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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Tu Dors Nicole

Here is a film that is almost daring you to watch. Tu Dors Nicole (You Are Sleeping, Nicole), is a French-Canadian indie that is almost inert in its lack of action. It's the kind of film in which so little happens that when something does happen, it's momentous. It is pretty much for cinephiles only.

Nicole (Julianne Côté) is a young woman enjoying her summer while her parents are on vacation. She spends most of her time with her friend Veronique (Catherine St.-Laurent), while her older brother is working with his rock trio. She has a menial job at a clothing store.

Slowly, though, things start falling apart. Her ex-boyfriend is engaged to be married. She and Veronique have a falling out. A tragedy strikes the band. She gets fired from her job. Nicole's savior may just be a boy who has a prematurely deep voice.

Tu Dors Nicole was written and directed by Stéphane Lafleur and he pretty much dares us to watch. Nicole is a character who reveals little. When the film opens she is leaving a one-night stand. Off screen, the man asks if he'll see her again. "What for?" she answers. She does not emote much. I think one of the only times she smiles is when she receives her first credit card in the mail, which partially leads to her downfall. I think I had that same moment.

The film is shot in black and white and subsists on details. Just what is in a cooler kept by the drummer. The score of a miniature golf game. The Icelandic word for vacuum cleaner. How a geyser is formed. All these details add up to real life, which Tu Dors Nicole strives for. I suppose, in a way, despite a few melodramatic turns, that the film is an example of hyperrealism. Life can be interesting, life can be boring, and sometimes all at once.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground provides the perfect opportunity to talk about what makes a good documentary, and what is often mistaken for a good documentary, especially by the well-meaning. It is not the subject matter, but the end product. I remember this when 40 Feet From Stardom beat Act of Killing at the Oscars a few years ago. Some said how could a movie about backup singers beat such an important document of genocide? Well, maybe because voters thought it was a better movie.

The Hunting Ground is a very worthy subject, and provides a great service. Kirby Dick, who made The Invisible War (which was nominated for an Oscar), which was about sexual assault and its cover-up in the military, has made basically the same movie but about sexual assault and its cover-up on college campuses (even earlier he made Twist of Faith, about sexual assaults by priests). The film interviews dozens of women who have been raped on college campuses, only to be thwarted in getting any help by college administrators, who want to keep their crime figures low. The film will make you boiling mad, but as a work or art it's just a lot of people talking into a camera. In fact, I wouldn't consider it art, but a public service.

The film has some startling statistics. Sixteen percent of women will be raped in college (this is not the film to see if you are sending a daughter off to school). Eight percent of men commit 90 percent of the assaults, and of those perpetrators, the average number of assaults is six. So it's a problem of repeat offenders, maybe because it's so easy to get away with. Few men are expelled, and women are encouraged not to go the police, and anyway, the police don't do much, either.

This is explained in sensible but maddening terms: any college administrator who decides to treat rape seriously and file reports for every case will make that school seem like the "rape" school, even though many fine colleges and universities, like Harvard, North Carolina, Berkeley, and USC, have problems. College presidents, whose main job is raising money, don't want to deal with angry donors, and student athletes who are accused are defended by the rabid hysteria of fans. This is best shown in the case of Jaimes Winston, the Florida State Heisman Trophy winner, who was accused of rape by a girl but the police, knowing he was a big star, sat on it for a year and the D.A. ultimately decided not to prosecute. The university dropped the investigation because Winston refused to talk to them.

All of this told in heart-wrenching agony by several courageous woman who came forth to try to rip the issue out of the shadows. Two students from UNC, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, formed a committee of activists to do something about it, and petitioned the Department of Education to investigate. They are now investigating 100 schools.

What The Hunting Ground does best is put forth the notion that we look at rape all wrong. So many people automatically think it's a false charge, or that the women somehow deserved it, or were drunk, or were flirting, or are sluts. But the simple truth is that rape is caused by the attacker, and until this kind of caveman attitude is dealt with, the problem will stay. We see footage of frat boys surrounding a sorority chanting, "No means yes! Yes means anal!" What kind of mentality calls for that? A mob mentality, to be sure, but do these boys have no sense of decency?

What the film doesn't do is interview anyone who is currently working at a college to defend themselves. If Dick tried to interview anyone, he doesn't say. Only one perpetrator, now sorry for what he did after six years of jail, is interviewed, and the prosecutor who dropped the Winston case agrees to an interview, where he says there wasn't enough evidence to prosecute. We also see ESPN morons Skip Bayless and Steven A. Smith automatically back Winston, without knowing any of the facts, simply because he is a great quarterback and a nice young man. I wish Dick would have tracked them down, shown them the young lady's interview, and then got their reactions.

The film may be best known for containing the Lady Gaga song, "Til It Happens to You," which she sang to great acclaim at the Oscars, surrounded by victims of sexual assault. Again, the cause is worthwhile, the movie is so-so.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

25th Hour

Getting back to Spike Lee, I turn to his 2002 film, 25th Hour, which many consider his best film, certainly his best in this century. It is, interestingly enough, the only one of his films that I know of that has a complete absence of black characters (Rosario Dawson does play a woman of color, but she is identified as Puerto Rican). It is also probably the first film that dealt head on with 9/11, which happened right before filming.

The film concerns Edward Norton as a drug dealer who is about to go to prison. He has one more night of freedom, and we see, basically, his last 24 hours. His girlfriend is Dawson, and he has the uncomfortable feeling she's the one who informed on him (the DEA agents knew exactly where to look for the drugs). He is going out on the town with her and his two best friends, a sad sack prep school teacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and a cocky Wall Street trader (Barry Pepper). He also has to meet with his supplier, a Russian mobster.

Lee does not completely escape racial commentary. Norton has a monologue in which he says, "Fuck you" to almost ethnic group in New York City, except the Irish, which he is. Later, he will see those many colored faces as he's headed to prison. Otherwise, Lee keeps the agitprop down and simply tells a story of a man who is facing the consequences of his actions. Norton is terrific as this guy, who is first seen rescuing a dog who has been left for dead, and then goes through the excruciating process of counting down the hours then minutes to when he's headed for the pen.

Some of the subplots don't work. Hoffman, who played many of these parts, is a loser who is attracted to a female student (Anna Paquin) whom he coincidentally runs into at the club. I don't normally engage in this kind of thinking, but why would Paquin flirt with Hoffman (unless it's to get him to change his grade). Hoffman is so clueless it's hard to imagine him functioning day to day. I did laugh at a scene in which the students read a poem and he asks what they think. A student raises his hand and asks, "Can I go to the bathroom?"

The Pepper character is even more unbelievable, a vain, alpha type who is first seen disobeying his boss's orders to trade, and then in a scene with Hoffman talks about how he is in the 99th percentile of bachelors. Again, it's hard to imagine that Pepper and Hoffman could be friends.

When the story is limited to Norton, it really works, mostly because of Norton's performance and that the film does not sentimentalize him. Even in a scene with his father, Brian Cox, in an Irish bar, Norton manages to keep things on an even keel, as does Lee.

The ending is quite interesting. Given that the movie is 14 years old I will discuss it. Cox, driving Norton upstate to prison (Attica? Sing Sing? It's fictionalized to Otisville) tells him they can take a left at the George Washington Bridge and head west. Take an assumed name, get a job paying cash. Cox spins a wonderful fantasy about Norton having a family and growing old, with American flags waving. But then, the fantasy ends, and they pass the bridge, headed for prison.

As stated, Lee uses 9/11 effectively and not in a maudlin matter. We know what's up when we see the skyline and two beams of light have replaced the Twin Towers. Then, Pepper's apartment has a view right into the heart of ground zero. It still manages to be effective.

I would put 25th Hour behind Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X, but it is the best film he's made this century (just ahead of Inside Man).

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Invisible Bridge

The Invisible Bridge is Rick Perlstein's third volume in the history of the Republican from Goldwater on. I read the second, Nixonland, and after a long period of time, have finished the third, which is subtitled "The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan."

The book is long--it took me over three months to read, and exhaustive. It basically covers Watergate to the 1976 Republican convention, when Gerald Ford beat back the challenge of Ronald Reagan just barely--by less than a 100 delegates. In between Perlstein covers a lot of stuff, sometimes I think too much, that happened in America during those four years, from The Exorcist to Patty Hearst to Hank Aaron to CB radios. I lived through all that, but it was mostly fascinating to revisit it.

