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Sunday, May 31, 2015

Othello (1952)

Othello is another of Orson Welles' troubled but brilliant films. Made in a stop and start fashion over several years, it was officially released in 1952 and won at Cannes, but had to be restored in 1992 for contemporary audiences.

Welles was a great interpreter of Shakespeare on stage, and chose to tackle the story of the Moor of Venice, playing the title role. Today, it is a little (or a lot, depending on your view) uncomfortable to see a white actor playing in blackface, but it was common enough in Welles' day (Olivier did it as late as 1965--today I don't think anyone would do it). It would have been fascinating to see Welles play Iago opposite a black actor.

That being said, the film continues Welles' style of chiaroscuro with elements of German expressionism. The use of shadow and light is mesmerizing, and their are several stark examples, such as the opening scene, which is Othello and Desdemona's funeral procession, silhouetted against the sky. It reminded me of the end of Bergman's The Seventh Seal, but that film wouldn't come for five more years. There are also many scene of Welles in close-up, his face looking disembodied as it floats in darkness.

I won't belabor the plot, which should be known to most literate people. Iago, upset because Othello has promoted Cassio ahead of him, works to destroy both men by framing Desdemona as an adulteress (with that key piece of evidence--the handkerchief). Iago himself warns Othello of "the green-eyed monster," which Othello ignores. The most powerful scenes are his rages before killing his wife (not strangling her, but suffocating with her that damn handkerchief).

The film is only 90 minutes long, which with Shakespeare means there have been considerable cuts. I'm not recently familiar enough with the play to know what was left out, but it seems all that is key is there, starting with Desdemona's father's anger over her secret marriage to Othello. There is also a very surreal scene in which Iago kills Roderigo set in a bathhouse.

This is the only Shakespearean adaptation of Welles that is available on DVD. We must wait to see Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight. I hope I live that long.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Bleak House (2005)

While reading Charles Dickens' Bleak House, I realized I was becoming totally lost. So I reached out to Netflix and found a BBC adaptation made in 2005. It turned out to be a good choice, as it not only cleared up several plot points, but was terrific on its own merits.

Written by Andrew Davies, and directed by Justin Chadwick and Susanna White, the adaptation is eight hours long, but still has to jettison many of the characters and plot machinations of Dickens' novel. The choices made are correct, though, focusing mostly on the villainy of Mr. Tulkinghorn, played beautifully by Charles Dance, who in an attempt to keep safe the legacy of the family he represents, ends up destroying it.

I won't repeat the plot here, as it can be found in my review of the book last week. Simply put, the novel has two threads that intertwine in Dickens' indictment of the British legal system. One, a case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce, concerning a dispute over wills, has, like some sort of virus, infected the lives of many as it drags on for years. Secondly, there is the secret of Lady Dedlock (Gillian Anderson), the wife of a Baronet (Timothy West), who gave birth to a child in her misspent youth, but was told it died.

That child is Esther Summerson (Ann Maxwell Martin), who is basically the heart and soul of the book and serial. She is one of Dickens most admirable characters, and her devotion to her friends gives you a kind of lift as you watch it. Also a wonderfully good character is John Jarndyce (Denis Lawson), Esther's guardian, who falls in love with her.

But Dickens could also create villains. In addition to Tulkinghorn, I loved Phil Davis as Mr. Smallweed, the vile money-lender. Seeing him played made the character really live for me, as Davis, adorned with a greasy wig and yellow horse teeth, is carried in a sedan chair and constantly asks his attending granddaughter to "Shake me up, Judy!" The supercilious Mr. Guppy was amusingly played by Burn Gorham, and the cretinous Mr. Skimpole by Nathaniel Parker.

The good characters outweigh the bad. The last scene, a wedding, brings most of them together and I almost got a tear in my eye. Kudos to Hugo Speer and Sergeant George, and Alun Armstrong as Inspector Bucket, who, in some opinions, was the first detective in English literature. The scene in which he unmasks a murderer has been repeated, stylistically, thousands of times over the years. Also in the cast is the now famous Carey Mulligan, as Ada Clare. She was only twenty years old when this was filmed.

There's great acting and directing here. Anderson, of course, is the major star, and she is spellbinding. She has found herself in a marriage with a much older man she doesn't love, but bears her duties with quiet dignity. But when she finds out her daughter is alive a string breaks. She and Martin share two scenes together, and they are so fraught with honest emotion that it's thrilling to behold. Then, when Lawson makes a sacrifice for the woman he loves, you may find yourself reaching for a tissue.

This television production had an interesting structure. After a one-hour first episode, the remaining fourteen were a half-hour each, which made viewing it a brisker experience--my habit of checking how much time is left was abated because the episode was over before I could get restless. It's unusual for a drama to be only 30 minutes, but it's welcome.

Friday, May 29, 2015

B.B. King

Though expected, the death of B.B. King shook the music world. He was certainly one of the great American musicians of the past, and current, century, and perhaps the most well-known practitioner of that peculiar American music, the Blues.

Of course, being a white-bread kid, I never knew much about him. In doing some reading about him, it is easier to understand why he escaped my purview--he missed out on both the rock and roll explosion in the '50s, which picked up other black artists like Little Richard and Chuck Berry, and then again the R&B wave in the 1960s. It wasn't until he played the Fillmore East in the late '60s, his audience made up of white hippies, that he knew he had finally made the mainstream.

I've spent the last week listening to his greatest hits collection. The music is both raw and elegant, and while he is known as one of the great electric guitarists, I was most taken with his voice, which seems to come from a bottomless well of emotion, both pain and joy, but as it is the blues, mostly pain. Consider "How Blue Can You Get?," (written by Jane Feather), which begins with King singing, "I've been down-hearted, ever since the day we met." Wow. He goes on:

"I gave you a brand new Ford
 But you said: I want a Cadillac
 I bought you a ten dollar dinner
 and you said: thanks for the snack
 I let you live in my penthouse
 you said it just a shack
 I gave seven children
 and now you wanna give them back."

(Speaking of  children, King remarkably had 15--with 15 different women).

His most famous song came in 1970, a big hit called "The Thrill Is Gone," which gave headline writers an easy out when his passing came. It is one of the great recordings of our time, not only for King's mournful voice, but for the stunning arrangement of strings and horns by Bert DeCoteaux. It's one of those songs I could put on repeat for quite a while, even if it is a depressing summation of how love has died;

"The thrill is gone
It's gone away from me
The thrill is gone baby The thrill is gone away from me
Although, I'll still live on
But so lonely I'll be"

King could be sing a happy song. He teams with Bono and U2 for "When Loves Come to Town," and with Robert Cray on "Playing With My Friends." On "Better Not Look Down," there's this amusing section, when King, walking down the street in London, is recognized by Queen Elizabeth, who says:

"Oh B.B., sometimes it's so hard to pull things together
Could you tell me what you think I ought to do?
And I said:
Better not look down
If you want to keep on flying
Put the hammer down
Keep it full speed ahead"

I wonder if Her Majesty would know who B.B. King was, and if she's into the blues. Probably not, but you never know. King touched a lot of lives, and his influence spread far and wide.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Monsters University

It's almost the end of the school year here in Las Vegas. Lessons are basically done, and today was the last day kids could turn in assignments. Finals are next week. So what does that mean? Teachers show movies. I've been scrambling to find G-rated films to show that I could watch three times in one day. I hadn't seen Monsters University, the 2013 prequel to the Pixar hit Monsters, Inc., and figured it couldn't be too bad.

And it wasn't bad. It wasn't up to Pixar standards, but even a routine movie from them is far better than most animated fare. Again we have Mike Wazoskwi, who's basically an eyeball on legs, but this time we follow him as a young monster who dreams of becoming a "scarer," those monsters that pop out of children's closets and make them scream. I seem to remember something about how the screams created energy, but I forget it all.

Mike grows up and attends the title school of higher learning. He's not really very scary, but dreams die hard. He meets Sully (again voiced by John Goodman), who's a natural scarer but not much of a student. For an infraction they are kicked out of the scarer program by the scary dean (Helen Mirren, who has both wings and multiple legs). Mike decides to take the worst fraternity on campus and mold them into a team to challenge the others in the "Scare Olympics."

So what we have here is the template for standard college movies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds, but without the sex and drinking and with monsters. It works. The director, Dan Scanlon, keeps things moving, and there are many imaginative monsters. The loser fraternity is particularly good--I liked Dan Carlton, a middle-aged monster with a bowling-ball gut who decides to quit sales and go back to school. Their fraternity house belongs to the mom of one of them, and they hold their initiation  in the basement, complete with dark cloaks and wooden paddles, while she does laundry.

