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Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Sound of Music

The winner of the Best Picture Oscar fifty years ago was The Sound of Music, which was a smash hit--so much so that it became the highest box office earner of all time, knocking off the venerable Gone With the Wind. An adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway musical, which in turn was based on the story of the Von Trapp Family Singers, it had a fantastic score, with several songs that are now part of our psyche. But over the course of fifty years something perverse happened to the film--it has now become kitsch.

I'm not sure how many times I've seen it. I do remember a time during a re-release that my grandmother took me and I got bored and wanted to go home. I've seen the stage play a couple of times--my high school did it and then I saw it a few years in a community theater. But before yesterday I know I saw it at least once, because I distinctly remember the ending, when that bastard Rolfe gives the family away and the nuns steal parts of the Nazis' cars.

Here's the interesting thing about The Sound of Music. Yes, it's far too saccharine, and if you have any cynicism at all in your veins you will start to curse humanity. Gene Siskel said of the film that he rooted for the Nazis. But upon looking at it yesterday I realized it is immaculately made. Robert Wise may well have deserved the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. The photography is great--the opening shot of the Austrian mountains, and then the zoom in on Julie Andrews is stunning. The editing is terrific, too, especially during the musical numbers. I was struck by the otherwise silly "The Lonely Goatherd" puppet show how well cut the scene is.

For all that, though, I wouldn't call the film a classic. It may be for those who don't watch a lot of movies. It is pleasant and inoffensive. Even the Nazi stuff, which intrudes in the film's third hour, is introduced almost politely (I also would like to know how the Von Trapp's escaped the theater when it was so well guarded). Anyone who likes cutting-edge cinema will be bombarded with banality which pleases the lowest common denominator.

Julie Andrews is terrific, and after her previous year's work in Mary Poppins was sitting on top of the world. Christopher Plummer, who turned down the role repeatedly before accepting it, is okay, but his transformation from authoritarian to mushy pushover happens awfully fast. The children are cute without being obnoxious (the only one I recognized was Angela Cartwright, who went on to be Penny in Lost in Space).

And those songs! Rodgers and Hammerstein were the most successful Broadway composers of all time, and if this show wasn't their best (that would probably be Oklahoma!) it had a trunkful of hits. The title song, "Do-Re-Mi," "My Favorite Things," "Edelweiss," all are indelible songs. Would they like the idea that people now dress up in costume and attend sing-alongs? Maybe, maybe not.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Ship of Fools

The fourth Best Picture nominee from 1965 is Ship of Fools, a typical effort from Stanley Kramer, who mostly made socially-conscious films that tended towards the self-important and lugubrious (the notable exception is It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, one of my favorite comedies). Ship of Fools has almost no levity, and was so lugubrious it could put a viewer in a bad mood.

Based on the novel by Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools is set on a German cruise ship headed from Veracruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven in 1933. It has a variety of passengers, and follows the template set down by Grand Hotel and many other films that take a location and focus on many different characters and stories. I wonder if the creators of The Love Boat were thinking of this film.

Of course, 1933 was a a portentous time in Germany, as the Nazi party had just come to power. This is represented by Jose Fertrer, as a publisher and fervent racist, who at one point advocates putting to death all useless people, including the old. He is tolerated by the other passengers, and the thoughtful ship's doctor (Oskar Werner) says he likes to listen to him, because he realizes none of this can ever come to pass. It's sort of like people today saying they are entertained by Donald Trump.

There are lots of loaded lines like that in the film. A Jewish passenger, used to the slights of Germans, is still proud to be a German. He tells his friend, the cynical dwarf (Michael Dunn) that he is not a fool--there are one million Jews in Germany, are they going to kill them all?

The main story is that of Werner, who has a weak heart and has lost his interest in life. It is renewed when a woman (Simone Signoret) comes aboard in Cuba. She has been arrested for supplying arms and support to workers and will be imprisoned on the Canary Islands. These two lonely people find solace together. Another passenger, Vivienne Leigh (in her last film) is a bitter middle-aged woman. Lee Marvin is an ex-ballplayer, forever bemoaning his inability to hit a curveball. George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley are a pair of young lovers who constantly fight--he's a painter who is for the downtrodden masses, she not so much.

The film is well constructed and acted: Werner, Signoret, and Dunn were all nominated for Oscars. I just found the whole thing a bit soggy and bloated. It's two and a half hours, and with an unrelenting dreariness. Dunn, as sort of a Greek chorus, is the only source of amusement, and tells us at the beginning that it is a ship of fools. But when you tell us something like that it kind of puts the cart before the horse. Also, some of the characters weren't completely fleshed out. I still don't know why a baseball player was headed to Germany, nor why Leigh was on the boat, either. It took 26 days for the ship to complete its voyage, so one didn't sail on a whim, I imagine.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Doctor Zhivago

The third nominee for Best Picture in 1965 was Doctor Zhivago, one of David Lean's big, epic pictures. I saw this years ago on television, and remember a few of the scenes, most notably when the two leads show up to find their entire house frozen (even the inside). It's a three-and-a-half hour film, so I watched it over two consecutive days.

Based on the novel by Boris Pasternak, which was banned in the Soviet Union, Doctor Zhivago is a romance set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution and the years following. It's framed by a Soviet officer, Alec Guinness, looking for his niece, who is the daughter of his half-brother, the titular medical man (Omar Sharif), and his lover (Julie Christie). Guinness tells the tale, even though he couldn't have possibly known it since he wasn't there for most of it, a considerable narrative error.

Sharif is at heart a poet, and not political. Christie is a teenage girl who is engaged to Tom Courtenay, devoted to the revolution. But she becomes the mistress of a piggish financier (Rod Steiger). Courtenay marries her anyway. Sharif, whose parents died when he was young, is taken by friends of the family, and marries their daughter (Geraldine Chaplin).

World War I hits. It is thought that Courtenay dies. Sharif meets Christie tending to wounded soldiers on the front. But the revolution comes, and when Sharif comes home he finds his house has been seized and now home to several other families. He decides to head to his father-in-law's country house, and the family goes by train, a rough ride. It is then that he finds out that Courtenay is not dead, but has reinvented himself as a ruthless revolutionary.

Sharif and Chaplin build a happy life in the country, but he runs into Christie in town and they begin an affair. He ends up shanghaied by the Bolsheviks and pressed into service as a medical officer. He returns to find his family has left the country, but Christie is there for him.

The film has all the majestic sweep of a film by Lean, but something is missing. It may be that Zhivago is such a nice guy that he isn't very interesting (he is never judged for being an adulterer). Christie's character is also very passive. The film received a lot of criticism that the romance trivialized the history, but that's nothing new in Hollywood films. Frankly, I liked the approach Lean and his screenwriter, Robert Bolt, show both sides of the conflict were bastards.

Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Doctor Zhivago is the music by Maurice Jarre, including the hauntingly beautiful "Lara's Theme" (also known as "Somewhere My Love").

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Secret History of Las Vegas

Even before I've moved here I've always tried to read everything I can about Las Vegas. I still haven't read the quintessential novel about this strange city (I would say Tim Powers' The Last Call comes closest). The latest is The Secret History of Las Vegas, by Chris Abani, which is more about South Africa than Vegas.

The book is set in Las Vegas and the surrounding desert. A cop, Salazar, finds a bizarre scene at Lake Mead: conjoined twins, bathing in the lake, with a barrel of blood nearby. Salazar remains vexed by several bodies that were dumped at the same site a few years ago, so he suspects the twins. One of them is normal-sized, the other is not much more than infant-sized, attached to the large-oned's chest. They are called Fire and Water. workers in a carnival.

Salazar gets the help of a pyschiatrist, Sunil Singh. He used to live in South Africa, and there are flashbacks to apartheid days that weren't very interesting to me, as I thought I was going to read about Las Vegas. Singh has a killer after him, another South African who believes Singh is responsible for the death of a woman they both loved. Oh, and in a Vegas cliche, Singh is in love with a prostitute, a bi-racial woman called Asia.

Abani kind of fumbles around in the book, looking for a theme, and I don't think he ever finds it. He has some interesting things to say about Las Vegas: "He wondered what some future generation or even an alien culture of anthropologists and archaeologists would make of the current city of Las Vegas if it became lost under the desert long enough. Would it be read as the perfect Earth culture, it's acme? With representatives from all over the world building what could only be described as embassies? Each casino no longer the bizarre facade it was but rather coming together as the true United Nations? Or would it be seen as the home of world religion, each casino a representation of one group or the other? The temples were already here--pyramids, sphinxes, lions, Roman ruins, stautes of liberty, all sainted icons, and the famous searchlight on the Luxor some beacon to an indifferent god?" But I don't think Abani captures the weirdness of Vegas and it could have been set in any city. The forays into the desert are more interesting.