"The boy who told his friends to call him 'Dutch' had cultivated an extraordinary gift  in the act of rescuing himself, the ability to radiate blithe optimism in face of what others called chaos--to reimagine the morass in front of him as a simple tableau of moral clarity." This is what Perlstein says about Reagan, sketching his biography. Here he accomplishes what others have tried--a penetrating biography of a man whom others have come up short on, since the man appeared to have no inner life. Perlstein discusses his childhood in the home of an alcoholic father, living in small towns throughout Illinois, his college days, his getting a job as a sportscaster, on to the movies, his marriage to Jane Wyman, his presidency of the Screen Actors Guild, his marriage to Nancy Davis, and then his political career, a quirk of fate that stemmed from a speech he gave for Goldwater. He would run for governor and win in 1966, all while people doubted him. No one thought he could be president, least of all Gerald Ford.

Perlstein goes into great detail about Watergate, and I prided myself on remembering much of it. I kept waiting for the mention of the name Alexander Butterfield, the witness who first brought up the fact that Nixon taped everything in the Oval Office. Even as a kid I remember this being important stuff--they played the hearings on TV in school. It was good refresher course.

Then we get the elevation of Ford, who Perlstein treats almost as a comic figure, a man who is inevitably referred to as "solid," who has no charisma, who was a great athlete but was parodied by Chevy Chase for stumbling, and who was the target of two assassination attempts by women in one four-month period. Perhaps most wounding of all, he had to fight tooth and nail to win the Republican nomination, as Reagan almost because the first to deny an incumbent president the nomination since it happened to Chester Arthur. Perlstein's best story about Ford: "Then he accepted a snack--a tamale--before the cameras, not knowing that before you bit into one you were supposed to strip off the corn-leaf husk. That was the lead story the next day. Poor Jerry Ford."

The race for the nominations was a seesaw battle, with every uncommitted delegate courted like a rich widow. Reagan took the risk of naming his running mate early--liberal Pennsylvania senator Richard Schweiker--and it was interesting that it was not his idea, his campaign manager made the choice and Reagan signed off on it. It was also interesting to learn that Ford had to get Reagan's blessing on his choice of running mate, Bob Dole. Ford had wanted William Ruckelshaus, but Reagan wouldn't agree.

Of course we get chapters on Jimmy Carter, who came out of nowhere to win the Democratic nomination. But these passages seem like laying groundwork for the next book, when Reagan will, of course, become president. This volume ends, either ominously or portentously, depending on your point of view, with the lines, "'At sixty-five years of age,' the New York Times noted, he was 'too old to consider seriously another run at the presidency.'"

I enjoyed this book, but it needed some editing. I was annoyed by a reference to the stadium in Cincinnati being called Riverside, not Riverfront, and often Perlstein will mention a person, like "a moderate from Colorado," without giving the name. He often repeats himself, noting in the beginning of the book and the end that Reagan had a talent for finding the camera in the room. But there are some great similes, such as his description of Sam Ervin, the folksy senator who chaired the hearings on Watergate: "White-haired and jiggly-jowled, his long, bushy eyebrows as tangled as a line of Arabic script, with a forehead that all but broke out in spasms in the midst of his high-flown orations, he was almost a caricature of a Dixie pol." Ervin, who was pretty much a back-bencher before that, became a national hero, despite his abominable record on civil rights.

And, having had Bob Dole as a major presence throughout my adult life, I couldn't help but laugh at this, a description of him trying to gavel the Republican convention to order: "He rapped his gavel like a demonic woodpecker."

This is a great book for political junkies or anyone who would like to bathe in the horrors of the 1970s. I look forward to Perlstein's next book, even though it will relive one of my great horrors--the election of Reagan as president.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Late in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Anderson Cooper, in one of the film's countless celebrity cameos, says, "It's not clear what just happened." I think Anderson speaks for all of us, as this film, pitting two of the most iconic American figures against each other, is pretty much incoherent. However, it is not the disaster that some are calling it. It's a great idea in the wrong hands.

Those hands are Zack Snyder, perhaps the worst high-profile director in Hollywood today (that's a high bar, considering Michael Bay and Brett Ratner still walk the Earth). But he makes the studio money, and though Batman v. Superman was ripped by critics, it still set box office records. For all those people who saw the movie this weekend, it's a shame that this wasn't properly handled.

For one thing, I liked Ben Affleck as Batman. There, I said it. His Bruce Wayne is a little older, thicker in the middle (but still buff) and angry. Wayne Manor is a ruin (I suppose why will be addressed in a future film) and lives instead in a modern house with floor-to-ceiling windows (but where is the Batcave?). Alfred, played with gruff authority by Jeremy Irons, tinkers underground, while Affleck is having casual sex (he also, I believe, utters the first curse word in the character's history, a softly muttered "Oh, shit"). After years of battling criminals, he's pissed off at the arrival of Superman from the sky, who is being treated like a god even after destroying most of Metropolis in his fight with General Zod.

The film starts off on the wrong foot with once again showing the murder of Batman's parents. By my count we've seen this in three films--enough already. Then we get the young Bruce Wayne falling in a hole and being surrounded by bats. Instead of being afraid of them, as Christopher Nolan's Batman was, Affleck is levitated by them, literally. This was included, I suppose, as both characters are mama's boys, with the crucial fact being that there mother's names are Martha.

I won't try to summarize the whole movie because it has enough in there for several movies, with many beginnings and endings. Suffice it to say that the tiff between superheroes is egged on by Lex Luthor, this time played by a twitchy Jesse Eisenberg. He's a rich dude who is troubled by Superman being treated like a god, and there's some good dialogue in there, rife with Nietzschian overtones, if only we could listen to it and not want to punch Eisenberg in the face. He wants to get his hands on Kryptonite so Superman can be defeated (when you create a superhero with only one weakness, it kind of limits plot possibilities).

So when these two stand off against each other, with Superman's overwhelming strength matched by Batman's cunning, I had to admit I was kind of stirred. Their fight scene, like the rest of the action, has too many concrete walls being broken, but I found this to be the best part of the movie, despite Batman's ridiculous body armor. I also thought there were other good ideas raised. Early in the film, Superman rescues Lois Lane from African terrorists. How would Superman deal with ISIS, or Boko Haram, or Hamas? One of the uncomfortable things about reckoning with superheroes is that they can't exist in the real world. Superman sees a girl trapped in a burning building in Juarez. Seconds later he's there, rescuing her. What a world like that be?

The film also lays out the future D.C. Universe films (there are ten films with release dates so far). Most prominently we get Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. She slinks through the film like a sexy panther, catching Affleck's eye, but doesn't do battle until the end of the film. Next year she will get her first film, and I'm hopeful, as long as Snyder has nothing to do with it.

So watching Batman v. Superman is a draining and mostly depressing experience. It's kind of like being bludgeoned, as Snyder has no ability at subtly. He uses one of his favorite things--a bullet in slow motion--over and over again, and a movie at two and a half hours does not need slow motion footage. The atmosphere is mostly dark and brooding, and it made me long for the light touch of Marvel in films like Guardians of the the Galaxy and The Avengers. For whatever their weaknesses are, at least they are fun. Batman v. Superman is like a funeral (which the film ends with, but I'm not telling you whose).

There is hope, though. Before the film a trailer for The Lego Batman Movie ran. I am sure that will be a much better film.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

James White

James White is a well-done indie from Josh Mond that explores what may be an uncomfortable subject for most people--those horrible years after college when we have to grow up and become adults. Throw in a mother with stage IV cancer, and well, this poor guy has it tough.

That being said, the title character, played very well by Christopher Abbott, is a prick. Every time we start to feel for him he does something else awful. In essence, this film is 90 minutes with a guy most of us would shy away from at a party. As such, it makes the film problematic to process.

It's long been a debate in film and literature--does the lead character need to be likeable? No, of course not, but he or she should be understandable, and this is where Mond's work is so great. Abbott is kind of a spoiled brat who grew up with a single mother (Cynthia Nixon).He's now in what looks like his early twenties (no college is mentioned), unemployed, and sleeping on his mom's couch. But, he is taking care of her. But, he also uses that as an excuse for being a slacker.

The film opens with Abbott's father's funeral. He is surprised to find out his father remarried. He is reunited with an old friend, and accompanies him to Mexico to try to figure things out. He meets a high school girl, and they become a couple (they both live in New York City) but he has no problems cheating on her. He is also prone to drink too much and get in barroom brawls.

Much of the film is shot in close-up of Abbott, so he is the center of the universe (which he sort of thinks of himself as). He is frequently haggard, and a scene in which an old friend (Ron Livingston) gives him a courtesy interview at New York magazine is harrowing. Even if you're a writer you don't wear a t-shirt to an interview, even if you are friends with the boss.