Along with Goodman, Bill Crystal is back as Mike and Steve Buscemi as Randy Boggs, and we see the genesis of his rivalry with Sully. Part of me thinks that making light of childhood nightmares is a bit sadistic, but kids love monsters. I know I did. I had a book when I was a tyke called How to Feed and Care For Your Monster. I'll let psychologists explain why.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wolf in White Van

I was interested in reading Wolf in White Van for a couple of reasons: one, the author is John Darnielle, not well known as a writer of prose but rather of music, and at times the only member of the eclectic rock group known as The Mountain Goats. Secondly, it's the only novel I've heard of that is about play-by-mail games.

I got into play-by-mail thirty-some years ago. Most of them, even those that exist today, are computer-generated, but a few were actually done by hand. The creator of the game would send you your situation, and you'd respond, by mail!, with what you would do next, and he'd write back to tell you what happened to you.

In this book, the narrator, Sean Phillips, owns a game company and his most popular game is called Trace Italian, which has players in a zombie-filled post-apocalypse heading toward a safe haven in a fortress somewhere in Kansas. That's only part of the story, though. We quickly learn that Sean is horribly disfigured, by an "accident" that gradually reveals itself as a suicide attempt by rifle to the face.

The attempt was unsuccessful: "I did hope that at some point I'd be able to explain my recent theory that it isn't really possible to kill yourself, that everybody goes on forever in multiple dimensions..." The other plot thread is that Sean is being sued by parents of an impressionable teen who took the game so seriously that he and his girlfriend went to the Plains and one died of exposure.

The world of play-by-mail is a by-product of the role-playing games that started in the '70s, especially Dungeons and Dragons. For those who didn't have the friends nearby (and let's face it, D&D fans often could be short of friends) the mail became a lifeline. This world is aptly considered by Darnielle, who has Sean beginning to create his world as a teenager, knitting it together, bit by bit, especially when he is recovering from his self-inflicted gunshot wound. For those who play the games, the escapism is apparent, but what about those who create the worlds? They are even further into their minds, making a place where they can go in their heads.

The book hops back and forth between past and present, leading to the day that Sean shoots himself. We try, like truffle-hunting pigs, to discover the reasons why he does what he does. He seems to be pretty normal, if a nerd. He is a great fan of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, even to the point where he buys a cassette tape by a band who writes all their songs about them (The Mountain Goats have done similar things--their latest has songs all about pro wrestling). There are some great teenage angst bits like: "Some things are hard to explain to your parents. Some things are hard to explain, period, but your parents especially are never going to understand them."

There are also philosophical statements that do not edge too far into pretentiousness or solipsism: "There are planets so far away from ours that no scientist will ever guess that they exist, let alone know the stories of their civilizations, their beginnings and ends. They're not being kept secret from us, but they're secret all the same."

As stated, the book ends with an account of the day Sean shoots himself. It may be disappointing to some that there is no obvious trigger. It seems like a normal day, when he goes to a video arcade and makes out with a girl for the first time. But so often incidents like these have no obvious answer, and Darnielle resists the obvious.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Magnificent Ambersons

Since this is the centenary month of Orson Welles, I thought I'd take a look at some films of his that I've never seen or haven't yet reviewed on this site. I have written about Citizen Kane, The Stranger, and Touch of Evil (and as an actor only, The Third Man). His career was so spotted by partially-made films and movies outside the Hollywood system that some of them are not available on DVD, at least not through Netflix. These include Journey Into Fear, MacBeth, and Chimes at Midnight.

Welles' follow-up to Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, is most famous for having been taken away from him and re-cut by the studio. More than an hour was cut, reducing the film to a trim and fast-paced 85 minutes. The excised footage was destroyed, so it can never be restored to the original director's cut.

But here's the rub: the film is still great. It's based on the novel by Booth Tarkington, about the decline of a genteel Midwestern family and the changes over the turn of the century, when the automobile changed everything--for the good and bad.

The Ambersons are the richest people in Indianapolis. Isabel (Dolores Costello) is courted by the dashing Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), but a drunken incident during a serenade persuades her to marry the dull Wilbur Minifer. They have a son, George, who is horribly spoiled. He grows up to be Tim Holt, and he hasn't changed much. He meets Morgan's daughter (Anne Baxter), and is in love with her, but can't abide Morgan or his business, automobiles. When his father dies, Holt is even more outraged when it is hinted that Morgan may ask him mother to marry him.

This is unmistakably a Welles film, and even though it was not shot by Gregg Toland (instead it was Stanley Cortez) the similarities are stunning. Welles and Cortez make great use of the interiors of the Amberson mansion. I was most stunned by a crane shot that starts with two people on the ground floor deep in the background, entering a room and closing the doors. The camera pans up to the second floor, where Holt is eavesdropping. It then pans further up to reveal Agnes Moorehead on the third-floor landing, telling Holt not to interfere.

Moorehead, as the spinster Aunt Fanny, is great. She was nominated for an Oscar but didn't win, and I remember reading in a poll somewhere that she was named the Best Supporting Actress of all time. I can't say I would disagree.

The film is mesmerizing to watch. Beyond its story, which is profound on the influences of the mechanized age on the old America, almost every shot is expertly made. The framing of the characters, the use of deep focus, the effect of snow (remember how great the opening scenes of Kane's boyfriend in the snow were?) are genius.

We'd all like to see Welles original cut, but even after the butchering by RKO, The Magnificent Ambersons is a masterpiece.

Monday, May 25, 2015

I Wish

Most films about children are overly sentimental or nostalgic, or are simply geared toward children. I Wish, a 2011 from Japan, is neither--it is for adults, primarily, and simply shows life from a child's point of view, the wonder of it all and the pain and indignity.

Directed by Hirozaku Koreeda, the story focuses on two brothers, played by real-life brothers Koehki Maeda (as Koichi) and Ohshiro Maeda (as Ryu). They live with different parents--Koichi, the more thoughtful older brother, with his mother and grandparents, the eternally cheerful Ryu with his slacker/musician father. Koichi wants nothing more to unite his family again.

A bullet train that will connect the cities is being built. Koichi hears about a phenomenon about the trains--if you stand near when they pass each other, you can make a wish and it will be granted. He and Ryu get together friends, tell white lies to their parents, and head to the city where the trains pass.

I Wish is a little too long and meandering, but the last act, when the kids go on their grand adventure, is marvelous. A subplot involves Ryu's friend, a pretty girl who wants to be an actress. Her mother, who was an actress, discourages her. She visits her grandparents, who haven't seen in some time. One boy, who's wish was to become a professional baseball player, replaces that with the wish of his dog coming back to life. Then, when the trains do pass, there is a montage of events from the film that is very moving.

There are many other plot threads, including the teacher the boys all have a crush on, and the grandfather of the boys, who runs a bakery that is in decline (all the older men hope the train gives them more business).

I Wish is touching portrait of the life of one family, and is nicely done. It's slow going in the beginning, but stick with it.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Republican Clown Car

There is trouble in the Republican Party. We are near debate time (actually, we're past it--four years ago they had already started by now) and there's logistical nightmares afoot. There are so many Republican candidates that it's a problem of how to stage debates. There are so many that I've dragged out that reliable metaphor, the clown car.

The first debate is scheduled for Fox News on August 6th. Chuck Todd has identified 18 Republican candidates (it's almost like identifying species of beetle or something). 18! The good people at Fox have decided to cap the number of participants at ten, based on their standing in the polls. This has outraged those left out, understandably, because debates are the easiest and cheapest way to get the public's attention. But there's just no way, goes the thinking, that a stage with 18 people could be handled with any kind of proper structure. The debate would have to go several hours for anyone to say more than a handful of words. And that would be torture, even for Fox News devotees.

These are the candidates Todd notes. Not all of them have announced, so maybe some will come to their senses. These are arranged I believe by Todd's estimation of their candidacy:

Jeb Bush
Scott Walker
Marco Rubio
Rand Paul
Ted Cruz
Mike Huckabee
Rick Santorum
Lindsey Graham
Rick Perry
Bobby Jindal
Chris Christie
John Kasich
Donald Trump
Carly Fiorina
Ben Carson
Jim Gilmore
George Pataki
Bob Ehrlich

A few things: is Chris Christie really going to run with all the scandals floating around his large head? George Pataki? His time to run was twenty years ago. Who is Bob Ehrlich? He's the ex-governor of Maryland, but I've never heard of him. John Kasich, current governor of Ohio, seems like a worthy candidate, but is probably running for positioning for 2020 or vice-president. Jim Gilmore, former governor of Virginia, tried this eight years ago, was around for one debate, and disappeared. Now he probably won't even get one debate. Carly Fiorina drove Hewlett-Packard into the ground--why would anyone think she'd make a good president? She's the token woman, as Carson is the token black (who must be allowed to debate for entertainment purposes. So should Donald Trump).