I mentioned the character of a prostitute, and it seems like all books about Vegas have a stripper or a hooker in them. While this is a tired cliche, and Asia is not a particularly interesting character, I did like this passage about the world's oldest profession: "We are many things--shapeshifters, actresses, mothers, sisters, virgins, whores, homemakers, and home wreckers--but more than anything, prostitutes are mirrors. We reflect only what the john wants, what he has paid to see, to experience."

Abani is a good writer when he expounds upon things, but the plot of this tale and the spine of the book are fuzzy and needed focusing. My search for the perfect Vegas book goes on.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Dracula

This is the third time I've read Bram Stoker's Dracula, and it will be the last. I've been exploring all things Dracula and of course had to read this again, since Stoker is the one who created one of the most iconic characters in Western literature, and, by doing so, set the standard for all the vampire literature (and by extension, films) to come. But this time the book became a slog. Let's face it, while Dracula is an important novel, it's not a great one, way too long and often tedious. It has some great set pieces, but too many long passages of blather.

Stoker made his career as a manager of Henry Irving's Lyceum Theatre. He wrote many books, but if it weren't for Dracula he would not be well known at all. He began working on the book about 1890, and it was published in 1897. He never visited Transylvania, and found the name Dracula in some research, not really understanding who Vlad the Impaler was. Though Dracula was not the first vampire novel, it established most of the tropes that we now associate with the genre.

The plot, which has been distorted in all of the film versions (even Francis Coppola's, which follows the plot but turns it into a romance), has attorney Jonathan Harker travel to Dracula's castle to get his signatures on papers for a real estate purchase. Dracula, longing to leave the loneliness of his castle, where he has thrived for centuries, wants to experience a faster pace in England. But he can't help but bite Harker and leave him for his three brides. Harker escapes. It should be noted that Dracula looks nothing like film representations of him:"Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck colour about him anywhere." Popular depictions of him as a romantic figure are interpretations. In the book, he is meant to be hideous--he has hair on his palms.

Back in England, Dracula arrives aboard a ship along with his boxes of earth. He has killed all the men aboard and leaves in the form of a dog: "But, strangest of all, the very instant the shore was touched, an immense dog sprang up from below, as if shot up by the concussion, and running forward, jumped from the bow on the sand." It was Stoker who invented the talent that Dracula has for transforming into animals, most prominently a bat, but also rats and mist.

Dracula lands in Whitby, a coastal town, where he feeds on Lucy Westenra, who is Mina Murray's best friend. Mina is Harker's fiance. Lucy has been proposed to by three different men on the same day: Dr. John Seward, who manages the local lunatic asylum; Quincey Morris, a cowboy from Texas, and Arthur Holmwood, a noble. She chooses Arthur, but Dracula visits her every night, and no one can figure out she's losing so much blood, Seward calls in his old professor, Dr. Van Helsing, who suspects a vampire but is too late, as Lucy dies.

The next section is pretty horrifying, as Lucy turns into a vampire and terrorizes small children, who call her the "Bloofer Lady." Van Helsing has a gruesome solution: "'I shall cut off her head and fill her mouth with garlic, and I shall drive a stake through her heart.'" Later: "The thing in the coffin writhed, and a hideous, blood-curdling screech came from the opened red lips. The body shook and quivered and twisted in wild contortions. The sharp white teeth champed together till the lips were cut, and the mouth was smeared with a crimson foam."

If more of Dracula were like this, it would have been much better. Dracula himself only appears sporadically (the book was originally titled The Un-Dead), and there is too much in-between sightings to sustain the suspense. There are other great parts, such as when the four men (Harker, Morris, Van Helsing, and Holmwood) are on the track of the Count and are besieged by thousands of rats, or when Mina comes under his spell. But in-between are long sections of planning and everyone congratulating themselves on what wonderful and brave people they are. Stoker needed an editor.

Why Dracula has become such a major part of our culture is not because it's a great book but because of what it has come to mean. It has had many interpretations, but I think it boils down to one thing: fear. But of what? As there are no vampires roaming the countryside, not now nor then, just what was Dracula a metaphor for? I think there are two things, and they are connected: sex and foreigners.

Sex is readily apparent. The mingling of blood can be seen as a stand-in for sexual congress. When Dracula attacks Mina, it is an image that suggests fellatio: "With his left hand he held both Mrs. Harker's hands, keeping them away with her arms at full tension. His right hand gripped her by the back of the neck, forcing her face down on his bosom. Her white nightdress was smeared with blood and a thin stream trickled down the man's bare chest which was shown by his torn-open dress." By drinking his blood, it ties her to him, much as if a woman has accepted a man's semen.

Later, she will exclaim: "'Unclean, unclean! I must touch him or kiss him no more. Oh, that it should be that is I who am now his worst enemy, and whom he may have most cause to fear.'" This leads to a emphasis, throughout the book, that Dracula is a foreigner, and not only a foreigner, but one from an exotic land full of superstition. He's not French, he's from the wilds of southeastern Europe. During Stoker's time, immigration was on the rise in England (as it was in America) and a gentleman's attitude may have been to regard these immigrants as unclean and strange. Stoker may not have personally believed this, but it may have been like today's making Arabs the go-to villains.

After finding most of his coffins, the gang chases Dracula back to his homeland. He goes by boat, as Mina, now connected to him, can read his thoughts. They go overland to Transylvania, and await him as he arrives, as the sun sets. Just in time he is destroyed, though Morris is killed.

After three readings, I can attest to a few things. One, the style Stoker uses, epistolary, consisting of letters and diary entries, doesn't work. There are too many conversations jotted down verbatim, which is impossible. Stoker really doesn't differentiate between characters, so one can read along and forget who's narrating. The subplot involving Renfield, the zoophagous mental patient that Dracula controls, goes nowhere. What does shine through is the terror involved and the pictures Stoker paints, such as Harker relating how Dracula tosses a bag to his brides, which obviously contains a child, or watching him crawl down the wall head first.

Dracula is surely one of the most well-known two or three characters in English literature (Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein's monster would be the other two). For whatever limited gifts Stoker had as a writer, he had great genius creatively, and his creation has spawned so many copies they would be impossible to count. But beyond that, his Dracula has become a part of all of our subconscious, existing in our nightmares whether we have read the book or not.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Hateful Eight

What better way to spend Christmas day, honoring the Prince of Peace, then to watch a Quentin Tarantino film, and all that entails--profanity (including liberal use of the "N" word) and blood-soaked violence. It is an entertaining if over long and typically self-indulgent effort by Tarantino, with a patented performance by Samuel L. Jackson.

I saw the 70mm "Road Show" edition, complete with overture and intermission, as Tarantino remains stuck in the past. The film is a Western, but is also something of an Agatha Christie mystery. Why he was hung up on shooting this in 70mm is curious, since most of the film is set inside one room (and another large chunk inside a stagecoach). It reminds me of how The Diary of Anne Frank was shot in Cinemascope even though it was set entirely in a cramped attic.

We are in Wyoming, sometime after the Civil War. A stage makes it's way ahead of a blizzard. Jackson, playing a former Major in the Union Army, has lost his horse and stops the coach looking for a ride. He is a bounty hunter, toting three bodies. The passenger is another bounty hunter, Kurt Russell, who has a prisoner, Jennifer Jason Leigh. He does not kill his bounties, as he is known as "The Hangman." As Jackson points out, "When the Hangman catches you, you don't die by a bullet. When the Hangman catches you, you hang."

They, plus the driver (James Parks), makes it to a place called Minnie's Haberdashery as the blizzard hits. The proprietors are away, mysteriously. Left in charge is a Mexican (Demian Bichir). Also there is an old Confederate general, Bruce Dern, and two other travelers, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen. They all have secrets. So, we have eight people in a closed location, and after all the lengthy talk, the killing starts.

As with most Tarantino films, The Hateful Eight is something of a live-action cartoon, given to over-the-top acting and sequences. There are, in no particular order, a severed limb, a head literally blown apart, many mentions of the male sexual apparatus (including a man fellating another man), blood and brains spattered around the room, and slapstick comedy, especially involving a door that won't stay closed. There is, of course, a lot of discussion of race, as Jackson, who fought on the Union side, and Dern, on the Confederate, don't see eye to eye. Walton Goggins, one of the eight, was a raider for the South (loosely based on Quantrill's raiders, I'm guessing).

We're used to by now Tarantino's use of racial epithets to prove he's not a racist (indeed, our sympathies at all time lie with Jackson, who is the hero of the film) but he's added misogyny to the mix. He's had so many strong female characters, and Leigh turns out to be one of them, but he seems to take too much joy in seeing her beaten. In this day and age, watching a woman having her teeth knocked out just isn't funny, although Tarantino seems to think it is.

