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Monday, November 30, 2015

Get on the Bus

Getting back to the films of Spike Lee...

In 1996 Lee directed Get on the Bus, a very topical and heartfelt film about the Million Man March, which had taken place in Washington, D.C. the year before. From a script by Reggie Rock Blythewood, the film chronicles the bus ride that a group of African American men take from South Central Los Angeles to the March.

Given that this is a film, and not a documentary, we get a lot of cliches. There is the requisite variety of characters. Granted, most of them are black, but they cover the spectrum: a Muslim who used to be a gangbanger, a cop who is biracial, a father and son who are chained together because of a court order, two gay men who are splitting up, a college kid with a video recorder, a narcissistic actor, and an old man (Ossie Davis), who is able to put everything into perspective.

Some characters come and go. For a while the bus is driven by a white man (Richard Belzer), who is given a hard time, protesting that he is not a racist and his parents worked for the civil rights movement. In Memphis, the bus picks up a car dealer (Wendell Pierce), who turns out to be a Republican who says there is no racism (he also liberally uses the N-word).

The dialogue is very stagey, not unusual given that most of the action takes place on a bus. Each of the main characters has an arc that is completed by the end, though some characters remain in the periphery. Bernie Mac plays a character who is hardly seen, and there is another man on the bus who wears the uniform--black suit, white shirt, bow tie--of the Nation of Islam. Given that Louis Farrakhan is a major subject of the film, it's interesting that this character is given no dialogue, and is merely an extra.

In addition to Davis, many other prominent black actors participate, including Charles Dutton, Andre Braugher, Harry Lennix, Roger Guenver Smith, and Isaiah Washington. Some others in the film are unknown to me, but I must say that Thomas Jefferson Byrd, who plays the father of the chained boy, is terrible, overemphasizing each word like an amateur. The boy who plays his son, De'Aundre Bonds, isn't much better.

Lee uses a light hand here. The opening credits, a Lee specialty, shows images of black men in chains and handcuffs. The only stylistic approach he uses during the film itself is cutting to the video taken by the college kid. Most of the film is divided into set pieces, including some speeches. Some, like the one Davis tells about being passed over for promotions by men he trained, are very touching. Others are way over the top and heavy-handed, such as Dutton's final speech about how black men have to stick together.

Get on the Bus is an interesting film and a notable one in the history of blacks in film, but not a particularly great one.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dracula (1979)

An adaptation of Dracula in 1979, starring Frank Langella as the Count, emphasized the Gothic romance nature of the book, and used the vampirism as a metaphor for sex. It worked, up to a point, although it took many liberties with the text.

Directed by John Badham, this Dracula excises great portions of the book. There is no trip to Transylvania for Jonathan Harker, in fact, the entire film is set in England. We also get that curious jumble of names. In this film, Harker's fiancee is Lucy Seward (she's the daughter of Dr. Seward, played by Donald Pleasance) and her friend is Mina Van Helsing, daughter of Dr. Van Helsing (Laurence Olivier).

It's Langella who is important here, though. He smolders and at times shows off his chest with his puffy shirt unbuttoned half way. Kate Nelligan is Lucy, and she can't help but be seduced by him (although he does have the power to easily hypnotize his subjects). He wants to take her away to be his queen, which ties in a bit with the Francis Coppola adaptation fifteen years later, in which Gary Oldman just wants to have Winona Ryder all to himself.

If one can get past the changes to the book, Dracula is a pretty good production, with appropriately murky photography and terrific music by John Williams. Stoker's novel is, among other things, a metaphor for the sexual awakening of women, so to make the entire movie about that is not wrong. The script also has the basics of the rules of vampires down--he can walk around during the day, just not in sunlight. Can turn into bats and wolves. Does not cast a reflection in a mirror. Repelled by garlic and crucifixes. The ending, though, in which he appears to be destroyed, is ambiguous.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Love the Coopers

Being in a relationship means you end up seeing movies you wouldn't normally see in a million years. Yesterday my girlfriend wanted to see a movie. I voted for Spectre, but she wanted to see a comedy, so I bit the bullet and we went to see Love the Coopers, which got atrocious reviews and looked like the kind of thing that could be used for torture. I wasn't too far off, but I didn't feel tortured.

Love the Coopers, which is a title that seems like a command, is one of those ensemble holiday films that are almost always terrible (there is some debate about Love, Actually, but that's for another time). What I find interesting is that Diane Keaton, who stars as the matriarch of a dysfunctional family, did this thing before in The Family Stone. When she read the script, did she feel deja vu?

Keaton is married to John Goodman, and after forty years of marriage they are ready to call it quits (the reasons are vague--something about a trip to Africa they never took and the old "dead child" cliche), but she wants to have a wonderful Christmas before they announce it. Their kids are Ed Helms, who has just lost his job, and Olivia Wilde, who is a struggling playwright. She is killing time in an airport bar when she meets a clean-cut soldier (Jake Lacy) and ends up enlisting him to pose as her boyfriend.

Meanwhile, Keaton's sister (Marisa Tomei) gets busted for shoplifting, and while being driven to the police station, psychoanalyzes her arresting officer (Anthony Mackie). These are easily the worst scenes of the film, especially when it comes to light that Mackie is a closeted gay man. Another plot thread has the grandpa (Alan Arkin) and his unrequited love for a young waitress (Amanda Seyfried).

All of this could have made an interesting film, but the script, by Steven Rogers, makes no attempt to make this anything more than cheap sentiment. None of the characters seem like real people, and we get lines like Wilde saying "I believe only in Nina Simone's voice," which no person would ever say but a bad screenwriter would write. Also, I had trouble sorting out how everyone was related, because they didn't really put much effort to take a look at the performers' ages. Tomei and Keaton sisters? They're about twenty years apart in age. Arkin has Ed Helms grandfather?

The film was directed by Jessie Nelson, who does try to inject some life into things, with use of quick cuts that show the characters as their younger selves. But he can't polish this turd. There are so many problems, even with the passage of time--when other characters have had hours pass by, Tomei is still in the back of the cop car--are they driving out of state?

This film was designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Given that, I will say I laughed a couple of times, and those all involved the family dog. Put a dog n your film and it won't be all bad.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the third novel I've read by Haruki Murakami, and the most straight-forward. It has relatively less magical realism than the other two books I've read, and an almost quotidian plot, but it is still a pretty good read, with some interesting commentary on the nature of friendship, love, and loneliness.

The lead character is a man in his thirties. He has realized his dream of becoming a designer of railroad stations. But he is not married and doesn't have much in the way of outside interests, except for swimming. He is in a relationship with a woman who suggests he deal with some baggage in his life: "One day his four closest friends, the friends he'd known for a long time, announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement."

His girlfriend, Sara, tracks down these four friends and urges Tsukuru to meet with them and find out why they dumped him. One of the friends is dead, and one lives in Finland, but he does meet with them and finds out why. Along the way he deals with the repercussions there action took on his life.

Murakami writes in a very matter-of-fact style (of course, this was translated from the Japanese) and at times the writing is as colorless as Tsukuru (he is colorless because his name, unlike his four friends, does not mean a color). There is only one flight of I recognize as Murakami's fancy, and that is a story told by a man who for a while befriends Tsukuru, involving a man who visits a spa and announces he is going to die soon. The rest is an almost itinerary-like description of his visits to his former friends. Oddly, this at times is quite compelling.

Occasionally, we get some figurative language that is stands out like, such as: "A distinct half moon hung above, like a battered piece of pumice stone that had been tossed by someone and gotten stuck in the sky," or: "The past became a long, razor-sharp skewer that stabbed right through his heart. Silent silver pain shot through him, transforming his spine to a pillar of ice. The pain remained, unabated."

As with 1Q84, which was a much more ambitious novel, Murakami makes allusions to classical music, this time Liszt's "Years of Pilgrimage--Switzerland," which one character played beautifully on the piano. There is also much discussion of the title character's career in making railroad stations--his name means, literally, someone who makes things, and we understand that without stations, there are nowhere for trains to stop. Many men of a certain age are fascinated by trains, but Tsukuru is interested in where they stop, which I'm sure is a metaphor for something, though I'm not quite sure what.

Of the three Murakami books I've read (1Q84 and Wild Sheep Chase are the others) this one is far less interesting, but it did have a strange hold on me. Maybe I was waiting for something that never quite happened.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Home

Looking for something to show my students for the day before Thanksgiving, I went to the Redbox and scrolled through the titles. I was hoping to find something they would like and I wouldn't mind seeing three times in one day. I think I did okay with Home, an animated film from Dreamworks directed by Tim Johnson.

Home is no classic, but it engages a young audience, as all three of my classes were more attentive than usual. The film is bright and colorful and has some amusing moments, as well as some pathos.

