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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Love & Friendship

The pairing of Whit Stillman and Jane Austen is perfect. Stillman's movies, though set in the present or near-present, have always dealt with the same sort of things Austen's books did--the protocols of everyday life. Of course, Austen's women were always thinking of marriage, and that is the case in Love & Friendship, based on, Lady Susan, an Austen novella.

Lady Susan, played with delicious glee by Kate Beckinsale, is a recently widowed woman with a less than sterling reputation. She is forced to leave one estate because the wife of her host thinks she has eyes for her husband. She lands at her brother-in-law's house, where she is taken with familial duty.

Unable to collect her husband's inheritance, she must find a new husband. She sets her hooks first for a young man, Xavier Samuel. He only thinks of her as a friend, so when his father comes all the way to visit to tell him to stay away from her he is shocked. But he does end up proposing to her.

Meanwhile, Beckinsale's teenage daughter (Morfydd Clark) is being wooed by a complete nitwit, James Martin (played with comic genius by Tom Bennett). The scenes with Martin are the best in the film, and if movie awards were more conscious of comedic acting then Bennett would get loads of them. He is described as "silly," "a fool," "a blockhead," and "a pea-brain," but he is happily obtuse. He is like an early version of Monty Python's upper-class twits, as he heedlessly goes on about there being twelve commandments and not knowing that verse and poetry are the same thing.

Other characters include Chloe Sevigny, as Beckinsale's American friend and confidante (reteamed from Stillman's Last Days of Disco), who is told by her husband to cease communication with her disreputable friend lest she be sent back to her ancestral home of Connecticut.

Love & Frienship is sumptious and really needs a second viewing, as the dialogue is so dense and fast that I don't think I caught everything. There are numerous laugh out loud lines, such as when Beckinsale says of Bennett, "he's so rich and foolish he can't stay single for long," or when Beckinsale's sister-in-law refers to her as a "diabolical genius." Of course, Beckinsale is just trying to fight for her survival in an age when women were not taken care of by the law. That she's willing to use others around her, including her daughter, as pawns just makes her queen of the jungle.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Pacific Crucible

Having read Rick Atkinson's trilogy about the war in Europe, I was pleased to find that Ian W. Toll is presently working on a trilogy about the war in the Pacific. The first volume is called Pacific Crucible and it's fantastic.

The book covers Pearl Harbor to Midway, which is only a little over six months of the war but of course a lot happened. He also covers the backgrounds of some of the key participants, but he's smart in that he starts with the attack of December 7, which is told in thrilling fashion. Then he goes back and discusses the root causes of the war, and gives us biographical sketches of important figures such as Admirals Yamamoto, Chester Nimitz, and Ernest King.

Most Americans (one would hope) no about Pearl Harbor, but there's still things to learn. Toll writes that the destruction of all those battleships, while certainly a great loss of life, was strategically a bit of good luck, because it pushed forward the use of aircraft carriers, which was the future, as battleship war was on the way out. Also, Winston Churchill was grateful for it: "Churchill...had the absolute conviction that Pearl Harbor, by jolting the United States out of its isolationist lassitude, would secure ultimate victory for the Allies."

Japan pretty much had its own way early in the war. Not only did they devastate the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, but they scored easy wins in the Philippines, Malaya, and Singapore. Their fighter planes, the Zeroes, vexed American pilots. They had control of almost all the islands of Indonesia. The nation grew giddy, with what is called shoribyo, or "victory disease." They believed they could not be defeated, and what me might call hubris set in. Slowly the Americans reversed the course.

Toll writes brilliantly about the bombing of Tokyo. Bombers couldn't land on carriers, so they couldn't get close enough. But bombers could take off from carriers, so Jimmy Doolittle led the raid in which the bombers would hit their targets and not return, but keeping going into China. It was a complete success and hurt Japanese morale greatly.

Then we get the battle of the Coral Sea, which was sort of a draw, but kept the Japanese out of Australia. This battle saw the loss of the Lexington, a carrier built in 1925. The description of its sinking is very moving. "Coral Sea, it is often said, was something new under the sun--the first naval battle in which the opposing ships never saw each other."

Pacific Crucible ends with the battle of Midway, that turned the tide of the war. Toll indicates that Yamamoto's plan to invade Midway was ill-conceived to begin with. The Japanese, at the same time, attacked a few Aleutian islands, but intelligence, led by an unsung hero named Joe Rochefort, intercepted and decoded Japanese radio communication. The Americans knew they were coming.

The chapter on Midway reads like fiction. Wave after wave of U.S. planes came in at the Japanese carrier group, but did no damage. But all of these defensive moves kept Yamamoto from unleashing the invasion. Finally, dive bombers from the carriers Yorktown and Enterprise broke through, and sank all four of the Japanese carriers, wiping out their ability to harass in the Eastern Pacific. There would be no worries about an invasion of Hawaii.

Since I didn't know much about the battle, it was suspenseful to read about the Japanese counter-attack on the three U.S. carriers. The Japanese only attacked one, the Yorktown, and the other two were unscathed. The Yorktown was limping back to port when it was sunk by a submarine.

It is a complete coincidence that I write this on Memorial Day, but it sinks in just how brave these men were (on both sides). Toll notes that pilots of carrier planes knew they had the toughest job in the Navy and the lowest odds. He writes about how shocking it was for men to return and find out their comrades were wiped out, but with no body to honor, just empty chairs in the meeting rooms. And it's unsettling to note just how something as major as World War II could turn on the five minutes in which those dive bombers sank those Japanese carriers.

"As momentous as it was, Midway did not in itself turn the tide of the Pacific War. The American mobilization was proceeding apace, but would require another six months to take effect on the distant frontiers of the Pacific theater." That will all be in the next book.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Fremont Street Experience

Even though it was only ten miles from home, I had a mini-vacation last night. There was a free concert given by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, and I could have just driven in and gone home, but I decided to book myself a hotel room. The location: The Fremond Street Experience.

Las Vegas has two basic tourist areas: the Strip, which is far better known, with its monolothic casinos, each creating a simulacram of some other place or time (Paris, the Middle Ages, Ancient Egypt, etc.) and Downtown, the older, dowdier sister. Downtown was where the first hotels in Las Vegas were, and the center of it was Fremont Street (named after explorer John C. Fremont). This is where the action was, and the lights earned it the nickname of "Glitter Gulch."

But the Strip soon outshone Glitter Gulch, and local businesses hatched a plan to attract tourists back. They created a pedestrian mall and put a canopy on top of it, so the street is kind of like a carnival every night, with digital displays on the canopy. Above, like something out of Thunderdome, visitors zipline over the crowd. You can choose from two ways--sitting, while gripping a pole, or on the belly, hands extended like Superman.

In many ways Fremont Street is like Times Square in New York, but even more so. New York may have the Naked Cowboy, but Fremont Street has grown men dressed like babies (in nothing but diapers and bonnets). They also have the requisite costumed characters hustling for tips. I saw Batman, Spider-Man, Deadpool, and three members of Kiss. There were midgets, Chippendale dancers, rap singers, magicians, puppeteers, and one fellow in a speedo, tinsel around his neck, chanting to himself.

The mall is lined by trendy restaurants and seedy businesses. There are still some old and grand hotels there, including the Four Queens, where I stayed, and the Golden Nugget, the D, and Binions. There is also a strip club, The Girls of Glitter Gulch. Since I was on my own, I did something I haven't done in sixteen years--I went into it. I was told there would be a two-drink minimum, and at ten bucks a drink that seemed reasonable. I had a seat and the girls were kind of average--not the top of the line. So when I was told since I was using a credit card I had to have a four-drink minimum, I beat it out of there. Four drinks? If I drank them all I'd have to crawl out of there.

I headed over to the stage about about seven o'clock for a nine o'clock show. I had a great spot, but soon enough we were told to evacuate so we could come back in again and be checked for weapons and shit like that. The price of living in a modern age. I still had a good view of the stage, and bought myself a huge rum concoction that was mixed with orange creme. But now that I'm old being on my feet for over three hours is something I'm not likely to do much more of.

Jett came on and did an hour and a half of perfect garage-rock. She opened with "Bad Reputation," "Cherry Bomb," and "Do You Wanna Touch Me." She then did a few songs from her latest album, which were greeted politely if a little less enthusiastically. Given the calendar, she made the requisite speech about how Memorial Day is not just a holiday, and closed with "I Love Rock and Roll," which got the crowd howling. She did one encore of "Every Day People."

