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Wednesday, September 30, 2015

In the Kingdom of Ice

One of the best historians for a popular audience is Hampton Sides. I loved his book Blood and Thunder, and he's back with a book about a subject that can't help but get my antennae up--Arctic exploration, in In the Kingdom of Ice.

Tales of explorers trying to find the North Pole are legion, especially that of the British ship known as the Franklin. In the latter half of the 19th century, many ships worked their way up past Greenland, only to become wedged in the ice and lost. Then ships sent after them for rescue would become lost.

Sides focuses on a voyage I had not heard of before, that of the USS Jeannette, captained by a seasoned Arctic sailor, George de Long. Although a commissioned US Navy ship, the mastermind and money behind the mission was James Gordon Bennett, owner of the New York Herald. Bennett was also the man who hired Stanley to find Livingstone.

"The North Pole. The top of the world. The acme, the apogee, the apex. It was a magnetic region but also a magnetic idea. It loomed as a public fixation and a planetary enigma--as alluring and unknown as the surface of Venus or Mars." Many scientists and geographers imagined that the North Pole might be an open sea, where there may be an undiscovered race of people, or even a tropical zone. "Many improbable ideas had been floated to explain the Open Polar Sea. Some people said it was due to the churning effects of the earth's rotation. Others said it was caused by heat vents, or by some extreme magnification of the sun's rays that occurred at the poles."

De Long, who was a "pagophile," someone happiest on the ice, tried to find the Pole through the Pacific, rather than the Atlantic. Several theories held that a current would sweep him up through the Bering Strait. He found this was not true, as was the notion of an open sea. De Long, fairly early in the voyage, found himself stuck in the ice--in August. He and thirty-two crew members and two dozen dogs floated around the Arctic Circle, firmly embedded in ice. They stayed this way for over a year, and in the meantime those back home had no idea how they were doing.

A rescue ship was sent, the Corwin, which was notable for having John Muir, the future environmentalist, on board. They heard rumours about the Jeannette, but did not find her. Eventually, the ship succumbed to the pressures of the ice and sank. The crew members now had to head on foot towards Siberia. "Yet they trudged on, sunburned and chapped-lipped, dressed in sour-smelling pelts, wearing slitted ice goggles, singling galley songs as they slogged over the impossible expanses of crust and rubble and sludge."

Sides weaves a magnificent tale that has a lot going for it. From Bennett's eccentric ways--he was banished from society for a time after urinating into a fireplace at a party--to the personalities of the crew (one man suffered from syphilis, and ended up with eye problems. Try not tor read about the doctor performing surgery on his eye without anesthetic without wincing), the story moves along at a cinematic pace. It's amazing that they were able to survive for so long--over two years--before the crew was separated into three parts, each thinking the other lost.

The last part of the book is thrilling. They have made landfall, which for a while seemed impossible, but have to find civilization in order to be saved, and there's not much action on the Northern coast of Siberia. The men are extremely haggard, and the description of frostbite, with toes lost or worn down to the bone, are gruesome. Two men head off to try to find a village, and they do, and then there is a miraculous reunion, and a man named Melville becomes the hero, spending months trying to find De Long. I won't spoil the ending.

I sort of would like to go where they went, if I could be assured to having a nice warm cabin and plenty of food and medicine. They, of course, had no such guarantees, and their bravery is astonishing. Some of the men couldn't resist the allure of the North, even after ships were lost and hardships exposed. No matter how jaded we are in this age, where a trip to the North Pole can take a matter of minutes in a jet, tales of heroic exploration send a chill down my spine, especially when they are told by the skillful Hampton Sides.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Rectify

Rectify, an original series from the Sundance Channel, is challenging TV. A first series of six episodes aired in 2013, which I just finished watching.

The show deals with the release of a man (Aden Young) who has spent nearly twenty years on death row for the murder of a teenage girl. He is sprung on what some call a technicality--DNA found on the victim did not match Young's. But the prosecutor who tried the case, now a state senator, is hell-bent on getting him retried. Meanwhile his family is happy to have him home.

The show revolves the strange performance of Young. What is it like to spent twenty years in a box, and then get released into the wide world? I'm not sure, but Young plays it as if he had just emerged from a coma, and perhaps that's not far off. He walks around like a zombie, is amazed by new things like video games, and enjoys recreating childhood memories like riding a bike.

His family is a bit fractured. His mother (J. Smith Cameron) has remarried to the man who now owns the family business, a tire store. His only other full relation is his sister (Abigail Spencer), who fiercely fights for his innocence. He has one younger half-brother and step-brother (Clayne Crawford), who is the show's asshole. He is married to a devout woman (Adelaide Clemens) who wants Daniel to embrace the Lord.

The show is very slow paced, and is challenging because it does not conform to the standard beats of most dramas. One could say that not much happens, and we simply watch like scientists observing an interesting species. The dynamics between the family and the town--most of whom believe Young is guilty--are tense, but until the last episode, not violent. This kind of minimalism makes even the quietest event seem louder.

I can't say I would recommend this show to many. It plays out like a very literary novel. There are no revelations, and many unanswered questions. Two other men were with Young when the girl was killed. One of them kills himself, and the other one finds his body and lets it float down a river. We don't know if Young is guilty or not--he doesn't even seem to know it (he confessed, but his team are convinced it was coerced). In short, this is what they might call "thinking man's TV," but when I see something like this I'm reminded why unthinking man's TV is sometimes more satisfying.

I can't be sure I'll ever return to see the other seasons of this series. I just wasn't hooked by it, despite it's many good qualities.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Charlotte Gray

I'm a sucker for French resistance pictures. After all, as Woody Allen said in Annie Hall, "They were so brave, having to listen to Maurice Chevalier sing." There is no Maurice Chevalier in Charlotte Gray, but there is a lot to recognize, such as rainy, windswept French landscapes, old houses, menacing Gestapo, and bread and cheese. And, at the end, the movie finally wakes up.

Cate Blanchett is our heroine, a Scottish woman who is fluent in French and eager to help her country in any way during the war against the Huns. She is recruited and undergoes a kind of spy boot camp, where she learns to shoot a gun and that France is divided into two zones, the Nazi-controlled north, and Vichy south, where France is free but collaborating with the enemy. She is sent to a small town with a fake identity to help the cause.

This is complicated at first by her attachment to a British flier who has been lost over France. Blanchett, in meeting with a courier, makes a slip that costs the woman her life. She will then be stashed in a colleague's father's house. He is Billy Crudup, fiercely communist and with cheekbones to die for, and the father is the reliably excellent Michael Gambon, a crusty old bird who gets sentimental when he cares for two Jewish children.

The film, directed by Gillian Armstrong, moves quietly at a snail's pace until the end, when the Nazi noose forms tight. Someone betrays them, and Gambon is taken away, since his grandparents were Jewish.

The whole thing is very tasteful and decorous. Blanchett, who is in almost every scene, is photographed luminously. The very first shot is a close-up of her face, and in some ways that's what the movie is about, a beautiful woman's face, not much else.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mothman's Curse

This book for middle-school kids was given to me to read because the other, Christine Hayes, will be making an appearance at our school. I found it to be a very engaging supernatural thriller, reminding me of the days I used to read Hardy Boys mysteries or The Three Investigators. I also appreciated that Hayes does not cop out and go "Scooby Doo"--this book has real ghosts.

Josie Fletcher is the oldest of three kids in Athens, Ohio. Her father runs an auction house. Her younger brother, Fox, has found an old Polaroid camera for sale. Being young kids in 2015, they hardly know how it works, and when they take pictures they find a mysterious figure in the pictures, even though there's nobody there in real life.

They eventually figure out that the man in the figure is John Goodrich, a recluse who has recently died. Their dad is going to auction off his estate. When they visit his house, the dad ends up falling down the stairs after seeing a creature with red eyes. It is the Mothman.

The Mothman is an actual urban myth, and Hayes even references that movie that was made called The Mothman Prophecies, which dealt with a collapsed bridge between West Virginia and Ohio in 1967. It is thought that the Mothman turns up before a disaster. Hayes has cleverly given Mothman a back story, which includes a cursed pin that Josie ends up with. The ghost of Mr. Goodrich helps them avery a disaster, and breaks the curse.