I admired James White but I must admit it's a real downer. I would like to see more films from Mond, and other roles by Abbott.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Adore Life

With their second album, Adore Life, Savages have established themselves as one of the pre-eminent hard rock bands currently recording. As am always on the hunt for good rock albums, which are few and far between these days, I'm glad to consider Savages a reliable source, along with The Black Keys and anything by Jack White.

There's also something interesting about this record--it's full of positive messages. There debut album, Silence Yourself, had familiar lyrics for a hard-rock band--death, anger, despair. But apparently lyricist and vocalist Jhenny Beth has had things go her way lately. Consider that album title, and the accompanying song (just called "Adore". Now, the song is not about rainbows and lollipops--the bass line sounds like it comes from a horror movie, and the vocal indicates a relationship not going well, but Beth insists that she adores life:

"I understand the urgency of life
In the distance there is truth which cuts like a knife
Maybe I will die tomorrow
So I need to say
I adore life"

The opening track, "The Answer," contains the line, "Love is the answer," which sounds mire like something recorded in 1967. Again, the song is ambiguous, with the first lines, "If you don't love me, you don't love anybody," which could be the words of a stalker.

Then again, there are songs called "Evil," and "Sad Person," and the most radio-friendly song, "T.I.W.Y.G.":

"This is what you get when you mess with love
A morning in darkness
The eye of a storm
Suffering, straight from the gods
No medicine, no drugs"

So maybe they isn't such an upbeat record. Maybe it's what you find inside it, which is great. Beth's lyrics aren't obscure, they're just very open to interpretation.

As with the first record, the instrumentation is terrific, by bassist Ayse Hassan, Fay Milton on drums, and Gemma Thompson on guitar. Beth's voice at times sounds eerily like Patti Smith, which is not a bad person to sound like.

I haven't been to a concert in a rock club in a long time, but I would love to see Savages. A friend of mine is seeing them in Philadelphia next week, and I'm jealous. They were in Vegas last August, but I missed them. Oh well.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Zootopia

How clever is Zootopia, Disney's 55th animated feature, and how subversive. Just when I was thinking it was a pleasant and amusing film about not giving up on your dreams, yada yada yada, the last act springs out a much more timely and important message. Zootopia, it turns out, is a parable against racism, most specifically Islamophobia.

The premise is that mammals have created a world and gotten past that icky predator-prey thing (we don't see what predators now eat, presumably it's fish and birds) and live in harmony. Well, almost. Though the city in question is called Zootopia, based on the word coined by Sir Thomas More to describe an ideal society, there is tension between the predators and prey, or as Woody Allen put it, "The lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won't get much sleep."

Our heroine is Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), who grows up on a farm dreaming of becoming a police officer in the big city. That there has never been a bunny cop doesn't bother her, and she perseveres and graduate number one in her class. But the chief, a water buffalo (Idris Elba) puts her on parking detail. But she gets a chance to find a missing otter, and presses a fox (Jason Bateman), who is normally a confidence man, into helping her.

Okay, all well and good. The direction by Byron Howard and Rich Moore is colorful and vibrant. There are some great gags, a lot of which come from the notion that the animals are not all the same size, as they are in most anthropomorphic films. So when the characters go into "Little Rodentia," even a rabbit towers over them like Godzilla. Many have seen the gag in the DMV, where all the workers are sloths, and the old Bob and Ray "Slow Talkers of America" routine is rolled out. Adults will get a kick out of a Godfather parody with a shrew as the capo di tutti capo, Iat one point he utters the great line, "Ice the weasel") and there's even some meta humor, as when Elba tells Goodwin that "this is not a cartoon musical...let it go."

But there's an undercurrent of tension. Early in the film a character tells Goodwin she is cute. She is offended. "A bunny can tell another bunny she's cute," she tells the offender, "but no one else can." This sounds like some of the epithets in our society. Also, when Goodwin's parents send her off to the big city, they warn her about foxes, and she carries fox repellent just in case.

In the last act the other shoe drops. It turns out predators have been kidnapped and made to regress to their "savage" ways, that is, hungering for prey. The villain behind all this says, "Fear always works!"and that it is all "biology," and in "their DNA." This is the kind of code we hear about certain races, and fuels our fear and bigotry. Even Goodwin, as good-hearted as she is, fundamentally believes this, which is why even liberal white people can cross the street at night when a black person comes walking down their side.

I find that Zootopia being released during this presidential race either providential or a sign that this is nothing new, because this film basically tells Trump, Cruz, and all the other Islamophobes to stuff it. That is also tells it in a bright, entertaining animated film is just a stroke of genius.

Not only is Zootopia a great film for kids, but it's also instructive without being pedantic. Well done, Disney, and the entire team.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Look of Silence

The Look of Silence, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, is not so much a sequel as a companion to his previous film, The Act of Killing. Whereas that first film dealt with the history of the slaughter of perhaps a million people in Indonesia after an army coup, The Look of Silence is about how those killings still affect the nation today.

After having seen the first film, the act of watching now old men brag and giggle about how they brutally murdered "communists" has lost some of its sting--it's still hard to take, but I was prepared for it. This time, Oppenheimer has enlisted an optician, known only as Adi, to do the interviewing. Adi, born in 1968, had an older brother who he never knew killed during the 1965 purge. He watches, impassively, at videotape interviews of his brother's killers. He tends to his ancient parents (his father may be over 100 years old) and his own children with love.

But when he visits those who are responsible for his brother's death he is passionless and probing. Most of them are old men, and still treated like heroes (the government that sponsored the killing is still in power--Oppenheimer can not safely return to Indonesia and the film's credit are full of "Anonymouses") and gladly tell Adi, who is making them eyeglasses (the use of vision is a wonderful metaphor handed to Oppenheimer on a silver platter) what happened, but when he points out inconsistencies, or call them on their moral relativisim, they get defensive. One man, who mentions how he drank the blood of his victims to keep from going crazy. gets into a snit when Adi mentions that Islam does not teach killing. The man asks him why he's getting so deep with his questions, and to stop talking politics. Another man is the head of the legislature, who responds to Adi's talk of morals by saying that if he doesn't want the killing to start again, he should leave the past alone.

The scenes get more chilling as the movie progresses. He visits a man who is either senile or just clueless, along with his daughter. She states that she is proud of her father and the respect he receives. But when Adi tells her his brother was killed, and the old man confesses that he drank the blood of his victims, an amazing array of emotions cross her face. She apologizes. It would seem her world was shattered.

Finally, Adi visits his own uncle, who was a prison guard during that time. He is asked why he didn't save the brother. "They would have killed me!" he protests, but Adi doesn't let him off the hook, and tells him he is morally responsible for his death. I don't think there will be too many family gatherings after this one.

What really stings, as an American, is a clip from a 1967 NBC News report, in which a reporter interviews one of the killers, who tells him that the communists asked to die. The reporter doesn't question such a preposterous lie. The reporter says that Indonesia was where communists were dealt they're biggest defeat. Of course, most, if not all, of the victims were no such things.

The 20th century may well go down in world history as the century of slaughter. We know about Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Rwanda and many other places. Let's not forget Indonesia.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Duke of Burgundy

It might be helpful to know that the Duke of Burgundy is a type of butterfly. I was wondering that through the whole movie. Here's a rule--if the audience can't figure out why a movie is called what it is, they will spend the whole movie trying to figure it out, and not focusing on the movie itself.

Written and directed by Peter Strickland, The Duke of Burgundy is a two-character psychological drama about submission and dominance. A woman (Chiara D'Anna) is seen arriving at the stately home of a lepidopterist (Sidse Babett Knudsen). She is the maid, and Knudsen is stern and cold with her. We start to feel uneasy, as no one should boss around somebody like that. Finally, when Knudsen has her rub her feet, we get the idea. This is role-playing. They are in a romantic relationship, and D'Anna gets off on being bossed around.

When I worked at Penthouse one of the things I learned is that in S&M relationships, it is often the submissive who is really in charge--it's called topping from below. We learn that is the case here, as D'Anna writes out the scripts for Knudsen to follow and even gets testy with her when she doesn't do it right. Knudsen's heart just isn't into it--she prefers pajamas to corsets, and would rather sleep with D'Anna then lock her in a trunk.

Strickland, in the supplemental material, says that this film is an homage to Jess Franco, who made a ton of soft-core movies back in the day. And The Duke of Burgundy is a sort of Cinemax film with puffed up pretensions. But there is no nudity (although there are some kinky allusions--the words "human toilet" are mentioned) and the message, about the nature of submissives, is trite.

