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Friday, July 31, 2015

The House of Yes

A few days I flashed back to the '90s writing about Ed Burns. Well, Parker Posey was also a mainstay of indie films that decade. There was a joke that once she was in every film that the Angelika, a Greenwich Village art house, was screening. I don't think that's true, but it might have been possible.

She had several indies in the '90s, including The House of Yes, directed by Mark Waters. Even at only 85 minutes, it was tedious to sit through. Based on a play, it doesn't open up the film much (the entire set is one house during a hurricane) and tries so hard to be quirky that it comes off as aggressively obnoxious.

Posey plays Jackie O, so called because of her obsession with Jackie Kennedy. Her twin brother, with whom she has an unnatural attachment (Josh Hamilton) is returning home with his fiancee (Tori Spelling). Posey is, to put it bluntly, insane, and her mother (Genvieve Bujold) is not particularly interested in treating her, simply letting her have her way. Their younger brother (Freddie Prinze Jr) is a simpleton who falls in love with Spelling.

Hamilton wants to be a normal person, but Posey has a hold on him. Meanwhile Spelling is like one of those characters in an Addams Family episode that gets more and more horrified the more she learns about them.

Posey really works hard in this film, but really got on my nerves. She's crazy and dangerous and rude and I think we are supposed to find her somewhat charming, but I didn't. I suppose Spelling is the audience's way into the film, but she's so bland that that becomes impossible.

Posey has continued to work in indies and TV, including becoming part of Christopher Guest's ensemble for his faux documentaries, but she only made one leap into the land of blockbusters--her role in Superman Returns. I suppose that film's lackluster response was enough to keep her doing smaller films.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows

What We Do in the Shadows is sort of This Is Spinal Tap for vampires, a pretty funny but stretched way too thin faux documentary about how vampires' lives can be really quotidian. I had a smile on my face for most of the movie, but didn't laugh out loud all that much.

The film was co-directed by Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, the latter one-half of the New Zealand comedy duo Flight of the Conchords. They also star as two of the four vampires who share a flat in Wellington, New Zealand. Waititi plays Viago, who sort of organizes things, while Clement is Vladislav, a much older vampire who has a rivalry with someone he calls "the Beast." The other two vampires are Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), who is brash and short-tempered, and Petyr (Ben Fransham), who is 8,000 years old and looks like Count Orlock.

The humor mined here is that vampires have to do the little chores in life just like we do. The opening image is an alarm clock going off, with Viago's hand coming out of his coffin to silence it. They have arguments about who is going to clean the bloody dishes, and when they go out on the town they have a problem going into clubs because they have to be invited in to enter.

The plot turns when Deacon's familiar, Jackie, brings them two victims, supposedly virgin (the girl is not a virgin, but Jackie says she pegged her for one). They feed on the two, but Petyr turns Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) into a vampire. He ends up moving in, but the other guys all hate him. They do like his human friend, Stu, though, and promise not to eat him.

This was based on a short film, and this feature is like a short film stretched to 85 minutes. It's very clever and I give them credit for making a vampire spoof that actually works. I thought about seeing this when it played in theaters but am glad I waited--it's worth a rental.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Mr. Holmes

I'll admit I'm a sucker for a movie like this. Mr. Holmes, a pastiche of the great detective in his dotage, grabbed me in the opening credits and didn't let go, even to the point where I felt a bit of a tear in my eye. This film not only honors the iconic character (there have been more films about Sherlock Holmes than any other human character--according to Guinness in 2012, it was at 254*) but it is also a meditation on aging and what, at the end of the day, is important about life.

Mr. Holmes was directed by Bill Condon and written by Jeffrey Hatcher, and they have both worked a minor miracle, as the film manages three timelines with precision and excellent pacing. The main timeline is the film's present--1947. Holmes is now 93, and living a quiet life of beekeeping on the Sussex coast. He is also, to his horror, losing his memory.

The second timeline is his recent trip to Japan to meet a man who has a plant that is said to ward off senility. Holmes visits the recently bombed Hiroshima to find it, but discovers the man had an ulterior motive for luring him to Japan.

The third timeline is just after the end of World War I, and is Holmes' last case. It involves a man wanting to know what his wife is up to, but Holmes in 1947 can't remember what happened. He knows he must have done something terrible, because afterward he resolved to retire.

These three threads intertwine as Holmes strikes up a friendship with his housekeeper's son (Milo Parker), who shows cleverness. The old man and the boy tend to the bees together as Parker listens to what Holmes can remember of his last case. Meanwhile, his housekeeper (Laura Linney), having had enough of him, wants to take a job at a hotel in Portsmouth.

Mr. Holmes adheres to what aficionados call "the Game," that is, thinking that Holmes was real person, and that Dr. Watson wrote up his cases (there isn't a mention of Arthur Conan Doyle anywhere in the film). Thus we get the great scene of Holmes attending a film based on his last case (his cinematic alter ego, presumably playing Basil Rathbone, is Nicholas Rowe, who played Holmes in Young Sherlock Holmes some thirty years ago). This whitewashing of the truth pushes Holmes to figure out just what happened in that case, and when he discovers the truth, he learns something about himself that is not pleasant.

Everything about this film is wonderful, starting with Ian McKellen's performance as Holmes. It's a breathtaking performance, full of pathos yet understanding how his mind works. He does "that thing," where he makes deductions about people based on their clothes, etc., but does not wear a deerstalker or smoke a pipe. "Those were embellishments by the illustrator," Holmes tells a disappointed fan. "I prefer a cigar."

This will surely be one of my favorite films of the year, and deserves accolades not only for the performances but for the music, costumes, and art direction. It also has some very important information about the differences between wasp and bee stings.

My grade for Mr. Holmes: A.

.*Dracula, being non-human, holds the overall record of 272.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sidewalks of New York

Ed Burns is an interesting case. He was an indie darling in the '90s with The Brothers McMullen, and then followed that up with the well-received She's the One. I remember telling someone I was going to see that, and she said, "Oh, the new Ed Burns movie." Now I'm afraid no one says that.

Burns is still making movies, I see on IMDB, but he is no longer relevant. His third film, No Looking Back, was released without fanfare and did little business. Even as an actor he hasn't done much, despite getting a plumb role in Saving Private Ryan. He's done a few films for hire since then, but he seems not be interested in pursuing that.

His fourth feature, Sidewalks of New York, was released in 2001 (delayed a bit by 9/11) and did do about 2 million in business. I took a look last night, and it's not a bad film, but not a very good one, either. I was intrigued by the structure, which is kind of sophisticated: six New Yorkers are connected in a kind of daisy chain, with each person somehow romantically involved with the person to the right or left of them. Let's see if I can simply this: Burns' character dates Rosario Dawson, who is the ex-wife of David Krumholtz, who is dating Brittany Murphy, who is sleeping with married man Stanley Tucci, who is married to Heather Graham, who is kind of interested in Burns.

This roundelay is well done, with some clever writing and, as seen above, a pretty good second-line cast. Here's the problem--you can't do a romantic dramedy like this without the specter of Woody Allen popping into your head. Burns, who was sort of tagged as the Irish Woody Allen, uses Allen's template on this, reminding one of Hannah and Her Sisters and especially Husbands and Wives, since Burns uses a handheld camera and faux-documentary style interviews. Allen does not have the patent on this type of film, but if you're going to do one you have some big shoes to fill, and Burns leaves lots of room at the toe.

Sidewalks of New York is occasionally funny, especially when dealing with Krumholtz, but nowhere near as funny as Allen. It has some heart-wringing moments, but not up to Allen's standards. And the interview portions are a complete waste of time, as the characters basically reinforce what they're doing in the movie. It's like, "here's what I'm about to do," and then we see them do it.

There's also a cliche that I particularly hate in romantic comedies--each of the six characters has the confidante that gives them advice. They range from Dennis Farina, as Burns' co-worker, a horrible character that advises him to sleep with as many women as possible (and put cologne on his balls), to a rock and roll type who tells Krumholtz he has to get back in the game, too. These friend characters have no particular depth, they are just plot devices, sounding boards for the main characters. It's lazy writing.

I will give Burns credit for not sugar-coating it, though. Tucci, in particular, plays a noxious character with no apologies, rationalizing his philandering while we feel inordinately bad for Graham. Everything appears to end okay for everyone but Tucci, but there are no guarantees, and this is not happily ever after.

