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Monday, August 31, 2015

Hghway 61 Revisted

It starts with one beat of a snare drum, then the organ kicks in. "Once upon a time, you drank so fine, You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?" So begins one of the most important rock albums of all time, Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited, released fifty years ago this week.

Of course the opening song is "Like a Rolling Stone," one of the greatest of rock songs, and in fact chosen that in many polls. It was a turn of the page in rock history, away from songs of love or political protest, and instead an angry manifesto, an outpouring of cynical rage.

The song is over six minutes long and radio stations balked at playing it, until demand became too great, and now you can hear it almost every hour on a variety of classic rock stations. It was a departure for Dylan--he had written angry songs before, like "Positively Fourth Street"--but this was one was an opus of hostility, a takedown of an unnamed woman who was once on top but is now struggling in a new world:

"You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody has ever taught you how to live on the street
And now you find out you’re gonna have to get used to it
You said you’d never compromise
With the mystery tramp, but now you realize
He’s not selling any alibis
As you stare into the vacuum of his eyes
And ask him do you want to make a deal?"

Earlier that summer of '65 Dylan went electric, a profound moment in rock and folk music history, losing him fans and gaining him more. Highway 61 Revisited established him as something more than both, like the Beatles, he transcended categories. His poetry, especially, which was a whirligig of words, sounded as if he were speaking another language to some higher born intellect. The best example of this, I think, is in the closing track, "Desolation Row," which is the only song on the album that relies simply on guitar and harmonica:

"Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row"

This is just one of several verses of the song, and I don't know what any of them mean. He drops many names from literature and myth, such as Cinderella, Robin Hood, Einstein, Casanova, the Phantom of the Opera, Ophelia, Cain and Abel, and the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The writing is clearly influenced by Beat poetry, perhaps Allen Ginsberg, and while none of it is specific, taken as a whole it can be thought to be representative of a world gone to Hell--Desolation Row may not be a place as much of a state of civilization.

I think there are two other classics on the record, though all of the songs are fine. The title song, which begins with a slide whistle of all things, starts with the a re-telling of the Abraham and Isaac story:

Oh God said to Abraham,
“Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

Highway 61 is that ribbon of road that runs from New Orleans to Dylan's home town of Duluth, Minnesota, and as it wends its way through Mississippi is known for the juke joints and honky tonks along the way, the birthplace of the blues. In each chorus Dylan seems to be telling a story that takes place on that road, a place of sacrifice and renewal.

As great as these songs are, I find the most satisfying to be "Ballad of a Thin Man," maybe because it's the easiest to understand. If you've ever seen the combative press conferences Dylan endured, it's easy to figure that this is an attack on the journalists of the day--"Because something is happening here, but you don't what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?" Todd Haynes made his clear in his film I'm Not There by playing this song during a press conference scene. Dylan's snide laughter in his vocal makes it clear that he disdains the music journalists who were trying to pigeon-hole him, or build a zeitgeist around him:

"You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known"

The other songs on the album are all fine, especially "Queen Jane Approximately," and the rollicking "Tombstone Blues," but the four I've mentioned are the ones that pushed the envelope. Dylan was really the first member of the rock era to so openly declare his cynicism, something that John Lennon and Mick Jagger would later do. Some have written that the '60s really started with the release of this album, as it was the exclamation mark on a long sentence that was questioning authority and the status quo, and was picked up by many other artists.


Sunday, August 30, 2015

2015 MTV Video Awards

The 2015 MTV Video Awards are happening right now. I'm not watching--it would make me think end times are near--but for this second straight year I have looked at the nominees for Best Video, just so I know what the kids are listening to these days.

Beyonce is back for a second year in a row with "7/11," and frankly, I don't know what to say about this. It certainly does not appeal to me as a song--I understand this is a "trap" song, and it's probably good to dance to, but repeated listens would likely give me a seizure. As a video, it has Beyonce and a lot of scantily clad women dancing on a hotel balcony, and perhaps in a nod to Toby Keith, holding red Solo cups. "Don't drop that alcohol" is a repeated phrase, and Beyonce talks into her barefoot as if it were a telephone.

Ed Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" is a pretty song, and one of the things I like about it is that it could have been written in any time period--it avoids trends. It's catchy but thin, the kind of song that teenage girls listen to. The video is also timeless, simply Sheeran and dancer Brittany Cherry (looking easy on the eyes in a flimsy dress) doing some dirty dancing.

Speaking of easy on the eyes, Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" is something I would have loved when I was thirteen. As we all know, Swift has befriended every famous young woman in the world, and has cast many of them in this video, which is a takeoff on a spy film. Swift, along with homies like Selena Gomez, Cara Delevingne, Gigi Hadid, and many more, are in skin tight outfits, shooting guns and throwing punches. The song itself is not bad if almost instantly forgettable. Given Swift's dominance of the music industry these days, it's the likely winner.

My favorite is "Uptown Funk," by Mark Ronson, sung by Bruno Mars. It's a toe-tapping, finger-snapping homage to the Minneapolis sound (Prince) and is the kind of song that just makes you feel good. The video is an unpretentious display of exuberance and Mars looking good in a lavender jacket, but I'm a bit puzzled by the visit to a hairdresser, where he and Ronson both go under those big dryers.

The most visually ambitious video is Kendrick Lamar's "Alright," which is powerful statement about the open season on unarmed black men by police officers, shot in beautiful black and white images by Colin Tilley. However, I find the song to be a mess, a mixture of rap and improvisational jazz. Maybe I'm hopelessly out of touch, but is too much to ask that a song have a melody?

None of these videos make me want to rush out and buy any music, although I will check out Ronson's stuff. Bruno Mars, though he doesn't sing my kind of music (rock and roll, dig it) is still a tremendous performer. If I happen to see him on TV, I'll stop and watch. So I hope "Uptown Funk" wins, but I'm sure it won't.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Madame Bovary (2015)

As with the novel, I found the most recent film adaptation of Madame Bovary, directed by Sophie Barthes, to be a mostly tedious disappointment. Barthes has essentially made a film about one of the most unpleasant women I've come across lately.

As one might expect, Barthes trims the novel by taking out the stuff that deals with Charles Bovary, the country doctor who married Emma. In the book, he first sees her when he tends to her father's broken leg, but in the film she is in a convent and we don't know how they met. Before the ceremony she talks to herself, hoping that "he's the one." Of course he won't be.

Charles, in this film, played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes, is pretty much a zero, but he is good to Emma. She becomes restrained by country life and wants to go to the city, even as she continues to by finer and finer things, urged on by the local merchant, played with oily charm by Rhys Ifan.

Eventually she has an affair with a dashing Marquis, Logan Marshall-Green, but he grows tired of her clinginess. The same happens when she takes up with a young law clerk (Ezra Miller), but when she starts showing up his work he gives her the boot. So then she takes poison and dies, relieving us all.

After seeing this film I'm not sure why Barthes made it. You would think a 21st-century adaptation of a 19th-century work would look at modern perspectives, or at least a feminist one, but the script has made Emma into a needy, spoiled woman. She ruins her marriage by getting deep in debt to Ifans and carrying on with two men, while treating a man who loves her like crap.

Mia Wasikowska is Emma, and she's pretty uninteresting (and sounds a lot like Claire Danes). There is a melange of accents--Wasikowska is an Australian actress doing an American accent playing a French woman, while Lloyd-Hughes has a British accent. In the beginning of the film the nuns speak French. Couldn't they have settled on one accent for everyone?

The costumes are lovely, as is the photography by Andrij Parekh, but this Madame Bovary is a total misfire.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Lantana

Lantana is a fine film, but it is as grim as a funeral. It also does something that often annoys me--it relies on incredible coincidences. After watching this film one would think everyone in Sydney knows each other.

Named after a weed, the film is a complex psychological drama that, at the halfway point, turns into a mystery. The main character is a police detective, Anthony LaPaglia, who is having an affair with a woman he met at a dance class. His wife, Kerry Armstrong, sensing something is wrong in the marriage, sees a psychiatrist (Barbara Hersey) who has just written a book about the murder of her young daughter. LaPaglia ends up investigating the case, and who should turn out to be a witness but the woman he is having an affair with (Rachel Blake).

Lantana was released in 2001 and directed by Ray Lawrence, who is able to give the film an oppressive feel, such that no matter what is happening in the film one can expect something bad to happen at any moment. Almost all of the characters are in bad straits. LaPaglia, who gives a fine performance, is a man who feels so numb that he harms his marriage, while Hershey's husband, Geoffrey Rush, is a man who, after losing his daughter, just goes through the motions of life.