But I did admire the world Strickland creates. I'm not sure when it was supposed to take place--the women ride bicycles, use typewriters, and there's not a phone or car in sight. Also, it appears the S&M is perfectly acceptable in this world. What I don't know is the connection between the world of moths and butterflies and the world of the women. Strickland seems to be saying there is, but it eluded me. There are many shots of insects, but nothing suggesting they role play as master and servant. In films like Angels & Insects this was much better done. Maybe Strickland just likes collecting butterflies.

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Wizard of Earthsea

Fantasy, like science fiction, is a genre that I'm attracted to but often lets me down. There is so much of it out there, and the books tend to be long and just part of a series. I didn't care much for the novel A Game of Thrones, and while I admired Tolkien's Ring trilogy, I didn't swoon at it. I read and loved the first three or four Harry Potter books, but didn't see much point in reading the rest when I could just wait for the movies.

One of the pillars of fantasy writing is Ursula K. Le Guin, and I had never read anything by her until I picked up the seminal A Wizard of Earthsea, published in 1968. It, too, is the first of a series, but is also self-contained--there's no cliffhanger and "to be continued." It's also fairly short and compact, and while she creates a fictional world, she doesn't go into so much detail that you need a glossary in the back.

The story is that of Ged, who is from a mountain village, and learns magic from his aunt. This is frowned upon until he saves the village from attack by casting a fog spell. He is recruited by a senior wizard, and then ends up at wizard school (yes, J.K. Rowling owes a bit to this book). Ged is talented but arrogant, and in a rivalry with another wizard he casts a necromancy spell, which unleashes a demon into his world. It attacks and nearly kills him, and then will shadow him wherever he goes. He must track it down and destroy it.

There is a lot of the standard fantasy elements here. There are dragons (though not for long) and scores of proper nouns that read like music: "Vetch, holding the sail-rope, sang softly from the Deed of Enlad, where the mage Morred the White left Havnor in his oarless longship, and coming to the island Solea saw Elfarran in the orchards in the spring." I'm not sure what any of that means, but it sounds nice.

I guess what I'm driving at is that Le Guin writes fantasy that doesn't sound like a parody of itself, as much of the genre does. She does at times come close: "'I am here, I Ged the Sparrowhawk, and I summon my shadow!'" But mostly it's earnest and heartfelt, a tale for young adults perhaps but without condescension.

I find it interesting that Le Guin, in an afterword, sums up the world of fantasy writing: "Fantasy is now a branch of the publishing industry, with many titles, many sequels, great expectations of monster successes and movie tie-ins. In 1967 it was pretty much nowhere. Kid stuff...they mostly lurked in small secondhand bookshops smelling of cats and mildew. I miss those bookshops now, the cats, the mildew, the thrill of discovery. Fantasy as an assembly line commodity leaves me cold."

I agree with all of that, and I miss those bookshops, too. Not the cats, though. I'm allergic.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Bamboozled

Getting back to the films of Spike Lee, I turn to Bamboozled, perhaps his most audacious film, one that shows just how precarious attempts at satire are. His point is certainly well-taken, but he overdoes it, laying it on so thick that it groans under its own weight. Lee also borrows heavily from Mel Brooks' The Producers and Sidney Lumet's Network, so much so that he uses verbatim the latter's famous "Stick out your head out the window" line.

Bamboozled is Lee's take on culturally insensitive material related to African-Americans through the ages. Damon Wayans, in an oddly mannered performance, plays a TV writer at a major network. His boss, the boorish Michael Rapaport, who tells Wayans that he is "blacker than you are" doesn't want safe shows like Cosby anymore. Wayans decides to call Rapaport's bluff, and proposes a minstrel show, complete with performers in blackface, tap-dancing, and set in a watermelon patch.

Wayans, it would seem but it isn't entirely clear, wants to go out in a blaze of glory. His assistant, Jada Pinkett-Smith, is resistant, but her motivation isn't clear, either. If she's not in on the gag, why doesn't she quit? They recruit two street performs (Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson), who uneasily take the money and look past the obvious.

Like The Producers, Wayans tries to lay it on thick to prove a point. In a scene very much like the one in which Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder look for their perfect Hitler, Wayans and Smith hold auditions to find their cast. They reject a radical rap group called the Maus Maus (one of them is Pinkett-Smith's brother, played by Mos Def). They will come back at the end of the story, much like the Ecumenical Liberation Network comes into play in Network.

To everyone's surprise, the minstrel show is a hit. Soon everyone is reciting lines, saying the "N" word, and even wearing blackface. Wayans surrounds himself with ephemera of the old days, such as Aunt Jemima dolls and "coon" artifacts (to be sure, many black people, such as Whoopi Goldberg, collect these items to either remind themselves of what happened or to gain a power over them).

The film tanked horribly, and looks like it was a small budget, with poor photography. The joke is pretty much over at the outset, and drags on much too long. The ending, as with Network, is violence, although Network managed to keep it's sense of black comedy, while Bamboozles abandons it and ends in a flourish of rhetoric. Lee, one of the leading spokesman for the black entertainment world (whether by his design or not) doesn't seem having to say beyond outrage, and ends the film with a montage of images from racist films and cartoons. But none of them date past the Civil Rights movement--even in 2000, when this film was released, almost everyone could agree that Amos and Andy was appalling.


Saturday, March 19, 2016

When Marnie Was There

This is that time of year when I see animation that is not from the usual sources, the animated films that get nominated for Oscars that didn't hit the multiplexes. Most of the time these films, in stark contrast to American animation, are quiet and thoughtful, and often not comedies. So it is with When Marnie Was There.

Studio Ghibli, who rivals Disney, Pixar, and Aardman for the best animation studio in the world, is best known for the work of Hayao Miyazaki, but he has hung up his brush, When Marnie Was There is the work of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, and based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson.

The story, set in Japan, but with characters that look European, is about Anna, a painfully introverted girl raised by adoptive parents. She has asthma, and is sent to the country to stay with her mother's relatives for the summer for her health. She loves to draw, and after exploring becomes enchanted with an abandoned mansion on the edge of a marsh. Eventually she notices a light in one of the windows, and after that meets an occupant-- Marnie.

Anna and Marnie become fast friends, but Anna can't help but wonder if Marnie is real. She attends a party at Marnie's house, meeting her parents, but the next day she returns and the ballroom is empty. She starts to doubt her sanity. A new girl moving into the mansion finds a diary by a girl named Marnie, and the two of them figure out just who Marnie was.

The film is a lovely depiction of the pains of adolescence, especially for the introverted. I could commiserate with Anna, because when I was a kid I desperately wanted to run from other kids. I never had an imaginary friend, though, and there was times I wondered why Anna wasn't getting professional help. But that's a knee-jerk reaction--kids are over-medicated, and left to figure it out for herself Anna does just fine.

The animation suggests Japanese watercolors and the depictions of sunsets over the water are particularly stunning. The English-language cast has Hailee Steinfeld as Anna and Kiernan Shipka as Marnie, also with appearances by John C. Reilly, Geena Davis, and Vanessa Williams. Most American children don't have the patience for this sort of thing, but more thoughful children, especially girls, should enjoy it. There's plenty of magic and heartbreak.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Kinks

When one thinks of the British Invasion, of course the first bands that come to mind are The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Then there were the groups that had a lot of hits but didn't last long, like the Dave Clark Five and Gerry and the Pacemakers. The Kinks sometimes don't get their due, for they were right there at the beginning, and lasted well into the '70s making hits. and kept touring until 1996.

Consisting of brothers Ray and Dave Davies at the core, the Kinks may not have the fame of the other groups, but their influence is almost as important. But they were not known for their albums as much as their singles. While I've known the Kinks for decades, until reading about them for this post I couldn't have named one of their albums. Also, unlike most of the British Invasion bands, they weren't reflecting American blues, but instead English traditions, particularly Music Hall.

At the start though it was guitar-centric three-chord power. Their 1964 hit "You Really Got Me" was actually early heavy metal, and that was followed by "All Day and All of the Night." Compared to the pop that the Beatles were up to, the Davies brothers were years beyond that.

In the mid-'60s they switched to a kind of droll, mocking tone in their songs, one of many members of the counterculture to mock the upper-classes. I think of "Well Respected Man":

"'Cause he gets up in the morning,
And he goes to work at nine,
And he comes back home at five-thirty,
Gets the same train every time.
'Cause his world is built 'round punctuality,
It never fails.
And he's oh, so good,
And he's oh, so fine,
And he's oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.
He's a well respected man about town,
Doing the best things so conservatively."