The premise is that an alien race, the Boovs, have been searching for a new home across the galaxy. They're being chased by the Gorg, who have destroyed every planet the Boovs have landed on. They're latest place is Earth, and they relocate all the humans to Australia so they can colonize the planet.

A misfit Boov, Oh (voiced by Jim Parsons), who longs to make friends, invites everyone to housewarming party, but he sits "send all" and thus the invitation goes to everyone, including the Gorg. The Boov, led by arrogant Captain Smek (perfectly voiced by Steve Martin) want his hide. He runs, and hooks up with a teenage girl (Rihanna), and together they try to find her mother and stop the Gorg from coming.

For one thing, it was refreshing to see an animated film with a girl of color. The film also has some nice messages about friendship and courage. The Boov, under Captain Smek, know only one response to fear--run away. The humans, who are not as advanced as the Boov, have different notions about danger.

While Home isn't up to Pixar's best, it's a perfect rental for a houseful of kids on a rainy day, if they can' be pried away from their video games.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1

As much of the world is going to see the final installment of The Hunger Games series this weekend, I'm still catching up, and only just saw the third of the tetralogy, the awkwardly titled, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1. Seeing it felt like a duty, as nothing was resolved, and was merely a stop-gap until the climax.

It took me a while to piece things together, as I hadn't seen the previous film in quite a while. To recap: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) was rescued from a sort of "all-star" Hunger Games by a rebel alliance. As this film starts, she's in a huge underground facility in the thought-to-be destroyed District 13, which has it's own president (Julianne Moore). Lawrence is sought to be the face of the revolution, the "Mockingjay" who will inspire people to rise up against the Capitol and the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

The first half of the movie seems to be all about marketing. The late Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last roles, is Plutarch, who is charged with making propaganda films. He gets a director (Natalie Dormer, who shaved half of her head to simply walk around and tell Lawrence what to do) to visit a war-torn district, which only gets an entire hospital destroyed. (We also see, in one of the few action scenes, Lawrence knock out two aircraft with one arrow in the bowling equivalent of a 7-10 spare).

Back at the Capitol, Lawrence's love Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is used by Snow as propaganda of his own. Lawrence's prime objective is keeping Hutcherson alive, though she is torn between him and Gale (Chris Hemsworth), who is now a soldier for the rebels.

THG:MP1 (I refuse to type it out again) is a lot of exposition and very little action. It seems to be mostly about political advertising. There's even a scene in which Woody Harrelson writes on a kind of Smartboard, which instantly made me feel like I was in some horrible business meeting. I was also kind of puzzled about how District 13 came up with the money to build an underground city with at least 40 levels, and obtain a complete arsenal. Did it all come from Acme, like Wile Coyote's contraptions?

This film manages to be both silly and unrelentingly grim, and I see now why I gave up on seeing these in theaters. If I had plunked down ten bucks to see only half a story I would have been pissed off. As it is, I was only mildly annoyed, having given up two hours of my life.

Perhaps I just miss the concept of the Games, which are a great device, in that many people, my self included, are attracted to the idea of a battle to the death, even though our consciences are appalled by it. This film is just another young adult dystopia film, and not a particularly good one.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Spotlight

There's a couple of interesting connections between Spotlight, which is the best journalistic procedural of this century, with a couple of other journalism films, most notably All the President's Men, the best of last century. For one thing, Michael Keaton, who here plays the head of a team of investigative reporters, played a reporter in the enjoyable if relatively lightweight film The Paper. The connection to All the President's Men is that here John Slattery plays Ben Bradlee, Jr., assistant managing editor of the Boston Globe. Bradlee, of course, is the son of Ben Bradlee, who was the editor of the Washington Post in All the President's Men, played by Jason Robards.

All that was running through my head, but fortunately comparisons to those other films only burnishes Spotlight, not diminishing it. It's a crackling good yarn, and showcases some terrific actors in roles that show how dedicated journalists can be. When All the President's Men, both book and film, came out, they caused a spike in applications at graduate journalism programs. I doubt that happens now, given that journalism is a dicey career, but it made my blood pump to imagine myself as an investigative reporter.

The place is Boston, the year is 2001. A new editor arrives at the Globe. He's Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). He's single, Jewish, and doesn't like baseball, which doesn't bode well for someone in Boston. His first order of business is to take note of a case in which a priest has been charged with molesting children. The court records are sealed, and he wants them unsealed. "You're going to sue the Church?" he's asked a number of times. Essentially, the answer is yes.

Spotlight is the name of a four-person investigative team (it's the oldest continuing such enterprise in American journalism), headed by Keaton as Walter Robison. Also on the team are Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D'Arcy James. They start with slim leads, but as the film grows their knowledge expands exponentially. One priest turns into thirteen, and eventually it's ninety, all with the knowledge of the church hierarchy.

All of the reporters were raised Catholic, in a city that is predominantly so. They bump into obstacles at all turns. Ruffalo visits an attorney representing scores of clients who were abused (he's Stanley Tucci, excellent as always). Victims, now adults, are contacted, and some bravely come forward. As with All the President's Men, Spotlight is about the shoe leather and the notepads, as we see the grunt work involved in getting a story. Sources must be verified, and timing is critical. There's always the threat of the rival paper getting the scoop.

Directed by Tom McCarthy, with a script by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight hums along like a Swiss watch. I was at no point not engaged, and am lacking in any "buts." This film is the real thing, and loads of Oscar nominations should follow. I'll mark it right here that Keaton will win Best Supporting Actor. Not only does he deserve to be nominated, but it will make up for the appalling slight in denying him the statuette last year for Birdman.

The subject matter is not an easy one to digest. Priests molesting children is not a new concept in our society, but it's never a pleasant thing to think of. Here the reporters, as well as the film, are indicting the system that allows pedophile priests to be moved around for parish to parish, and the cowardly defenders who think that exposing this will lead to loss of faith among the parishioners. A scene in which Keaton talks to an old friend (Paul Guilfoyle), who is a PR man for Boston's Cardinal Law, says precisely that to Keaton, and Keaton, disgusted, responds, "This is how it happens."

An early scene has Law (played by Len Cariou) sitting down with Schreiber. He says that he thinks the great institutions of a city must work together. Schreiber disagrees. "I always thought that a newspaper must stand alone."

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014

This year's Best American Nonrequired Reading was the first to not be edited by Dave Eggers, instead taking over was Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), and despite that gentleman's prediliction for humor, this collection is kind of grim. There are moments of lightheartedness, but even those are tempered by the macabre. For example, I think I laughed the most at a story by A.T. Grant called "The Body," which is about who carries around a dead body wherever he goes.

I missed the Frontmatter section, which has gone bye-bye, which used to include all manner of short things found in all sorts of places. To be sure, this year's book is very diverse, with poems, essays, an interview, graphic novels, and a few 15-second plays. But I wonder if the term "nonrequired" has any meaning any more, because is it really appropriate to call Jeanine Di Giovanni's "Seven Days in Syria" nonrequired? It is a devastating piece by this generation's Martha Gellhorn. Or Rebecca Rukeyser's "The Chinese Barracks," about the hard life of cannery workers, or Cole Becher's "Charybdis," a short story about a soldier come home from Iraq who starts taking long walks and does, well, I'll leave it that. There's a lot of fiction about soldiers who have returned home from many wars, but this is one of the best I've read.

When I think of "nonrequired," I think offbeat. Not inconsequential, but not the meat and potatoes of a meal, but the parsley, or maybe the dessert. An essay (or is it fiction--it's not clear) like "Hugo," by Karen Maner, which has a pet store employee caring for a fish with scoliosis. We get wonderful observations like this: "Slightly underweight males aged eighteen to twenty-four demonstrated a marginally higher interest in iguanas than the average customer, whereas slightly overweight males in the same age bracked expressed more interest in bearded dragons."

Another favorite is "If He Hollers Let Him Go," a profile of comedian Dave Chappelle (done without Chappelle's participation) and the issues of race in entertainment. There's also a wonderful short story (I'm pretty sure this is fiction) by Thomas Pierce called "The Real Alan Gass," which is about a man whose girlfriend is having dreams that she's married to a man called Alan Gass, and he becomes strangely jealous, so he tracks down a man called Alan Gass.

In keeping with the grim nature of the book, though, the book has a trio of outstanding but depressing pieces. One is a story by Adam Johnson, who just won the National Book Award, with his story "Nirvana," about a man with a wife suffering paralysis from Guillain-Barre syndrome, and "The Saltwater Twin," by Maia Morgan, which starts as a nostalgic memory from childhood that suddenly veers into child abuse by a grandfather. Yikes! Nathaniel Rich has a story about a guy who infiltrates cults, which is white-knuckle stuff.

