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Saturday, October 31, 2015

Gaslight (1944)

My next look at those born a century ago is Ingrid Bergman, who was born in Sweden in 1915. She is one of Hollywood's greatest stars, and went through quite a scandal (she was denounced on the floor of Congress). The first of her three Oscars went for her dazzling performance in George Cukor's Gaslight in 1944.

This was a remake of a British film, and it fleshes the story out and is much more accomplished, particularly in areas like art direction and photography. Joseph Ruttenberg handles the latter, and in many ways it follows the dictates of noir, even though it is set during Victorian England. But Ruttenberg understands the title, and uses the lighting to magnificent effect. I really liked one scene in which a quarreling couple heads into a room. The camera does not follow them but stays in the hall, and we see their shadows gesticulating against the door.

The plot is pretty much the same as the original. A famous opera singer is murdered. Her niece (Bergman) is sent to live in Italy. She meet and falls in love with Charles Boyer. He has always wanted to live in London, so she reveals that she has her aunt's house, so they marry and move in. But soon she begins to forget things. Of course, it's the husband who is behind this, trying to drive her mad. The why is what keeps us in suspense.

The leads are terrific. Boyer is great as he slowly goes from super nice guy to menacing ogre. Bergman, as one would expect in Oscar-winning role, is gripping. She is vulnerable and your heart aches for her, knowing that she's being played. Her scene when she confronts Boyer at the end, holding a knife, is magical. The reliable Joseph Cotten plays a Scotland Yard inspector (curiously without an English accent) who senses something is rotten. Dame May Whitty is colorful as a nosy neighbor.

In some ways this is a quintessential Hollywood film from the war period. They made dozens of these, and pros like Cukor could be relied upon to a put a thoroughly professional stamp on them. Gaslight provides atmospheric terror and the right amount of paranoia. It's a classy production all the way around.

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Sixth Extinction

During the Earth's long history of life, there have been five catastrophic extinctions, in which life almost completely disappeared. The most famous of these is the Cretaceous-Tertiary, which did in the dinosaurs and was the result of a meteorite. But there have been four more of these, and species who had been around for millions of years disappeared.

Are we today on the cusp, or even in, the sixth extinction? Do extinctions happen quickly, or over several thousand years? And is mankind the cause of this extinction? These are the questions tackled in Elizabeth Kolbert's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sixth Extinction, an eminently readable book about science for the layman, that looks at extinction from all angles.

The first thing I noted about Kolbert's research is all the traveling she got to do. She went to such far-flung places as Scotland, an Italian island, the Brazilian rain forest, the mountains of Peru, and the Great Barrier Reef. She also visits the Cincinnati Zoo, where a veterinarian performs an ultrasound on a rhino by shoving her fist up its ass, and in San Diego she watches a researcher milk the semen out of a crow. We learn about the acidification of the oceans and how humans may have been responsible for wiping out the mastodon and the Neanderthal, our thick-skulled cousins (don't fret, though, if you are not African in descent, you are up to four percent Neanderthal).

Kolbert also looks at the history of extinction. Of course, no one knew animals went extinct until people starting finding fossils of animals that weren't around anymore. "Extinction finally emerged as a concept, probably not coincidentally, in revolutionary France. It did so largely thanks to one animal, the creature now called the American mastodon, or Mammut americanum, and one man, the naturalist Jean-Leopold-Nicolas-Frederic Cuvier, known after a dead brother simply as Georges." Kolbert calls Cuvier "an equivocal figure in the history of science," who was far ahead of his contemporaries. His rival was the Englishman, Charles Lyell, who disputed many of Cuvier's findings. Both men were influential on Charles Darwin.

She also goes into a brief history of the discovery that a meteorite did in the dinosaurs. The theory was first posited about thirty-five years ago, and was roundly ridiculed. Today it is accepted fact. This mass extinction is the one most of us know, and Kolbert points out that we know about it early on: "Extinction may be the first scientific idea that kids today have to grapple with. One-year-olds are given toy dinosaurs to play with, an two-year-olds understand, in a vague sort of way at least, that these small plastic creatures represent very large animals. If they're quick learners--or, alternatively, slow toilet trainers--children still in diapers can explain that there were once lots of kinds of dinosaurs and that they all died off long ago."

Kolbert also advances the notion that we are now living in an epoch called the anthropocene, anthro the prefix meaning "man." The possible sixth extinction is the first that would be with Homo sapiens on the planet, and to a great extent the onus is on us. "Since the start of the industrial revolution, humans have burned through enough fossil fuels--coal, oil, and natural gas--to add some 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Deforestation has contributed another 180 billion tons. Each year, we throw up another nine billion tons or so, an amount that's been increasing by as much as six percent annually. As a result of all this, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air today--a little over four hundred parts per million--is higher than at any other point in the last eight hundred thousand years."

The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of mankind, and the solution also rests with us. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson in the TV show Cosmos, Kolbert throws down the gauntlet. "Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy."

Thursday, October 29, 2015


Hawkeye has always been something of a joke in the Marvel Universe. He is the one member of the Avengers who has no superpowers--he can just shoot arrows really, really good. He did get himself a spot in the gigantic film version of The Avengers, played by Jeremy Renner, but it's highly unlikely he'll get a stand-alone film. After all, a guy who can just shoot arrows can't really stand up to supervillains.

As Hawkeye, real name Clint Barton, puts it in his own book, written by Matt Fraction: "You cowboy around with the Avengers some. Guys got, what, armor. Magic. Super-powers. Super-strength. Shrink-dust. Grow-rays. Magic. Healing Factors. I'm an orphan raised by carnies fighting with a stick and a string from the paleolithic era."

I had read that Hawkeye was the best superhero book of 2013, so I have been reading issues over many of the last months. They are collected in four volumes, all written by Fraction and illustrated by David Aja, Javier Pulido and other artists. These books are unlike any superhero comics I've read, far different in tone and style than the comics I grew up with in the '70s. I'm not quite sure yet if I approve, but I have to say I was intrigued and stimulated by them.

Hawkeye goes all the way back to 1964, one of the many characters created by Marvel's Stan Lee. As he points out, he does not have a super power--he has a skill. There are other Marvel characters who don't have super powers, such as his long-time love Black Widow, but his skill is so narrow that he seems something of an anachronism. The strongest memory I have of Hawkeye from my childhood days is when he was sort of exiled to the West Coast Avengers, along with second-tier heroes like Wonder Man and Tigra. In one episode he was disgusted and quit, training a billionaire in archery. It turned out the billionaire wanted to explode a nuclear bomb that would dump California into the sea, thus making his desert property instantly beach-front property. The billionaire wants to detonate the bomb with a bow and arrow. Hawkeye defeats him by hitting the billionaire's bowstring with his own arrow, and rejoins the group.

Reacquainting myself with Hawkeye was a culture shock. I stopped reading Marvel Comics regularly about twenty-five years ago. Since then so much has happened. The history of a Marvel character is as tangled as any soap opera, as they take on different identities and even have their lives start over again. Turns out Barton spent some time as Goliath, and then was called Ronin. He was even replaced for a while by a woman called Hawkeye, real name Kate Bishop, who was a member of the Young Avengers. I don't know how anyone can keep it all straight.

So in Matt Fraction's books, we see Hawkeye while he is not an Avenger. I wrote in my review of Avengers: Age of Ultron, that having Barton secretly a family man was an outrage to a purist. The "real" Barton is something of a rapscallion, living in a run-down apartment building in Bed-Stuy. An orphan, he grew up in carnivals and circuses. He has romanced Black Widow, and married and divorced Mockingbird. He has issues of self-loathing, and has also somehow gotten ahold of millions from his brother (how was unclear to me). He uses the money to buy his building from Russian mobsters, who wear velour tracksuits and call everyone "bro." He tends to get the tar beaten out of him in almost every issue.

Bishop is now his sort of sidekick, although she might claim it's the other way around. They do battle with a couple of super villains: Madame Masque, who is part of the criminal underworld, and The Clown, a psychotic assassin who wears clown makeup (given the place The Joker has in pop-culture, it's a surprise that anyone would try that). There are also some really weird one-shot issues, including one that is told from the perspective of a dog, another that has Bishop helping an old rock star clearly modeled on Brian Wilson, and another that is a children's animated Christmas special.

Fraction has some of the old Marvel ethos to him. The characters are supremely sarcastic, and quip in between punches. But I have to believe he was attracted to Hawkeye for his ordinariness (although he is an expert fighter--he was trained by none other than Captain America). The action in these books is not of the intergalactic variety--it's comparitively mundane.

The stories are also told in a completely different way. Marvel Comics of the '60s and '70s made heavy use of exposition, even putting asterisks in the word balloons to tell us what issue they were referring to. Fraction's Hawkeye doesn't do that--he makes assumptions about things and you either know them or don't. I had to go onto the Marvel Universe Wiki to figure some things out, such as who Barton's ex-wife was (I thought he married Black Widow, but maybe that was Daredevil).