Jett, who is 57, has been doing this for forty years, and it is too her credit that she still manages to do a professional job. Her tour schedule this year is a lot of small towns--she's not filling arenas anymore, but she goes out and knocks it out of the ball park for appreciate fans of an astonishing range of ages (but mostly the crowd in Vegas were on the wrong side of 40). How many times has she performed "Cherry Bomb?" Thousands? This is where the career of artist and professional cross--you can create the work, but then it is generally required to go out there and do it, night after night. Some bands chose to quit touring, as the grind became too much. But performers like Jett seem to live for it.

Now I'm back home an enjoying a lazy Sunday and recovering. By the way, The Girls of Glitter Gulch will be no longer. They are shuttering in June to make way for a new hotel and casino. I will be tempted no more.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Bigger Splash

What a strange, unnerving film A Bigger Splash is. It doesn't entirely work--it moves in fits and starts, ranging from the languid to the frenetic, but in a summer of superheroes it's refreshing to see a film designed for grown-ups, and with another great performance by Ralph Fiennes, who I am now convinced is the best actor working today.

A Bigger Splash was directed by Luca Guadagnino, and based on an earlier film, La Piscine. It is set on an Italian island, where a Bowie-esque rock star (Tilda Swinton) is recovering from vocal cord surgery. She is with her lover (Matthias Schoennaerts), and they are enjoying an idyll of sun, water, and sex. But then an old lover of hers (Fiennes) tells her he's flying in, and the plane literally is overhead.

Fiennes was Swinton's producer as well as lover, and he has a surprise--a daughter he never knew about (Dakota Johnson). Thus we have a classic chamber piece, though the setting is mostly outdoors--four people, each pairing off and creating drama. Fiennes wants Swinton back, while Johnson has her eye on Schoennaerts, though Swinton is worried that Fiennes, who has no limits, might have fucked his own daughter.

The film has some pacing problems and telegraphs some plot points--the title and a reference to Brian Jones will clue you in on the climax of the film, in which tragedy strikes--but is elevated by the lead performances. Swinton, an extremely versatile actress, has an interesting chore. Except for flashbacks, she can't speak above a whisper. But her facial expressions are so clear, like an actress from silent film, that she doesn't need to speak.

As much as Swinton doesn't speak, Fiennes does. His character, Harry, is irrepressible, one of those guys who is always "on," and is a good time until he wears you out. Fiennes has been so good lately. His last three roles of note, in The Grand Budapest Hotel, Hail, Caesar! and this film are so different and interesting that I would love to see him do anything (I did see him play Hamlet years ago). When he receives an honorary award of some kind they must be sure to play the clip of him here dancing to the Rolling Stones' "Emotional Rescue." It's a career highlight.

Schoennaerts, though playing a subdued character, is solid, but after seeing Fifty Shades of Grey I'm not sure if Johnson can act. Her character is an enigma, basically showing off her body and looking at everyone seductively. She's so vapid that it's hard to tell if it's acting or not. Time will tell with her.

This may sound strange but I also appreciated the nudity in this film. It is not gratuitous--people on vacation do get naked, and the film doesn't treat it like a big deal. We've gotten so prissy about things, with women wearing bras while having sex and both sexes wrapping themselves in sheets when they get out of bed that it's nice to see people behaving like they really do.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Thor: The Dark World

Since seeing Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War in the last month my anal retentive side demanded that I see the one MCU film I hadn't yet seen: Thor: The Dark World, which is the second outing for the God of Thunder, released in 2013. It is overwrought silliness, with the very existence of the universe at stake, of course, but is palatable enough.

As we pick up the story here, Loki the trickster (Tom Hiddleston) is locked away for unleashing an alien invasion on Earth, which was seen in the first Avengers' film. But dark things are afoot, literally, as a Dark Elf named Malekith, whom was thought long dead, seeks an all powerful weapon, called Aether, which he wants to use at the "convergance," or the alignment of the nine realms. Got all that?

The Aether ends up, in a great cinematic coincidence, inside the body of Jane Porter (Natalie Portman), who is Thor's human love. Thor takes her to Asgard, but Malekith senses the Aether and opens a can of whoop-ass on the Asgardians. Odin, Thor's father and the "allfather," (played with great swagger by Anthony Hopkins) wants to fight the Dark Elves, come what may, but Thor has a plan that would rely on the trust of Loki.

Again, this is not to be taken seriously for one minute, but it is great fun. There are minor pleasures here, such as Idris Elba as Helmdall, the watcher who sees all, and Kat Dennings is wonderful comic relief as Portman's assistant. Also returning is Stellan Skarsgard as a scientist arrested for running around Stonehenge naked.

As usual with MCU films, there's hints at's what to come, and lots of reference to something called the Tessaract--I forget what that is and what it does. And not to spoil things, but apparently Loki is as tough to kill off as the Joker.

Now that I'm all caught up I'll have to wait for Dr. Strange this fall.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Muppet Treasure Island

Sticking with my Treasure Island theme, in 1996 the story got the Muppets treatment, with Kermit the Frog and the gang being inserted into the story alongside human actors, most prominently Tim Curry as Long John Silver. Ostensibly for kids, it also has a Mad Magazine parody thing going, with contemporary anachronisms and wink-wink humor. Unfortunately, it's a little wan in that department, with some forgettable songs that stop the movie dead in its tracks.

The story has the same framework, with an old buccaneer named Billy Bones (Billy Connolly) bunking at an inn where Jim Hawkins (Kevin Bishop) works. When the old salt up and dies, Jim gets the treasure map, and along with his companions Gonzo and Rizzo, sails to find the booty. Fozzie Bear is Squire Trelawney, here played as a half-wit who has an imaginary friend living in his finger, and Dr. Bunsen is Dr. Livesey (unably assisted by Beaker).

To get Miss Piggy involved, they've made Ben Gunn, the marooned pirate, into Benjamina Gunn, who was jilted by Captain Smollett (Kermit). I've never been fond of Miss Piggy's obnoxiousness, and it doesn't work here, as she has become a Colonel Kurtz-like leader of primitives (and just how did an elephant manage to get on a Caribbean island?).

This might be passable fare for very small children. Curry is terrific, and sometimes in his singing voice he gives that little quaver that makes you remember Frank N. Furter. Most of the jokes, though, are very bad, but there was inspired bit of humor that made me laugh. When they are pulling things out of Billy Bones sea chest, one of them is a copy of Henry Kissinger's book Diplomacy. I just love the randomness of that. And who can't help but laugh at a few seconds of the Swedish chef?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Hope Six Demolition Project

PJ Harvey's latest album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, is fantastic, her best since To Bring You My Love. Every song is good, and there are some insanely catchy hooks and savage rhythms. It is also something of a themed album about urban renewal.

Inspired by a trip to Washington, D.C., the opening song, "The Community of Hope," is specifically about a neighborhood that is being gentrified, or as Harvey sings, "They're going to a put a Walmart here." The next song, "The Ministry of Defence," paints a horrid picture of urban blight:

"This is the ministry of remains
fizzy drink cans, magazines
broken glass, a white jawbone
syringes, razors, a plastic spoon
human hair, a kitchen knife
and the ghost of a girl who runs and hides"

That's some brilliant poetry, but the music also works on simply a rock and roll level, and would be great even if the words weren't understood. "Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln" is as catchy a song as you're likely to hear, but again fits into the D.C. theme, as does "River Anacostia" and "Medicinals," in which she wanders the National Mall, wondering about the plant life that lives there.

Simply put, this is some of the most powerful rock music I've heard in a while, and re-established Harvey as a major player on the rock scene. Her last several albums, while good, were somewhat experimental in tone. This one, despite it being something of a philippic, drives with a kind of primitive beat, reminiscent of African and Native American rhythms.

Harvey wrote all the music, but kudos are due her longtime collaborator John Parish, who provides the percussion. "Chain of Keys," "The Orange Monkey," and "Medicinals" are heavy on percussion, and as someone who always wanted to be a drummer, it's the kind of rock I like best.

Harvey, who isn't exactly an artist who burns up the charts, actually got some notice for this record. with D.C. politicians blasting her for her lyrics. I have no idea who's right or who's wrong on this (generally I'll take a musician over a politician) but it's great that she's stirring up commentary.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Treasure Island (1950)

As previously noted, I had my sixth-graders read Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island. There have been dozens of adaptations, but the one that most people remember is the 1950 version by Walt Disney, with Robert Newton as Long John Silver. If Stevenson created most of the pirate cliches we know today, Newton embodied them. He even says, "arrgh!"

Treasure Island was Disney's first live-action feature, and the first adaptation of the book done in color, which is lovely, by Freddie Young (who would go on to do Laurence of Arabia). It is fairly faithful to the book, emphasizing the duality of Silver, who starts as a good guy, turns really bad, but young Jim Hawkins can't help but help him escape at the end. Even the good Doctor Livesey tells Jim he had secretly hoped he would escape.