So we do clearly have tiers here. A later article by Todd shows the top ten in the polls right now:

1. Bush
2. Walker
3. Rubio
4. Cruz
5. Paul
6. Huckabee
7. Carson
8. Christie
9. Perry
10. Trump

Perry, of course, did himself in a a debate last go-round, when he couldn't remember the cabinet departments he'd eliminate.

The notable leave-outs here are Santorum, who actually was the last man standing before Mitt Romney four years ago, and Graham, who is an actual senator (he is also single and just a tad effeminate, so reporters are certainly doing some digging). Fiorina, the only woman, would be left out, as would Kasich, who is the governor of a populous state.

Certainly this field will clear quickly, probably before a single vote is cast. I just can't imagine Pataki or Ehrlich sticking around. Huckabee and Santorum are vying for the Evangelical vote (along with Cruz, who is really angling for the lunatic vote) and one will have to go. Carson's novelty will wear off, as will Trump's. Speaking of Trump, this will only go as far as his ego will take it, because he has the money.

And we all know it's money that drives elections, especially for president. Once these candidates start to rake in contributions, the wheat will separate from the chaff. I see the above six being the serious candidates--Bush, Walker, Rubio, Cruz, Paul, and Huckabee. They will likely have the money for advertising as Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina votes. Two of these will go for religious nuts, so, as in 2008, Huckabee may gain an early advantage, while Bush will probably win New Hampshire. The others will have to hope to hang on until home states (Florida should be a pickup for Rubio).

It's all quite interesting, given that the Democratic side is a fait accompli. Which clown will get the nod?

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

I've often thought the formula for the success of the Mad Max films was combining the overwrought bravado of professional wrestling, car culture, and post-apocalyptic science fiction. I find it interesting that it's been thirty years between films, but George Miller, who started it all, is back at the helm, and this Mad Max film, subtitled Fury Road, is the best of them all, and is surely one of the best action films of the year (take that, Avengers).

Most apocalypse films these days have to do with climate change, but we're back in the Outback following a nuclear exchange (lots of signs of radiation sickness--the film is not for the squeamish). Max, now played by Tom Hardy, has himself a meal of a two-headed lizard (this gave me a giggle and reminded me of the three-eyed fish on The Simpsons) before he's kidnapped and hauled off to The Citadel, a huge complex of caves that is run by an elaborately costumed dictator called Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) who is very sick, and propped up by armor and other affectations, which makes him a little like Darth Vader.

Max is used as a blood donor, since he's universal, and hung in a cage. He's strapped to a young warrior (Nicholas Hoult), who's off chasing after Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, with shaved head and eyeblack on her forehead), who has betrayed the Citadel by hauling off Joe's breeding wives. During the fight, which takes place in vehicles at high speeds, Max manages to free himself, and comes across what looks like a quintet of Victoria's Secret models (indeed, some of the actresses are, another is the granddaughter of Elvis Presley) washing off, like a beer commercial's idea of a male fantasy. I guess Joe has pretty much the same taste in women that is popular now.

Anyhoo, Max and Furiosa team up to go to the "Green Place," which she remembers from childhood. But they've managed to tick off everyone in the process. Chasing the "war rig" she drives is not only Joe and his warriors, but a contingent from Gas Town (led by a man with an artificial nose and elephantiasis), the gang from Bullet Farm (with turbans made out of bandoleers), and they also cross some motorcycle riders who keep watch over a canyon.

As I recall with Beyond Thunderdome, which found Max saving a bunch of children, this time he's saving, er, helping to save, women who are seen as nothing but objects. The script, like most good science fiction, touches on modern themes--The Citadel is a damn good example of the one percent, which doles out water a bit a time. Joe tells the squalid citizens below to be careful not to get addicted to water, a concept that would be funny if it weren't so horrible. Furiosa does return to her home, but finds only a few women, suspicious of men, and of course they are nurturing but also bad-ass.

The action in this film is intense. There are only a few lulls between set pieces. Most are of the vehicle variety, and this film has more tricked-out modes of transportation than any gear-head could dream of. I especially liked the use of VW Beetle bodies to adorn trucks, and the fighters who balance on long, flexible poles to bend down and attack others. Of course, as with the other films, I am reminded, if gas is so precious, why do they drive around so much? There's also a spectacularly done fistfight with three sides--Hardy, Theron, and Hoult.

The acting is fine. Hardy is solid and doesn't say much. This role made Mel Gibson a star, maybe it will do the same for Hardy, who is known by cognoscenti by not so much by the general public. He does have to spend half the movie with an iron mask on his face, just like he did when he played Bane. Theron is also quite good, playing a well-rounded character, not just window dressing. Even the models are competent.

The film is also quite beautiful. The photography is by John Seale, and there are some luscious scenes during both the heat of mid-day and at night. The FX team I would imagine is responsible for a huge dust storm that the drivers head into.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a rarity: an intelligent action film, with good performances and spectacular stunts. You will find it hard to catch your breath. Oh, and lest I forget, I loved the bad-guy car that has a guy playing a flame-throwing electric guitar on the front. For the guy who has everything.

My grade for Mad Max: Fury Road: A-.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bleak House

I've been reading one Dickens novel a year the last few years, and after the most famous ones they're getting a little tougher. This year's book is Bleak House, which was Dicken's jeremiad against the British legal system. It has its moment of greatness, but it took me a long time to get through, and I sometimes found myself reading for pages without comprehending anything.

The over-arching plot in the book is a legal case, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, that has been going on for years: "This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises." Lawyers depicted in the book are either out and out villains or morally bankrupt.

Two houses provide the dual plots that are connected by a secret birth. Bleak House, of the title, is owned by Mr. John Jarndyce, who at one time was an heir to the suit (it involves conflicting wills) but has his own means and has sworn off it, declaring that it destroys any man who succumbs to the greed involved. He is a very kind man, and takes in two cousins, Richard Carstone and Ada Clare, who also happen to be in love with each other. They are the current heirs to the case. With Ada is her companion, an orphan, Esther Summerson, who narrates much of the book and is one of the most stolid and good-hearted heroines in all of Dickens.

The other house is Chesney Wold, in Lincolnshire, ancestral home of the Dedlocks. Leicester Dedlock is described thusly: "Sir Leicester is generally in a complacent state, and rarely bored. When he has nothing else to do, he can always contemplate his own greatness. It is considerable advantage to a man to have so inexhaustible a subject." Sir Leicester is married to a much younger woman, Lady Dedlock, who also happens to be Esther's mother, though neither know it, as Lady's sister told her the baby died. This was when she was having an affair with a Captain Hawdon, who later took the name of Nemo (Latin for "no one," not named after the Captain or the fish), who dies of an opium overdose at the book's beginning.

The plot is exceedingly complicated, but is set in motion by the greed or treachery of lawyers. Most prominent is Mr. Tulkinghorn, Sir Leicester's lawyer, who has no more scruples than a reptile. There is also Mr. Guppy (love those Dickensian names), a sort of Uriah Heep-like character who loves Esther and finds out her parentage. He's the kind of guy who proposes to a woman, and then after he's turned down, still stalks her, and then when she gets small pox sores, retracts his proposal.

There are many other vivid characters flitting through the book. Harold Skimpole, a man who hides his frequent lapses of dignity and humanity by professing he is just a child; Mr. Smallweed, a money lender who is only interested in money; Mr. Bayham Badger, a man who brags about his wife's previous two husbands, and Mr. Boythorn, a landowner who is in a perpetual battle of a right of way with Sir Leicester.

Really what we have here is a melodrama under the shadow of Dickens' indictment of Chancery court, which is sort of related to the American civil court (as opposed to criminal court). I don't want to spoil it, even if it is a book that is over a hundred-fifty-years old, but the case is resolved, even if the lawyers have gotten all the money. But there are pleasures to the book, such as those names (we also have Snagsby, Turveydrop, Jellyby, and Inspector Bucket, who is along to solve a murder, thus becoming one of the first detectives in fiction).

And who can turn a simile as well as Dickens: "with a sharp nose like a sharp autumn evening, inclining to be frosty towards the end." Or a description of a character like this: "Mr. Chadband is a large yellow mean with a fat smile and a general appearance of having a deal of train oil in his system...[he] moves softly and cumbrously, not unlike a bear who has been taught to walk upright."

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Bonsai, directed by Cristian Jiminez, is a 2011 film from Chile. It's intermittently interesting, but mostly one of those films that play in college towns and is heavily involved in metaphor, this time a bonsai tree.

Diego Noguera plays a college student who meets the kind of girl that every college guy wants--she has that rock and roll look, and a kind of "fuck it all" attitude. She's played by Natalia Galgani, and I know if I was in college I would have worshiped her, but she would have spurned me. She doesn't spurn Noguera, though, and they have a relationship that starts when they both lie about having read Proust.