This kind of thing happens in "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," which sends up slaves to fashion, and "David Watts," which concerns a young man who wants so much to be like someone else. And what to make of "Waterloo Sunset," which has a man, seemingly unable to leave his home, looking out the window at Waterloo Station and finding beauty in it. Pointedly, he sings about Terry and Julie, who are presumably named after Terence Stamp and Julie Christie, then at the heights of movie stardom in England:

"Millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground
But Terry and Julie cross over the river where they feel safe and sound
 And they don't, need no friends
As long as they gaze on Waterloo Sunset, they are in paradise
Waterloo sunset's fine."

Though they didn't engage in the coming psychedelia phase much, the band expanded their subject matter to beyond love songs. One of my favorites is Dave Davies' "Death of a Clown," a beautiful song, and "Apeman," which deals with what it means to be a human being (or not). A complete diversion is "Celluloid Heroes," which sounds like i would be horrible--Davies singing about walking down Hollywood Boulevard and noticing the stars--Greta Garbo, Bela Lugosi, Marilyn Monroe. It's cheesy but it works.

In the '70s The Kinks had their most iconic song, "Lola," which deals with an encounter between the singer and a woman who may just be a man. When I was listening to radio, it was the most ubiquitous Kinks song, perhaps due to its wink-wink nature:

"Girls will be boys, and boys will be girls.
It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world,
 Except for Lola."

They had hits through the decade into the '80s, including "Superman," "Catch Me Now I'm Falling," which is a tribute to the U.S. and how it was ignored during its crises, and the nostalgic "Come Dancing," in which Davies remembers how his sister was taken out every Saturday and taken dancing to the local big band palace.

The Kinks, with all sorts of internal problems, especially between the brothers (tellingly, they now pronounce their last names' differently) and haven't performed together in twenty years. But while listening to them this week I was reminded how diverse and vibrant their sound was, how clever their lyrics were, and how lovely Ray Davies' voice is.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Autumnlands

I picked up the first volume of The Autumnlands, subtitled Tooth and Claw, as it was on the year end's best list by Amazon in the graphic novels category. I'm still, deep down, a comic book nerd, even though I don't buy them individually anymore. I knew nothing about this when I bought it, but it turned out to be a lot fun, a mixture of overwrought fantasy with a dash of contemporary wit.

Written by Kurt Busiek, we get some standard fantasy tropes. We're in some mythical place that has seventeen cities, and Keniel is a cloud city, and there are wizards and spells. But the first thing we notice is that everyone is an animal--anthropomorphic, and possessing opposable thumbs and speech. The species are diverse--dogs, cats, turtles, a giraffe, and an owl, among others.

The cloud dwellers, though, are running out of magic. A warthog, Gharta, gets the idea to bring back "The Champion," the legendary figure from the mists of time that brought magic into their world. She is denied permission, but does it anyway, and the city is nearly destroyed. But she does bring the champion back, who proceeds to do battle against an army of bison, and defeat them. The animals are aghast--what is this champion? It's a human being, and they've never seen one before.

What's great is the champion is a guy named Steven Learoyd, who says he is a master sergeant of coalition forces. He speaks like someone from the 21st century U.S., with delicious dollops of profanity. He befriends the narrator, a young terrier named Dunstan, while Gharta must deal with the machinations of Sandhorst, a barn owl who lusts for power, and a devious coyote (is there any other kind) who is playing both sides together to make money.

What I liked most about The Autumnlands is that it takes a winking look at the world of fantasy, with classic Tolkien/Rowling gobbledy-gook talk of spells and such, while Learoyd becomes our way in. He thinks he's in a dream, but if he is from our time than the world of the animals is aeons into the future, when other animals have evolved into the dominant species.

The art by Benjamin Dewey is beautiful, and does not go crazy with experimentation. If there's nothing I hate more about contemporary comics is the inability to figure out which panel comes next. There are a few splash pages, but does not go overboard.

This is only the first volume, so I was left hanging a bit, and I don't read a ton of comics so I don't know if I'll buy future volumes but I just may have to, of only to see Sandhorst the barn owl get is comeuppance.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Merrick Garland

Should we feel good or bad for Merrick Garland, today named by President Obama as the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court to replace the deceased Antonin Scalia. In the real world, we would say "mazel tov!" Garland is a highly-qualified judge, perhaps the highest qualified of anyone, as he has been on the nation's second highest court for 19 years and Chief for three of those years. In the real world, Republicans would nit-pick but then ultimately vote for him, as they did with Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

But this is not the real world, it's Bizarro World. As Garland stood with the President and Vice-President in the Rose Garden and got choked up by the honor, he had to know that this may all come to nothing, because the Republican senators are a big bunch of babies.

This has been coming since Scalia's body was still warm, when Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, said that because it was the last year of Obama's term, the Senate would not even consider a nominee. This is not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution. McConnell says let the people decide. Well, they did decide, back in 2012, and until Obama is out of the White House, January 20th, 2016 at noon, he is the president.

The obstruction here is so appalling it makes you want to pull the hair out of your head. That almost all the Republicans are in lockstep on this is maddening, because you know if it was their president they'd say the exact opposite. There have been many Justices nominated in an election year, and they've almost all been confirmed. Some are bringing up the ghost of Robert Bork. Well, Bork had his say, and was grilled for a week in hearings. It appears that most Republicans won't even meet with Garland, as if he had plague.

The talk of this nomination is Obama's decision and how it plays politically. He could have gone two ways--pick a nominee that would have excited the base or an ethnic minority and let that play all summer into the campaign. Ideally, it would have been a black woman or a Mexican-American (the latter would have been really fun to watch). Obama's probable second choice, Sri Srinivisan, is a South-Asian, which really doesn't have a large say in electoral politics nationwide.

But Obama took the second choice--the high road. He picked the guy most qualified, with no "firsts" about him. He is a white man (and Jewish, but there are currently three Jews on the Court). He is also 63, the oldest nominee since Lewis Powell in 1972. What Obama seems to be doing is saying, "Here is a guy who is eminently qualified, that many of you have said nice things about, and he will not be on the court for forty years, more like twenty. I dare you to take a chance that Hillary won't select someone younger and more liberal."

Some on the left are bemoaning that Obama took the second choice, complaining that's trying to placate the Republicans and is again playing chess. I'm not so sure--I think this nomination may be even more difficult to get around. Two of his other rumored choices were Jane Kelly, a woman from Iowa that would have nettled Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, also from that state, and Kejani Jackson Brown, a black female judge, but a district court judge, who would have been jumping up an extra level and would have been susceptible to cries that she was unqualified. Obama seems to have just said, fuck it, and went with the most qualified guy. And, since Obama is so big on empathy, he might have felt sorry for the guy, who was a bridesmaid in the process of Obama's other two nominations.

So we watch Garland on the occasion of what should be the greatest day of his professional life, and wonder if it will go up in a puff of smoke. Consider Homer Thornberry. He is the last person whose nomination died on the vine (others have been rejected or removed their names from consideration--Harriet Miers and Douglas Ginsburg come to mind). When Earl Warren retired during Lyndon Johnson's term, Johnson attempted to move Abe Fortas to Chief Justice, and then replace Fortas with Thornberry, a congressman from Texas and a crony of Johnson's. But Fortas' nomination had all sorts of problems, such as accusations of impropriety, and by the time it was settled Fortas withdrew and Nixon was president. He named Warren Burger, and Thornberry was relegated to a very minor footnote in Supreme Court history. Will that be Merrick Garland's fate?

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane

This review will be short not because I don't have a lot to say about it, but viewers would be advised to know as little about it beforehand, as 10 Cloverfield Lane is full of quirks and surprises, although I will give a hint: the title doesn't contain the word "Cloverfield" for nothing.

That film, a found-footage thing about an alien invasion of monsters, was more interesting in its delivery--shot entirely by video, much of it cell phones--than it being a good movie. 10 Cloverfield Lane doesn't have that gimmick, and is a much better movie, the kind that will probably be around when I'm thinking of my favorite films of the year.

The premise is simple: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a young woman who has left her boyfriend after a fight. She's driving across Louisiana in the middle of the night when someone runs her off the road. She awakens shackled to a wall in a cinder-block basement. Is this another Saw film? No, her abductor/rescuer is John Goodman, who saved her from the wreck and is now protecting her. From what? "An attack."

There is another member of the group, who are in a particularly well-turned out bomb shelter under Goodman's farmhouse. He's John Gallagher Jr. (who I read is a star of Broadway musicals), a hick who believes Goodman and helped him build the bunker. But Winstead, naturally, is suspicious, mainly because of Goodman's great performance. He's rational one minute, then loony. When he mentions the Russians, and then talks about Martians, you know he's not all there, but do you dare go outside? What if he's right?

Most of the film is a three-character drama of paranoia and trust issues. Goodman keeps mentioning a daughter, whom he presumes is dead (he thinks everyone is dead) and is concerned enough about his dinner table that he insists on coasters.Winstead, who is our eyes and ears of the film, is also great as she has to negotiate Goodman's mania.

