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Monday, February 29, 2016

Oscar 2015: Black Millionaires Matter

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gets so many things wrong, but they lucked out when they hired Chris Rock to host this year's ceremony. Little did they know that he was the perfect host to handle the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Though ratings were way down, I think it's safe to say that those that tuned in were waiting with baited breath for one of the greatest social commentators of our day to sound off on the problem of lack of diversity in Hollywood.

He did not disappoint. In my view, he walked the tightrope like Philippe Petit, occasionally making a slip but staying on the wire. He spent the whole show talking about it, making it a one-issue broadcast (not one mention of Donald Trump--if there had been a black nominee or two we would have heard Trump's name numerous times). I can't imagine how someone like Neill Patrick Harris would have handled it--badly, I suspect. Rock took the controversy, grabbed it by the horns, and basically took Hollywood to the woodshed, where they squirmed but took it, knowing they had it coming.

The Academy's producers, David Hill and Reginald Hudlin, also bent over backwards to make Hollywood look like a rainbow coalition. By my count, 17 presenters were people of color. Rock also added a few filmed bits that were quite funny, especially one that imagined black people in "white" roles, with Rock playing a stranded astronaut, a la Matt Damon, who isn't going to be rescued, since it would cost $2500.

Rock's monologue was sharp. He started with expected quips like "Welcome to the White People's Choice Awards," but then went on to cover both sides of the argument. It was clear that he was annoyed that there were no black nominees (he gave a shout-out for Michael B. Jordan, introducing him as "should have been nominated") but then putting things in perspective when he said that in the fifties, black people were worried about getting lynched, not who was going to win Best Cinematography. Many attacked Rock on Twitter for this, thinking me meant that black people had no problems now. But they seemed to miss his next joke, which was that the "In Memoriam" montage would be made up of black people shot on their way to the movies.

Rock also aimed some darts at Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. The latter started the boycott, and Rock put her in her place by suggesting she was as welcome at the Oscars as Rock was in Rihanna's panties, and that Smith may have been snubbed for Best Oscar, but it also wasn't fair that he made twenty million for The Wild, Wild West. What it all boils down to is that regular black people do have plenty of things to worry about, whether it be police brutality, unemployment, and high incarceration rates, not whether zillionaire Will Smith gets an Oscar nomination.

The most bizarre part of the night was when Rock introduced the Academy's new "minority outreach" director, and out came Stacey Dash, former actress and current Fox News commentator. Several wondered what was going on, but I got it right away--Rock was using Dash, the useful black idiot for white racists, who has suggested there shouldn't be a Black History Month or that the BET Awards are racist, to parody the whole controversy. What wasn't clear was whether Dash was in on the joke. She seemed nervous, as if a gun was pointed at her from the wings. Several in the audience looked aghast, particularly The Weeknd, who did a face palm.

Interestingly, the moments that fell flat were those that made fun of Asians, who apparently aren't included among minorities who feel slighted. Sasha Baron Cohen, as Ali G,, made a very tasteless joke, and trotting out three Asian kids as the accountants played right into stereotypes.

Now, as for the winners and losers. Of course the biggest surprise was Spotlight winning Best Picture. It won the first award of the night (Best Original Screenplay) and the last and nothing in between, making it the first Best Picture to win less than three overall Oscars since The Greatest Show on Earth in 1953, the only other post-1940 film to do so. Most had their chips on The Revenant, which won the DGA (and indeed, Alejandro Innaritu won the directing Oscar, his second in a row, only the third to do so) and BAFTA. Some had an inkling it might be The Big Short, which won the PGA. But Spotlight prevailed. Perhaps it was because of the preferential ballot--it might not have been the leading vote-getter on the first, second, or even third round, but was the film that more people put second or third. The Revenant, judging by anonymous voters interviewed in the Hollywood Reporter, was hated by some, who thought it was beautiful but empty, like a Road Runner cartoon, and were tired of hearing how difficult it was to shoot. They honored Innaritu and Leonardo DiCaprio, but then voted for Spotlight.

The other surprise was Mark Rylance beating Sylvester Stallone in the Best Supporting Actor category. In retrospect, this is not hard to figure out. I even doubted Stallone would be a nominee, thinking that too many would not be able to get past the thirty years of schlock between good Rocky films. When they saw that name on the ballot, they thought, "Wait a minute, this is the guy who made Cobra." Rylance is a respected British stage actor, whom Hollywood usually love out of envy.

Another mild surprise was Ex Machina beating out Star Wars and Mad Max for Best Visual Effects, and in doing so, had the first woman to ever win in this category. It could also be considered a surprise that in Best Song, after Lady Gaga brought the house down with her song about campus rape, "Til It Happens to You," a James Bond song that no one admitted to liking won..Sam Smith, the winning songwriter, then erroneously took credit as the first out gay man to ever win an Oscar.

The Academy tried something new to keep things moving--a crawl that winners could use to thank the multitudes. It didn't really work, as it went by too fast and seemed just like a series of first names, when it didn't look like a weather alert. As for playing winners off the stage, the orchestra used familiar movie themes, but they might want to rethink using Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." Wagner was a notorious anti-Semite, and it was a bad choice to play off the winner of Best Foreign Language Film, a movie about a concentration camp.

A few bits of trivia. Emannuel Lubezki won his third consecutive Oscar for cinematographer, a first, while fellow nominee Roger Deakins is now 0 for 13, losing to Lubezki for three straight years. Composer Thomas Newman is now also 0 for 13, losing to Ennio Morricone, who at 87 is now the oldest person to win a competitive Oscar. Diane Warren, who must have been sure she would win Best Song after Lady Gaga killed, is now 0 for 8.

Michael Keaton joins a select group of actors who have been in two consecutive Best Pictures, while Mad Max: Fury Road, which dominated the middle of the night, is the winningest Australian film of all time (the winning costume designer, Jenny Beavan, set tongues wagging by wearing a leather jacket with a skull on the back).

I thought it was one of the better Oscar shows in recent years, and Rock was the best host since the Steve Martin days. As I read somewhere today, he probably won't be back, at least not next year, as it's a draining job. They seemed to be auditioning next year's host: Sarah Silverman, Kevin Hart, and the team of Tina Fey and Steve Carell all did bits, though Louis C.K. was the best with his take on the Best Documentary Short award (years ago Jerry Seinfeld gave out the same award and commented how depressing they all sounded, probably killing his chance of hosting). Or maybe the team of Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe?

Perhaps the lasting image of the 88th Academy Awards will be Girl Scouts roaming the theater, selling cookies to famished attendees. Kate Winslet looked at box of Tagalongs as if it were an exotic dish she had never heard of, and Morgan Freeman, the show over, pawed into a box of Thin Mints held by Michael Keaton. The closing music, after Chris Rock closed with "Black lives matter," was "Fight the Power," by Public Enemy. Perhaps an N.W.A. song could have been chosen, but I don't know if any of them pass network standards.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Oscar 2015 Prediction: Best Picture and Director

Alejandro Innaritu is on the cusp of Oscar history. He has a chance, should he win Best Director tonight, to be the third winner to win back-to-back Oscars, following John Ford (1940-41) and Joseph L. Manckiewicz (1949-50). But he also has a chance to do something no director has ever done--direct back-to-back Best Picture winners. My money is on that to happen.

The Best Picture race has been one of the most fascinating in recent years, as there has been no solid favorite, and momentum has seemingly shifted. The Golden Globes went to The Revenant for Drama and The Martian for Comedy (?). The Producers Guild Award went to The Big Short, so for a while that was a favorite. Then Spotlight grabbed the Screen Actors Guild Best Ensemble, which put that back in the limelight. But finally, The Revenant won BAFTA and then the most important, Innaritu won the DGA. So, despite The Revenant not having a screenplay award, I'm betting that it will win, becoming the first since Titanic to do that.

Could another film win? Sure, and it would probably be The Big Short, for it's serio-comic look at the mortgage collapse. But it hasn't won anything since the PGA, and the only other award it seems to be in line for is Best Adapted Screenplay. It's been eighty years since a Best Picture winner won less than three Oscars, so it's hard to believe voters will consolidate their affection in only two categories.

Spotlight has really faded. It did win the Independent Spirit Award, but that was after Oscar voting had ended. For a while during the fall it was the film to beat, but perhaps some found the comparisons to All the President's Men a bit much, and the film really doesn't have a knockout scene that people remember.

Mad Max: Fury Road had an outside shot at Best Picture, as it hits the sweet spot between pure popcorn movie exhilaration and critical acclaim, but George Miller not winning the DGA killed it. It is very likely to win five or six below-the-line Oscars, but nothing in the major categories (sorry, editing is below the line). Still, when this picture was conceived, nobody could have thought it would be here.