The film won all sorts of awards in Australia but I found its coincidences too outrageous and some plot turns too sensational. LaPaglia violates several laws, such as taking his own wife's file out of the psychiatrist's office. His partner, Leah Purcell, seems to be watching along with us, her eyebrows raised at every dubious turn.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Born to Run

This week is the fortieth anniversary of the released of one of the greatest albums in rock and roll history, and one that launched the career of a musician that has become something of a living legend. That album is Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen.

It was Springsteen's third album, after the first two were financial disappointments. This album, unlike the first two, made no mention of New Jersey, Springsteen's home state, but did capture the same kind of American mythos that he had been looking for. "The screen door slammed, Mary's dress waived," is the first words heard, from "Thunder Road," and it sets the tone for an album about beautiful losers and regular guys and the girls they love.

Springsteen was one of those instant successes who had been around for years. He was on the cover of Time and Newsweek the same week, both heralding him the future of rock and roll. They were right, but Springsteen, to me, has never been about the future--he didn't invent any kind of rock form, and, as with most great artists, he took the past and expounded upon it. He owes a great deal to Bob Dylan, as a kind of troubadour with a guitar (and a damn great poet) and The Rascals, the white group who grooved to black sounds.

Born to Run has eight songs, each one a masterpiece of some sort. They are the kind of songs that reach deep into the soul, and sometimes hit pretty hard. Some are joyous, like "Tenth Avenue Freezeout." One of my favorite moments on the album is when Springsteen sings:

"When the change was made uptown
And the Big Man joined the band"

And then we hear a blast of the Big Man, Clarence Clemons, on his sax. There's also a great and moody love song, "She's the One," which never fails to captivate me;

"There's a thunder in your heart
At night when you're kneeling in the dark
It says you're never gonna leave her
But there's this angel in her eyes
That tells such desperate lies
And all you want to do is believe her."

The title song, which I believe is now the state song of New Jersey, is the most iconic, the American need to pull up stakes and leave, especially on a motorcycle with a girl behind you. The song, which took several months to record, is note perfect, with that killer little guitar riff that sounds like a motorcycle.

"In the day we sweat it out in the streets
of a runaway American dream.
At night we ride through mansions of glory
in suicide machines."

This song also mentions the dichotomy of the day and night, even more specifically in "Night," which describes working only to get to that place where work is not thought of--night time. It's an update of the Vogues "Five O'Clock World."

As a youth I was resistant to Springsteen. I'm not sure why--now I think of very highly, one of rock's great poets, in the pantheon of great performers. But what sealed the deal for me is the first time I heard "Jungleland," the close of this album and I think Springsteen's greatest accomplishment. Sure it's operatic, but I don't find it over the top. It's a song I listen to with a slack jaw.

The story of the song is about a guy known as the Magic Rat and his woman, the Barefoot Girl. It involves cops and robbers and death, and a magnificent solo by Clarence Clemons. The song sounds great, but the lyrics just knock me out. I'll never forget the opening, after a heartbreaking violin solo by Suki Lahav:

"The Rangers had a homecoming
In Harlem late last night
And the Magic Rat drove his sleek machine
Over the Jersey state line
Barefoot girl sittin' on the hood of a Dodge
Drinking beer in the soft summer rain
The Rat pulls into town rolls up his pants
Together they take a stab at romance
And disappear down Flamingo Lane."

Oh lord. If I had come up with that I might have just stopped, thinking I couldn't do any better. But then comes the close:

"In the tunnels uptown
The Rat's own dream guns him down
As shots echo down them hallways in the night
No one watches when the ambulance pulls away
Or as the girl shuts down the bedroom light."

Chills.

Springsteen has been making music in the forty years since, but I don't think he's ever topped this song or this collection. I think he's the quintessential American rock star, steeped in Americana (did anyone do more for blue jeans that his cover of Born in the U.S.A.?) and expressing, through music, what it is that makes us Americans both unique and interesting to the world. Long may he wave.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bottle Rocket

As a major fan of Wes Anderson, I don't know what took me so long to see his first feature, Bottle Rocket, released in 1996, but so it goes. I saw it last night, and pretty much smiled through the whole thing, though it was one of those films that relied on the stupidity of its main characters.

Written by Anderson and Owen Wilson, the latter stars as Dignan, a few cards short of a full deck, who is obsessed with planning. He plans to break his friend, Anthony (Luke Wilson) out of a psychiatric hospital, even though Anthony's stay is voluntary. He has a 75-year-plan for Anthony, most of which involves crimes.

They are joined by the humorously-named Bob Mapplethorpe (Robert Musgrave), who gets the job of getaway driver because he's the only one with a car. They knock off a bookstore, and take the loot and hide out in a motel. Mapplethorpe, who was growing weed in his backyard, leaves because his brother, nicknamed Future Man, has been arrested for it. Anthony has fallen in love with a chambermaid Lumi Cavazos, which screws up Dignan's plans.

Some of the signs of Anderson's themes are evident. Mainly it's a kind of cluelessness of its characters. Dignan is distantly related to Max Fischer and Royal Tenenbaum and even a bit to Gustave H., Anderson characters who march to a significantly different drummer. Dignan is not bright, but determined, and loyal. Anthony is also loyal, smarter than Dignan but with his own problems. When he explains to his younger sister that the checked into the hospital because of "exhaustion," she replies, "You've never worked a day in your life. How could you be exhausted?"

There's also the kind of odd approach to the world, with seemingly random shots and activities. Dignan is worshipful of Mr. Henry, played by James Caan, who runs a landscaping company as a front for his criminal activities. He invites them into his lair, where he plays ping-pong. Later he will be seen in a kimono, white socks with sandals, and a ponytail in thinning hair. Weird, man.

The climax of the film is an attempted robbery of a cold storage building. Dignan has everyone using code names and elaborate communication devices. One of the bandits is Kumar, played by Anderson regular Kumar Pallana, who is a safecracker. He fails to open the safe, and says "I lost my touch," Dignan, outraged, says, "Did you ever have a touch to lose?"

This is a motley crew, but by the end we kind of love them, even though Dignan is such an idiot. Just the site of him at the end in a yellow jumpsuit makes the heart break. Although Anderson's subsequent films were are a lot more polished (Rushmore, one of my favorites, came next), Bottle Rocket has an endearing quality that prefigured his later work.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The End of the Tour

When Infinite Jest was released in the mid-'90s, author David Foster Wallace  became a hero to many of his generation, who were looking for a writer to represent them as Hemingway and Fitzgerald had represented a previous generation. This was certainly true of David Lipsky, himself a writer of fiction and a magazine writer, who while working for Rolling Stone managed to secure an interview with Wallace, even though Rolling Stone didn't interview writers.

This is the subject of John Ponsoldt's insightful The End of the Tour, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Donald Margulies, based on Lipsky's book. It is a rare thing--a movie for book nerds, but I think anyone who enjoys good conversation and character studies will enjoy this film.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Lipsky, and when the film begins he is hearing the 2008 news that Wallace has committed suicide. He digs out his old tapes and reminisces about the interview he conducted in 1996, when Wallace was finishing his book tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky spends a day with him in Bloomington, Illinois, where Wallace teaches, and then to Minneapolis-St. Paul, where Wallace does a reading/signing and an NPR interview.

Eisenberg is as you would expect him, full of nervous energy, ferret eyes darting, but Jason Segel as Wallace is the film. Segel is of course known for his Apatow comedies, so nobody could have foreseen a performance of such depth and pain, But it is one of the best performances of this and any year. Part of the success is due to Wallace's easily mimicked look--scruffy, long lank hair, and bandanna, which Wallace is distressed to learn is thought of as an affectation, when he really wears it as something of a security blanket.

Wallace wants to be thought of as a regular guy, but as Lipsky points out, no one reads a 1,000-page novel because the author is a regular guy. Wallace is caught in a bind--he is brilliant, but still floats in a lonely miasma, living alone with two dogs, with no television because he is a TV addict. He fancies that these book tours might get him laid, but that seems like macho bluffing. He seems like a man stuck between the pantheon of greatness and the down-homeness of a Denny's. To wit--he is a big fan of Alanis Morrisette, and wonders if he mentions this in the article it will get him a chance to meet her.

Most of the film is conversation between the two, a kind of My Dinner With Andre extended over a few days. They go to the Mall of America, pass by (but do not visit) the statue of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in Minneapolis, and spend an evening watching TV with Wallace's former grad school girlfriend. This gives the film a crux of conflict, as Wallace thinks Lipsky is flirting with her. But really, Lipsky's intention is even more nefarious--he wants to get information about Wallace from her.