As the title suggests, New York plays a big part in the film. All five boroughs are represented by the characters' origins, and there's a nice scene between Burns and Graham when he tells her that the bridge and tunnel people (he's from Queens) built the city. She retorts that she can trace her ancestry back to the original Dutch settlers, so who's the real New Yorker?

I'm sorry that Burns' films haven't gotten more exposure. To my astonishment, he's directed eight more films since Sidewalks of New York, but I'm not sure any of them got any kind of release. Too bad.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Where the Sidewalk Ends is a gritty noir from 1950, directed by Otto Preminger and written by Ben Hecht. It takes a differing point of view--instead of a private eye, crook, or some other vantage point, our antihero is a cop. Now, there are lots of so-called noirs with cops as heroes, but in my mind those are not really noirs, because the protagonist of a noir should be in moral doubt. Here that definition is fulfilled, because the cop is also a murderer.

He's Mark Dixon (Dana Andrews), a detective who uses his fists a little too often. After getting a warning from his chief to lay off, he is trying to solve a murder that took place at a floating crap game. The suspect (Craig Stevens) slugs Andrews, who hits him back. Unfortunately, it's a punch that kills.

Andrews disposes of the body in the river and wants to frame it on an old nemesis of his, Gary Merrill, the guy running the gambling parlor. But the person who gets arrested is a harmless old taxi driver. To make things further complicated for Andrews, he's sweet on the old guy's daughter, Gene Tierney, who happened to be married to the guy Andrews killed. He doesn't want her father to go to jail, but he also doesn't want to confess to the crime.

Where the Sidewalk Ends is interesting because of this great set-up. Andrews really plays a very conflicted guy. His father was a crook, so he kind of has it in for all crooks, thus is quick with his dukes. Also, his father was the guy who set up Merrill in business in the first place.

But there's something missing from the film and I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it's that Tierney plays the "good girl," unlike the femme fatale she plays in Laura, involving the same talent. The relationship between the two of them didn't ring true. Oh, it's easy to see why Andrews would like her--she's beautiful and seemingly without a flaw. But her attraction to him seems too easy. A guy should have to work a lot harder to get a girl like that.

Still, this is a true noir and is shot like one, with some location shooting in New York City and a great opening credit with the leads and the name of the film written out in chalk on the sidewalk.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Tommy James and the Shondells

This week's trip down memory lane is courtesy of Tommy James and the Shondells, who had a handful of hits in the late '60s that have stood the test of time--about a half-dozen are instantly recognizable to almost anyone, even if it is because they were covered by other artists.

Their history is interesting. James (real name Thomas Jackson) had a band in Michigan and covered the song "Hanky Panky," which went nowhere. The group broke up and went their separate ways. But a Pittsburgh DJ uncovered the record, started playing it, and it became a hit. James learned about this only later, and since the original Shondells were long gone, he went to Pennsylvania, approached another group, asked them if they wanted to be the Shondells, and they said yes.

The Shondells' sound was a bit garage rock but a lot of bubblegum. They're song "I Think We're Alone Now" and "Mony Mony" are the best examples. James took the band in a different direction, flavoring the bubblegum with acid, as they went psychedlic with songs like "Crimson and Clover" and "Crystal Blue Persuasion."

The band broke up and James went solo and a couple of hits, including "Dragging the Line," in 1971, which I very much remember hearing on the radio. Of all the songs on their greatest hit album, I think this is the most interesting, with an insistent bass line and a more mature vocal from James (his vocal on "Crimson and Clover" sounds more feminine than Joan Jett's on the remake).

Tommy James and the Shondells are a kind of footnote to '60s rock (they turned down a chance to play at Woodstock) but their legacy is strong. Not only was their Jett's cover, but Billy Idol had a big hit with "Mony Mony." James still tours at nostaglia shows.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Cosmopolis

David Cronenberg tackles Don DeLillo in Cosmopolis, an urban nightmare that one day may be taught in a class that studies the films that were made about income inequality.

I have not read DeLillo's novel, and as far as I know not many of his books have been made into movies. But Cronenberg took a book that takes place largely in the back of a limo about about one of the one percent who is totally out of touch with humanity and makes a noble effort. I think it's failure, but a noble one.

Robert Pattinson stars as Edward Packer, a 28-year-old billionaire who has made his money speculating on currency. He leaves his home and climbs into his limo, wondering where it's parked at night. He tells his security man (Kevin Durand) that he wants to get a haircut at a specific barbershop, even though Durand tells him the city is gridlocked because of a presidential visit. There are also protests by Occupy types who wield dead rats (a line from a poem wondering about rats as currency is the epigram of the film, and a discussion topic).

As the limo inches its way across town, Pattinson meets several people, including his new wife (Sarah Gadon), who is just as rich but a poet at heart. Several of his employees pop into the limo, including his tech guy (Jay Baruchel), his art consultant, with whom he's having an affair (Juliette Binoche), and his "theory consultant," (Samantha Morton). There is a lot of very arch dialogue, which Cronenberg admits he just transcribed from the novel. This may look very good on the page, but on screen it had a distinct lack of authenticity and was frequently pretentious.

From what I gathered, the rise of the yuan pretty much wipes out Pattinson, so by the time Durand tells him there's an assassin on his trail, Pattinson pretty much doesn't care. The last act of the film takes place in the assassin's apartment, and has an ambiguous ending, but I had pretty much lost interest by this time.

Pattinson, like his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, has admirably tried to shed matinee idol stardom, but he just doesn't pull it off here. He's a bland presence. For someone to be a billionaire by 28 one would have to pretty fucking amazing, but Pattinson is just an empty suit.

Cronenberg has made a lot of interesting films, and I think this is worth seeing for anyone who has an interest in him or in films about income equality and the cluelessness of the one percent. But it just didn't hit me on a gut level.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Vacation

I think comedy is most subjective of film genres--some people find a certain thing uproariously funny, and an equally intelligent person may not, and there's just no adjudicating the issue. Last night I attended a packed advance screening of the reboot of the Vacation series, and whether it was because I was in the mood for a laugh or the festive audience, I was tickled by just about all of it.

I hate reboots, but this one made sense. National Lampoon's Vacation has, over thirty years, come to be an iconic film for a generation, so after it was sequeled to death, why not bring it back with Griswold fils, played by Ed Helms, to take over for Griswold pere (Chevy Chase) as the eternal optimistic family man looking for the perfect vacation? Helms was an inspired choice (Anthony Michael Hall, who played Rusty in the first film, may disagree), as his best attribute is playing naive optimism, whether it be in Cedar Rapids or The Hangover films, and he's just perfect here.

Christina Applegate, who is now the go-to straight woman for comedies like this, is Helms' wife Debbie. They have two sons--the elder is a sensitive nerd, while the younger is a foul-mouthed cretin, who bullies his older brother. I must admit that little kids saying dirty words is still funny, as is his scrawling "I have a vagina" on his brother's guitar.

Helms is a pilot for rinky-dink regional airline. The family has vacationed for the same ten years in a cabin in Michigan, but Helms overhears that nobody likes going there. He is inspired to recreate the trip his father took thirty years earlier to Wally World, which did not end well (the original story in The National Lampoon was "Vacation '58," a great story that ended with Clark Griswold shooting Walt Disney in the leg). Helms and crew pack into a rental Albanian van, complete with a key fob with mysterious symbols, one of them a swastika.

We then launch into a road movie which, while familiar, offers genuine laughs. A mysterious trucker follows them after the young son insults him on a CB radio. They visit Applegate's alma mater, where Helms finds out she was called "Do Anything Debbie" in school. They visit Audrey (Leslie Mann), Helms' sister, who is now married to a studly weather man (Chris Hemsworth). They make a side trip to visit the folks (Chase and Beverly D'Angelo, only one of whom has aged well). Then they finally get to Wally World, where a battle erupts with a rival pilot over the last spot on the brand-new roller coaster.

This Vacation seems much more raunchy than the first one, though looking over the rating for the first one I see that there was some brief nudity and f-bombs. This one, keeping up with the times, I guess, has a lot more vomit jokes and spends a long time in a scene with Hemsworth showing off his package, a scene that was milked (sorry) for far too long.

There are many references to the first film. The beautiful lady in the car that catches Helms attention has a twist--instead it's the eldest son who follows a beautiful girl across the seedy motel rooms of America. Helms and Applegate duck out to have sex on the Four Corners monument, one of the few gags that misfires, with an argument breaking out between the state cops of each of the four states (I believe that monument is on Indian land, so reservation police would be involved). And there's a long scene that has the family bathing in a spring full of raw sewage, unbeknownst to them but know to us. When Helms gargles with the water the audience let out a long, collective "ewwww!"