Mothman's curse is well paced and has some nice scares. For very small readers there might be some nightmares, as Mothman is supposed to be seven to nine feet tall, with red eyes and leather wings, not someone you want to run into on a dark night. However, I'm not sure I will teach this book in class, for it really doesn't contribute to any literary analysis. It's simply a good read. I would recommend it to kids who like scary books to read on their own.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Office Killer

Here's the thing about cult films--no one sets out to make one. Cult films gain cult status because they find that niche. But Cindy Sherman, the renowned photographer, seemed to have set out to make a cult film with Office Killer, released in 1997. The result is an off-key exercise in self-conscious directing that is highly unsatisfactory.

Sherman is one of the greatest photographers of her generation, known for the series Untitled Film Stills, so it would be only natural that she would make a film, and that it wouldn't be a generic one. Office Killer, like Mike Judge's Office Space that would come later, is an attempt to portray the soul-crushing atmosphere of office work, and also of the technology that helps squeeze that soul out of us (interestingly, of course, that technology is completely obsolete now--dot matrix printers and such).

The setting is a Consumer Reports-like magazine where workers are either being laid off or reduced to part-time and home-office workers. Carol Kane plays a mousy copy editor who has worked there for years. Jeanne Tripplehorn and Molly Ringwald also play workers there. Kane has been banished to working at home, where she cares for her crippled and mean mother (Alice Drummond). One night she is working late and she seeks the help of an obnoxious writer to fix her computer. She accidentally electrocutes him, which starts her on a killing spree.

Office Killer is expressionistic, and has little to do with reality. Kane sets up the corpses in her basement as if they were here friends, and she is given a backstory of being sexually abused by her father. I'm afraid none of this really works, and the film ends up a generic schlock-horror show.

Sherman's touches are interesting but off-putting: the lighting is all garish oranges and reds, dominated by fluorescent light. There's a grim humor to the proceedings (Kane kills the publisher by substituting butane in her asthma inhaler) but there's no wit to it.

Sherman never made another movie, which is too bad. If you've seen her photographs, she's sort of been making an epic American movie over the last thirty or so years. Office Killer seems like a blip along the way.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Series 7: The Contenders

Series 7: The Contenders, is not a great film, but I found it eerily prescient. It was released in 2001, only a year after Survivor, the granddaddy of reality shows, debuted. Since then we've had shows with people competing to be everything from tattoo artists to weathermen. Why not a show in which contestants try to kill each other?

Suzanne Collins, who wrote The Hunger Games, said she was inspired by flipping channels and seeing Survivor and war footage from Afghanistan. But Hunger Games was published in 2008, and writer/director Daniel Minahan seems like Nostradamus when we see that his film has come close to predicting the future of television.

The premise of the film is that a TV show, with the blessing and cooperation of the government, features six people, their names drawn by their social security numbers. The reigning champion is Dawn Lagarto (Brooke Smith), a single, pregnant woman. She will face five new contenders (it seems a drawback that the winner must defend their title, which means they will either die or defend for the rest of their lives). The new contenders are an eighteen-year-old girl (Merrit Wever of Nurse Jackie fame), a middle-aged nurse, a crazy old man, an unemployed father of three, and a man with testicular cancer. He turns out to be Smith's old flame, when they were goths back in high school.

The idea is great, but I found the execution wanting. It's shot in video, like a TV station, with hushed and serious narration by Will Arnett. But I failed to see anyone employing any strategy. If you were in a game where someone was trying to kill you, would you continue to live at home, where anyone could find you? I admit I wondered what my strategy would be--would I go underground and wait it out, or would I be aggressive and try to take people out?

The film ends something like The Hunger Games does, with the two loves ending up needing to kill each other, or revolt from the game. The last shot is amusing, though.

Smith is a fine actress. She was Catherine Martin in The Silence of the Lambs, living in Buffalo Bill's basement hole. She was also a magnificent Sofia in Vanya on 42nd Street. She gives a terrific performance here, appearing to be a slovenly welfare queen on one hand, but possessing more heart and courage in private.

Series 7: The Contenders is a decent film, but it could have done a lot more with the subject, which is endless--the American thirst for violence and bad taste.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Nightmare on Elm Street

Finishing my look at the seminal films of Wes Craven, I turn to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which spawned several sequels and one of the most iconic villains in modern horror. Amazingly, I had never seen it before, though I did see Freddy vs. Jason. Go figure.

The film was released in 1984, and horror was now in a new era. The slasher film, which was already in full swing when Nightmare was released, was taken to new places by Craven's creativity. Instead of a typical psycho that can't be killed, like Jason from the Friday the 13th movies, Freddie Krueger was a supernatural villain, who could do things that no mortal could do. He could enter your dreams.

While the film was much more luxuriously made than Craven's early films, it still looks crude, and despite the appearance of professional actors like John Saxon and Ronee Blakley, the acting is something stiff. But the film moves along briskly, without fat, and held me in great interest.

We start in mystery, as unknown figure wearing razor-fingered gloves enters a girl's dream. She is Amanda Wyss and, as usual in this sort of thing, is killed first because she has sex. The mysterious man is in her dream and slashes her to death, but to her boyfriend, watching in the bedroom, she is killed by an invisible presence. He is arrested for the crime, and ends up hanging to death in his own cell.

Eventually, after her daughter (Heather Langenkamp) is stalked by a killer in her dreams, Blakley reveals that Krueger was a child murderer who was released from custody on a legal technicality. She and a few other mothers cornered him and burned him to death, which accounts for Krueger's bad complexion. How he came back to life and enters other's dreams is left unsaid, but of course how could that be explained?

Langenkamp sets a trap for Krueger (he's played by Robert Englund), but not before her boyfriend (Johnny Depp in his film debut) is dispatched. The showdown is quite good, but a little fuzzy on the details.

This is not my favorite kind of horror--I prefer the old Universal stuff--but I can see why this film is revered. It's not particularly bloody--as with most good horror films, the violence occurs mostly off-screen, and the thrills are built through anticipation--but certainly raises the hair on the back of your neck. And, as the film gets right, dreams do appear as reality when you're going through them.

I find it interesting that as with other Craven films, A Nightmare on Elm Street has esoteric origins Craven got the idea from Cambodian men who were dying in their sleep. The Gary Wright song "Dreamweaver" was also an inspiration, and Craven got revenge on a bully from his childhood--Fred Krueger. If you hear that name now you picture a sinister man in a floppy hat and red and green sweater.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Yogi Berra

It's hard to imagine the world of baseball without Yogi Berra, who died yesterday at the age of 90. He was an integral part of the game for some 70 years, until age and infirmity slowed him down and he stopped making public appearances. He was a unique baseball figure because he had two distinct parts of his career--a great catcher, who holds the World Series record for hits (71), and then a cuddly grandfather type who pitched Yoo-Hoo and was famous for his malapropisms.

I'm old enough to remember Berra not as a player (though he did play while I was alive) but as a manager. He managed the '73 Mets to an improbable pennant, and the phrase "It's not over 'til it's over" was coined. He had managed the Yankees, but was fired after losing the World Series to the Cardinals in 1964. During the season, he was grumpy about a losing streak, and Phil Linz was playing a harmonica. Accounts differ, but some say Berra knocked it out of his mouth, which shows he wasn't just a teddy bear. The man was a competitor.

Berra, though not the greatest catcher of all time, statistically speaking, was a manager on the field for Casey Stengel's Yankee teams of the '50s. He was also a bad-ball hitter, but didn't strike out much. As a catcher he handled pitching staffs with great aplomb. There are two scenes of him as a player that stick out in my mind--his hugging Don Larsen after the perfect game in the '56 World Series (almost taking Larsen down) and his jumping to his feet, livid, after Jackie Robinson was called safe stealing home in the '55 Series (Berra, to his dying day, said he was out).

Berra had a long career as a coach and manager, but it was spoiled in 1985 when George Steinbrenner, then a man who couldn't keep a manager for long, fired him in the third week of the season and through an intermediary. Berra refused to set foot in Yankee Stadium for years, until Steinbrenner apologized to him (in person). That led to a Yogi Berra day in 1999, and Yankee pitcher David Cone threw a perfect game.

Berra is probably best known for his "Yogi-isms," those twisted statements that he may or may not have said. They are legion, and I can't list them all. But the best, and the ones that are most proven that he said are, "I'd like to thank everyone for making this day necessary." "When you come to the fork in the road, take it." "Baseball is ninety percent half mental." "No one goes to that restaurant, it's too crowded." "You can observe a lot by watching." "It's deja vu all over again."

One of my favorites I haven't seen in obituaries, which makes me think he may not have said it. Supposedly he looked at a box score and saw that a hit he had made was listed as an error. Someone told him it was a typographical error. "Error? That was a clean single."