We jump forward eight years. Noguera is now having a friends with benefits relationship with his neighbor. He is a struggling writer, and is up for a job as typist for a famous novelist. The novelist tells him the idea of the book--a man hears on the radio that his ex has died. Noguera doesn't get the job, but he decides to write the book on his own, telling his friend that it's the novelist's book. He's using his history with Galgani as the source, and we hop back and forth and watch their relationship dissolve.

This is based on a novel, and it shows. It seems like something Saul Bellow might have written. I liked it, mostly, but even at only 95 minutes drags a bit. Part of the problem is that the main character is a sad sack who is entirely passive. He's like a cipher, walking through the film like an out of focus blob.

Bonsai did make me laugh a few times. I loved when the professor asked the class who had read Proust, and everyone's hand slowly goes up, so as to be not the only one who hasn't. Noguera then starts to read Proust, lying on the beach, the book open on his chest, giving him an interestingly shaped suntan. Later Galgani is at a party and complains that she's drinking a lot but can't get drunk. It is pointed out that she has been drinking non-alcoholic beer.

The film could have used more moments like this. The opening scenes remove any spoilers: Nogeura will live, Galgani will die. This kind of artistic decision is a bold one, but rather dumb, in my opinion. The ending of a movie should be inevitable but unpredictable. I guess the unpredictability is how she will die, which I won't say.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Best American Essays 2014

"Also in store are recurring nightmares, obsessive behavior, the fears and anxieties of aging, suicide, and--as they say in those infomercials--a whole lot more," heralds Robert Alwan, series editor of The Best American Essays 2014. Indeed, this selection, narrowed down by John Jeremiah Sullivan, does tilt toward the dark side. There are two essays, one by Barry Lopez and another by Chris Offut, that detail their childhood abuse at the hands of a pedophile. By accident of the alphabet, these essays are back to back, and I don't recommend reading them both in one sitting.

There are indeed essays about obsessive behavior. Timothy Aubry writes about his night terrors n "A Matter of Life and Death,", while Leslie Jamison informs us about a syndrome called Morgellons disease, which involves strange hairs coming out of the body, and uncontrollable itching. "Itching is powerful: the impulse that tells someone to scratch lights up the same neural pathways as chemical addiction. An itch that starts in the brain feels just like an itch on the skin, and it can begin with something as simple as a thought. It can begin from reading a paragraph like this one." How many of you just read that and felt an itch?

Zadie Smith pens a delightful essay, "Joy," about the difference between pleasure and joy. She begins, "It might be useful to distinguish between pleasure and joy. But maybe everybody does this very easily, all the time, and only I am confused. A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road--you simply have to a little further down the track. That has not been my experience." She goes on to say that joy is only felt a few times in a lifetime, and is so emotionally exhausting that one wouldn't want too much of it.

Other highlights include "Slickheads," by Lawrence Jackson, written in the language of the streets, and the very fine "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," in which Ariel Levy details the painful story of how she gave birth and then the baby died while in that country on an assignment. James Wood writes, in "Becoming Them," how people do become their parents.

I have two favorites. First is Wendy Brenner's "Strange Beads," about how, during a time of difficult health problems, she became fascinated by a seller of mostly junk and costume jewelry on eBay. What interested her is that each item was sold separately, thousands of them. It's a delightful personal essay that intersects with life in these times.

But my favorite is Wells Tower's hilarious "The Old Man at Burning Man." He, about forty, takes his elderly father and two other elders to the Burning Man festival. This sounds like a fish-out-of-water cliche, and it is, but Tower writes so well, and it's laugh out loud funny. I've never been to Burning Man, and am certainly too old to go now (I would go hoping to get laid, and end up extremely disappointed) but I feel like Tower took the trip for me. Here's his opening paragraph, in all it's glory:

"The land, the very atmosphere out there, is alien, malignant, the executioner of countless wagon trains. I am afraid to crack the window. Huge dervishes of alkaline dust reel and teeter past. The sun, a brittle parchment white, glowers as though we personally have done something to piss it off. An hour out here and already I could light an Ohio Blue Tip off the inside of my nostril. One would think we were pulling into the planet's nearest simulation of hell, but if this were hell, we would not be driving this very comfortable recreational vehicle. Nor would there be a trio of young and merry nudists capering at our front bumper, demanding that we step out of the vehicle and join them."

While as all the Best of series is a mixed bag, I found this particularly strong, if only for those last two pieces.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Book of Life

The Book of Life is a pleasant if unexceptional animated film for children that sneaks in jokes for adults, as most of them do these days. What sets it apart is that is a film that celebrates Mexican culture, an indication of the shifting demographics in the United States, as this is not a tiny indie, but a film distributed by Fox.

The story is framed by a bunch of nasty kids visiting a museum. A tour guide (Christina Applegate) takes them into a secret hall, where she tells them a story from the Book of Life, which has everyone's story in it. This one is about the rules of the realm of the Land of the Remembered, and the Land of the Forgotten. Oh, and it's the Day of the Dead, a day that is very prominent on the Mexican calendar (as with most Spanish-settled nations).

La Muerte, the Queen of the Land of the Remembered, is like the Good Witch of the North. Everyone is dead, but it is a colorful and festive place. Those who are remembered by someone alive stay there. If you are forgotten to everyone on Earth, you go to The Land of the Forgotten, ruled over by Xibalba, a kind of vulture-ish creature. It's a desolate and miserable place. He wants to trade places with La Muerta, so they make a bet.

It concerns two boys and a girl. One boy, Manolo, wants to be a musician, but his legacy is to be a bullfighter. Joaquin wants to be a hero, as his father died at the hands of a vicious bandit. They grow up, voiced by Diego Luna and Channing Tatum, respectively. Maria, the girl (Zoe Saldana). returns from a European education and the two men now vie for her attention. The bet is which one will marry Maria.

The film is very eye-catching and almost too busy with color and movement. The story is rather trite, even if it does follow Manolo into the two realms, where he has to fight a thousand bulls to save his family's souls (and he does not believe in killing the bull). There's talk of selflessness and what courage really means, which is nice but nothing that will live with someone for very long.

Again, I found it's appeal to those of Mexican heritage very interesting in a tipping point kind of way. Guillermo Del Toro produced, and there are many Mexican and Mexican-American voice actors (Cheech Marin, Hector Elizondo, and Danny Trejo, just to name three). I rented this to show my students, who are predominantly Mexican, so if they haven't seen it before I hope they enjoy it. If they were twenty years older, they'd have grown up seeing mostly white people on their screens (unless they watch Spanish-language television), so it's nice to see they have a chance to see their own on the big screen.

Monday, May 18, 2015


1915: in Europe war was raging. The United States was not yet involved, but feelings ran high when the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-Boat with many American passengers. Babe Ruth hit his first home run. Birth of a Nation was released, and though today is viewed as highly racist, was the number one box office attraction until Gone With the Wind.

The world was becoming more mechanized, as more and more people owned automobiles. The one millionth car rolled off the Ford assembly line. Flight was becoming more common, although used mostly for purposes of war. King George V was the King of England; Woodrow Wilson was the U.S president.

And around the world, from Philadelphia to Brooklyn to Montreal to Stockholm to Paris, seven extraordinary people came into the world. This year marks their centenaries.

We love round numbers, the rounder the better. Ten twenty, thirty, fifty, one hundred, five hundred. These are the anniversaries we look to. On December 7, we know that's it's Pearl Harbor day, but it's on the round numbers that we get all sentimental. So it is with the anniversaries of births, especially those of the departed.

1915 seems to be a gold mine of famous people in the arts being born. I was aware of Orson Welles, who was born in May, having just had his. Billie Holiday's was in April. In June, it will be Saul Bellow's turn. Come August, Ingrid Bergman. In October, Arthur Miller. Then, in December, two of the greatest voices of all time, Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf. Now perhaps every year has a treasure chest of birth, and these seven are not the only prominent people born that year. If I checked, I might mind find a great assembly for 1914 or 1916. But this group seems extra special, each a giant in his or her field, each an icon.

This has captured my imagination for some reason. I imagine them all sitting in a room together. What would they discuss? Some of them knew each other. I found a clip on YouTube of Frank Sinatra introducing Ingrid Bergman to give a tribute to Orson Welles at an AFI event. Bergman admits she didn't know Orson well--had never worked with him, never married him. It's clear Sinatra and Welles knew each other well, as from the photo above, which must have been taken in the early '40s or so, when both her well known from the radio. I would imagine Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller may have crossed literary paths at some time. As for Holiday and Piaf, who knows?