Much of the early scenes of the book are condensed or completely cut, such as the arrival of Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow Inn, and Pew's death being trampled by horses. But the best scene in the book--Jim's fight with Israel Hands--is completely told here, and done quite well. What I think works both here and in the book for young people is somewhat disconcerting--that adults can't be trusted.

Also in the cast were Bobby Driscoll as Jim, who was one of the child stars who did not have a happy life, dying of alcoholism before he was 31. He's very good in the film, capturing the spirit of adventure but also the terror of getting into a fight with pirates. The film was directed by Byron Haskin, who also directed The War of the Worlds.

I'm afraid this kind of thing doesn't appeal to kids today. I showed it to my sixth-graders, and very few of them actually watched it. I asked them what movie they would like to watch and most said Deadpool. Sometimes there's nothing sadder than showing a kid something you expect them to like and they are completely bored by it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

It's been sixty years since Alfred Hitchcock remade one of his own films, The Man Who Knew Too Much, which today may be remembered for its Oscar-winning song, "What Will Be Will Be," rather than anything else. But it's a solid suspense film, perhaps milked a little too long (at two hours, it's about ten minutes too much).

The first version of a film of this title was made by Hitchcock in England in 1934. He had always wanted to remake it, and finally did so in '56 with James Stewart and Doris Day as a typical American couple that gets involved in an assassination plot. As per the Hitchcock tropes, Stewart is the common man who takes on international spies and killers, his laconic drawl erupting into anger at every encounter with either bad guys or cops (along with the other Hitchcock films he made during the '50s and the Anthony Mann Westerns of the same decade, Stewart spend much of the '50s pissed off).

He and Day and their son (an unfortunately awful Christopher Olsen) are vacationing in Morocco. On a bus to Marrakesh, they are helped out of a possible incident by a Frenchman (Daniel Gelin). Gelin questions Stewart in a friendly manner. Day notices this and is suspicious, and then later, when they are stood up for dinner, she becomes even more so. But they befriend an English couple and forget about him, at least until he ends dying in Stewart's arms, his face covered in makeup and wearing Arab robes.

Gelin whispers some information to Stewart about an assassination plot in London before he dies, and the boy gets kidnapped. Warned not to reveal any information by a mysterious phone caller, they go to London to try to find him, foiling a plot to assassinate a prime minister at Albert Hall, and then later rescuing the kid when Day sings "What Will be Will Be (Que Sera Sera)" to get the kid's attention.

The first thing one notices is what Hitchcock is notoriously known for: bad rear projection shots. Day and Stewart are in the back of a bus and the rear projection is so noticeable it takes one right out of the film. Oddly, the film was shot in location in Marrakesh, where it was beastly hot (one colleague said it was the first time he had seen Hitchcock in short sleeves without a tie). But some of the marketplace scenes also appear to have been shot with rear projection. The scene of the first murder, though, comes across vividly, with the makeup on Gelin's face coming off in Stewart's hands. Actually, the way they shot it was with Stewart wearing white powder on his hands, which came off on Gelin's face.

There are many memorable set pieces, including Stewart and Day confronting their son's kidnappers in a London church, and the climactic assassination attempt, in which the shooter is supposed to fire during a crash of cymbals. Day, helplessly, watches, unable to do anything but scream. The shot of a gun barrel poking around the curtain is one of the things that Hitchcock duplicated from the first film.

Their is also some comedy in the film, especially a scene in which Stewart attempts to sit at a low table in a Moroccan restaurant, and then a bizarre and almost hallucinatory scene in a taxidermist shop.

I have not scene the original film, which Hitchcock described as being made by a "talented amateur" while the remake was by a "professional." The film is shot in almost lurid Technicolor by Robert Burks, one that suggests the paranoia of the film, in which everyone seems to be watching the couple. There is also a scene of great cruelty, not by the bad guys, but when Stewart gives Day sedatives before telling her that their son has been kidnapped. Her reaction may be the best thing Day ever did on film.

The Man Who Knew Too Much is second-tier Hitchcock, made just before his incredible run of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds. It follows his rules, though, of the audience knowing more than the characters. The whole assassination scene is one long stomach lurch, as we know who and what is going on, while those around do not. It just goes on a bit too long, as does the scene in which Day sings, fortissimo, to get the attention of her son. No one should be subject to more than two verses of "Que Sera Sera."

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Nice Guys

Even while the very opening credits are rolling, the ones that go through several production companies, we know what decade we are in. There's the rhythm, which sounds a bit like Shaft, and then the wah-wah guitar. Then the titles, in a candy-colored, rounded font. Yes, we are in the 1970s.

The Nice Guys was directed and co-written by Shane Black. If I didn't know better, I'd guess it was adapted by a novel that might have been cooked up by Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard, with a few lines by John D. MacDonald. But Black skipped the book and went straight to the screenplay.

Set in 1977, The Nice Guys is purely immersed in its time period. There are long lines at the pumps, the killer bee threat, and porno was shot on film. I'm sure Black started with the year and went from there. As such, he succeeded, though the film is a bit of a mess and could have used some better editing.

The guys of the title are Ryan Gosling as a licensed private detective, but he's a train wreck. We first see him in a bathtub, but wearing a full suit. He's a single father, and his daughter (Agourie Rice) is the conscience of the film. When he asks her if he's a bad person, she doesn't hesitate to say of course he is. The other guy is Russell Crowe as sort of a professional thug. For the right price, he will beat someone up for you. But he's a bit of a sentimental soul, for he longs to be useful.

They meet when a woman hires Crowe to tell Gosling to stop looking for her. Crowe does this by breaking Gosling's arm. Of course they will team up, and get involved with the porn industry and chicanery involving the automotive industry. There will be many fight scenes and child endangerment, which is a bit disturbing.

But the film worked for me overall due to the humor and all those '70s references. For someone who has no interest in or recollection of that decade, I think they will be sorely disappointed, for the story has several holes in it. We understand that Gosling was hired to find a girl named Amelia, but I never fully understood by who. Later in the film her mother (Kim Basinger) will hire both Gosling and Crowe to do it, but who hired him to begin with? He's also working on a case that involves a murdered porn star, whose aunt swears she saw her alive. If I'm following this correctly, then it's a huge coincidence that Gosling is hired to deal with two women who are involved in the same case.

So forget all that and enjoy the gentle chemistry between Crowe and Gosling. Both are very much against type--Crowe has fattened up over the years, and has a soft spot when it comes to kids and tropical fish, while Gosling does all the pratfall stuff, having trouble with a bathroom stall door, rolling down a hill from a balcony, and falling into a swimming pool from a great height.

But I'm fine with any detractors. There are some annoying cliches, such as a hired assassin who can't hit anything, even with a machine gun, and Yaya DeCasta is pretty bad as a woman who turns out not to be what she seemed. And for Rice to be involved in so much of the action, well, it just doesn't make sense. Keith David, as one of the henchman, says to Gosling, "Why'd you have to bring the kid?" He's right. I think the answer can be found on the bookshelf in Rice's room. There are four or five of the distinctive yellow spines of Nancy Drew books.

Saturday, May 21, 2016


Though Theeb, a nominee for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is set in Jordan in 1916, it still follows every rule that has been put down in screenwriting books. The writer and director, Naji Abu Nowar, is especially fond of foreshadowing. Practically every event that happens in this film is foreshadowed, meaning there is little surprise in the story for the savvy viewer. It doesn't mean, though, that the film is not involving.

Theeb is a boy who lives with his tribe of Bedouins. He is the third son of the recently deceased sheikh. The second brother, Hussein, teaches him things, like how to shoot (foreshadowing number one). Hussein tells him he will not get bullets until he knows how to aim.

Some visitors come to the camp. One is a British officer, who has a locket with a picture of his wife (that's not a good thing to have if you're a character in a war film). He and his guide are looking for a certain well, and it's clear that the officer is some sort of saboteur, as he has a box that he won't let Theeb touch. At that time, as anyone who has seen Lawrence of Arabia knows, England was aiding Arab tribes in their rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, which had occupied much of the Middle East.

Hussein is to guide them to the well, and Theeb impetuously tags along. The brothers are left in a showdown with bandits, and Theeb has to use his wits and the things taught to him by his elders to get out of the situation alive.

In many ways Theeb is a Hollywood Western transplanted to another place. It never ceases to fascinate me how the templates of Hollywood have managed to go everywhere. Instead of horses we have camels, but otherwise much of the plot is similar to any number of Westerns. And, of course, Westerns, like any other established genre, is full of foreshadowing. We even have the basic good-guys-wearing-white and bad-guys-wearing-black.

The cast, except for the officer, played by Jack Fox, are locals and amateurs. Theeb (which means "wolf") is played by a young man named Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat who, while being capable, is not revelatory.