He also takes a lot of risks. I mentioned the one-offs that he uses, but he also tells the stories very non-linearly, with use of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and parallel stories. In the issue involving the dog, for instance, we first hear of collar stays, which will be important in a later issue. It was only in re-reading the issues that I realized what was going on.

The art is also very different. Long gone are the sequence of panels that were like storyboards for movies. The layout is daring and at times confusing, with full page splashes and occasionally long stretches of art without text. There is also some clever use of sound effects. Instead of "Bam!" and "Pow!" we get "Ooomfoot!" when a door is kicked in, or "KGlassss!" when an arrow shoots through a plate-glass window.

Oh, and those arrows. Hawkeye has a variety of trick arrows, and Fraction has fun as during a car chase his hero gets to use them all. They have nets, cables, putty, and one boomerangs. It's the one comic book superhero trope that Fraction uses. Since this Hawkeye doesn't wear a costume, it's allowable.

And, by the way, I would have loved to see Renner play this Clint Barton in a stand-alone film. If the DC equivalent, Green Arrow, can gets his own TV show why not Hawkeye?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

White Privilege?

A few days I found something on my Facebook feed. It was a photo of a modest apartment building, and the text mentioned that the writer had grown up there (in Canada) with a single mother. Basically, he was blasting the idea of white privilege. All sorts of commenters agreed with him, including one person who said they didn't have a clothes dryer in their house until they were 17. Well, boo hoo.

Anyone who doesn't believe there is white privilege in the United States has no idea what it is to be black in this country. Sure, there are poor white people, especially in Appalachia. I don't come from a long line of rich people. But I'll tell you what I've never had to worry about: being pulled over by a cop because of my race. Having someone cross to the other side of the street because of my race. Having someone follow me in a store on the automatic suspicion I'm a shoplifter because of my race. Being shot, unarmed, by police because of my race. Being systematically discriminated against in employment and housing over decades because of my race.

Being born white in the U.S. is starting a few spaces ahead in the game of Life. There are so many other things we don't have to face. I came across a startling statistic: a white man with a prison record has a five percent better chance of getting a job over a black man with a clean record. The notion that the playing field has been leveled from the pre-civil rights days just isn't true. The statistics regarding prisons are deeply troubling. One in three black men can expect to go to prison in there lifetime. Now, the yahoo may say that going to prison is because of bad choices, but then look at this statistic: people of color make up 30 percent of the population in general, but 60 percent of the prison population. Two factors are at work: a prejudice in the judicial system, which gives out lighter sentences to white people, especially those of means, and the difficulties faced by young black men growing up, where white men with a record get jobs before they do.

White people, and I have experienced this firsthand in my family, think that anyone can get ahead by working hard. This is true to a point, but when someone is born into poverty, it is that much more hard to be successful. Couple that with an innate prejudice against skin color, and it seems more a miracle that black people can escape poverty (of course, there is a black middle and upper class, but they are still subject to being pulled over for driving expensive cars).

The best answer to this is a routine by Louis C.K., who talks about how much he loves being white. Being white is clearly better than anything else, he says. "I'd sign up for that every year," he jokes. There are those who say that nowadays white men are the ones who are singled out. That is as insulting as it is ludicrous. To all those poor white men who are now being discriminated against, after their ancestors owned people, would you voluntarily change your race? I thought so.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

White God

White God begins with an almost hallucinatory shot: a young girl bicycles down the empty, cobble stoned streets of Budapest. Then, rounding a corner, is a pack of dogs, chasing after her. It's a flash forward, and what kind of story could lead us to that moment?

It turns out to be a unique one, a film that is unlike anything I've ever seen before, though it may remind you of many others, whether it be Lassie, Come Home, Spartacus, or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Directed by Kornél Mundruczó, White God is something of a fantasy, but so firmly grounded in reality it seems authentic. It tells the story of that girl, Zsófia Psotta, who has been sent to live with her father after her mother and stepfather, academics, are going on a long trip. She has a dog, Hagen, who is a mutt, which is frowned upon in Hungary apparently, as they are taxed and sneered at. The father wants nothing to do with the dog, so Psotta takes him to school, where she plays trumpet in the orchestra. The dog disrupts the rehearsal, though, so the father leaves the dog on the street.

We then bounce back and forth between Psotta's search for the dog to Hagen's experiences. He is hunted by dogcatchers, then sold to a man who trains fighting dogs. He wins his first fight, but runs away, and is eventually caught and sent to a shelter. The operator determines he is too mean to be adopted, and plans for him to be put down. But before that happens Hagen attacks his keeper and escapes, taking the whole pack with him. They wreak havoc on the city, with Hagen hunting down and exacting revenge on those who wronged him.

Again, this is not realistic. Dogs, as intelligent as they are, aren't capable of this kind of planning. At times it seems as if it were a long commercial for PETA, and anyone who likes dogs will feel a thrill as he takes care of those who were vicious to him or other dogs.

The work of the dogs, trained by Theresa Miller, is fantastic. There are some very memorable moments, such as when Hagen has defeated his opponent and stands over his bleeding foe. Or, the image in the poster, when Psotta plays her trumpet and calms the beasts.

White God (I'm not sure of the significance of the title) is a strange and marvelous film, and will make you think a little bit when you see a stray dog. Don't mistreat it, or it could come back to bite you in the ass.

Monday, October 26, 2015


My third look at the famous births of 1915 is Saul Bellow, the great Canadian-American writer. I have read a few of his books, but none lately, and they were later works. One of the amusing stories from my childhood is that I did my book report on his novel Humboldt's Gift in 10th grade, when all the other kids were doing horror novels.

His most acclaimed work is Herzog, published in 1964 and winner of the National Book Award. It fits into a genre of American literature that might be called Jewish--in many ways it's similar to the style of Philip Roth, and as with Roth's work, deals with the many loves of an academic who is cracking up.

Herzog has a thin plot. We find Moses Herzog as the book starts after the breakup of his second marriage, in his home in the Berkshires, roughing it. We will follow him to New York, Martha's Vineyard, and then to Chicago, the city Bellow is most associated with, as the hapless Herzog seeks to gain custody of his young daughter by carrying his deceased father's antique pistol with two bullets in it (his wife has left him for a family friend). Along the way, Herzog ruminates on his life, and writes many letters, both to people he knows and doesn't know, usually expressing some kind of outrage. None of these letters are sent.

The book, while at times highly amusing and with prose that can soar, is not an easy read. Often, due to a lack of a cohesive plot, I found my eyes sliding off the page. What Bellow does do is somehow make this guy likable and even sympathetic. His list of faults is nearly endless, including that he has no compunction about borrowing money from his richer brothers, but as we walk a mile or several hundred in his shoes he starts to grow on us.

Herzog is an academic, specializing in the Romantic poets, which is funny because romance is not Herzog's strength. He does have a successful relationship with an earthy woman named Ramona, who is also to be good to be true, and he remembers a relationship with a kind Japanese woman. But his second ex, Madeline, is a holy terror, who duped him into moving to Chicago and then having family friends, the Gersbachs, move with them, even to the point of getting the man, Valentine, a job. Madeline and Valentine were having an affair, and she throws Herzog out. His rage is understandable.

Setting is important in the novel. Bellow, though born in Montreal, was associated with Chicago, and when Herzog finally arrives there it feels like a climax of sorts. "He did not know these new sections of Chicago. Clumsy, stinking, tender Chicago, dumped on its ancient lake bottom; and this murky orange west, and the hoarseness of factories and trains, spilling gases and soot on the newborn summer."

While Chicago feels like Herzog's crucible, the Berkshires is his alternate world, where nature intrudes. It's a house in Ludeyville, which isn't even where the swells buy near Barrington, but off the beaten path. He has pumped a ton of money into the house, but it feels to him like an unnecessary appendage, and he can't keep the wild out. At the beginning of the book a mouse burrows its way into a loaf of bread, leaving a mouse-shaped hole in it, like a cartoon rodent. When he returns to it late in the book, he finds owls have made a nest in the light fixtures, and little bird skulls are in the toilet, where they perished after nesting and the lid closed to entomb them.

Herzog is the kind of book that requires more than one read and a major dose of concentration. It is about love and madness, which Bellow would seem to equate to each other: "In emancipated New York, man and woman, gaudily disguised, like two savages belonging to hostile tribes, confront each other. The man wants to deceive, and then to disengage himself; the woman's strategy is to disarm and detain him."

I'd like to read more Bellow, as I feel tantalized if not completely fulfilled yet.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Bridge of Spies

The teaming of Steven Spielberg and Joel and Ethan Coen is exciting, but not natural--Spielberg is a rank sentimentalist and the Coens eschew sentiment at every turn. So, what do we get when get when we get a director who loves to film children and waving flags directs a script by the guys who had a man put through a woodchipper? A terrific movie--Bridge of Spies.