The entertainers all burst upon the scene at roughly the same time. Welles, the boy genius, was known on Broadway for daring Shakespearean adaptations, and then was known everywhere after his notorious 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Sinatra was a smash among teeny-boppers in the '40s, and his fame would never diminish. By the early '40s, Bergman had won an Oscar (the first of three) and appeared in Casablanca, one of the greatest films ever made. Later in the decade she would be denounced on the floor of the U.S. congress. Holiday was big among jazz aficionados, not really a household name until the '50s, when her star had considerably dimmed. Piaf was famous in France during the war and later years. Miller's first big hit was All My Sons in 1947, and then Death of a Salesman in 1949 made him world famous and indelible part of American letters. Bellow, who was never a household name, but certainly a giant in literature,hit it big in 1964 with the novel Herzog.

Interestingly, and defying actuarial tables, the women all went first. Holiday and Piaf died very young, victims of excess. Bergman died in 1982 of cancer, only 67. The first man to go was Welles, another creature of excess, in 1985. Sinatra lived to a ripe old age of 82, and the two writers died nearly 90, both in 2005.

Over the next year, I'll be digging deeper into this septet of names, reading biographies and taking a look or listen at their work. I'll start with Billie Holiday, who is the oldest of the bunch by a month. Keep looking here for more.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

Kudos to director Thomas Vinterberg, screenwriter David Nicholls and star Carey Mulligan for an absolutely smashing adaptation of Thomas Hardy's novel Far From the Madding Crowd. It's kind of under the radar, and probably will be long forgotten at awards season, but it shouldn't be.

I read the book last year, and the film, while making necessary cuts, is almost entirely faithful, so I won't go over the plot in detail. Suffice it to say that the first time we see Batsheba Everdene (Mulligan) she is wearing pants, a pretty bold thing to do in 1870, even is she is riding a horse. She is espied by neighboring farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), who almost immediately proposes marriage. She declines, but after he loses his sheep in a freak accident, she takes him on as a shepherd after she inherits her uncle's farm. Because they have changed places in station, it is unthinkable that they can marry.

She is then pursued by another rich neighbor, Mr. Boldwood (Michael Sheen), who is both overly romantic and just a bit creepy. He promises her he will always protect her, a statement that will lead to tragedy.

Mulligan ends up marrying for passion, a callow soldier, Sgt. Troy (Tom Sturridge). Everyone, including the audience, can see this a bad idea, especially since we know he meant to marry Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple), who used to work on Mulligan's farm. Immediately after marrying Mulligan, he starts throwing his weight around and gambling away her money, which is especially hard to watch considering she is an immensely competent farmer.

So we have a love quadrangle here--with Oak, Boldwood, and Troy as the men in Mulligan's life. I find it interesting that Hardy, as does the film, makes passion an evil. Oak and Boldwood both love her, but with Boldwood especially there is no desire. He tells her that he doesn't mind. His love for her is so complete and so unyielding that one can understand why she would shy away.

The film, like the book, is also funny, especially in the early going. Mulligan's performance is so damn good that she can make you want to laugh and cry at the same time. She has a way of sneaking quick smiles, such as when Boldwood, in one of his proposals, promises her a piano. She can't but smile. He says, "Do I amuse you?" and in a sense he does, because when Oak proposed he also promised her a piano. But she assures him no, "I already have a piano."

Bathsheba Everdene was one of the first feminist heroes, a woman who truly does not need a husband and says so on many occasions. The film, while not a manifesto, does show that even strong-willed independent women make mistakes in love. But the happy ending, which for Hardy was a rarity, gave me a nice golden glow as I walked out of the theater. As the feminist saying used to, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," but every once in a while a fish might like to ride a bicycle.

In addition to Mulligan, Schoennaerts and Sheen are very good. Schoennaerts we can expect big things of. As Troy, Sturridge is quite the melodramatic villain, but his dewy eyes are quite effective in scenes in which he both professes his love for Mulligan and his disdain. There's a scene in a chapel that is heart-wrenching, when he tells her what he really thinks of her.

This is sure to be one of my favorite films of the year.

My grade for Far From the Madding Crowd: A.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


The first shot of Manakamana is a ten-minute, continuous shot of a boy and presumably his grandfather riding a cable car. They do not speak; they hardly look at each other. They get off. I thought, okay, this is an interesting if a bit tedious opening to this film. But then, the film continues with a woman, dressed in a colorful sari, getting on the car and taking it back down. I realized--the entire film is going to be in that cable car.

The reptilian part of my brain told me to turn it off--life is to short. But I stuck with it, and gradually began to enjoy it. For one thing, people do start to talk on the car. The first words occur at the 25 minute mark (it's a two-hour film) when a wife says to her husband, "My ears are popping."

We can only piece together information. I knew from the Netflix envelope that it is in Nepal, and these travelers are going to a Hindu temple. It is a shrine to the goddess Manakamana, and pilgrims make wishes when they arrive. The cable car replaces an old trail that people had to walk before. But if I were the goddess, I'd be, wait a minute, making it easier to get here isn't what I had in mind.

Every ten minutes a new group gets on the car (actually, though it is edited to seem like the entire film is in real time, it is stitched together from several rides and is several different cars). I got to the point where I was actually intrigued to see who would be next, and it turned out to be a car full of goats. There was also a trio of young men, Nepalis, with long hair and rock t-shirts, taking selfies. Mostly they were older people, wearing traditional clothing. Two older women enjoy ice cream bars on the way down. A pair of men with instruments play a tune.

The film was directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, who are from the Sensory Ethnology Lab of Harvard University. It is not the kind of movie you go out to on a Friday night at the multiplex. Once attuned to what it is, the mind can adjust, but I wouldn't exactly call it "entertainment."

Friday, May 15, 2015

Bernie Sanders

There was a cartoon in The New Yorker recently that showed a couple in bed. The husband turns to the wife and says, "I had that same dream again, where Bernie Sanders is president and everything gets fixed."

Indeed, Bernie Sanders, the march-to-his-own-drummer Senator from Vermont is perhaps the most beloved politician by the far left, except maybe for Elizabeth Warren, and a fantasy panacea. Since 1998, he is the only self-identifying socialist in Congress, He is a strong advocate for dealing with climate change, economic inequality, and staying out of the mess in Iraq. Now he is running for President.

As a liberal Democrat, I look askance at the extremist Republicans who are running for president. Most of them seem nutty to me, but of course I am subjective (still, I think a few are certifiably insane). A few have gotten elected. But on the Democratic side, it isn't often that people as far left as Sanders throw their hat in the ring. If you think Barack Obama and Bill or Hillary Clinton are extreme liberals, you don't know Bernie Sanders. In fact, I would say that there really hasn't been a liberal president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt (LBJ loses major credibility over Vietnam).

I, too, dream of a Bernie Sanders presidency, but let's face it, he has a snowball's chance in hell. Right now he is only one of two Democratic candidates, but the other is Hillary Clinton, and aside from a catastrophic scandal or health issue, she will be the Democratic nominee. If something were to derail her, other candidates would scurry to run. Sanders will never be the DNC's choice for President. He would be deemed unelectable.

It's a sad fact that this is true. Why is someone as conservative as Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush can be elected, but anyone deemed too liberal is seen as a pariah? Of course, I think there has been a correction, as some Republicans are so far right, much further than Reagan, even, that there is a "too conservative" to be elected position. Being against same-sex marriage, or anti-abortion, is way behind the curve with voters born after Reagan rode off into the sunset.

Sanders has an interesting background. He got into politics in his 40s, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont (he had several unsuccessful runs for senate and governor in the 1970s). He is not a lawyer, and is described as having been a researcher, filmmaker, and carpenter.

He was elected to Congress as its only independent in 1990, and then into the Senate in 2006, making him the longest-serving independent congressman in U.S. history. Of course, he caucuses with the Democrats, and is running for President as a Democrat, which is very important. I'm certainly hoping that he does not then run as an independent in the fall, which would be very bad news for Hillary, as we all know that Green Party candidate Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election in 2000 and gave us the medieval Bush presidency.

Many people think Sanders running is a good, if futile, thing, as Hillary shouldn't be just served the nomination on a silver platter, and he can force her to address issues important to progressives. This is probably true, but I'll be that's not what Sanders is thinking--he thinks he can win. But he will attract the far left--readers of The Nation and Mother Jones and watchers of Rachel Maddow--and maybe they'll stick around and vote for Hillary.

Sanders is not a perfect progressive. I was dismayed to read that he has voted against gun legislation, including the Brady bill. Maybe you have to pander to all those gun-owners in Vermont. I would like to know more about this, because Sanders doesn't strike me as the type of politician who panders.

I should add, though I'm loathe to, that Sanders would be 74 years old next year, far older than the oldest presidential nominee--even older than Bob Dole. But that is not a disqualification, even though the Republicans are squawking about Hillary's age, when she is as old as Reagan was when he was first elected.