After the first person dies, there is a drawing room mystery as two men die of poisoned coffee. This is where the Ten Little Indians pastiche starts, as one by one more characters die. None go peacefully. Then we get a flashback so more characters are killed off, and this leads to an oddly anti-climactic ending.

Jackson is just great here. There's more than a little Jules from Pulp Fiction--the cadences of his speech are the same. Russell seems to be doing a John Wayne imitation; I'm not sure if it's intentional or not. Leigh doesn't have much to say until the end of the film, but when she does (her face covered in blood) she lets 'er rip. Goggins gives a performance so over-the-top that it becomes fascinating to watch.

As you may gather, I'm ambivalent about The Hateful Eight. I liked it on a visceral level, and it keeps in good standing with Tarantino's recent work (I'd rate it ahead of Django Unchained but not as good as Inglorious Basterds). The beginning of the film is very talky, with exposition coming thick. The film picks up just before intermission, and then turns into carnage, and at that point, while I thought it was brilliantly shot and edited, I had to wonder, to what end? Tarantino begins the film by stating it's his eighth (this means he's either counting Kill Bill as one film or having us forget about Grindhouse) and recently stated that he's only going to make ten films before he turns to novels and/or theater. It is my hope that, before he retires, he makes a film that is about humanity rather than just about other films.


Friday, December 25, 2015

Bad Santa

For last night's holiday viewing I chose the most scabrous Christmas movie ever made, Bad Santa, directed by Terry Zwigoff and released in 2003. This is the third time I've seen it, and it remains audaciously funny and gleefully profane, and even has a heart. While it doesn't shock like the first time I saw it, it still manages to pack a naughty punch.

The simple premise is that a couple of thieves have a yearly plan: they get employed at department stores every Christmas as a Santa Clause and an elf (one of them, Tony Cox, is a little person, so that helps). Cox does all the logistical work, while Santa, Billy Bob Thornton, is a drunken miscreant whose only worthwhile skill is safecracking. Cox has to put up a lot with him, as Thornton is the world's worst Santa--belligerent to kids, always drunk, and occasionally pissing himself.

Their current job is in Phoenix. They get hired by store manager John Ritter (his last role) but Ritter is suspicious after he hears Thornton rogering a woman in the big and tall section (he tells her she "won't shit right for a week"). Ritter takes his concerns to the security manger, Bernie Mac, who uncovers the ploy and wants in.

Meanwhile, Thornton has taken up residence in the home of a pathetic kid named Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), who is one of those kids that seem to exist in every school--the clueless, friendless, kid who doesn't realize snot is running down his nose, his clothes don't match, and is a target for wedgies. Thornton has also started a relationship with a woman (Lauren Graham) who has a Santa fetish (her cries of "fuck me, Santa!" are also ear-opening).

Bad Santa is an anti-Christmas movie, but even it succumbs to holiday magic, as Thornton starts to realize he cares about the kid. The climax, even after all the disgusting things Thornton has done over the movie, may still bring a tear to your eye.

I think the best thing about Bad Santa is that it went balls out, so to speak, and didn't hit the brakes at any point. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa push every idea, and while that sounds like it would be too much it just builds. Thornton is so good at playing disheveled and contemptible that one can't help but laugh. And the dialogue given to Cox is amazing. He tells Thornton, "You are by far the dumbest, most pathetic piece of maggot eatin' shit that has every slid from a human being's hairy ass." And perhaps the most quoted is this exchange with Mac:

Mac: I could stick you up my ass, small fry.
Cox: Yeah? You sure it ain't too sore from last night?
Mac: You got some lip on you midget.
Cox: Yeah? Well these lips were on your wife's pussy last night. Why don't you dust that thing off once in a while? Asshole!

I was interested to read that Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray both wanted to play the lead role but had other commitments (for Murray it was Lost in Translation). Bad Santa 2 will be released next year, and I'm eager to see it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Thousand Clowns

The next of the 1965 Best Picture nominees I'll write about is A Thousand Clowns, which in its way is every bit a relic of the 1960s as Darling, but it holds up much better. It is a product of the left-wing Jewish Broadway scene, and shows a mid-point between the Beat era and the hippie counterculture.

Our hero, or anti-hero, is Murray Burns, played by Jason Robards. Formerly a writer for a children's program (Chuckles the Chipmunk), he has grown tired of working and instead just enjoys life with his nephew, Nick (Barry Gordon), for whom he's been an unofficial guardian for the last seven years. But a paper Gordon wrote for school has alerted the Child Welfare Bureau, who has dispatched two caseworkers (William Daniels and Barbara Harris) to determine if Robards is a competent guardian.

The film was based on a play by Herb Gardner that ran on Broadway in 1962 and it shows, as most of the action takes place in Robards' apartment. We get a prologue of sorts as Robards and Gordon have a great day in New York. They are up early, and Robards says, at about 7:30, that Gordon is about to see a sad site: people going to work. They, instead, fly kites in Central Park, visit the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the Statue of Liberty. Anyone who knows New York will realize they have traversed several miles. Too bad the Metrocard wasn't available then.

I liked A Thousand Clowns (this is the second time I've seen it), even though it is a product of another time. There are long, talkative scenes, such as when Robards both repels Daniels and seduces Harris (Daniels says of Robards, "You aren't a person, you're an experience"). Harris, in a bit of audaciousness on the part of Gardner, falls in love with Robards, and cleans his apartment (you've still got a long way to go, baby). Robards enters and says of the spruced-up place, "I've been attacked by the Ladies Home Journal."

The conflict is that Robards must get a job to keep Gordon. So we have kind of the opposite of the previous year's Mary Poppins: instead of businessman learning to fly kites, man who flies kites must learn to do business. In the last scene, Chuckles (a terrific Gene Saks) begs Robards to come back to work for him. I don't know, but I'm guessing Gardner worked for television and hated it, because he has a very dim view of everyone who works in it.

A Thousand Clowns was directed by Fred Coe, who also directed the Broadway play. Martin Balsam, who plays Robards' brother, a successful agent, won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, which is kind of surprising since he has only two real scenes and while certainly good, doesn't have the big moment one would expect of an award-winner (I have yet to see any of the other nominees but hope to in the coming weeks).

At times the play tries too hard to show Robards' whimsy. Flying kites, playing the ukulele, collecting eagle statues ("You can never have too many eagles," he tells Gordon). At least it's not pandas. Overall, though, it's good acting and writing.

An interesting note: Gordon and Daniels would both go on to be presidents of the Screen Actors Guild.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

I've written before that I'm not a big Star Wars guy. So why was I so excited to see Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens? Maybe someone was using the force on me, or maybe it just hit at the right time, after the unpleasant aftertaste of the prequels had gone, and we looked to J.J. Abrams like Paul Simon looked to Joe DiMaggio. I'm here to say that I had more fun at this Star Wars than any other, even though it is almost a copy of the first film, but better.

The film, which could have been called The Search for Skywalker, has these points in common with the The New Hope. Feel free to add more in the comments section:

1. Movie begins on a desert planet. Great actor (Max Von Sydow), wearing monk's robes, plays wise old man faithful to Jedi.

2. On said planet (which is just like Tatooine, but only one sun) a young person (Daisy Ridley) awaits fulfilling her destiny. She finds a cute robot that speaks in whistle noises that holds a key bit of information helpful to the resistance.

3. The First Order is the revived Empire, led by a guy named Smoke who's scary and ugly, with an intermediary (Adam Driver) that wears all black and wears a mask that modulates his speaking voice There are a-ha lineage issues with him. The First Order is full of Nazi imagery, and employs stormtroopers, whose armor design has not changed in thirty years but is still highly ineffective.

4. There is a visit to bar that plays live music, with all sorts of interesting creatures that abound.

5. The bad guys are building a huge weapon that can take out planets, but is easily destroyed. The Huffington Post did a whole article about plot holes and rip-offs (or homages) from the other films.

The other similarities, such as dogfights in space, escapes from tight places, and climactic light-saber battles, are in all Star Wars films, and are well done. But it would have been nice if Abrams had come up with something a little different. The only wrinkle he gives us is the character of Finn, a stormtrooper with a guilty conscience. Played by John Boyega, Finn is notable for being black, and also exhibiting brave behavior and cowardice at the same time.

All that aside, The Force Awakens is a lot of fun. Much of this can be traced to the casting of Ridley as Rey, the new Luke Skywalker. She turns out to be the main character and major mystery of the film. I won't go any further, but suffice it to say her parentage is the big question that is on everyone's mind who has seen it. Ridley, who looks like Keira Knightley (Star Wars trivia experts will know Knightley played Amadala's double in The Phantom Menace) is a terrific action heroine, though, predictably, her action figure will be hard to find in stores.