The film is set during the Cold War, and is about two critical things that happened during the late '50s and early '60s. Both, amazingly, involved the same man, James B. Donovan, earnestly played by Tom Hanks. Donovan was an insurance lawyer but was tapped to defend a captured Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is convicted, but when U.S. pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down in a U-2 spy plane over Soviet air space, Donovan was selected to negotiate a prisoner swap.

The film begins with a breathless and dialogue-free scene in which Rylance, who's cover is as a painter, is tracked by FBI agents. He finds a hollow nickel under a park bench, and is subsequently arrested. The entire sequence is vintage Spielberg--not only for the magnficent art direction--every detail speaks of the period--but the almost effortless way Spielberg can tell a story in jn broad strokes as well. The first image of Rylance is in a mirror--he is painting a self-portrait, and so we see three different images of him--the real him, the mirror image, and the portrait. Which is the real him, though?

To make it look like every person in America receives a fair trial, Hanks is selected to defend Rylance, even though he will become very unpopular in doing so. He gets dirty looks on the subway, and his house is shot at (I don't know if this last is true, but it seems out of left field and is one of the few parts of the movie that don't work). The judge has already decided Rylance is guilty, and rejects Hanks' request to disqualify evidence on Constitutional grounds. He also tells a CIA agent where he can stick it when the man tells Hanks to ease up.

Rylance is convicted, but Hanks convinces the judge not to have him executed, which comes in handy when Powers is shot down. The entire U-2 story is basically sandwiched in between the Abel trial, and quite well, too. There is a lot of information in this film (another man will become involved when a student is arrested on the wrong side of the Berlin wall) but I never had a problem understanding what was going on.

The Soviets have Powers, and want to swap him for Abel. Hanks is brought in to negotiate, and sent to Berlin. He tries to get Powers and the student out, even though the CIA really only wants Powers. Everything ends on the bridge of the title.

Bridge of Spies is just smashing. It is a movie that involves a lot of men in suits talking (and wearing hats--this was before Kennedy killed the industry) but it percolates with intensity. The paranoia of the Cold War is palpable, and Spielberg, as his wont, comes up with some dazzling set pieces, such as a pair of men in a rainstorm, one following the other, both with umbrellas. Or Hanks walking through the snowy streets of East Berlin. But then there are what might have been the Coen Brothers' contributions. The script (which is also credited to Matt Charman) has some fine nuggets, such as Rylance saying, when Hanks asks him if he's worried, "Would it help?" This happens three times, and each time the circumstances for Rylance and Hanks are different, but the line works like a charm.

Also, and this is key, Bridge of Spies is full of lofty speeches about the rule of law, but at no time seems like a civics lesson. When Hanks tells off the CIA agent, he says that what makes everyone American is the "rule book," the Constitution. A lot of people can lose sight of that, but Hanks keeps things in check and the words are crisp, not flowery.

Hanks is terrific here, but he's not the only one. Look for an Oscar nomination for Rylance, the sad sack-looking Abel, who really looks like the kind of guy you see out painting by the Brooklyn Bridge. But he's savvy and dedicated--he turns down all opportunities to become a double-agent. Hanks grows to admire him, and so do we, perhaps against are better interests. Powers, played by Austin Stowell, is in contrast played as a blunderer, who can't manage to kill himself or destroy the plane, as he is instructed.

Bridge of Spies is full of good performances, some very brief but enlivening, such as Peter McRobbie as CIA director Allen Dulles, Sebastian Koch as a German lawyer, and Scott Shepherd as that annoying CIA agent, who is a good egg after all. The editing, by Michael Kahn, who goes back with Spielberg to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, is brisk, even if the movie is 141 minutes. Janusz Kaminski is back as Spielberg's DP, and we do get the blown out windows he's famous for, but this gives the film that gray and ashy look that is appropriate. Spies move in and out of shadows, not in technicolor.

Interestingly, John Williams is not the composer, due to a health issue. Williams had done every Spielberg since Jaws, save for The Color Purple. Thomas Newman fills in, with a bombastic but very typical Hollywood score, with lots of ruffles and flourishes.

I'll save the "but" for the last, because there's always a but with Spielberg. Like Saving Private Ryan and A.I., Spielberg can't leave well enough alone and screws up the ending. The last shot should have been the one on the bridge, just as the last shot of A.I. should have been Haley Osment just feet away from that angel statue for eternity. But Spielberg keeps the camera rolling, and we get a sticky Americana ending that, after the Coens' smart script, feels tacked on. We get it, Donovan was a hero, and he's a true blue American.

The last couple of minutes cost the movie a half a star in my mental tabulations, but Bridge of Spies is still one of the best films of the year.

Saturday, October 24, 2015


The first notable adaptation of Dracula on film was Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau's classic that was released in 1922. The problem was that it was completely unauthorized. All the character names were changed, but the plot was pretty much the same as Bram Stoker's novel, and his widow sued. All prints were to be destroyed, and that they weren't may be bad legal form but good for the history of cinema.

Murnau was well known as one of the greatest practitioners of what became known as German Expressionism, which later influenced Hollywood films in the form of film noir. He used long shadows and interesting angles, and this works well with the story of a vampire.

In this adaptation, Max Schreck plays Count Orlok (the DVD I watched has clearly undergone revision, as title cards now contain the names of Stokers' characters, as well as a credit "based on the novel by Bram Stoker"). But we don't see him for a while, and this is one of the drawbacks of the film, among others. Though only 81 minutes long, Nosferatu takes forever to get started.

First we meet Renfield, a weird old coot, who is a realtor. He sends Harker (Gustav von Wangenheim) to Transylvania to help Orlok buy a home in Bremen, Germany (standing in for London). Renfield is clearly acting on orders from Orlok, and Harker becomes food for him when he arrives. His wife, Nina (Greta Schroder) receives psychic messages from her husband, and goes into a trance when he is attacked.

Harker escapes back to Germany, and Orlok packs up a few coffins full of Earth and heads to Bremen, where he feeds on the entire crew (in this film, he brings contagion with him, as his menace is tied to fears of the plague). Nina reads that the only way to destroy him is to offer herself to the monster freely, and then keep him up until the sun rises. Thus we get the famous scene of Orlok climbing the stairs, seeing him only in shadow, and then the shadow of his hand, with the creepy long fingers, making a fist on Nina's chest. He feeds on her, but forgets about the sun rising and is destroyed.

Stoker's novel, which I will discuss in more depth later this year, has had many interpretations, but one of them has been its stark xenophobia, perhaps cast as anti-Semitism. Orlok, as played by Schreck and his makeup, is made to be hideous (which is true to the book), and in no way romantic, as it would in later years. He is rat-like, or perhaps more accurately, bat-like,with an extremely large nose, pointed teeth, and bugged eyes. I suppose it could be construed as a Semitic look, but I don't know if this is intentional.

In any event, he is a terrifying figure to behold. There's a great moment when he bolts upright out of his coffin, and I do mean upright--he doesn't bend at all, but just rises as if on a spring. There is also a great moment when he sees the picture of Nina and says to Harker, "What a lovely throat she has."

The film does have issues, most notably for the dated acting styles. I saw it first in college, and the audience, since it is a silent film, treated it like it was Mystery Science Theater 3000, calling out gag lines (I remember that when Harker shimmies down bed sheets to escape from Orlok's castle, a friend of mine yelled out, "To the batpoles, Robin!" Also, the DVD I watched did not do the film any favors by including an overwrought and inappropriate score. I think the best way to watch this film is at a midnight show, preferably on Halloween, maybe in a church, with a live organist accompanying.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Bad Boy

For the first marking period this year, I chose Walter Dean Myers' Bad Boy as the book my sixth-graders would read. I had never read the book before, but it tied in to their assignment of writing a personal narrative, as Bad Boy is a memoir. Also, it was a narrative written by an African-American man who had a troubled childhood, which I thought some of my students could identify with. Also, it was short and we had plenty of copies.

I don't think my students cared much for it--some of it was way over their heads--but I thought it was terrific. I think it's one of the best descriptions of how someone is inspired to be a writer I've ever read, and how literature can be inspiring. These parts of the book probably didn't reach most of my kids. Instead they probably liked the passages where Myers gets into trouble.

Myers had an interesting childhood. His mother died when he was very young, and he was sent to live with his natural father's first wife and her second husband, so the people he would know as Mama and Dad were not blood relatives. He grew up in Harlem during the '40s and '50s, loving the Dodgers, gaining a love of literature, and writing. He also loved fighting and wasn't much for school.

Myers tells some funny tales that had me wondering aloud to my kids, "Does this sound like a good idea?" He decides to grab hold of the bumper of a taxi, gets his sleeve caught, and gets dragged along the road, covering his body in bruises and scrapes. The tale turns dark when he blames his mother for beating him, which angers his father. His normal response to slights or insults is to punch someone in the face. He grows up with a speech impediment, and hits a class clown for making fun of him (that would be Johnny Brown, who would eventually find success as a comedian).