While raunchy, though, the film never lets down its sweet nature. Beginning with a montage of vintage family vacation photos, seeming garnered from the Facebook page "Awkward Family Photos," set to Lindsey Buckingham's "Holiday Road" theme song, Vacation is an exercise in nostalgia, that is sure to bemuse those who remember the first film and induce giggles in those who don't.

My rating for Vacation: B.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Waking Life

You have to give Richard Linklater his due--he doesn't play it safe when making films. He broke through last year with Boyhood, which was a 12-year-in-the-making film, but he's also experimented with animation, such as with A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life, made in 2001. Waking Life uses Rotoscope to animate what is essentially an existential exercise that examines the difference between dreams and reality.

The film opens with two children playing that paper-flower game, and a young boy is told "Dream is destiny." We then follow a young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, as he travels around, listening to various philosopher types talk about philosophical type things. Gradually he, as well as the audience, realize that he is in a dream, and eventually he becomes considered that he can't get out of it.

A lot of Waking Life is the kind of stuff you talk about in a dorm room in the wee hours of the morning, such as whether one can manipulate one's dreams (lucid dreaming) or why do dreams seem like reality. At one point Wiggins, realizing he is in a dream, asks a woman he is talking to, "What is it like being a character in a dream?" There a lot of pronouncements that could be accompanied by the signal for "blowing my mind."

There's a lot to digest here. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy show up, perhaps playing their "Before" characters, talking about collective consciousness and whether we can be reincarnated. Delpy notes that since the population has doubled in the last forty years, only half of us could have past lives. There is also a short and totally unconnected segment with a prisoner audibly reciting what he is going to do with those responsible for putting him there, starting with cutting off their eyelids. Another man drives the streets shouting his beliefs on a bullhorn, which suggests there is a thin line between serious philosophy and the tinfoil-hat brigade.

At first I found a lot of Waking Life pretentious, with the animation, which makes everything look like an acid trip, hiding its tedium. But when I got the notion that Wiggins was stuck in a dream, it became interesting. Like Inception, which would come many years later, there are indications you are in a dream--if you can't read your clock radio, or if flipping the light switch does nothing.

I ended up liking the film because I've always been fascinated by dreams and why we even have them. Is there something evolutionary about them? One person suggests that knowing the difference between dreams and reality is a necessity, if only to distinguish actual threats from predators. But today people are fairly safe from predators. What function do dreams, and the ability to separate them from reality, hold for us now? Could we simply exist in a dream state? Sometimes I wish I could.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Southpaw

It's interesting that though boxing is far less popular in the U.S. than it was thirty or forty years ago, movies about boxing keep getting made. Some of them, like Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter, are good and have something fresh to say. Others, like Southpaw, are just a collection of cliches.

The writer is Kurt Sutter, and he apparently has seen every boxing movie ever made, because there are snippets of them here. We get some of Rocky, some of The Fighter, some of Million Dollar Baby, some of Raging Bull. But I'll be damned if I didn't get caught up in the predictable but exciting final bout.

The story is Billy Hope's, played by a buff and inarticulate Jake Gyllenhaal. He's the light-heavyweight champ, who came out of Hell's Kitchen and now lives in a palatial mansion. He's married to Rachel McAdams, who also came up through the system, and they have an adorable daughter (Oona Laurence).

Billy retains his title by knocking out the latest challenger, but a few days later at a charity event a tragedy occurs (this is given away in the trailer, but I won't do that here). He loses the title in his next fight, and things spiral out of control, and he loses just about everything. To seek redemption, he finds a trainer (Forest Whitaker) to help regain his self-respect and just possibly get his title back.

I suppose boxing is appealing to film directors because it is a boiled down conflict--mano a mano. Unlike other sports movies, it is simple to film, since there are two participants and a boxing ring has a timeless aspect to it (team sports also require lots of extras). This film also has another movie staple--the old run-down boxing gym, which is also timeless. In fact, except for the late model cars and some cell phones, Sutter could have set this script anytime in the last seventy years.

The cliches are endless, from the scenes of a man bottoming out (carrying around a loaded gun, crashing his car into a tree, punching a mirror, etc.) to the old favorite, the training montage. Whitaker, who is very good if a bit mumble-mouthed, is playing a stock character, the wise old boxing trainer. I thought about Burgess Meredith from Rocky and Morgan Freeman from Million Dollar Baby. I think if I'm ever at the end of my rope I won't go to a psychiatrist, I'll find a boxing trainer. We also get the evil promoter (played very nicely by 50 Cent). There is not one thing about Southpaw that is original. Even the name Billy Hope recalls the film The Great White Hope, and is a bit dangerous--the word "hope" related to boxing has nasty racial connotations.

Yet, I don't want to dismiss this film out of hand. The final match, in which Billy gets his title shot back, is very well done. The director, Antoine Fuqua, employs a lot of POV shots, in which we the audience get punched, and that works. I won't give away the end, but knew as I was watching this fight that the winner would determine what kind of film this was.

As stated, Whitaker is very good, and I think steals the show from Gyllenhaal, who went through some extraordinary physical changes. He's a brute, and though he's loving to his wife and daughter, can hardly put a sentence together. This is an authentic performance, and it's hard to believe this is the same guy as the verbally slick character in Nightcrawler.

My grade for Southpaw: C.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Salt of the Earth

Two of last year's nominees for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature were about photographers. One was about Vivian Maier, an amateur who was only discovered after she was dead. The Salt of the Earth, a film co-directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Selgado, is about a photographer very much alive. Sebastiao Selgado is the subject, and he is an example of the photographer not merely as observer, but as empath.

Wenders, who narrates, bought one of Selgado's prints of gold miners in Brazil and sought to find out more about him. We learn that Selgado, who is Brazilian, grew up in an idyllic natural setting on his father's cattle farm, and then studied economics. He married, and tried out his wife's camera. There seems to have been no turning back.

Selgado's projects are massive. Each one takes years to complete. He started with "Other Americas," in which he criss-crossed South America and Mexico. He did a project on "Workers," which took him around the globe. He went to Africa to cover the drought and famine in Ethiopia. Most of us have seen pictures of the starving and the emaciated dead bodies, but Selgado's photos really got to me. My instinct was to turn the movie off, but I kept looking. Selgado, who participates fully, talked about how often he had to put the camera down and cry.

He also photographed the genocide in Rwanda and reached a breaking point, thinking that the human species was lost. To recover, he switched from a social photographer to a landscape and wildlife photographer for a project called "Genesis," in which he took photos of the land that hadn't been spoiled by humans, such as the Galapagos or above the Arctic Circle. He returned to his father's farm, which had been decimated into a wasteland, and with his wife started to replant trees to make it back into the rain forest it once had been. It is now a National Park.

The Salt of the Earth has a double pronged effect--the photographs are worthy of acclaim, and Selgado is an interesting and likable subject. By the end you might be ready to sign up with him on his next trip.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Museum Hours

Museum Hours may be the best movie I've ever seen about art. Interestingly, it's not a biopic of an artist, like Frida, or Pollock, or Mr. Turner. Instead, as the title suggests, it's focal point in a museum, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

This is a narrative film, sort of. The plot, such as it is, has a Canadian woman visiting Vienna to be by the bedside of her cousin and closest relative, who is in a coma. She visits the museum and meets a guard, who takes a friendly interest in her (there is no romance--I believe he is gay). He shows her other parts of the city and they have chats. There is really no conflict, though--I guess it's if the cousin will die or not.

Instead, the film frequently just shows us what's in the museum, and I've never seen a movie that details what it's like to observe art. I loved a scene early in the film when Johann, the guard (Bobby Sommer) visits the Bruegel room (this is the largest collection of Bruegel in the world) and talks about how he notices new details in the paintings almost every day. Then we switch to him outside, waiting for the bus, and we see small items, as if life itself were a painting. This is repeated late in the film, when Johann sees images, such as an old woman struggling up a hill on path, or a storefront, and sees them as works of art.

The film keeps coming back to the artwork, though. Written and directed by Jem Cohen, this couldn't have been made without the museum's cooperation (Pollock, which did not have the approval of his estate, showed no paintings of his, as a contrast). For about ten or fifteen minutes we and Johann eavesdrop on a tour guide showing guests some Bruegels, talking about his life and pointing out details his work, as it was unusual then for an artist to depict peasant life. It's fascinating. Later in the film the the two take a tour of an underground lake, and wee see that nature is its own kind of art.