No other films of the remaining four stand a shot. For a while The Martian was considered a frontrunner (back in October, natch) but Ridley Scott getting snubbed the by the DGA killed its chances. Bridge of Spies, with the pedigree of Steven Spielberg and the Coen Brothers, seemed a better chance, but it has absolutely zero precursor wins. Ditto for Room, which does have a Best Director nomination and a Screenplay nomination, but has been left out of the discussion, and Brooklyn, a sweet film but not one that belongs here.

Will Win: The Revenant
Could Win: The Big Short
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should Have Been Nominated: Carol

Here are my predictions for all the nominations:

Best Picture: The Revenant
Best Director: Alejandro Innaritu
Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio
Best Actress: Brie Larson
Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone
Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander
Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight
Best Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short
Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul
Best Animated Film: Inside Out
Best Cinematography: The Revenant
Best Editing: Mad Max
Best Production Design: Mad Max
Best Costume Design: Mad Max
Best Song: The Hunting Ground
Best Musical Score: Hateful Eight
Best Documentary Feature: Amy
Best Documentary Short Subject: Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
Best Makeup and Hairstyles: Mad Max
Best Animated Short Subject: World of Tomorrow
Best Live Action Short Subject: Day One
Best Sound Editing: Mad Max
Best Sound Mixing: The Revenant
Best Visual Effects: Star Wars

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Straight Outta Compton

As regular readers know, I do not get hip-hop. It may be cultural, or it may just be that I love a melody, and much of hip-hop is only rhythm, with no melodic qualities. I don't listen to rap or hip-hop, and therefore I skipped Straight Outta Compton when it played in theaters. It picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay (the Oscar nominations it did not get were news) so I checked it out last night.

It's a decent film, but what it reminds me is that no matter what the genre, music biopics all have the same template--young kids come together, inspired by the music; they hit it big; they have internal struggles, either with money or women; they break apart; there is some sort of tragedy; and then, renewal.

So goes Straight Outta Compton, which is about gangsta rap, but is also a very familiar tale. The script focuses mostly on three members of the group N.W.A. (Niggas with Attitudes): Eazy-E, a drug dealer who has the money to finance the pressing of a record; Ice Cube, a gifted lyricist; and Dr. Dre, who is the musical genius. Also in the group are MC Ren and DJ Yella, but they don't get story arcs. One founding member, Arabian Prince, is written out all together.

All of them come from Compton, California, a ghetto were there isn't much hope for the young, and where  young black men are automatically viewed as suspects by the police (something that hasn't changed in the thirty years that has passed). They cut their first record, "Boyz 'n the Hood," and it gets the attention of Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who wants to represent them. He does business with Eazy-E, who trusts him, and this becomes a bone of contention, particularly with Ice Cube, who feels he isn't getting his money. It's another familiar thing in these movies, especially when they are about people of color, that some white guy is the impetus behind their success.

They hit it big, and after being hassled by police (including one black officer) while they are recording in Torrance, Ice Cube writes "Fuck tha Police," which causes all sorts of controversy. They even get a letter from the FBI telling them to cool it. This culminates in an arrest in Detroit for playing the song live, but since there is nothing more about it I assume it was thrown out in court, which it should have been.

Soon Ice Cube realizes he's not getting the attention he deserves and goes solo. A bodyguard, Suge Knight, worms his way in and gets Dr. Dre's ear, and they form a new company. Knight, though, is a menace, given to beating people for parking in his space. Dre sees this and has his doubts. E is shown by his girlfriend that Heller has been cheating them all, and fires him. But a persistent cough (like something out of Camille) is finally revealed as AIDS, which E died of at the age of 31.

This makes for a good story, though it's hard to know what's true. Heller, for his part, doesn't like it. It was produced by Ice Cube and Eazy-E's wife, so I'm sure that's why they are the prominently featured. It also makes for a good history of the genre, as we see a young Snoop Dogg and Tupac Shakur, who were nurtured by the members of N.W.A.

The acting is very good, especially Jason Mitchell as E and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre. Ice Cube's son, O'Shea Jackson Jr., is also terrific, as well as looking just like his father. Giamatti, an acquired taste who can chew scenery, keeps it mostly together.

Some of the things overlooked in the film are Dr. Dre's treatment of women (he had a problem of beating them). The rap world is one that tends toward misogyny, and we see a lot of orgies, with women used as adornments. Women rap artists are not shown at all. It's an issue that perhaps needed addressing.

I kind of liked a few of the songs N.W.A. did, but I'm not ready to call myself a fan. The film does them justice as the innovators they were, even if it isn't terribly original.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me is a book-length essay that has been a publishing sensation, winning all sorts of awards. It is a clear-eyed look at what it is like to be black in America, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the form of a letter his son.

No sensible person can disagree what Coates lays out: "'White America' is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). but however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it 'white people' would cease to exist for want of reason."

But I find his putting white people in quotes interesting, as is his frequent use of the phrase "people who believe they are white." As someone who believes he is white, I'm not sure what he means by that. Does he mean that I am not literally white, in that my skin color is more like a mixture of pink and ecru? Or that there is the probability of other races in my DNA? Perhaps this is the key: "The new people were something else before they were white--Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish--and if all our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again." But what, exactly? "Perhaps they will truly become Americans and create a nobler basis for their myths."

Coates grew up idolizing Malcolm X, and says not a word about Martin Luther King, which I'm not bringing up as a condemnation (surely King is white America's favorite black person) and went to Howard University, which he calls The Mecca--no Harvard or Princeton for him. There is something prickly about Coates' argument, as their should be. People who believe they are white should feel slightly uncomfortable reading this book.

What's infuriating is that Coates even had to write this book. It comes on the heels of the struggle for racial justice in the U.S. seeming to have made no progress, where "journalists" say that Santa Claus is not white and organizations like Black Lives Matter are seen as something evil and that the clear advantages of being white are downplayed or even denied. Coates names the names that prove it still can be deadly to be black in America--Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and a name I did not know much about, Prince Jones. He was a friend of Coates from Howard, who was gunned down in cold blood by a Fairfax County policeman back in 2000. The policeman was never charged, let alone indicted, but was found negligent by a civil court. Coates interviews Jones' mother in a somewhat tense exchange. There are too many mothers out there in similar situations.

Coates makes many strong statement and refutations of coded language, such as "'Black-on-black crime' is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel. And this should not surprise us. The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return."

From where we sit now, it looks bleak, and Coates is no optimist. When children are shot down by police how can we be? But let's all hope that for Coates' son life will be different.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Amy

When making a documentary about a popular musician it is probably tricky not to turn it into just another episode of Behind the Music. Laudably, Asif Kapadia, in his film Amy, has avoided that, and managed to make an innovative film that covers some familiar ground--the rise and tragic fall of a star.

His subject is Amy Winehouse, who only made two albums but made a huge splash in the pop/jazz/rock worlds before dying at the age of 27. She won five Grammys and impressed many in the business with her vocal talents and songwriting ability, but she was not emotionally strong enough to resist the temptations of fame, especially with the lackluster parenting she received.

One of the advantages Kapadia had is that it seems that almost every moment of Winehouse's life is on tape. Her discoverer, friend, and manager, Nick Shymanksy, tapes the ride to a gig when Winehouse was sixteen, as if he knew it would one day be part of a documentary. When she would become famous, there would be so many interview programs and paparazzi footage that there is no need of any narration. Winehouse herself narrates from beyond the grave, presumably the audio taken from an interview.

A Jewish girl from North London, Winehouse was precocious in her talent, and loved jazz performers like Dinah Washington and Tony Bennett (when she finally makes a duet with Bennett, and makes several mistakes, his kindness to her is exemplary). She makes an album that does fairly well, and then dithers about her second project, all the while drinking like a fish and suffering from bulimia, a bad combination, as it weakens her heart. Then she meets a musician named Blake Fielder, one of the villains of this piece, as he turns her onto heroin and crack cocaine, and then goes back to his old girlfriend.

The heartache over this break-up inspires Winehouse to write the album Back to Black, which made her a star. She would reunite with Fielder, marry him, and then divorce him. Her personal life was pretty much a shambles. This was not helped by her father, who left the family when she was ten but of course came back when she was rich and famous, sponging off of her and enabling her addictions, as he told her she did not need rehab (which was a line in the song "Rehab," her biggest hit). Late in the film, when she has escaped to an island for some rest and relaxation, he shows up with a film crew, making a reality series.