The other highlight is Harrison Ford, grizzled and just as grouchy as ever as Han Solo. Of the three returning actors from the original trilogy, Ford gets the most time and makes the most of it. He and his Wookie companion, Chewbacca, are one of the great teams in action-film history, and it's a great comfort to see them arrive on screen. There are lot of great Solo lines, such as being asked if something is possible: "I never ask that question until after I've done it." The sight of the Millennium Falcon in a junkyard can't help but get the blood pumping.

Abrams shows a great hand for action. The climactic light-sabre battle is terrific. The music by John Williams, incorporating his old themes, is rousing. The dialogue is comic-book dumb (which is a good thing). I can't wait for the next one.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Darling

It's that time of year when I go into the Way-Back Machine and look at the promiment films of fifty years ago, starting with the Best Picture Oscar nominees. I start with Darling, directed by John Schlesinger, one of the quintessential films that characterized the "Mod British film."

Darling stars Julie Christie, who won Best Actress that year, as a model who moves between men. It might have been daring in its day, even scandalizing, as it has a couple living in sin, obliquely refers to abortion, and, I think, cunnilingus. But it is horribly dated today, and while Christie is technically very good, the character is a mess and not very interesting. It's a curiosity, not a classic.

Christie is Diana Scott. She is telling her story in flashback, as a large billboard featuring her face goes up, covering up one that advertises a charity for starving African children. She is is one of those hip young Londoners who are into fashion and trends, and she's interviewed in a man-on-the-street style by a TV announcer, Dirk Bogarde. Before you know it they're in love, and each leave their spouse. They don't marry, though.

Christie becomes a top model, pushed by advertising executive and playboy (Laurence Harvey). She begins an affair with him, saying all the while that she doesn't want to hurt Bogarde, but of course she does. Later she will marry an Italian prince, but really wants Bogarde, who still wants her but values his integrity more. She goes back to the Prince and her life as a socialite.

I didn't like much about this film, except the stark black and white photography and the costumes, which won an Academy Award. "How can someone so shallow and trivial cause so much pain?" Bogarde asks of Christie, and there lies the problem: she is shallow and trivial, and not worth wasting two hours on. Again, I imagine this was cutting edge at the time, but today it's a yawn.

There were many British films like this during the '60s, including Alfie, which would come the next year, which chronicled the shocking amorality of swinging London. Alfie holds up today, but Darling should be relegated to a museum.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Creed

You patiently wait for it. You get a little tease when a hint of the theme is heard on piano when Rocky has a sad moment. But then, just when the last round of the climactic fight starts, bam! Bill Conti's trumpet fanfare--the Rocky theme etched into our brains almost forty years ago.

Full disclosure: I have not seen any of the Rocky films except the first one. I figured they were all cash grabs and there was no need for any of the others. Creed, though, struck me differently. It is directed by an actual film director, Ryan Coogler (has Sylvester Stallone ever directed a good movie?) and Stallone did not even write this. It casts Rocky Balboa as a supporting character (although he has plenty of screen time) and while the template is the same--underdog takes on arrogant champ--there is a whole different, fresh feeling about it.

Creed stars Michael B. Jordan as Adonis Johnson. In a prologue, when Adonis is about ten, he is taken out of a juvenile home by Phylicia Rashad, who is Apollo Creed's widow (he was killed in the ring in a previous film). Turns out he is Creed's illegitimate son, but Rashad raises him as his own. He lives in luxury and is well-educated, having a great job at a financial firm. But he has the boxing jones, and goes to Tijuana for club fights. Since no one will train him in his hometown of L.A., he goes to Philadelphia to see if Rocky Balboa will train him.

Rocky resists, but not too hard, and Jordan will end up beating the flashy fighter at Mighty Mick's Gym, and then, when it is revealed to the world that he is Apollo Creed's son, the champ's trainer and manager thinks it will be a nice payday for his guy to fight him, providing he changes his name to Creed. That fighter is played by Tony Bellew, a Liverpudlian, who is facing a prison term for a gun charge.

There's plenty to like here. There's a lot that is familiar--we get not one but two training montages, there's a sweet romance between Jordan and his downstairs neighbor, a singer (Tessa Thompson, who is far too good-looking not to have already had a boyfriend), and Stallone as Rocky, with his thick, mumbly voice. Paulie and Adrian are dead, and who wouldn't get a little choked up when he visits their graves. But they throw something at him that's a bit much, though for a Rocky movie I guess is par for the course.

I imagine almost every director wants to make a boxing film, and Coogler makes the most of it. The first right is shown in real time (it only last two rounds) and is shot in extreme close-up. The second fight is also well-done, although doesn't take the liberties that Rocky did (there's no "cut me, Mick," which would have never happened). The outcome is in great doubt. I also liked that so many familiar boxing people, like Michael Buffer and Jim Lampley, lend a realistic sheen to the proceedings. And Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon kill their cameo.

I don't know of any other character that has been played by one actor for a longer period of time, not even Antoine Donel. James Bond has been around longer, but played by different actors and never aging. Rocky is unique in film in that he has been portrayed by the same actor for almost forty years, and people have never really tired of him. There may yet be another film, as Creed ends with things hanging. I think I would be up for Creed II.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Arch of Triumph

It sounds good--a film based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front, and directed by the same man who directed that adaptation to a Best Picture Oscar, Lewis Milestone, starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, reuniting them after the successful Gaslight, and set in Paris right before the war. Arch of Triumph, though, released in 1948, is a complete misfire.

Boyer is an Austrian doctor who is living without passport in Paris, essentially a refugee (Paris was overrun by European refugees, giving the film a little contemporary resonance). He lives in a hotel with other refugees, including a former colonel in the Tsar's guard (Louis Calhern), who is his best friend. One night he happens upon a woman (Bergman) walking aimlessly in the rain. He buys her a drink, lets her stay in his room (chastely), and then learns that her lover died the night before.

He cleans things up for her (he died of natural causes, although we never find out how) and the two eventually fall in love. Boyer, after assisting a woman in an accident, is arrested and deported, but Bergman can't wait for him and ends up taking up with a playboy and moving to the Riviera. Boyer is hell-bent on getting revenge on a Gestapo officer who tortured him and killed his girlfriend, This is far more interesting than the back-and-forth romance.

Somewhere in here is a good film, but Milestone directs as if he were addled. Many things happen off-screen, including the major event of the film, which I won't discuss here. He and the script seem to want to recapture some of Casablanca's magic, but it falls flat (we even here mention of La Belle Aurore, which was of course a cafe mentioned in Casablanca). The film is far too long, badly paced, and above all, Bergman seems lost in the role. She's mostly unpleasant in the film, and Boyer tries to dump her repeatedly, and we can only agree.

What works is the relationship between Boyer and Calhern, who are a bit like Rick and Renault, (Calhern has the best line: "The world should be executed for murder") and the scene in which Boyer bumps into the Gestapo (brilliantly played, as always, by Charles Laughton) at a cafe and realizes that Laughton does not recognize him, is gripping.

But overall Arch of Triumph is a dud, and an unfortunate one.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Stoker's Manuscript

I keep reading horror novels because the description of the book sounds so great, but I'm often disappointed (except with Steven King, and now his son, Joe Hill). Therefore I was pleasantly surprised with Stoker's Manuscript, which takes on the Dracula legend with an original idea and hits all the stops just right. It's creepy, suspenseful, and at times even scary.

Written by first-time author Royce Prouty, who clearly knows both Bram Stoker's novel and the history that inspired it, Stoker's Manuscript is narrated by Joseph Barkeley, who is an antiquarian book dealer living in Chicago. He and his brother, a priest, were both Romanian orphans. He is contacted by a go-between of a mysterious client who wants him to authenticate a prologue and epilogue of Dracula.Who is it, and why? Only the son of Vlad the Impaler, who needs the information to find the tomb of his wife (she's also a vampire).

The plot is a bit of a labyrinth and I may not have caught everything, but Prouty's real skill is adopting a Gothic tone. We get some lightheartedness--Barkeley is a Cubs fan, which you don't learn in too many vampire books-- but mostly this book is as dark as a night in the Carpathians. Most of the book is set there, and Barkeley meets not only Dalca, that son, who's been living for over 500 years, but his brother Radu, who may be even worse. Dalca has acquired his father's hobby of throwing people onto spikes, and reading about this, even without seeing it, is grisly.

I have no idea if Prouty has even been to Romania, but it feels like he has. At least he's probably been to Castle Bran (by the way, this castle is now for sale. Darn that I don't have the do-re-mi to buy it). "But no matter one's placement in the Bran Valley, your eyes always drew upward to the huge medieval structure sculpted directly out of stone, Castle Bran, otherwise known as Dracula's Castle and he setting of the original Dracula novel. It looks as if a great solid rock disrobed under chisel, revealing a high-walled Gothic edifice underneath, its complicated roofline of red tile, and for uneven steepled corners." This castle is on my bucket list of places to go.