Museum Hours is not for everybody--it's very slow moving, almost peaceful. It's the kind of thing you might want to put on to relax to, which is not something I would ordinary say about a film. But I enjoyed it very much.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Jurassic World

"People. They never learn." So says a character in Jurassic World, the latest cynically-made blockbuster that's now north of $600 million in earnings, domestic. It proves a point that Hollywood has taken to heart--the masses love familiarity.

I had planned on skipping this, but a family I'm friends with wanted to go and I tagged along, figuring what the hell. It was pretty much exactly as I thought it would be. There were some chills, but it was awfully dumb, illogical, with bad science and deviated little from the template of the first film, Jurassic Park, which it referenced like a name-dropping friend.

Jurassic World is not a reboot, it's simply the fourth in the series. The first park, which ended in tragedy based on hubris, is now reopened and doing great business. But, as manager Bryce Dallas Howard points out, you need a something new to every so often to keep the people interested. She could have been talking about Hollywood.

So, in accordance with the owner's (Irrfan Kahn) wishes, a super-dinosaur has been genetically cooked up. It is called Indominus Rex, and makes T-Rex looks like a puppy in comparison. It is about to be unveiled when Kahn calls on an employee (Chris Pratt), who is the resident velociraptor trainer. He's checking out the safety of the Indominus's paddock when the thing breaks loose. Uh oh!

Here's where movie logic takes an interesting turn away from real-life. Instead of immediately evacuating the park and blowing the wayward reptile to smithereens with a missile, profits are always the bottom line. Wrongful death suits don't seem to occur to these people. Also, the park is on an island with no easy way to evacuate 20,000 people anyway, which seems like a fly in the ointment. I hate corporations as much as anyone, but this exceeds their day-to-day villainy, I think.

They also want to catch the thing alive, but outwits at them at every turn. I do admit I love to see people being eaten by dinosaurs. The scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park in which Richard Schiff is torn apart by two T-Rex's like a wishbone has stayed with me forever. There's nothing quite as good as that here, perhaps except for the woman who is snatched by a pterodactyl, which is then eaten by a mososaur.

Jurassic World also has two other targets--science and the military. Hubris in science has been a topic in literature in film since Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but instead of megalomania--playing God--today's scientific arrogance is about profits. They built this dinosaur to meet shareholder demand, and, I guess, because they could.

Another subplot involves Vincent D'Onofrio as the head of a private security firm that wants to weaponize dinosaurs. He sees an army of velociraptors mowing down the enemy. But, as the saying goes, who will watch the watchmen?

In a blatant rip-off of the first film, two relatives of an employee, in this case nephews of Howard, are our eyes in the park, as they, predictably, ignore orders to come back and end up almost being eaten by several dinosaurs. I should add that Jurassic World has an anti-feminist streak--Howard is set up as some sort of monster because she doesn't want kids and has trouble remembering her nephew's names and ages. So we get the less than subtle message that a woman is not complete without exercising her nurturing instinct. You've come a long way, baby. I will give Howard and her stuntwoman an award for best running in high heels.

The best thing I can say about Jurassic World, other than Chris Pratt's amiable star power (he's been on quite a roll) is that the special effects have become so great that I find myself thinking of these creatures as real. It's uncanny, really. It's a shame that the writing can't keep up (there is, believe it or not, a shot of a dinosaur in a rearview mirror. Been there, done that).

My grade for Jurassic World: C-.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Hunter (1980)

Steve McQueen's last movie was The Hunter, released in 1980, the same year he died. It's one of those gritty crime movies that were plentiful in the '70s, with McQueen giving a terrific, quasi-comic performance as a bounty hunter.

McQueen plays Ralph "Papa" Thorson, a real person who brought in some 5,000 fugitives over his career. Papa doesn't like modern society--he drives a '51 Chevy convertible with audibly grinding gears and collects antique toys. He lives in a house where there seems to a perpetual poker game going, and also lives with his girlfriend, a very patient schoolteacher (Kathryn Harrold).

The episodic film shows Papa bringing in various bad guys while a longer story arc has him being stalked by a psycho he once captured (Tracey Walter). That storyline is the least interesting, and I'd almost forgotten about at the movie's end.

The Hunter's attributes, besides McQueen's performance, is some spectacular chase scenes and stunts. One is set in a cornfield, where a couple of dynamite-happy brothers steal McQueen's rental car (a Trans Am) and McQueen has to chase them in a combine. Some of the footage is shot aerially, with the vehicles cutting lines through the corn. I guess they had to get that right in one take.

The best sequence, though, is a long chase that starts on foot over rooftops, goes on to a subway train, and ends up in a parking garage. It's tense and really well done, although the subway part (shot on Chicago's L train) owes a little bit to The French Connection.

This is a fine last film for McQueen. He kind of sends up his past, as this character is not a good driver (he is shown frequently screwing up while parallel parking) and the scenes involving his becoming a dad, while sentimental, are engaging.

The movie was well directed by Buzz Kulick. This would be his last feature as a director. He made many TV films and shows, including Brian's Song, which was news to me.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Hell Is for Heroes

It turns out that in 1962 Steve McQueen made two World War II movies in which he was extremely unlikable, and blurred the line between hero and psychopath. In Hell Is for Heroes, directed by Don Siegel (who would make many movies with Clint Eastwood) McQueen is in the Army instead of the Air Force.

He plays a guy called Reese who once was a master sergeant busted down to private and sent to a platoon to be commanded by a sergeant he used to serve with, played by Fess Parker. The platoon thinks they're about to get sent home, but instead get sent back into combat. Six men, including McQueen, have to hold the center of the line. If the Germans knew how few they were, they would be overrun in minutes.

So they do everything they can to make it sound like they are a larger troop. Other members include James Coburn, Harry Guardino as a tough sergeant, and Bobby Darin as the kind of soldier who is also trying to hustle.

Incredibly, this is the film debut of Bob Newhart, and they have him doing Bob Newhart shtick, including getting him on a phone. It's very funny, and though oddly inserted makes for some good comedic relief.

McQueen's character is a guy who's good at soldiering but has very bad social skills. But of course he will be the hero--was there any doubt?

Hell Is for Heroes is a good old-fashioned war picture, one without any ambiguity or political arguments. War is hell.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Blue Flower

I'm reading a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, the British writer, and I hadn't read any of her novels. I thought it would be a good idea to sample one, so I picked The Blue Flower, her last book, written in 1995. I was somewhat captivated, but I found it a little wanting in the excitement area.

It is a novelization of the early life of Friedrich van Hardenberg, would become the German philosopher and romantic poet known as Novalis. Now, German philosophy and poetry is not something I'm well acquainted with--if a category on Jeopardy! came up with that title, I'd steer clear of it. But the book has some cameos by people I have heard of, namely Goethe and Schlegel.

The thing is, all of this takes place before Fritz, as he is known to family and friends, becomes a writer. The action in the book covers his life while he studies in various schools, in preparation to take a job where his father works, at the bureau of salt mines. When he is visiting friends he falls in love with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie, and is determined to marry her, no matter what anyone thinks.

I guess in the 1790s a topic like that is much more romantic than it would be today, when it would be criminal. Sophie is a great beauty to Fritz, but everyone else tells her she's nothing special, especially his brother Erasmus. Fritz tells him, "'You think I have been taken in by a beautiful face' 'No, I don't,' Erasmus protested. 'You are taken in, yes, but not by a beautiful face. Fritz, she is not beautiful, she is not even pretty. I say again, this Sophie is empty-headed, moreover at twelve years old she has a double chin.'"

The Blue Flower's title is a metaphor. According to the introduction by Candia McWilliam: "The blue flower, signifying that elusive thing which can connect the individual self to an understanding of greater external existence, finds its equivalent in the novel which itself is a concrete rendering of the abstraction it contemplates. The Blue Flower constitutes for its reader a blue flower."

Though the book is not exactly a page-turner, I found various instances that I enjoyed, mostly with little epigrams, like "'A word of advice. If, as a young man, a student, you are tormented by a desire for women, it is best to go out into the fresh air as much as possible.'" Or, "'The civilized world could not exist without its multitude of copying clerks, and they in turn could not exist if civilisation did not involve so many pieces of paper.'"