Winehouse did have good friends, especially Shymansky and her two girlhood friends, Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, who all wanted her to get the help she needed. Shymansky in particular makes a pointed statement that if she had had the help of professionals before she hit it big it might have made it easier for her to handle the fame.

Amy is a terrific film but it's also unnerving, as we are watching a fish in a bowl slowly kill themselves. But there are some wonderful moments. In addition to the Tony Bennett duet, we see her in London except the Grammy for Record of the Year (for "Rehab") presented by Bennett himself. Her undisguised happiness is refreshing given how calculated most stars are.

Perhaps Kapadia's greatest strength in Amy is, despite all the paparazzi stuff, he manages to portray what appears to be the real Amy Winehouse, in all her greatness and sadness. The live-fast/die-young music star is an unfortunate cliche by now, bu Kapadia avoids the familiar and manages to almost reinvent the genre.

Amy is the favorite for the upcoming Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. I haven't seen any of the others, but if it does win I think it's well deserved.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Deadpool

Comic books, especially Marvel, have always been a little meta. There's always been an underlying absurdity to costumed vigilantes flying around cities, and the writers of these books realized it and made it part of the Universe. But nothing is more meta than Deadpool is, which not only realizes it's a comic book but also knows it's a movie. This is evident from the opening credits, which recognizes the tropes. Instead of names, we get things like "British Villain," "Hot Chick," "Comic Relief," and for Producers "Asshats." If that makes you laugh, this movie is for you.

It's also the first R-rated superhero film. Spider-Man has always been a quipster, making jokes while battling villains, but he never said fuck or shit. Deadpool, real name Wade Wilson, played by silver-tongued Ryan Reynolds, has a potty mouth, which I'm sure thrilled all of the tween boys who snuck into theaters.

Reynolds is a low-level mercenary (the only job we see him do is scare off a stalker for a teenage girl--surely that is not a career). He hangs out at a bar full of rough characters, and meets a woman (Morena Baccarin) who is just as tough as he is. They have a great relationship, but--uh oh--he has cancer.

A shadowy group offers him a cure. They are led by a guy named Ajax, whose real name is Frances (Ed Skrein, who is of course British) who pumps Reynolds full of chemicals until he mutates (Deadpool first appeared in an X-Men film as a villain). He gets super-strength and super-healing, but in the process gets disfigured (why his skin doesn't heal is an open question). He wants revenge, makes himself a costume, and goes hunting for Skrein.

There's been a lot of talk about how Deadpool is a new kind of superhero film, but let's hold back the applause. It's really standard stuff, and even less so. Deadpool isn't a hero, as all he wants his revenge and doesn't save anybody. His amorality is an interesting touch, but I doubt it's the stuff of a sea change. What's more revolutionary is the swearing and nudity. So many films have guys wander into a strip club, but the girls are wearing bikinis. Not in Deadpool! Stan Lee's cameo is even in the strip club.

The meta stuff flies fast and furious. At the beginning, Deadpool, who breaks the fourth wall often, asks us if we were wondering whose balls had to be fondled for him to get his own movie. This is the first joke at Hugh Jackman's expense. Later, when he drops in on the X-Men's mansion (only two X-Men are present: Colossus, who is a CGI character, and someone called Negasonic Teenage Warhead) Reynolds jokes that they couldn't get any of the others because of salary, and when Colossus says they must see the Professor, Reynolds asks, "McAvoy or Stewart?" I must admit I did laugh when I stayed for the post-credit tease, which is a goof on Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Deadpool is a mildly amusing diversion, and Reynolds, despite being under makeup or latex throughout the film gives a star performance, but a little of this goes a long way. This character is best in a group. The X-Men want him to join; it wouldn't be a bad idea.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North won the 2015 Booker Prize for Best Novel but it just didn't grab me. It's an at times hallucinatory novel about memory, mostly centered around Australians interred at a Japanese prison camp in Siam during World War II, where they are put to work building a railroad. That sounds familiar (Bridge on the River Kwai, anyone?) but the difference is that this is not a rousing adventure story but an internalized meditation on loss.

The central character is Dorrigo Evans, a Tasmanian who goes to war. Before he leaves, while he is in training camp, he has an affair with his uncle's wife. He is a doctor responsible for many men during their imprisonment, and of course they undergo severe, horrible hardships, whether it be starvation, lack of medicine, clothing (a ruined boot is pretty much a death sentence for one prisoner) and cruel beatings. A Korean soldier, called by the Australians the Goanna, is one of the worst guards: "They wanted to rush the guards, seize the Goanna and the two others, smash their skulls in until watery grey matter dribbled out, tie them to a tree and run their bayonets in and out of their guts, drape their heads with necklaces of their blue and red intestines while they were still alive so the guards might know a small measure of their hate."

The prison camp is very vivid, but that's not the whole book. Evans looks back as an old man, and there are many quotes about time and memory: "A happy man has no past, while an unhappy man has nothing else," or "As the years passed,  he found he was haunted only by the way he was haunted by so little of it." Evans survives, but his mistress thought him dead. He lives a complacent life with his the woman he was engaged to before the war. The book also follows the prison commandant, who becomes a successful Japanese businessman after eluding capture for war crimes (the Goanna is hung). He defends his actions and those of the Japanese, until he learns that Japanese doctors did do vivisections on U.S. GIs.

I found it hard to be motivated onto the next chapter or even page of this book. It felt like a duty to read. Some of the prose was quite lovely but the characters weren't interesting to me and I've seen and read so much about World War II prison camps lately that perhaps this wasn't the best time to read it. I can't recommend this book.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Von Ryan's Express

Somebody should do a study, or maybe there already has been one, about the popularity of POW films during the 1960s. The Great Escape kicked things off in '63, and in '65 there was King Rat, set in the Pacific, and Von Ryan's Express, set in Europe. Each one has a similar theme--allies from various countries pitching together to thwart a common foe (King Rat did not feature an escape attempt, though). The TV series, Hogan's Heroes, followed. Was it the timing? It had been twenty years since the war ended, perhaps some World War II nostalgia was kicking in.

Von Ryan's Express is a fairly standard escape picture except it is set aboard a train. Frank Sinatra plays Col. Ryan, an American flyer shot down over Italy. He's set to an Italian prison camp. He finds most of the prisoners are British, and they are resolute in their attempts to escape, even after reprisals from the buffoonish commander (Aldolfo Celi). Sinatra, who becomes the highest ranking officer, tells his British counterpart, Trevor Howard, to cool it, and maybe they'll get treated better. This is met with disgust by Howard. The Brits jeeringly call him Von Ryan, suggesting he's sympathetic with the Germans.

The Italians surrender, though, and the prisoners are free, but are quickly picked up by Germans and put aboard a train. Sinatra and Howard, along with the chaplain (Edward Mulhare) and an Italian captain, take over the train, and the rest of the film is them trying to slip past the Nazis into Switzerland.

Von Ryan's Express is kind of fun, mindless escapism, especially those who like World War II films without too much heaviness. We get Sinatra and Howard coming to grudging respect for each other. Mulhare speaks German, so he impersonates an officer, and there's lots of shooting (the film was nominated for a Best Sound Oscar). What you don't get is much realism or reflection.


Sunday, February 21, 2016

Oscar 2015 Prediction: Best Actress

The Best Actress Oscar race, which was somewhat interesting in the fall, has now solidified, with Brie Larson taking all the precursors. If she were not to win it would be a pretty significant upset.

Her role as Joy (ironically, there are two characters in this category with that name) in Room is one of those roles that are tailor-made for an Oscar, and any actress with decent talent could get nominated for it. This is not to take away anything from Larson, who knocks it out of the park, but it's an example of a role nomination, rather than a name nomination. Think also of Marlee Matlin for Children of a Lesser God.

In the name category, we have the habituals like Meryl Streep, who was not nominated this year (that's news) and Cate Blanchett, who was nominated for Carol. She actually has a smaller role than her co-star, Rooney Mara, who was nominated in the Supporting Actress category. This is what a big name and two Oscars get for you. Blanchett is excellent, but she won't be getting a third Oscar so quickly.

Another name is Jennifer Lawrence, who now has her fourth nomination by the age of 25, a record. Joy, her film, was widely held to be a disappointment, and she was the best thing in it, but was miscast and if I were the Oscar God I'd remove her and put in someone like Charlize Theron from Mad Max: Fury Road.

If Larson doesn't win, it will probably be another young woman, Saorsie Ronan for Brooklyn. This is her second nomination, and she becomes one of a select few to be nominated as a juvenile and as an adult. She carries what is essentially a slender film, and in other years might eke a victory, but Larson can't be stopped.