I won't discuss the ending here, as that would be sacrilege. It leaves itself open for another, and I'm up for it. I will say that the film is not so much a sequel to Cloverfield as just another take on that film. There could be hundreds of films like it, and those who say it's a new kind of franchise are right.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven

This is the third of Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year series I've read, and it is consistent with the others, with some spine-tingling stories, as well as some that I just didn't get. There are also a few that start out gangbusters and trail off into incoherence. I'm thinking specifically of "the worms crawl in," by Laird Barron, which starts as a nifty homage to Poe's "The Cask of Amantillado" but turns into something entirely different, a kind of monster story that doesn't match up with the beginning. It's a Garanimals type of story.

Another story that intrigued me at first but then kind of petered out was It Flows From the Mouth," by Robert Shearman, about a couple that have a customized fountain, complete with water spout through the mouth, in the likeness of their dead child. An old friend visits for the night, and has some very weird experiences, but nothing that pays off. It does have my favorite line of the book, though: "The death of a child is a terrible thing, and I'm not a monster. But if a child was going to die, than I'm glad it was Ian."

A pair of stories had to do with unearthing unimaginable things from far below. "Ymir," by John Langan, has a young woman exploring deep beneath extreme northern Canada, and calls upon Norse mythology (according to it, Odin and his brothers made the universe from the remains of a huge giant named Ymir). Rhoads Brazos "Tread Upon the Brittle Shell" has speleologists discovering something at the bottom of an immense system of caves, but I'm not quite sure what it was. Both of these stories illustrate a problem I sometimes have with these kind of stories--they never quite say just what it is that's unearthed. I understand the idea of leaving something to the imagination, but I end these stories with a furrowed brow.

We get one zombie story, and it's a dandy, "Chapter Six," by Stephen Graham Jones, which has academics traversing the countryside after a zombie apocalypse. "Zombies. Zombies where the main thing that mattered these days." We also learn that the best way to cannibalize is to suck the marrow out of bones. Another creepy story is "The Coat Off His Back," by Keris McDonald, which introduced me to the "Innocent Coat" and British highwayman Dick Turpin. I won't say more than that, other than that the title is very literal.

But the best stories are good old-fashioned tales of murder. "Outside Heavenly," by Rio Youers, features a grisly find by law enforcement. "Wingless Beasts" is a vicious little tale by Lucy Taylor involving the unrelenting nature of the desert, and a man who shouldn't judge by appearances. "Plink" is an extremely interesting story, especially for a teacher. The author is Kurt Dinan, and in my classes I will notice those who nod. "Winter's Children," by Angela Slatter, finds a woman looking for a notorious serial killer in an old-age home.

My favorite story, though, is Caitlin R. Kiernan's "Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8)" about traveling twin sisters who murder their way across the countryside. Of all the stories in the book, this is the one that really got under my skin. Beyond being a good horror story, it's an excellent piece of literature, and begins: "The Impala's wheels singing on the black hot asphalt sound like frying steaks, USDA choice-cut T-bones, sirloin sizzling against August blacktop in Nevada or Utah or Nebraska, Alabama or Georgia, or where the fuck ever this one day, this one hour, this one motherfucking minute is going down."

On Datlow's Facebook page she has announced the contents and art for her next volume. Sign me up.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

I was charmed by The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (a title I will not type again), which was an international hit (it is the highest-grossest Swedish film not based on a Stieg Larsson book) but didn't do anything in the U.S., except get nominated for a Best Makeup Oscar.

The film is full of whimsy, so if one accepts that, it's rather enjoyable. It's also a strange hybrid of Forrest Gump and an Elmore Leonard novel (those pesky suitcases full of money) and a dash of Up.

The centenarian in question is Allan Karlsson, who, after getting explosive revenge on a fox that killed his cat, finds himself in a retirement home. Although he is not committed, he exits via the window, catches the first bus out of town, and ends up in possession of a suitcase full of cash. Another old codger (but not nearly as old as he is) accompanies him on an adventure that has them pursued by criminals but also gathering lost souls along the way, including a perpetual student and an elephant.

Intertwined with this plot is Allan's story. He is orphaned at an early age, and has a passion for blowing things up. Like Forrest Gump, he wanders through history, meeting famous people like Franco and Stalin and the idiot twin brother of Albert Einstein, working for both the Americans and Russians during the Cold War, and living a life without guile, being refreshingly honest to everyone. He also doesn't have a love life, since a eugenicist decides he must have negro blood because of his penchant for violence and has him neutered.

Directed by Felix Herngren, the movie is kind of a visual representation of the phrase "God looks out for fools." Allan, played by Swedish comedian Robert Gustafsson, gets in and out of scrapes usually through seemingly divine providence, althoug the film is completely secular. At times this gets to be too much, as when one gangster, who sounds exactly like Michael Caine, gets done in at a very opportune moment.

If a viewer doesn't demand too much credibility, this is nice little comedy with a pleasant demeanor.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Spectre

I had a fun time watching Spectre, the latest James Bond film and the fourth featuring Daniel Craig as 007. But my enjoyment is not because the movie is particularly good, it stems more from a kind of metacognition--recognizing the tropes of Bond films, dating back over 50 years. Spectre has nothing new to add to the canon, and in some ways is a very cynical exercise.

Like an anthropologist from the future, examining pop culture from the distant past, I took in Spectre bit by bit, through a magnifying glass. The opening strains of Monty Norman's theme, the iris on the screen, soon inhabited by Bond, shooting straight at us, and then the screen covered in blood (I was put off that the iris does not then move around and focus on the pre-credit sequence--when did they stop doing that?) Then the pre-credit sequence, which finds Bond in media res, this time in Mexico City, where he is after an assassin and blows up a whole building, before having hand-to-hand combat in a helicopter.

Then the title song (which just won an Oscar) accompanied by writhing naked woman. It is, as they say, to laugh. Then the scene with M, and Bond getting chewed out (Bond has gotten in trouble so many times I would love to sit in on one of his yearly evaluations). We then get to the crux of things--Bond is up to something on his own, and M (Ralph Fiennes, better than the material) trying to get to the bottom of it. It seems that the higher-ups are combining MI5 and MI6 (one is domestic, one is foreign intelligence) and an unctuous bureaucrat (Andrew Scott) is going to phase out the 00 program and push to unite nine different nations' intelligence services.

Bond ignores orders and is off to Rome to attend the funeral of the man he just killed. He beds the first of his quota of two women per film (Monica Bellucci, still in widow's weeds) and realizes he's on to something big--an international criminal organization called Spectre. He has the dead man's ring, which gains him entry (for a top criminal organization, they should improve security) and learns that he knows the head cheese. He's then off to Austria to interview a former member of Spectre (Mr. White, who appeared in Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace). Bond promises to protect his daughter for information. She turns out to be Lea Seydoux, a doctor who wants nothing to do with Bond until thugs try to kidnap her.

But of course she falls in love with Bond after one roll in the hay (he should quit the spy business and write a book on how to pick up women) and they are off to Morocco. Bond has a magnificently-done fist fight with a towering man (Dave Bautista) and then, in another Bond specialty, is made a guest of the villain, who is Christoph Waltz, urbane, witty, and psychotic.

Here is where the script, by four different writers, makes an attempt at something interesting but fail. It seems that Waltz, out of some kind of petulant sibling rivalry, faked his own death, amassed great amounts of wealth (just how we don't know), and is behind Scott's takeover of intelligence. He also has been behind all of the villains in the last three Craig films. This attempt at retro-fitting is really kind of dumb, since the idea obviously came far too late--maybe they should go back and insert Waltz into the shadows of the other three films. Also, in a tribute to older Bond films, they give him the name of Ernst Stavros Blofeld, who was in two Sean Connery films (and the one George Lazenby) and was the main inspiration of Mike Myers' Dr. Evil, complete with white Persian cat.

What I found somewhat interesting about Spectre is that Bond, when asked what he does, does not say spy, or secret agent, he says assassin. And, if you think about it, that's what he is, as whether by intention or not, in every film he dispatches the main baddie (in fact, Blofeld is the only one who survived for more than one film). In some ways Craig is the closest to what Ian Fleming intended--a living weapon.

The problem is that the makers of the film, starting with director Sam Mendes, seem to have been interested in making the ultimate James Bond film according to the template, and not attempting to do anything fresh or original with it. It makes for the cinematic equivalent of comfort food--macaroni and cheese, right from the box, with that disgusting yet tasty yellow powder. Yes, I liked Spectre, but I was laughing in the wrong places.