The Blue Flower is a carefully crafted, delicate book, as if made of crepe paper. I like my prose to have a meatier quality, but I didn't dislike the book, I just wasn't much interested in what was going on. So far I find the biography of Fitzgerald much more interesting.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Tune In

A word of advice on anyone contemplating reading Tune In, Mark Lewisohn's first of three volumes on the history of the Beatles. Your enjoyment will directly correlate with how much of a fan you are of the Beatles. If you are saying, "Who are the Beatles?" or if you hate them, stay away. If you are a casual fan, it's worth a skim. Only if you are a devoted fan of the greatest rock and roll band of all time is this book worth your considerable time. Let's put it this way--it's 900 pages, and only takes us to the end of 1962. Ringo doesn't join the band until page 700 or so.

Once completed, this will surely be the definitive record of the four boys from Liverpool: "It can be said without fear of hyperbole; this is what the Beatles were and are, and fifty-plus years after they leapt into view--fifty--there's little hint it's going to change. So many would-be successes have come and gone, there's now an acceptance that no one can be bigger or better. John Winston Lennon, James Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard Starkey hold on strong, universally acknowledged as a cultural force, still somehow current and wove into the fabric of modern lives."

Lewisohn starts the book as a four-part harmony biography, tracing the lineage of each family of the Fab Four. John, who lived mostly with his Aunt Mimi, hardly knew his father, and lost his mother in his teens; Paul McCartney, who grew up mostly happy, but also lost his mother; George, from a working class family, who became crazy about guitars; and Ritchy, who had a very sickly childhood, losing many years of school because of illness, but became a rather cocky young drummer. Slowly they come together. John forms a band, The Quarry Men, and one day meets Paul at a church fair. He is so impressed by Paul's showmanship that he invites him to join. They are looking for a lead guitarist and Paul knows George. They change their name to the Silver Beatles and then the Beatles, but take forever to find a drummer.

During this section Lewisohn captures what it was like for these four music crazy boys. Mostly it's about how they eagerly listen to American records, because British music was nothing to get excited about (their was a brief skiffle craze but they were never really into that--they liked rock and roll). I loved the description of the first time John heard a Little Richard record--he was speechless, which was not a normal thing with John.

The Beatles took American music and reinvented it. They scoured the record shops and listened to B-sides, incorporating more obscure songs into their act. They did Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles (the big part of their set was a ten-minute long version of "What'd I Say") and a lot of songs by American girl-groups, often without changing the gender of the lyrics.

All the while they headed toward stardom. If one didn't know the outcome, one would think the book was about a failed band. So many little turns of luck were required for them to make it that it's a cliffhanger. First, they were fancied by Brian Epstein, a record-store manager who had never managed musicians before. Epstein was a posh fellow compared to the rough boys, who wore leather get-ups and cowboy hats. Then it took forever to get a recording contract. Parlophone, where they landed, was the last outpost, and George Martin liked them but wasn't all together behind them. They finally made "Love Me Do" as their first single, which Martin didn't really like. It was only when it cracked NME's (The New Music Express) top 30 did things start to happen.

One stroke of luck was that Ritchy Starkey, who took the name Ringo Starr, didn't emigrate to America as planned. He was all set to move to Houston when he realized there was too much paperwork involved. The story of the Beatles' drummer is a major one throughout the book. I can't remember all the guys who played drums for them, but they eventually landed on Pete Best, the son of a woman who owned a club where they played. He was good looking but sullen, and did not mix well personality-wise with the other three (their comedy on stage was a large part of their appeal). He also wasn't a very good drummer. The others wanted to get rid of him for a long time, but couldn't act, either out of loyalty or cowardice or both. But when George Martin said he was no good and wouldn't allow him to play (he'd use a session drummer next time) the other three Beatles got Epstein to fire him. Starr, who had played for years with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, was contacted and immediately said yes. It's often said that Pete Best is the unluckiest man in show business, but Lewisohn spells out that whatever the other Beatles felt about him, he was not going to be a Beatle if George Martin had anything to say about it.

There is so much in this book it's hard to summarize it all. Lewisohn details their trips to Hamburg, and how on the first trip they slept four to a window-less room in the back of a porn theater. Paul and Pete were banned from the country for an arson incident. George, being underage at the time, was there illegally. There is also a lot about their tight relationship with fans. The first Beatles fans were mostly girls, and some of them became quite friendly with the group (and not in a sexual way). Two were even approached to manage them, before Epstein came along. But don't worry, the Beatles had plenty of sex. George lost his virginity in Hamburg, while the other Beatles listened.

We also learn all about Stuart Sutcliffe, who for a time was the Beatles' bass player, even though he didn't know to play bass. He stayed in Germany and died of a brain hemorrhage when he was just 22.

Some of this can be overwhelming. Lewisohn goes into detail about every concert, every instrument, even telling us how many hours the Beatles played in certain cities. And, when the subject is this narrow, what appears to be trivial has great import, such as the debut of their trademark hair styles: "The Beatles haircut was born that afternoon, perhaps October 12 or 13, 1961, in the tranquility of 9 rue de Beaune, a narrow side-street shaded by tall buildings. The quiet was pierced the following morning when the concierge discovered the debris under Jurgen Vollmer's bed. She would not be the last to scream over the Beatles' hair."

Lewisohn is also playful. He peppers the text with winks and nods, such as writing when John and Paul ascend stairs to have a cigarette: "They found their way upstairs and had a smoke," which would be a line in "A Day in the Life" some eight or nine years later. He also has some great factoids, such as how Little Richard, when he toured with the Beatles, loved them, except he didn't like that John farted. Also, this tour was when Billy Preston was introduced to the Beatles. He was sixteen at the time.

Looming over the whole thing is the personality of John Lennon. He basically founded the band and was the leader, though the unique thing about them was that they didn't appear to have a leader. Groups in those days was Some Guy and the Somethings, and when they first went into record George Martin was trying to figure out who would be the lead singer. Then it dawned on him--this was something new--all of them could sing. It was a group, and that is what made them exciting. When they recorded their second single, "Please Please Me," he congratulated them. "You've just made your first number 1 hit."

As for Lennon, he does come across as the most complicated of them all. "Many were repulsed by his attitude and behavior--uncompromising, unpredictable, rude, cynical, sarcastic, anti-authoritarian, quickly bored--but to others he was sensational; a perpetual high-wire act who lived and communicated without a safety net, a faithful friend, generous, honest, gifted, literate, articulate and hugely funny. He dressed and looked tough and was no stranger to fighting, but his hostility was mostly verbal: he could shout louder than anyone else and lacerate with a brevity and with that took the breath away." While the Beatles were a foursome, with each of their personalities and talents playing a part in their success, it is clear from Lewisohn's book that, in the early days at least, John was the focal point.

Okay, I'll be ready for part two anytime now.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The War Lover

This 1962 film starring Steve McQueen used his considerable charisma in an unexpected way--he played a cad, and by the time the film was over it was hard not to hate him. There have been many films over the years with charming villains, but McQueen was so abhorrent that the film really doesn't work.

Based on a novel by John Hersey, and directed by Philip Leacock, The War Lover is a World War II movie but could be set in any war. McQueen plays Buzz Rickson, a hot-shot pilot whose arrogance is through the roof. On a bombing mission that is aborted due to too much cloud cover, he goes in low and takes out the target, but gets chewed out for disobeying orders. He's too good a pilot to discipline.

His co-pilot is played by Robert Wagner, who's a straight-up guy. He meets a British woman (Shirley Ann Field) and begins dating her, but McQueen indicates he could take her away from him any time he wants.

As someone in the film says of McQueen, he's on a fine line between hero and psychopath, because he doesn't really care about what he's fighting for, he just wants to kill the enemy. He lives for war, and would be adrift without it. That this film was released before the Vietnam War, when Americans would start doubting what they were fighting for, there is some prescience.

But McQueen is too obnoxious in the film and Wagner is too dull. Field, though a lovely woman, seems out of her depth. The film has some exciting air battle scenes, though, including some stock footage of actual planes.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Great Escape

Over the next week or so, just because, I'll be taking a look at some more Steve McQueen films.

What is McQueen's most famous movie? Probably a toss-up between Bullitt and The Great Escape, which I watched again yesterday for the umpteenth time. He is top-billed in the film, but is part of a large group of stars, and though it is an ensemble film he manages to be at the heart of it, especially since they somehow manage to get him on a motorcycle, his trademark.