If I had a vote, I'd cast it for Charlotte Rampling as the disillusioned woman in 45 Years. Rampling might have been thought a sentimental favorite, as she's been acting for fifty years and has never been nominated before. I thought she gave a sizzling performance 35 years ago in Stardust Memories, and her work in 45 Years is brilliant, particularly for what she doesn't say. Her nomination got some extra stuff going on when she chimed in that that the hubbub about #OscarsSoWhite was actually racist against white people, which probably was not a good thing to say. Who knows, though--maybe the backlash against the knee-jerk response by the Academy (take away votes from older members) may earn her some votes.

Will win: Larson
Could win: Ronan
Should win: Rampling
Should have been nominated: Theron

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Agony and the Ecstasy

Michelangelo Buonarroti is arguably the greatest artist who ever lived. At the outset of The Agony and the Ecstasy, the 1965 film directed by Carol Reed, we get a brief documentary about him, seeing his "greatest hits," such as the David, Moses, and other great statuary. He never thought of himself as a painter, though, which makes his work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel all the more remarkable.

The film depicts the conflict between the artist (Charlton Heston) and the Pope (Rex Harrison) who commissioned him. It's full of spectacle like many films of the period, but deep within it's an interesting story, about the nature of art. I would have preferred a more intimate film, but I still recommend it.

As the film begins, Harrison, as Julius II, returns from leading his troops in victory. Yes, this Pope is a warrior. Heston has been working on his tomb, which will contain 40 different statues. Harrison's architect, Harry Andrews, convinces him to give Heston the job of painting the barn-like Chapel, perhaps because Heston is not a painter and it will make him look bad. Heston reluctantly takes the job. He has little choice, as Harrison can do what he wants with him, including hanging him.

Heston starts by painting the twelve apostles, but is stuck and flees. He has a cheesy moment while looking into the clouds and seeing the outline of what will be "The Creation of Adam." He comes back, inspired, and slaves away on his back, getting sick. Harrison has to fight off invaders. Will the painting be finished?

Well, we all know the question to that. I've never seen the Sistine Chapel in person, but I got a nice sense of the majesty of the work, and in the creative forces behind it. Michelangelo always said that a sculpture was hiding in a piece of marble, and he was merely freeing it. In his painting, he had a mastery of anatomy and line, and as he and Harrison contemplate that most famous fresco, with Adam looking so innocent and God so benign, it's like getting a entire art course. Of course, we want our movies to be entertaining, not pedantic, and I found The Agony and the Ecstasy intellectually stimulating, if not a rousing entertainment.

Heston is his hammy self, playing yet another larger than life character. He is given a love interest (Diane Cilento), but claims he can not love, as his gift won't allow it. Harrison gives a terrific, understated performance. He's imperious as a Pope can be, but he also appreciates great art, and is committed to having Michelangelo finish the piece (Andrews pushes Raphael for the job--that would have been a difference).

If anything, The Agony and the Ecstasy has me itching to get to Italy just so I can see some of these masterpieces in person.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane is perhaps the quintessential San Francisco psychedelic rock bands, who had a great influence of the music that followed. On last January 28th, an extraordinary coincidence occurred. Two of the original members, guitarist Paul Kantner and vocalist Signe Toy Anderson, died. Anderson left the band after one album and was replaced by Grace Slick, who would become one of the leading ladies of acid rock. Kantner's legacy is much longer.

Like many '60s rock bands, Jefferson Airplane formed out of bits and pieces of other bands. Kantner and Mary Balin were working the San Francisco folk music scene and hooked up. Kantner knew guitarist Jorma Kaukonen from college. Kaukonen was really a blues purist, but would end up influencing a generation of rock and rollers.

The lineup would undergo many changes, but the core group would include Slick on vocals, Jack Casady on bass, and Spencer Dryden on drums. They would basically create the San Francisco sound, primarily with their second album, Surrealistic Pillow. Lyrics like these would define the "Summer of Love":

"When the truth is told to be lies
And all the joy within you dies
Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love."

That lyric was written by Darby Slick, Grace's brother-in-law, when they were in a band called The Great Society. She also brought with her a song she wrote, "White Rabbit," which would permanently cement together Alice in Wonderland and LSD:

"One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the one that mother gives you
Doesn't do anything at all
Go ask Alice when she's ten feet tall."

Notably, the song begins with a military-style march, something that would reappear in many other Jefferson Airplane songs, especially the ones Kantner wrote. Consider "Volunteers," which would also be one of the more memorable moments at Woodstock, when early in the morning Slick awoke the crowd with "Good morning, people! It's a new dawn, yeah," then the band broke into "Volunteers":

"Look what's happening out in the streets
Got a revolution, got to revolution"

And then:

"One generation got old
One generation got soul."

Of course, all generations end up getting old. Another song in this vein is "We Can Be Together," which I listened to several times upon hearing of Kantner's death. It's a joyous song, even though it's full of angry lyrics like, "We are all outlaws in the eyes of America," and "Tear down the walls."

Listening to their greatest hits over the last couple of weeks I've marveled at how versatile they were, though. In addition to the head-trip stuff were some beautiful ballads like "Come Up the Years" and an instrumental showcasing the virtuosity of Kaukonen, "Embryonic Journey." There's some good old folk with "Third Week in the Chelsea," epic rock with "Wooden Ships," and then one of my favorite, the unclassifiable "Lather." It was written by Slick about her then boyfriend, Dryden, the first of the group to turn thirty:

"Lather was thirty years old today
They took away all of his toys."

The song is simultaneously humorous but also something of a reminder that that they would all get old. But more than that, the song is intricately produced, with a variety of sounds and a weird guitar sound that sounds like a human voice.

Jefferson Airplane would continue to evolve into Jefferson Starship, and then finally Starship, which would record one of the worst hits of all time, "We Built This City." Kantner was gone by then--he was the only person who was in every iteration of a band that was prefixed with "Jefferson," but was not in Starship.

The double-death of Jefferson Airplane capped off a terrible month for rock and roll deaths,with David Bowie and Glenn Frey. This is the way of all flesh, but there's something about a rock star dying that makes us all feel old and mortal. At least the music lives on.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Silkworm

I liked J.K. Rowling's (writing as Robert Galbraith) debut mystery novel The Cuckoo's Calling enough to read the second, The Silkworm. In some ways, this is the perfect literary mystery, as it is set in the world of book publishing, a place Rowling must certainly know about. It's full of narcissists and egomaniacs, and that sounds pretty authentic.

She's back with her series detective, Cormoran Strike, a large man with one leg, and his eager assistant, Robin. Strike, with a lot of business after solving the case in the first book, has been hired by the wife of a writer, who has taken a powder. The writer is very eccentric, and his latest manuscript, a grotesquerie vilifying many people in his life, has angered many. A bit later Strike will find the writer dead, horribly mutilated in a manner from the man's book.

There are all different types of mysteries, and Rowling has written the kind is based on character, much like Elizabeth George's, in that the series regulars are meant to develop over the span of several books. This manages to be both interesting and annoying at the same time, as we can see where the books might head in the future (a hint of a relationship between Strike and Robin is in the last paragraph of the book), but it also makes the book extremely long and sometimes overshadows the mystery itself (I had to give up on George's books--they were way too long).

As for the mystery itself, Rowling uses the time-honored limited suspects (the only person who could have killed the victim had to have read the manuscript, and that is only a few people) and the solution is laid out in an old-style format, as Strike tells the killer how he figured it out. There's a kind of wink-wink in all this, as Rowling surely knows that this only happens in detective novels, but that's why we read them.

As I read, though, I remembered some of Elmore Leonard's rules of writing. I don't think he would have cared much for this book, as it spends a lot of time going on about weather (the story is set in winter, and while I didn't think England got much snow, it sure does here). The book also pays attention to Strike's finances, which is novel. He's forever bemoaning having to take cabs.

As mentioned in the review of her first book, Rowling takes writing with a male pseudonym seriously. In the first novel Strike beds a supermodel. In this book he uses a young woman for information (and for casual sex), the writer's wife is caricatured as a housefrau, and his agent is painted as a sexless gargoyle. Rowling is really tapping into the male inside her.

One line of the book got to me, when a publisher says, "More readers, fewer writers." I will take that advice to heart.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

As much as I love the Coen Brothers, they have made some turkeys in their time, and I'm afraid Hail, Caesar! is one of them. It's down there with Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. It is a film that thinks it's very funny, and isn't.

Hail, Caesar! is set in the 1950s in Hollywood, which the Coens last sent up in Barton Fink twenty-five years ago (to much better effect). In fact, the name of the movie studio, Capitol Pictures, is the same. In this film, the Head of Physical Production, Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) is a kind of fixer, solving problems as they pop up. He has a pregnant unmarried star (Scarlett Johannson), a cowboy actor woefully miscast in a romantic drama, and worst of all, the big star of his sandal-and-toga picture has been kidnapped.