Berra, who was born Lawrence Peter Berra, got the nickname Yogi because he reminded a teammate of a yogi, whether it was from a movie or the way Berra sat cross-legged. When I was a kid, I assumed he got the nickname from Yogi Bear. Of course, it was the other way around.

So long, Yogi. You made watching baseball fun. Your like will never be seen again.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Last House on the Left (1972)

Getting back to Wes Craven, I finally saw his first horror film, Last House on the Left, which is something of a touchstone to modern-day horror films. It was improbably based on an Ingmar Bergman film (The Virgin Spring), and although is very cheap and crude looking, manages to instill a level of dread about the state of humanity that still has power.

Craven began his career making porn films, and Last House on the Left looks like a porn film from the era, shot in 16 millimeter and with some clumsy edits and terrible acting. But one can see a glimmer of Craven's talent in the nihilistic approach to the subject. A girl about to celebrate her 17th birthday, Mari, leaves her rural home to go to a concert in the big city (she's seeing a band called Bloodlust). When she and her girlfriend go looking to buy some pot, they run into a quarter of thrill-killers, led by a guy named Krug Stillo (David Hess).

The girls are abused in an apartment in the city, and then dumped in a trunk and driven, in a remarkable coincidence, to Mari's neighborhood, where the car stalls. The killers take the girls out to the woods for sexually deviant activities, and then kill the girls. Mari's parents, who are wondering where she is, accept the killers into their home when they claim to have car trouble. The parents will eventually find out they killed Mari, and exact revenge.

Last House on the Left is a short film, about 80 minutes, but still seems padded. There are long scenes of the two girls frolicking in the woods (they pull up a bottle of Boone's Farm out of a creek) and then another long scene of two of the killers chasing Mari's friend. Also there are some completely incongruous comic scenes of a pair of bumbling policemen, and the music, also by Hess, are a mixture of bad folk ballads and upbeat banjo music. The mind reels.

This was a sensational picture for its time, with tales of people vomiting, having heart attacks, and attacking the projection booth in an attempt to take the print. Today it doesn't seem so shocking, although I can see why it earned its reputation. There's a very brief scene after on of the girls is killed of her being disemboweled, and Mari's mother gets revenge on one killer by biting off his penis (that actor is Fred Lincoln, who went on to a prolific career directing adult films).

Last House on the Left is not trash, as it might appear to be, but I don't think it has the gravitas that Craven or its greatest admirers think it has. Craven, in an interview on the DVD, cites the Vietnam War as a motivation for the film. Um, maybe, but in the end it's a movie designed to titillate (their are flashes of nudity) and repulse.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Black Mass

Black Mass is an entertaining, vibrant film, but as I watched I couldn't help but think of it as Scorsese-lite. There are a lot of things that will be familiar to those who have seen Goodfellas and especially The Departed, including a scene in which a person can't tell if a guy is really mad or just joking, and a festival of Boston accents. We even hear the word "wicked."

Movies about gangsters never go out of style, not since James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson first popularized the genre. I think secretly we who are law-abiding citizens envy organized crime bosses, because they get away with things with such impunity, but then are always punished, which takes away our guilty feelings.

This time the figure of evil is James "Whitey" Bulger, who ruled the rackets in South Boston for a decade. He is played with steel-eyed brilliance by Johnny Depp (the blue contacts seem both piercing and dead at the same time) a career criminal who has done time at both Leavenworth and Alcatraz but in 1975 runs the Winter Hill Gang, battling for turf with the Mafia of North Boston.

He is the approached by an old Southie friend, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton, hyped as if smoking crank) now an FBI agent, with an amazing offer: Connolly will get the feds to let Bulger alone if Bulger will give them info on the Mafia. Connolly talks his skeptical boss (Kevin Bacon) into the deal, and Bulger runs wild, taking over the city. It's only when Bulger goes too far, and commits murder in broad daylight, that Connolly's plan crumbles and Bulger has to go on the lam.

Along with The Departed, Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone and The Town, the Boston crime film has become it's own subgenre. All of these films deal with the devotion felt in the Irish community. Bulger is shown as loving his mother and being a dutiful father (although he tells his young son, "If nobody sees it, it didn't happen") but also one who arranges a shipment of guns to the IRA. The accents provide a panoply of nasal squawks, and I'll leave it to Boston natives to sort out the good ones from bad--I suspect Edgerton's was good, Bacon's not so good.

Directed by Scott Cooper, who has not shown any particular flair before (he directed the simpy tolerable Crazy Heart) seems to have watched his fair share of organized mob films. There are several scenes here that we have all seen--when a person is drawn into an empty lot or back room and then viciously snuffed. My recommendation would have been never turn your back on Whitey Bulger.

Black Mass is violent fun, but it's only really worthwhile for Depp's performance. He's been wallowing in big payday, cartoonish roles for a while now, so it's good to have him back in the land of serious acting. While the script does not give us much depth to Bulger, Depp supplies it. I loved a couple of scenes in particular. One, in which he is torturing a man who informed him on, he ever so slightly blinks when the man says he had no choice. "You always have a choice," Depp says , "you just made the wrong one." Then there is a scene with Edgerton's wife, played by Julianne Nicholson. Bulger senses she doesn't like what her husband is up to, and in a scene so filled with creepiness it will make your skin crawl, he threatens her subtly by running his hand across her face, caressing her with menace.

The film could have done without Benedict Cumberbatch as Depp's brother, who in a stranger-than-fiction turn of events, is a powerful state senator. His appearance in the film seems to be only because it happens to be true. And then we have Peter Sarsgaard as a sniveling hit man. He seems to be only doing parts that require him to be completely repulsive.

Go to Black Mass to see Depp and stay for the old-fashioned, if cliched, gangster fun. It's no Goodfellas, but what is?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Tin Drum

One of the benefits, or detriments, of aging is that I can see a movie a second time and, since I can't remember much about it from the first viewing, it's like seeing it for the first time again. So is the case with The Tin Drum, a film from 1979 that I saw in college and remembered very little, other than it was about a boy who refused to stop growing.

During my series of posts on the films of Jean-Claude Carriere I had wanted to see this, since he was one of the screenwriters, but it was unavailable. Better late than never. It was a major film, winning the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and a major hit in its native country of Germany. But upon watching it yesterday I had a strange feeling--it hasn't dated well, because its shocks are not so shocking anymore.

The story, adapted from the novel by Gunter Grass, takes place in Germany after World War I and leading up to and during World War II in Danzig, a city that is today in Poland but then was a kind of nebulous area, claimed by Germany.

Our narrator is Oskar, who takes us back to his mother's conception, which occurred in a potato field when an arsonist, his grandfather, hid from authorities under his grandmother's skirts. Oskar, on his third birthday, receives a tin drum, which for the next several years he will not let go of. He also has a talent of emitting a high-pitch scream that can break glass. On that fateful third birthday, he also decides, upon seeing the foolishness of adults, that he will not grow any more, and stages an accident to give it a cause.

Oskar then has a series of peripatetic adventures. His mother has an affair with her cousin, a Pole, and he watches them have sex through a window. He befriends a Jewish toy merchant. When the war starts, he is in the very first battle, September 1, 1939. During the war he joins a group of little people who are a kind of Nazi version of the USO.

Most controversially, he has sex. The actor playing Oskar, David Bennent, was actually eleven during filming. But he has a sex scene with the teenage girl his father has hired at his grocery (she is introduced while holding a pair of cabbages in front of her). This ignited all sorts of child pornography indignations.

While this may seem shocking even today, it seems more designed for a wink and a nudge than anything meaningful. Director Volker Schlondorff has made this a very black comedy, and it is indeed often macabrely funny, especially the way Oskar sets his father up for death late in the film. But I couldn't help but feel unsatisfied, in that I don't think it has anything profound to say about why Germany went so wrong. I suspect Grass's novel is clearer, especially on the metaphor of the tin drum, which in the film is just a prop.

Of the many hundreds of films made about Germany during the rise and fall of the Nazis, this one is not near the top of the list.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Best American Travel Writing 2014

I'm what you might call an armchair traveler. I've been to a little more than half the U.S. states, but only two other countries, and in one of them, Canada, I only managed to get to Windsor, Ontario. This is not by choice--I envy people who have traveled to exotic places, but then I wonder, is it the traveling or the anticipation of traveling that is the best part of it?