Though at the end of the film it appears Bond has quit his job we get the requisite title card, "James Bond Will Return." Craig has said he would rather slit his throat than play Bond again, but dollar signs may have changed his mind (Waltz is committed to two more films, but only if Craig returns). My idea, certainly not my own, is that 007 and the name James Bond are passed on to each agent who occupy it, much like M or Q. So maybe kill off Bond in one of these films and have him replaced by an actor who is a lot different--Idris Elba maybe, or a woman--Jane Bond. That would explain why Bond doesn't seem to age. But of course the film Skyfall, giving Bond a back story, ruined that idea.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Sound & Color

This year I'm trying something new: listening to Grammy Award-winning albums in the categories that many people don't pay attention to. The big winners this year were Taylor Swift, for her album 1989, and I don't need to listen to that, because I know myself and there's no way I could take Taylor Swift seriously. Kendrick Lamar won all the rap categories, but try as I might, I can't get into that kind of music.

I already owned of the winners, Alabama Shakes Sound & Color, which won the Best Alternative Album category. I'm not sure what "alternative" means any more. It used to mean rock music that was not "classic" rock or punk rock or any other definable classification, but then became basically just rock music made after 1980.

But alternative suits Alabama Shakes because there's just no defining this sound. It's bluesy, it's at times jazzy, it's based on roots music, and it's for a more sophisticated ear--there's no "yeah, yeah, yeahs" here. It's rock music for adults--if a kid likes this sign him or her up to be a rock critic.

What Alabama Shakes' sound is most about is the voice of Brittany Howard. She sings lead on all the songs (as well as writing all the lyrics) and if there's anything identifiable about the group, it's her. But, of course, her voice is like a chameleon, sounding different on almost every track. She has an androgynous voice, so at times she's reminiscent of Janis Joplin, other times Smokey Robinson. She has a tattoo of the state of Alabama on her arm and there's more of that in her voice, as it can be gritty and dirty, but also purely beautiful. On "Guess Who" her voice is playful, seductive, while in "The Greatest" she lets rip with a guttural rock snarl.

Musically, the group lays down some nice riffs, such as Howard's guitar work on "Don't Wanna Fight," which also won a Grammy, and a great hook on "Shoegaze" Lyrically, most of the album is full of songs of love, both won and lost, but I think my favorite pair of lines are on "Miss You," when Howard, with a wistful twinkle in her voice, sings "I'm going to miss you, and you Mickey Mouse tattoo, and you'll be leaving in your Honda Accord, is that true?"

Alabama Shakes make rock music for people who thought rock music had ceased to be made anymore. No greasy kid stuff here.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Athletes in Body Paint

A few days ago I picked up the new Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, and as usual I flipped through it quickly and wondered why I wasted my money. I mean, sure, this is a catalogue of the winners of the genetic lottery, women who are so perfect that the mind reels, but year after year of this had provided little in the way of surprises, and we can see all of this on the Internet anyway.

But one thing has me interested. For several years now the magazine has used female athletes as models. This year they have Ronda Rousey, Caroline Wozniacki, and Lindsey Vonn pose in nothing but body paint, reducing the idea of "swimsuit" to new depths. I enjoy this on a purely visceral reaction, but I wonder what this does for other female athletes, both at the top of their games and not--is their are a hierarchy of attractiveness, that is absent in the world of male athletes?

I've been around a while and I don't remember this as being a long-time thing. For one thing, female athletes rarely received the kind of attention they do now. Back in the day Chris Evert and Nancy Lopez were considered attractive, but never posed in bikinis. I think it may have been Anna Kournikova, the beautiful tennis player who never actually won a tournament, that turned things around, and made it possible for mediocre athletes to gain fame as eye candy. Since then, Danica Patrick, Maria Sharipova, Hope Solo, and even Serena Williams have traded in on their looks. Williams, who is the most dominant female tennis player right now and perhaps the best player ever, posed on the cover of Sports Illustrated, having won the Sportswoman of the Year Award, in heels and long, bare legs.

What do female athletes who do not fit the norm for beauty think of all this? Certainly using one's attractiveness for money and fame is nothing new, but it is in the world of athletes. When a woman like Patrick, who is not the only female race car driver, becomes world famous based on her looks and not on her accomplishments on the track, what does this say about society at large? Plain Jane athletes need not apply for for endorsements?

The case of Ronda Rousey is fascinating. If she was just someone walking down the street she might turn a few heads, but given her stardom in MMA she is something of a goddess, despite her defeat some months ago. I admit to be captivated by her. I don't think of her as some kind of imaginary girlfriend--I don't think I'm secure enough to date someone who could beat the tar out of me--but her skill in marketing herself as a great athlete and a sex object is pretty skillful. I note that Holly Holm, who beat her, and Miesha Tate, who beat Holm, are also what most men would find attractive, and in a sport that one might expect to find women who look more like men.

All of this is a reminder of the double standard of gender in our society. No one really cares what Michael Jordan looks like, or Clayton Kershaw, or Peyton Manning, who has a forehead the size of an acre. Male athletes are celebrated for their accomplishments. In fact, pretty boys can be jeered. But women athletes still are judged by their appearance, and those that take the step of appearing in sexist publications, no matter how much lechers might like me might want to see them, are doing their sisterhood no favors. Rousey might want to concentrate on winning her title back, not frolicking on the beach in nothing but paint.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Cinderella

I really don't have much to say about the 2015 Disney version of Cinderella, directed competently but not very interestingly by Kenneth Branagh. It's just a straightforward telling of the ancient tale (it goes back to B.C. Egypt, though it was popularized by Charles Perrault in 1697 and then Walt Disney in 1950). There is no Marxist, feminist, or Freudian interpretations here, which makes for a bland film.

Disney, never one to leave a cash cow unmilked, is now remaking many of their animated films as live-action films. Coming up is The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, The Little Mermaid, Mulan, and Winnie the Pooh (!?). Cinderella was pretty easy to do given the CGI, that has mice turn into horses and a pumpkin turn into a coach.

The basic story is here, and to pad it to 118 minutes there's a little more. We learn how Ella (Lily James) came to be under the thumb of her wicked stepmother (a very fine Cate Blanchett). Blanchett is even given some motivation for what she does, though she's still a bitch. Also, there's much given to the handsome prince, as we meet the king (Derek Jacobi), and a Grand Duke (Stellan Skarsgard). The Prince is played blandly (really, every Prince Charming is always bland, it goes with the territory) by Richard Madden. Helen Bonham Carter, as though she were still being directed by ex-husband Tim Burton, is the Fairy Godmother.

The film was a modest hit, and I suspect that is from little girls and some adults who are nostalgic for films that don't make them think too much. James is pretty without being va-va-va-voom, and the production design and costumes (by Oscar-nominate Sandy Powell) are very befitting a fairy tale.

If you do see Cinderella, don't expect much and you won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Short Bus

I was assigned to read The Short Bus, by Jonathan Mooney, for my graduate course in special education. Mooney is dyslexic, and struggled with academics during his childhood. He triumphed, though, and ended up graduating from Brown. He decided to get himself a short yellow school bus, the kind that is immediately associated with taking disabled kids to school, and drive around the country, meeting with disabled students and their families.

This is a good idea and a worthy one, but I was not over wowed. Mooney's writing is very casual--he writes as if he speaks, with phrases, "if you know I mean." I'm sure that was his aim, but it often just sounds amateurish. But the theme of the book, that there is no such as normal and that disabled kids are not broken and thus can not be fixed: "What a simple, common, and destructive message. You're not normal. How many people have been told, regardless of who they are. You're not normal? But where did the idea of normalcy come from?" is a powerful one. As an educator, I just wish he had gone further--how exactly should learning disabled children be taught? I certainly understand that they can not be taught like other children, but Mooney seems to be down on the whole education system, and never talks to a teacher.

The bus is given the name Bob Henry and Mooney travels with various people throughout the journey, including his fiancee, his sister, and a documentarian. He meets all kinds of people, though the episodic nature of the book has me kind of forgetting some of the people in the early part of the book. There's Kent, a young adult who would appear to have ADHD, and publishes his own newsletter, called The Kent: "This was Kent, walking a line that seemed to embody the paradox of ADD: the line between utter foolishness and genius, of disaster and success."

Some of the other memorable visits are with an older man in Kennebunkport, Maine, who might once upon a time been called the "village idiot," but is now regarded with affection and protection, a folk artist and transvestite that paints a mural inside the bus. His last visit is with Jeff, who probably has autism, given that he schedules his entire day by the minute and makes meticulous lists. It is here that Mooney hits upon something--people with autism refer to those who don't as "neuro-typical." So perhaps "typical" is a better word than normal.