Some may call this nostalgia, but I think it's the opposite. The Coens, unlike Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino or anyone else making homages to the past, really seem to have hated '50s movies. And why not? None of those Biblical epics were any good, B-movie Westerns of the like seen here were god awful, and those musicals that contrived Esther Williams to somehow get in a swimming pool were ludicrous. In Hail, Caesar!, Hollywood types aren't dream merchants, they are hucksters, to put it in the words of a line in a great '50s film, In a Lonely Place, movie-makers are popcorn salesmen.

George Clooney plays the big star who is kidnapped, still in his Roman guardian outfit. He's been snatched by a group of Communist writers, who want a ransom because they have been screwed by the system. Here's the first problem--communists usually aren't in it for the money. The second problem is that the film never mentions the blacklist, where countless lives were destroyed. Using this a plot point is glib and insensitive.

There are numerous subplots, and this is where Hail, Caesar! sinks even further into murky depths. Not that this has any bearing on the movie's worth, but the trailer implies that Brolin enlists the aid of several other people--including Johansson, Ralph Fiennes as a sophisticated director, and Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy star--to help him, but that is not the case. Only Ehrenreich is involved in the plot. The other characters are in brief and inconsequential scenes. I still can't figure out Johansson's involvement, except for one masturbation joke. Fiennes is in the scene in which Ehrenreich, a rube, tries to speak like a swell in his scene, a gag that goes on way too long.

Also in the cast is Channing Tatum as a Gene Kelly-like dancer for a musical number that seems to exist only because the Coens wanted a dance number. I suppose it's a pleasant diversion, but nothing more.

This idea had been kicking around with the Coens for a decade and it shows. It never really settles on what it's about. There is an over-arcing theme of religion, as the film-within-the-film is a "Tale of the Christ," and Brolin is an observant Catholic who can pinpoint his last confession by the hour. But the profundity of the film escaped me.

There are some amusing characters that deserved more, such as Tilda Swinton playing twin sisters and rival gossip columnists. But some scenes are just amazingly flat, such as when where Frances McDormand is an old editor who gets her scarf caught in a viewer. You'd think an old editor would know better not to wear scarfs. There's also some very lazy writing. At one point a plot point is wrapped up off-screen, when Brolin tells Swinton that he spoke to Fiennes about something and put "two and two together." We don't see this scene, and it really is embarrassing how it's tossed off so amateurishly.

Hail, Caesar! is pretty much a mess. Not funny, and worse than that, boring.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Shop on Main Street

The winner of Best Foreign Language Film for 1965 was The Shop on Main Street, a Czechoslovakian film directed by Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, and set during the early days of World War II, when Aryanism had descended on a sleepy little town in Slovakia and "arinisation" was taking place. This was when Jewish shopkeepers were "managed" by Aryans, which is kind of interesting, since sound business acumen is usually the one good trait that even the most hardened anti-Semite acknowledges in Jews.

The film shifts in tone, which is the most interesting thing about it. It starts as a comedy, really, with hen-pecked carpenter Jozef Kroner finally getting a bone thrown to him by his brother-in-law, who is commandant of the Nazi police force. He is given control over a notions shop run by an old Jewish woman (Ida Kaminska). Kroner puts on a suit and tie, dreaming he will be rich (his wife thinks the old woman has gold hidden in the place) but finds that she doesn't understand what's going on, as she's hard of hearing and can't read the decree. A kindly man, whom the authorities suspect of being a "Jew lover," explains that her shop is worthless, and that she makes a living from donations from the Jewish community. Kroner is about to storm off when the man says the Jewish community will also pay him a nice salary just to help her out and be a mensch.

And so this goes on, with the dotty old lady never quite understanding why this man is helping. Kroner has the face and limberness of a clown, and even at one point puts on a derby and says he looks like Charlie Chaplin. I couldn't help but wonder if Roberto Benigni had this film in mind when he was creating Life Is Beautiful.

I mention that film, because it too goes from slapstick to horror on a dime. The kindly man is beaten and dragged away. Kroner gets a tip that the Jews will be deported, taken off to work camps. He wants to hide Kaminska, but he can't get her to understand what's going on, at least until she remembers the pogroms of her youth. Then Kroner doesn't know whether to save her or himself. The last twenty minutes or so of this film is almost too excruciating to watch.

The film was made at the height of Soviet control of Czechoslovakia, and even though it was approved one can't help but wonder if the use of fascism was also a dig at Stalinism. Kaminksa would be nominated the following year for a Best Actress Oscar (she was a Polish actress, who later came to America and starred in Yiddish Theater). But it's Kroner who carries the film. It's well worth seeing.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Antonin Scalia

For a presidential race that is already a raging bonfire, the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia is like throwing on a bunch of firecrackers. His replacement will dominate the news for the next few months.

More on that in a minute. First, the man himself. For those who knew him, he seemed like a gregarious and good egg. From the other side of the political spectrum, no less than Ruth Bader Ginsburg counted him as a close personal friend. He was witty and a great writer and, supposedly, a great legal mind. All that beings said, I am sorry he's dead, but I am glad he is not on the court anymore. Some say he was the most towering Supreme Court justice of the last generation. They are right--he sought to keep this country in the dark ages.

Scalia, who was an afterthought when confirmed in 1986 (the Democrats' ire was then focused on William Rehnquist, appointed to replace Chief Justice Warren Burger, Scalia was to replace Rehnquist) with no opposition, quickly became the voice of conservatism on the court. As liberal lions like William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall left, Scalia's cranky dissents became majority opinions, and it was clear that his dogmatic Catholicism had sway over him. He called himself an "originalist," one who sought to understand what the framers had in mind, and to hell with what has happened in the 200 years since then. But he played his card only when it suited him. His decision in District of Columbia v. Heller is surely not what the framers had in mind for guns--they were dealing with single-shot muskets and militias, not gangs with automatic weapons.

Originalism, it seems to me, is the legal version of religious fundamentalism which, when forced down the throats of others, whether by Christian, Jewish, or Muslim zealots, is always a bad thing. The Amish, for example, decide not to use anything that is not in the Bible. But at least the Amish don't go around telling everybody else to think the same way. Scalia, as one of nine on the Supreme Court, was a kook with amazing power, made greater by his larger-than-life persona.

It is my opinion that Scalia was the worst kind of judge--he made a snap decision on a case, and then wrote a dazzling opinion working backwards. This often included contradicting himself. He was anti-abortion, anti-LGBT rights (he gave us the phrase "gay agenda"). He was pro death penalty, pro torture, and anti-affirmative action. One of his last "did he say that?" moments was during oral arguments: “One of – one of the briefs pointed out that – that most of the – most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re – that they’re being pushed ahead in – in classes that are too too fast for them.” I'm glad we have these lesser schools so the dumb blacks can get college educations.

Scalia was the delight of the far right because he was charming and a good writer, but they say Hitler wasn't a bad painter, either. I don't know if Scalia personally killed anybody (I doubt it) but he may have contributed to a suicide or too when he confronted a gay student at Princeton, and equated anti-sodomy laws with those outlawing bestiality and murder. He used clever, folksy phrases like "jiggery-pokery" and "argle-bargle" to criticize others' opinions, and maybe he was right--maybe he was the smartest guy in the room. But he was also the coldest heart in the room. They say he died of a heart attack. He had one?

Now, as to his replacement. The Constitution says that the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint Supreme Court justices. It doesn't say except for in the last year of a term, or in an election year. However, the Senate Republicans, before Scalia was even put in the ground, decided that they would block any nominee coming from Obama. Mitch McConnell, the turtlelike Majority Leader, said, with all apparent seriousness, that the "American people should have some say" in the next Supreme Court justice, and it the choice should be made by the next president. He seems to forget that the American people did have their say, back in November 2012, when Obama won an easy victory. Elections have consequences.

Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who presume they will be the ones to b the next president, have echoed this. More Republicans are falling in line. Obama has announced he will do his Constitutional duty and put forth a nomination in due time. This is all making for a fascinating and frustrating example of our broken democracy.

In the long run, Democrats, don't be disheartened. As long is Scalia is not replaced, any four-four ties will revert to the lower court decision. The case involving public sector unions, which looked dead as the dodo, is now likely to be a tie. The district courts are a majority of Democratic-appointed justices (that's what happens when the sixteen of the last twenty-four years have had a Democrat in the White House). Any ties will likely be liberal victories.