I liked Theeb as an old-fashioned entertainment, with some genuinely suspenseful moments. It is the first Jordanian film ever nominated for an Oscar, but it's roots are definitely in the West, somewhere around Burbank.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Down by Law

Back in the '80s I spent a lot of time in New York City art houses, and one of the biggest names in indie film back then was Jim Jarmusch. Somehow I missed his 1986 film, Down by Law, which is having it's 30th anniversary, and I finally watched it last night.

Like Strangers in Paradise and Mystery Train, Down by Law is driven by music, this time of New Orleans. Jarmusch, though a New Yorker, wrote the film having never been to New Orleans, but guided by the music. I can't speak to its authenticity, having never been to New Orleans, but it has its own sense of place that exists only in film.

The film is about three men in prison. We meet two of them--Jack (John Lurie), a pimp who is set up by rivals and arrested for procuring a minor, and Zack (Tom Waits), a DJ who is thrown out by his girlfriend (Ellen Barkin) and takes some money to transport a car from one side of town to another. He's set up, too, though, when the cops stop him and a body is in the trunk.

They share a cell and grudgingly form a relationship that may not be a friendship but is at least tolerant of each other. Then they are joined by an Italian (Roberto Benigni), a strange little man who killed someone with a billiard ball ("You throw the ball at me, I throw it at you," he says in broken English).

Trios are an interesting subject in literature and film, because one person is usually the tipping point and changes the dynamic of the arrangement. Benigni is that person here, as the two Americans grow to like him, despite his penchant for reciting American poetry in Italian (a recitation of Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" will have special meaning). He also figures out a way to escape, and in a brilliant segue, Jarmusch does not show us the escape or even how it's done, just a cut to the men running down a tunnel. In all other prison movies the emphasis is on how they do it, but Jarmusch audaciously just leaves that out, realizing it's not important.

The three men trudge through the Louisiana swamp, eluding dogs. Lurie and Waits feud, and go there separate ways, but come back when they realize Benigni is cooking a rabbit. The finally find a small Italian restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where Benigni falls in love with the proprietress.

Down by Law is a little time capsule of '80s indie cinema. Jarmusch has often used nonprofessional actors, and here he does with Lurie and Waits, both musicians (Waits has had a respected acting career since then, while Lurie has turned to painting). At first the amateur acting showed, but as the film wore on I grew to get used to it and the characters grew on me, especially when Waits did his radio patter as "Lee Baby Symms."

This was Benigni's first international film. His first line, to Waits before they are arrested (they don't remember that they've met before) is "It's a sad and beautiful world," which he pronounces with the rounded vowels of the Apennines. He then basically takes control of the film and Lurie and Waits come along for the ride, and it's a nice ride.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


As I've mentioned before, one of the things I miss the most about leaving New Jersey was access to New York theater. The most recent sensation on Broadway,and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, the musicalized story of founding father Alexander Hamilton (the show may have played a part in keeping him on the ten-dollar bill). Now, even if I lived in New York I may not have been able to see it. It's the hottest ticket in town, and seats are not cheap. It will be playing in Las Vegas, but not until the 2017-18 season.

But, I can listen to the original cast album, which I have done. It doesn't give me the full experience--I happen to know that the cast is racially diverse, quite the opposite of reality, but given that much of the exposition is sung I can follow the story and tap my fingers on the steering wheel to the songs.

Hamilton has been described as a "hip-hop" musical, and while it is more hip-hop than most Broadway fare, it still lovingly holds most of the Broadway conventions in its score. Sure, having Thomas Jefferson drop the word "motherfucker" may be unconventional, but Miranda is clearly both a student of Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as rap and hip-hop. He even "samples" Rodgers and Hammerstein with the line "You've got to be carefully taught," and Gilbert and Sullivan with "modern major general." But then again, he also samples "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash.

"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman
dropped in the middle of a forgotten
spot in the Caribbean by providence
impoverished, in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?"

These lines are sung, and reprised in various versions, by Aaron Burr, who is forever bound with Hamilton by the duel they fought. If you think politics is dirty now, imagine the sitting vice-president killing the former Secretary of Treasury in a duel! At the end of this opening number, Burr sings, "And me? I'm the damn fool who shot him."

Act 1 covers Hamilton's rise in the army and his becoming an aide-de-camp to General Washington, who forever trusted him, much to the chagrin of Hamilton's rivals, who sings that it must be great to have "Washington on Your Side." Hamilton marries Eliza Schuyler, one of three rich sisters, but is also close to her sister, Angelica. He becomes the very first Secretary of Treasury.

Act II covers events after the war. There are two amusing numbers for history geeks, called "Cabinet Battle #1" and "Cabinet Battle #2." The first is about the federal government assuming the debts of all states, which Jefferson and Madison, coming from the rich Virginia, are against. But they finally agree to a compromise when the nation's capital is moved from New York to the south (which would become the District of Columbia). Burr, angry, sings that no one was in "The Room Where It Happened," suggesting some kind of corruption.

The second cabinet battle is over whether the United States should interfere in a burgeoning war between England and France. Jefferson says they should honor the loyalty of Lafayette, but Hamilton sings:

"You must be out of your goddamn mind if you think
the President is going to bring the nation to the brink
of meddling in the middle of a military mess,
a game of chess, where France is Queen and kingless.
We signed a treaty with a king whose head is now in a basket--
Would you like to take it out and ask it?"

Ah, note the alliteration and the internal rhymes. I believe Miranda is the best lyricist to hit Broadway since Stephen Sondheim.

The play follows historical events closely, such as when John Adams is elected President--King George has a short number singing, "President Adams? Good luck." (Adams is not a character). Adams does not keep Hamilton on as Treasury secretary, and he goes back to New York to practice law. He also has an affair with Maria Reynolds, and is then blackmailed by her husband. Hamilton, when confronted by Jefferson and Madison, admits what he did but says none of it was against the law and publishes a pamphlet about it, basically ending his political career.

One thing I learned that I did not know--Hamilton's son, Philip, died in a duel earlier than Hamilton did. He fought a man who insulted his father, and Alexander tells him to just shoot high and it will all be over. It was, like the Burr-Hamilton duel, fought in New Jersey "Everything's legal in New Jersey," they sing, and Hamilton fils did shoot high, but his opponent did not.

Hamilton, though disagreeing with Jefferson almost always, backed him in the election of 1800, against his old friend Burr, which did not sit well with the man who became vice-president upon finishing second (a good thing they changed the law). In 1804, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel for making disparaging remarks, and Hamilton agreed, and they went to New Jersey where Burr killed him.

Hamilton was a flawed man, he acted as if was the smartest in the room (which he frequently was) and of course had an eye for the ladies. But Miranda still paints him as a great man, and in the final number his friends and rivals sing his praises, such as Jefferson singing, "I'll give him this; his financial system is a work of genius. I couldn't undo it if I tried. And I tried."

Perhaps one day I will see Hamilton in person. I did eventually see Cats, even when that seemed impossible.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


The nominees for the last group of Best Foreign Film nominees for the Oscars are starting to come out on DVD. I've already seen Son of Saul, and next up is Mustang, which though set in Turkey and in Turkish, was the French submission.

It is a distinctly feminist film and by a woman director, Deniz Gamze Erguven, that details the stifling lives of young women in provincial Turkey. Five sisters, ranging from about seventeen to twelve, live with their grandmother and a menagerie of aunts and uncles, with one very stern fellow, Erol, being the boss. As the youngest narrates, "Everything was fine, until one day it all turned to shit." That line can probably be used in any film.

That is when they decide, on the way home from school, to play in the sea (the Black Sea, I'm figuring) and get on some boys' shoulders to play that game where you try to knock each other off. They don't take their clothes off, not even their shoes. But they are none-the-less disciplined by their outraged relatives, who find it disgraceful that they would rub their parts against a boy's neck. Here we see what life is like for a teenage girl in such a place--they are given virginity tests by the local clinic.

They are stopped from going to school, and the grandmother institutes domestic training, what the youngest calls a "wife factory." Later, when they sneak out of the house to attend a football match (one aunt prevents Erol from finding out by knocking out the power to the entire village so he can't see them on TV) the grandmother starts marrying them off. The oldest gets to marry her boyfriend (she admits she kept her virginity by having anal sex) but the second-youngest is married off to someone she doesn't even know.

The tension builds, as the remaining girls are locked up like prisoners. The youngest girl is the most rebellious, learning to drive on the sly and longing to go to Istanbul, which to her seems like Oz. We get hints of the uncle's inappropriate conduct with one of the sisters, and then their is a tragedy. Finally two of the girls resist and make a fateful decision.