There's a whole bunch of other stuff crammed in here, too. Mooney tours the country, visiting Graceland, going to Burning Man, and the most touching stop, his futile search for a plaque commemorating Carrie Buck, a woman who was involuntary sterilized. She took her case all the way to the Supreme Court, but Oliver Wendell Holmes, normally a great justice, took the government's side, writing, "Three generations of imbeciles are enough."

I am coming across kids of all different stripes as a teacher, including those with learning disabilities. I found Mooney's discussion of the history of their education enlightening, but I found the book missing that center--just what is a teacher to do? He presents problems without solutions.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Shaun the Sheep Movie

One of the nominees for Best Animated Feature at this year's Oscars was Shaun the Sheep Movie, a claymation film coming out of the delightful Aardman Studios. Shaun the Sheep is a spin-off character from Nick Park's Wallace & Gromit series, but I was totally unaware of this as I watched the film.

Like many of Aardman's films, Shaun the Sheep Movie has highly intelligent animals (not quite anthropomorphic, but close) on some sort of wild adventure. It is in some ways a cross between a Far Side cartoon and George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Shaun and his fellow sheep live on Mossy Bottom Farm. The Farmer is a loving sort, but lives on a tight routine, enabled by his dog, Bitzer, who takes his work seriously. Shaun longs to just have one day off, so he and the others conspire to occupy Bitzer and put the Farmer to sleep (by counting sheep) but their attempt backfires, and puts the Farmer in the hospital with amnesia. They and Bitzer must now find the Farmer without being caught by the evil Animal Control Officer.

Aardman stuff is wonderful and droll--no belly laughs, just some chuckles and many smiles. The humor is very English and very humanistic, as animals are given the best human characteristics and people the worst. There is also a sense of the absurd that floats through the movie, best expressed by the plot thread that finds the Farmer, who can't remember his name, taking a job as a trendy hair cutter because of his talents at shearing wool. I also quite enjoyed when the sheep, dressed as humans, visit a fancy restaurant and don't know what to do--some chew on the menus.

There's also a sense of camaraderie in the animals. Bitzer and Shaun put aside their differences, and enlist another dog, who is something of an outcast because of sheer ugliness (he, or she, looks like a Charles Booth dog). That dog has a happy ending, as does everyone, when the Farmer remembers who he is (thankfully he is a wool farmer--there is no sign that any animals are slaughtered at Mossy Bottom).

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Racing Extinction

Racing Extinction is a well-meaning documentary from the team that gave us The Cove, and again is about the thoughtless slaughter of life on the planet. This time, though, the stakes are higher than just dolphins. Perhaps the most alarming statistic given is that in 100 years, fifty percent of all species will be extinct.

Much of what is presented in this film is similar to that of Elizabeth Kolbert's book The Sixth Extinction (she is one of the talking heads here)--there have been five mass extinctions in Earth's history, and we seem to be on the cusp of a sixth, this time because of man. All of the extinctions had this in common: a high spike in carbon dioxide. Turns out that C02 levels create acidification of the oceans, which kill off a lot of marine life. For example, phytoplankton, which is crucial to keeping life on the planet in balance, is threatened. If those little things go, we all do.

The rise of carbon dioxide is caused by a few things. Most of know about fossil fuels, such as oil burning (the film uses filters to show just how much carbon dioxide comes out of the tailpipe of a car). But what was interesting is that the greatest emitter of CO2 comes from the farming of animal products. The production of beef, for example, increases methane (cow farts, basically) which pollutes the air. One scientist posits that if we all became vegetarians the crisis could be well averted.

There is also methane frozen under the surface of the poles, but global warming, which of course is caused by rising C02, is allowing it to escape the surface. After seeing this film you may want to bend over and kiss your ass goodbye.

Director Louie Psihoyos and his band are activists as well as documentarians. We see them busting a trendy restaurant for serving whale meat, and go undercover visiting endangered species black markets in Hong Kong. Shark fin soup is popular in china, which has meant the decimation of shark species--ninety percent of all sharks have been wiped out. They also uncover that the gills of manta rays are being used in traditional Chinese medicine, and they are able to get that animal on the list of endangered species.

Psihoyos doesn't want you to give up. The climax of the film is when he and a digital film guy (I don't know what else to call him) drive around New York City and project images and words about the environment on the sides of buildings, notably the United Nations (they are driving in a Tesla, the electric car). Passers-by are captivated, especially children, and for a fleeting moment one might feel helpful. But then I think about our government, and the representatives who are slaves to the oil industry, and I get all gloomy again. The best solution for the planet is for man to go extinct, I think.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Chicago

Next up on this year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees I come to Chicago and, like Steve Miller, it's amazing it took this long. They did have twenty top ten singles in the '70s, and before that were a cutting-edge rock/jazz fusion band--the only band that had a permanent horn section.

I wrote about their first album, but for this post I listened to a double-disc greatest hits collection. Listening to these kind of collections, arranged in chronological order, are very instructive on how bands sell out, because Chicago sold out in a major way.

The first disc is pretty awesome. From the opening brass fanfare of "Make Me Smile," then one of my favorite songs, "25 or 6 to 4," with a killer guitar riff and an equally impressive horn section, to "Questions 67 and 68," and the seemingly mind-mannered hit "Saturday in the Park," this is some of the best music ever made. But then, toward the end of disc 1, things start to curdle. I don't know who was responsible. Maybe it was the death of guitarist Terry Kath (he accidentally shot himself), or maybe it was just dollar signs, but the band transformed into making the worst kind of soft-rock love ballads you'd ever want to hear.

I blame it on Peter Cetera, who took over vocals full time (before that they were shared by Kath and Robert Lamm). He sang some great songs, but his voice, a tenor, can really start to bug you. At first the songs aren't too bad, like "Feelin' Stronger," but soon they are pure dreck. I think the tipping point is "If You Leave Me Now," which amazingly earned Chicago their only Grammy award.

The second disc in this collection is practically unlistenable. The first track is the only Chicago record I bought as a kid, "Old Days," which despite its trite lyric about nostalgia has some pretty great musicianship. Then comes "Baby What a Big Surprise," which is probably the last song Chicago did that I was aware of. The rest of the side is love ballad after love ballad, in Cetera's increasingly annoying voice. The collection concludes at 1991, though I still think they're together (not Cetera, though, who went on to record one of the worst songs ever, "The Glory of Love") and touring. There is nothing, musically, that connects that music to the music of their early years.

So, Chicago is a two-headed beast. The early stuff is great, some of the best rock and roll ever made. If you buy the two-disc greatest hits package, listen to the first one over and over again, and use the second one as a coaster.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

The Bedford Incident

I end my look at films from 1965 with The Bedford Incident, a taut and well-acted military drama that mixes in a little The Caine Munity, some Moby Dick, and just a dash of Dr. Strangelove.

Set in the early '60s, during the cold war, the story is set aboard a U.S. destroyer called the Bedford. Our way in is a reporter played by Sidney Poitier, who is doing a story on life on a naval ship, but he's really interested in the captain (Richard Widmark), a tough as nails commander who suffers no fools and runs a tight ship.

The ship's job is to hunt Russian subs, which they are doing off the coast of Greenland. Also on board is a former U-Boat commander (Eric Portman), once the enemy but now an ally. Poitier comes on board with the new medical officer (Martin Balsam), a genial reservist who immediately rubs Widmark the wrong way.

The action kicks off when the Bedford spots a sub, and then a long game of cat and mouse ensues, since the sub was in Greenland territorial waters. It stays under, but will sooner or later run out of air, and Widmark awaits orders from NATO as to whether to take any action, He is itching to, obsessed with winning the game.

The Bedford Incident is a nice time capsule. It recalls other films, in addition to the ones I mentioned, such as Fail Safe, for its paranoia. Of course it is a Hollywood film, and points out that all of this is folly.

Widmark is an actor who never got his due, and he is at the top of his game here, a complicated man who straddles the line between a good leader and a martinet. Poitier is also very good, and it's somewhat amazing that fifty years ago he was given a color-blind role--no mention is made of his race. This makes The Bedford Incident way ahead of its time.

It's always fun to see actors in old films before they were famous. James McArthur, who would be well known as Danno on Hawaii Five-0, plays the key role of a junior officer. Donald Sutherland has a bit part--he is not in the opening credits, so I thought I recognized him and then when he spoke I was sure it was him. Also in the film is comic actor Wally Cox as the dedicated radar officer.

I had never heard of this film until it was recommended to me by Marco of Gone Elsewhere. I pass that recommendation on to anyone else who likes a good, thoughtful film.