Also, this is a public relations disaster for Republicans. Of course, they don't care, and already are blaming the media for hyperbolic language. But Obama can take one of two courses. First is the compromise candidate, the one that Republicans, by refusing to even consider, are made to look foolish. A couple of these are Sri Srinivisan, who was only two years ago approved 97-0 to be on the D.C. Court. Another is Jane Louise Kelly, approved 96-0, and a favorite of Republican Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley's. I'd love to see Grassley explain why he won't vote for her.

Obama's other option is the zero-fucks-to-give one. He can appoint someone the Republicans would never approve, like Attorney General Loretta Lynch, then sit back and let a perfectly-qualified black woman get disrespected during the election, angering both blacks and women and making her a campaign issue. Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders can make ads about whomever the Republican nominee is: Trump, Cruz, Rubio, with the words, "Do you want this man picking the next Supreme Court justice?"

McConnell really screwed the pooch on this thing. Before Obama even mentioned a replacement he put up the big stop sign, furthering the view that Republicans are obstructionists who create rules out of nothing (what is this "time-honored tradition" of not appointing justices during election years? Time honored since Saturday). They could have accepted an Obama appointment, held hearings, cast a vote, and rejected it, taking up the summer, so Obama couldn't replace anyone. Instead they look like big babies, and risk it backfiring on them. The next president is most likely to be named Hillary or Bernie, and there's a good chance that the senate will be Democratic, which means that the next justice, provided Obama does not get his choice, will be an extreme liberal, like Goodwin Liu, or even Barack Obama himself.

Antonin Scalia, good bye and good riddance.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

King Rat

King Rat is kind of Stalag 17 meets Sgt. Bilko, with a dynamic performance by George Segal and an even better one by James Fox. I hadn't heard much about it but included it in my films of 1965 on recommendation and I'm glad I saw it.

Directed by Bryan Forbes and based on the novel by James Clavell, King Rat is set in the Changi prison camp, run by the Japanese in Singapore during World War II. There is not a heavy guard presence, as there is nowhere for the prisoners to escape to--either the ocean or the jungle. They are not put on work detail, but aren't fed much and suffer the typical diseases: dysentery, cholera, etc.

But one prisoner seems out of place. While the others are gaunt and dressed in rags, Corporal King (Segal) looks in the peak of health and well-fed. In truth he is a hustler, a born entrepeneur who somehow has his fingers in all pies. When an egg is a rarity, he has a dozen. He has all sorts of luxury items, and has several men on his payroll.

His nemesis is Grey (Tom Courtenay), the provost marshall who is sort of the policeman watching over the prisoners. He is waiting for the moment when he can bust Segal. It's an interesting thing, as Courtenay and Segal are of course both part of the same side of the war, but in this microcosm of society they are opposed.

When Segal sees Fox speaking Malay to a native he realizes he coud use him. Fox is resistant to him, but they both share a hatred for Courtenay and soon are best buddies. They hit upon a scheme to sell rat meat to the officers, passing it off as a Malay delicacy (mouse deer) and raking in profits. But when Fox is injured and Segal puts it all on the line to save him, Segal realizes something in himself that he doesn't like and the ending of the film is very brutal, emotionally speaking.

As I said, King Rat reminded me of war comedies like Sgt. Bilko and Hogan's Heroes, where shrewd guys like Segal are celebrated as heroes that are putting one past the brass. But King Rat goes beyond that, presenting King as a character of infinite complexity, who probably can't understand himself any better than we can. A key scene in the film, which encapsulates moral relativism, is when a prisoner's dog is killed. Segal serves it up to friends, who salivate over it, but then are told it's not pig but a dog, a pet. He argues what difference does it make, and because of their hunger, they all give in. I have to say I'd have probably dug in, too.

As this is the second Segal film I've seen in the last few months, it's made me think about his career. The following year he would receive an Oscar nomination for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, another drama, but he would end up a comic actor of some standing, and then a star of TV sit-coms (now 82, he has a role as the kindly befuddled grandfather on The Goldbergs). He's always been an undersung talent, and should be more recognized. King Rat may be his finest piece of work.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The New Playboy

Some months ago Playboy announced that they would no longer publish photos of nude woman and the magazine would be redesigned. Well, it's out now, and being a long-time Playboy reader and someone who worked for magazines for a long time, I was fascinated with what it would be like. So I grabbed a copy and have been poring over it. I must say I like it very much.

The first thing one notices when looking at the cover is that the phrase "Entertainment for Men" is gone (it is one of many things that did not survive the redesign). Also, the magazine is on thicker paper stock and is larger--about an inch wider than the last (which means the centerfold is a little longer and, yes, there is still a centerfold). The magazine feels, to the touch, like a literary review or specialty magazine.

Also note that the only copy on the cover is a text with an emoji, and the model, Sarah McDaniel, appears to be taking a selfie. Here is a play, I suppose, for younger readers. But here's what's interesting--once you open the magazine, it is not geared toward young people. I really don't know why men in their twenties would go for this, unless they have a thing for the 1960s Playboy.

No, this is not your father's Playboy, it's your grandfather's. The design is clean and with lots of white space, unlike the shift some years to a more ADHD-inspired layout. There are no jumps (in magazine parlance, that's when an article continues on a page deep in the back) and no tacky ads for "better sex" videos or pajamas of the month.

I also picked up a Maxim, which I stopped reading some years ago, and noticed they too had undergone the same shift (but they just fired their editor, so maybe they found it didn't work). While the new Playboy is not The Paris Review, it is somewhat like Esquire, circa 1965. And that's not a bad thing.

Here is what is still the same: the bunny hidden on the cover, articles on cocktails, where to drink in Havana, James Franco interviewing someone (this time TV writer David Simon), a celebrity interview (Rachel Maddow), an okay but nothing special short story, and three pictorials. Here's what's gone: the trademark first-page of the interview, with three photos of the subject on the bottom (that's been a staple for over fifty years), the Party Jokes on the back of the centerfold, the data sheet on the centerfold, the cartoons (!), and even the little Playboy bunny slug at the end of each article. The cartoons really seems like a major departure, as that was something very associated with the magazine (Hugh Hefner was a cartoonist himself). I can only imagine there are a cadre of cartoonists crying into their beer.

The magazine is laid out very simply. There are the requisite categories: movies, music (an article on Savages to keep current) video games, etc. They did manage to get a major current writer, with an excerpt of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, Book Five (he describes masturbating for the first time, which is odd since he's and adult when he did it. I may have to read the whole thing to find out why).

As for the pictorials, they are not in the usual Playboy style. It is not classic pin-up style, and more akin to photographers like Terry Richardson. There is no airbrushing, and McDaniel, who is heterochromial, doesn't even wear makeup. The other pictorial is of a model taking pictures of herself, and the centerfold is Dree Hemingway, great-granddaughter of Ernest and daughter of Mariel. I have no idea if any of these women would have agreed to be photographed with full frontal nudity. At any rate, one does see a lot, just no nipples or lady parts. I'm sure we will see a lot of "arm bras" in the coming months.

I found it interesting that there is no editorial statement on the change. Nothing is heard from Hefner or the creative team. Instead, novelist Bret Easton Ellis basically makes the case for the switch. He is a few years younger than I am, so has the same experience with Playboy as the only way to see naked women during adolescence. Those times are gone: "What happens when sexuality is automatically available to us without investment? When a book or a record or a movie or a naked woman or five naked women or a naked woman engaging in a gangbang with five hung men is only a click away?"

Indeed, Playboy had to face it--they weren't the go to place for young men to get their jollies anymore. So they had to make changes or fold up their tent. I don't know if they will succeed, but I'm interested enough to keep on.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Suspended Sentences

This is the second year in a row I've read a book by a recent Nobel laureate (I'm one behind, but I'll catch up with you, Svetlana Alexievich). Patrick Modiano certainly wasn't as famous, in North America, as Alice Munro--none of his books had been translated into English before he won the award--but in reading a collection of three novellas, with the umbrella title Suspended Sentences, I found him eminently readable (Nobel winners have been known to be experimental and incomprehensible).

Translated by Mark Polizzotti, the three novellas all deal with memory and Paris. In fact, Polizzoti, in his introduction, writes: "One could easily read these three novellas as a three-part love song to a Paris that no longer exists." I only wish I knew Paris, as it surely would have given me more enjoyment as Modiano's narrators (all three are narrated by someone who is roughly the same age and with the same profession as Modiano) wander the neighborhoods of Paris.

Each of the novellas feature an older man remembering someone out of his youth. The first, "Afterimage," concerns an older photographer that the young narrator befriends. Here we get a lot of metaphors about time passing compared to photographs: "At times, it seems, our memories act much like Polaroids," and "Every time I look at that picture, it hurts. It's like in the morning when you try to recall your dream from the night before, but all  that's left are scraps that dissolve before you can put them together."