Ponsoldt's direction is largely unobtrusive, with no camera tricks. The lighting by Jakob Ihre is about as unglamorous as it gets--downstate Illinois during winter looks about as inviting as a plague zone. I'm sure this is all to focus more on the dialogue, which is rich with a kind of cat and mouse game--Wallace is flattered to be interviewed, but doesn't want to give too much away.

The only Wallace I've read is his last, unfinished book, The Pale King, which was something of a paean to boredom. I once owned Infinite Jest, which is kind of becoming the Moby Dick of our time--everyone talks about it, though no one has read it. I lost my copy in a flood in my apartment, but I'm game to try it, even if it is over 1,000 pages. Segel relates that when he bought the book the female cashier rolled her eyes and said that every guy she had ever dated had an unread copy of the book on their shelves.

My grade for The End of the Tour: A-.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Three Dog Night

For those of us of a certain age, music is a time machine Songs take us back to specific points in our lives, usually good points, and that's where the nostalgia kicks in. This is especially true of me, who is continually let down by music of today, which is dominated by the kind of music that either makes my head hurt or is geared toward teenage girls.

Three Dog Night had a great run right at the end of the '60s and beginning of the '70s. Of course, they are still active today (they played Vegas not too terribly long ago) but its their hits that they are known for. I'm sure anyone who sees them doesn't want to hear the dreaded, "This is from our latest album."

Three Dog Night had 21 top 40 hits, with three number ones. They were ever present on AM radio of the day. And, unusually, they did not write their hits, but interpreted songs by the cutting edge composers of the day, like Randy Newman, Laura Nyro, Paul Williams, Harry Nilsson, and Hoyt Axton.

Two songs take me back to a specific place. "Joy to the World," with its opening line, "Jeremiah was a bullfrog," no doubt has an effect on many of my age group. I distinctly remember it was a hit while I was in fifth grade, because a cute girl in my class did a dance routine to it. I don't remember her name, but I remember her choreography--when the line "straight-shootin' son of a gun" came up she did a little gunfighter stance.

That song was written by Axton. "Black and White" was written in 1954, as a response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. It's a simple but powerful song about equality among the races. I remember it as being taught to us in my sixth-grade music class. I had an ancient music teacher, so it seemed unusual that we were learning a song that was an actual pop hit.

There were so many other hits. Another number one was "Mama Told Me Not to Come" (by Newman), "Eli's Coming" (by Nyro), "One," by Harry Nilsson, and "Never Been to Spain," (by Axton, which contains the great couplet, "I've never been to heaven, but I've been to Oklahoma, They tell me I was born there, but I really don't remember").

The band consisted mainly of its three singers, who traded vocals. They were Danny Hutton (who happened to be born on the exact same day as my mother); Chuck Negron (who has since left the group, but has recovered from drug and alcohol problems); and Corey Wells. It was a pleasure to listen to their greatest hits album for about a week, as I knew all of them and most of the words. I think my favorite, aside from those mentioned, is "The Show Must Go On," written by Leo Sayer, vocal by Negron, complete with circus calliope. Love it.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Summer of Trump

Who would have thought that, after all these years of suffering through the existence of Donald Trump, that he would be bigger than ever this summer? He's always flirted with running for the presidency, but now he really seems to mean it, and these past few months have seemed to have consisted of nothing but his campaign, which more resembles a performance art piece.

Trump, with his ridiculous hair, New Yawk accent, and gargantuan ego, has always seemed a creation of fiction, like a Bond villain. His motives would appear to be nothing but feeding that ego, which is like feeding a stable full of elephants. But what's fascinating is how its has played out in the Republican candidate clown car. They hate him, but are scared of him, and won't go after him, lest they alienate his base, which they need.

Of course, it also amazing that 25 percent or so of Republicans actually choose him as their number one candidate. At this point in the race a lot of that can probably be chalked up to name recognition, but he seems to have really tapped into the dumb white person pool. They probably watch The Apprentice religiously, and since that demographic thinks smart equals rich, fancy that he does have solutions to problems. But really--do they want Donal Trump with his finger on the nuclear button?

Lately Trump has taken to building his platform on the demonization of Mexicans. We already have the stain of Islamophobia in the U.S., now it's Mexicans. He suggests that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees citizenship to those born here, would not stand up in court, showing he doesn't really understand how the law works. He wants a wall built on the border, with Mexico paying for it. Followers of his beat up legal immigrants. All this, but Bill Maher points out that he has married two immigrants.

I'm really getting sick of those who are railing about "anchor babies." Just what is the solution? That only people whose parents are citizens can be citizens? If we go back far enough, everyone is descended from an immigrant. De facto, except for American Indians, we'd all lose our citizenship. This xenophobic clamor to change an amendment that does no harm to anybody is infuriating.

But Trump's candidacy provides liberal Democrats two pleasant daydreams. The more likely is that Trump, who probably won't win any caucuses or primaries, will run as an independent candidate, which would surely give the election to a Democrat, since he would probably take up to five percent of the vote. The second, and more risky, is that he somehow does become the nominee, and while Republicans haven't gone after him (except for Megyn Kelly), the DNC will open him up like a soft nut, insuring a landslide for a Democrat. But as I said, that's risky, and falls in the "be careful what you wish for" category. Remember, we don't Trump's finger on the button. Mushroom clouds would surely be in our future.

One conspiracy theory floating around is that Trump is doing this to get Hillary Clinton elected. Though this seems unlikely, it has just enough sense to it to have me choosing to think it might be true. That would be the height of deliciousness, and the greatest hoax ever perpetrated in the history of humanity.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trainwreck

Before it was the summer of Donald Trump it was the summer of Amy Schumer, who suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Kudos to her publicist, and to Judd Apatow, who directed her debut film, Trainwreck. The film is a hit, and Schumer seems assured of more films, but I hope the next one maintains her edge, instead of getting all marshmallowy at the end like this one does.

What Schumer seemed to want to do was turn the romantic comedy on its head, with the women being the one who sleeps around and gets drunk, while the man is the meek one trying to change her. That works pretty well in the first half, as Schumer has some very funny bits. I haven't seen much of her TV show, but I have heard that a lot of her comedy is just acknowledging that she has a vagina. There's some of that here, too, but I laughed out loud several times.

Schumer is a writer for a Maxim-style magazine (her editor is played in a delicious performance by Tilda Swinton). One of their articles is "Does Garlic Change the Taste of Your Semen?" She is sent to interview a sports physician who has a cutting edge knee surgery technique. He's the "nice guy," and she violates journalistic integrity by sleeping with him.

They get along great, but Schumer is haunted by her father's years-long position that monogamy is not natural. He's played by Colin Quinn, and he steals every scene in his in. He ends up in a nursing home, and says of his old codger friend (played by centenarian Norman Lloyd) that he's been dead for three years but hasn't been alerted.

Then the romantic comedy tropes start popping up. Schumer has to take a call from Swinton during Hader's big speech, but it's the first time Swinton has been shown being that demanding. Then he starts in on her drinking and pot smoking. The only thing missing her is Schumer hooking up with a meatball, but that happens at the beginning of the movie when she's sleeping with a hunk played by wrestler John Cena.

The ending is terrible--it's right out of something that stars Jennifer Lopez or Kate Hudson. Schumer does change herself to conform to Hader's requests, such as that cheerleaders are fun people who make people happy. She also starts to soften to her sister (Brie Larson) who has a family and a really square husband (Mark Birbiglia). There's also an embarrassing intervention scene in which a variety of celebrities try to talk sense with Hader. Chris Evert is reduced to having to say the word "cock blocker."

But I will say that all the attention received by LeBron James as an actor is well-deserved. He is a natural on camera, and the scene in which he tries to divide the check for lunch with Hader is terrific.

Schumer is a bright talent, but I wish she and Apatow had gone a bit more for the throat in this film, such as not having the two stick together. Maybe next time.

My grade for Trainwreck: B-.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James, has some of the greatest dialogue I've ever read. At the same time, I understood almost nothing of what was going on. It's a long book, over 600 pages, but the vivacity of the writing kept me going even though I couldn't tell you much of the story.

I do know that much of it is either set in Jamaica of among Jamaicans, from the 1970s to the 1990s. The central event of the book is the attempted assassination of Bob Marley, known throughout the book as "the Singer." The criminal underworld of Kingston and its environs is prominently featured, as well as the CIA station chief there and a Rolling Stone reporter sent to cover the Rolling Stones 9who were recording Goat's Head Soup in Jamaica at the time time) who ends up deeply entrenched in the Marley shooting.