Mustang is a well done film, but mostly it is just sad that young women in many places still are allowed to make no decisions about their lives, and that medieval traditions still hang on (after a couple marry, it is customary to bring out the wedding-night sheet to show blood, verifying the wife's purity). I went on IMDB and was interested to read what Turkish people thought. Some hated the film, but for reasons no American would pick up on--the girls had various accents, and other niceties like that, but some liked it for being accurate in its theme.

None of the performers are known to U.S. audiences but I would like to signal out Güneş Şensoy as that youngest daughter. In an interview as part of the extras, she is revealed to speak perfect English, so perhaps she has a future in Western films.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Tomb of Dracula

From the congressional hearings that led to censorship of comic books to the early 1970s, vampires were pretty much verboten in the form. That seems incredible now, where you can't turn around without finding vampires on TV or movies or bookshelves. But Marvel Comics started using vampires, when the Comics Code Authority began relaxing their stance, one of their successes was a series called The Tomb of Dracula, which began in 1972 and ran for 70 issues. The first twelve issues are contained in one volume, which I have read, to my delight and more than a little eye-rolling.

Bram Stoker's Dracula was in the public domain, so Marvel used him as their story. He was depicted as a square-jawed  villain of the first rank, although he did occasionally let people go. But mostly when attacked he would boast things, like "Fools! No mortal can destroy Dracula!"

The series begins when Frank Drake, a descendant of the Count, visits his ancestor's castle, which he owns. His friend, Cliff Graves, thinks it will make a great tourist attraction (he's right). Graves stumbles upon Dracula's coffin, opens it, and pulls out the stake put their by Abraham Van Helsing. Undead again, Dracula starts wreaking havoc.

As the series goes on, more familiar names are added. Van Helsing's granddaughter, Rachel, joins Frank in hunting down the vampire, and Quincy Harker, Jonathan Harker's son, wheelchair bound, has been trying to find him for years. We also are introduced to Blade, vampire hunter and, in an awkward attempt to be diverse, seemingly straight off the set of Soul Train.Wesley Snipes would play Blade in three movies.

The first year of the book was scatter shot, as it deviated in tone wildly, due to having four different writers. Marv Wolfman finally settled in as the writer, and the style coalesced, but there are still some strange things going on. Mostly each issue is the hunters getting close to Dracula, failing to kill him, and then the search goes on. I finally got a little sympathetic for Dracula, who was so wearied by the chase.

There are a few comic tropes that are explored, including time travel and voodoo (tip--voodoo dolls work on you even when you're a vampire). But my favorite stuff is the exposition-heavy dialogue. Van Helsing's assistant is a very large and mute Indian man, Taj. When he follows Dracula through a mysterious mirror, she doesn't such scream "Taj!" No, she says, "Frank! Count Dracula's dragging my servant Taj into the demon mirror! Stop him!" Glad she cleared up exactly who Taj was at that point. Later, Drake will shoot a wooden arrow at Dracula, but the vampire swings Rachel in front of him. Drake let's us know exactly what happens: "He's swinging the woman into my line of fire. And it's too late to stop my trigger finger!" But it wasn't too late for him to say all that.

While this is silly fun, I'm not keen on purchasing further volumes. I had somehow been led to believe this treated the Dracula legend seriously, but really, an issue where he takes on a entire yacht full of rich people is embarrassingly bad. The Tomb of Dracula is of interest to the comic book historian, but not much else.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Pocahontas as Vice-President?

News outlets today had a story that Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, had narrowed her list for VP to five people. Now, I don't believe that, but the list seems reasonable and all make sense for various reasons.

There are two surprises. One is that Julian Castro, who many thought would be her pick almost from the moment of his keynote address at the 2012 convention, was the veep-in-waiting. He was the young, charismatic, and Hispanic mayor of San Antonio. He was then appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, it was thought, to give him more relevant experience.

But, according to Castro, he is not being vetted for the number-two slot. Perhaps he's still considered too green, or maybe he realizes it. He says he's going back to Texas--perhaps soon a Democrat will be able to win statewide office there.

The other surprise is that Elizabeth Warren is on the list. Warren was begged to run for President by the far-left, and Bernie Sanders basically got her followers. She is the most exciting progressive to hold prominent office, and though she's 66, she's still eight years younger than Sanders (who is not on Clinton's supposed list).

The choice of Warren would remind everyone of what Bill Clinton did twenty-four years ago when he chose someone who was a lot like him--a young Southerner with Al Gore. Clinton could double down for the women's vote, and in doing so pick the biggest rock star of the Senate right now, someone who would fire up the base like no one but Sanders, and perhaps more.

There are two drawbacks, both considerable. Warren is far more effective in the Senate, holding the feet of evildoers to the fire, especially big banks. I remember her when she was in Michal Moore's film Capitalism--A Love Story, and was introduced as basically the only person who could explain what happened during the bank failures. As Vice-President, the Republicans would be rid of a vexing senator. Also, the governor of Massachusetts is Republican, and would obviously appoint a Republican to replace her, and that could have large consequences in the attempt to take back the Senate.

That could also rule out Sherrod Brown of Ohio, another solid liberal presence in the Senate, who gives Clinton pull in perhaps the most important state to win. Brown shouldn't be a problem for any liberal, but again, Republican John Kasich would replace him.

Castro's prominence as presumptive pick shows the problem the Democrats have with Hispanics. There are no real prominent elected Hispanics in the Democratic Party. They have only one Senator, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, who is scandal-ridden. There's Ken Salazar, former Senator from Colorado and Secretary of Interior, but his name hasn't been mentioned. So on the list is Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. He's of Dominican origin, but has never held elected office and his choice may be seen as it probably is: pandering to the Hispanic vote. Also, the last cabinet official tabbed for VP was Henry Wallace, 76 years ago. It's not exactly a stepping-stone to the White House.

The other two names are perhaps the front runners. One is John Hickenlooper. governor of Colorado, another must-win state. The only problem with him was that he had a somewhat messy divorce, but he is remarried, and nobody cares about what marriage anybody is on anymore (should Donald Trump select Newt Gingrich or Rudy Giuliani as his running-mate, it would be the first time that a ticket had six total marriages). Hickenlooper, as far as I can tell, has no major political baggage, and there's no worry about being replaced in the Senate. Word is that Hickenlooper will at least get a cabinet position.

The one name that may make the most sense for Clinton is Tim Kaine, junior senator from Virginia, another important state. Kaine has all the right credentials--he's good with business, speaks Spanish, and is seemingly well-liked by all parts of the party. The only downside may be that he'd be a boring choice, but with all the entertainment on the GOP side, maybe that's what Clinton wants.

But I would love a Warren choice, despite the drawbacks. She might be too old to be an obvious successor to Clinton, but she's certainly no shrinking violet that we'd never hear from. And the best the Trump people can seem to do against her is make fun of her insistence that she has American Indian heritage. The other day Trump called her "Pocahontas." That's right, Donald, go ahead and lose the Indian vote. It's small, but it's another group you've alienated.

Clinton-Warren, I like the sound of it, but I'm guessing Clinton-Kaine.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America may have the title in Captain America: Civil War, but it really a mini-Avengers film, and Chris Evans, stalwart as Cap, shares the screen equally with Robert Downey Jr., Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, in a tiff that ends up destroying a lot of stuff. This is the thirteenth film in the MCU, or Marvel Comics Universe, the longest geek opera in history, which I'm startled to read is laid out at least until 2028, which will make Wagner's Ring Cycle seem like a coffee break.

And this is a long film. But I was never bored, and was quite engrossed, and marveled at how directors Anthony and Joe Russo managed to get so many characters and plots into a film while, at least to me, making perfect sense. As I was watching I asked myself if this would be the first superhero film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. A night's sleep has cured me of that fantasy, but the film is a rousing entertainment and will please anyone who grew up, as I did, reading Marvel Comics.

The script, by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, touches on something that comic book films have been accused of--showing mass destruction without the consequences. We've all seen buildings destroyed in these films and may have wondered, "how many innocent people just got killed?" Well, this film deals with that question. Secretary of State (William Hurt, reprising his role as Thunderbolt Ross) presents the Avengers with a choice; sign an accord that makes them agents of the U.N., or retire. Downey is all for it, as he was the won who built Ultron, who destroyed a whole city, in the last Avengers' film. Captain America is against it, as is his sidekick Falcon (Anthony Mackie).

Touching off the war of the title is a bomb exploding in Vienna, killing the king of Wakanda, an African nation. Videotape shows that is Evans' old friend, now the former Hydra assassin Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) who is responsible. Evans believes in his friend, and we learn quickly that the real bad guy is named Zemo, and played by Daniel Bruhl. When the film reaches its climax we understand he went to a lot of trouble to get Captain America and Iron Man to beat the snot out of each other.