That is in the final paragraph of "Afterimage," and as such it points to why I found this the strongest of the three--it' the only one I thought had a good ending. It also is fairly straightforward in matters of chronology and theme. The other two wandered a bit, and I found myself losing my tracking.

The title story is about a man who remembers himself as a young boy living with a menagerie of unusual women. His mother is an actress, and he and his brother are left with them. One of them is a former burlesque dancer, another is called Snow White. It seems that they are part of some sort of crime racket, but I never really understood what was going on. The one line that grabbed me out of this story was "It seems people hang themselves in summer. In the other seasons, they prefer drowning in rivers."

The final story, "Flowers in Ruin,"is very poetic but drifts all over the map. I did like the description of Modiano's stand-in wandering the streets where he spent his youth. While reading I thought about times I've been back to Greenwich Village, where I spent a lot of time twenty to thirty years ago, and how certain restaurants and shops are gone. It's still the same physical space, but it's different. The narrator is fascinated by a murder-suicide that took place in an apartment where he later lived, and then jumps forward to a time when he was with a girlfriend in the 1960's. The story kind of peters out, but does have a great line: "Why bother chasing ghosts and trying to solve insolvable mysteries, when life was there, in all its simplicity, beneath the sun?"

I didn't love this book, but I respected it, and for the lines I've quoted it's worth reading.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Assassin

Maybe it was because it was the end of a hard day, but I found The Assassin, Hsou-Hsaio Chen's martial arts film, extremely soporific. It has garnered many great reviews, and was Taiwan's official submission for the Foreign Language Oscar, and it's omission created the most hubbub. I found it beautiful but dull and incomprehensible.

The assassin in question is Yinniang, played by Shu Qi. She was given away to a "nun-princess" and trained to be a killer. At the beginning of the film she is told to kill some kind of noble who has killed both his father and his brother. "Take him down like a bird in flight," the nun tells her. And she does.

Qi is then returned to her home with the assignment of killing her cousin. This is where I quickly got lost. We get a title card at the beginning of the film stating that we are in 8th-century China and the empire is so large that garrisons have been formed to defend it, but these garrisons have become semi-autonomous and have started to rebel. But I never quite got who was on who's side.

In any event, Qi, who apparently can get in and out of any place without effort, infiltrates her cousin's palace. She does not kill him, as she has a nasty case of a conscience, which is a bad thing for an assassin. She does fight a woman in a mask, whose identity I have no idea. For a martial arts film there is very little action and very little death.

Sometimes a critically-acclaimed film just doesn't gel with me, especially those that are very slow moving. The Assassin is a very beautiful film, with terrific photography and costumes. Qi uses to be fashion model and it shows, as she is not required to emote on any level and mostly stand still. The other actors are fine, not resorting to some of the over-acting that Asian genre films are known for. But I just couldn't get into it. At a certain point I gave up following the plot and just let the film flow over my senses. Perhaps that is what was intended.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Oscar 2015 Predictions: Best Actor

The biggest slam-dunk in this year's Oscar acting categories is Best Actor, as it's finally Leonardo DiCaprio's turn. Interestingly, of all the films he's been nominated for, he probably has the fewest lines in The Revenant, the story of a mountain man's thirst for vengeance. But wordiness or the lack thereof has never been a hindrance to winning an Oscar; just ask Jean Dujardin.

DiCaprio, now 41, was first nominated as a teenager for What's Eating Gilbert Grape and has since become one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. The publicity of what he endured--lying naked inside a horse carcass (of course it wasn't a real horse carcass) and eating buffalo liver, plus the sense that he was "due" have put him at the top of the heap. If he doesn't win it would be the biggest upset all night.

So what would happen if DiCaprio would suddenly come out as a holocaust denier? It's really hard to say. It certainly won't be Michael Fassbender, who was very wordy as Steve Jobs in the film of the same name. If the film had been a hit we'd be talking more about him, but as such he probably just sneaked in with the nomination and has not been on the campaign circuit. He is a nonfactor.

Perhaps Bryan Cranston, as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo, could be the sentimental second choice. The Academy loves movies about movies, and Trumbo has become something of a hero, a blacklisted writer who manage to win two Oscars under pseudonyms while somehow keeping his ideals. Cranston has already won an Emmy and a Tony, and in another year might have had a chance.

Matt Damon has never won an Oscar as an actor, only as a screenwriter, and he does a fine job in making The Martian the entertainment it was, mainly with his monologues into a video camera. He's funny and heroic and all that good stuff, but The Martian's status as a frontrunner has gone down the tubes and with it any chance of Damon winning.

The only previous winner as an actor is Eddie Redmayne, nominated in his second year in a row for The Danish Girl. Had he not won last year, he might have a shot here, as I found this performance of a man transitioning into a woman fascinating. Given the prominence of trans-gender topics in the news these days, it would have a kind of zeitgeist thing. But there's no way he's winning a second Oscar before DiCaprio wins one.

Will Win: DiCaprio
Could Win: Cranston
Should Win: DiCaprio
Should Have Been Nominated; Ian McKellen, Mr. Holmes


Monday, February 08, 2016

Peyton Manning's Weird Year

Like many other Americans, I watched the Super Bowl yesterday. It was, by most standards, a dreadful game, but not if you're into defenses, as the Denver defense really stuck it to Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. It may also have been Peyton Manning's last game, and to cap it off it was his 200th win, breaking Brett Favre's record.

As I watched the game, I didn't really have a rooting interest. I kind of always was a Manning fan (my father's side of the family really loves him, as my grandmother's maiden name was Manning). But in reading this column by Drew Magary and I had to agree with much of it. I rooted for Manning in all the games against New England, though, even if Tom Brady went to Michigan. The Patriots have a Yankees vibe now, and I liked the Colts under Tony Dungy.

Manning is an immensely popular athlete, with all sorts of endorsement deals and a willingness to make fun himself, as evidenced in his terrific Saturday Night Live appearance, When the 1998 draft came down to the choice between Manning and Ryan Leaf, the Colts went with Manning, primarily because he was a stalwart citizen and Leaf was not, and the decision was resoundingly correct. He is sort of a Gomer Pyle as well as football genius, cited as being the first person to practice and the last to leave.

Over the years he's had his ups and downs. This was his second Super Bowl win against two losses, and that second win really helped cement his legacy. Sure, he has a ton of records, but that second win silenced a lot of critics. However, there are things we've learned about Manning this year that have gnawed away at his sterling reputation.

The biggest was an Al-Jazeera report that he was using HGH to recover from injuries. I have no idea if it's true or not, and he firmly denies it, but that sort of accusation can really hurt an athlete's reputation (for some reason it hasn't made as much of a splash in football as baseball). Now we've come to know his politics. He is a huge donor to Jeb Bush, and has a long-standing business relationship and friendship with John Schnatter, the founder of Papa John's pizza. When he won the game yesterday, his first smooch went not to his wife but to Schnatter, an odious businessman who fights against worker's rights at all costs but has a huge fucking mansion.

Then there was Manning's strange statement after the win that he was going to drink a lot of Budweiser. The beer company stated that there was no deal for him to make that obvious plug, but Manning does own Budweiser beer distributors. What a craven and calculating thing for him to say.

I hope Manning goes out with this win. He didn't play all that well and seems held together with string and rubber bands. He was benched earlier this year and sat out a few games with an injury. I think his time has the "good guy" quarterback (as opposed to Tom Brady's "bad guy"--listen to how he got booed in the introductions yesterday) has come to an end.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

45 Years

It isn't often that films deal with older people, but 45 Years is a great example of how a story about the accumulation of time between a couple forges a bond but also has room for secrets. It also will make great arguments/discussions for the car ride home.

45 Years begins with classic English countryside porn. The Mercers, Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, are retired and live near a village and have a dog and read books. In one week they will celebrate their 45th anniversary. What could be better? A letter arrives in the post, though, that changes everything.

It seems that Courtenay had a girlfriend before Rampling, who died in a mountaineering accident in Switzerland over 50 years ago. She was never found, until now, preserved in ice. This shakes up Courtenay. Rampling knew about her, but is unnerved as she finds herself becoming jealous of a woman that has been dead for over half a century.

The script, written by director Andrew Haigh, is extremely subtle. There are no huge scenes, no broken crockery. But Rampling slowly realizes she didn't fully know the man she's been married to for so long. She makes a mistake by snooping around in the attic and finding something else about her husband's old girlfriend, and makes another mistake by asking him whether he would have married her. He says yes a bit too quickly and authoritatively. Be careful about asking questions you don't know the answer to.