The Great Escape is a true World War II story, and is honest enough to admit right at the opening that certain characters are composites, but the details of the escape are true. At the time, there were English and American officers who were constantly escaping. They never fully got away, but the bother to the Germans was enough that it made them use men that could otherwise be doing the fighting. So they put all "the rotten eggs" in one basket, in a new, high-security camp. That sounds like good strategy, until one realizes that they put the best escape artists on the Allies together--what did they expect they would do? Try to get 250 out in one escape.

There is some humor as on the very first day of their interment men try to escape, whether it be posing as Russian workers or hiding in cut-down tree limbs. McQueen, as Hilts, immediately looks for blind spots between guard towers. He thinks he finds one, using his baseball to test it. He's caught, of course, and a flippant attitude earns him 20 days in the cooler, where he spends the time throwing the ball against the wall, and plotting his next escape attempt.

Later Richard Attenborough, as "Big X," arrives, after a going-over by the Gestapo. He's a genius at devising escapes, and immediately has men digging three tunnels, called Tom, Dick, and Harry. James Garner is on hand as "The Scrounger," somehow getting his hands on whatever is needed. David McCallum is "Dispersal," who comes up with a plan to get rid of the dirt from the tunnel, while others, such as James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Donald Pleasance, all have their various jobs.

Finally, they make a break for it, and find that the tunnel is twenty feet short of the woods. They manage to get 76 out for being discovered, and the last hour of the film is the attempt of those to make it to freedom. Only three escape, and fifty are executed by the Germans. The most memorable scene is surely McQueen's attempt to get into Switzerland by motorcycle. If only he would have spoke some German he would have made it.

The Great Escape is one of the those grand epics that they don't make anymore. It used to be a a staple on the 4:30 movie back where I come from, spread out over a whole week, as it is a three-hour film (that rushes by). I was interested to see that it was shot in Germany, and only 18 years after the end of the war--no hard feelings, I guess. I should add that Germans are not made to look foolish, and the commandant, played by Hannes Messemer, is made a three-dimensional character. A key moment in the film is when he is lax in returning a "Heil, Hitler."

There are a lot of great scenes in the film, and it is further enhanced by the score by Elmer Bernstein's, one of the best in film history. The theme is one of those tunes you have a hard time getting out of your head, but while it's there it's quite pleasurable. It's a bit like the "Colonel Bogey March" from The Bridge on the River Kwai"--an upbeat march that is easy to whistle while undergoing some chore. But what's important about the tune is that is upbeat, and positive. These men all believed they could escape from any prison camp, and would not be stopped.

Four of the actors of the film died in 2014. McCallum and John Leyton (as Willie "Tunnel King") are the only two principal actors still alive.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Big Bad Wolves

Talk about your hard-hitting films. Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli film about a child-murderer, is not for the squeamish. The main part of the film is a sequence in which the father of a dead girl, thinking he has the killer in custody, tortures him to get the whereabouts of his dead daughter's head. Did I also say that this is a comedy?

In some ways Big Bad Wolves, a film from 2013, reminded me of the Hugh Jackman film Prisoners, which came out the same year. Wolves is far more unstinting. It begins in media res, as cops are "interrogating" a suspect in a series of abductions and murders of young girls (a haunting credit-sequence with children playing hide and seek shows one such abduction).

One cop, a rogue played by Lior Ashkenazi, gets removed from the case after roughing up the suspect (Rotem Keinan) with a phone book. Little does he know that he's being videotaped, and when it goes viral his boss has no choice but to let him go. But, he's also told that a civilian can get away with more than cop, if he isn't caught.

So Ashkenazi continues to trail Keinan, but then a third person enters the picture. He's the girl's father (Tzahi Grad), an ex-military man, and he kidnaps both Keinan and Ashkenazi. He has bought a remote house with a basement that is largely soundproof, to get the information he seeks.

Big Bad Wolves, as the title suggests, is structured after fairy tales, with Keinan as the supposed wolf. The genius of the film, written and directed by Aharon Kashales and Navot Papushado, is that we have no idea of Keinan's guilt or not. Since the film starts mid-investigation, we don't know any of the evidence. Keinan is a Bible teacher, and seems exceedingly mild-mannered, and through repeated torture maintains his innocence. Do they have the wrong man?

But the film is also the blackest of comedies. Mostly this comes when Grad's elderly father (Doval'e Glickman, a star of Israeli sit-coms) shows up. When he discovers what's going on, he wants to help, and there's something both chilling and funny when he asks for a blowtorch.

Again, this film is not for the squeamish. You'll note that Quentin Tarantino calls his the best film of the year--and it's more brutal than the ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs. I laughed out loud while Buddy Holly's "Everday" is playing on the soundtrack while Grad bakes a cake full of sedatives, a very Tarantino-esque touch.

If you like your movies rough and won't pass out as a man's head is cut off with a saw, I highly recommend Big Bad Wolves.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Bob Marley

Due to my ethnocentric interest in music growing up, I had little inkling about the enormous talent of Bob Marley. I probably hadn't heard any of his music much before his death in 1981, though my interests were expanding in those college years and I had some idea what reggae and ska were, though I didn't know the difference between them.

Today I know much more of Marley's music, if only because his songs are not a great part of the mainstream. You know a guy a musician has reached a certain, often dubious, status when their song is used for a commercial, as his "One Love/People Get Ready" has been. Also, I'm sure the first Marley song I ever heard was Eric Clapton's cover of his "I Shot the Sheriff," which was a big hit for Clapton.

I'm currently reading a novel set in Jamaica during the '70s in which Marley is a key part, so I thought I'd get caught up on my cultural deficit and listened to Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers. It is, of course, great, but I was surprised that I knew about the half of the songs. Culture will seeks its own level, I guess.

Marley and his group (which included Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) started in the early '60s, but changed course due to his conversion to Rastafarianism and his growing of dreadlocks. He became one of the first stars of "world" music, which I guess means he was famous all over the world, not just in his own country, and played music which is not traditionally Western (although reggae and ska has a lot of roots in American R&B). He was not only a great singer and musician, but also a spokesman for leftist politics. "Get Up Stand Up" is, when you really look at it, an incendiary song, and "Redemption Song" has a powerful message.

I think my favorite song of his is "Buffalo Soldier," which not is great musically, but has a great lyric:

"I'm just a buffalo soldier,
In the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Said he was fighting on arrival
Fighting for survival
Said he was a buffalo soldier
Win the war for America"

Marley also brought performed some beautiful love songs, such as "No Woman, No Cry" and "Could You Be Loved." But I think his strongest legacy is as a man who took no shit and firmly stated his beliefs, and brought reggae to a much wider audience.

To tell you the truth, I still can't tell you the difference between reggae and ska. I just associate you with the sound of a steel drum, to show you what an ignoramus is. But, with music, I know what I like, and I like Bob Marley. His death at 36 from cancer was a major loss to the entire world.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Bastards

I've seen a few of the films of Claire Denis and one thing she does not do is spoon-feed the audience. Her 2013 films, Bastards, takes some time letting the audience into the story--it's like watching someone put together a jigsaw puzzle, the image slowly becoming understandable. But by the end of the film you realize you're quietly devastated.

This film starts with some scenes that don't make sense until later in the film. A man has died. A young woman walks naked down the street. Then we meet a captain of a tanker ship (Vincent Lindon), who has quit his job. It starts to become clear--he is the brother-in-law of the man who died, who in fact committed suicide. Lindon's sister is the mother of the naked young woman, who was sexually tortured. She blames a man who had loaned her money to keep her shoe company afloat. Lindon, it seems, is plotting revenge.

He starts by beginning an affair with the man's wife (Chiara Mastroainni, who is daughter of Marcello Mastroainni and Catherine Deneuve--nice genes). At first it wasn't clear to me if they knew each other before, because it was easy for him to get her into bed (the husband is much older man). Lindon's end game isn't clear, but I think that was part of the film--he had cut himself off from his family, and wanted to do something but had no clear idea how.

Bastards ends unpredictably and in a very sordid manner, as the young girl (who has to have reconstructive surgery on her vagina because she was penetrated with a corn cob) returns to her life of sexual misadventure. And just who the bastards are is left an open question.