But that's a long way off. Sides are taken, and new characters are introduced, most prominently The Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), the new king of Wakanda who wears a cat suit and has some vicious claws. He is after Stan because he believes he killed his father, and doesn't really care about the Avengers' argument.

There are more characters--the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), who in the comics got married and I think they're going in that direction in the films, even though he ends up imprisoning and cooking for her. (Interestingly, I believe that though Olsen is credited as the Scarlet Witch, she is never referred to as that, and neither has Johansson ever been called the Black Widow). Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) area also on hand.

The major action piece is full-blown battle at an airport when I counted ten heroes, five on a side (the Hulk or Thor are not involved). We even get Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who introduces a new power, and the reboot of Spider-Man (Tom Holland, who makes Tobey Maguire seem ancient when he played Peter Parker). The Marvel history gets skewed here, as Downey Jr. somehow figures out who Spider-Man's secret identity is and outfits him with a better costume, when we all know that Spider-Man predates Iron Man. Harrumph.

Anway, this battle royale is a lot of fun, with Holland really laying on the "gee whiz" factor (so does Rudd) with lots of quips and even a reference to The Empire Strikes Back. But, like any rough play, it's only fun until somebody gets hurt, and one of the heroes gets seriously injured.

Captain America: Civil War strikes a great balance between gravitas and humor, which the D.C. films struggle with. There is some serious stuff here, such as when Downey Jr. is approached by a mother (Alfre Woodard) whose son died as collateral damage in an Avengers fight. Downey Jr., who is the best casting in the entire MCU, has never been better, still quipping (my favorite is when he calls Stan "Manchurian Candidate") but also also expressing the character's inner sorrow (he's just split from his flame Pepper Potts, normally played by Gwyneth Paltrow, whose contract ran out). Evans plays a much less nuanced character, but he is terrific, and the film is full of cameos, such as Martin Freeman and, amazingly, Marisa Tomei as Parker's Aunt May. In the comics, Aunt May was drawn as an elderly women, and the film character has progressed from Rosemary Harris to Sally Field to Marisa Tomei. At least we don't have to see Uncle Ben die again.

By the end, when Cap and Iron Man are bludgeoning each other over and over, I got a little weary of it, but overall this is just another astounding success in the MCU. I actually looked at the next films scheduled, and just hope I can live that long. I'll be 67 in 2028, so chances are good. Fingers crossed.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

I wrote a while back about a course on special education. In my final paper, I found myself quoting from the 1975 classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Here's how: prior to the advent of modern medical science, the mentally disabled were commonly thought to be possessed by Satan, and either imprisoned or put to death. Into my head popped the image of Eric Idle as a peasant, shouting "She's a witch!" and then poor Connie Booth being weighed alongside a duck. Accusations of witchcraft were ways of destroying any woman who might have been different from the prescribed norms.

So I wrote my paper and realized I hadn't watched the film in a while, and popped it in. I've seen it several times, of course (I probably first saw it in college) and marveled at how it hasn't really aged or lost its lustre. It is certainly one of the best comedies ever made, and while the group didn't quite match it in their subsequent films, anyone having their name on this has done enough for one lifetime.

If you're on of the two or three people who haven't seen it, it is the story of King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail, written and acted out by the geniuses who were Monty Python, five Brits and one American who had a TV show called Monty Python's Flying Circus, which ran in the late '60s and early '70s and fully justified the invention of television. Their first feature that was not a compilation of TV material was this one.

Graham Chapman was given the role of Arthur, who we first see riding along the countryside. Well, actually he's miming riding a horse, with his servant (Terry Gilliam) clapping coconuts together to make the sound of hoof beats. This was a happy accident, as horses were to be used but proved too costly. From this surreally hilarious image, Arthur rides around looking for knights for his round table. He finds some--Bedevere (Terry Jones), Lancelot (John Cleese), Galahad (Michael Palin), and Robin (Idle) They are then spoken to by God himself (one of Gilliam's brilliant bits of animation) and sent on a quest to find the Grail.

The story is played out in a series of vignettes that, for the most part, have proved to be classic and quotable. Arthur gets in an argument on government with a peasant, who asks him how he got be king. Arthur tells him about the Lady of the Lake, and Dennis the peasant, played by Palin, responds: "Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony."

Then comes the classic Black Knight sequence, in which Arthur cuts off all the limbs of his foe, but is still taunted "It's just a flesh wound!" And then the bit with Cleese as a Frenchman on top of a castle, also taunting Arthur and his knights; "I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries." Those of a certain generation know these lines like others know Shakespeare or the Bible.

The film then follows each knight on his own adventure, the middle of the film and the weakest part, with Galahad's in a castle full of women the one that doesn't really have many laughs. Lancelot's, in which he ends up rescuing a very effeminate prince from an unwanted marriage, is a little better. When the knights get back together the film picks back up, with the great "Knights who say Ni!" bit, to the Killer Rabbit, to the crossing of the Bridge of Death, when three questions must be asked. Here we learned that it is important to differentiate between the European and African swallow.

Monty Python were made up of educated men--the five Englishmen were Oxbridge--and Monty Python and the Holy Grail is based on a sound knowledge of medieval England. There is no shining armor or "Yonda lies the castle of my fada" here--Idle, as the collector of corpses, notes you can tell Arthur is a king because "He hasn't got shit all over him."

One of the things Monty Python could be accused of is not knowing how to end sketches--on their TV show, one usually just transitioned into another. The film also doesn't quite know how to end, as it does by the actors being arrested for killing a historian. But that kind of meta attitude is what makes the film so great. You're doubled over in laughter by the time the credits end. First, the wrong movie starts playing (Dentist on the Job, a forgettable 1962 British comedy) and then there are Swedish subtitles urging people to come see the moose. Every part of film convention is considered and skewed by the group. It is an amazing piece of artistry.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Jodorowsky's Dune

Two days ago I wrote about Alexandro (or is it Alejandro--I've seen both) Jodorowsky's film The Holy Mountain because I wanted some context to Jodorowsky's Dune, a documentary by Frank Pavich about the surrealist's passionate but futile attempt to bring Frank Herbert's legendary sci-fi novel to the screen.

This is one of those films that is famous for having never been made, like Terry Gilliams' Don Quixote or a bunch by Orson Welles. Jodorowsky had made a couple of films that opened eyes, such as The Holy Mountain and El Topo, and became obsessed with making Dune, even though he hadn't read it (a friend told him about it). He and his producer, Michel Seydoux, somehow obtained the rights (how isn't precisely clear) and Jodorowsky, who tells most of the story, sets about finding his "warriors."

This is a fascinating tale, mostly because Jodorowsky is so fascinating, and you can see why people would go through brick walls for him. He first wanted a visual effects man, and met with Douglas Trumbull, who had done 2001: A Space Odyssey. But Trumbull was too much of a technician for Jodorowsky, and he went instead with Dave O'Bannon, who later would write the screenplay for Alien, which ties in with H.R. Giger, who Jodorowsky also hired (it would have been Giger's first film). Also on board were artists Moebius and Chris Foss.

The cast was equally interesting. To play Paul Atreides, Jodorowsky intended to use his son, Brontis, who was a teenager. But he went far afield for others. David Carradine was cast, as was Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali (who was promised $100,000 a minute, but he would only have a three-minute part and the rest would be played by a mannequin) and Welles himself as the obese emperor. Welles said no until he was promised that he would be treated to dinner at his favorite restaurant every night.

There exists a massive book with Jodorowsky's script and Moebius' storyboards. Those who have seen it say that it may have changed the way we look at movies, It was still influential, as the seeds that Jodorowsky sowed showed up in other films, like Star Wars and Alien. When Raffaela DeLaurentiis ended up with the rights, David Lynch directed. Jodorowsky didn't want to see it, thinking of it all has his, but was finally persuaded to. He was happy to see that the movie was awful.

I've never seen that film, but I did read Dune and just a few clips of that Lynch film do not inspire me to see it. I would have liked to see Jodorowsky's version, which he envisioned as being ten hours long. Thus no Hollywood studio would touch it. They loved the concept, but were wary of the director.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Early Bird Specials at the White House

With the craziness surrounding this year's presidential election, it may have escaped the knowledge of many that it is about old people. Of the three candidates left running, all of them would break or come close to the record for oldest person elected president. Hillary Clinton would be 69 when inducted, about eight months younger than Ronald Reagan was, but still older than William Henry Harrison, who held the record for 140 years and is still best remembered for dying in office after thirty days.

What is a cinch, barring something very strange happening, is that 2016 will shatter the record for oldest combined major party candidates. That's currently a tie (not considering days)--1848 and 1984. In 1848, the oldest Democratic nominee ever (for the nonce) was Lewis Cass, pictured here, a youthful-looking fellow. He was 66, and I always knew him as the only Michigander ever nominated for president until Gerald Ford came along. His opponent was Zachary Taylor, Old Rough and Ready, a war hero who was 63, giving them a combined age of 129. Taylor wasn't much of a president, and he died in office, too, after gorging on cherries and milk (though some think he was poisoned).