For the most "norequired" of the nonrequired, though, I'm intrigued by the 15-second plays, which would make for a very short night at the theater. Imagine an eight o'clock curtain and being out by 8:01. Here is the most intriguing, in it's entirety, "Little Thing," by Slyvan Oswald: "Loud loud Tito Puente. It's the fifties or the sixties. Happy hour. The adults are drinking V.O. on the rocks. Sexy dancing don't look. You are the kid with white hair and a purple nose, playing dead on the coffee table while they streak by during the cha cha. They must not notice you have died. The telephone rings. Answer it."


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Clockers

Getting back to the films of Spike Lee...

In 1995 Lee made Clockers, and what was notable is that it was the first time Lee adapted someone else's book. Originally Martin Scorsese was to make the film based on Richard Price's novel, but he gave it to Lee, who wrote the script with Price. It's a gritty, above-average crime drama, that Lee puts on a stamp on by highlighting the anguish of young black men's lives lost to drugs and crime.

Mekhi Pfifer stars as Strike, a young man who is a "clocker," that is, a low-level drug peddler who works for Delroy Lindo, the local drug lord (Lee moved the action from New Jersey in Price's book to Brooklyn). Lindo is something like a Fagin figure, who recruits kids when they are teens and work their way up his organization. When another dealer steals from Lindo, he wants Pfifer to kill him.

Pfifer has a straight-arrow brother (Isaiah Washington). who takes the rap for the crime. Investigating detective Harvey Keitel smells a rat, and tries to pin the crime on Pfifer, because he's convinced Washington didn't do it. His partner, John Turturro, wants to leave things alone.

Clockers is part police procedural, part sociological study. We see the lives of those in the Brooklyn projects, especially how the young are seduced by the lifestyle. A mother and a local cop (Keith David) try to keep kids on the straight and narrow, and keep them away from the likes of Pfifer. But it's tough, as the money is too good.

There's also a tension in the lives of the police. When they arrive at the scene of a murder, if the victim is a young black man there is a lot of coarse, insensitive commentary. This either shows racism or a numbness to it all or both. Keitel and Turturro use insulting language about blacks even in front of other black policemen.

Clockers is a good film, but it didn't make much impact. I think, given how things haven't changed much in the relations between black men and police, that it still has a lot to say. The photography is a style that was used on exploitation films of the seventies, with lurid, blurred colors. The performances are all fine.

Now that I'm a teacher I'm even more aware of how fragile the lives of minorities are. To see a young black child and feel in your heart that they are going to have to struggle to stay the proper course gives me a lump in my throat. Each black teenager that dies is a story of the failure of someone--the system, the parents, the community, and the choices made by the teenager himself. But all of these lives had promise. Pointedly, Pfifer has an interest in trains, with an extensive model railroad. At the end of the film he's on a train, headed west, the historical place of new chances.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Horror of Dracula

I finally got my mitts on Horror of Dracula (1958), the first in the Hammer Dracula series, thus the first to star Christopher Lee as the Count. Other than Bela Lugosi, he is probably the actor most identified with the role. What I'm finding out in these Hammer films is that he doesn't have to talk much, he just has to look scary, which he does.

Simply titled Dracula in the UK, but renamed in the US to avoid confusion with the 1931 film, Horror of Dracula is based on Bram Stoker's novel, barely. As I've watched these many adaptations of Dracula I've been amused by the way they change things around. In this one Jonathan Harker is not a real estate agent, but instead a librarian hired by Dracula. But he's undercover, knowing full well Dracula's evil ways and committed to destroying him.

The film also jumbles up the characters' names. Harker is not engaged to Mina, instead to Lucy Holmwood, who is not married to Arthur Holmwood, as in the novel, but his sister. He's married to Mina, who is Harker's fiancee in the book. There is no Renfield, but there is z Dr. Seward, who instead of being a 29-year-old who runs the local insane asylum, is a middle-aged doctor tending to Lucy, who is being fed on by Dracula. There is also a Dr. Van Helsing, ably played by Hammer regular Peter Cushing.

The film also, despite being a British production, is not set in England, but in Germany (and Romania, of course). I would love to know what went on in deciding all this. Why switch the women's names like that?

Anyway, Harker has a chance to kill Dracula but stupidly kills his bride instead, allowing the sun to set and Dracula to escape and kill him. Van Helsing finds Harker in his coffin, fangs out, and destroys him, and then heads back to tell the Holmwoods of his death. Arthur (played by Michael Gough, later famous for playing Alfred in the first run of Batman pictures) is dubious, but believes all after he sees Lucy, quite dead, wandering around outside her crypt. He and Cushing then try to track down the Count and destroy him once and for all.

As noted in my review of Dracula A.D. 1972, the Hammer films didn't stint on blood. We see Dracula asleep in his coffin, blood dripping out of his lips. You'd think he'd wash his face before bed. There are also lots of women in diaphanous gowns, and Lee, who is pretty imposing, also has his own sex appeal. He is first seen at the top of the stairs, wrapped in his cape, and it's striking.

In this film Dracula is destroyed by sunlight, which begs the question, if you were a vampire, wouldn't you brick up the windows in your house?

Friday, November 20, 2015

Brooklyn

Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley, written by Nick Hornby, and adapted from the novel by Colm Toibin, is an old-fashioned film, one that I would call square if it weren't for a few cuss words and a fully-clothed but passionate deflowering scene. It concerns a young woman who tries to find her place in the world, torn between her hometown and her new home, and a man that represents each place.

Saoirse Ronan is Eilis, who lives in County Wexford, Ireland with her widowed mother and older sister. She has a part-time job at a grocery working for a horrible old woman. Her sister, realizing Eilis doesn't have any prospects, arranges for her to move to New York, where a priest (Jim Broadbent) has gotten her lodging and a job.

She takes the boat to New York (hint: don't eat on the boat when the seas are rough) and starts her job as a shop girl. She rooms with a kooky landlady (Julie Walters) and several other young woman. She is horribly homesick, but soon, at a church dance, meets a feller, Tony. He is not Irish, but Italian (he just likes Irish girls). They hit it off but a family tragedy calls her back home. While there she meets another man (Domnhall Gleeson). She's pushed to stay in Ireland, and conflicted about what to do.

Brooklyn is a slow-paced, easy-going film that except for those things I mentioned up top wouldn't upset your grandma, especially if she's Irish. But at times it's too slow-paced. Crowley favors lingering close-ups of his leading lady, Ronan. I especially liked one early in the film, when she watches with pleasure as her friend dances with a handsome man. But after a while I kept thinking, "get on with it."

And though Ronan is very good and keeps things interesting, she invests more in the role than the script does. She's basically a saint. Except for the small matter of being in love with two men at the same time, she's given no flaws, has no moments of anger or bad humor. Walters, when one woman moves out, gives her the best room in the house because she's so virtuous.  When she does give her virginity to Tony it's a wonder she even knew what sex was.

The film has rose-colored glasses when it comes to New York in the 1950s. There is some comedy when Tony (played by Emory Cohen) takes Ronan home for dinner. His younger brother blurts out that the family doesn't like the Irish. That's played for laughs, but just scratches at the surface. There are plenty of Italians who don't like the Irish, and it's not funny. I'm struck by a line from The Sopranos when Christopher pictures Hell: "An Irish bar where it's St. Patrick's Day every day."

We also see Ronan as she goes to work, and twice she's waiting on a corner with a black woman (it's strange that they didn't notice that they used the same extras in two different scenes). This is the only sign of a black face, and I was drawn to that face, wondering what her story was. Brooklyn, as suggested by the title, is presented not only as a physical place, but a state of mind, where everything is great. In a further bit of perhaps unintended humor, Cohen takes Ronan to an empty field on Long Island, where he is going to build a house for them. I can only imagine that today that is some soulless suburb like Mineola or Roosevelt, full of tract housing.

Brooklyn is an accomplished film, but not a particularly interesting one. The more time passes the less I think of it. Ronan will probably get an Oscar nomination and I'd like to see her in more roles, particularly those that are more complex.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Shadow of the Vampire

After seeing Nosferatu, I thought I'd take a look at E. Elias Merhige's satire, Shadow of the Vampire, which has the great idea of making the actor who played Dracula, Max Schreck, an actual vampire. Although it appears to be a horror film, it is really a satire of the artist as megalomaniac, and depicts director F.W. Murnau as doing literally anything to realize his vision.

John Malkovich is Murnau. He has just finished scenes of the film in Berlin, with his performers (Eddie Izzard and Catherine McCormack). The cast and crew pack up to go to Czechoslovakia to shoot on location. The producer, writer, and photographer are somewhat bemused by the whole thing, especially when they see the creepy castle that Malkovich is using. No one has met Schreck, whom Malkovich says is such a method actor that he constantly stays in character. When Izzard, playing the Harker character, first meet him, it's being filmed.

Schreck, according to the film, is an actual vampire that Murnau finds and makes a deal: play the vampire in the film, and he will get the actress, who has stayed behind in Berlin. But Schreck, played with brio by Willem Dafoe, can't help himself. He feeds on the photographer. "Why couldn't you have eaten the script girl?" Malkovich screams at him. "Eh, the script girl," Dafoe scoffs. "I will eat her later."