In the Best American Travel Writing 2014, series editor Jason Wilson points out, "Travel writing, as we've come to know, is all about travail. We've been told that travel without suffering makes for a lousy story." Indeed, there are some hair-raising tales here, none so much as Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett's "460 Days," which details Lindhout's captivity by guerrillas in Mogadishu. Other trips I would gladly pass on are the one to Sarajevo by war correspondent Janine Di Giovanni in "Life During Wartime." Of course, that's her profession, but what makes a person go to the most dangerous places on Earth? She writes, "Room 437 would be my home, on and off, for the next three years: the mangy orange blanket, the plywood desk with cigarette burns, the empty minibar, the telephone on the bedside table that never rang because the lines were cut."

But most of these pieces were about places that I would like to go to, and some to places I know quite well. One of my favorites was Peter Selgin's "My New York: A Romance in Eight Parts." He writes about a day he spent as a teenager in the city with his best friend, and it reminded me of days I spent in New York with my friend, Bob. He's close to my age, so he remembers the old New York that I do: "How I missed seedy Times Square! How I longed for the days before the peepshows succumbed to Walk Disney!"

Other favorites were David Sedaris' "Now We Are Five," about his family renting a house on the North Carolina shore shortly after the suicide of his youngest sister; Gary Shteyngart's "Maximum Bombay," which covers his trip to the Indian city: "I've only been here for 10 days, but I have been chased out of a housing colony by gangsters, charmed by psychoanalyzed Bollywood stars, banged up after jumping out of a moving train, and eternally convinced of the prescience and wisdom of railroad parrots."

I don't fish, but I understand why some people do after reading Bob Schachosis' "Sun King:" "In my dreams the piraja skyrockets out of its watery underworld, a piece of shrapnel from a submerged sun, like a shank of gold an archaeologist might find in the tomb of an Incan king." Nice simile. And then there's the fantasy of getting away from it all, which is detailed in Steven Rinella's "Dream Acres," in which the author purchases a ramshackle cabin on an Alaskan island: "It's a place where black bears gnaw mussels from the rocks in what might be described as our yard and killer whales pass by so close that you can hear them even with the door closed."

I was fascinated by Tony Perrottet's "Birthplace of the American Vacation," which talks about William H. H. Murray, who wrote the first guidebook to the Adirondacks: "The American vacation was born--quite literally. The scions of New York City took to declaring that they would "vacate" their city homes for their lakeside summer retreats, and the term vacation replaced the British holiday in common parlance."

Hands down my favorite piece was Harrison Scott Key's hilarious "Fifty Shades of Greyhound," the author's adventures while traveling by bus. I wish I could quote the whole thing, but here is one: "When I tell this story, sometimes people ask why, given my general state of mental health and fiscal stability, I would choose to ride to the other side of the North American landmass in the world's fastest portable toilet, passing through a gauntlet of unholy downtowns where I would likely be accosted by psychotic barnacles who desired to rape and eat my carcass behind an Americas Best Value Inn."

This volume was guest-edited by Paul Theroux, perhaps the most pre-eminent travel writer working today, and he chose some great pieces. One inclusion, Elif Bautmann's "Poisoned Land," seemed better suited to the Best Science Writing book--it was about efforts to understand a disease partial to those living in the Balkans and seems out of place here.

But other than that, this is a great collection of places to fantasize about going to, or staying very clear of.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Oscar 2015 Preview: Best Actor

"Nominate me or else."
Now that the Toronto Film Festival is just about done, and prestige pictures are being released, the Oscar race starts to make some sense. Many films have not been seen yet, but educated guesses can be made, especially in the acting categories.

For Best Actor, Oscar ninnies can use a combination of actors' track records, the role played, and the quality of the film. Oh, and there's also the excellence of the performance, but many times we don't know it because we haven't seen it.

These five performances figure to be the front-runners headed into the fall. Some will no doubt fall by the wayside if the movie is no good, but two or more seem likely.

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo: Best known as a TV actor, Cranston has earned the Emmy and the Tony, and seems ready to conquer film as well. Add to the mix that he's playing a legendary Hollywood figure, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, and it seems like a gimme, but only if the film doesn't slip through the cracks.

Johnny Depp, Black Mass: Depp, who was once one of our best "serious" actors, has frittered away the better part of a decade playing cartoon characters while making millions. In his early 50s, he's already making a comeback. The transformation into notorious gangster Whitey Bulger, via makeup and other affectations, can't hurt. My early call is that he will win the award.

Leonard DiCaprio, The Revenant: One of these days DiCaprio is going to win an Oscar. This would be his fifth nomination, and if Depp doesn't get it he just might. The role is a physical one, of a wounded mountain man tracking down his betrayers. Unless the movie is an absolute bomb, he should be in.

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs: Fassbender is an intriguing actor, and when the material is right, he can be magnificent. So whether he gets nominated as the founder of Apple depends highly on the reception of the film. It certainly has all the earmarks, as the Academy loves guys who play geniuses.

Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl: Last year's winner should be back this year for playing what is thought to be the first man to undergo gender change surgery. This role is grooved for so many Oscar cliches that unless voters figure that he's already won, he's in.

A second tier of possibilities: Tom Hardy, Legend; Tom Hiddleston, I Saw the Light; Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation; Michael Caine, Youth; Matt Damon, The Martian.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Six-Gun Tarot

If H.P. Lovecraft wrote a Western, it might look something like R.S. Belcher's The Six-Gun Tarot, though Belcher certainly doesn't have Lovecraft's insane talents. Mash-up genres fascinate me, and this one has almost everything.  Besides engaging in basic Western tropes like a sheriff who's neck is criss-crossed with rope scars, we have an Indian whose father is a coyote; a woman who was trained by the pirate Anne Bonney into some sort of all-woman ninja society; a treasure-trove of Mormon artifacts, including a sword that can cut through anything; another woman who has died, but her head is kept alive in a jar; and Lucifer shows up occasionally.

The main plot concerns some sort of cult that is trying to unleash a giant worm god that is trapped under a silver mine. They do this by turning the solid citizens of Golgotha, Nevada into some kind of zombie. This is the Lovecraftian stuff--the words "elder god" are not used, but the implication is clear.

There are all sorts of subplots. There is a teenage boy, on the run after murdering those who murdered his pa. He has in his possession his pa's jade eye, which has all sorts of mystical powers. Another involves the mayor of the town, a Mormon, who has two wives but he himself is gay, fooling around with the piano player from the saloon (called Ringo). Then there's Auggie, the storekeeper, who so loved his wife that a local scientist contrived to keep her alive by putting her head in a jar.

There's a certain playfulness to The Six-Gun Tarot, and there was no playfulness in Lovecraft. I think almost anyone who reads this book will like Mutt the most, the deputy sheriff who is part Indian and part coyote. What's interesting about this book is that it makes references to things that happened before, but I believe this is the first book in the series. Lines like, "The last sheriff  managed to get himself hollowed out, filled with sawdust, and sewed up again--it was a long story" make me think I missed something.

If The Six-Gun Tarot has too much going on, that's at least better than a book with nothing going on. There are some groaners as certain characters manage to cheat death, but it's all in good fun. One must be in the mood for occasionally cheesy prose like, "A horrible sound--the essence of skeletal hunger and bone-scraping pain simplified through a billion red-swollen screaming colic baby throats, vibrating like a trapped moth's beating wings."

Oh, I should add that though this book has the word "Tarot" in the title, and each chapter is the name of a tarot cards, there is no mention of tarot in the book. I have no idea what the significance is.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

In Secret

Therese Raquin was written in 1867, but it plays like noir, and I can think of two noir films, both based on books by James M. Cain, that would seem to have been inspired by it. In Secret, released in 2014, is an adaptation of the Zola novel directed by Charlie Stratton.

The story concerns Therese, (Elizabeth Olsen) a girl fathered by a sea captain. Her mother has died, so he drops her off with his sister, a kind but extremely neurotic woman played by Jessica Lange. She has a sickly son (Tom Felton), and because of Olsen's mother's questionable status, Lange marries her off to him.

Olsen tries to make a go of it, but falls hard for Felton's friend, the dark and smoldering Oscar Isaac. They have a passionate affair, but when Felton wants to leave Paris and go back to the sticks, the two plot to kill him. In shades of American Tragedy (and it's film version, A Place in the Sun), Felton is murdered on a boating excursion, knocked into the water and drowned.

Lange is so devastated that she has a stroke, and cannot speak. She overhears Olsen and Isaac talking about the crime, as now that they are married they start to detest each other. Lange knows the truth, but cannot communicate, but this is unnecessary as Olsen and Isaac eventually plan to kill each other.

Though this film has period costumes and is set in France, it is very reminiscent of the shadows of noir. The two Cain books I refer to are Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, both of which involve a sexually repressed woman who manipulate a guy to murder her husband for her. Of course, these couples don't live happily ever after, and neither do they in In Secret.