In 1984 Reagan, then 73, ran for re-election against the relatively spry Walter Mondale, who was 56, again adding up to 129. Reagan made a joke about it, saying he would not exploit the age issue--Mondale's youth. Reagan won of course, and is still the oldest man ever to occupy the office, leaving when he was 77.

If it is Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump, that record will be shattered. Early in the campaign, some Republicans had the audactity to use age as a detriment for Clinton, even though she is younger than Reagan was at the same stage. But now they can't use it, because Donald Trump will be 70 in June. Presumably he will the third major party candidate for president at that age or older--Reagan and Bob Dole were both 73. But Clinton and Trump's combined age at an induction will be 139.

Now, if Bernie Sanders wins the nomination, records really topple. Sanders would be 75 at the time of the election, thus being the oldest major party nominee ever, and he and Trump would both be in their seventies, unprecendented, for a combined age of 145.

Does this mean anything? I don't think so, other than that people live longer and have more vitality at later ages than ever before. I don't think Clinton and Trump appear their ages (who knows what Trump has done to himself cosmetically) and there was no shortage of young candidates--Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are both 44, close to the youthful record. Clinton and Sanders are the only Democratic candidates who gained any traction, so age wasn't even a consideration (and Jim Webb, who ran for out half an hour, is also over 70).

This appears just to be a quirk, with Clinton having to wait eight years for Obama's presidency to be over, while Trump peaked for a variety of a reasons, none of them I can quite fathom, but I don't think have any of them have to do with age or wisdom. If Clinton does select Sanders as her running mate, their combined ages would be 144 years, which sounds like a record. I did a little sleuthing and couldn't find an older combo. Dole and Jack Kemp were a combined 134 in 1996, Harry Truman and Alben Barkley were a combined 135 in 1948, and Alton Parker and Henry Davis were a combined 132 years (Davis was 80, still the oldest person on a major party ticket). Reagan and George H.W. Bush were a combined 133 years.

So, if Clinton/Sanders were to win, I'm sure their would be plenty of early bird specials at the White House, the DVR would be recording lots of reruns of Matlock, and the presidential limousine would perpetually have a blinker on.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The Holy Mountain

Alexandro Jodorowsky is one of the names that I see in Film Comment or elsewhere (you can get a t-shirt with his name on it at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village) but I didn't know anything about him or his films. So I came to his 1973 film, The Holy Mountain, with no expectations. I almost didn't make it through it, falling asleep half-way through, but the second half is pretty good satire.

Jodorowsky is a surrealist, or absurdist, or avant-garde, or whatever -ist you want to assign to someone who doesn't play by the rules. The film opens with someone in black stripping and shaving the heads of two women (I'm always intrigued by hair-shaving scenes because it has to be in one take). I don't believe we ever seen these people again. Then we see a man, who is only known as "The Thief," lying near-dead with his face covered in flies. He is rescued by a man with half-arms and legs, and he is mock crucified. He looks so much like Christ that a company makes a plaster-cast model of him to make life-size Christ figures.

In this first half there is also a lot of public executions. Jodorowsky is Chilean, and given what was going on in Chile at that time this is understandable. But he turns the executions into forms or art, with birds or ribbons or marbles coming out of the wounds.

After I took a nap, I returned to the film and a semblance of a plot takes shape. The Thief, along with eight other people, become the acolytes of a man called The Alchemist (played by Jodorowsky himself). These people represent the planets, including an architect from Pluto who has come up with a design for people living in coffins, which isn't far off those teeny little Japanese hotel rooms. The Alchemist tells them that no matter what they have, they will die, but they can learn immortality from nine men, 40,000 years old, who live on top of a mountain, and he will take them there.

The film is rich in symbolism and is probably best viewed under the haze of a hallucinogenic substance, which is apparently how Jodorowsky came up with it. His actors certainly gave their all--there's lots of nudity, and in addition to being covered with flies, another man is covered, naked, with tarantulas.

The final scene is a clever one, as The Alchemist reveals that this has all been a film. "Zoom out, camera," he says, and we see the crew, the lights, etc. He then says that the story never ends. The film does, though.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Girl on the Train

"I am no longer just a girl on a train, going back and forth without form and purpose." The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, was last year's hot book, a kind of second coming of Gone Girl, in that there are unreliable narrators and a murder seems to have been committed. The other similarity is that the narrators are all pretty horrible people--or, scratch that--unheroic people. If you've been ever been a commuter on public transportation, you may have idly looked around at the people on your bus or train and wondered if you were stuck with these people for all time. That's kind of like this book, for better or worse.

The most predominant narrator is Rachel, who is one of the saddest sacks I've come across in a book in a long time. She is unemployed, but still rides the train into London so her flatmate thinks she works. On the ride in, there's a spot where the train stops for a signal and she is able to see into the house of an attractive young couple. She gives them names and fantasizes about their ideal lives. Then she sees the woman kissing another man. Also, this house is only five houses down from one she used to live in.

Rachel was dumped by her ex-husband, Tom, who married Anna and and had a baby. Rachel, to put it mildly, has not dealt with it well. She's gained weight and has become a major drinker (which is why she got fired). She can't stay away from Tom, calling him and showing up at his house, so much that Anna is terrified of her (once she awoke to find her holding her baby out by the train tracks).

The other major narrator is Megan, who is the woman Rachel has idealized. She goes missing, and Rachel, wanting to feel needed, inserts herself into the case. She reports to the police that she saw him kissing another man, and they of course wonder how she knows this. But Rachel also may have a key piece of evidence, as she was in the area when Megan went missing, but is too drunk to remember it.

The Girl on the Train is a better-than-average page turner, if you can get over how pathetic Rachel is. Gone Girl was about two people so horrible they deserved each other, but this book is different, in that Rachel is basically alone and has to confront that. Eventually I came around and rooted for her, even as she lied to Megan's husband, the number one suspect.

Of course, this will soon be a major motion picture. It's set in the U.S., though, and not England, which has already got the message boards heated up.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Green Room

In his follow-up to Blue Ruin, which had the actress who played Jan Brady shooting an Uzi, director Jeremy Saulnier has another blook-soaked film, this time called Green Room. It is a fairly novel idea for a crime film--a punk band, at a gig in a skinhead bar in deep in the woods of Oregon, witnesses a murder, and then attempt to escape the clutches of a white supremacist organization.

I do have to say this before I go any farther--this film is violent, very violent. The body count is extremely high, higher than I can remember to count, and people are done away with by being disemboweled, having their throats ripped out by dogs, and old-fashioned shootings. From about halfway on it is an orgy of blood, and I was surprised that a little old lady with a walker that came in after I did actually stayed through the whole thing.

The first part of the film is a nice look at how hard it is to be a band. The Ain't Rights, a foursome, have just had a gig that got them $6.87 each, and they are experts at siphoning gas. The apologetic promoter sends them to their next gig, telling them not to talk politics. They arrive to find their name misspelled on the marquee and a lot of burly men with neck tattoos. Mischievously they open with The Dead Kennedy's "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," but all seems to be well as they leave with $350. Except one of the members left her phone in the green room. When another one goes back to get it, he finds a woman with a knife in her head.

All is cool for a while. There is a lot of negotiation, and the owner of the place and the leader of the "movement" (Patrick Stewart, totally playing against type) reasons with the band. They are led to believe they will be allowed to leave, but you can't trust neo-Nazis, and the battle is on. Just about everybody dies, except for three people, I think.

Saulnier clearly loves a nice film full of mayhem and backwoods ignoramuses, as judging by these two films. Green Room is a little sloppy in places, and there was a subplot involving one of the skinheads planning to leave with evidence that I didn't quite follow--maybe its because there's some mumbling going on, and I can't hear that well. The ending also drags out a little long. But there's also some dry wit going on, such as a shot of a man with a mohawk vacuuming his carpet.

If carnage and loud punk rock don't bother you, this is a fine film. I wonder how that little old lady liked it.

Sunday, May 08, 2016


I missed Ant-Man when it was released last year, so in preparation for the new Captain America film, in which Ant-Man plays a part, I thought I'd catch up on the doings in the Marvel Universe. I'm glad I did, because Ant-Man is a superior superhero movie.

When critics and others talk about the dire new D.C. Universe and compare it to the Marvel, they usually call the Marvel "fun." Much of that was the comparison between Deadpool and Batman v. Superman, but while Deadpool was full of laughs it was also too vulgar for small children. Ant-Man is the perfect compromise. It has a few "shits" just to keep it cool for older kids, but younger kids will really appreciate the action, humor, and a giant Thomas the Tank Engine. There is also, thank goodness, no religious symbolism.