Malkovich then tries to keep his crew alive while finishing the movie. The crew don't realize the truth until much too late, even though they watch Dafoe pluck a bat out of the air and sucks his blood. Later they will go to an island where the finale is filmed. Malkovich plans to kill Dafoe with sunlight, but Dafoe foils the plot and kills many of the crew, all while Malkovich rolls the camera.

Shadow of the Vampire is almost all fiction, but it's fun for film buffs anyway. Schreck and his descendants may not like being depicted as a vampire (he was an actor), and Murnau has been turned into the kind of cliche of silent movie directors of wearing jodhpurs and berets and barking orders. McCormack plays Greta Schroeder as a vain drug addict (Murnau is also depicted as a dope fiend). Apparently none of this is true, but who's counting?

Dafoe was nominated for an Oscar, and he looks great, but interestingly he doesn't really like the vampire in the original film.

For people into silent films, Shadow of the Vampire is a lot of fun.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Steve Jobs

Watching Steve Jobs is like getting strapped into a thrill-ride at an amusement park, but instead of those rollercoasters that take the long, slow crawl up the slope, it starts zooming immediately, and for the two-hour running time hardly lets you catch a breath. It is dazzling.

The film, as anyone should know, is about Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who, posthumously, has attained a visionary status, who some think has changed the world as much as any other person in the last fifty years (for better or worse is questionable). But this movie is about his failures. It is set during three product launches: for the MacIntosh in 1984, Next in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. We get no introductory biography, no title cards. We are dropped media res into Jobs' world, and at first you may feel dizzy.

Jobs, as played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender, was not an easy man to like. In fact, he was a prick, and we see that over and over again in the film. In Act One, in 1984, he is riding high. The commercial for the MacIntosh had just aired during the Super Bowl (I remember watching it--it is tied into Orwell's 1984). Jobs is ready to launch it at a theater full of people (one thing I learned about this film is there are people who attend these things like others attend rock concerts or sporting events) when he is beset by problems. Mainly, his ex-girlfriend (Katherine Waterston) is there to complain about not getting enough for money for his daughter, Lisa. Jobs denies she is his daughter, even though a DNA test confirmed it. The voice component of the MacIntosh is not working (he wants it to say "hello") and engineer Michael Stuhlbarg is bullied into fixing it. He's also enraged about not being named Time's Man of the Year, which instead went to the "computer" as Machine of the Year (with a PC on the cover).

His marketing director, Kate Winslet, runs interference, in one of the most thankless jobs on the planet. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) wants Jobs to acknowledge the Apple II team in his presentation, since that is the only product that has made Apple any money, but Jobs refuses. His CEO, John Scully (Jeff Daniels), something of a father figure to him, chats with him just before goes on stage.

The MacIntosh tanked. By the next launch in '88, Jobs was out at Apple. In flashback, we see how it happened, with Jobs forcing the board's hand and unanimously voting him out. At the Next launch everyone, including Jobs, thinks it will be failure (it is a computer designed for schools that has over a ten-grand price tag, it doesn't have an operating system ready, and Jobs is most obsessed with making it a perfect black cube). Lisa is now a bigger part of his life, and Waterston is cracking up. He will again have scenes with Rogen, Winslet, Stuhlbarg, and Daniels, who angrily confronts Jobs about being blamed for firing him.

The last act is Jobs' successful launch of the iMac, and again, like some kind of O'Neill drama, all of the characters return. This structure is both comforting as someone who loves theater, but also a bit formulaic for a movie. But it allows for some operatic scenes, as the very fine cast gets a chance to bandy about some magnificent words, written by Aaron Sorkin. Early in the film, when Jobs speaks of God, he says, "He sent his only son on a suicide mission, but we love him because he made trees." In Jobs and Wozniak's last confrontation, Rogen tells him "I'm tired of being treated like Ringo when everybody knows I'm John," and Jobs throws out a "Everybody loves Ringo."

The film also tries to come to terms with just what Jobs' genius was. Rogen questions it--"What do you do?" Jobs compares himself to a conductor--"I play the orchestra," but clearly Jobs was a master of the big picture. He was not a techie, but instead saw things as they would be down the road. Sometimes they were spectacular mistakes. MacIntosh crashed and burned because it was a closed system--it was compatible with nothing. You couldn't even open the back to tinker with it, because Jobs did not want hobbyists fucking with it.

I was enthralled through this whole movie. Yes, it can a little cloying, especially in regards to the relationship with his daughter. Waterston, looking like a dour hippie, has a thankless role of the crazed harridan. But the other characters are vividly rendered. Winslet will probably get an Oscar nod, and Daniels deserves one (he's had a great year--this film and The Martian), and Rogen and Stuhlbarg are terrific as well. Stuhlbarg, to me, perfectly encapsulates the tech guy who is constantly asked to perform miracles.

Fassbender, of course, is the main attraction. The role is complex and difficult, and he performs it with complete aplomb. You can practically see the wheels turning in the man's head. There is a thread in the plot about him being adopted (with the talk of Syrian refugees, it's come to light again that he was the biological son of a Syrian refugee). He has fathered a child, whom he has grudgingly come to love. And. like the prodigal son, he is exiled from the company he creates only to return to save it from destruction. Steve Jobs is like some Biblical epic set in Silicon Valley.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Notorious

Notorious is my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film. If I ever have a doubt about that, after maybe seeing Rear Window or North by Northwest, I am reassured when I see Notorious again. I saw it again over the weekend for at least the fourth time, and I was enthralled as I was the first time. It is suspenseful, scary, and, perhaps most importantly, sexy.

Hitchcock didn't often do sex, or when he did it was fucked up, like in Psycho or Marnie or Frenzy. But Notorious, behind it's story of Nazis and an American agent deep, deep undercover, is two attractive people who want to jump each other's bones.

The notorious character in Notorious is Alicia Hubermann, played by Ingrid Bergman. In something of a departure for her (she had just played a nun in The Bells of St. Mary's) she is the daughter of a Nazi war criminal who is being sent to jail. She is tailed by police and paparazzi, and puts on a show, as she is what used to be politely called a "party girl" (an earlier draft of the script had her as a prostitute). She throws a shindig after her dad gets sent up the river and there's a party crasher she's attracted to. We only see him from behind, but any film buff knows the back of that head--it's Cary Grant.

Grant is T.R. Devlin, an agent of some sort (probably the O.S.S., forerunner to the CIA) who, after engaging in a drunken car ride with Bergman, proposes a job for her. She used to date a man named Alex Sebastian, who is now in  Brazil and collaborating with Nazi scientists (interestingly, the word Nazi is never used). Bergman is to seduce him and get into the house and find out who's there, etc. She agrees after Grant shames her, but it goes so well that Bergman actually married Sebastian (a terrific Claude Rains), who plays a number one sap.

Problem: Grant and Bergman have fallen in love. They exchange one of the greatest kisses in film history. There was a time limit for kisses in those days, something like three seconds, so Hitchcock got around it by having the two, in extreme close-up, talk to each other about dinner and what not while punctuating almost every word with another kiss. The camera follows them from the balcony to another room in a single take, neither one more than six inches from the other's lips. It was probably the hottest scene since the pre-Code days.

Anyway, the two get into a passive-aggressive thing. Grant is appalled that Bergman accepted the job, while Bergman wanted Grant to stand up for her (the bosses, mainly Louis Calhern, think of Bergman as a slut and have no idea Grant is warm for her). Grant acts like a shit, but remains loyal, especially after Bergman is found out by Rains and his gargoylish mother, who slowly poison her to the point of incapacitation.

Notorious has all the things we love about Hitchcock: the monstrous older woman (played by Leopoldine Konstantin, a famous Austrian actress), a McGuffin--a key to a wine cellar, held by Bergman, the focus of one of Hitchcock's most famous shots, a crane shot that zooms from the top of the stairs all the way to the key in Bergman's palm, and making the banal suspenseful. An entire party scene, which lasts about ten minutes, has us on the edge of our seats wondering if the champagne will hold out. That scene ends with Grant and Bergman covering up their snooping in the wine cellar by clinching while Rains watches (Grant is posing an an airline executive who is hot for Bergman). This allows Bergman to react with the full force of her sexuality, breaking down and murmuring Grant's name as if she were at the peak of climax.

The rest of the film is just as wonderful. Rains figures things out in a beautifully-edited scene, and then Bergman figures out that they're on to her in another great scene. Finally, Grant swoops in and rescues her, revealing how weak a man Rains is (he's a glorified mama's boy) and how superior Grant is to him in every way. A car door locking and Rains' slow walk back into his house (to meet his doom) make for one of Hitchcock's greatest endings.