That's about all I can tell you. James writes great dialogue, but much of it is in Jamaican patois, which is difficult sledding. He needed to include a glossary, as I'd still like to know what "bombocloth" means. "Pussyhole" was a little easier to glean. He also writes dialogue without identifying the speaker, so I would end up in the middle of a great conversation but not knowing who was speaking or being spoken to.

The main characters are Josey Wales, who becomes the don of the city (and has taken his name from a Clint Eastwood character), Alex Pierce, the writer--one very entertaining chapter has him awakening to find a hit man sitting on his bed, and he tries to pretend he's still asleep, and Barry, the CIA guy, who exchanges insults regularly with his rivals. There is also a woman who moves to New York City and finds herself caring for an older white man with dementia. If I'm right, she takes on several different names throughout the book, but I admit I don't know why.

The opening chapter is narrated by a dead man, to give us the proper frame of mind. "This is a story of several killings, of boys who meant nothing to a world still spinning, but each of them as they pass me carry the sweet-stink scent of the man who killed me."

I made several notes throughout the book of the sterling prose of James. Here's an example: "I want to tell him he's not my friend, that I wouldn't befriend him if he was all that could stop me from being buttfucked raw by Satan and his ten big-dicked demons, but he's in that one mode where's he actually interesting." Or, "Josey Wales park him white Datsun and step out and the Singer look at him as him pass, then look through the office window straight at me. Brethren, lemme tell you, if eyes really did have beams like that boy in X-men comic, him would have have blast me to kingdom come and take the house with him."

The book is, as you might imagine, exceedingly violent, and has a graphic male gay sex scene that managed to make eyes wide open, and I don't shock easily.

So I give A Brief History of Seven Killings three stars. Wonderfully vivid, but exceptionally complicated.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Oscar 2016 Preview: Best Picture

Eddie Redmayne as "The Danish Girl"
It's time for back-to-school sales and looking forward to the fall slate of film releases, which are chock full of Oscar bait. In my annual round-up of my predictions for Best Picture (which is usually about fifty percent accurate) all but one of these films has not been released yet, which means I'm guessing blind. There is no real favorite yet, which makes it all pretty interesting right about now. As for the favorite, I've been doing this now for several years but I think I've only nailed the winner once at this time of year, and that was for 12 Years a Slave. Last year I had Unbroken, which wasn't even nominated.

In alphabetical order:

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg) You can never count out Spielberg, unless it's one of his sci-fi action flicks like Jurrasic Park or War of the Worlds. This one is a Cold War tale with Tom Hanks. Of course, they also made The Terminal together.

Brooklyn (John Crowley): A film about an Irish emigre in New York City, this film, starring Saorsie Ronan, looks like an old-fashioned film that Oscar used to love.

The Danish Girl (Tom Hooper): Hooper's last two films have been nominated in this category. It's about the person first recognized for having gender-change surgery, and stars last year's Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne. Gender identity is very much on the minds of many these days, so the zeitgeist might be right. I'll pick this as the picture to beat.

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino): Tarantino is on a two-film streak with Best Pictures, so why not this one, which has a large collection of cool actors in a Western? With Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained he's shown that blood-soaked pictures and over-the-top performances can still be nominated in this category.

Inside Out (Pete Docter): While the Academy had a mandatory ten-film slate of nominees, animated films got in (Toy Story 3 and Up). Not so since it's been anywhere from five to nine nominees. If it's ten this year, I think Inside Out, generally acclaimed as great by critics and audiences, will get in.

Joy (David O. Russell): Russell is on a three-film streak, and he is teaming with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro for the third time in this story of the woman who invented the Miracle Mop. Based on the pedigree, this has to be a contender.

The Revenant (Alejandro Innaritu): Last year's winner was directed by Innaritu, can he get two in a row? This film, about Leonardo DiCaprio as a mountain man bent on revenge, has been full of stories about problems in the set, but if it's good as it could be, it should be a lock.

Sicario (Denis Villaneuve): Starring Emily Blunt in a role the studio wanted a man to play, it seems to be about Mexican drug cartels and, with Benicio Del Toro as a co-star, reminiscent of Traffic. That would be a good thing.

Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle): There's already been one film about the Apple founder which bombed, starring Ashton Kutcher. The difference here is that it's Michael Fassbender as Jobs and the script was written by Aaron Sorkin. If he can do with Jobs what he did with Mark Zuckerberg, the film should be great.

Suffragette (Sarah Gavron): A story about the women's-right-to-vote moment in England, this film looks great in the trailer and has lots of great parts for women. But movies about women haven't won many Best Pictures.


Also in contention: Black Mass (Scott Cooper); By the Sea (Angelina Jolie); Carol (Todd Haynes); Freeheld (Peter Smollett); In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard); The Martian (Ridley Scott); The Secret in Their Eyes (Billy Ray); Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams); Trumbo (Jay Roach); Youth (Paola Sorrentino).



Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Madame Bovary

I'm in my fifties. I have a college degree. I consider myself very well read, especially when compared with the general population. Yet I seem to hit a wall when it comes to "classic" novels, especially those from the 19th century. I've enjoyed some Jane Austen, some Charles Dickens, but for many novels from that century I've crinkled my nose and thought, "I don't get it."

I can now add Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary to the list. This novel is acclaimed as one of the greatest ever, but I found it to be exceedingly boring and with a heroine who is one of the shallowest and least interesting I've ever come across. Adulterers were the subject of many of the century's biggest novels, such as Anna Karenina and The Scarlet Letter. I guess the concept of adultery was so shocking that it was even scandalizing to think about. Well, today it's not that big a deal, and I didn't find this book very interesting.

I liked the first part. The novel begins in the third person, with students commenting on a new pupil, the awkward Charles Bovary. Then it shifts to his point of view, as he marries an older widow. Lines like this made me think I was in for a good time: "Though she was ugly, as dry as a bone, her face with as many pimples as the spring has buds, Madame Dubuc had no lack of suitors."

The old woman dies, and Bovary, a country doctor, becomes enamored of the daughter of a patient. Eventually he marries her, and takes her away. It is at this point that the novel shifts viewpoint to Emma, the new Madame Bovary, and here is where the book goes south.

As the book goes on, she grows to hate her husband and has not one but two affairs. I can of course sympathize with a woman of that time, who has no choice in who she marries, but Flaubert casts Emma has a somewhat heartless woman. Many passages are taken up with how much she can't stand Charles: "Besides, she was becoming more irritated with him. As he grew older his manner grew heavier; at dessert he cut the corks of the empty bottles; after eating he cleaned his teeth with his tongue; in taking soup he made a gurgling noise with every spoonful; and, as he was getting fatter, the puffed-out cheeks seemed to push the eyes, always small, up in the temples."

Her shallowness is best exemplified in a section in which Bovary performs experimental surgery on a man with a club foot that at first seems to go well, and Emma sees him with new eyes. But when the man ends up losing the leg to gangrene, she wonders how she could have ever seen him positively.

The stuff with her lovers is very boring, not romantic or sexy, and there is a lot about provincial life, especially as she gets further in debt with a local merchant. By the time she swallows arsenic I thought good riddance.

So, Madame Bovary to me is no classic. It's a short novel but it took me a long time to read because I wasn't very interested in what happened next.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, had been in my Netflix queue so long that the whole scandal seems like ancient history. The film is almost ten years old, and many of the participants are dead or in jail, but there is still a cautionary tale here regarding regulation or deregulation, that is the question.

Enron was an energy company built by Kenneth Lay. At first it dealt with natural gas, and then bought an electric company. It became one of the biggest companies in the U.S., but as the tech bubble burst (they had gone into the broadband business as well) weird accounting practices began to be noticed. Namely, the stock was going up while the company was losing money.

It turned out that there was book cooking going on, with the debts hidden in partnerships by the CFO, Andrew Rastow. Questions were raised, specifically by an article in Forbes, and before the dust settled, the executives sold their stock, making millions, before the company declared bankruptcy.

If that weren't enough, traders in the West Coast office played havoc with power in California, causing rolling blackouts. The traders are recorded as having no concern with the citizens of the state, just in making money. Governor Gray Davis took the fall, while Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was cozy with Lay, was the new governor.

Lay was also cozy with the Bush family; in fact it was rumored he would be named Secretary of Energy. President George W. Bush did nothing to help Davis in California, even though it was a federal issue.

Lay is not the only culprit, in fact most of the movie is spent discussing Jeffrey Skilling, the COO of the company, who in Congressional testimony claimed to know nothing of what was going on. He repeatedly does not answer the question, "How did Enron make money." That's because, to use many metaphors, it was either a house of cards or smoke and mirrors, take your pick. Another common metaphor is the Titanic. But, as congressman point out, the captain of the Titanic went down with the ship, and didn't escape with hundreds of millions of dollars.