This is kind of an odd film. For one thing, I wonder who decided to change the title. I suppose Therese Raquin is too French sounding or something, but In Secret is so vague it could be the title of any movie. The film is pretty straightforward but rarely rises above the merely competent, except for Lange, who gives a galvanizing performance. Some of her best work is when she can't speak, such as when she first learns of her son's murder while in a bathtub, the water almost trickling into her mouth. For a while I thought she was going to drown as she heard the news.

The play version of Therese Raquin opens on Broadway this fall with Keira Knightley making her Broadway debut. I'd like to see it, but living in Las Vegas precludes that.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mr. Arkadin

As I mentioned in my review of Citizen Welles, Orson Welles made a film in the 1950s called, variously, Confidential Report and Mr. Arkadin. Welles did not have final cut, as the film was taken away from him. There are several versions out there, and none of them are authoritative. However, two brave editors, using Welles' notes and comments, tried to put together the "comprehensive version," the one that Welles may have been going for.

Criterion has a three-disc set with three different versions. I'm not enough of a Welles completist to view all three, so I looked at the "comprehensive" version, called Mr. Arkadin. It's flawed but fascinating, and eminently a Welles film, but is undone by some very poor performances.

The film begins with Guy Van Stratten (Robert Arden), fleeing for his life and visiting an old man, Jacob Zouk (Akim Tamiroff). He tells Zouk the story in flashback. Van Stratten is a small-time crook and adventurist living on a boat in Naples (and smuggling cigarettes). A man stumbles toward him, stabbed in the back, and a wooden-legged man seems to have committed the crime, and is shot down by police. The knifed man lives long to whisper two names to Arden's girlfriend (Patricia Medina)--Gregory Arkadin, and Sophie "something Russian."

Intrigued, Arden tries to get to know Arkadin through this daughter (Paolo Mori, who happened to be Mrs. Welles). Finally he meets the man at a masquerade, and it is Welles, heavily made up with a false nose and a Mephistopholean beard. Welles shows Arden a report on him, detailing his petty crimes and jail time. Arden spits back that what if a report were issued about Arkadin?

Arkadin then comes to Arden with a proposition--Arden should investigate him. It seems that Arkadin remembers nothing before 1927. He awoke with 200,000 Swiss francs in his pocket, and that was the start of is fortune. He is worried that something bad will turn up which will scotch a deal with the U.S. military. Arden takes him up on it, promising he will never seen Mori again.

What follows is an investigation that leads through many cities and exotic characters. The most vivid is Michael Redgrave as a pawn shop owner who sells Arden a variety of worthless objects for information. Runner-up is Mischa Auer as the operator of a flea circus. Eventually Arden finds Sophie in Mexico--it turns out Arkadin was one of a gang of ruthless criminals, and that Arkadin doesn't want his daughter to find out.

Mr. Arkadin is full of typical Welles touches, such as deep focus, and many shots filmed from low angles.There are some very long tracking shots, including one that goes through a wall, and much chiaroscuro. If one loses track of the plot it doesn't really matter, it's he mise en scene that's important.

Unfortunately, Arden gives one of the worst lead performances in a major film I've ever seen. He's terrible, and couldn't act his way out of a paper bag. Welles made a big mistake there. Medina is also pretty bad. Better is Mori, who got the part via nepotism but looks like a young Angelina Jolie (when she had short short hair) and at least has some charisma.

This is just another example of the bad fortune that Welles had in his film career. We'll never know what the final film should have looked like, but that the movie exists in relative obscurity isn't fair (I mean, I'm a fairly literate filmgoer, but I had never heard of it before). It's very much worth checking out.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me

Glenn Campbell: I'll Be Me is a sad film about the effects of Alzheimer's disease. The legendary pop/country singer, at 76, was diagnosed with the debilitating ailment and the film chronicles his last tour, where everyone around him waited with baited breath to see if he could do it.

Directed by James Keach, the film is something of a home movie, and has no controversial edge to it (I checked up on what's been happening since, and there's a court case involving his children from previous marriages and his current wife). His wife, Kim, is the dominant figure in the film, caring for him, while his three children by her are part of his band. His other five children do not appear.

For those who have family with Alzheimer's the film will touch on powerful emotions. Campbell can not remember the day of the week, the month, the year, or who the first president was. He says those things "don't concern him," which is cover for his deteriorating memory. So how can he take a stage and sing? Teleprompters give him the words, but amazingly he is able to remember how to play the guitar, and quite well. His sunny personality, which is a major part of his appeal, has also not dimmed. He jokes about going into the kitchen and forgetting why he went in there, and then says, "So I stopped going into the kitchen."

Several people are interviewed, ranging from Steve Martin, who was a writer for his variety TV show, and Bruce Springsteen. Footage from his receipt of a Lifetime Achievement Grammy is touching, especially watching Paul McCartney rock out to "Rhinestone Cowboy."

There is also scenes of Campbell visiting Washington and talking to lawmakers about Alzheimer's research. His daughter Ashley testifies before congress and it's hard to choke up when she does, realizing there will come a point when he doesn't recognize her at all.

Alzheimer's is a terrible disease, and that it strikes a man like Campbell, so full of talent and good will, seems even more harsh. For Campbell fans, I recommend it, but be prepared to dab away tears.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Citizenfour

Citizenfour, directed by Laura Poitras, won the Oscar last year for Best Documentary. Poitras points out at the beginning of the film that because of films she's made that she's on the travel watch list of the U.S. government. I suppose it shows what a weird country we live in that someone can be a terror suspect and win the highest of film honors.

But Citizenfour shows the insanity of the U.S. government when it comes to the reaction of terrorism. Poitras, along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, is approached by an anonymous source by encrypted emails (I wouldn't know what do with an encrypted email) suggesting he has proof that the NSA is doing massive spying on Americans through use of telephone records. Eventually Poitras and Greenwald travel to Hong Kong, where they meet Edward Snowden.

Citizenfour is unlike most documentaries, in that it is capturing things as they happen, and has no retrospect. This is a behind-the-scenes look at how Snowden became infamous by blowing the whistle on the country's intelligence agencies, who had baldly lied about gathering records. Greenwald published the scoop, which caused all sorts of scrambling in the capital. That is was on the watch of President Obama, who had promised not to do this sort of thing, made things seem worse.

The movie is mostly a few people sitting in a Hong Kong hotel room talking. so it's certainly not for everyone. And it of course has a liberal bent--that personal liberties are too valuable to give up en masse, even in the interest of national security. As Greenwald points out, this was different than the Patriot Acts intention of spying on terror suspects. This was spying on everyone.

Snowden, realizing the jeopardy he's in, lets Greenwald identify him, and his name became known everywhere. He comes across as a thoughtful man who has very high principles, and whether you agree with what he did or not you have to admire his courage. He understands he will probably have to sever family ties, and certainly will never come back to the United States.

Some of the talk is intellectually rigorous, so it's not a movie to watch while surfing the Net. Poitras casts the film in ominous overtones, such as when she films the construction of a building in Utah designed to gather intelligence. The music makes it seem like we're watching a killer robot being built. But paranoia is the spine of this film--is it paranoia when the government is secretly subpoenaing records from major telecommunication companies?

There is a bit of paranoid humor, when their is a buzzing sound in Snowden's hotel room. Turns out it is the fire alarm system being tested. Or is it?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Paco

Right now, as I write this, I'm in bed and at my feet is lying a dog. He is the first dog I've ever owned and I'm kind of awestruck by the whole thing. His name is Paco, and if you are a reader of mine you remember that he was one of three dogs owned by the family where I stayed when I first arrived in Las Vegas. They have given him to me and now he's mine. I feel a great weight of responsibility.

I fell in love with Paco at first sight. First of all, he's very neurotic, which suits me. He's afraid of a lot of things, including his food dish (he eats his food straight off the floor). Since arriving here he's been very skittish, as I would expect, as his routine is completely upended and he's not sure where he is. I'm sure he missed his two fellow dogs and the other members of the family. At least he knows me. When the AC comes in it makes a noise that makes him run to me.

This will mean a lot of changes for me. I'll have to walk him, of course, and take care of his veterinary and grooming needs. He's in need of a haircut and he needs his teeth cleaned. Getting up early to walk him on weekends will not be fun, and I can't really be gone for more than about six hours at a time. This is the first step to actually having a child.

He's looking around right now, and is barking at little noises. I wish I could explain to him what's going on, but that is impossible, and he will have to make this transition at his own pace.