While this is a Hitchcock film, great praise should be lavished on the screenwriter, Ben Hecht. It's both funny (Grant, taking Bergman outside after her party, wonders, "Shouldn't you wear a coat?" Bergman sizes him up and says, "You'll do.") and literate. Not one syllable seems out of place. The dialogue in the car at the beginning of the film is crackerjack, and the finale, when Grant and Rains talk sotto voce on the stairs with Bergman between them, is gripping.

My only complaint about the film, and it's common in Hitchcock films, is that he seemed oblivious to how bad the background projection looked. Of course this was shot on a studio lot, nowhere near Brazil, so we get frequent and very bad process shots. It almost seems charming now, the genius's one area of impairment, like Einstein not caring how he dressed. And Hitchcock is the cinematic equivalent of Einstein.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Death in Paris

A multitude of thoughts run through my head as I contemplate the attacks in Paris that took place on Friday that thus far have accounted for 129 dead over 400 injured. For one thing, it drove the non-issue of red Starbucks cups off the news. Secondly, it seems to have galvanized the Western world, even more, it seems to me, than the attack in Madrid or even in London.

I first heard of the attacks through an alert on my phone, to indicate the way we live now. I stayed off TV for quite a while, choosing to read the New York Times Web site instead. The all-news channels, when they have their fangs into something, can be dreadful between acquisitions of information, interviewing dubious experts or witnesses that may be prank callers  while they spin their wheels.

I finally turned on the TV after all the shooting was done, and put on MSNBC. I watched Brian Williams talk to a French journalist who actually seemed to know what was going on, but I couldn't help wondering if Williams would later claim to have been right in the thick of it. His reputation is pretty much shot. He gave it over to Rachel Maddow, who has one of the most serious expressions of any news person on TV. She was somber in talking to the same French journalist, so I figured I'd seen all I could see.

I am no expert on Middle Eastern politics. I had to look up ISIS on Wikipedia, and find out that they really should be called ISIL, or Daesch (they have nothing to do with an Egyptian goddess). I knew of them, of course, and that they were the black hats of the world right now, a clot of religious fanaticism that knows no boundaries and is known for their viciousness. French president Hollande declared they were responsible, which was later backed up by the group themselves.

Religious fanaticism may be the most troubling thing about the world today. Greed, of course, is right up there, and though greed kills, fanatics seem to be touched by madness rather than any pursuit of riches. These people purposefully targeted innocent people--people going to a soccer match, a rock concert, eating out. They subvert the entire notion of war as being fought between soldiers. And what do they fight for? Self-preservation? Gold? Land? Oil? No, they fight because they don't like the idea that there are people unlike them that exist.

The members of ISIS are evil, cowardly cretins, but the response by the right-wing is troubling, as well. It brought all old, tired arguments, like the victims should have been armed. Really? If you were sitting at a concert, and a group of gunmen with AK-47s burst into the door shooting and throwing hand grenades, would you be able to do anything about it except increase the carnage? Others blamed refugees. It turns out that one of the attackers used a passport and entered as a refugee, but others were French or Belgian citizens. Refugees, it should be noted, are leaving Syria because they want to get away from these crazies.

I don't know how to stop these attacks from happening. Having security details at stadiums saved many lives, though, when a suicide bomber was stopped before entering the soccer game. Candidates for president can blame this, that, or the other for how ISIS was formed and how they can be stopped, but it seems to me that the very dangerousness of fanatics is that they don't see reason--they believe in something beyond reality and they can't be negotiated with. They see only black and white.

I have never been to Paris, but it certainly lives in my imagination, as it does to anyone who has read Hemingway or Henry Miller or seen movies like Casablanca or Midnight in Paris or An American in Paris. We feel like we've been there, and seen the Eiffel Tower. Of course, in calmer days we think of Parisians as being rude, but that's all water under the bridge. Fred Rodgers, the great children's TV host Mister Rodgers, said that his mother told him in times of crisis to look for the helpers to alleviate fear. That's a good idea, and what helps me is to see how people can gather together to show consolidation, even if it's doesn't do anything, like changing you profile picture on Facebook. It gives me goosebumps to see President Obama talk about France being our oldest ally, and it gives me hope for humanity when people of all walks of life show their support for a people from another nation.

France has since then bombed the hell out of ISIS-infiltrated towns, a reasonable reaction, I guess. But I don't see how that will stop things. As Woody Allen wrote of the holocaust in Hannah and Her Sisters, "The question isn't how could this happen, but why doesn't it happen more often?"

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Broken Monsters

I was intrigued enough by Lauren Buekes's last book, The Shining Girls, to give Broken Monsters a try. In some ways it's better, in some ways not so much. To further whet my appetite, it's set in Detroit, which has become the metaphor for decaying America. I didn't grow up in Detroit, but just outside it, and I'm always interested in reading about it or fiction set in it.

As with The Shining Girls, Broken Monsters is about a serial killer. He's an an artist who may or may not have been occupied by some sort of malevolent spirit. His first victim is a young boy who is cut in half, his top half glued to the hindquarters of a deer. The other two pieces of boy and animal will show up later.

The detective on the case is Gabi Versado, a single mother with a teenage daughter, Layla, who causes her no end of grief. Layla is a lot like Kirby in The Shining Girls--she's annoying and frequently unpleasant, although Beukes sees her as a hero. Layla is involved with a few subplots involving pedophiles. She and her BFF, Cas even confront on in the manner of Catch a Predator.

There's another subplot involving a blogger, Jonno, a guy from out of town who is drawn by the ruination aspect of Detroit. Beukes is calling out all those journalists, photographers, and filmmakers who come to Detroit to chronicle the sad state of affairs, wondering if they really care about the people or not. Of course, all these characters will end up in a bloody finale inside an abandoned factory in Detroit.

I think Broken Monsters would have been better had it been shorter. There are many chapters that consist of transcripts of social media comments, chats, etc. Beukes is trying to be up to date as possible, but it's just overkill. Clearly she has done her research, though. Beukes is South African, but writes like a Detroit native: "Detroit's roads are built like spokes, radiating outwards, with the miles marked off. You can follow Woodward Avenue all the way up past Eight Mile, which is the hard border of the city, and watch the urban blight transform into suburbs with rolling lawns out front and SUVs and Priuses parked in the driveways, occasionally together."

So, a thumb sideways for Broken Monsters. I'm still interested in reading what Beukes has to write next, because she comes close to hitting it out of the park.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Werner Herzog's Nosferatu the Vampyre is a stylish remake of the silent classic by F.W. Murnau. It is a solid vampire movie, but also thoroughly Herzog, with brooding meditation, a lot of scenery, and the absolutely correct casting of Klaus Kinski as Dracula.

The story conforms fairly closely to Murnau's film, that is to say not much like Bram Stoker's novel. Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz) is sentto to Transylvania by his boss, Renfield, who is already a giggling lunatic, to give Count Dracula the documents on his purchase of a house in Wismar. Harker takes a long, arduous trip, finally reaching the nearest town, where no one will give him a ride. He walks instead, and Herzog uses a lot of what is presumably location scenes of the Carpathian Mountains at dusk.

Harker finally arrives at Dracula's castle, where the doors open by themselves. Kinski, made up to look like a giant rat, with a gray pallor, rodent teeth, Vulcan ears, and long, sharp fingernails, welcomes Harker, but unlike the traditional Dracula films, he isn't a whit handsome or charming. He speaks as if it were painful, or if he had never tried it before. We get some of the usual Dracula trappings--Harker is given a sumptuous meal, accidentally cuts himself, and Kinski sucks his blood. I would imagine if Harker had any doubts they would be gone by now. Dracula ends up biting him and then locking Harker in and packing up his boxes of earth for travel by ship. Harker escapes, and his wife (named Lucy, not Mina, for some reason), played by Isabelle Adjani, senses something is up.

Dracula fans will know much of the rest. The ship, over-run by rats, arrives in Wismar with no one alive aboard. The rats start spreading plague, and soon very few are left alive in town. Adjani, reading up on vampires, learns that the only way to defeat Dracula is to keep him up until after the cock crows, where he will die from exposure to the sun. She does this, and I loved the look on Kinski's face when he hears the fatal rooster crow. If he had a thought balloon it would read, "Oops."

Where Herzog's film goes different is that Harker picks up where Dracula left off, turning into a vampire himself.

The film has a lot of style and Herzog seems to have macabre fun with the material. At times it's a bit too heavy, but there are moments of wit, especially when he includes the line from the original where Dracula looks at Lucy's portrait and says, "What a lovely throat." The photography is mostly grim and colorless (I don't recall much blood spilled). It's a good example of when a serious filmmaker tackles a genre film. You never know how those will go, but this is one of the better ones.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Jungle Fever

The next film in my Spike Lee film festival is Jungle Fever, which I did see when it was released in 1991. I hadn't seen it again until recently, and I was impressed with Lee's level of maturity and his being unafraid of tackling a controversial subject: interracial relationships. But the film is also hamstrung by occasional over-direction. Still, it's a notable film if only because it introduced most of the film-going world to Samuel L. Jackson.