The acting is exquisite. Courtenay plays a man that has been slowed down by illness, and who is forcibly thrust  back into his past. He is still in love with his old flame, and it's interesting that the woman has been preserved. "She looks like she did in1962, while I look like this," he says. Rampling, for her part, understands that she can't hold him responsible for events that happened before they even knew each other, but in her lovely lined face we see the effects of the past make their impact.

45 Years is a terrific film, one of great insight and feeling. Rampling well deserves her Oscar nomination (she has made many films, but this is her first. I have always admired her performance in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories) and should have had more, especially the screenplay.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Bedlam

I've just started a course on Special Education, and the first thing one learns is that humans have been horrible. Well, we all know that, but we learn that there are different levels of man's inhumanity to man. Of course there are wars over things like land, whose God is real, and oil, and of course there is discrimination over race, gender, social class, religion, and sexual orientation. But we shouldn't forget the horrendous treatment over the centuries of the disabled and mentally ill.

The first thing I read in my study is that prior to 1700, anyone with a disability was thought to be possessed by Satan. Such were the limits of science that hands were thrown up and exclamations were made that it must be the devil's work. I suppose we can't condemn those people too much, as it was not in their imaginations to believe that disabilities, whether they be mental or physical, were the result of medical problems and not spiritual ones. But these believes led to the kind of practices that put lumps in our throats--it was standard procedure to kill infants with obvious disabilities or deformities, all the way up into the 20th century.

There were hospitals for those with mental disorders in India going back to before Christ, but they probably weren't happy places. Indeed, the image of the "lunatic asylum" is one that ranks right up there with the haunted house for horror movie sites. New Jersey, where I lived for quite a few years, is littered with abandoned asylums, and I remember an MTV series where reality-show contestants were forced to spend the night in one (I remember one of their tasks was to be enclosed in a body drawer in the morgue).

Ignorance and fear drove the treatment of the mentally ill, and is perhaps most embodied by Bethlem Royal Hospital, or, as it became known, Bedlam. It was founded in 1247, and still exists today as a modern psychiatric facility, but it's legacy is such that it's nickname has come to mean confusion and chaos. Though it was called a hospital, little treatment took place, it was basically a warehouse for those who were considered insane, and the patients were treated abysmally, usually chained, beaten, and ill-nourished.

There were reformers, such as Jean-Marc Itard, who treated the "Wild Boy of Aveyron," and was one of the first to realize that deaf people might not be simpletons, and Dorothea Dix, who instigated reforms during the 19th century in America. But even these reforms were not what we would consider modern. In the 1880's, journalist Nellie Bly posed as an insane woman and got herself committed to an asylum on New York's Blackwell's Island, where she saw the horrors perpetrated there. Again, this led to reforms, but it wasn't until shockingly recently that mental hospitals game out of the Gothic era.

As part of my class, I learned that, as part of the eugenics movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, forced sterilization was common for people with disabilities. This was upheld by the Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell in 1927, the decision written by the normally humane Oliver Wendell Holmes. In his opinion, he likened compulsory sterilization to vaccination as part of the common good.

I also watched a video about a "school" for the disabled in Staten Island, New York called Willowbrook. In 1972, Geraldo Rivera did a report and managed to sneak into the facility, where he found students given no education, sitting in their own filth, and with a one-hundred percent hepatitis rate. This was in my lifetime! Some students there were misdiagnosed (as has often happened throughout history)--one fellow was there for eighteen years but was mentally sound--he happened to have speech difficulties due to cerebral palsy.

I certainly hope that this kind of treatment has been expunged, although who knows what it means to be mentally ill in countries where homosexuality is outlawed and girls are given clitoridectomies. As a species, we slowly but surely crawl out of the mud and continue toward the sunlight. As a teacher, I know that every effort is made to ensure that every student gets an equal education, and laws have been passed, with bipartisan support, that have made that the law of the land.

Friday, February 05, 2016

The Sandpiper

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made a lot of movies together throughout the '60s, and each one was a bit of an event. The Sandpiper, the last film ever directed by Vincente Minelli, is an interesting if flawed film that, while a soggy romance, had some interesting ideas, perhaps because it was co-written by Dalton Trumbo.

Taylor plays a Bohemian painter living on the beach at Big Sur (I find it hard to believe that a woman with no money could live in a well-appointed house on beachfront property) with her son. The boy is home schooled has had some minor scrapes with the law, so a judge orders him to an Episcopalian boarding school. The headmaster is Burton, a stuffy but kind man who, upon first seeing Taylor walk into his office, is lovestruck.

The two spar at first--Taylor is an atheist and unwed mother--but of course they will eventually fall in love. This causes Burton no end of grief--not only is he a minister, but he's married (to Eva Marie Saint).

The film makes fine use of the Big Sur location and has a feel for what a community of artists is like (in some weird casting, Charles Bronson plays Taylor's friend and one-time lover, a sculptor). It does not disrespect her liberal views, nor does it romanticize them. Burton, enunciating like nobody else, is interesting as he's worn down by her principles--he eventually realizes his job is not a headmaster but a fundraiser, and he has it out with his friend and Taylor's ex-lover, Robert Webber (an excellent slimeball).

Taylor, of course, is stunning beautiful. There's a great moment at the end of the film when one of her son's classmates sees her and stares, slack-jawed. But I must admit I've never cared for her voice--it can get high and piercing, which suited her for Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf but can be like fingernails on a blackboard in other films.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Fortune Smiles

One of the oldest pieces of advice about writing is to write what you know, but Adam Johnson doesn't seem interested in that. In his brilliant collection of stories, Fortune Smiles, Johnson takes us to such far-flung places as hurricane-wracked Louisiana, a former Stasi prison in Germany, and Seoul, South Korea, to follow the exploits of two exiles from North Korea. Closer to home, one might think, is the story about a woman who is married to a writer just like Johnson.

I read his story "Nirvana" in the Best Nonrequired Reading of 2015, but upon reading it a second time found it more gripping. It tells the story of a woman with Gullain-Barre syndrome, paralyzed, and her dutiful husband. Needless to say, she's depressed, and he puts on headphones so she can listen to Nirvana every night.

That's not the darkest story of the six. That honor goes to "Dark Meadow," a story that is as disturbing as it is great. It's narrated by a computer guy who has fought with the demons inside him regarding sexualizing children by helping police catch other predators. His visit to a rundown house where child pornography is filmed is one of the creepiest scenes I've ever read.

Picking my favorite story of the group is hard. "Hurricanes Anonymous" concerns a hapless UPS driver who is looking for the mother of his child in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita (Katrina gets so much attention, but Rita came just a few weeks later in western Louisiana). It has a kind of down-home Southern gothic quality, with lines like: "Someone needs to tell them that they're better off without their coffee tables and photo albums. Some person will have to break it to them that their apartments weren't so great, that losing track of half their relatives is probably for the best. Some shit, though, you got to figure out for yourself."

I also loved "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," set in Germany. The former warden of a Stasi prison, now a tourist attraction, finds himself taking the tour and defending his actions, telling the tour guide (who was a former prisoner) that the prisoners were criminals and there was no torture committed there. Of course, we understand that he is in self-denial, rationalizing to keep his sanity. Having a narrator being an East German who is not happy about reunification is fascinating: "To think what the Stasi went through to spy on us. Even they couldn't dream of a world in which citizens voluntarily carried tracking devices, conducted self-surveillance and reported on themselves, morning, noon, and night."

"Interesting Facts" is a kind of meta-story, narrated by a woman who is married to a novelist much like Johnson (he has won a Pulitzer Prize for a book about North Korea, which Johnson did with The Orphan Master's Son). She is dripping with cynicism, a writer who can't sell her books and doesn't have much nice to say: "Even though she's a mother of two, her breasts are positively teenybopper. They pop. Her tits do everything but chew bubble gum and make Hello Kitty hearts."

The last and title story is about two North Koreans trying to adjust to their lives in Seoul after defecting. DJ is happier with a life of freedom, while Sun-Ho, a kind of older protector, can't stand it. They go to fast food restaurants and meetings with other defectors. It's a very funny but also sad story about the old saying "There's no place like home," even if it is a brutal dictatorship. I loved this line: "DJ understood that in South Korea, Americans were considered friends. He'd never really believed they were the enemy. After all, hadn't Americans invented scratch-off lottery tickets, crystal meth, hundred-dollar bills and, most important, the catalytic converter?"

Fortune Smiles won the National Book Award for Fiction, beating out some big novels that I hope to get around to this year. So far I have no objection, This is great writing.