This is not an easy film to watch and not an ideal date movie. The pace is slow, the demeanor somber--there's not much levity. But as I started to understand the import of the film it grew on me, and one of these days Denis is going to break through in a big way. Or maybe not, maybe that would only spoil it.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Timbuktu

One of the best things about watching films or reading books is that one is taken to places one would ordinarily never go. I mention this in connection to Timbuktu because I've been hearing the name of the city called Timbuktu since I was a small child, as I would imagine most people have, because it has become a metaphor for a faraway, hard-to-reach place: "From here to Timbuktu." But I'm not sure I could have found it on a map, and indeed some people will answer that it doesn't exist.

But it does exist. It is a city in the country of Mali, and has been famous for centuries because it was a center of trade. But in Abderrahmane Sissako's film Timbuktu, it appears to be a sleepy and sandy but murderous village while it was occupied by the Islamofascist group Ansar Dine.

The film, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar (representing the country of Mauritania), begins slowly, and it took me a while to sort of who was who and what their relationship was. It starts with the new jihadist leaders taking a bullhorn in the streets and announcing that smoking and music are forbidden, and women must wear socks and gloves.

Meanwhile, a farmer who owns cattle and goats, Kadane, lives out in the country with his wife and daughter. They are not much for the new rules--when she is visited by one of the functionaries of the new regime he tells her to cover her head. She tells him if he doesn't like it, to look the other way. These guys carry around machine guns, but they're not quite use to being in power, and often look ashamed. In an interview, Sissako mentioned that he wanted to show how one's neighbors can become, in one day, one's hangmen.

The central plot concerns a dispute between Kadane and a local fishermen. When one of his cow's gets caught in the fishermen's net, the fisherman kills the cow. Of course this is a great disaster for Kadane, and a somewhat predictable course ensues, but it plays out powerfully in Sissako's simple yet forceful style. After an act of violence, we see, in an extreme long shot, the living person walking across the shallow river as the sun sets.

Another very powerful, almost hallucinatory scene is boys playing soccer--but without the ball. Soccer has been banned, but the boys mime a game anyway, stopping to do calisthenics when authorities come by.

This is just one of many beautiful shots in the film, photographed by Sofian El Fani. At times it looks like a National Geographic special, but at other times, such as in a long interrogation scene, the camera makes few moves, allowing the full force of the scene to play out. Sissako has great skill, and I will be looking to see more of his films.

Timbuktu is a film that will stick with me, and no longer will I hear that phrase about how far away it is without thinking of it.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Wishing on the Moon

In my post on great artists born 100 years ago, I wrote that I would get to each one in turn. I start with Billie Holiday, who was the first born of the seven, on April 7th of 1915. She was born in poverty and obscurity, but would become one of the great artists of the century. As Donald Clarke writes in his comprehensive if idiosyncratic biography, Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday: "Billie was the first singer who was herself a great jazz musician, as opposed to a musician who also sang. She was singing some of the newer American popular songs the way deserved to be interpreted, and she was discovered just as the Swing Era was coming together."

In the saddest tradition of jazz, though, Holiday died young, after years of abuse from drugs and alcohol. She had bad relationships with men: "She had continued her pattern of choosing a man each time who was worse than the last one." But over fifty years after her death she is still an icon, still sells records, and still inspires though who weren't even born before she died.

She was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, but grew up in Baltimore. She was born to teenage and unmarried parents. Her father, Clarence, had the name Holiday, which she took when she broke into show business. But before that she had a spotty childhood, being raped and spending time in a Catholic home for girls and most likely prostituting herself.

After moving to Harlem with her mother, she got jobs singing in nightclubs, and then started recording in 1935. One musician said of her: "One thing attracted me to Billie so much was that she never sang on the beat with the music, she always slurred behind the music, the music was ahead of her at all times, but she sang behind the music."

She toured with both Count Basie's band and Artie Shaw's, and endured a lot of racism. In 1940, she introduced a new song into her act:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

It was "Strange Fruit" a poem written by Abel Meeropol, which protested lynching of African Americans. Clarke reports on listeners being devastated, completely silent, the first time they heard her sing it. She would close her show for years with it.

Eventually the Swing Era and declined, and Holiday became famous for other reasons: "Now Lady was a famous junkie, and she knew that people who came ostensibly to hear her sing were coming, some of them, just to gawp. Yet it was a role she chose willingly. she had been on the wrong side of the fence all her life, and that was where she felt she belonged, or where she felt the most comfortable."

Holiday (her nickname of Lady was bestowed upon her by her great friend, the saxophonist Lester Young, whom she called "Prez") was arrested a few times for possession, and on her deathbed, succumbing to cirrhosis of the liver, the police tried to bring her in. She died in 1959 at the age of 44.

Clarke's book is a soup to nuts biography, just what I was looking for. He covers all bases: not only her life, but a pretty good explanation of the music to a layman like me. At times the details of recordings can be overwhelming, including the song titles and the musicians who played on them, but it's valuable to the right person.

He is also unstinting about her personal life. She was married three times, as mentioned to men who weren't much good for her, including her last, Louis McKay, who stole most of her money. But she was generous and funny (and swore profusely), loved children, though never had any of her own, and was both cordial and bitter to rivals (she loved Lena Horne, but didn't have much nice to say about Dinah Washington).

She also had quite the sex life, which Clarke chronicles without being too nosy. It's fairly accepted that she had relationships with women, including actress Tallulah Bankhead, and she talked frankly about her sexual desires in a time when that just wasn't done.  Clarke writes: "Billie tried, and mostly failed, to find love through sex. She had no conventional hangups, but she also had no childhood to speak of, either; she gave love freely, but could not accept it. Her vulnerability was there, everyone knew, but so deep that no one could reach it, for she was afraid to reveal it. As the years went by, she began to make terrible, destructive relationships, each man apparently worse than the last."

Clarke has a somewhat odd writing style; at times it seemed like it was translated from another language. He also doesn't hide his personal feelings, and inserts himself into the book, which takes away from it. At one point he refers to rock music as "hack work," well, the love of jazz and rock are not mutually exclusive, Donald.

But I felt as I knew the woman after reading the book. There are some scintillating chapters, such as the opening of Cafe Society, the first integrated club in New York City, or Holiday's last TV appearance, with Lester Young. Watch her smile and nod her head as he plays. Young died only a few months before she did.

Next up: Orson Welles.




Tuesday, July 07, 2015

A Touch of Sin

A Touch of Sin is a fine and bloody film from 2013 that covers the spectrum of Chinese society. Directed by Jia Zhangke, it was a winner at the Cannes Film Festival (for screenplay) and has a kind of fatalistic view that is pretty bleak.

Told in four stories, the opening has a mysterious man on a motorcycle beset by three highwayman armed with hatchets. He pulls out a gun and shoots all three dead. We won't see him again for a while, as the first subject is a hapless villager (Jiang Wu) who is trying to reform the corruption of his town. He gets nowhere trying to enlist people to help. He openly accuses the village chief, who warns him. Then he goes to the city to welcome the head of the company that runs the place. He asks the man, fresh off his plane, if he will sponsor him to go to Beijing to file an accusation against this very same man. This earns him a beating with a shovel.

The segment ends in a rampage of violence that even to an American like me was shocking. Maybe in China you can't fight City Hall, but you can shoot your way in, which is a very American way of doing things.

The man on the motorcycle turns out to be a robber and cold-blooded killer. He has returned to his hometown for his mother's birthday. He sees his wife and son, but will not remain. Instead he robs and kills more people. The absolutely vacant look in his eyes is chilling.

The third segment is more complex. A young woman (Zhao Tao), the mistress of a married man, gives him an ultimatum--leave your wife or we're done. She goes to her job as a receptionist in a spa and his accosted by the man's wife. Later, she will be attacked by men who assume she is a prostitute, but she's handy with a knife.

The final segment concerns a young man who finds work at a fancy brothel as a waiter. He falls in love with one of the girls, but sees that it is pointless to attempt to go away with her. She tells him, "There is no true love in sex work."

Each of these stories were based on true events in China that took place in the past few years. Some of it is alien to me--the third segment had a significant use of snakes, and I'm not aware of their place in Chinese culture. But I was surprised by the violence, and the lack of showing justice--there are no visible repercussions for the first two men. This is something the Hollywood code would have not permitted many years ago, so China seems to have caught up.

A Touch of Sin is a gripping, well-made film. As it proceeds you have no idea where it's going, and each tale is full of pathos and rage. I highly recommend it.

Monday, July 06, 2015

The East

The East is about a profound subject--moral obligations to one's self and to the community--but it is built on a rickety structure, Directed by Zal Batmanglij, and co-written by him and its star Brit Marling, The East is about eco-terrorism, and if it doesn't favor terrorist tactics, it does come down firmly in favor of activism and the greater good.