Ant-Man was, in the comics, Hank Pym, but the makers of this film (it was directed by Peyton Reed, who also directed Bring It On) have updated the story. Pym is now an old scientist (Michael Douglas, classing things up considerably), pushed out of his company, while his mentor (Corey Stoll) is trying to figure out the secret Pym has kept for years--the ability to shrink matter yet increase its strength and destiny. We know Stoll will be a villain because he has a shaved head.

When Douglas finds out that Stoll is near achieving the goal, he finds an ex-con (Paul Rudd), who was a whistleblower who stole from his company. Rudd wants to go straight, but is lured back into a job by his friends (most prominently Michael Pena). Turns out that Douglas set the whole thing up, because he wanted Rudd to wear the suit which shrinks him to insect size.

The set up takes a while but is fairly zippy, as I've always liked Rudd and feel he's a naturally likeable and charming performer. We get the old training montage (Douglas' daughter, Evangeline Lilly, is a martial arts master, natch) and soon Rudd has it down pat. Oh, and I forget to mention the ants--not only is Douglas a particle physicist, but he also dabbles in entomology, so much so that he can control ants just by thinking. Soon Rudd is riding a carpenter ant he's named Ant-thony.

From there we have Rudd trying to save the world by stopping Stoll. In between there's a token appearance by an Avenger (Anthony Mackie as Falcon) as a gateway to the Universe, and plenty of exciting action, including a showdown at the end between Stoll, in a Yellowjacket costume, and Rudd, trying to save his daughter.

I liked this film from start to finish, and though the premise is goofy it is handled with the kind of science fiction finesse Marvel is great at (and by that I mean Stan Lee, who has come up with more interesting origin stories that would seem possible, even if many are by gamma rays). We get two stingers at the end, one setting up Lilly as the Wasp, and another with Falcon letting Captain America know about Ant-Man as a possible ally. I'll be seeing that film soon.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Merle Haggard

When Merle Haggard died last month of course I had heard of him, but as a kid who grew up with a distaste for country music (except for Johnny Cash) I thought I'd try to find out just why he was so respected as a great American singer-songwriter. To people of my ilk, he never crossed over onto our radar like Cash or Willie Nelson, but he was a huge star for many.

After listening to a small sample of his music, sixteen of his greatest hits, I found him to be interesting if not particularly diverse. He was part of the Bakersfield sound, which was distinct from the more dominant Nashville country sound, and sometimes hearing another steel guitar can just send me through the roof.

Haggard, to me, is more interesting as a cultural figure. Cash may have played at San Quentin, but Haggard was an inmate there (and was present at one of the shows). He hopped freight cars, had a series of jobs, and after attempting to escape from Bakersfield prison was sent to San Quentin, after which he turned his life around.

Haggard's voice, which is somewhat similar to Nelson's as there is a slight nasal twang, is sweet and not raspy, yet deep within you can hear the pain. He sings many songs that are typical of country music--drinking, mostly. I mean, you can't get more basic a song title that "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink," or another called "The Bottle Let Me Down." The other trope is that of the ex-con. The song that put him on the map, "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," though he didn't write it, was forever identified with him. He also had hits with "Branded Man," about an ex-con who can't escape his past, and "Mama Tried," about an outlaw whose mother tried to set him right but failed.

But Haggard may be best remembered for some reactionary songs he recorded in the late sixties. Perhaps his most famous song is "Okie From Muskogee," which may have been a satire but probably not, and Haggard was asked about it for years. The song is a reaction against hippies and protesters:

"We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take no trips on LSD
We don't burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin' right, and bein' free.
 I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all"

Later, Haggard said he was as "dumb as a rock" when he wrote the song, and completely changed his mind on marijuana. That's good, because white lightnin' is basically as bad for you as paint thinner. There's also a verse about men who wear beads and sandals, as if that had anything to do with anything. The song became a huge hit--if it was satire, then it was sort of like how Archie Bunker, who was mocking conservatives, became a conservative hero.

Another song is "The Fighting Side of Me," in which Haggard states that he won't tolerate anyone running down his country. "Love it or leave it," we hear, a statement that always gores my ox because it is basically anti-American--the democratic process encourages us to try to change what we don't like, either by voting or peaceful protest.

Finally, there's a song called "Are the Good Times Really Gone," which is a bit like the All in the Family theme song "Those Were the Days." Haggard sings about nostalgia for the good old days:

"Back before Elvis, before Vietnam war came along
Before the Beatles and yesterday
When a man could still work and still would
Is the best of the free life behind us now
And are the good times really over for good?"

I find that the only people who think that the time he's talking about, which must have been the late '40s and early '50s (world war and a great depression couldn't possibly have been good times) are white men. Certainly black people wouldn't call those the good old days, or women, especially when he sings, "Before microwave ovens when a girl could still cook, and still would."

But Haggard, in his later years, grew his hair and beard long and had a don't-give-a-shit attitude. He had a distaste for modern country music (which I gather is the canned sound of people like Garth Brooks) and always had that outlaw edge. He casts a long shadow in the country and western world, and while his music may not be my cup of tea, I can certainly appreciate it.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Animal Crackers

I was in need of a comedy the other night so I dug out my Marx Brothers set and popped in Animal Crackers, which I haven't written about yet. It was released in 1930, and was the Brothers second film, based on a stage play by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalman and Harry Ruby. When it was on Broadway, it of course starred the Marx Brothers, and the story goes that Kaufman was backstage having a conversation when he suddenly stopped and said something like, "Wait a minute--I just heard one of my original lines."

The film is betrayed by its stage origins, as unlike some of the later Marx Brothers films it is limited in its sets. It is at the home of Mrs. Rittenhouse, a wealthy widow played by--you guessed it--Margaret Dumont. She is holding a party for the acclaimed African explorer Captain Jeffrey (or Geoffrey, the film spells it both ways) T. (the T stands for Edgar) Spaulding, who is played by Groucho. When he enters, in a sedan chair unfortunately carried by African tribesman, wearing a pith helmet and jodhpurs, I can't help but smile. Groucho's signature song, which stayed with him up through his stint on You Bet Your Life, debuted here:

"Hurray for Captain Spaulding
The African explorer
'Did someone call me schnorrer?'
Hurray, hurray, hurray!

This is closely followed by one of my favorite bits of doggerel, that a friend of mine actually used in his letter of resignation:

"Hello, I must be going
I cannot stay I came to say
I must be going
I'll stay a week or two
I'll stay the summer through
But I am telling I must be going."

Chico and Harpo are two musicians, Ravelli and The Professor, respectively. They arrive a day early, and Chico tells Mrs. Rittenhouse they couldn't come tomorrow because that was too soon. Then he tells them that he charges more for rehearsing than playing, because they couldn't play without rehearsing. When Groucho asks how much if they don't rehearse, Chico says "You couldn't afford it."

The central action is some silly business involving a painting and two copies, which are stolen and re-stolen. But most of the film is just an occasion for gags. Some of Groucho's most famous lines are here, such as "I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I don't know." And, "We took some pictures of native girls but they weren't developed. We're going back in a few weeks." (This was a pre-code film).There's also some topical stuff parodying a play by Eugene O'Neill called Strange Interlude, in which characters gave asides telling the audience what they really think. Groucho, who is wooing two women at once, moves aside and says, " Pardon me while I have a strange interlude. Why, you couple of baboons! What makes you think I'd marry either one of you! Strange how the wind blows tonight. It has a tintity voice, reminds me of poor old Moslin. How happy I could be with either of these two if both of them just went away!"

Some lines are just so silly you can't help but snort, like when a policeman corrects Groucho and tells him he's an Inspector. "Inspect her yourself," is the reply. Or when Groucho has his secretary, Zeppo, take a letter to his lawyers, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, Hungerdunger, and McCormick. When Zeppo reads back the letter he lists only three Hungerdungers. Groucho says, "You left out a Hungerdunger! And the most important one!"

Harpo's bits are some of his most psychotic. He of course chases a girl throughout the picture, and gets his harp solo. But there's also a strange scene when a woman tries to stall him for time and asks him if there's someone he truly loves. He takes out a picture--of a horse. There's also the great gag when the cop shakes his hand and numerous pieces of stolen silverware come loose and fall to the floor. Groucho says, "I can't understand what's delaying that coffee pot," and then comes the pot out of Harpo's sleeve.

A quick word about the young actress who plays the romantic lead, Lillian Roth. In Animal Crackers she was twenty years old and so charming. Reading about her is not pleasant, as she became an alcoholic and married six times. She was played by Susan Hayward in a movie about her life called I'll Cry Tomorrow.