Barkeley is an interesting hero in that he constantly makes mistakes. He undergoes many trials--he's attacked by some sort of lupine creature, beset by Dalca's "regulats," who are his vampires, I guess, watches all those impalings, and is tossed into a tomb and sealed into it. All of this makes for white-knuckled reading, although I found the climax a little disappointing.

For Dracula fans this a must-read and, while not as important a novel as Dracula, is right up there in terms of genuine frights.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Between Riverside and Crazy

Perhaps the biggest thing I miss about New York City is live theater. There is some in Las Vegas, but nothing like New York, where you can have your choice of probably 100 or more venues on a given night. I had been keeping up with the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, but as with last year's The Flick, for the 2015 award winner, Between Riverside and Crazy, I have to make do with reading it.

The play was written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, who before this was best known as writing a play that had an unprintable title (The Motherfucker With the Hat). A man of Egyptian and Irish heritage, he wrote a play about a retired black cop living in a rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive, besieged at all sides by an ex-con son who is still trafficking in stolen goods, the son's lollapalooza girlfriend, and his old partner, who has brought over her fiance to try to strong-arm him into settling a lawsuit against the police department.

The main character, Walter "Pops" Washington, is the best thing about the play, which otherwise has some creaks. I didn't seen Stephen McKinley Henderson, who played the role in New York, so I kept picturing the late Ossie Davis in the role. Pops is a great character, one that will be drooled over by black actors of a certain age for some time to come. He is garrulous, profane, belligerent, and drunk most of the time. He was wounded by another cop, shot six times, and has refused settlements, even though he was in a bar at six in the morning and off-duty. He tells it like it is, such as when he's told that his son's girlfriend is an accounting student: "That girl, she a nice girl, but she don't no accounting. Her lips move when she read the horoscope--that ain't the mark of a future accountant."

The central conflict of the play is the encounter between Pops and his old partner at the end of Act I, when truths come out like vermin climbing out of the walls (the apartment is described as being in ruins, including several piles of ancient dog shit). But I was disappointed in the beginning of Act II, when Pops meets with a woman from his departed wife's church. Known only as the "Church Lady" (no, not Dana Carvey), she's a Catholic but also member of a Brazilian cult like Santeria. There is a miraculous event that smacked of inaunthenticity and took the play in a direction that didn't maintain its tone.

The end of the play, when Pops gets the last laugh, was satisfactory, but on the whole I give this play three stars out of five. I would like to see it performed some day. What we who out in the hinterlands needs is for Fathom Events, who broadcast the Metropolitan Opera on movie screens, to do the same with New York stage productions.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

He Got Game

Getting back to the films of Spike Lee, I turn to his 1998 film, He Got Game, in which he tries to do for basketball what many other films have done for baseball. It only works occasionally.

Denzel Washington plays a man who is serving time in Attica for murdering his wife (it was an accident). The warden calls him in and says the governor is a huge fan of Big State. Washington's son is the number one high school player in the country. If Washington can get him to play for Big State, the governor will cut his sentence down.

That's laid out in the first few minutes of the film and it's a good hook. It's better when we come to understand that the son (NBA star Ray Allen, who is pretty good) hates his father. If I were Washington I might have told him not to go to Big State. But he and the son have many meetings and hash things out. leading to a final game of one-on-one.

Lee really stacks the deck here, and over-directs like a fiend. He uses Aaron Copland's music to tell us how American basketball is (it is, but has never really been America's pastime). The opening credits are shown over nostalgic pictures of all sorts of people playing, as if Lee was doing a Rick Burns about the sport (actually, that wouldn't be a bad idea, Spike). As with movies about  baseball, this is a movie about a father and son, who communicate via basketball.

But there is just too much here. The movie is too long, and could have done without a subplot involving a prostitute Washington befriends (played by Milla Jovovich). Washington, as always, is great, and he seems to save his best stuff for Lee, but there's something missing here. I just couldn't figure out what made Washington's character tick, what drove him to drive his son so mercilessly.

A number of college coaches and other basketball personalities made cameos, including the now departed Dean Smith (and Roy Williams while he was at Kansas). I wonder if they were happy with the film, since it showcases the sordid behavior that goes on when a player is recruited, including throwing women at them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mississippi Grind

I only heard of Mississippi Grind when it was on the National Board of Review's list of the best independent films of the year. I popped it into my Netflix queue and then discovered, while watching it, that it was written and directed by Anne Boden and Ryan Fleck, who also made Half Nelson and Sugar. It's weird and sad that their films have progressively become more obscure. Half Nelson got an Oscar nomination, Sugar was very well received (although I had my reservations), and It's Kind of a Funny Story made almost no impression. Mississippi Grind hardly had a theatrical release at all. That's too bad, because it's their best film.

Mississippi Grind incorporates a lot of familiar film tropes. It's a buddy movie, a road movie, and it's about gambling, all of them perhaps overdone (and owing a great deal to Robert Altman's California Split). But I found the movie fresh and alive, mostly because the locations aren't routine--it's not Vegas, it's the casinos up and down the Mississippi River, from Dubuque, Iowa to New Orleans. The second reason is the magnificent performance by Ben Mendelsohn.

He plays Gerry, a degenerate gambler and all-around loser. He struggles to hold on to a real estate agent job, owes almost everyone, and gambled his way out of a marriage. One night at a poker game he meets Curtis (Ryan Reynolds), a charismatic fellow who is drawn to Gerry, one imagines, like a person is to a starving dog. They hang out and have a couple of fun nights, and Gerry, desperate for money, asks Curtis to get him into a big game in New Orleans. He'll provide the car, Curtis will provide the stakes.

They then drive along the Mississippi (hopefully on Highway 61) hitting St. Louis, Memphis, and other spots in between. There are some great location shots of dive bars and pool halls, and I got a real feel for places I would never set foot in. In St. Louis Reynolds visits his prostitute girlfriend (Sienna Miller), which is a bit of cliche--why do guys like this in movies always have girlfriends who are hookers or strippers or both? Mendelsohn stops off in Little Rock to see his ex-wife, but really only wants to steal money from her. "I'm not a good person," he says.

But Mendelsohn's performance is so wrenching that you feel sympathy for him, or even empathy, if you have any sort of addiction. I don't gamble, but I understand the urge, and can see where the allure comes from. The look on Mendelsohn's face when he loses it all on a horse (picked because of the name, always a bad idea) is heart breaking.

This film reminded me a lot, in both subject and tone, to The Cooler, which had William H. Macy as one of life's great losers. They would make a great double feature at a Gambler's Anonymous meeting.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Who Was Dracula?

While I've been immersing myself in all things Dracula this fall, I thought I'd take a look at a historical account, and picked out Who Was Dracula? by Jim Steinmeyer. It's a good subject--who were the real influences behind Bram Stoker's fictional character--but unfortunately this book is poorly written, unfocused, and not very well argued.

I thought the book would give me a lot of information about Vlad Tepes, the Impaler, who gave Stoker the name Dracula. But there is not that much about him. Instead it is sort of a biography of Stoker and some fairly fanciful notions of other inspirations for the character, including, of all people, Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde. The last thing I expected in reading this book was to get an abbreviated biography of Wilde and his imprisonment for indecent behavior.

The core of the book is Stoker and his relationship with the actor Henry Irving. Stoker, for almost thirty years, was Stoker's right hand man and manager of the Lyceum Theater. Stoker was a critic in Dublin and sought out Irving's friendship. Many believe that Irving was a basis for Dracula, but after reading Steinmeyer's book I get the sense that Stoker may have created Dracula as a possible character for Irving to play (though Irving hated it). Irving was not a nice man, and treated some people horribly, but there's nothing her to indicate that he was a bad boss for Stoker.

The chapters on Whitman and Wilde are less convincing, and I don't know if Steinmeyer really believes it, though he does write: "I believe that the most important elements of Dracula were inspired by four people: poet Walt Whitman's bold carnality; author Oscar Wilde's corrupting immorality; actor Henry Irving's haunted characterse, and murderer Jack the Ripper's mysterious horrors." I'll buy the Ripper's influence, has Stoker began work on Dracula two years after those Whitechapel horrors, but I'm less convinced about the rest.

Despite the dubious arguments, there are some interesting nuggets here regarding the writing, especially concerning the connections to Vlad the Impaler. "Researchers have speculated that Stoker's knowledge of Transylvania came from Arminius Vambery, a Jewish-born adventurer from Hungary...Vambery would have been familiar with the traditions, languages, and landscape of Transylvania." We are also told "Stoker was never aware of more than the name and several historical facts. He had not read of the voivode's career or his reputation." Note though this is all second-hand information.