He does look very grandfatherly. He reminds me of Grandpa Simpson, who was famously on the front page of the newspaper with the headline, "Angry Old Man Yells at Cloud." Sanders, who doesn't have too much snow-white hair on the top of his head, is often caught with that hair in glorious disarray. He's my kind of guy--a politician who doesn't seem to own a comb.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

David Letterman

As David Letterman ends his remarkable 33-year-run on late night television, the encomiums are pouring in. I can't add to that, really. Yes, he changed the landscape of late night TV. Though he revered Johnny Carson, he took the template of the host-behind-the-desk-chatting-with-celebrity-on-his-right and remade it. With Letterman, the guests were superfluous, at least at the start of his career. He was like a guy told to paint a house who then painted it paisley.

What I can do is recall how I perceived him over the years. I'm about the typical age of a Letterman acolyte, I expect. I actually watched his morning show, which was as big a mistake as there has ever been. Not that Letterman's show was bad, on the contrary, it was genius. It was just--in the morning?

That was rectified in 1982 when Letterman was given the post-Carson slot. I've seen a rerun of that show, which featured Bill Murray as his first guest (Murray was also the first guest on his CBS show--I'm guessing he may be on his last show Mary 20th). It was raw and not yet formed, and interestingly Paul Shaffer, who doubled as bandleader and second banana for 33 years, didn't say a word on that show.

I was in college then, and Letterman was the hip guy to watch. He broke the boundaries of the talk show (well, really, he didn't--Steve Allen did a lot of this stuff in the '50s). The dropping objects from a three-story tower. The elevator races. The use of staff as comedy gold (most notably this has been stage manager Biff Henderson). Letterman is a master of "found humor," which entails using what is all around you. This includes his frequent use of neighbors of the show. When on NBC, he would sneak around 30 Rock, sometimes interrupting "Live at Five," which was a local New York news show. Once he took Harvey Pekar with him, and he really scared anchorwoman Sue Simmons.

At CBS, he did this with neighboring businesses, most notably Rupert Gee of Hello, Deli. Letterman also wanted to see if a guy in a bear suit could get into Flashdancer's, a strip club across the street. The answer was yes. He staged many athletic contents in the street--I remember when Regis Philbin fell off a motorcycle.

There have been many other humorous bits over the years, some dropped do to quaintness, I suppose. I fondly remember Small Town News, when Letterman would find some interesting item in a small-town newspaper and get them on the phone imagine, a bit done over the phone). Or Viewer Mail, when he would toss the card behind him and get a breaking glass sound effect. I don't think I've ever laughed so hard at Fun Facts, in which bizarre "facts" (none of them remotely true), would be read aloud.

Of course there was also Stupid Pet Tricks, The Guy Under the Stairs, Will It Float, and many, many others. But beyond the bits was the presence of Letterman himself. He was proud of his Midwestern roots, and his frequent appearances of his mother only solidified this. But he also couldn't help but show that he's probably a very difficult man to be with; a curmudgeon and sourpuss (Krusty the Clown is said to be modeled after him). In the early years especially, you could see he hardly could tolerate the celebrity interviews. Only after he became a big deal did he get big stars, and if the interview wasn't going well he'd turn on his guest. Madonna had a famously profane appearance that Letterman clearly didn't enjoy.

In his later years, Letterman suddenly found himself the eminence grise of the late-night talk show hosts. Jay Leno, far his inferior in every way, was never taken seriously as any kind of thinker, but after 9/11 Letterman suddenly had gravitas. He could inject himself into the political fray, such as when he excoriated John McCain for a no-show, or his verbal sparring with Sarah Palin. Though Letterman certainly has taken shots at Democrats, his liberal leanings can't be denied.

He goes out, if not on top of the ratings, on top of the estimation of anyone who matters. No one will ever sit behind a desk and simply exchange anecdotes with a guest anymore. Now you have to work it, whether it's attaching a camera to a monkey or hurling yourself against a wall in a suit of Velcro. David Letterman was a pioneer of television, even well into the television era.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Bird People

Here's the first thing I have to say about Bird People: don't watch it if you're sleepy. It's not a bad film, and at times quite interesting, but it's also the kind of movie that takes great delight in showing the quotidian aspects of life, such a man waiting for his luggage at an airport carousel, or a hotel chambermaid cleaning up a room.

Directed and co-written by Pascale Ferran, in both English and French, it attempts to unite two disparate characters: Gary Newman, an American businessman  (Josh Charles), and Audrey (Anais Demoustier), a housekeeper at the airport Hilton in Paris, where Charles is staying.

After a prologue that sees both characters arrive at the hotel--Demoustier is on a commuter train, and Ferran lets in on the thoughts of the passengers, while Charles flies in and takes a cab--the film then settles on Charles. He attends a meeting--he's in computers, most likely--then, back at his room, he has an epiphany. He decides to quit his job and his marriage, and stay in Europe. This arouses all sorts of feelings back in the States. His boss has a conniption, and he breaks up with his wife (Radha Mitchell) on Skype, the one scene in the film that crackles with energy. Though Charles is clearly making what appears to be an impulsive move, it's not impulsive to him, and frees him.

Then we switch to Demoustier, a mousy girl who doesn't seem to get out much, as her friend invites her to a party but doubts she will come. She is cleaning rooms when something happens that is such a an audacious surprise that I won't share it here, though it does clue one in on the title. This twist, as it were, allows Demoustier to get her taste of freedom.

The ending has the two meeting for the first time, and is rather sweet, but I'm thumbs sideways on this. It's a two-hour-plus movie and doesn't have to be. One thing about Hollywood--it dispenses with the scenes of people staring out windows, or the high number of cigarette lightings. Bird People, which attempts to be profound but isn't always, veers close to a self-parody.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria

I haven't liked all of Oliver Assayas' films, but I grant they are always interesting. Cloud of Sils Maria, his latest, is a fascinating if flawed study that has parallel stories of two women in both real-life and in art. It also has an unsolved mystery.

The focus is on Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche), a famous actress who was made famous by a play called Maloja Snake when she was eighteen. She is on her way to Zurich to accept a prize by the reclusive playwright who made her famous. But on the way, she finds out he died.

She is accompanied, it seems at almost all times, by her personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) who is both factotum and sounding board for everything Binoche is saying or thinking. The ceremony goes on as planned, but is now a wake of sorts.

The crux of the film is when a young director wants to revive Maloja Snake, which is the story of a young woman seducing an older woman and then abandoning her, but with Binoche as the older woman, not the younger women, whom she originated. Binoche is reluctant to do this--it's sort of like a one-time Juliet now being offered the part of Lady Capulet--especially when her co-star would be a young train wreck of a movie star, Chloe Grace Moretz.

Binoche ultimately accepts and she and Stewart hole up in the deceased playwright's home in Sils Maria, a Swiss village. We learn that "Maloja Snake" refers to a weather phenomenon, in which clouds slither through the mountains like a white, puffy snake. Binoche and Stewart read the lines from the play together, and we wonder how much the fictional relationship is like their own. It's not spoon-fed to us--there is no evidence of a love affair between the two--but there is something uneven in the relationship. In addition to being her employer, Binoche demands a lot from Stewart. She's certainly kind to her, but Stewart doesn't have much of a life of her own.

I'm kind of fascinated by who would choose to be a personal assistant, on call to another human being 24/7. Binoche and Stewart are moret than just boss and employee. It seems that Binoche goes no where without her, and talks to her more than an agent or manager. Stewart, deglamming herself with owlish glasses, gives an intriguing peformance. We know almost nothing about her; her background is a complete blank, but she represents the youthful target of movie marketing. When the pair go to see Moretz's latest film, a superhero blockbuster, Binoche laughs openly as Stewart says it has real meaning, which makes Stewart mad.

The film is very talky--it's about theater people, after all--but most of it is compelling. Moretz makes a fine Lindsay Lohan stand-in, and the two leads are excellent. But some of the writing is clunky. At one point the playwright's widow takes Binoche to the spot where the playwright was found dead, a meadow overlooking the valley. This is where the "snake" comes through, and the widow explains it. This is very bad exposition, because surely Binoche would have known this, having been in the play twenty years earlier. Can you imagine starring in a play and not knowing what the title signified?

As for the mystery, I won't spoil it here, but suffice it to say it is very reminiscent of L'Avventura, and makes one re-think the entire film. I had to go back and wonder whether one particular character was a figment of another's imagination. You will have your own ideas.

My grade for Clouds of Sils Maria: B+.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Bill Withers

Last, but certainly not least of my posts on this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, is Bill Withers. I must admit I didn't know much about Withers before listening to his greatest hits album this week. I knew him for his biggest hits, especially "Lean on Me," which is in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, and "Ain't No Sunshine," which was his first hit and Grammy-winner.