Myers touches upon race as he becomes aware of it. He grows up in a black neighborhood, but has a white friend and white teachers. "My answer to the question of race was to reject my identity as a black and take another identity. I could not identify myself as white, or as any other race. I could identify myself as an intellectual, and this what I did, telling myself over and over again what white teachers so often told me, that race didn't matter if you were bright." He only senses prejudice when he is not invited to parties his friend is invited to, and doesn't really know what it is to "be black." He also wonders what it is to be a man, as he is more interested in books that girls.

Myers, though labeled a bad boy, is clearly intelligent, and has a teacher who gets him into a special program. He gets into Stuyvesant High School, but though he is inspired by a writing teacher (he is especially grateful that she has him read Camus' The Stranger) he misses school weeks at a time, disappointed in himself. He's so detached from school that when he finally decides to go back toward the end of his senior year he finds that the school year is over.

My favorite parts of the book are his meditations on writing, and how he grew as a writer."I found, stumbled upon, was led to,or was given great literature. Reading this literature, these books, led me to the canvas of my own humanity. Along the way I encountered values that I accepted, primarily those that reinforced by early religious and community mores. My reading ability led me to books, which led me to ideas, which led to more books and more ideas. The slow dance through the ideas led to writing." Very well said. I would recommend this book to any young person who shows an interest in reading and writing, especially if they feel like an outcast.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Dracula's Daughter

Like Frankenstein, Dracula was a huge hit for Universal and eventually they made several sequels, some of them crossing over and featuring Frankenstein's monster as well as their other creature, the Wolf Man. However Dracula's Daughter was the first sequel, and it does not even have Dracula in it, except as a corpse. The film, released in 1936, instead has some not-so-subtle eroticism in the form of lesbian overtones.

Dracula's Daughter starts where Dracula left off, with Van Helsing (now, for some reason, called Von Helsing, and still played by Edward Van Sloan) having dispatched the count with a stake through the heart (of course, in the book that happens in Transylvania, not Whitby). Van Sloan is arrested, and the head of Scotland Yard, Gilbert Emery, does not believe his wild tale. Van Sloan enlists the help of his old student, Otto Krueger.

Krueger is a psychiatrist and something of a man about town, as he always seems to be in black tie. His assistant is some kind of socialite, Marguerite Churchill. He meets, at a party, Countess Zaleska, whom earlier we saw stealing and burning Dracula's body, in the hope she would be released from the curse. It turns out she was one of his victims, and is a vampire herself.

The film is campy good fun, with more psychological horror than anything else. It's a slim 71 minutes, but much of it is taken up with comedy, especially between two bumbling policeman at the beginning. In fact, much of the enjoyment of this film is a broad array of English "types," such as Emery (who was American) as the constantly annoyed police chief, who is interrupted in bed as he works on his stamp collection, or the poncey Sir Aubrey (Claud Allister) or the classic British butler (Edgar Norton).

What makes Dracula's Daughter historically interesting is the lesbian motif. Gloria Holden is the vampire, and there's a scene that is kind of amazing considering it was a post-code film. Her manservant (creepily played by Irving Pichel) finds a young woman ready to jump into the Thames. He entices her to come to Holden's studio, to presumably pose for a painting. The young woman is played by Nan Grey, who removes her blouse to bare her shoulders, and then Holden moves in on her. The scene is pretty erotic for a 1936 film, and later, Holden will kidnap Churchill and linger over her comatose body as she waits for Krueger to come save her.

The lesbian stuff wasn't really noticed at the time (the New York Times review said, "bring the kiddies") and the film was a middling success. More films would come though, as monster pictures would become Universal's cash cow.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015


I think everything that is bad about Showtime can be seen in this poster. It is one of those mismatched buddy cop comedies, and the look on the actors' faces reflect what they were probably thinking--my career has come to this?

However, Showtime is not completely terrible. Directed by Tom Dey, I did finds parts of it amusing, notably a cameo by William Shatner (which could probably help any movie) as himself, and another by the now deceased Johnnie Cochran, gamely spoofing himself. Otherwise, this film is a lost cause.

The premise, which apparently was borrowed from a Clint Eastwood film, Dead Pool, has tough detective Robert De Niro shooting a TV camera in a pique of anger. He is forced to get on board with a reality show. He is partnered with showboating patrolman Eddie Murphy, who wants to be an actor. Murphy will show De Niro about show business, while De Niro will show Murphy how to be a detective. In the meantime they will try to catch someone who is using a new kind of gun that can destroy a house.

The film was released in 2002, not a good time for either actor. If this was 1985, it would have been a great pairing, but both had lost most of their star appeal by this time (De Niro has gotten some of it back, Murphy, despite Dreamgirls, has not). Murphy was nominated for a Razzie for his performance, but I did think he showed some of his old flair, especially when he pretends to be a TV producer to get a convict to give up information. De Niro is just killing time, and the slow burns that his character is supposed to be giving just seem like he's thinking about when he gets to go on to his next bad movie.

The film attempts to make a statement about how real police work is nothing like it is on TV, and then does the exact opposite by having unrealistic car chases, fights, and a rooftop swimming pool collapsing. In what could have been a biting parody of reality TV, it just shrugs and says "fuck it."

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Martian

I"I'm going to have to science the shit out of this," says Mark Watney, engagingly played by Matt Damon. Watney is an astronaut who has been marooned on Mars, and keeps a video diary that serves as the narration of the film. Since Mars is not a place that has shuttle service, nothing grows there (despite the recent discovery of water), he does not have enough provisions to last him long enough for a rescue mission, and he has no communications with Earth, he will indeed have to science the shit out of it, and he does.

This is The Martian, an endlessly rousing entertainment that relies upon, besides Damon's performance, the spectrum of science, from botany to astrophysics. As the movie unfolded, I found it to be a direct rebuke to the perniciously anti-science element of right-wing politicians (which are almost all of them) and began to look for any element of religion. There is one, when NASA bigwigs Chiwetel Ejiofor and Sean Bean share a moment and ask each other if they believe in God. But this line seems inserted just so it can be said this isn't a completely secular film. It is.

The film begins with a crew of six, led by hard-as-nails Jessica Chastain (she's softened by a love of disco music). They are forced to abort their mission by a dust storm, and during their flight to the ship Damon is carried away by a flying satellite dish. Assuming he is dead, the remaining five take off for a very long return to Earth.

But Damon is not dead, just wounded. But the satellite dish was the way to talk to home. Over the next two hours plus Damon and the crew on Earth and on the Hermes (the ship taking his crew home) will use their noggins to get past obstacles to bring him home. I've seen some articles talk about the humanity of this film--it is true that human beings can bond together even if to save one man, and a shot at the end of the film has the world breathlessly watching live--and in certain case that's true. But even overriding that is The Martian's celebration of intelligence. You can pray all you want, but it takes an advanced degree in math to get the job done.

Damon, who has curiously played this kind of role before, in Saving Private Ryan and Interstellar, makes a great hero. He's a botanist, so he figures out how to grow potatoes in Martian soil (with the help of his own feces) and makes water from scratch. He then figures out how to communicate with Earth by finding the old Pathfinder from the 1990s (the film takes place in what I would term the near future). The crew on the ground, led by Jeff Daniels, Ejiofor, Bean, and a bemused Kristen Wiig as PR director, stand in offices and bark orders to eggheads working on the problem, while Donald Glover figures out a way for the Hermes to actually use the Earth's gravity as a slingshot to take them back to Mars and rescue Damon (this also enables stars Chastain and Kate Mara to continue to have a reason to be in the movie).

Even though The Martian is by the book filmmaking (director Ridley Scott is not exactly an innovator) it's a lot of fun. The script by Drew Goddard is both scientifically dense and very funny, as Damon's character finds a lot of gallows humor in his situation. Some of the sequences are a little too pat, such as when Daniels says, "If nothing goes wrong," and then, cut to Mars, something goes spectacularly wrong. The falling action of the film is an seemingly endless series of problems to be overcome. But even though anyone who has ever seen a movie knows how this will turn out, it's still very suspenseful.

I should add that the cast is a gloriously diverse one, with every race represented. Michael Pena plays the mission pilot, which reminds me of something I read about Salma Hayek, who was up for a role as an astronaut once when she was told by a myopic studio executive that "there are no Mexican astronauts." Brains know no color.

I should also add that the film makes great use of its soundtrack. Per Chastain, there's plenty of disco, but also a perfect use of David Bowie's "Starman." Over the film's closing credits is "Love Train." The film may be set in the future, but it's heart is in the '70s.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Mists of Baseball Time

Doc Adams
I've got baseball fever. I have no dog in this year's hunt, but I've been watching all the playoff games I can. In the absence of the Tigers, who ignominiously finished in last place this year after four straight division titles, I'm rooting for the Mets, who are the favorite team of several of my friends. It's easier to root for a New York team living in Las Vegas, where I don't have to put up with the obnoxiousness of local media.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has announced their slate of nominees for induction by the Veterans' committee, and by their rules it's the turn of the "Pre-Integration" committee, which means anyone who began their career before Jackie Robinson took the field in 1947. That's a over century of baseball, from the very beginning to World War II, when my father was a wee lad. Most of the ten candidates played long before that, though, and some have been dead for a hundred years.