Wesley Snipes stars what used to be called a "buppie," an upper-middle class black man. He's an architect who lives in Harlem with his wife, Lonetta McKee, and a young daughter. He works for a firm owned and dominated by white people, and objects when they hire a white temp for him (Annabella Sciorra). But one late night over Chinese food they have sex right on his drafting table, and start an affair.

Both are treading in dangerous waters, and when the affair is discovered major shit hits the fan. McKee throws Snipes out, and is even more outraged by the fact that he is having sex with a white woman. Sciorra, the daughter in a traditional Italian home in Bensonhurst, is beaten by her father and thrown out. They both have understanding friends (Lee plays Snipes' buddy), but Lee, who also wrote and directed, touches on some sensitive nerves. In a fascinating scene of McKee commiserating with friends, they bitch about black men and their attraction to white women, and also touch on the prejudice within their own race based on skin color. Later we learn that McKee is half-white, which certainly complicates the issue.

Sciorra had been seeing a mild-mannered candy store operator, John Turturro. He calmly sits and listens to the racist banter of his customers, most notably Nick Turturro (John's brother in real life). He is a more intellectual person than the "goombahs" he hangs out with, and also his hen-pecked by his elderly father (Anthony Quinn).

In another plot thread, Jackson, playing Snipes' brother, is a crackhead who is constantly asking him for money, as well as hitting on their parents, a rigorously religious reverend (Ossie Davis) and his more sympathetic wife (Ruby Dee). Jackson, in his first major role, steals the film as Gator, a guy who puts on a little dance when he asks for money and doesn't apologize for his lifestyle.

There is a lot going on in Jungle Fever, maybe too much. The music tells different stories. Stevie Wonder's upbeat title song makes the film sound like it's going to be a romantic comedy, but later Lee will overdo a score by Terence Blanchard that includes the Harlem Boy's Choir. I did like a sequence when Snipes goes into the world of crack addicts to find his brother, set to Wonder's "Living for the City," but it's just a bit much at the end when Snipes, reunited with his wife, grabs a young crack whore and shouts "No!" to the heavens.

I think the main problem with Jungle Fever is that there is zero chemistry between Snipes and Sciorra. I suppose bosses and underlings do have sex in the office after Chinese take-out, but they are only together because the script calls for it. I found Sciorra's role severely underwritten. She is the only woman in her house, so is expected to cook for the men (two brothers, including Michael Imperioli) and seemingly longs for something else--when she breaks up with Turturro, she tells him "I have to get out." But there's little else to her. I don't know that we can see any feature that the other person likes, let alone loves.

I also found some of the interracial taboo stuff a bit heavy-handed. Granted, it's not like it used to be. I know several interracial couples and there isn't a second thought about it, but I don't think it was that bad back then. A scene at Sylvia's, a famed Harlem restaurant, in which a waitress (played by then unknown Queen Latifah) is openly rude to Snipes and Sciorra, seems highly unlikely, given that Sylvia's was a place for everybody (I've eaten there) and it would not behoove a waitress to risk her job like that, despite the implication that black men were abandoning sisters in droves.

But I still find Jungle Fever to be thought-provoking, tough-minded cinema, the kind of film that isn't made very often. Lee was still at the top of his game.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Embattled Rebel

"History has not been kind to Jefferson Davis," writes James M. McPherson to begin his Embattled Rebel: Jefferson Davis as Commander in Chief. Indeed, Davis was nearly hung as a traitor, and despite a multitude of monuments to him in the former Confederacy, his reputation isn't as nearly a speck compared to his counterpart, Abraham Lincoln.

McPherson, in this slim volume, does not write a biography of Davis, but instead an evaluation of him as a wartime commander. McPherson is fair but facts are pesky things, and Davis, despite his best intentions, was undone by what seems to plague many a leader during war--he wrangled with his generals, who were obstinate and egotistical. Almost from the outset Davis was pilloried on all sides, though he did manage to be president through the entire history of the Confederacy.

"Most critical appraisals of Davis as commander in chief have focused more on his choices of generals and his relations with them than on his choice of strategies." Two names of many that pop up frequently are Joseph E. Johnston and Braxton Bragg. He seemed to be in a perpetual quarrel with the former, though he did try to replace Bragg with Johnston in Tennessee. Critics later claimed he should have stuck with Johnston and should have dispensed with Bragg, whom he did fire but later pulled close to him as a military adviser. McPherson has a reality check about Johnston: "Davis showed heroic patience with that general's constant complaints, frequent flouting of presidential orders, and failure to keep Davis informed of his operational plans. The president gave Johnston more slack than he deserved. Davis's most controversial act, the removal of Johnston from command in July 1864, was fully warranted. The military historian Richard McMurry was not being entirely facetious when he said, in a casual conversation, that if Johnston had been left in command he would have fought the battle of Atlanta campaign in Key West."

A lot of this sounds familiar, as Lincoln had a famous struggle with finding generals of competence, from McClellan until Grant. This book was the first I've read that takes the viewpoint from the Southern side. Of course Davis had Robert E. Lee, but could not find competent leadership for the Army of Tennessee, which was unable to stop Sherman from taking Atlanta and then marching to the sea (oddly enough, it was Johnston who was sent to try to stop him, badly outnumbered, in North Carolina). Davis may have had Lee, but the Union had much more men and materiel, and Davis was hamstrung by the carping of politicians from states who wanted to arms in their states. There was a big ruckus when Davis removed troops from Arkansas, which prompted the governor of that state to howl that he was undefended. Davis, from Mississippi, was also accused of favoritism by sending too many troops to that state.

The entire book reads like a description of a job nobody would want. Davis was in frail health, but did ride with troops often. But he was also described as very difficult to get along with. In the last analysis, and with the hindsight of history, all of these men were fighting for a cause so odious that it's impossible to engender any sympathy for them.

McPherson, who wrote the best one-volume history of the Civil War (Battle Cry of Freedom) has given just focus for a man on the wrong side of history but who played an important role in it. At least we can all be glad he was a failure.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Spellbound

Alfred Hitchcock's 1945 film, Spellbound, falls well within many of his frequent themes, especially the innocent man being accused of a crime, but in a different way from most of his films. It uses the relatively novel concept of psychoanalysis, which was becoming popular among the Hollywood elite in the 1940s but was still thought of as black magic by most Americans. It does both a service to the profession, by showing how it helps people, and also a disservice, by reducing it to simplistic terms.

Opening title cards indicate that psychoanalysis is treatment for the sane--I suppose this was to indicate that you don't have to be crazy to need a psychiatrist. But the film is set at a bucolic "home" in Vermont, and the only two patients we see are a nymphomaniac (Rhonda Fleming) and a man suffering from a guilt complex, who thinks he killed his father (Norman Lloyd).

The plot gets in motion when a new head of the institution arrives. He's Gregory Peck, who is replacing the old chief doctor (Leo G. Carroll) after he had a crack-up. There's something a little off about Peck, though, that's picked up on by Ingrid Bergman, the only female doctor (that a woman would play a doctor in 1945 is pretty advanced thinking). Peck goes a little bonkers whenever he sees a certain pattern, and has problems with the color white.

Turns out he has a repressed memory, and he's not who he says he is. He's also an amnesiac, so with the police chasing them, she takes him to her old mentor (Michael Chekov), and they figure things out based on one dream he has, which is pretty amazing good luck. The dream sequence was designed by Salvador Dali, and remains the most famous thing about the film. It last only a minute or so, but was originally twenty minutes long, though there is no footage of it that exists.

The film is not one of Hitchcock's best, but it has its peculiar charms. It strives to have a kind of B-movie sensibility, even before B-movies were classified as such. There is the use of a theremin, which would go on to be on the soundtrack of every cheap horror film ever made (and was also used in the that year's Best Picture winner, The Lost Weekend). Peck and Bergman have great chemistry (maybe because they had an affair while filming) and Chekhov, who received an Oscar nomination, is a joy. I also liked Carroll's performance--what a smooth talker.

We also get a landmark shot of Hitchcock's--the POV shot of someone shooting themselves in the face with a gun. Because of space restrictions, they had to use a giant hand and gun to pull it off. Also, the film was in black and white, but at the moment the gun goes off Hitchcock had a few frames of red inserted into the film. They had to be inserted by hand, print by print.

As for Dali's dream sequence, it's eerie and thoroughly Dali, with curtains made of eyes (they are cut by scissors, recalling his other famous film project, Andalusion Dog) a wheel that is distorted, like the clock in The Persistence of Memory and the use of slow motion when figures are moving. However, that the one dream Peck has contains all the clues necessary to figure out who he was and who really committed the murder in question is laughably coincidental. Dreams aren't that literal, and to suggest they are makes a mockery of psychoanalysis.