There is also a mysterious character named Lou Pai, who was CEO for a time and is described as having two motivations: making money and a "peculiar interest in strippers." He later married a stripper, and because he divorced he was forced to sell his stock, which saved him from prosecution.

This is the kind of shenanigans that made communism popular. Capitalism works great, but there has to be regulation, because shitheels like these have no ethics or morals. They destroyed the pensions and 401Ks of their employees, and drove the company into the dust, but aside from saying, "Sorry!" pocketed millions. Fortunately their cronies couldn't help them. Skilling went to prison, where he still is, while Lay died before he went to trial. Another unfortunate executive, Cliff Baxter, put a bullet in his head.

The director is Alex Gibney, one of the better documentarians at work these days. He has a very good sense of rhythm, knowing when to use interview subjects and footage from congress or stockholder meetings, and has a humours way with music. There are some great Tom Waits songs on the soundtrack (including "God's Away on Business") and, when talking about the smoke and mirrors part, Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy."

But we never learn. Deregulation later was a prime reason for the economic collapse of 2008. They should play this movie in Congress anytime some idiot wants deregulation. The higher you go up in business, the more greedy you are, apparently.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Guest

The Guest is really two movies. The first is a psychological thriller that is very intriguing and had me on the edge of my seat. The second half is a third-rate horror film, complete with one of my least favorite cliches--the villain who just won't die.

Directed by Adam Wingard, The Guest starts mysteriously, as an ex-soldier, played with the kind of combination of charm and creepiness that characterized Leave It to Beaver character Eddie Haskell, arrives at the door of a family. He tells them he knew their son, who was killed in the Middle East (not sure if it's Iraq or Afghanistan). They welcome him, and he starts doing things for them, like some sort of guardian angel. He beats up some bullies that terrorized the younger brother, and suddenly the dad's boss is dead, meaning he gets promoted.

During this part of the film, as we wonder just what he's up to, the daughter (Maika Monroe) makes some inquiries that shift the film into it's second phase. Military intelligence officers, lead by Lance Reddick, arrive to try to take him out. Here is where the film curdles, as we have a guy who is so well-trained that he is able to escape a half-dozen presumably just as well-trained operatives, killing most of them.

I won't give away what the big secret is, though it's not that interesting and defies plausibility. It all ends in a Halloween haunted house, cribbing from both Orson Welles and one of the Scream movies. It's all very routine and again, completely unbelievable, as we are led to believe the villain can survive a knife wound to the chest.

Dan Stevens, of Downton Abbey, is the unlikely star of the film. He's very good, and another great example of how a good actor can really play diverse roles. I'm sorry he didn't get a better script.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

It's All True

I'm reading a biography of Orson Welles and just finished the chapter about a film I knew nothing about: It's All True. It's a lost film, one of many made by Welles over his career, and as he tells it, it was the film that ruined his career in Hollywood.

After great successes by Welles on stage and in radio, he was wooed by many film studios and finally signed a three-picture deal with RKO. Citizen Kane was his first film, but though a critical success it did not do great business, perhaps because it angered William Randolph Hearst, who did everything he could to stop it.

Welles' second film for RKO was The Magnificent Ambersons, which was edited by the studio and released on the first half a double bill with a film called Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.

At this time Welles was approached by Nelson Rockefeller to make a sort of goodwill documentary about Latim America. The government put up some money as did RKO. Welles went off to Brazil to make a film about samba, while at the same time his team was finishing up his third film, Journey Into Fear. It's All True was to have been an omnibus film, with a story about a boy in Mexico, a segment about Carnival in Rio, and a true story about four men who sailed a raft around the coast of South America to petition the government.

While Welles was in Brazil the leadership of RKO changed and the new team basically fired Welles. The governments of both the U.S. and Brazil were both incensed by the Carnival footage, as Welles insisted on heading into the slums to find the roots of samba. Apparently neither country wanted this part of Rio shown, especially all the black faces. Some thought Welles had a fascination with blacks (he had already directed a black version of Macbeth and a stage adaptation of Richard Wright's Native Son) and they found this disturbing.

Welles managed to get enough money to finish Four Men on a Raft, though it was without dialogue. It is presented on this DVD, along with an explanatory documentary about all this. The raft sequence was filmed with the actual four men who accomplished it, but one of them drowned during filming.

As a bit of film arcana this is all fascinating. The raft portion plays very much like Man of Aran, a kind of stark but warm view of the fishermen of Brazil and their everyday lives. Welles created a love story--a young girl gets married, but her new husband is killed, but she has not benefits. The men go to Rio by boat to ask the ruler for help. They visit towns along the coast and are welcomed jubilantly once they reach Rio.

I'll be back to talk about the rest of the book after I've finished it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life

Frankly, I had never heard of Penelope Fitzgerald before reading this biography. Since then I have read one of her novels, The Blue Flower. But mostly I went into this completely blind. But it was on the New York Times Ten Best list for 2014, I love biographies of writers, and it was written by Hermione Lee, who wrote a terrific biography of Virginia Woolf.

Perhaps the most notable thing about her is that she wrote her first book at sixty, and became famous at eighty. That's certainly encouraging to hear for us over-fifties that have yet to be published. But Lee finds that Fitzgerald came from an interesting family and led an interesting, if at times harrowing, early life.

She was the granddaughter of two bishops, and grew up in an eccentric family. She later wrote a book about her mother's brothers, which she wrote about: "She describes them in The Knox Brothers as a brilliantly clever English family distinguished by alarming honesty, caustic wit, shyness, moral rigor, willpower, oddness and powerful banked-down feelings, erupting in moments of sentiment ot in violent bursts of temper and gloom.

Her father was an editor at Punch, the legendary British humor magazine. She attended Oxford--the women's college of Somerville--and worked for the BBC. She then married a war hero, Desmond Fitzgerald, and had three children. It wasn't entirely drudgery for her, though, she and Desmond had a go at a very ambitious literary magazine, she worked at a bookstore, and then was a teacher.

Lee writes about her early life by tying them to autobiographical novels. The BBC years were turned into Human Voices, the bookstore into The Bookshop, and a time living in a barge on the Thames turned into Offshore. But she did not write a book until she penned a biography of pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. Her first novel was a light thriller, The Golden Child, after which she was encouraged to write mysteries.

But she became a different kind of writer, a literary novelist who achieved some fame in the U.K. Her novel Offshore was a surprise winner of the Booker Prize, and she became a member of the literary set, judging competitions, writing reviews, and turning out short but well-crafted novels.

One of the problems of reading a biography of a writer you haven't read is you have to only believe the biographer's belief in her talent. Lee summarizes the novels, which can be difficult sledding. But, as a writer myself, supposedly, I was intrigued by the descriptions of her style and creative process. Fitzgerald wrote, "I am drawn...to people who seem to have born defeated or, even, profoundly lost."

Her later books were not autobiographical. She wrote about a secretive college in The Gates of Angels, Russia in The Beginning of Spring, and her last novel, The Blue Flower, was about the German romantic poet Novalis. That book, released when she was 80, made her a star of sorts.

Lee's book is certainly not a hagiography. She writes about the difficulties of the Fitzgerald marriage: "She knew...that Desmond was a failure. He was kind and devoted to her and the children. But he was not earning enough for the housekeeping; his professional life was going nowhere; he was spending money on drink."

Fitzgerald was devoted to her children and grandchildren, but never seemed to approve of her son's choice of wife. She also seemed to be something of a downer in her philosophy about life: "'Really the book is about what a great mistake it is to try and make other people happy.' The blurb notes: 'Trying to make other people happy is not only difficult but ruinous.'"

I would disagree with that, but I'm intrigued enough that I will try another of her books. I wasn't crazy about The Blue Flower; perhaps one of her earlier books will charm me. It's a great biography, though.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Tangerines

Tangerines is the fifth and last of last year's nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and I just might think it's the best. It is a tale of war that could have been set in any war, but happens to be about the George-Abkhazia War of 1992-93. What it tells us is that war is stupid and futile, no matter where it's fought.

It seems that a great number of Estonians (the film is an Estonian production, though shot in Georgia) settled in Georgia. When the war broke out, they returned to their home country. There are a few holdouts, namely Ivo (Lembi Ulfsak), a gaunt old man who makes crates in a partnership with his neighbor (Elmo Nuganen), who has a tangerine orchard. One day a skirmish occurs right in Nuganen's front yard. There are two survivors: a Chechen mercenary (Giorgi Nakashidze) and a Georgian (Mikhail Meshki). Ulfsak takes them both in.