Withers quit recording in 1985, disgusted with the music industry, so it may be understandable that's not as well known as he should be. I found his voice powerful and soulful, and his songwriting genius. The album kicks off with the sublime "Lovely Day." Guys, steal this lyric for your wife/girlfriend's birthday/anniversary/Valentine's Day card:

"When I wake up in the morning, love
And the sunlight hurts my eyes
And something without warning, love
Bears heavy on my mind
Then I look at you
And the world's alright with me
Just one look at you
And I know it's gonna be
A lovely day"

Other great songs are "Grandma's Hands," an elegy to his grandmother that really hits home if the listener has a grandmother that they miss, and "Harlem," about the various nights in that special place. It's hot in summer, cold in winter, but on Saturday nights "everything's all right."

A for his big hits, I found myself turning up the volume on them. "Lean on Me" is a great spiritual song without being religious, and is one of the greatest musical statements on the brotherhood of man:

"Sometimes in our lives we all have pain
We all have sorrow
But if we are wise
We know that there's always tomorrow
Lean on me, when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need
Somebody to lean on"

Who can listen to that song without running the gamut of emotions, from when they felt bad to how a friend helped them out? It's a song for the ages.

On the other end of the spectrum is "Ain't No Sunshine," about a problem relationship:

"Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
It's not warm when she's away
Ain't no sunshine when she's gone
And she's always gone too long
Anytime she goes away"

The bitterness and despair in Withers' voice is palpable, and stabs at your heart.

The other big hit I knew is "Just the Two of Us," a jazzy love song that is accompanied by the great saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. It's the kind of song that could be put on a mixtape for a romantic evening.

When I first heard he was inducted, I didn't think Withers had that much of a catalog to merit it, but it turns out I'm just ignorant. He's an underrated star, and deserves induction without a doubt.

Saturday, May 09, 2015


Today hysteria means an exaggerated emotional response, but it's etymology is far more interesting. The word root is the same for uterus, and for thousands of years it was thought that almost any medical problem women faced was because something funky was going on with their uterus. The remedy for this was genital manipulation until orgasm. Ultimately, this led to the invention of the vibrator.

This is the subject of Tanya Wexler's film Hysteria, released in 2011. It is set in the 1880s, when doctors routinely treated women for everything from insomnia to restlessness. They were put on a table, feet in stirrups, their legs draped for modesty, while the doctor oiled his hand up and basically finger-banged them. This was, of course, for women of the upper classes, so they paid well for it.

In our story, Dr. Granville (Hugh Dancy) is tired of backwards thinking in medicine, and is fired from many a hospital where leeching is still done and germs are thought a fiction. He lands a job with Dr. Dalyrimple (Jonathan Pryce) who has a lucrative practice treating hysteria. He has two daughters: the demure and ladylike Felicity Jones, whom Dancy takes an instant shine to, and the firebrand feminist Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works with the poor at a settlement house, much to her father's horror.

Dancy, who has dashing good looks, is instantly popular with this patients, but he fingers so many he gets hands cramps and gets fired. But his inventor friend, Rupert Everett, has been working on an electric feather duster, and Dancy removes the feathers and sees the possibilities.

This is a good subject, but the tone of the film never resolves itself. It starts with a disclaimer, saying "Based on true events. Really," and from there on presents the story with a vulgar wink. Yet it tries to introduce the problems of the poor and, later, a woman is on trial and if she is found to have hysteria could be institutionalized and have a mandatory hysterectomy. Nothing funny about that.

Interesting, this subject was also treated in a Broadway play, In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play), which I didn't get a chance to see. Hysteria gives us some info that the vibrator became an instant sensation, for sale in places like the Sears catalog, but always advertised as a massager, presumably for tired muscles, when everyone really knew what is for. Amazingly, hysteria did not get removed from the medical books until 1952,

Friday, May 08, 2015

Dept. of Speculation

"My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn't even fold his own umbrella, Vera licked his stamps for him."

This is an early passage in Jenny Offill's novel about marriage, Dept. of Speculation, that is quite unlike any novel I've read before. The first half or so is a collection of discrete thoughts, noodling, really, or like blog entries. Such as: "There is a story about a prisoner at Alcatraz who spent his nights in solitary confinement dropping a button on the floor then trying to find it again in the dark. Each night, in this manner, he passed the hours until dawn. I do not have a button. In all other respects, my nights are the same."

The narrator is a writer and professor. She is ghost-writing a book by an "almost astronaut" who wants to write about the history of space exploration. She has a husband: "He is famously kind, my husband. Always sending money to those afflicted with obscure diseases or shoveling the walk of the crazy neighbor or helloing the fat girl at Rite Aid. He's from Ohio. This means he never forgets to thank the bus driver or pushes in front if front at the baggage claim."

This unnamed couple has a daughter who says cute things. This goes on for about 100 pages, very funny, but I was wondering where the conflict was. Then, boom! The style changes from first person to third, and "the wife" is now wondering if her husband is having an affair. Things turn very dark. "There is nowhere to cry in this city.But the wife has an idea one day. There is a cemetery half a mile from their apartment. Perhaps one could wander through it sobbing without unnerving anyone. Perhaps one could flap one's hands even."

The couple move to the country and try to save their marriage, but something is broken. "At night, they lie in bed holding hands. It is possible if she is stealthy enough that the wife can do this while secretly giving the husband the finger."

At the root of it, this would seem to be a book about the necessity of forgiveness, but also the near impossibility of it for something like this level of betrayal. I particularly liked this passage, which is a great answer to the excuse, many times given by a male, about temptation: "She has wanted to sleep with other people, of course. One or two in particular. But the truth is she has good impulse control. That is why she isn't dead. Also why she became a writer instead of a heroin addict. She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw, not a virtue."

Dept. of Speculation is a short, funny, and then searing book about the peculiar institution of marriage. I highly recommend it, except to those couples who are going through the same thing. Then it might just hit too close to the bone.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Goodbye to Language

I would have guessed Jean-Luc Godard would have been the last director to make a 3D film, but then again, he has always kept people guessing. Goodbye to Language, his 42nd film, is about as incomprehensible as any of his recent films, but I can't say it's dull. I just have no idea what happened.

In reading the Wikipedia summary, I realize I totally missed that there are two couples featured in the film, not just one. The two actresses look very similar, so I had no idea. Also, it's not always a good idea to watch his films with subtitles. I don't speak French, so I have no choice, As with Film Socialisme, his last film, there are subtitles when no is speaking, and when people are speaking French, sometimes no subtitles. I also wouldn't be surprised if the subtitles are not exactly what the actors are saying. Godard is an impish filmmaker.

So what do we have here? Well, lots of shots of a dog (Godard's own, named Roxy Mieville) and two couples with a mirrored relationship. There is also lots of nudity, particularly of the female variety, which makes it Godard's most sexual film, I think (at least in the cheesecake manner of speaking). There are many references to other writers and films, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Mary Shelley (toward the end of the film, the summer of 1816 is featured, with actors playing her, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron). However, I was oblivious to any connection to Frankenstein and what I was seeing on screen.

Though the film technically is a narrative, albeit one almost impossible to decipher, I saw it more as a film collage, and an aural one as well, as many classic composers are featured. We also get Wilde-an quotes like: "Infinity and zero, the greatest inventions. No, sex and death." Or, in a man's dying words, "Avoid shattered dreams." Godard also finds it interesting that television was invented the same year as Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany (that's not actually right--there was television before 1933).

Goodbye to Language created something of a brouhaha when the National Society of Film Critics named it their best picture of 2014. This caused some bloggers to go off on how snobbish this group was for naming a film that was not on anyone else's radar (it certainly did not play Peoria). I find this to be reverse snobbism--why question why anyone likes anything? When someone does that, it reveals to me an insecurity about the complainer's own convictions.

Godard, for all the frustrations his films can engender, has never stopped growing as a filmmaker. I prefer his films of the early '60s, but why should he be imprisoned to making more of those, when it is fifty years later? I may not understand Goodbye to Language, but I respect it.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Babadook

Something of a sensation after it was released in Australia, The Babadook, written and directed by Jennifer Kent, is another film that has tried to reshape the horror film. It mostly succeeds, but I found the ending quite derivative, and after all is said and done, it isn't that great.

The film stars Essie Davis as a harried single mother of a troubled six-year-old (Noah Wiseman). Her husband, his father, died in a car accident driving her to the hospital to give birth. She has never really come to terms with her grief. The boy, Sam, has nightmares about monsters, and even makes contraptions to battle them. One of them, a sort of crossbow that shoots darts, gets him in trouble at school, so his mother withdraws him.

One night she reads him a book, and it's one she doesn't recognize, called Mister Babadook. It's a pop-up book about a top-hatted creature, and warns not to "let him in." After that, strange things start happening. She rips the book and throws it away, but finds it on her front porch, the pages glued back together.