I don't think there's anything here that can't be found in other books, and that there's no original research here. Furthermore, the writing is often clunky. Consider this sentence: "His namesake, Abraham Senior, was twenty years older than his wife, a civil servant who worked a monotonous job in the parliamentary section of Dublin Castle." This makes it sound like the wife is the civil servant. We get her name in the next sentence, which makes the whole passage scream for an editor, as does the whole book, which is aimless and highly speculative.

I'm sure Dracula fans can find many better books about Stoker, Vlad, and the whole shebang.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Trumbo

While watching Trumbo, a fine film directed by Jay Roach, I had a sinking feeling. This film is about the Hollywood Ten and the resulting blacklist during the communist witch hunt of the 1950s, which would now seem to be ancient history, but since there is nothing new under the sun, the fear and demagoguery of those days are still with us.

Dalton Trumbo was one of Hollywood's greatest screenwriters. He signed a contract with MGM that made him the highest paid writer in the industry. He was an iconoclast and an eccentric, who smoked cigarettes with a filter and wrote in the bathtub. He was also an unapologetic communist. When the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed him he didn't play ball and was imprisoned for contempt of congress. When he got out he was unhireable.

That's the story behind this film. It's a subject that's been covered before, but it's a credit to the passage of time that sophisticated viewers can now handle the fact that being a communist is not against the law. A few decades ago there was a film called Guilt By Suspicion with Robert De Niro that made a big deal about him being falsely accused as a communist. Trumbo was the real thing.

He was also a great wit and intellect. Bryan Cranston ably plays him as someone who speaks as, a friend notes, as if his words were being chiseled into stone. But Cranston shows the vulnerability of the man. A scene in which he is literally stripped naked, being processed into prison, his trademark mustache gone, really hits hard, even though he says absolutely nothing.

While Trumbo is blacklisted he starts writing scripts pseudonymously for a pair of low-budget schlock producers (John Goodman and Stephen Root). Goodman doesn't care about being picketed--"The people who see my movies can't read." Trumbo, along with his wife and kids, start a little business where they use other blacklisted writers, churning scripts out like widgets. He manages to win two Oscars for films that don't have his name on them (one of them was for Roman Holiday). Then Kirk Douglas comes calling, asking Trumbo to write Spartacus. This gets Otto Preminger interested in him writing Exodus, and finally both of these men put Trumbo's name on them, effectively ending the blacklist.

The film manages to capture the paranoia and scariness of the period. Anyone associated with the left is suspected. A number of other writers and directors were targeted, as well as actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). The film, who is very kind to Douglas, is terrible to Robinson, who is shown naming names, but he did no such thing. Preminger, who no one liked, is seen as a prick who happens to do a good thing.

Trumbo's villains include Hedda Hopper, who was a horrible person, here played by Helen Mirren. In a nice, vicious scene, she turns on Louis B. Mayer, who did not initially fire Trumbo from MGM. She shames him into it, calling him a kike in the process. And, in a bit of audaciousness, John Wayne is cast in a negative light as the head of the Hollywood Alliance. In a scene that would have outraged Wayne, Trumbo calls him out for not having served in World War II.

The film is well cast, with Louis C.K. playing a composite character of many other writers (who were to the left of even Trumbo), Diane Lane as his wife, and Elle Fanning as his idealistic daughter. The film isn't perfect--it's a bit too self-congratulatory (we are told that Trumbo finally got his Oscar, but it took an awful long time) and I would have liked a bit of background on the man. How did a man from Colorado (which I learned on Wikipedia) end up speaking like a Harvard professor? Still, Trumbo is a solid entertainment, especially for Hollywood history buffs and leftists everywhere. As a bonus, Anne Coulter probably would hate it.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Dracula Untold

Here's a surprise--I actually liked Dracula Untold. The first in a proposed "reboot" of Universal's horror classics, the film didn't get good reviews and business, and if it was to be anything like the horrible Van Helsing it would be like a knife to the gut of any true horror fan. But I was pleasantly surprised that it was terrific looking, suspenseful, and above all, fairly historically accurate. Except for the vampire bit, of course.

Directed with aplomb by Gary Shore, Dracula Untold is basically Dracula's origin story. We meet Prince Vlad of Transylvania (actually, Vlad Tepes was the prince of Wallachia, but that's too confusing), who after being held hostage by the Turks, returns to lead his people. Part of that is true--he was held hostage by the Turks, but did all his impaling stuff after he left them, not before, as the movie would have us believe.

As played by Luke Evans, Vlad tries to atone for his sins and lead a nice family life, with his wife (Sarah Gadon) and son. But the Turks, who are vilified here, want more than money as tribute. They want 1,000 boys for the army. The Turkish Sultan (Dominic Cooper), a former friend of Vlad's, is our villain here.

Turns out Vlad knows about some kind of monster living in a cave. He is told by a monk that it is a vampire, who asked for powers from a demon but got screwed by being imprisoned in that cave. Vlad, realizing his kingdom will be destroyed, goes to this monster for help. The vampire (a very malevolent Charles Dance) agrees, and feeds Vlad some of his blood. But if he can't resist drinking blood himself for three days, he will be a vampire for eternity.

Empowered, Vlad leads his armies against the Turks, taking the form not just of one bat but an entire colony. He ends up having a showdown with the Sultan, who tries to defeat Vlad with his considerable pile of silver coins (the old standbys--daylight, silver, and a cross, are the vampire's weaknesses) but Vlad proves triumphant, though he must remain a vampire forever.

Now, Dracula Untold is no masterpiece, and it suffers from a bit too much movie magic. From the paintings we have of Vlad, Luke Evans is not exactly a doppelganger. Transylvania is a wild, exotic place,but this film looks as if it were shot in any old forest, without any sense of foreboding. I also found the costumes bland. But Shore has a nice sense of rhythm and suspense, and I was generally interested throughout (I know when I'm watching a movie at home if I'm bored because I will hit the pause button and check out my phone).

I don't know if the reboot plan has been scrapped--the end of this film puzzlingly sets it up for a sequel--but if the same team is involved I'd be interested in seeing what comes next.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Walk Two Moons

Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech, is a staple of middle-school English classes. My class is reading it now, and it's my first time reading it. There are some parts I loved, and some parts I loathed.

The story is narrated by Salamanca Tree Hiddle (I usually hate precious names, and this pushes it to the edge), who grew up in an idyllic setting on a farm in Kentucky. Her mother leaves, though, and her father moves them to the suburbs of Ohio. She meets a strange girl, Phoebe, and has a kind of adventure with her. All of this is told in the form of a flashback that she relates to her grandparents on a long drive to Idaho to visit her mother.

What's good about Walk Two Moons is the emotional resonance. Sal, as she is known, learns some good lessons along the way, particularly how one should not blame one's self for something they are not responsible for. Also, there is much in here about not judging first appearances, and how listening to someone else, or "walking two moons in their moccasins," can go a long way to avoiding misunderstandings.

There is also some wonderful literary technique here, particularly in the use of foreshadowing. I was reading along with the kids, and I finally had to take the book home and find out a few things, such as who is leaving mysterious messages on Phoebe's doorstep, who is the "nervous young man" whom Phoebe calls a lunatic, and what does he have to do with Phoebe's mother, and just what will happen when Sal is reunited with her mother. There are some good twists along the way, and Creech withholds some critical information in some nifty legerdemain.

But, Creech is not particularly good in some areas, especially dialogue and characterization. Phoebe is a holy mess, obnoxious and without any redeeming qualities. Why Sal likes her is a mystery, especially when Sal says she could strangle here (a dinner in which Phoebe refuses all food because of cholesterol might be funnier if it weren't indicative of Phoebe's character). I was also annoyed by the grandparents, who act mostly like children, saying things like "Gol-dang." They didn't ring true at all.

The book was published in 1994, so at the time there were no cell phones, but the book seems to be set even further back in time. None of the kids mention video games or any other thing that kids would be obsessed with. It could have been set in the '50s for all I know.

Walk Two Moons might be more effective with teens--most of my students seem to be enjoying it--but it doesn't translate as well for adults.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

4 Little Girls

Of all the crimes committed in the name of white supremacy, one of the most heinous is the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963. Four girls were killed as they changed into their choir robes in the church basement before Sunday services. Their deaths galvanized the civil rights movement, and they became martyrs for the cause.

Spike Lee had long wanted to make a film about the bombing, first as a narrative film then as a documentary. He finally secured the permission of the father of one the victims, and the subsequent film, 4 Little Girls, released in 1997, is something of a masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.

The film is well-paced, and covers everything one needs to know. The families of each of the four girls are interviewed, most prominent Chris and Maxine McNair, parents of Denise McNair. We also hear from those who were on the front lines of the civil rights movement, especially Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, who was in Birmingham.