Marling plays a former FBI agent who now works for a private intelligence company. She goes deep undercover to infiltrate the title group, eco-terrorists who perpetrate what they call "jams," which have a theme to them--they give their victims a taste of their own medicine. They start by pouring crude oil into the home of an energy company's CEO whose company had a BP-type spill. Later, they will squirt a deadly antibiotic into the drinks of the hot-shots of a pharmaceutical company. They don't purposefully hurt anyone, but of course there are repercussions.

The group is a small, ragtag bunch led by Alexander Skarsgard, who we first see sporting Christ-like locks and beard. Another member is Ellen Page as an angry young woman who has a special reason for hating corporate polluters. A third is a doctor (Toby Kebbell) who was personally affected by the antibiotic (I know someone who became seriously ill after taking the antibiotic Leviquin, so this hit home).

It's easy to take the side of anti-corporate Robin Hoods, but the group Marling has infiltrated is an odd bunch, favoring holier-than-thou rituals like eating while wearing straitjackets, or playing a kind of group therapy version of Spin the Bottle. They also seem a little disorganized to be pulling off the things they do--maybe they all owe it to a woman who keeps their Internet presence hidden. They aren't difficult to find, though, and it's unclear what Marling is collecting--evidence? Information? To what purpose? She is not a law enforcement official.

Of course, since this is a movie, Marling will start to sympathize with the group, especially Skarsgard, who is pretty hunky. The end of the film gives her a choice and is very suspenseful, and fulfills the rule for endings--it is not predictable, but inevitable.

Marling has written a few films that she's also starred in, and I find it interesting that she was chosen to star in this film. Frankly, she's not a very dynamic actress. Maybe it's to save money. It would have been interesting to see Page in the role (though she's too young). As such, Marling's character is like the hole in a donut, with everything interesting around her.

The East is a good film, but lacks a certain internal logic and a powerful lead performance to make it great.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Asphalt Jungle

We open on a lone man walking through the empty streets of grimy, unnamed Midwest city. It appears to be dawn. He has just pulled a stick-up and stashes his weapon with a pal who operates a diner. He's still pulled in by the cops, but in the lineup gives the witness such a malicious stare than the witness won't identify him. A small smile crosses the man's face. (No wonder they changed to one-way glass for lineups).

He's Dix Handley, played by Sterling Hayden, in the 1950 classic The Asphalt Jungle. I love heist films, and this is perhaps the best (some may argue that it is Rififi, but this one came first). It's about a bunch of lowlifes that attempt to rob a jewelry store, but of course a perfect plan is never perfect. In an introduction by the director John Huston, he says "You may not like these people, but I think you'll be fascinated by them." He's right.

The plot in set in motion when "Doc" Reidenschneider is released from prison. Played beautifully by Sam Jaffe, he's a master criminal, and already has another score dreamed up. He contacts a local bookmaker (Marc Lawrence), who is his conduit to a crooked lawyer (Louis Calhern). Calhern is intrigued by the notion of a half-million dollar payday, but he doesn't have the money to front Jaffe. So he lies and says he does and decides to double-cross them.

The crew includes Anthony Caruso as the "box man" (safe cracker), and he has just had a baby so you know he's a marked man. The guy in the diner, James Whitmore, is recruited as the driver, and Hayden is taken on as the "hooligan," which in those days meant the muscle, the guy who wasn't afraid to use his "heater."

The plan works and in a nine-minute sequence the men crack the safe and have the jewels. But using nitro ("the soup") sets off alarms in nearby stores. A security guard comes by, and though Hayden takes him out he drops his gun, which happens to go off and hits Caruso. So much for perfect plans.

When Hayden and Jaffe find out about the double-cross, they try to get Calhern to fix things. But he's in enough trouble, as Lawrence, a weak-willed drunkard, is forced to confess by a tough corrupt cop (Barry Kelley). Now the crooks are on the lam.

I've seen The Asphalt Jungle three or four times and it's just magnificent every time. It is a wallow in human immorality, as there is no one with any integrity except the crusty old police commissioner (John McIntyre). Each character has a particular vice, and as Jaffe says, "One way or another, we all work for our vice." His happens to be young women, and it will cost him his freedom in a brilliantly done scene in a diner that involves a pretty girl dancing to tunes on a jukebox.

Hayden has a thing for the ponies, but his dream is to go back to his family's horse farm in Kentucky. He has woman who loves him (Jean Hagen), and it's pathetic the way she hangs on to him. His ending is particularly poignant, and closes the picture, but I won't give it away here. Suffice it to say a doctor says, "He hasn't got enough blood in him to keep a chicken alive."

Calhern also plays a great character. He's a dignified lawyer but finds it easy to play both sides of the law. "Crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor." He has a bed-ridden wife, but keeps a mistress, who happens to be played by Marilyn Monroe in her first major role (she gets no billing on the original poster, but in subsequent releases is prominently featured in the marketing). She creepily calls Calhern "Uncle Lon," and in two scenes shows why she became a star. In the first she oozes sex, and in the second she shows her vulnerability. She can't lie for Calhern. She apologizes, and he says, "You did very well, given the circumstances."

This is noir at its finest, with morally ambiguous characters and almost all scenes shot at night (the ending is the glaring exception). The cinematography, by Harold Rosson, shows the filth of the city. Caruso says his wife wants to expose their baby to fresh air. "I tell her, if she wants fresh air, she should get out of this city!"

The Asphalt Jungle is crackerjack entertainment, taut and suspenseful and without a wasted moment. As good as it is, though, it's probably only Huston's third-best film (after The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). The guy had a remarkable career.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Leviathan (2012)

This is the second film in a month I've seen called Leviathan. The other was the Russian drama nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. This one is a 2012 documentary that I guess you could call pure cinema--no narration, almost no dialogue, just images and sound.

Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, Leviathan was filmed using GoPro cameras on a fishing boat. We have no information--at first we can't even tell it's a fishing boat, as it's at night, and the camera is at such an angle that it's hard to see what's going. We see hands operating a winch, and then fish hauled up out of nets.

We are never told where we are (at the end they mention New Bedford, Massachusetts, so I assume it's the North Atlantic), who the men are, or what they are catching. We hear a few words to know they are American men. At times the camera lingers on their faces and tattoos--one has an impressive one of a topless mermaid.

I would have liked to know more about what they were catching. In the credits they list the species name as if they were part of the cast. The first catch is some kind of fish with protuberant, Barney Google eyes. Later they catch rays, but apparently they aren't good eating as they are kicked overboard. Eventually a bunch of mollusks are hauled up. It would take a degree in marine biology to know every one of them.

Unlike reality television (there is a show called The Deadliest Catch that I've never seen) Leviathan has no confessionals, no people talking to the camera. We know nothing about them or their names. At one point we watch one crew member watching TV, nodding off, and I was ready to fall asleep with him. At 87 minutes, this is still a long slog, and would have worked much better as a short film.

Leviathan is more of a video record than a film, and should be approached in that way. There are no lessons learned, no facts to digest. It is just to be experienced.

Friday, July 03, 2015

The Fever

Megan Abbott is a respected crime novelist and her novel from last year, The Fever, was highly acclaimed, but it didn't hit me on a gut level. Somewhat of an allegory for the Salem witch trials, this story of mass hysteria among high school girls sounds more intriguing than it is.

Set in the fictional town of Dryden, the main focus is on the Nash family. Deenie is a typical young girl, her older brother Eli is a star hockey player, and their dad Tom is a science teacher at the school. One day Deenie's friend Lise has some sort of seizure right in a classroom. Soon, other girls are having strange symptoms, everyone but Deenie.

Is it the HPV vaccination? Is it the dead lake nearby, full of algae? Or is there something more nefarious at work? This mystery carries the book along okay, but I found the characterizations thin. I finished the book two days ago and I couldn't tell you one thing about Deenie. Tom is also kind of a blank, except when he has an affair with one of the girls' mothers, who was the victim of domestic abuse and was hit in the face with a claw hammer.

When I read other reviews I feel like I read a different book. I wasn't hooked, and finished it out of a sense of duty than suspense. Occasionally there is a very well-turned phrase, such as describing the lake: "they found a dead dog on one of the banks, its fur neon, mouth hanging open, tongue bright like a highlighter pen."

If there'd been more lines like that, instead of a fairly routine teenage soap opera, The Fever might have been far more interesting.