Wow. I'm officially a dog owner. What a glorious feeling.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Oldboy (2013)

I'm about to commit a cinematic blasphemy. I'm going to state, in a public forum, that I liked Spike Lee's 2013 version of Oldboy more than the 2003 film directed by Chan-wook Park. There, I said it.

Not that Lee's film is that great, it's just that I was turned off by Park's overly-saturated film. Lee tells the same story, but in a leaner, crisper Hollywood style. I think this accounts for why I like margarine better than real butter.

The story is almost exactly the same: a drunken businessman (Josh Brolin), who just blew an account by hitting on his prospective client's wife, gets rip-roaring drunk and is talking to a woman with a yellow umbrella. The next thing he knows he's in a motel room, except he can't get out. He's regularly fed (mostly Chinese dumplings) and watches TV, enough to know that his ex-wife was murdered and he's the prime suspect.

He's kept for twenty years, and is finally let go (the image of him climbing out of a trunk in the middle of a field is pretty arresting). He befriends a young medic (Elizabeth Olsen) and tries to piece together who held him and why. His trail leads him to a place where people are kidnapped and imprisoned for a fee (I find it amusing that this sort of business could exist), managed by a garishly-dressed Samuel L. Jackson.

Eventually he finds out who did it and why, and it's the same as the original film, but I had forgotten it so it was like new (the advantage of getting absent-minded).

Brolin makes a good taciturn hero. I have no idea what it's like to be kept alone for twenty years, but I think Brolin captures it. The scene in which he marches into the hotel set-up armed with only a hammer is pretty good and intense. Lee did unfortunately keep in a scene in which Brolin fights about twenty guys and beats them all, because he trained in his cell, you know. Why weren't any of these guys packing a gun? It kind of makes me mad.

For all of Lee's missteps in this century Oldboy was a pleasant surprise. I know I'm probably the only person on the planet to feel this way, even Lee, whose original cut was about an hour longer. But I found it briskly paced and missing nothing essential.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Family Life

Family Life, by Akhil Sharma, is a moderately interesting story that has parallel themes: the experiences of an immigrant family from India in the United States, and the repercussions of a serious accident on that family. The book is let down, though, by a narrator who never really matures.

The book is told from the point of view of Ajay, who as the book begins is a small boy. His family moves from India to the U.S., and he is amazed by what he sees. His older brother Birju, who is very smart and ready to enter a prestigious New York City high school, is badly injured in a swimming pool accident. He has so much brain damage that he will never walk or talk again.

These are two themes that have been well-explored in literature, especially the immigrant experience which, despite the prevailing xenophobia of Republican presidential candidates, is the essence of being American. Sometimes this comes off as a Yakov Smirnoff routine, as new arrivals find things so strange and funny about the new country. Ajay, as he grows older, grows decidedly bitter about the experience, growing to hate white people,

The accident portion of the book is shaded by its being in an Indian family. The family ends up in a largely Indian community in New Jersey, and there are the social dynamics and petty jealousies that occur. This is compounded when Ajay's father, devastated by his son's injury, becomes an alcoholic. This brings shame on the family, especially when the father checks himself into Bellevue.

The book is lean and told simply. Ajay is narrating the story as he remembers it as an adult (it takes place mostly in the '70s). An interesting section has Ajay becoming obsessed with Ernest Hemingway, and fancying himself a writer. As an incident unfolds in his real life, he imagines it as a short story. But the book isn't properly Hemingwayesque, even if the narrator is, to put it mildly, a prick.

When Ajay writes about his feelings regarding his brother and then his father, we can take it with some grain of salt because he is young, but it finally occurred to me that he was just a not very nice person. He himself puts it best: "Many of the boys at school disliked me. I was arrogant and annoying. I would boast about my grades while simultaneously whining about having to work." Yes--arrogant and annoying.

A pungent section has Ajay accompanying his father to AA meetings. He is aghast--he wants to tell them that they are white people, they have no problems. He says, "To me, it seemed very American to call drinking a disease and therefore avoid responsibility."

Do we need to like the narrator of a book? I don't think so, but the unpleasant aspects of Ajay, plus the somewhat quotidian nature of the action, sunk this book for me. I was especially let down because this book was named one of the ten best of the year by the New York Times. No.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Mistress America

I've found Noah Baumbach to be a hit-and-miss director, but his two team-ups with Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha! and now Mistress America are his best two films. Let's hope they don't break up.

Again this film casts Gerwig as a free spirit on the loose in New York City. In fact, the Big Apple is just as much a character as anyone else in Mistress America, from the Morningside Heights of Columbia to Times Square, where Gerwig's Brooke lives. "I never knew anyone who lived in Times Square!" her new friend says. When I think about it, I haven't either, but Gerwig says she got off the bus from New Jersey and found her home.

Her opposite in this film is Lola Kirke as a lonely freshman at Barnard. She's the smart, pretty girl I would have gone over the moon for, but she's clinging to a melancholy, unable to fit in. She wants to join a snobbish literary society--"They serve wine and cheese and carry briefcases," she marvels, and befriends a boy who also wants to join.

Her mother is remarrying, and the man has a daughter who lives in New York. Kirke is advised to call her, and she finally does. Brooke is about 30, a whirling dervish of activity, who treats Kirke to the night of her life, ending with a sleepover in Gerwig's commercial loft. They immediately bond as sisters, and Gerwig shares with her her dream--to open a restaurant called "Mom's."

As with Frances Ha!, American Mistress is very much a movie about the relationship between two women, even more so here. There are slight echoes of romance--Gerwig's boyfriend is in Greece, "betting against the country," but the film is more about their friendship. This film sends the Bechdel Test up in flames, as almost the entire film is these two talking, mostly about subjects other than men.

The climax of the film takes place in the large Greenwich, Connecticut home of Gerwig's nemesis, the woman who stole her t-shirt idea, her fiance, and her cats. But she needs money for her restaurant, so a motley crew heads into the enclave of the one percent and a mini-screwball comedy takes place, with Gerwig pitching her ex, who is interested. "I'm not just an asshole bankrolling your fitness plan," he barks at his wife, Gerwig's nemesis.

Things take a sour turn when Gerwig finds out that her father will not be marrying Kirke's mother, and then even worse when the extremely jealous girlfriend of Kirke's male friend reveals to Gerwig that her new "sister" has written a short story about her, warts and all.

The character of Brooke can be added to the pantheon of great New York characters, like Holly Golightly and Annie Hall. She is effervescent, her face shining like a moon, her enthusiasm unbridled and infectious. Certainly it must be Gerwig's contribution the script that has a young woman not chasing after a man but a business, which in itself is a reflection of a dream.

The script also sparkles with many laugh out loud lines. Here are just a few:

"It's funny how a guy who studies rocks can be so into Jesus."

"In L.A. I qualify as well-read."

"I heard that television was the new novel."

If you love New York, or just love smartly-written, well-acted films, go see Mistress America.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Citizen Welles

This year is the centenary of Orson Welles, born in 1915 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. To honor this I looked for a good biography of the man, who lived a life that almost seems too incredible to be true. I found the right one with Frank Brady's Citizen Welles, originally published in 1989. It covers the life of Welles from soup to nuts, from his early years as a child prodigy, to his astounding successes as a young man in the theater and then radio, to his making the greatest movie ever to come out of Hollywood, and then the pathos of his later life, when the man was lauded as a genius but no one would give him money to make films.

"Orson Welles had a remarkably complex life, filled with contrasts and extremes, and just getting down the bare facts of his various adventures and many careers over a half-century of relentless activity spanning several continents," writes Brady, and he's not kidding. It's interesting to note that Welles only directed 12 films, but almost all of them were classics (some identified as so only years later) but also directed many plays; wrote, directed, and acted in countless radio scripts, as well as acting in many films directed by others. To those in a later generation, he may have been best well-known as a wine pitchman.

Welles seems not to have been born so much as emerged fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. At a very young age he was putting on puppet shows, which led to a fascination with the theater. He attended a boarding school and and learned to love acting. He was orphaned as a teenager (his father was an inventor, who many say was the model for Joseph Cotten's character in The Magnificent Ambersons) and went to Ireland, where he managed to get work with in a Dublin theater company. Then he went to London and had some success there before returning to New York.