Hitchcock returns to some of these themes in Marnie, which is also about a person with a repressed memory who has a problem with a certain color. It's interesting to note, though, that the project began with producer David O. Selznick (it was to be his last teaming with Hitchcock), who was undergoing psychoanalysis at the time.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Marco Rubio, Republicans Turn Their Lonely Eyes to You

More and more roadside crosses are appearing on the clown car's route to the convention in Cleveland. Rick Perry, Scott Walker, gone. Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee relegated to the kid's table debate. Ben Carson has become a national joke, his ideas no different than the average lunatic on the street corner (pyramids stored grain?) With only a year to go to the election, Republicans who have any sense are panicking.

With Carson, Donald Trump, and Carly Fiorina near the top of the polls, and all of them surefire losers, what's a party in tatters supposed to do? From what I've been reading from Republican pundits, there's no need for alarm, as the electorate will consolidate on Marco Rubio. He supposedly won the last debate (I don't watch them, as life is too short) and he got some billionaire's support. He's young, attractive, and Hispanic, and most importantly, electable. I must admit his nomination would make this Democrat sweat.

Rubio, though, is a nest of lies and obfuscation. For one thing, anyone in this day and age who thinks the Earth is only six-thousand years old ought to be disqualified from any office, let alone President of the United States. Rubio also lied about when his parents arrived in Cuba. They were not fleeing Castro, but instead came in 1956. Rubio's reply was "The real essence of my family's story is not about the date my parents first entered the United States. Or whether they traveled back and forth between the two nations. Or even the date they left Fidel Castro's Cuba forever and permanently settled here. The essence of my family story is why they came to America in the first place, and why they had to stay." Which is sort of like saying "Facts are stupid things."

Rubio has also has some slippery behavior concerning a credit card given to him by the Republican National Committee of Florida, which he used for personal reasons (including a $124 haircut, which isn't as bad as John Edwards $400 haircut). He is scrambling a bit after that one, saying it was "charge" card and not a credit card, as if that makes any difference, and that he paid it all back. But using a company card for personal reasons would be grounds for dismissal in corporate America.

But most of all Rubio, despite his youthful good looks and child of immigrant status, is just another conservative troglodyte. For one thing, his position on immigration is complicated. He is the child of immigrants, the kind of immigrants one presumes he would be against coming to America today. He helped write a bill that ease the pathway to citizenship for immigrants, but then turned his back on it, no doubt being advised to do so because the Tea Party is against it, saying immigration should be stopped. I love these guys who get in and then say the door should be closed behind them.

He was against renewing the Violence Against Women Act, is opposed to abortion even in cases of rape and incest, and is opposed to same-sex marriage. He is Catholic, yet rejects certain opinions by the Pope, making him a true salad bar Catholic, picking and choosing what he wants to believe. He is against the decriminalization of marijuana. In short, he is behind the curve of history, and would slow social progress in this country.

There is not a lot of poll evidence to suggest that Rubio will be the guy, but if the establishment does succeed in dumping Trump and Carson, then I agree he will be the one, as Jeb Bush has shown to be a very poor candidate and Ted Cruz is far too polarizing. If the Republicans do have any sense they would try to fob off Rubio as the future of America. He could select someone like John Kasich as running mate to try to get Ohio (Mike Pence of Indiana is another possibility).

But then I would enjoy watching Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders) destroy him in a debate, while his throat gets dry and he needs bottle after bottle of water.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

The Vampyre

The summer of 1816 is famous for the births of two of the main tropes of horror--Frankenstein's monster and the urbane vampire. While summering in Switzerland, Lord Byron and his guests, Percy and Mary Shelley and Byron's physician, John Polidori, had a ghost-story-telling contest. Mary Shelley had a dream about a man who created another man, which became the novel Frankenstein. Polidori ended up writing The Vampyre, a short work which took the Eastern European folklore of the vampire and turned it something different, which Bram Stoker would later expound upon, creating Dracula.

Polidori's book is not that good--it's an example of Gothic romance and is fairly tedious--but historically it's very important, for it introduces the vampire to the Gothic romance, and is the first instance of the vampire as a dapper man-about-town. Polidori's vampire, Lord Ruthven, is a man who suddenly appears in London and and joins the upper crust society. He accompanies the narrator, Aubrey, to Rome and Greece, and though murders take place Aubrey doesn't connect them to Ruthven.

In Greece, Ruthven is shot by robbers, and he makes Aubrey swear not to tell anyone about this for one year and one day. Ruthven later shows up quite well in London, and marries Aubrey's sister on the day before the oath expires. Of course, Aubrey's sister is killed, her blood drained.

Many thought the book was book was written by Lord Byron, but this was not true. Byron's entry in the contest, Fragment of a Novel, was something of a basis for Polidori's work, but Byron abandoned it.

The book is a quick read and of interest to those who fancy horror, but is also a bit of a slog, as Polidori uses florid touches and extremely long paragraphs. At times, though, he can curdle the blood: "There was no colour upon her cheek, not even upon her lip; yet there was a stillness about her face that seemed almost as attaching as the life that once dwelt there:--upon her neck and breast was blood, and upon her throat were the marks of teeth having opened the vein:--to this the men pointed, crying, simultaneously struck with horror, 'A Vampyre! a Vampyre!'"

Hard to believe, but this is where it all started, and it was written by a doctor. Polidori would commit suicide in 1821.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Dracula A.D. 1972

Besides Universal, the studio that has the most enduring legacy of making Dracula films is Hammer Studios, a British outfit that started making them in the '50s and went on for a couple of decades. They are notable for bringing attention to Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, two proper British actors who made their mark in ghoulish activities.

The DVD record of Hammer films is spotty, and one of the few available is one of the last, Dracula A.D. 1972, a not entirely successful attempt to link Carnaby Street to Transylvania. Lee is in it, but barely, as most of the action is dominated by actors trying to convince us they are hippies. Seems to me hippies were antiquated even by '72.

A bunch of young people (some looking much older than others) are thrown out of a party in a posh neighborhood and try to think of something else to do (notably, none of the so-called hippies is ever seen doing drugs, which might have solved their problem). A guy fairly new to the group, Johnny, suggests a Satanic ritual in an old church. Everybody seems keen, except for Stephanie Beacham, and maybe that's because her last name is Van Helsing. Oh, and Johnny's is Alucard.

Of course Johnny is a disciple of Dracula, and his ritual raises him from the dead (he had been killed while battling the original Van Helsing 100 years earlier, when a wagon wheel pierced his heart). Lee, as commanding and imperial as ever, wants revenge on the Van Helsings, and bids Johnny to get her. Meawhile, Cushing is back as another Van Helsing, who inherited his grandfather's nose for vampire lore and wants to save his own granddaughter from being Dracula's bride.

The mixture of horror and hippie culture sounds fun, and parts are. The opening sequence is one that was in a lot of films in those days, ranging from Blow-Up to What's New, Pussycat?--a rock band does a number, with pretty girls swinging their hips. But the hippie stuff seems tame--we get rock and roll, but no sex and drugs--and the horror seems out of balance. Hammer always took their horror seriously. Unlike Universal, which were products of the silver screen era, Hammer used red, and lots of it.

The showdown between Lee and Cushing makes the movie tolerable. These guys were probably angry that this was how people knew them. At least Lee had a long life after Dracula, and Cushing got to be in Star Wars, but at times it seems like their talent was wasted when you see them in something like this.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Room (2015)

As when I reviewed the novel, writing about Room is problematic when it comes to spoilers. The climax comes early in the film, and the last half is impossible to discuss without giving something away. I think the marketers of the film are assuming that people know what will happen, but I will not, so spoilers are throughout; tread lightly.

With a screenplay by the source author, Emma Donoghue, Room varies only a little from the book. Basically, we open in a small room, which is in reality a garden shed in the backyard of a kidnapper. Inside are a young woman (Brie Larson) and her five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). She has been held captive by "Old Nick," (Sean Bridgers) for seven years, never stepping outside of the shed in that time. Therefore, of course, Jack has never known anything but life inside what he calls Room.

Director Lenny Abrahamson gives us a taste of what that is like, as the first half or so of the film is shot entirely inside that shed. Much of it is from Jack's point of view, so we see things from a low point of view. When Bridgers visits to have sex with his mother, Jack is forced to sleep inside a wardrobe, through which he looks through slats, seeing and hearing only glimpses of what is going on.

When Jack turns five, Larson decides it's now or never, and plots to escape, with Jack playing dead. It is at this point that you should stop reading if you don't know want to know what happens next.

Room is a bit like the allegory of the cave--our reality is what we perceive. Jack's is the small room. There is a TV in the room, but to make his life less complicated his mother tells him that what is on TV is not real. But she decides to level with him on his fifth birthday (he then says he wishes he was four again). She wants him to know that there is a whole wide world out there. He doubts this, but when he is taken out into Bridgers' truck and sees the sky in full view (all he could see before was through a skylight) he's almost completely overwhelmed, and will spend the rest of the film adjusting to a life he never knew possible.