Lee covers the background of Birmingham, and how it was a viciously racist city. Howell Raines, a New York Times editor, grew up there. He knew something was wrong when he saw pictures of a black man being beaten. No one was arrested, but he knew one of the men in the photo.

Birmingham became a flash point when Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference staged marches. Many children were involved, taking off of school. They, along with adults, were seen being assaulted by fire hoses and German shepherds, ordered by police commissioner Bull Connor, one of the most odious figures in the segregationist South. Perhaps it was the inclusion of children that incited the bombers to strike where they knew children would be.

The four girls were mangled by the blast. It is heart wrenching to hear Maxine McNair describe identifying her daughter's body, which had a chunk of brick embedded in her skull. We see very quick images of the post-mortem photographs--just enough to disgust us without overwhelming us.

The film then covers the investigation. No arrests were made until 1977, when Birmingham was now in a new era. Attorney General William Baxley tried Robert Chambliss, who was known as "Dynamite Bob," and whom Raines described as the most pathological racist he had ever met. In a touch and go trial, Chambliss' own niece provided the testimony which put him in jail for life.

Lee proves skillful as a documentarian, albeit not an objective one. He interviews Arthur Hanes, Chambliss' attorney, who says that Birmingham was a nice place for families to grow up in the 1950s. Lee quickly cuts to Klan marches and photos of lynchings. Hanes later puts his foot in his mouth again when he says that fire hoses weren't that bad.

Another interview shows former Governor George Wallace, who was inaugurated on the promise of "Segregation forever," in his old age, muttering almost incoherently about how his best friend, presumably a caregiver, is a black man.

This is an extremely moving film, and of course any sane person will be outraged, but beyond that it is technically terrific, with use of image and music. Lee doesn't hesitate to use photos of the girls to invoke pathos, but also introduces logos and ethos as well, to give a rounded portrait of the incident as part of the time period and setting it took place in.
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Incidentally, after the film was released, two more bombers were tried and convicted. One is still alive, sentenced to life in prison.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Oscar 2015: Best Supporting Performances

It's best to wait in predicting the Best Supporting performance Oscars, because without anyone having seen the films, it's hard to know who stands out in an ensemble, or who is a lead, or who is that someone we've never heard of that breaks out. It's easy to look a year ahead of time and see that Leonard DiCaprio will be nominate for Best Actor for The Revenant, but nobody on god's green Earth could have, more than a few weeks ago, posited that Sylvester Stallone would be nominated for, of all things, playing Rocky again (in Creed).

But that's a distinct possibility. A lot of Academy voters in the acting branch may get all nostalgic thinking about Stallone, who was nominated for the first Rocky (and for writing the script) and might well have won had Peter Finch not dropped dead a few months before the ceremony. But there are also might be those who realize what Stallone squandered, giving up on making movies in quality, lowering himself to Rambo films and then wallowing in projects like The Expendables. It's a tough call, but I don't think, in the end, that he will be nominated.

The Supporting Actor race will probably have a couple of actors from Spotlight, the token British theater actor, a previous winner, and one wild card, which may be Stallone. I'll put them in alphabetical order:

Christian Bale: The Big Short. Bale has picked up a few nominations in the last few years, so he seems to be a popular choice among the branch. This comedy, about the 2008 economic collapse, is an ensemble piece, but all signs are pointing to Bale to get any accolades.

Benicio Del Toro: Sicario. Del Toro, the previous winner fifteen years ago for Traffic, is in another film about the drug trade, and this may be his finest performance yet, as a guy working for the CIA (we think), but who has is own agenda.

Michael Keaton: Spotlight. The New York Film Critics went with Keaton as Best Actor, and he is the emotional center of the film, but the studio is putting everyone in the supporting basket, and the Academy usually complies. The "we owe him one" for last year's snub for Birdman may help him win.

Mark Ruffalo: Spotlight. If Keaton is the emotional center of Spotlight, Ruffalo gets the big scene, with his fiery portrayal of a reporter. Ruffalo is getting a lot of high-profile roles these days, and it would be his third nomination. You get the sense it's just a matter of time before he wins.

Mark Rylance: Bridge of Spies. Rylance is a multi-Tony-winning British actor who steals the film right from under Tom Hanks' nose. It's a great performance.

With Best Supporting Actress, we've got the fresh new faces and a Hollywood legend, perhaps gunning for a third Oscar.

Jane Fonda: Youth. Fonda has only worked sporadically this century, but she has one of those big diva scenes that call attention to themselves. She has won two Oscars, but hasn't been nominated in almost thirty years.

Jennifer Jason Leight: The Hateful Eight. Leigh has never been nominated for an Oscar, but Tarantino seems to get a lot of actors we've almost forgotten about nominated. Hard to know at this point if she's got any scenery-chewing, but maybe she's due.

Rooney Mara: Carol. Haven't seen this yet, but apparently Mara's part is bigger than co-star Cate Blanchett's, but she's being pushed for Supporting and Blanchett for lead. She's a lock at this point.

Alicia Vikander: The Danish Girl. Vikander was in about eight films this year, and she won the L.A. Film Critics for Ex Machina, but it's likely the Academy will go with the more prestigious offering. Basically she's playing the patient wife of Eddie Redmayne, which got Felicity Jones a nom last year.

Kate Winslet: Steve Jobs. The film's lackluster box office will hurt it in several categories, but if Winslet pays the price I will be livid, as this is great acting.

Golden Globe and SAG nominations will help sort all this when they are released this week. Stallone is sure to get a nod from the HFPA, star-fuckers as they are, but if SAG goes with him to he may get that nomination for the Academy.

Monday, December 07, 2015

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn

It's been four years since I checked in on the Twilight series, and while I'm looking at Dracula films I thought I'd see how far the vampire film has devolved. The last of the four of Stephenie Meyer's books, Breaking Dawn, was broken into two parts, and I watched both of them over the weekend so you don't have to.

The decision to make two movies instead of one is craven, as there is no other reason to do it except for the money. The first film, Part 1, is ludicrous, as it's really only Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward's (Robert Pattinson) wedding and honeymoon, which seems to be out of a magazine spread. Jacob, the werewolf (Taylor Lautner) is pissed off because he loves Bella, but he ends up hanging around her house like the guest who won't leave.

Jacob is upset because he learns, in a bit of TMI, that Edward is going to pop Bella's cherry before he turns her into a vampire, and since vampires are so much stronger than humans, he thinks it will kill her. Edward does break down the bed, but the only damage he does is impregnating her. Everyone says this is impossible in hushed tones. She starts showing a mere weeks after the deed, because the baby is growing at an accelerated rate.

Bella's conversion to vampirism is a metaphor for converting to a religion (Meyer is a Mormon) and the pregnancy angle is thinly-veiled pro-life agitprop. Bella keeps saying she wants to keep the baby, even though it may be killing her and may be a monster. When she finally has the baby she only survives because Edward changes her, and her eyes pop open, bright red

That ends the first part. The second part is better, because it at least has action. One of the Cullen cousins sees the child (called Renesmee, and there's something weird about the CGI used on her) and misinterprets. She thinks the Cullens have turned a child, which is against the law in vampiredom. This gets the Vulturi, those guys who look like old rock stars, to assemble an army to kill all the Cullens. If only we could talk to them! everyone says.

The film then piles on an amazing number of ancillary characters, vampires drawn to Washington to defend the Cullens. These range from Irish vampires to Amazonian ones (one looks amazingly like Tyra Banks). They sit and around and argue ad nauseum, and once again my favorite pet peeve about bad movies comes up: don't any of them have jobs? I understand that they drink blood for sustenance, but how to do they get clothes? Pay rent? Carlisle, the "dad" of the Cullens, is a doctor, but he never seems to practice. Instead everyone spends all day looking worried.

The final battle is pretty cool, even though the CGI wolves look terrible, and there's a twist that kind of negates the whole thing. But Edward and Bella live happily ever after,with the word "Forever" prominently displayed, since they are immortal. What will they do when all life on the planet dies?

The films were both directed by Bill Condon, who is a good director but seems hamstrung by the material. I'm sure it had to be faithful, given the potential outcry of the fans, but the story is so stupid that even great direction couldn't help. At times the scenery of the Pacific Northwest looks great, and the snowy scenes of the battle are well done.

Thank goodness this is all over. Now I'll have to endure the remainder of the Fifty Shades of Grey series.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

Rubber Soul

It was fifty years this week that The Beatles released Rubber Soul, a landmark album not only in their careers but also for rock and roll in general. It still holds up as a great album, and is in the mix among several albums as their best ever.