Welles' life on Broadway in the '30s is enough for a book in itself, and in fact has been made into two films. He and John Houseman partnered for the WPA to mount several landmark productions, including the "Voodoo" Macbeth, the modern-dress Julius Caesar, and Marc Blitzteins' opera, The Cradle Will Rock. Brady's chapter on the latter reads like a thriller, as the theater where the show was to take place was closed by the government. Houseman and Welles found a different theater, and lead a march down the New York streets. In order not to violate union rules, the performers sang from the seats, not the stage, with Blitzstein playing on stage. After reading it I felt like I'd been there.

The most lucrative career Welles had was for the radio. He was an immensely popular radio star, trading quips with Charlie McCarthy and producing, writing, and directing adaptations of classic works. The most famous, or infamous, was his 1938 Halloween broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, which created a panic among the citizenry. For many years I lived a short walk away from Grovers Mill, the purported landing of the Martians, and there's a water tower still there that someone took a shot at, thinking it was a Martian spacecraft.

All along there was a mutual interest between Hollywood and Welles to make films, but it wasn't until William Schaefer and RKO came along that Welles made a three-picture deal. He struggled to find the right property to be his first film. He had always wanted to make Cyrano de Bergerac, for example. He finally hit on the story that was first called American, about a man who becomes successful but loses his innocence. In what would prove to be unusual, it was based on an original screenplay (all of Welles' films after that would be based on published works), co-written by Herman Manckiewicz (there would be, and perhaps still is some controversy about how much Welles actually contributed to the script). But what would cripple the film's success, and Welles' career, was how much Citizen Kane would end up being similar to the life of William Randolph Hearst.

Brady devotes two long and thrilling chapters to Kane, and it struck me that if Welles had started his career with anything else, perhaps the non-offensive Cyrano, how things might have been different. Hearst was not an easy man to anger. He controlled many of the newspapers in the country, and not one of them would issue take any advertisements or do any press on Kane, except for vitriolic columnist Hedda Hopper, who strafed the film. Although filmmakers who saw the film realized it was the most amazing thing they had ever seen, and would rewrite the way films were made, it was not a big success with the public. It's interesting to note though that it did receive several Oscar nominations (four for Welles); he won only for screenwriting.

The Magnificent Ambersons followed, and what followed would be repeated several times throughout his career--the picture was taken away from him in the editing room. The released film is still great, but Welles was done as a golden boy. A documentary he was making in South America, It's All True, had the plug pulled on it after Schaefer was removed at RKO, and Welles, for the rest of his life, would struggle to find financial backing for his films.

Instead he worked for hire, trying to raise money by acting to make his own films. The most famous of these roles was as Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man, one of the most famous cameos in film history. I find it interesting that Brady glosses over the controversy of whether Welles wrote the "Cuckoo clock" speech--Brady says he did, and that nobody disputes it. Welles says he got it from a German play. What I didn't know is that for years Welles had a hit radio show in England playing the character of Harry Lime.

Welles managed to somehow make films--The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, Macbeth, and a long gestating film of Othello, that was finally released in 1950 and won the Palm D'or at Cannes. In the '50s he made a film I'd frankly never heard of--Mr. Arkadin, which was again taken away from him and there exist a multitude of versions. I have a copy right now ready to watched from Netflix. He also scored a great triumph with Touch of Evil, which he was able to direct because of the influence of Charlton Heston (despite his gun fetish, Heston did do some noble things). The film was indifferently released, being on the bottom half of a double feature, but again, over the years, people have understood its greatness, both in his direction and his performance as a corrupt sheriff.

There are several films that Welles tried to make but never came to fruition, including Don Quixote (which also proved to be a Waterloo for Terry Gilliam), a picture called The Big Brass Ring, which was never made because he couldn't get a big star to play a homosexual character, and something called The Other Side of the Wind. He earned a living appearing on television talk shows and in commercials, known primarily for being fat, a somewhat sad existence for someone with so much talent. To the very end he was trying to raise money for film projects, notably King Lear.

Brady is clearly a fan, but the book is not a hagiography. I did find it interesting that while discussing Welles' three marriages and his affair with Delores Del Rio, there is nothing to the rumors about bisexuality. What comes across most is Welles' huge appetite, not only for food but in all the good things in life. His genius is also apparent. When he adapted Shakespeare, he often rewrote him, and incorporated lines from other plays (Julius Caesar contained lines from Coriolanus). One of his projects was called The Five Kings, which took several of Shakespeare's histories and boiled them down into one, very long evening. The play was not a success, and closed early. He also directed a stage musical version of Around the World in 80 Days, which included elephants on stage.

Welles was also a charming man, a great storyteller. He had a regular table at Ma Maison where he would have lunches with people he hoped would give him money. A very interesting one of these occasions was when he lunched with Amy Irving, hoping she would appear in a film he was trying to make. She was at the time married to Steven Spielberg, who was riding high after E.T., and joined Irving at the lunch. Spielberg was such a Welles fan that he bought one of the sleds used as Rosebud in Citizen Kane, but Welles said it was a fake. Spielberg probably was aware that Welles might cast Irving to get him to invest, and Spielberg didn't give Welles a penny. Welles even had to pick up the check.

The life of Orson Welles comes across as one of the great "might have been" stories of all time, even with him making the film acknowledged by most as the greatest of all time. He was a man whose success was front-loaded in life--Citizen Kane is at the halfway point of Brady's book, even though Welles was only 25 when he made it and would live another 45 years. Not to dump on Spielberg, but I wish he would have said, "How much do you need and you have full creative control." Brady notes the irony of Welles receiving very high honors, especially only the third AFI Life Achievement Award (following John Ford and James Cagney). He was surrounded by dozens of Hollywood greats, singing his praises, but he couldn't get a film financed.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

The War of the Worlds

I"ve been reading a biography of Orson Welles and during the chapter on his infamous Halloween radio broadcast in 1938 I was reminded I've left off my survey of H.G. Wells novels, and now turn to his third, the famous The War of the Worlds. First published in 1897, it's kind of amazing that he had the foresight of space travel, considering humans couldn't even fly yet. But most of this work is interesting for its social commentary.

"No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own, that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water." So begins Wells' novel, which is told by an unnamed narrator who first relates that explosions are detected on Mars. Later, an object will crash into Surrey, England, where he lives, and he will go and investigate.

The object is a cylinder, and gawkers gather around the pit. When the cylinder opens, a heat ray incinerates all around, and civilization goes into a panic. The narrator seeks to distance himself from danger, as the Martians travel around in mechanized tripods: "A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather."

The narrator, separated from his wife, is in survival mode. He watches the machines destroy everything in their path, and later sees the creatures themselves, tentacled, like octopi, feeding on human blood. They seem bent on the complete destruction of humanity.

Eventually the narrator finds himself paired with a curate, and they are stuck together for a few weeks when the house where they are staying is crushed by a cylinder. The curate, perhaps reflecting Wells' opinion of religion, is a weak man: "He was as lacking in restraint as a silly woman. He would weep for hours together, and I verily believe that to the very end this spoiled child of life thought his weak tears in some way efficacious." Later he will meet an artilleryman, who has grandiose ideas of building a new civilization underground, taking only the strongest of society. He objects to the use of the word war: "'This isn't a war,' said the artilleryman. 'It never was a war, any more than there's a war between man and ants.'"

Wells makes frequent references to man and other animals, in some way having us understand that this is just the nature of things--we were once on top, and now we're not. He calls attention to the arrogance of man, and compares us to the dodo: "So some respectable dodo in the Mauritius might have lorded it in his nest, and discussed the arrival of that shipful of pitiless sailors in want of animal food, 'We will peck them to death tomorrow, my dear.'"

As anyone who has seen the Steven Spielberg movie, the Martians are done in by their lack of immunity to bacteria (the narrator says there are none on Mars, but how would he know?), and Wells says that it was God's lowliest creature that saved the day. On reading the book this time, I was reminded of how the Native American tribes were decimated by the spread of diseases that they had never been exposed to, and wonder if Wells knew about it.

As with most science fiction, the hard science takes a back seat to the social science. Much of the book is concerned with Wells' views on evolution and the survival of the fittest, which means that God really doesn't have anything to do with it. The artilleryman's point of view could be construed as promoting eugenics, which Wells did subscribe to--that humanity was becoming degraded. This kind of view is on the edge of some pretty ugly opinions about race. But then he kind of dismisses the artilleryman as a character, leaving us wondering.

The book ages pretty well, but not completely. A lot of it is taken up with the geography of Surrey. If you don't know where Woking is, the several mentions of where the narrator and the Martians are going won't matter. Also, the style is very formal and without humor. Even under Martian attack, I think most people will find, will need, to find something funny along the way.