In the book, there are more details, such as Jack having to get used to wearing shoes and dealing with other children. The film is a bit more mundane, with the transition much smoother--he has to learn how to walk up and down stairs, and Larson, who never stopped breastfeeding him, cuts him off. The film focuses more on Larson, who has trouble coming to grips with the decision she had in having Jack and then keeping him. A TV interviewer cuts her to the quick by suggesting that Larson might have been selfish in keeping him with her, imprisoned just like she was. William H. Macy, as her father, can't even look at Jack, realizing he is the offspring of his daughter's abductor.

Room is a good, taut film, but isn't as good as Larson's performance, which will probably earn her an Oscar nomination. It grapples with things that one can only imagine--living seven years in a shed, knowing there is a world out there, having a child in those circumstances, and then dealing with the real world after going through that. Larson is charismatic and sharp in the role, not milking it for sympathy, instead playing the truth of the situation.

Tremblay, who was about eight when he filmed the role, is also good, as the film couldn't succeed without him. It's a natural and convincing performance, although there are so many good juvenile performances these days I wouldn't call it transcendent. Joan Allen is very good as Larson's mother,

Room is more about the bond between mother and child and the perspective one has on their surroundings than it is about a crime. We see a brief TV clip that Bridgers has been arrested, but we don't have anything to do with a trial or what happens to him. Instead the focus is on Larson and Tremblay, and how they cope with the transition.


Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Eleanor & Park

It's been a long time since I had to read a book for college. There's always been the notion that when you had to read a book, it wasn't as good as if you read it on your own. Maybe that's why I wasn't overwhelmed by Eleanor & Park, a young adult novel I read for one of my education classes. Then again, maybe it's just because I don't dig Rainbow Rowell, who also wrote Landline. 

The book uses the old theme of star-crossed lovers, or in this case, just loves (they are in high school), and even makes references to Romeo and Juliet in the text. Eleanor is the new girl in town. She's overweight, with red hair, and dresses like a hobo. Her home life is horrible. She lives in a small house with her many siblings, and her mom is married to a horrible guy. She doesn't have a phone and needs a new toothbrush.

Park is something of an outsider, but has learned how to fit in. He's half Korean, likes to dress in black, and is into comic books and punk rock. When he sees Eleanor the first time he's not impressed. But he moves over on the bus and let's him sit next to her. Soon enough they are in love, though Eleanor doesn't trust the whole thing, especially with the delicacy of her home life.

The book is set in 1986, and is full of pop culture references that date the book. Some of the students in my class, who were born in the early '90s, had no idea what was being mentioned, so I'm guessing most post-millennials wouldn't either. Consider this passage: "XTC was no good for drowning out the morons at the back of the bus. Park pressed his headphones into his ears. Tomorrow he was going to bring Skinny Puppy or the Misfits. Or maybe he'd make a special bus tape with as much screaming and wailing on it as possible." In time, this book will need to be annotated.

Even more than Rowell's insistence on timely pop culture references, there's a lack of subtlety to the writing. She stacks the deck against Eleanor, constantly describing her as funny looking and lacking self-esteem. Park is also something of a cliche--the Asian kid into comic books. He even knows Tae Kwan Do. Eleanor's stepfather is a villain out of the Brothers Grimm, without a shred of humanity.

The story is very manipulative, telling more than showing and leading the reader to places they may not want to go. I think we were supposed to feel a great deal of empathy for the young couple, but I grew tired of them and didn't care what happened. There all also lapses in common sense. Park's father is supposed to very strict, but he lets his sixteen-year-old son, who has just gotten his driver's license, to drive all the way from Omaha to Minnesota. Sure.

I suppose if I was a teenage girl I'd think much differently about this book. It's very romantic, and not for cynics. If I were a girl who dotted her i's with hearts, it might have been my cup of tea. But as I'm not, I found it annoying.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Do the Right Thing

The Governor's Awards of the Motion Picture Academy have been announced, and one of them is going to Spike Lee. This interesting on a few levels. One, Lee is only 58, which seems a bit young for a lifetime achievement award, especially considering he is still a working director. Secondly, he has had a checkered career. Without a doubt he has made some great films, but they are few and far between when you consider his entire output.

The cynic might accuse the Academy of tokenism, as Lee is a black director, and no director of African descent has ever won an Oscar. Lee has never even been nominated as Best Director, although he does have a screenplay and documentary nomination.

Over the next few weeks I'm going to visit some of Lee's films, including a few that I'll be revisiting. I'm certainly not going to watch them all--I have no burning desire to see School Daze or Girl 6 again--but I'm interested in seeing some of his more recent films, as a new film from him is no longer news. I did, by coincidence, see Oldboy not too long ago.

I turn to his third film, and still his best, Do the Right Thing, released in 1989. His first film, She's Gotta Have It, was an enjoyable if amateurish sex comedy that caused some to call Lee the black Woody Allen. But with Do the Right Thing, Lee matured as a filmmaker, making one of the best films of the '80s and perhaps the best American film ever about the ticklish issue of race in the U.S. I hadn't seen it since I first saw it when it was released, in a packed house in Jersey City, when there were shouts from the audience. It was electrifying.

Seeing it again I marveled at Lee's assurance as a director. There are a lot of daring shots in the film, but none of them seem wrong. He uses a lot of different angles, shooting from below, shooting from above, pans, and moving cameras. They all work. The script is also terrific, focusing on 24 hours on a street in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, where an Italian-American (Danny Aiello) has built a pizza business thriving, despite the neighborhood being entirely black or brown.

Lee creates many characters in the film, a kind of patchwork quilt of modern America. Aiello has two sons, the easy-going Vito (Richard Edson) and the hate-filled Pino (John Turturro), who hates black people, even though he admires Magic Johnson, Eddie Murphy, and Prince. "They're not real black people," he hopelessly tells Mookie (Lee) a delivery man who gets along with Aiello, but is nagged by a feeling he is on the wrong side of the fence. Mookie has a child with a Puerto Rican woman (Rosie Perez), but he hardly ever visits her, even though she lives up the block.

Other characters include Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), a drunken stumblebum who is the sage of the neighborhood, Mother Sister (Ruby Dee), who is likewise a font of wisdom, and three fellows who sit under an umbrella (it's a scorching hot day) and comment on the action like they were a Greek chorus. We also get a local DJ (Samuel L. Jackson, when he was just called Sam) and a bunch of young people (including a young Martin Lawrence).

The first hour or so of Do the Right Thing is a kind of sociological experiment, as the characters exist in tense peace. A white man (John Savage), daringly wearing a Larry Bird jersey, scuffs the shoes of Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito), who questions his right to live there. Esposito will also set in motion the tragic consequences of the plot, when he wonders why Aiello has "no picture of brothers on the wall," a reference to the exclusive gallery of Italian-American's on the pizzeria's wall. When Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn), who carries with him a boom box the size of a suitcase, enters the pizza place, egged on by an angry Esposito, and doesn't turn the music down, the crucible is ignited.

Lee was inspired by many racial tragedies in New York City. Michael Stewart and Eleanor Bumpurs are both mentioned by name, while "Howard Beach," a white neighborhood where a black man, Michael Griffiths, was chased onto the highway, leading to his death, is also mentioned. Just after the film was released, Yusef Hawkins, a black man, was killed in Bensonhurst (notably, the home of Aiello's family in Do the Right Thing). Lee examines the factors that can turn from a minor thing to a tragedy so quickly, and what inspires people to act the way they do.

Davis tells Lee early on to "do the right thing." Lee, after Nunn is killed, takes the action of hurling a garbage can through Aiello's window, leading to the place being burned to the ground. The Korean deli across the street is spared when the owners indicates that he is black, too, meaning he is a minority, just like them.

This film is so dazzling on so many levels that an entire book can be written about it. Dickerson's photography is fantastic. The bright red wall that serves as a backdrop to the chorus emphasizes the heat (no one has air conditioning--simple fans and ice cubes are all that keep people cool). The music is effective, too, especially Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," which opens the film (along with Perez's dance moves) and then can be heard on Nunn's boom box.

My only quibble comes with the end. I remember seeing it and thinking it ended when Smiley, a local guy selling photos of the only meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, pins that photo to the wall of Aiello's burning establishment. But no, there's an epilogue, in which Lee meets with Aiello, demanding his pay. I was kind of irked that a slam-bang ending was marred, and by the outrageous act of a man asking for pay after he through a garbage can through his boss's window. But I suppose that closure was needed, as the sun comes up no matter what happens, and an understanding is reached.

Do the Right Thing, as I mentioned, is Lee's best film. He has approached greatness a few times since, most notably with Malcolm X, which I've already reviewed on this blog. I'll be looking at more of his films in the coming weeks.