As I've written before, the thinking behind the Veteran's Committee is flawed. It's taking the back door in, after everyone else has said no. The players on this list have been retired for fifty years or more--how much more can we think about them? I think that committee, such as it is, should be limited to non-players: executives, managers, umpires. Having said that, I think there are a couple of men here who deserve close consideration.

In alphabetical order, the men up for induction this year are:

Doc Adams: Adams was one of the New York Knickerbockers of 1845, credited with inventing the shortstop position and a whole lot of other stuff, too. In light of the revelation by John Thorn that Alexander Cartwright's accomplishments listed on his plaque are hooey, Adams certainly deserves scrutiny. It's interesting that Thorn's candidate for the true father of modern baseball, Louis Wadsworth, is not on this list.

Sam Breadon: Was the owner of the Cardinals during their glory years of the 1920's and 1930's, but I think Branch Rickey gets most of the credit for those teams. Should Breadon be inducted for hiring Rickey? Don't think so. Breadon has already been passed over three years ago.

Bill Dahlen: If there's anyone who deserves getting in as a player it's Dahlen, who retired in 1911 with the most games played. But he hit only .272 lifetime, with 84 home runs (which was a lot for those days). Close call.

Wes Ferrell: His brother Rick is in the Hall, which is something of an outrage, and his induction would equally be so. His career record of 193-128 is good but not great, and his E.R.A. of 4.04 is decidedly mediocre. He won 20 games in a row for four straight years, but that's not enough.

August Hermann: Chairman of the Cincinnati Reds for a bunch of years and helped organize the first World Series. No.

Marty Marion: I have long heard his name as someone who should be in the Hall, but it's tough because he was known as a great fielding shortstop, which means people would have needed to see him. He only had a .263 lifetime batting average and played for only thirteen seasons. Here's the thing, though--he has had plenty of consideration by Hall voters, from 1956 to 1973, and never received over 40 percent of the vote. He has not had one hit or fielded once chance since then, so why should we re-evaluate?

Frank McCormick: Part of a good Reds team in the late 1930s and early 1940s, McCormick was a first baseman with a lifetime batting average of .299 and 128 home runs, which are totals too low for a corner infielder. He never received more than three percent of the Hall vote, and according to Baseball Reference, the player he is most similar to is Sean Casey. His election would be a travesty.

Harry Stovey: A pre-1900 player who was considered once by the Hall voters, in the inaugural voting of 1936, and he got seven percent and was never thought of again until now. Lifetime batting average of .289, but he did have 504 stolen bases. A resounding no, though.

Chris von der Ahe: The George Steinbrenner of pre-1900 baseball. He was a beer hall owner who bought the St. Louis Browns (who are now the Cardinals) in order to sell beer. Was the first to allow baseball games to be played on Sundays. Knew nothing about baseball, yet constantly interfered and fired managers at will. If Steinbrenner can't get in, I don't see why he should.

Bucky Walters: Another player from the mid-century Reds, part of a great pitching staff that included Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey and Paul Derringer. Lifetime record of 198-160. If a player doesn't have 200 wins, that loss total should be a lot lower. Had a monster season in 1939, winning 27 games and earning MVP honors, but only had two other 20-game winning seasons. Close, but no cigar.

So I would vote for Adams and would be tempted to hear arguments for Dahlen. I wouldn't be surprised if no one gets in, though. But fret not, Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce, Ken Griffey, Jr. will be elected this year, and the people will come.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dracula (Spanish Version)

One of the intriguing facts about the filming of Universal's Dracula in 1931 is that, during the very same time, a Spanish version was made, using the same sets and the same script. While the English-language version shot during the day, the Spanish one filmed at night. I just got a chance to see the Spanish version for the first time last night and wouldn't you know, it's better.

It was directed by George Melford, who spoke no Spanish, and I think the key reason why it's better is that it's slightly longer--about twenty minutes--which allows a better-developed story. Also, there is not as much prudery involved. Tovar's gowns show much more decolletage than the U.S. version, and when Dracula swoops down on Lucy Weston, we see him cover her with his cape, making the scene more sexual.

I also enjoyed that there are extra scenes with Renfield, played with vivid insanity by Pablo Alvarez Rubio. Carlos Villar plays the Count. He was able to see dailies of the U.S. version and was told to imitate Bela Lugosi, but I think he gave the character an extra spin. Villar smiles with a grim rictus, his eyes bugging out of his head. There is absolutely nothing sexy about him. He also gives the scene in which he destroys a mirror held up to him by Van Helsing a bit more bite, no pun intended.

There are a few plot differences. Renfield, in the U.S. version, is fed on by Dracula himself, who waves off his brides, while in the Spanish version they feast on him. The ending, in which Renfield betrays his master by revealing his location, is more spelled out, and gives the Spanish ending more suspense. Although I'm puzzled why they didn't realize he would in Carfax Abbey, since that's where he lives.

This wrinkle in the history of Dracula on film provides an excellent example of how two films with the same script and sets but different directors can lead to completely different movies. By all accounts, Tod Browning was an absentee and disinterested director, with many scenes actually directed by D.P. Carl Freund. Melford seemed to have a much firmer hand.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Oscar 2015 Preview: Best Actress

Brie Larson in "Room"
Unlike many years, this year's Best Actress race actually has a bevy of women vying for top honors. No longer must we look to foreign films or indies that no one has seen. This year figures to be an all-Hollywood slate.

Who gets in may depend on how big the films hit. Charlize Theron, who ordinarily would never have a chance with an action picture like Mad Max: Fury Road, may be a contender because of box office, while Lily Tomlin, who seems like a very sentimental choice, could be hurt by Grandma's paltry 6.4 million dollar box office.

Here is my best guess for the five women who will get nominations come January:

Cate Blanchett, Carol: This is a film about a lesbian relationship, directed by Todd Haynes, who has already directed Blanchett to one nomination (I'm Not There, as Bob Dylan). Co-star Rooney Mara won at Cannes, but those who've seen it say that Blanchett is the lead, and Mara is supporting. Blanchett is kind of like Meryl Streep-lite now; she's nominated for practically everything she does.

Sandra Bullock, Our Brand Is Crisis: I admit going out on a limb for this one, but I saw the trailer and its full of scenery-chewing moments. Bullock is enjoying a productive stretch of quality films after years of fluff, and if the film is any good, I think she has a shot. It's also a role that was written for a man.

Brie Larson, Room: The winner at Toronto, Room has suddenly vaulted into a lot of Oscar talk, especially Larson, as a young woman, like Jacy Dugard, who was kept captive for several years and gave birth to a child fathered by her abductor. Larson got a lot of buzz for Short-Term 12, and if there's a lock for a nomination right now, it would appear to be her.

Jennifer Lawrence, Joy: This would be the third nomination for Lawrence directed by David O. Russell. I did a little sleuthing on the Internet and I can't tell if that would be a record, but it would certainly be significant, since Lawrence is only 25. Joy is a film about a woman who invented the Miracle Mop, so who knows what it will be like, but Lawrence can't be counted out for anything.

Saorse Ronan, Brooklyn: Ronan, who received a nomination as a child for Atonement, would be only the second woman (after Jodie Foster) nominated as both a child and an adult, and she seems a safe bet, as the star of an old-fashioned film about an Irish immigrant and the loves she has on both sides of the pond.

Other possibilities: Marion Cotillard, Macbeth; Carey Mulligan, Suffragette; Charlotte Rampling, 45 Hours,  Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Lily Tomlin, Grandma.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What a Difference a Coach Makes

It hasn't been easy being a University of Michigan football fan the last decade or so. Once they were an automatic Top 20 team, with the season expectation to vie for the Rose Bowl with Ohio State. They have the most wins in college football history, and the second highest winning percentage. When I was a kid the coach was Bo Schembechler, and the program was one of the most prestigious in the country.

Somewhere along the line things went sour. Other teams in the Big Ten got better (for almost twenty years, the only two teams who won the conference were either Michigan or Ohio State) and teams from other parts of the country, especially the Southeast, were recruiting Midwestern players. Lloyd Carr, who coached the team to a national championship in 1998, retired after the 2007 season, but not before losing to Division I-AA Appalachian State, which in retrospect was the day the floor started caving in. Carr retired after that season, and since then the team has been in the wilderness, struggling through the Rich Rodriguez's tenure, where the team went through an unthinkable 15-22 record.

Rodriguez was gone after three seasons, and replaced by a Michigan man, Brady Hoke. Things looked hopeful at first, with his first season being 10-2 with a victory over Ohio State. But things went downhill from there, and he was fired after four seasons, the capper being when he sent a quarterback back on the field after suffering on obvious concussion.