Nakashidze, the lesser hurt, swears he will kill Meshki because he killed his friend. Ulfsak gets him to promise, on his honor, that he will not kill the man under his roof, and Nakadshidze agrees. Whem Meshki comes to after a bad head wound, he also agrees, but the tension is understandably thick as they try to live peacefully under this agreement.

Of course, when enemies are forced to confront each other and see each other as individuals, profound changes occur. Perhaps that is naive, but in a war like this one, which was basically over land, shooting at each other seems awfully silly. It is a movie, though, so I knew something had to give, and I was surprised but satisfied with how it turned out.

On the surface Tangerines, written and directed by Zaza Urushadze, is simple, but the message runs deep. It is a spare, gripping film, full of humanity but understanding the dark side of man. It is both hopeful and tragic.

I liked all five of the nominees this past year, and Ida was a worthy winner, but I might have cast my vote for Tangerines because it moved me just a bit more. But I don't have a vote and likely never will.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Irrational Man

In reflecting on Woody Allen's latest film, Irrational Man, my friend and I, who are both passionate Allen fans, agreed that even mediocre Allen is better than most films, and that Irrational Man is something of a mediocrity, but by that standard it's pretty good compared to other films.

I mean, what other director, whose work appears in multiplexes, expects you to know the difference between Kant and Kierkegaard and has a line like "Who needs another book on Heidegger and neo-fascism" that is supposed to be a joke? If some movies expect you to leave your brains at the door of the theater, Allen demands you hang on to them, and hopefully have one more than degree.

As usual with Allen in his late years (I assume they're late, the man turns 80 in December) is that he is cribbing from himself. Irrational Man resembles Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point, in that it deals with the morality of murder and, above all, moral relativism. This time he asks, through his main character, is it acceptable to kill someone to improve the common good?

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor new to Braden College, which appears to be in Newport, Rhode Island. Everyone says he is brilliant, which to me is telling and not showing. Phoenix is perpetually glum, carries a flask full of single malt scotch where ever he goes, has an impressive beer belly, and is impotent. Naturally he's lusted after by more than one woman.

His problem is that he has lost interest in life. He dutifully teaches, and attracts the interest of another faculty member (Parker Posey), who wants him to take her away to Spain. He also draws the interest of a student, Emma Stone, who has a boyfriend (Jamie Blackley), but she falls in love with Phoenix. Now, Allen, either completely tone-deaf to criticisms of making movies about younger women with older men, or figuring, "If it could happen to me..." doesn't help his cause by this, but I figure Allen doesn't really give a fuck about this by now. I will say a pairing between Phoenix and Stone is a lot less creepy than Stone and Colin Firth in last year's lamentable Magic in the Moonlight.

So, Phoenix is in a funk, even if he does have two attractive women chasing him, when he and Stone overhear a conversation about a corrupt judge. Energized, Phoenix decides to kill him, and a college romance is suddenly a murder thriller. Allen is pretty good with these--he could have been Agatha Christie in another life--and as with Match Point inserts uses an object we had forgotten about it to determine the climax.

There are problems with the movie, though, other than what I've mentioned. There's too much unnecessary voice over, in a key scene Phoenix too easily enters the elevator room of an office building (don't they lock those things?) and Blackley, as Stone's boyfriend, looks like a model from Abercrombie and Fitch and has absolutely no personality, other than that he likes sweaters. The other performers are good, but since it's been said Allen doesn't really give his actors direction they all seem to be acting in a different movie.

Phoenix, based on his last three roles (Her, Inherent Vice, and this one) has settled into a groove of playing shaggy dog like roles, but it suits him. I never really bought him as a philosophy professor, but I'm not sure what a philosophy professor really acts like. Stone is very impressive, putting a lot of emotion into the part, even as she doesn't quite seem to believe it. You may throw up in your mouth a little bit when, at dinner, she tells Phoenix, "I like when you order for me." Only someone extremely old-school like Allen would think a modern woman would like that. I suppose he orders for Soon-yi.

If I had to rank all of Allens' films I would say this comes somewhere in the middle, maybe a little lower, and as I said, that makes it one of this summer's better films.

My grade for Irrational Man: B-.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Lost Tribe of Coney Island

"Displaying human beings for the entertainment and edification of the paying public seems shocking today, but 'human zoos' were nothing new in the early 1900s, For more than four hundred years, exotic humans from faraway territories had been paraded in front of royal courts and wealthy patrons from Europe to Japan, and more recently at world's fairs and expositions as far afield as New York, Paris, and London. But what happened in Coney Island in 1905 was the result of two modern forces meshing: American imperialism and a popular taste of sensationalism."

So writes Claire Prentice in her mildly intriguing The Lost Tribe of Coney Island. The story is all there, complete with heroes and villains and a tribe of primitive Filipinos who are dragged around the North American continent, not understanding the language, unable to go home, their money stolen.

The tribe was the Igorrote, mountain people of Luzon, an island in the Philippines. That country had been part of the haul the U.S. received after winning the Spanish-American War, and now it was being discussed whether they would be allowed to govern themselves. Several indigenous and primitive tribes lived on the islands, and some, like the Igorrote, were headhunters, eaters of dog, and went nearly naked.

A medical doctor named Truman Hunt had first organized an exhibition of Igorrote at the 1904 St. Louis world's fair. He endeavored to do it again, anticipating great wealth. And the Igorrote were eager to go. Those not selected begged him to reconsider. He took several dozen tribespeople across the ocean to Vancouver, then to New York City, where the amusement park business was booming. There were rival parks, most notably Luna Park and Dreamland. Hunt made a deal with the former, and the Igorrote were set up in a display to be gawked at by New Yorkers for twenty-five cents.

Prentice neatly documents how the whole thing goes wrong, and how Hunt, who always claimed to be acting in the tribe's best interests, screwed them over. They were not allowed outside of their display area, and Hunt kept all their money, telling them he would give it to them when they returned home. But they didn't trust him, and tried to secrete money they earned from selling handcrafts, but Hunt forcibly took it from them. They were basically his slaves.

Hunt makes a classic villain in Prentice's book. Not only is he a thief, but he is a bigamist and a liar. He snuck the tribe across Surf Avenue to Dreamland, violating his contract, and then moved the Igorrote all over the country, sometimes splitting them up, without paying them. Eventually he drew the interest of the government in the Burea of Insular Affairs, and we get our hero, Frederick Barker, an agent, who doggedly tries to round up the tribespeople and send them home (they had been kept longer than the year agreed to). Hunt ended up on trial for theft in Memphis and was convicted, but it was overturned by a crony judge.

Prentice's story is atmospheric, especially in describing the world of Coney Island at that time, which was then the biggest tourist destination in America. She expresses sympathy all along for the Igorrote, and, as she notes, the idea of displaying humans like that now is completely repugnant to us.

But where the story gets bogged down is frequent speculation on the thoughts of her participants. She will write a sentence like: "Truman watched Laguima chattering excitedly with her friends, and couldn't help but think of Calista, his daughter back in Iowa. She would be thirteen now, not that much younger than Laguima. It was a long time since he'd seen her and he wondered what she looked like now. Did she have her mother's fine features?" This sentence is not footnoted, indicating it was in Hunt's journal or diary. How could Prentice possibly know what he was thinking at a certain moment? This is all through the book, giving it the air of a work of a fiction. Historians often speculate on the attitudes or motives of historical figures, but this seems way over the top.

Still, I recommend it to those like I am who are interested in the history of show business and Coney Island. There is a new book about Ota Benga, a pygmy who was displayed at the Bronx Zoo at roughly the same time (Prentice makes no mention of him) that I would like to check out.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Dear White People

Some people think we in the U.S. live in a "post-racial" society. After all, we have a black president. But as recent events concerning police brutality and the Confederate battle flag point out, we as Americans have a long way to go before racial prejudice and insensitivity are gone.

Dear White People, the debut film by Justin Siemen, is an intriguing and conversation-inducing film about students and administration at a fictional college, Winchester University, which is a prestigious but historically white college. Two percent of the student body is black, and a few are very vocal, notably Sam White (Tessa Thompson), who has a radio show called "Dear White People," in which she addresses what she finds to be the subtle indignities that whites inflict on blacks without even noticing it.

The other major characters are Troy (Brandon Bell), the son of the dean (Dennis Haysbert), who is pressured by his father to be a pillar of the community, and Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), the son of the university president, who heads the school humor magazine and is at frequent odds with the black students. Floating through without a side is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), gay, black, friendless, and sporting an Afro bigger than Oscar Gamble's.