This was the Beatles' sixth LP, and in a certain sense it is considered the first rock "album," in that it was not just a collection of singles. Rock would steer in this direction, and along with the advent of FM radio, would change rock from song-oriented to album-oriented. Although by no means a concept album, Rubber Soul had a tone to it, with most of the songs about love but with a more mature, wistful tone, influenced by, among others, Bob Dylan and world music.

I grew up with the U.S. album, and thus when I hear the U.K. version, which I now have on CD, it's a bit jarring. "I've Just Seen a Face" is not on this version--it starts instead with "Drive My Car." But the songs that matter most are all there, the ones that elevated them into another realm. I'm thinking mostly of "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," which is like a short story:

"She told me she worked in the morning
And started to laugh.
I told her I didn't
And crawled off to sleep in the bath.
And when I awoke
I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn't it good
Norwegian wood

This song also marked the first time George Harrison played a sitar, which he had become interested in while filming Help. It would change the course of rock music and Harrison personally.

The other great song by John Lennon on Rubber Soul is "In My Life," a remarkably mature song by a 25-year-old. The lyrics are stunning:

"But of all these friends and lovers
There is no one compares with you
And these memories lose their meaning
When I think of love as something new
I know I'll never lose affection
For people and things that went before
I know I'll often stop and think about them
But in my life, I love you more."

Musically, the song is interesting for a middle-eight in which George Martin plays the piano, but it's sped up to make it sound like a harpsichord.

Paul McCartney's contributions were no less substantial. "Michelle," a ballad about a French girl, has proved to be an eternal love song, and the under-rated "I'm Looking Through You" is simply fantastic. But I think of this more as John's album, with the addition of "Girl," with a guitar-lick inspired by Greek music.

Unfortunately, the album contains the most odious of songs, and this one is also John's. "Run for Your Life," which couldn't be released today, is about a jealous man's threats of killing a woman if she strays:

"I'd rather see you dead little girl
than to be with another man
You'd better your head little girl
Or you won't know where I am
You better run for your life
If you can little girl
Hide your head in the sand little girl
Catch you with another man
That's the end, little girl."

There's just no way to defend this song in this day and age. John repudiated it and said it was the song he most regretted writing.

I learned a few things while researching this post. The album title does not refer to a shoe, but is a pun based on a knock on Mick Jagger, who was said to have "plastic soul," or a white man trying to sing soul. Also, it was the first Beatle album not have the band name on the cover, and was the second not to have any covers (A Hard Day's Night was the first). There would be no covers again on Beatle albums except for the very short "Maggie Mae" on Let It Be.


Saturday, December 05, 2015

Redeployment

One of the by-products of the unfortunate wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the superlative writing about the conflicts. In some ways it's accounted for a golden age of reporting, and I think the thus-far definitive fiction about Iraq is Phil Klay's short story collection Redeployment, winner of last year's National Book Award.

Klay, who served in Iraq, lets us in on on the downlow of what it was like to be there. He covers the topic from all angles--those who are there, those who have returned, and even one story about a civilian charged with improving life for Iraqis in the face of considerable bureaucracy. That story is called "Money as a Weapons System," and is the heir to Joseph Heller's Catch-22 but in Baghdad, not Rome.

The rest of the stories are about soldiers. The title story is about returning Marines and the problems they face, like this one: "I saw Lance Corporal Curtis's wife back in Jacksonville. She spent all her combat pay before he got back, and she was five months pregnant, which, for a Marine coming back from a seven-month deployment, is not pregnant enough."

"Frago" take us right into action: "I put 3rd Fire Team in reserve, as usual. They're Malrosio's, and he's dumber than Fabio on two bottles of Nyquil. 3rd's had an easy deployment so far I don't give his team anything too complicated. Sometimes it helps to be led by an idiot."

There's a lot of technical jargon and acronyms that fly right over the civilian's head, but it doesn't really matter, as most of it is in context. Klay realizes this and one very short story is called "OIP": "EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. THe 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money."

I keep going over my notes and see that there's something great from every story here. "Prayer in the Furnace" concerns a chaplain who finds that he can't always help; "Psychological Operations" concerns an Arab-American who is also a Christian back from combat attending college and engaging in debate with a young black girl who has just converted to Islam; and "War Stories" finds a horribly-disfigured soldier being interviewed by a young actress working on a play.

It's a tough call, but I think my favorite stories are "In Vietnam They Had Whores," which begins: "My dad only told me about Vietnam when I was going over to Iraq. He sat me down in the den and he took out of a bottle of Jim Beam and few cans of Bud and started drinking. He'd take long pulls of the whiskey and small sips of the beer, and in between sips he'd tell me things. The sweatbox humidity in the summers, the jungle rot in the monsoons, the uselessness of M16 in any season. And then, when he was really drunk, he told me about the whores."

 My other favorite is "Unless It's a Sucking Chest Wound," about an adjutant who never saw combat and the memories of the soldiers he dealt with as he looks back after getting a corporate law job. It's a complex, beautifully wrought story, and, as with all the stories here, shows the vulnerability of the men who come over gung-ho and leave shattered.

I think some of the stories here will rank there with tales of Vietnam like Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," and will be taught in colleges. I don't know if we've had the definitive novel about the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts, but perhaps Klay will write it.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Blacula

Blacula, from 1972, gave us an interesting twist: a blaxploitation horror film. It was one of the highest-grossing films of the year, and has some enjoyable camp. Unfortunately, a very low budget makes it laughably bad in parts, and it has dated badly, given that there's rank homophobia.

William Marshall, who has one of the great bass voices of all time, plays an African prince who is visiting, along with his wife, Castle Dracula. The year is 1780, and Marshall wants the Count's support in ending the slave trade. I was not aware the Count was a major player on the diplomacy scene. The Count was not an enlightened thinker, and offers to buy Marshall's wife (Vonetta McGee). Dracula bites Marshall, turns him into a vampire, and locks him in a coffin.

Almost two-hundred years later a couple of interior decorators buy the contents of the castle, including the coffin, and move them to Los Angeles. These two are two of the worst representations of gay men on the screen that I've seen in a while. They are swishy and bitchy, and are frequently called "faggots." It's interesting that a creative team that is presumably for equal rights for blacks resorted to such behavior.

Anyway, they unlock the coffin, Blacula rises, and the killing starts. He finds that a woman (again McGee) looks just like his wife. Her brother-in-law, Thalmus Masulala, is a doctor working for the police department and puts two and two together. He finally convinces a police lieutenant of the danger and track Marshall down to an industrial park to find his coffin. Question--if Masulala knew that only a cross or a wooden stake would kill vampires, why did he send a platoon of cops in with only their useless guns?

There's lots of other problems with the film. How did Blacula know he wouldn't show up in a photograph, given that he couldn't possibly know what cameras were? Why does he grow ridiculous eyebrows and facial hair when he's killing? Is he also part wolf?

There is also stuff to make you sad in this movie. Elisha Cook, who was a key player in noir films like The Maltese Falcon, shows up in a bit part as a morgue attendant with a very fake-looking artificial arm.

It's too bad this was such a misfire, as it could have been far better.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

The Square

Watching The Square I'm reminded of The Who's line, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." The film tells of the struggle, which seems Sisyphean, of activists struggling to bring democracy to Egypt.

The film begins in 2011, during the Arab Spring. Thousands of citizens have taken to Tahir Square in Cairo, demanding the end of Hasni Mubarak's regime. Mubarak had been in power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and was corrupt as the day was long. But he finally lost control of the army and hightailed it out of the country. The thousands cheered, tears streaming down their faces. But they made a mistake by trusting the army. Never let the army take control of a country.

Soon afterward the army started arresting protesters and beating and torturing them. Ramy Essam, a musician, returns from prison covered with angry welts and scars. Then the anti-regime protesters are split in two. The Muslim Brotherhood, who had halfheartedly engaged in protest, cuts a deal with the army, who will rush an election, which the Brotherhood expects to win.

This is a very interesting part of the film. A handful of people are chronicled, and one of them is Magdy Ashour, a member of the Brotherhood who had been imprisoned and beaten by the Mubarak regime. But he is torn, as he is close to the more secular protesters, such as Ahmed Hassan, who feels betrayed.

Eventually an election is held, and the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, is elected with 51 percent of the vote. The pro-democracy crowd is despondent. Morsi soon gives himself more powers than Mubarak ever had, and once again there are mass protests, and eventually Morsi is overthrown. The film ends with the activists still hopeful that they will one day have a true democracy.

The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim, gives one an immediate feel for the revolution. There is no narration, no talking heads. It's all live action stuff, with discussions between the revolutionaries and the action in the streets. In addition to Hassem, the actor Khalid Abdalla (who starred in The Kite Runner) show amazing dedication and resilience as they seem to be thwarted at every turn, but never give in.

The Square was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary two years ago but has only recently been released on DVD. For anyone who is interested in the Arab world, or just has an interest in human rights, I highly recommend it.