Jim Harbaugh, who was quarterback of the Wolverines in the mid-'80s, had a successful career as the coach of the San Francisco 49ers, and took them to the Super Bowl  (he lost to the Baltimore Ravens, coached by his brother John). But I guess there was a battle of wills there and he was asked to leave. Harbaugh had been considered a possibility when Hoke was hired, but now the match that made Michigan fans happy finally happened--Harbaugh was going back to Ann Arbor.

My dad lives in Michigan, went to Michigan (where I was born) and has followed the Maize and Blue for well over fifty years. I picked up on that, and I've been to many exciting games at U of M stadium, which is an amazing place to watch a sporting event. So after Harbaugh was hired I'd hear from him what the scoop was--who was being recruited, etc. A reasonable hope was that the team would at least be above .500.

So far the results are spectacular. The first game of the season was a loss to Utah, so it didn't seem encouraging. But since then the Wolverines have ripped off five straight wins. Over that span, they have allowed two touchdowns and three straight shutouts. That hasn't been done by any NCAA division I team since 1995. They cracked the top 25 after beating BYU, 18 after beating Maryland, and are now ranked 12th after shutting out Northwestern.

So what difference does a coach make? It's certainly different for different sports. I've heard some people say that a manager makes little difference in baseball, that it's a matter of filling out a lineup card, but this seems like ignorance to me, as there are several decisions to make with every pitch. If that's true, then football is even more complicated--so complicated that teams have coordinators that handle each side of the ball. A head coach may or may not call plays, in both college and the pros.

What Harbaugh has certainly done has brought motivation to a school that was at a very low point. The intangible aspect of coaching is leading the players, and getting to give their best, every play, every day. Harbaugh, if appearances are correct, is extremely intense,and doesn't take well to losing. I heard a player saying, after beating UNLV but giving up a touchdown late (the last the team has given up in three weeks) that it bothered him. Harbaugh himself was riding officials near the end of the Northwestern game, the victory well in hand. Harbaugh seems to me like the gym teacher everybody hated, but that works quite well for a football coach.

The first big test if this team is for real is this Saturday, against Michigan State. Up to now the schedule has included a couple of top 25 teams, but not the big boys. If the Wolverines can beat the Spartans, this fan might let visions of beating Ohio State dance in his head.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Playboy Faces Reality

Stunning news from the publishing world this week--hell, stunning news from the cultural world--Playboy, come next March, will no longer publish pictures of naked women. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around this.

As those who follow this blog regularly know, I am an aficionado of all things salacious, and I got started with Playboy. I've been a faithful reader for over forty years, when I snuck looks at my father's copies. I remember looking at the pictures and not fully understanding what they were making me feel, but I knew it was good. I got my first subscription while I was still in high school, and kept it up until recently, when I switched over to the digital version, if only to save space.

I am fully aware of the dichotomy of being a liberal, a feminist, and a fan of Playboy. Hugh Hefner, who founded the magazine sixty years ago and even now, at age 89, decided to stop the nudity, was a key factor in the sexual revolution. There were nudie mags before Playboy, but they were all low-rent and completely in the shadows. Playboy took a cue from Esquire and melded pin-up photography and intellectual pursuits. A whole lifestyle was created--the bachelor, who knew all about great wine, had the latest hi-fi equipment, was sartorially impeccable, and wasn't interested in marriage.

Through the '50s and '60s this image was viable, as heretofore the boring dad of TV sitcoms was the male role model. Playboy gave an alternative, and also used the illusory concept of the "girl next door." The Playmate, featured every month with a staple through her navel, embodied the male fantasy. I certainly fell for this--she was a woman we could project our own ideals on. Surely if she only met us she would fall in love with us.

This act hit its stride in the '60s, though there were many detractors. Feminist leaders, rightly so, derided Hefner for his chauvinism. He may be a champion of the First Amendment, but he's never been a feminist. You can read between the lines of his many statements through the years and his bizarre behavior with women he keeps like exotic pets in his mansion. Objectifying women by having them dress as bunny rabbits in the clubs was not any kind of advancement for women. Some women may say they are empowered by posing nude, but not by wearing a powder-puff on their ass while serving drinks.

The magazine reached its popularity in the 1970s, with six-million subscribers. Hefner bought a jetliner, and the company went public. But then something happened along the way, and their are less than a million subscribers today. The Internet is blamed for most things that have wrecked the publishing industry, but I think Playboy started its downward slide before that. Maybe it was when they published the old nudes of Madonna, in a race with Penthouse. A magazine that once had interviews with Yevgeny Yevtuskenko and Malcolm X was now just another entertainment magazine trying to hustle for readers. The interview subjects became actors shilling their latest movie. Sure, every once in a while they'd land someone who actually had something to say, but the die was cast.

The Internet was the final nail in the coffin. Anyone can see naked woman anytime they want, for free. Magazines like Playboy, Penthouse, and Hustler were obsolete. Why walk into a newsstand and buy a porn rag when you can surf in the comfort of your home? Playboy's content--the whole "I read it for the articles"--had long since past, as the new Norman Mailers and John Updikes can't be found in its pages (T.C. Boyle is about the only reputable writer who still publishes his work there).

I've kept up with Playboy because of the nudity. Naked ladies may be all over the Internet, but Playboy still has the best of them. The great photographers, like Steven Wayda and Arny Freytag, have died or retired, and the new breed, like Josh Ryan, aren't worthy to shine their boots, but the girls are still fantastic. They are not the girls next door anymore, unless you live next to fashion models, but they are the epitome of a certain kind of beauty that I appreciate. The nudity, to use an overused word, is tasteful. There are no gaping gashes, no close-ups of assholes--I can see that elsewhere if I want to. I like to see beautiful women in classic pin-up poses, and to think that will be gone is disheartening.

Is it a good business decision? I doubt it. Magazines like Esquire, GQ, and especially Maxim have photos of scantily-clad but non-nude women and manage to exist. Maxim is geared toward the college boy mentality, while the other two skewer much older. Playboy's audience was graying, and supposedly since they have done away with nudity on their website (they do have another website, Playboy Plus, which is operated by a company called Manwin, which still has plenty of nudity) there audience has grown and gotten younger. But would they really get rid of the centerfold? The Playmate of the Month? If they can get major stars to partially disrobe, who otherwise wouldn't have posed naked, that would be good. But what will the editorial approach be? Will they go back to being a magazine catering to the more intellectual among us? Or will they wallow more in the Maxim model, with endless articles about the best party colleges, extreme sports and beer?

Playboy only exists now because of its brand, which is hugely recognizable. The irony is that the purchasers of items with the Playboy logo are women--I don't think any self-respecting man would walk out of the house with a Playboy bunny on him. This has become a classic example of the tail wagging the dog--the magazine, which began it all, is the least important part of it now. I suspect that the magazine will last as long as Hugh Hefner is alive, and after he goes, it will disappear, or exist only in modest form, just to give the logo a reason to exist. The time has come.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Lion King

I have distinct memories of The Lion King, which was released in 1994. Just before it opened in the summer, I was hosting a visitor from England. She had a young son, and was looking for something to buy him and take back. The toy stores were full of Lion King stuff, but she didn't get anything but she said he wouldn't know the characters, as the film hadn't opened yet in England. I'll be a few months later he did, as the film exploded and for a while was in the top five of movie earners.

I saw the film that summer, but don't think I saw it all the way through until this week, when I showed it to my sixth-grade students. I did see pieces of it, as my twin nephews, when they were about three, couldn't get enough of the film, and watched it incessantly. Their favorite song was "I Just Can't Wait to Be King," which they would sign and dance along with, over and over again.

The Lion King was actually suggested to show from the textbook, as it is a great example of plot structure. It has a very simple structure of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The conflict is easy--who gets to be king. But it would also be useful to high school or even college English students--identify the Shakespearean motifs within. Of course there is Hamlet, as a young man's (lion's) uncle kills his father and takes over as king (thankfully, in this film, Scar does not marry Simba's mother). Then there's Henry IV, Part I, with Simba similar to a louche Prince Hal, hanging around with ne'er-do-wells Timon and Pumbaa, who are the stand-in for Falstaff. Finally, Scar is a very close approximation of Richard III, a villainous king who, according to Shakespeare at least, had two princes murdered.

The Lion King came at the height of Disney's renaissance in feature animated films, which began with The Little Mermaid five years earlier. It was unique that it was not based on an existing source, even though it called to mind other works. It had some great songs by Elton John and Tim Rice, and the phrase "Hakuna Matata" is still a household phrase. Nathan Lane, long a Broadway hoofer, found a new audience as Timon ("What do you want me to, dress in drag and dance the hula?") and James Earl Jones made another iconic voice performance. My favorite thing about it is Jeremy Irons' performance, which he almost didn't do because Scar was a little too close to Klaus Von Bulow. Instead they made an inside gag, when young Simba calls Scar weird. "You have no idea," Irons says, echoing his line from Reversal of Fortune. There is also a great inside joke about "It's a Small World."