Siemen, who also wrote, shows the complexity of race, especially in the hothouse environment of a college. Thompson, who is biracial, is in a relationship with a white guy. Some black students seem to be drawn to friendships with whites, perhaps envious of their status. Black students want a rule that assigns rooms randomly repealed, so they can have a dormitory of their own, a de facto self-segregation.

The climax of the film is when Kurt and his bodies throw a Halloween party that encourages those to release their "inner black," and so a lot of students attend in black-face or other insulting costumes. As the closing notes show, this is not a far-fetched idea, as several colleges have pulled this unadvised stunt over the last few years.

When I was in college, granted it was over thirty years ago, there was some of this. Black students tended to room together and eat together. They had the right to stay and eat anywhere they wanted, but chose not to. Just a few days ago Bernie Sanders, the most liberal candidate for president, had a rally disrupted by #blacklivesmatter, a worthy organization that seems to have trouble picking its targets.

No, we are not nearly post-racial. But I think sharp and clever and thoughtful films like Dear White People will help, in addition to being entertaining.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Husbands and Wives

When I saw Edward Burns' Sidewalks of New York a few weeks ago, I mentioned that it had unmistakable similarities to the films of Woody Allen, particularly Husbands and Wives. It so happens that I didn't own a copy of it, and hadn't seen in it in a long while, so I picked one up and watched it again. Though it has certain tropes that are very familiar to Allen, especially after his scandals, I consider it his last truly great film.

It was released in 1992, just after the reveal of the Mia Farrow-Soon-yi Previn stuff that dominated the newspapers (I was working in New York at the time, and I believe the story was on the front page of the Daily News for eight straight days). Suddenly Allen was a polarizing figure, and this only deepened after the accusation that he molested another of Farrow's adopted children, a prepubescent girl.

Therefore the film had some unintentional buzz when it was released. And it had, as Allen's films have unfortunately continued to do, a May-December romance. Allen seems to be completely tone-deaf today about pairing actors in romances who with men who are old enough to be the fathers of their co-stars (he did it last year in Magic in the Moonlight), but in Husbands and Wives it was still a relatively fresh thing, except considering that everybody knew Allen was having an affair with a barely legal girl who was his girlfriend's adopted daughter.

Anyway, Husbands and Wives, despite all that, holds up very well. It's the story of two couples, Allen and Farrow (who were making this film while she was discovering his deception) and Sidney Pollack and Judy Davis. The latter two arrive at the former's place before dinner to announce that they are splitting up--Farrow takes his very hard. We also are introduced to two techniques that garnered some discussion--the camera is moving, as if we were a participant (the DP was Carlo DiPalma) and the characters, as in Sidewalks of New York, are interviewed as if they were part of a documentary. The characters are not limited to the main four--we also get minor characters, such as the hooker Pollack visits and Farrow's first husband, played by Yale president Benno Schmidt.

Pollack and Davis find new romances. He takes up with an aerobics instructor far his junior (Lysette Anthony) and she has a half-hearted fling with Liam Neeson, Farrow having set them up. Of course Farrow is the one who is in love with Neeson, even as she and Allen have what seems to be a fine marriage. But then he becomes besotted with one of his college students (Juliette Lewis).

Husbands and Wives is funny and has some very sharp dialogue. There's a great scene in which the tightly wound Davis (she specializes in tightly wound) goes to meet a guy for a date, but can't help but call Pollack, whom she discovers is now living with Anthony. Then, Pollack shows up, drunk, at Davis' house while Neeson is staying over. There's also a great scene in the back of a cab when Lewis, who admires Allen as a writer, starts to tell him what she thinks is wrong with his novel in progress. Allen gets petulant, but the camera stays on Lewis, not getting upset. It's a great performance by Lewis, even if she is a kind of male fantasy. Not the manic pixie dream girl, but instead the Ivy League hottie, who has left a trail of older men as ex-lovers.

The climax of the film is when Allen attends Lewis' 21st birthday party and they have a moment in the kitchen alone. She wants a kiss, and against his better judgement he kisses her, and what would have been a very romantic moment is made repugnant by Allen's personal life. But it's still a great scene, as he tells her that "50,000 dollars of psychotherapy is dialing 9-1-1." After the kiss he decides not to pursue a relationship, and of all the characters in the film he remains alone.

Husbands and Wives looks great, shot in autumnal colors and cozy apartments. It being Allen, there are some familiar things, such as the names Dostoevsky and Joyce being dropped in the first minute of dialogue. Dostoevsky comes up again, when he tells Lewis that Tolstoy is a meal, while Turgenev is a dessert. "And Dostoevsky?" she asks. "He's a complete meal, with a vitamin and some extra wheat germ," he replies. The film is also peppered with Allen's use of comic Jewish names, like Pepkin and Rifkin and Feldman, which he still does in New Yorker pieces. Perhaps most unforgivably is his treatment of Anthony's character. Allen, when seeing her for the first time, tells Pollack that he's nuts for dating her, because "she's a cocktail waitress." Not that she's too young, but she's not intellectual enough. Later, he will humiliate the character because she believes in astrology.

Despite these misgivings, Husbands and Wives is one of Allen's best films, certainly in his top five. And now I have a copy, hurray!

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Mr. Mercedes

I haven't read all of Stephen King's novels--that would take some doing--but I've read his last few, and I think he's reached a new state of excellence. He hasn't really changed that much; it's not like he's writing Anna Karenina knock-offs, but his writing has taken on a wisdom that perhaps only old age can supply (he's 67, not that much older than me, but you know what I mean).

Mr. Mercedes is a terror-filled book, but it is not horror, in the sense that there's nothing supernatural about it. It's a murder story, but the murderer is flesh and blood but about as scary an individual as I've come across recently. The detective is a bit out of the box, one the inklings that King has matured as a writer.

The book starts with the crime. A group of people lined up to enter a job fair are mowed down by a guy in a Mercedes. Detective Bill Hodges is the investigating officer, and he was never able to solve it before his retirement. Now he's eating too much, sitting in a recliner, watching bad afternoon TV with his father's service revolver beside his side, suicide in the back of his mind. But then he gets a taunting letter from the killer, which rejuvenates him.

I should say at this point that any real policeman, retired or not, would immediately turn over the letter to the police, but Hodges does not. This wreaks of what Roger Ebert referred to as the "idiot plot," but Hodges is no idiot, and King bends over backwards to justify Hodges keeping everything he does, including recruiting civilians to help him, out of the police's hands. If he turned over the letter, or any other evidence, the book would be over, so we sort of have to either give him a pass or toss the book aside.

King is also kind to his hero, who is fat and balding and in his sixties, by giving him a sexual romance. This doesn't work as well, and if I were writing something like this I'd probably cut it all out. It's somewhat essential to the plot, but not as corny as King makes it.

Kind alternates chapters between Hodges and the killer, Brady Hartsfield, a first-class psychopath. He's racist, megalomaniac, and gets handjobs from his mother. He's also given two occupations that already most of us find unsettling--those guys who drive VWs to come fix your computer, and an ice cream truck man. He's also a computer expert, and in this day and age these kinds of killers can really give you the willies, realizing they know how to discover all your secrets. Given that King is not the kind of writer to steer us wrong, we await his comeuppance, and the ending, when Hodges and his friends stop Hartsfield from blowing up a concert hall full of teenage girls, is really well done.

King, as usual, litter his book with pop culture references and even meta moments. His characters are almost aware that they are fictional characters, such as when Hodges notes: "Maybe he could be Philip Marlowe after all. He imagines himself in a ratty two-room office that gives on the third-floor hallway of a cheap office building. Hiring a va-voom receptionist with a name like Lola or Velma. A tough-talking blonde, course. He'd wear a trenchcoat and a brown fedora on rainy days, the heat pulled down to one eye." Hodges does end up with a fedora, and it's an essential prop in the story.

His meta moments refer to his own books, which is cheeky but fun: "'You ever see that TV movie about the clown in the sewer?' Hodges shook his head. Later--only weeks before is retirement--he bought a DVD copy of the film, and Pete was right. The mask-face was very close to the face of Pennywise, the clown in the movie."

King is also very skillful at strategically dropping in moments of foreshadowing, the kind that is not subtle, but downright spoilers, such as saying that something someone says is the last words they will say on Earth, and bam!--they are killed in the next paragraph. Or he will plant a line chapters ahead of time, seeding the back of our minds: "Then Hodges says something that will haunt him for the rest of his life."

When I searched for this quote, I used the word "haunt," and I was kind of surprised to see how many times King uses it. I guess in a way this is a supernatural novel, because there is a lot of haunting, and ghosts, though they be imagined, are real to those who experience them.

