotes, like: "They're making it out worse than it really is. He only shot her four times, not five." Or "She would chew your ass out at the drop of a hat. She'd rip you a brand new, 3-bedroom 2-bath, double-wide asshole. No problem." One helpfully breaks down the various sections of Texas, telling us that East Texas has it's own character, and not able to tell us anything about the Panhandle. These talking heads are laugh out loud funny, and make you forget there's a dead woman at the center of the story.

Bernie Tiede was convicted, but in a strange twist was released under the supervision of Linklater himself. Perhaps a sequel is in order, or a sit-com: "The Murderer and the Film Director."

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Wonder

It's a new quarter in the school year and this quarter my kids and I will be reading Wonder, a book for tweens written by R.J. Palacio. I hadn't heard of it before, but the other two sixth-grade teachers in my school raved about it, so now it's my turn. I read it over the past few days and it's just lovely.

The book is narrated by several different characters, but it's all about Auggie, a fifth-grader who has severe facial deformities. He's been home-schooled, but his parents think it's time for him to go to school. He attends a private school where the principal is fully behind him. But of course Auggie has fears. Here's how the book begins: "I know I'm not an ordinary ten-year-old kid. I mean, sure, I do ordinary things. I eat ice cream. I ride my bike. I play ball. I have an XBox. Stuff like that makes me ordinary I guess. And I feel ordinary. Inside. But I know ordinary kids don't make other ordinary kids run away screaming in playgrounds. I know ordinary kids don't get stared at wherever they go."

Wonder covers Auggie's year at school. We also get the perspective of his older sister, Via, who loves him but has just started high school and doesn't want to be labeled as the girl with the weird-looking brother. We also hear from the kids who befriend Auggie, risking their own popularity. The multiple narrators helps kids learn that we can't judge people unless we walk a mile in their shoes, or at least spend a chapter in their thoughts.

The book has a villain, named Julian, and later editions of the book have a chapter from his point of view. Unfortunately my edition does not have that one, because he does kind of disappear from the book.

I'll be interested in how my kids react to the book. This book is all about white people, and my class is almost entirely black and Hispanic. But some things about kids are universal, especially concerning a dying dog. I think the most important message is the absolute need for kindness. I got choked up at the principal's speech at the end:

"Kinder than is necessary. Because it is not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed. Why I love that line, that concept, is that it reminds me that we carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind, but the very choice of kindness."

I recommend this book for all appropriate ages, which range from about 8 to 108.

Friday, April 03, 2015

It Follows

I'm struggling with my feelings about It Follows, the new art film that is wallowing in the teenage-horror genre. David Robert Mitchell, who previously deconstructed the teenage party film with The Myth of the American Sleepover, does the same thing here with horror--uses the tropes, but turns them on their head and makes them far more interesting than just a disposable spook fest.

But, I felt a bit of the old Peggy Lee thing here--"Is that all there is?" Mitchell is exploring the mythos of the genre, but while doing so he kind of took the fun out of it. This film may be too smart for its good.

Our heroine is Jay, played by Maika Monroe. She is seeing this guy who gets spooked one night when he sees someone whom Monroe doesn't see. Later, they will have sex, and he chloroforms her and ties her to a wheelchair in an abandoned building. When she wakes he tells her that now she will be stalked by an entity that can take the form of anyone. It can be outrun, as it walks at a normal pace, but it will never stop following her, unless she has sex with someone else and passes it on. However, if the thing kills her, it will go back after him.

This is intriguing and mystifying. How does the guy know this? Why did he have to tie her up in a wheelchair in her underwear to tell her? Couldn't he have told her without drugging and binding her? Anyway, she's immediately convinced because moments later a naked woman starts following her.

Monroe has a circle of friends that eventually believe her. And, as proof that a beautiful girl can get away with anything, not one but two guys offer to have sex with her to take the curse away. One is kind of a sleazy guy from across the street, and another is a guy who has had a crush on her since they were kids. If I were in a similar situation, and this was the only way a girl like this would sleep with me, would I take a chance? I'll stop there, because to reveal more would be a spoiler.

It Follows has stirred up a lot of talk. It does seem like a parable about sexually transmitted diseases, but I think it goes deeper than that. The idea that the thing we are afraid of is being followed--not necessarily being caught (although a prologue shows that if you do get caught it's not pretty). This could be a comment on the social media age we live on--none of us can truly be alone, we are always under scrutiny. Early in the film Monroe is spied on by two younger boys as she swims in her pool. We have become a nation of voyeurs.

But, and I can't believe I'm saying this, I miss some of the stupidity of the genre. There are gaps in information. Perhaps someone can help me out, but at one point Monroe spots a boat out on a lake with a few guys in it. She strips down to her underwear (Monroe never gets naked in the film, but boys will still be pleased) and heads into the water. We don't know what happens. Did she offer herself sexually to them? The end of the film is also very ambiguous. My friend and I turned to each other at the end and said to each other, "Is that it?"

Also, there's a big set piece at a swimming pool, when the friends hope to lure the thing into the water and electrocute it. Why in god's name do they think that will work, when bullets won't stop it?

But Mitchell does know how to be scary. I liked that at times the entity is not focused on. The audience just sees a figure in the distance walking, while the unsuspecting victims are just hanging out.

I also liked that the film was shot in Detroit, a city that is a ghost of itself. This seems to be a trend, as Only Lovers Left Alive was shot there as well. Detroit may be the new capital of existential horror films.

It Follows is getting great reviews, but perhaps I was expecting too much. I found it frequently confusing and too arty for its subject matter.

My grade for It Follows: B-.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Trip to Italy

At the beginning of The Trip to Italy, a sequel to the great The Trip, Steve Coogan discusses "second album" syndrome, when the follow-up record almost always disappoints, because a group had their whole lives to put into the first product, and the second has high expectations. That's a bit of meta in this wonderful film, which fortunately does not suffer from this syndrome. It's just more of the same, and it's terrific.

But Coogan, with Rob Brydon and Michael Winterbottom, haven't simply repeated themselves. Sure, the set-up is the same: Coogan and Brydon, friends sort of, are off again to review restaurants, but this time it's Brydon writing the articles and it's in Italy (it seems to be suggested that Brydon ended up writing the articles that Coogan was hired for in The Trip). One look at the poster shows the switch: this time it's Coogan who's carefree and Brydon who is tense.

Indeed, "Coogan" has just ended an American TV series and wants to return to England to get closer to his son. Brydon, who was enjoying domestic bliss in The Trip, is itching to let his hair down, "what's left of it." He ends up having an affair with a deckhand of a yacht, and struggles with his feelings. He is also up for a part in an American film, and auditions with a touch of an Al Pacino accent. Coogan is chaste and simply enjoying the ride.

The core of the film is the banter between these two, with many impressions. Their first meal returns to Michael Caine, as he sounded in The Dark Knight films, and then the unintelligibility of Tom Hardy in the same. Later they will masterfully do all the James Bonds (who knew Timothy Dalton could be impersonated?), while Brydon also pulls out his trusty Hugh Grant at opportune moments.

There are other idiosyncrasies that I loved, such as the two deconstructing Alanis Morrisette songs on their journey (Coogan speculates her name comes from her love of Morrissey) and how Brydon keeps riffing even when in Pompeii, talking to a mummified victim with his "small man in the box" voice.

I hope these guys do more of these things until they run out of restaurants to go to. They are great fun and great company. I laughed out loud several times.