Most of my kids had seen the movie, but I got a kick of how they enjoyed the last fifteen minutes, when Simba and Scar fight each other. I hadn't remembered that some of the fight was in slow motion, which the boys loved. It's really well done, even if it is cliched--a fight to the death while a fire rages around them.

There are some criticisms of the film. Some found the depiction of the hyenas objectionable, for wildly different reasons. That the hyenas who spoke were played by minorities (Whoopi Goldberg and Cheech Marin) disturbed some, while naturalists were aghast at the negative portrayal of hyenas. I showed the kids some real videos of hyenas, including that sinister laughing noise they make, and it seemed to me fairly accurate. They are not a cuddly animal.

The film also makes an attempt not to sugarcoat the fact that lions eat other animals, but I find the monarchy of the savanna interesting. Animals that are eaten by lions bow down to them. Also, given that Scar ruins the kingdom during his reign, perhaps a parliamentary system was in order. I also found the romantic scenes between Simba and Nala a bit uncomfortable. She gives him a look that cleary says, "fuck me." He returns in kind. One of the boys in my class later said that "Nala has moves."

This was perhaps the pinnacle of the Disney animation boom, as Pixar would soon eclipse them. So, of course, Disney bought Pixar. I don't think Disney really came back with their own film until Frozen, which isn't as good as The Lion King.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Fourth of July Creek

Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson, is an occasionally brilliant but overlong novel about children and how they are failed by the adults charged to take care of them. It is seen through the eyes of Pete Snow, a social worker working for the Department of Family Services in rural Montana. In a case of "physician, heal thy self," Snow can barely take of himself, and then has his fourteen-year-old daughter run away from home.

But that isn't the main story. That would be Snow's odd relationship with a man, Jeremiah Pearl, and his son. Pearl is one of those guys who fears the government and heads to the hills, puncturing holes in coins to express his distrust of U.S. currency. Snow, interested in the well-being of Ben, the boy, comes to a grudging friendship with Pearl, who guards a dark secret.

Snow is one of those characters who is mercilessly mistreated by his creator. He gets rip-roaring drunk, falls in love with a woman who betrays him spectacularly, gets beaten up by a law enforcement officer, has his father die, and his house burn down. That's not to mention his daughter running away and becoming a prostitute.

The action takes place around 1980, and I've been trying to figure out why. There are a few mentions of the time period--the election of Reagan, the eruption of Mount St. Helene's. But I didn't find the time setting to have a profound meaning on the events of the story. Whenever an author does this now, I suspect it has to do with not having to deal with the Internet or cell phones.

If the story isn't particularly enthralling--it took me forever to get through it--the writing is often vivid and memorable. Henderson has a way of equating color with a variety of emotions: "Wyoming, which means to drive through ugly subscrape the color of dirty pennies," or "What did he smell like? Like brown. Like whiskey, tobacco, and river water."

Befitting a novel set in Montana, Henderson also celebrates the wilderness and the characters' relationship to it: "He sat on the limestone in the dark. Felt the notches carved by water into the rock. He'd have wept but for the cocaine and the numbness and the queer sensation that the stones all around him were subtly shifting position. The very ground seemed to writhe. Nearby something slipped into the water. He wondered was he both seeing and hearing things."

I suppose the foremost reason this novel didn't send me over the moon is that the subject matter is so overdone--missing children and anti-government wackos, both in one novel. Henderson does not do enough with these trends to make them transcend their ubiquity.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Kung Fu Killer

Kung Fu Killer, directed by Teddy Chan and starring Donnie Yen, is a rousing entertainment that uses some of Hollywood's most reliable tropes, such as the serial killer and the Western showdown, and showcases them in a martial arts film. I'm not a big fan of martial arts films, because they are frequently way too over the top, but I liked this one. It does have the annoying habit of making kung fu masters into super-humans who can't be felled by bullets, but at least it's not ridiculous.

Yen plays Hahou Mo, a kung fu instructor and champion, who accidentally kills someone in a duel. He turns himself in and is dutifully doing his time when, three years later, another kung fu master is killed. Yen figures out that the killer is targeting masters, and urges the police inspector (Charlie Young) to let him out to help. She reluctantly agrees. Yen finds his girlfriend (Michelle Bai), who is also a martian arts expert, and they figure out that the killer is a man who has lost his mind after the death of his wife and aims to be the greatest kung fu fighter of them all, despite having a crippled leg.

The fights, choreographed by Yen, are a joy to behold and grounded (mostly) in reality. There is a sword fight where the actors are obviously on wires. There is also a fight on top of an artistic representation of a dinosaur skeleton and a long, exciting scene set on a river. We put up with the haplessness of police, who are easily taken out by bare-handed men, but I've learned to live with this.

The script is smart, the direction fluid, the acting more than competent. I got a few chills during the showdown scene, when Yen takes on the killer on a busy highway. The ending, as it should be, is both inevitable and unpredictable.

The film is also known as Kung Fu Jungle.

Saturday, October 10, 2015


Near the beginning of Sicario, the brutal, unrelenting film by Denis Villeneuve, Josh Brolin says to Emily Blunt, "You'll understand everything by the end." Of course, Blunt is a stand-in for the audience--she's an FBI agent who has volunteered for a cross-agency mission that has something to do with Mexican cartels, but she knows nothing about why she's there or what's she's supposed to do.

Taylor Sheridan's script and Villeneuve's direction leads Blunt on an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole-type trip into the world of shadow investigations. As she is told by her higher-up, "These are decisions from on high. From people who are elected to office, not appointed." But Blunt struggles to maintain her integrity and lawfulness, even when she has a gun pointed at her head.

Sicario is a very good film, but not a great one, and I think the problem is that Villeneuve builds the film around Blunt, when the real star of the film is Benicio Del Toro as a mysterious operative who is part of her team. In fact, the movie leaves Blunt behind at the climax when Del Toro takes over, which is an odd thing to do when Blunt has been set up as the heroine of the piece.

The film opens with Blunt making a grim discovery at a tract house in a suburb of Phoenix. This attracts the attention of Brolin, who is probably CIA, though we never know for sure. Brolin appeals to her sentimentality to get her to volunteer on a mission to bring back the brother of a cartel leader from Juarez to the U.S., even though the legality is highly questionable. Blunt is like a person at a party where she knows no one, even when gunfire breaks out in a traffic jam at the border.

She will question Brolin at every turn, and though she comes to admire Del Toro, never trusts him. Eventually her questions, and ours, will be answered, and it's not a feel good story.

Del Toro is terrific in a very low-key performance. Brolin is also fine in a kind of role that sort of represents the American way--a cowboy/surfer type who wears flip-flops to the office and knows the ugly truth of things. Blunt, however, is a problem, not only in the script but the performance as well. I've yet to see the greatness of Blunt in any role, but here she is too slight to be playing a kick-ass FBI agent. I know there are many female agents, but I think they probably look a lot more like Ronda Rousey than Blunt, who doesn't have much in the way of muscle tone. She played a similar role in Edge of Tomorrow, which I didn't see. I think she works better in romantic comedies.

Sicario left me a little devastated, despite my misgivings. The photography by Roger Deakins is, yet again, stunning. He does more with twilight than any other cinematographer I know, and there is a sequence at the end, when the U.S. agents infiltrate a tunnel between the U.S. and Mexico, in which night goggles are used to great effect. Maybe this is the year he will win an Oscar.

Friday, October 09, 2015

John Atkinson Grimshaw

I've just discovered a painter I had never heard of, and now he's one of my favorites. I want to cover my walls with his work. Now that I'm immersing myself in all things Dracula, he's the perfect artist to be studying. His name, appropriately, is Grimshaw.

John Atkinson Grimshaw is his full name, and he is an ideal representation of gaslight Victorian England. Although he painted many subjects (he painted 200 pictures) he specialized in paintings of the nighttime, specifically moonlight. I'm not sure I've never heard of a painter who specialized in that. He also painted many pictures of harbors, in places like Liverpool, London, and Whitby. Those who have read Dracula know that Whitby is where most of the action takes place.

Grimshaw was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, although he was not a member of the Brotherhood. He didn't have as many pictures based on Arthurian themes as they did, but he did paint two version of the Lady of Shalott and some of ancient Greece and Rome.

My favorites are the moonlight ones, and many are variations on a theme that can be seen in the picture shown here, "November." The streets are cobblestone, the trees are bare, soft light comes from the windows of the buildings, and there are no people--but wait, there is someone in the painting. Look closely, and you see a figure on the sidewalk to the right. He appears to be looking up at one of the houses, perhaps a lover--or a stalker. Maybe even a vampire.

I've always been fascinated by how bright moonlight can make night look like day, or at least a weird kind of day, the kind of light you see on a stormy day, a kind of greenish hue to the sky. One of the great drawbacks to living in Las Vegas, at least to me, is that pretty much every day is bright sunshine. Everybody likes sunny day, but not fifty of them in a row. We had a nice rainy day here last week and I loved it.