Friday, August 07, 2015

The Most Dangerous Game

I was inspired to watch The Most Dangerous Game, a film from 1932 by the makers of King Kong, because of the controversy over the killing of Cecil, the lion in Zimbabwe, by American dentist Walter Palmer. Big game trophy hunting, to many people, is an antiquated and horrifying "sport," but even when it was much more popular, there were those who saw it as it was--a way for men to compensate for things lacking in their character.

Based on a short story, The Most Dangerous Game was directed by Ernest Schoedsack and and Irving Pichel, produced by Schoedsack and Merian Cooper, the directors of King Kong. It's a story that has been intertwined in pop culture ever since--the notion that man is the toughest animal to hunt. I distinctly remember a Gilligan's Island episode when a big game hunter tries to track down Gilligan.

In this version, a yacht is shipwrecked off the coast of a mysterious island. The only survivor is a celebrated big game hunter, Joel McRea. In the beginning of the film he suggests that the animals he hunts, such as tigers, are in on the thrill of it all, and may enjoy it just as he does.

He washes ashore on the island and finds a big creepy mansion. It is owned by Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a Russian who's great passion is hunting. He tells his guests, which include siblings Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, that he has become bored with hunting, but has now been energized by a new animal, which he calls "the most dangerous game." He won't show them his trophy room.

The film ends with an exciting chase through the jungle as Banks, playing what he calls "outdoor chess," hunts down McRae and Wray. They try setting traps for him, but he's too smart to fall for them. Of course, he will get his, and McRae sees what it's like to be hunted--"Now I know how the animals I hunt feel."

I'm not one to suggest films be remade, but this one is a prime candidate. Peter Jackson would have done well to remake this instead of King Kong, which didn't need improvement. The Most Dangerous Game had a limited budget and is only 63 minutes long. The first person hunted is the drunken Armstong, which happens entirely off-screen. To see this now, with a big budget, would be thrilling, and timely as well. Maybe Ted Nugent could play the guy being hunted.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Help!

Today is the 50th anniversary of the release of the Beatles fifth LP, Help!, which was in turn a soundtrack album of their second film, also called Help! In this post, I'll discuss both the record and the movie.

First I need to clarify which Help! I'm talking about, as two different versions were released in the U.K. and the U.S. The U.K. version had the songs from the film on Side 1, and other songs on Side 2. The North American release was a true soundtrack, with instrumentals filling in between the songs, and the songs that were on Side 2 were scattered on other U.S. releases. For example, I've always known "I've Just Seen a Face," to be on Rubber Soul, but in the U.K. it was on Help! For the purposes of this blog, and since my CD Beatles' collection is of U.K. versions, that's the one I'll write about.

To me, Help! is the bridge between the "early" Beatles and the "late" Beatles. These guys were still not yet 25, but with Help! reached a kind of maturity, and the songwriting is much more sophisticated. It begins with the title track, which John Lennon wrote because he was told that was the name of the movie. The result was, sonically, a very good pop song, but when the lyrics are examined, one can see the pain he was in:

"When I was younger so much younger than today
I never needed any help in any way
But now those days are gone I'm not so self-assured
Now I find I've changed my mind
I've opened up the door"

Lennon later spoke of the song being a cry for help, that he was in his "fat Elvis" years and really needed assistance. The music also gives the impression of someone sinking into despair, as the George Harrison guitar riffs before each line give the song the quality of descent.

The Beatles had obviously been influenced by Bob Dylan. Supposedly he turned them on to marijuana, but that's probably apocryphal. He did, consciously or not, get them to write songs with a more serious bite. No longer was love puppyish and optimistic--now we got songs like "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," which has Dylan all over it. Lennon also composed one of my favorites, "Ticket to Ride,"  another song about lost love. The Beatles, who were so cheery, were now seeming downright cynical.

Paul McCartney was also writing songs with more bite. "Another Girl" is a kiss-off song where he brags about his new girlfriend to an ex. This is kind of harsh:

"She's sweeter than all the girls and I met quite a few
Nobody in all the world can do what she can do
And so I'm telling you, "This time you'd better stop"
For I have got another girl"

Also on the U.K. version of this album is McCartney's "Yesterday," which is the most covered song in the history of popular music (2,200 covers). He recorded the song without any of the other Beatles, just him and a string quartet. The melody came to him in a dream, and before he wrote lyrics the place-holder title was "Scrambled Eggs." It became a number one hit and perhaps more than other Beatles' song established them as more than just pop idols.

As for the film, it's kind of a glorious mess. They stuck with Richard Lester, who had masterfully directed A Hard Day's Night. This time they had more money and more time, so the film was shot in three different countries. It was an attempt at a kind of humor that the combined elements of the Marx Brothers and The Goon Show, but to me it tries way too hard and the humor is coarser and dumber than A Hard Day's Night.

There are a lot of sight gags, mostly in the Beatles' flats. They all enter through separate entrances, but on the inside we see that it's one large space. Ringo has an automat, Paul has some kind of exotic Wurlitzer-type organ, and George has a carpet made of grass, and a gardener who trims it with Chattering Teeth.

The plot concerns a murderous eastern cult who needs a ring to complete their sacrifices. It happens to be stuck on Ringo's finger, so they chase him for it. Two bumbling scientists (the wonderful Victor Spinetti and Roy Kinnear) get in on the chase, and the Beatles end up in far-off places like Austria and the Bahamas.

They seem to be enjoying themselves during the film, and therein lies the problem: they were stoned throughout the making of it. The filming was described as being shot through a "haze of marijuana." There's not as much banter between the lads as was in the first film, and what there is of it seems sluggish. Too much emphasis is put on the villains than the Beatles, which led John to say that they seemed like extras in their own movie.

Still, the film is groundbreaking in some ways, particular in the evolution of the "music video." Lester, to his consternation, has been called the father of the music video. This all links back to his short film, The Running Jumping and Standing Still Film, which the Beatles admired. He used the techniques of jump cut and unusual framing to insert the songs into the film. The best example is that of "Ticket to Ride," set on the ski slopes of Austria. The Beatles, who didn't know how to ski, are shown frolicking in the powder while the song plays. It set the standard for many videos to come.

Some parts of Help! are torturous to watch, especially for a Beatles fan, but overall it's a pleasant way to kill an hour and a half. There is too much anarchy and too much absurdity (but who can't love that the closing shot is a dedication to Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine--very Pythonesque) but there are great songs and we get to see these great artists when they were young and nearing the peak of their creative powers.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E

I always find it helpful to wait a day or two after seeing a film to write about it. It gives me time to digest it in my brain, and my feelings often change. For example, I went to an advanced screening of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. on Monday night, and left thinking it was okay. The crowds at these things are generally enthusiastic--maybe they're in a good mood because it's free.

But after chewing on it a while, I realize how misguided and dumb this film is. Directed by Guy Ritchie, and based on a TV series that no one under 50 is probably familiar with, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. attempts to do just what the show did--cash in on the craze for spy films, particularly James Bond and his imitators, like Matt Helm or Flint.

I barely remember the show, which ran from 1964 to 1968, but I remember the ephemera that came from it, like action figures and lunch boxes. In effect, this film is really an adaption of the lunch box.

The gimmick here is that it's the height of the Cold War, and an American CIA agent, Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and a KGB agent, Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are forced to team up to stop a billionaire (who has a private island, of course) from making his own nuclear warhead. They enlist a scientist's daughter (Alicia Vikander) to help them, but she's got her own secrets. Much of the film is the hostile byplay between the two agents, and a lot of double entendres. It's an action comedy that is pretty good with action but not so hot with comedy.

The opening sequence, when Cavill gets Vikander out of East Berlin while Hammer is chasing them, was so good that it set me up for disappointment. There's also a pretty good chase on the winding roads of somewhere in Italy. But too much of the film is just flash--lots of great period frocks for Vikander to wear, and comic moments when the anger-management-challenged Hammer beats the tar out of someone who annoys him.

I admire that Ritchie has set the film in the '60s instead of updating it, so it looks great. But the script is a mess, not making much sense. The real villain of the piece is the billionaire's wife, a Lady Macbeth type played with coiled elegance by Elizabeth Debicki. This is a nice twist on the villain thing, but not enough is done with it. I did laugh at sight gag in which she demands the phone after Cavill taunts her.

Hugh Grant is on hand as their boss Waverly, who was played by Leo G. Carroll in the TV series (goodness, can Grant be that old?). He does his Hugh Grant thing, and almost seems like an impersonation of himself. The film ends with a declaration that a sequel is intended, but if there is they've got to come up with a better story or it will just be all sizzle and no steak.

My grade for The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: C-.