The War of the Worlds is, at last, a troubling book. Not because it makes me worried about an alien invasion (at least not from Mars) but because it drives home the point that we're all of us just animals, and that man is now at the top of the food chain is much more accident than design, and that it could all come crashing down. Instead of Martians, we may be done in by cockroaches.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Hills Have Eyes

The death of Wes Craven sent a huge ripple through the film world. Craven, though more versatile than most would think, was still primarily known as a director of horror films. But he didn't just make horror films--he set the tone for horror films in three different decades. In the '80s he created one of the most enduring horror characters of all time, Freddy Krueger. In the '90s he created the meta-horror film, with Scream. But in the '70s he made a pair of the most imitated horror films of all time. One of those was 1977's The Hills Have Eyes.

I had never seen it before, so I didn't know what to expect. It was supposed to be super violent, but I found that most of the mayhem happened off screen and, in the tradition of most great horror, it's the anticipation and imaging of the events that make the skin crawl.

The story, which I learned is based on a real-life incident from 16th-century Scotland, finds a family driving across Nevada on their way to California. They stop at a gas station and are warned by the old coot pumping their gas to stay off the main road. Of course they don't, as they are looking for a silver mine. The father, a former cop, drives the station wagon and trailer off the road, breaking an axle.

Slowly we realize that the family is being watched, and it's by a family spawned by some kind of mutant who is the son of the old coot. They live in the hills and are not very friendly, to put a nice spin on it. The family will match wits with the creepies, and a lot of people will die in very extreme ways.

I really enjoyed the film, appreciating Craven's craft enough to overlook the amateurish acting (the only person of note in the cast is Dee Wallace, unless you count the impressive brow of Michael Berryman, who would become a horror film staple). One actor in particular, Robert Houston, who plays the young son of the family, seems to think he's in a different movie. I also loved/hated his t-shirt, which simply has black letters on blue reading "Ohio State." Clearly it's not a real Ohio State shirt--their colors are scarlet and gray.

What makes the film resonate are the implications of the all-American family violated by the uncivilized. The teenage daughter, Susan Lanier, is raped by one of the hairy sons of the family, and a baby is kidnapped with the intention of being eaten. The baby's father (Michael Speer) ends up being the hero of the film, overcoming his embarrassingly short cut-offs he wears in the beginning of the movie.

The "family-broken-down-in-the-middle-of-nowhere" genre is a basic one in horror--I can think of Breakdown, which was more polished but doesn't have the innate fear of the unknown that The Hills Have Eyes has.

Friday, September 04, 2015

They Live

After the death of professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper last month, I heard a lot about a 1988 film called They Live, in which he had a starring role. The line, "I'm here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum," was bandied about on the Internet. I'm a naif when it comes to cult horror films, but I kind of knew this one was a big deal, because one of my favorite novelists, Jonathan Lethem, wrote a whole book about it.

So I finally saw it, and They Live, directed by horror maestro John Carpenter, is cheesy fun, as well as being eerily accurate about the world. I mean, I don't know if aliens are actually manipulating our lives, but it feels like it.

Piper plays an unnamed character who drifts into L.A. looking for a job. He finds one at a construction site, and is invited by a fellow worker, Keith David, to join him at a kind of homeless shelter/shantytown. They have a TV set up there, and someone hacks into the signal, telling everyone that they don't know the truth, and they are owned by other beings. This is also what is being preached by a blind minister, and Piper, curious, figures out that this group is set up in a church.

They get raided, but not before Piper walks off with a box that turns out to contain a bunch of sunglasses. Piper tries them on and is able to see reality as it is--signs have subliminal messages like "Obey," "Consume," "Marry and Reproduce." More troublesome--some people, who look normal when the glasses are off, are revealed to be scary looking monsters with skeletal faces.

Piper spends the next portion of the film attempting to convince others, including a woman he kidnaps (Meg Foster), who ends knocking him through a window and down a mountain, and David, with whom he has a long and absolutely entertaining fist fight. David finally puts on the glasses, they join the resistance, and try to find the signal that blocks everyone from understanding the truth.

They Live has a great script but has such a limited budget that it can't help but engender some laughs, such as when little flying saucers appear. Also, it would seem to me that the aliens would have more security on their one and only TV signal. Do they have them in other cities? This is unclear.

But there are a lot of great lines and moments. A fellow shelter resident, who has sold out to the aliens for riches, tells Piper and David, "We all sell out every day, might as well be on the winning team!" Or when the resistance leader tells Piper that the aliens just consider Earth their version of a third world, to be developed and abandoned.

Given the zeitgeist at the moment, and given that They Live has good ideas but a schlocky look, it is a film that is ripe for a remake, something I don't say about too many films.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

"I just had sex. Holy shit!" is the first words we hear in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, an amazingly frank movie about teen sexuality that, though a very good film, made even a perv like me feel uncomfortable.

Written and directed by Marielle Heller and based on a graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is another film about younger women and older men, but this time from the female perspective. It is set in 1976, in San Francisco (as if the bell bottoms and platform shoes don't give it away) but even though that was a very lax era, there is still an abiding creepiness about the whole thing.

Bel Powley is our teen, Minnie, who is fifteen and lives with her mother and sister. She is not exactly a beauty, bearing the facial characteristics of a troll doll (that sounds harsh, but she's kind of cute) and is an artist, idolizing Aline Kaminsky. Her mother's boyfriend, Alexander Skarsgard, a kind of dopey but handsome guy with a quintessential porn mustache who mostly sleeps on the couch, falls into a sexual relationship with Powley, completely with her consent. Based on the sex scenes, their sex is hotter than a Penthouse Forum letter.

Powley feels like she is an adult, and begins to get clingy with Skarsgard, even saying to him, "We have to talk about our relationship." Meanwhile, she's become fairly promiscuous, taking the virginity of a cute boy, sucking cocks in a bar bathroom with her friend, and experimenting with a girl. "The making of a harlot," she announces on the voiceover.

Of course her mother, played boozily by Kristen Wiig, eventually finds out, and Powley's world comes crashing down. Since it's 1976, Wiig suggests Skarsgard marry Powley, but that goes nowhere. By the end of the film there's that palpable sense that lessons have been learned and forgiveness is at hand.

This film is very sexual, and anyone with a teenage daughter should not see it, lest they break out in hives. There is a lot of nudity (Powley is well over 18, so there's no laws being broken), such as a scene I imagine most girls go through--looking at their naked body in a mirror. But for the rest of us, this is a strong film, full of great performances and a kind of "fuck-it" demeanor. This is probably the most graphic and honest film about teenage sexuality ever made in America. You used to have to go see French films for this.

It's not perfect--scenes with Christopher Meloni as Wiig's ex fall flat. I liked that the soundtrack had period music but not the obvious choices--I was a fully sentient being in 1976 and I didn't recognize any of the songs but they felt right.

I should add that Skarsgard somehow ended up with this role instead of Peter Sarsgaard, who usually plays creepy older men screwing younger women. But their last names are almost exactly alike, so perhaps the producers called Skarsgard when they meant to call Sarsgaard.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Very Good Girls

Very Good Girls, a 2013 film directed by Naomi Foner, is a noble misfire. The nobility lies in that it is a fairly honest film about young women and their sexuality. The problem is, though it's about girls, they spend the whole movie thinking about the male gender.

Lily (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen) have been friends forever. They are now in the summer before college and, amazingly, they are still virgins. They decide they will lose it before going off to college.

One day at the beach they meet an enigmatic ice cream salesman (Boyd Holbrook). Olsen is immediately attracted to him, and becomes kind of obsessed by him. But Holbrook seeks out Fanning, and the two have a sexual affair, without Olsen knowing about it.

There are subplots involving the girls' families, with some heavyweight casting that is pretty much wasted--Fanning's parents are Ellen Barkin and Clark Gregg, and Olsen's are Demi Moore and Richard Dreyfuss. I don't know why you get Demi Moore to be in a movie and have only about two lines--maybe she lost a bet.

Olsen, though too old to play an eighteen-year-old, is terrrific, but Fanning doesn't do herself any favors here. She goes through the film as if on sedatives. I can 't tell you one thing about her personality, or why Holbrook would be enchanted by her. She is sexually harassed by her boss, Peter Sarsgaard, who pretty much is the go-to guy for creepy older man/younger woman scenarios.

Also, I believe this film, with all the women in it, fails the Bechdel test, in that the girls do have conversations together, but it's almost always about sex or boys. I may have missed where they talk about something else, but it's rare. The implication is that a girl of 18 doesn't think about anything else, and that's a shame.