Grimshaw seemed to love the rain, and to love night. Eddie Rabbitt, who wrote a song called "I Love the Rainy Nights" should check him out.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Rocking the Hall

Los Lobos
Arguments about who should be in the Rock Roll Hall of Fame are among the dumbest yet funnest arguments you can have. Almost everyone under the age of 60 has an opinion, and unlike sports halls of fames, statistics aren't that important (number one hits and gold records are about it) and it's all based on taste. So here goes my argument.

The slate of nominees for 2016 was announced today, and since I don't have an encyclopedic knowledge of members, I was flabbergasted to learn that Chicago and Steve Miller weren't already in. I knew Yes wasn't, since it's been a cause celebre of prog-rock fans. For anyone like me, who came of age during the '70s, these artists were ubiquitous. Steve Miller had two albums in the mid-70s, Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams, were as big as anything at the time. Chicago started as a fusion of jazz and rock, and even if they ended up recording wimpy ballads, they still had numerous hits throughout the decade. Yes was part of any college record collection, and though they tended to have long, complicated songs (some were an entire album side) they also had a number of hits.

So they should all be in. I also would vote for The Cars, who emerged in the early '80s as a hybrid of new wave and garage rock to create a distinctive sound, and Deep Purple, who were an early example of heavy metal. Granted, most people know them for only one song--"Smoke on the Water," which has one of the most recognizable guitar riffs of all time.

That's the weird thing about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--unlike sports, a limited career is not an impossible obstacle to overcome. Cheap Trick didn't have that many hits or albums, but they were all over the radio in the late '70s, and recorded one of the most popular live albums of all time. I wouldn't begrudge their election. The same for The Smiths, who were one of the first mopey British bands. Some of their music is insufferable, but there's no denying their influence. Nine Inch Nails, who is really just Trent Reznor, would also be a fine addition, though their (his) music is not completely my cup of tea.

Then there's categorization issues. When they say Rock, they really mean popular music. How else to justify N.W.A.? If there was a Rap Hall of  Fame they'd be among the first through the door, but is rap rock? I guess so, since Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash are in. The same goes for artists like Janet Jackson, The Spinners, Chic (who have now been nominated ten times) and Chaka Khan, who are more affiliated with R&B, disco, and funk.

I must admit that there was one group in the mix I hadn't heard of, The J.B.s, who were James Brown's band but also released many records on their own. Others might be confused by the inclusion of Los Lobos (especially when you consider The Moody Blues weren't included), but even though I don't think they merit election, I got a kick out of it They were an indie group with a heavy Mexican influence who had a few important albums in the mid-80s and had a modest hit with a cover of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba."

I have no idea who will be elected, but so far the vote results have the five I voted for, The Cars, Chicago, Steve Miller, Yes, and Deep Purple as the top five. I hope they all get in, and then next year we can talk about the Moody Blues.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Dracula (1931)

It's getting close to Halloween, so it's time for me to get macabre. Last year I looked at Frankenstein from all angles, so this year I'll examine Dracula, from the novel, the precursors, and the major film adaptations. Of course, the most iconic one is the Universal film from 1931, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi as the bloodthirsty count.

There had been vampire films before, notably the unauthorized F.W. Murnau film, Nosferatu (which I will be writing about shortly). But Dracula, based on the phenomenally popular stage play by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston, has remained the standard-bearer. Many studios had been interested but backed off due to censorship issues. But Universal went for it, and while it is only remotely faithful to the novel, it has enough chills and atmosphere to make in interesting.

But the sad truth is that Dracula is horribly dated. Most of the film is very static--a drawing room mystery, as befitting its stage origins. The most interesting part is the opening, set in Transylvania, where a young attorney, Renfield (a change from the book, when it is Jonathan Harker who pays a call on Castle Dracula) ignores villagers' warnings and takes a mysterious coach up to Dracula's pad. The castle itself is an impressive set, with a giant spider web. Here is where we get Lugosi's iconic first shot, when the camera zooms in on him (cinematographer Carl Freund revolutionized the use of the moving camera) and he utters two of the most famous lines in movie history: "Children of the night...what music they make," and, "I don't drink. Wine."

Dracula has leased Carfax Abbey in England, and Renfield has brought the lease. But before he knows it, Dracula's brides, in a very spooky scene, descend on him, only to be waved off by the Count. Renfield goes mad, craving to eat flies and spiders, and is the only survivor of the ship that bears the boxes of earth that arrive.

The film then has Dracula making a meal of Lucy Western, and doing his work on Mina Seward (in the film, she is the daughter of Dr. Seward, who in the book is one of her many suitors). The problem for today's audiences is all the stuff happens off screen, and is described, most notably when Dracula offers Mina his blood. In the book, this always struck me as a metaphor for oral sex, but of course there's no suggestion of that here.

The novel basically has two themes, and I will re-read it and post here. One is the male fear of female sexuality. The "modern" woman was something of trend when Bram Stoker wrote the book. Also, there was a wave of immigration and an accompanying xenophobia, just as their was in the U.S. In the book, the Count is hideous, with hair on his palms, but by the time the play and the film version was done with him, the character had become a romantic figure (especially in the remake with Frank Langella).

Lugosi became a star from the role, which he originated on Broadway, but I'm amazed to report that he only played the role one more time, in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Of course he would be so identified with it that he was buried in a cape. I was interested to learn from David Skal's commentary that it was hoped Lon Chaney would play the part, but he died of cancer at age 47 in 1930.

Browning, who later directed the landmark Freaks, was a sloppy director. There are numerous errors of continuity,and in two scenes the cardboard has been left attached to lamps. Aside from Lugosi's mesmerizing performance (those key lights on his eyes are cheesy but effective) the acting is pedestrian. Compared to later Dracula films, whether they were from Hammer Studios or Francis Coppola's version, this one seems pretty tame. I mean, the fake bats are laugh out loud funny. But for 1931 audiences, I'm sure it was quite a fright.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Remembering 1985

Ah, 1985! We laughed at the antics of the Seaver family on Growing Pains, we grooved to the tunes of Wham!, the girls wore leg warmers, the boys rocked mullets. In baseball, the post-season was a crazy affair, remembered mostly for an umpire's blown call.

I bring up 1985 because all fours of the teams in the playoffs back then (there were only four, not the ten they have now) are in the playoffs this year, and if the best team in term of wins from each league goes on the World Series it will be rematch of the Cardinals and Royals. There are also other connections, such as this year and 1985 are the two years that are featured in Back to the Future, Part II, when we learned the Cubs win the World Series. The Cubs are in the playoffs this year. But they won't win by beating Miami (of course, in 1985 there was no franchise in Miami).

In '85 the League Championship Series, or whatever it was called, featured the Blue Jays and Royals in the American League. I don't remember much about it, but I do know that the Royals came from 3-1 down to win it. In the NL, the Cardinals beat the Dodgers, the most memorable play being a game-winning home run by Ozzie Smith off of Tom Niedenfuhr. More memorably, a graphic was put up showing that Smith had zero home runs left-handed, and then the switch-hitter promptly did just that.

In the World Series, the Royals were down 2-0 and clawed their way back, but a blown call by umpire Don Denkinger changed the outcome of Game Six, which the Cards should have won. Given new life, the Royals came back in Game Seven and knocked Cards' ace John Tudor out of the box early, winning 11-0. It is KC's only title.

This year, all four of those teams are back. It is very possible that the Royals and Cards will have a rematch, but the great thing about the playoff system in baseball now is that seeding means absolutely nothing. Both teams in last year's WS were wild-card teams. Records truly go out the window. Ten teams is almost one-third of the teams involved, still paltry compared to basketball and hockey.

So who do I like this year? First we have the one-game playoff, this year featuring the Astros/Yankees and the Cubs/Pirates. The Astros are probably really kicking themselves over losing yesterday's game to the Diamondbacks, a team having nothing to play for. The Astros thus lose home-field. This is key because their ace, Dallas Keuchel, is far better at home than on the road. He has shut out the Yankees over sixteen innings this year. But I still like the Yankees to muscle out a win.

The Pirates-Cubs match-up figures to be a great pitcher's duel, with Gerrit Cole for the Bucs and Jake Arrieta for the Cubs. Arrieta is the likely Cy Young winner, and whoever loses it will be a tough pill to swallow, as both teams have more wins the Mets and Dodgers, who were division winners. I'm going to stick with the hot hand, Arrieta, and predict a Cubs victory on the road.

From there I'll take the Royals over the Yankees and the Blue Jays over the Rangers, each in a short series. In the National League, I like the Mets over the Dodgers and the Cardinals over the Cubs, both in long series. Then I'll go with the Cards, but a Royals-Blue Jays series is tough to call. I'll go with the Blue Jays. Then the Cardinals will win it all.

I will probably be spectacularly wrong. If the Cubs win it all, remember it was predicted in Back to the Future, Part II, almost thirty years ago.