As with most horror films of this type, the evil entity, in this case Babadook, is a metaphor. I think we can safely assume it is a metaphor for grief, or even death itself. At times it takes the form of Davis' husband. We start the film thinking that Sam is crazy, but it's really his mother who's off the boil, and she's the one that carries the Babadook inside her.

There are the requisite scares contained within, and thankfully no half scares (no cats jumping out of a closet). As usual, it does not pay to be a dog in a horror film (they recognize bad guys inside good guys, you know). And we also are reminded to stay out of the basement.

The last act is full of knives and ropes (the kid has a good way with knots) and one character I was sure would be a goner survives. But that last act was also very familiar. There's only so many ways you can pit a battle between a mother, her child, and a Victorian-draped demon.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: The Age of Ultron continues the amazing roll of the Marvel Universe films, which have made more money than I can count. This one is written and directed by Joss Whedon, and it's an agreeable comic book film, if not the best of the series, and far below the original Avengers in quality.

It does have the advantage of not having to be any kind of origin film. The Avengers have their own building, in the East 40s in New York if I'm a judge of New York iconography (presumably any questions about where they got the money can be answered: Tony Stark). The six members: Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) are getting along just fine, although Stark, Iron Man's alter-ego, is still worried about all those aliens that Loki let onto Earth in the last movie. He wants to end the need for superheros by creating an artificial intelligence that will stand guard over such things.

But, as we learn in all A.I. films, right up to and including the recent Ex Machina, this never goes well. Stark has created Ultron (voiced with creepy glee by James Spader), but he interprets his mission: "Peace in our time" as getting rid of not only The Avengers but all humanity. He does have a point--no humans, no war. Everybody gets mad at Stark for playing God. By the way, hadn't Tony Stark ever heard of Neville Chamberlain?

So Ultron wreaks havoc, eventually lifting an Eastern European city into the sky, but before that the Avengers and their ancillary members circle the globe trying to stop him, with big set pieces at the appropriate intervals. There's nothing wrong with it, per se, but I couldn't help thinking I've seen it all before.

Into the mix are thrown two new characters: Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (who were married in Godzilla) are twins with strange powers--he can run really fast (he's the Marvel version of The Flash) and she can fuck with your head and has telekinesis. In the comics, they are called Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, also those names aren't used here. In the Marvel books, they are the children of Magneto, and are mutants, and in fact Quicksilver was seen in the last X-Men film, so for comic book geeks this is all blasphemy (and Hawkeye is a dissolute bachelor, not a family man). But I digress.

As the action continues, we get a few subplots, such as Johansson and Ruffalo forming a relationship (she's the only one that seem to get him to go from Hulk to human) and there's a lot of talk about magic stones that can destroy the universe (which will probably tie in to the crossover with Guardians of the Galaxy). But there just isn't a spark that the first one had. It's a film that exists only to make money, and that seems to be all that anyone in it is interested doing.

What will stick with me about this film is Spader's great dialogue and delivery, and the creation of the Vision, played by Paul Bettany, who will also be around for the next film. In the comics, he and Scarlet Witch had a thing going, but in the movies it's all topsy-turvy.

My grade for Avengers: The Age of Ultron: B.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Big Drift

The Big Drift, by Patrick Dearen, is an old-fashioned novel about cowboys, something that I find to be refreshingly right. Except for the issue of race, which runs straight through the narrative, this book could have been written any time in the last 100 years.

The time is 1884, the setting is Texas, between the Pecos and Devils Rivers. A black cowhand named Zeke, who is on the run after accidentally killing his former master, finds a white cowboy, Will Brite, tangled with his horse in some barbed wire. Will is grateful for the rescue, but not eager to make friends with a black man, especially considering a secret that Will harbors.

But after meeting the fellow ranch hands, Zeke is given a job, and when a blizzard hits its hard going, as the cows scatter, giving us the title. The descriptions of cold and snowy conditions may make you pull your sweater or comforter further around you.

Zeke and Will will forge a bond, especially when Will falls for a young woman who has an abusive father (I wonder if Dearen knows that he is given a character a name--Jessie Alba--that is almost the same name as a semi-famous actress?). Zeke knows something about her that Will doesn't though--she's a mulatto. This section is a bit melodramatic and veers into romance novel territory, but it's all in keeping with the old-fashionedness.

This is book is ideal for young Western fans, should there be any, as it's completely clean (which, if you've seen Deadwood, is historically unlikely) and very spiritual. Zeke sometimes has aspects of "the magic negro," or the black man who seems to know everything about the human soul. But it's not overdone.

Meanwhile, we get lines like this, which we may have heard before but so what: "'This country's always hell on horses and women,' said Hyler, 'Especially women.'" Or how about this one: "He was a cowhand, and to a cowhand, a promise was a sacred pact not to be broken." Yippi-ki-yo-ti-yo!

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Burn Your Fire for No Witness

I've always been partial to female singer-songwriters, such as Suzanne Vega and Shawn Colvin, and I can add another to the list. Angel Olsen has some great songwriting chops, a smoky voice, and biting lyrics. Her 2014 album, Burn Your Fire for No Witness, is excellent, if not depressing.

Olsen has a back-up band on many of the songs, but a few are straight voice and guitar, like you might hear in a coffeehouse. They are also the songs of a bad breakup, so if you need music to commiserate with, this is for you. She has written all the songs, and I wouldn't call any of them cheerful.

The record starts with a song called "Unfuck the World," and the first lines are:

"I quit my dreaming when I found you
I started dancing just to be around you
Here's to thinking that it all meant so much more
I kept my mouth shut and that opened up the door."

There are numerous uses of the word dream, or wishes. In my present state of mind, I interpret this as a person who has realized they were living a lie, and just woke up from it. As to what it really means, I have no idea, but of course with music it's all up for interpretation. A song called "Hi-Five" hearkens back to Hank Williams, opening with "I'm so lonesome I could cry," and another called "Stars" goes:

"I think you like to see me lose my mind
you treat me like a child, I'm angry, blind
I feel so much at once that I could scream
I wish I had the voice of everything."

I don't want to suggest that this record is a downer, especially if you're not in a depressed mood. The melodies are intricate and intriguing, and Olsen's voice is quite lovely. Vega and Colvin's songs are exactly laugh riots, either. Maybe I'm drawn to this kind of folk music for a reason.

Saturday, May 02, 2015

Black Narcissus

Wow. That's my first reaction after seeing Black Narcissus, a 1947 film from the great team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Set in a convent in the Himalayas, the film is best know today for the stunning Technicolor photography by Jack Cardiff (who won an Oscar for it), but for a new viewer like myself today, it's bracing for its vivid images of beauty and madness.

Deborah Kerr stars as Sister Clodagh, who is assigned to be the sister superior at a mountaintop palace in India, high in the mountains. The palace is given to them by an Indian general. It has long been known as "The House of Women," because it was used a seraglio by his father, and the walls are covered with racy paintings. The local land agent (David Farrar) doubts the nuns can last.

Kerr has four other sisters with her. One is a stolid nurse, another an older gardener (Flora Robson), another a schoolteacher, and the fifth the mentally and physically unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) who is an overall pain in the ass. They are taken by the beauty, and to begin with are very busy, as the general has paid the villagers to come to the school and dispensary.

Later, a baby will die, and the villagers will blame the nuns. Also at this time, Byron snaps, having fallen in love with Farrar. She thinks Kerr also loves him, and the ending is very shocking for its almost Grand Guignol horror.

Cardiff, as I mentioned, was the real star of this film. What's amazing is that it was shot entirely on a sound stage at Pinewood Studios; not a frame was shot in India. The scenes of Kerr ringing the bell, poised on the cliff overlooking what looks like a thousand-foot drop, are not very realistic, but compelling for their artistry. Cardiff based the look of the film on painters such as Vermeer and Caravaggio.

Without getting too much into spoilers, there is a scene in which Byron, having lost her marbles, puts on a red dress, ready to go to her supposed lover. Kerr tries to stop her, but Byron puts on crimson lipstick while Kerr watches helplessly. This scene, so simple in its telling, is charged with eroticism. Who would figure that a film about nuns would be so sexually charged? But then surely women (or men) who push aside passion are liable to become brought down by it.

There are few things that made me kind of chuckle. Farrar, while very good, is presented as six-foot slab of testosterone. He wears shorts that would today be right at home at a gay nightclub. Byron's scenes of madness are great, but push the envelope on being over the top. And as the hot-to-trot Kanchi, a teenage girl brought into the convent, Jean Simmons is miscast. Sabu, as the son of the general, is the only ethnic Indian in the cast.

But there's so much to admire here. The editing is sublime, particularly the use of quick close-ups of the nuns (Martin Scorsese, a great admirer of the film, would steal this), and the nun's habits, waving in the breeze, white as snow, are gripping sights. Truly, Black Narcissus was and remains a landmark film.