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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Cafe Society

Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Woody Allen's work is compared to his previous films. For about twenty-five years now we've been hearing "Well, it's no Annie Hall," or "Hannah and Her Sisters, now that was a good movie." A long-lived and prolific director can be the victim of his own success.

To be sure, Allen has not made what I would consider one of his best since Bullets Over Broadway, and that was twenty-two years ago. His last good film was Blue Jasmine, four films ago, but I'm glad to say that after three so-so films, Cafe Society is a pleasant souffle. It does not certainly break new ground. He still uses the same credit font, it has plenty of music that we can imagine he listens to, and it's incredibly nostalgic. In some ways it reminds me most of Radio Days, although now Allen is far older and probably thinking about the past even more than he ever did.

Set in the 1930s, Cafe Society takes a look at film business in Los Angeles through rose-colored glasses, and spends almost as much time in New York. There's a shot of the Brooklyn Bridge at dusk, the lights twinkling (this film is in color) that rivals any of the shots in Manhattan. And, as with Bullets Over Broadway, Allen romanticizes organized crime. A man will go to the electric chair, but his Jewish mother will wonder if his conversion to Christianity is worse.

Jesse Eisenberg is the lead, but he is not a stand-in for the classic Allen role, as he was in From Rome With Love. His Bobby Dorfman is no nebbish, he's self-assured and gets not one but two girls. He comes from New York to hit up his uncle, Steve Carell, a high-powered agent, for a job. Carell gives him a job running errands, where he meets a secretary (Kristen Stewart). He falls in love with her (the way Stewart plays the role, who wouldn't?). She tells him she's seeing someone. Problem--the man she's seeing is Carell.

I found it interesting that when this twist is revealed, and it's fairly early in the movie so don't hate me, it's not Eisenberg that finds out, but Carell. Part of the appeal of Cafe Society is the depth of the characters. Carell cannily plays a man who may be powerful but it also a mensch. Eisenberg, told that by Carell that he will be leaving his wife, guesses it's for a beautiful movie star. "It's not a movie star," Carell growls, "I'm not shallow." And indeed he isn't. Carell could have easily played a stereotype, but Allen's script and his performance makes him well-rounded.

Cafe Society is a comedy, but it doesn't have yuks, it's more of a smile movie. Most of the funny lines belong to Eisenberg's parents, old world Jews Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott. They bicker like many of Allen's Jewish parents, from Annie Hall to Radio Days. Stott says of Berlin, "She's no beauty queen, but I stuck with her." Corey Stoll co-stars as Eisenberg's gangster brother, and we get morbid humor such as Stoll saying of a nightclub owner, "We're trying to persuade him to sell." Cut to a man being dumped in a pit and being buried in cement.

The film does have a tie to Jewishness. There's a scene early on in which Eisenberg, lonely, hires a call girl. She's late, and he's not really in the mood anymore (I've never had that happen). When he learns she's Jewish he's incredulous at the idea of a Jewish prostitute. The scene doesn't work and should have been left on the cutting room floor, but it indicates that Allen can't let go of his days in Brooklyn.

But who is the star of this picture? It's Vittorio Storaro, the cinematographer. The man who photographed Last Tango in Paris and Apocalypse Now had never worked with Allen before, who collects great D.P.s. The lighting of Stewart, and later Blake Lively, gives the film a kind of glamour that doesn't hardly exist anymore. Beverly Hills swimming pools, wood-paneled offices, a New York nightclub, all exist as if pulled from our imaginaations. Credit must also go to production designer Santo Loquasto and costume designer Suzy Benzinger, but Storaro gives it a glow that will make any fan of old films sigh in contentment.

So, this isn't great Woody. Maybe even not top twenty. But it's a fine film, with great performances, and award-worthy photography.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Kiss of the Spider Woman

After the death of Hector Babenco two weeks ago I'm revisiting his most renowned films. He's most famous for Kiss of the Spider Woman, a 1985 film that was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director, and for which William Hurt won Best Actor.

I saw it upon its original release but after seeing it again two days ago I needed some time to process exactly what I thought of it. It is undeniably brilliant, but the difficulty is figuring out why. It deals with big issues--love, courage, and loyalty, but in ways that one doesn't usually see.

The story is about two men sharing a cell in a South American country during a military dictatorship. Hurt plays Molina, a gay window dresser who is doing time for corrupting a minor. Raul Julia is Valentin, a journalist who is held as a political prisoner.

These men have almost nothing in common, and in the one nod to standard storytelling tropes, they will become friends. But the route to that friendship is fraught, as it becomes known about halfway through the film that Hurt is spying on Julia, providing information to the warden in exchange for being paroled.

During their captivity, Hurt makes the time go by (and uses as a personal escape) telling the plot to his favorite movie, a romance set during World War II. When Julia hears that Nazis are heroes and the French resistance are villains, he realizes it's a German propaganda film. Hurt doesn't care--he's swept up in the beauty and romance of the film, and as he keeps telling it Julia even gets caught up--he wants to know how it comes out.

The film scenes are shown in sepia tones, with Sonia Braga starring as the lead actress. She also plays Julia's great love and, later, plays the title character in a film that Hurt invents, a succubus of sorts that is some kind of metaphor, but I'm not sure for what. At times the film, written by Leonard Schrader, is so sweeping that it glides by details, but perhaps this is for the best, since it doesn't spoon-feed the audience and makes for thought-provoking drama.

Hurt was very deserving of the Oscar. He's always been a consummate actor, sometimes so much that he's ripe for parody, but here it's evident that he is in the skin of his character. His minor facial expressions say volumes, and his whipped dog attitude, mostly in the scenes with the warden, belie his physical stature (I'm still sometimes amazed by an actor's range--here he is playing a beaten down homosexual and years later he plays a macho general in the Hulk movies). Hurt, who ignores politics, has to make a decision at the end of the film, and signals it by putting on a red scarf, which is a thrilling moment.

While it's Hurt's show, Julia is also very good, a man committed to principles, though his sacrifice for them gives him regret which he can't ignore. The two men have terrific chemistry together, particularly in a scene in which Julia, being poisoned without his knowledge, has an episode of diarrhea and Hurt lovingly cleans him up.

I believe Hurt was the first actor to play an openly gay character to win an Oscar. The homosexuality is open--he and Julia have sex, but only after a candle is blown out. They do share a kiss on screen, which for 1985 was fairly provocative.

Babenco only made three English-language films. One of them, At Play in the Fields of the Lord, I saw and do not wish to see again, but I will be taking another look at Ironweed in the days ahead.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Humanizing Hillary

Now that both conventions are over, the stretch run for the presidency has begun, with a little over two months to go. That Hillary Clinton is only a few points ahead of Donald Trump in the polls is like being in a nightmare and not being able to wake up, but perhaps after the smashing extravaganza put on by Democrats in Philadelphia, following the Walpurgisnacht in Cleveland, perhaps some will come to their senses.

I'm not super in love with Hillary Clinton. I supported Obama in '08, and voted for Bernie Sanders this time around. But once it became apparent Bernie was not going to win, I switched allegiances like a shameless hussy. Partly this has to do with the unthinkable alternative, but despite her being cozy with Wall Street and counting Henry Kissinger as a friend, Hillary Clinton is liberal enough for me.

Following soaring oratory this week from the Obamas and some heavy lifting done by surrogates on Thursday night, namely by Rev. Dr. William Barber and Khizr Khan, father of a slain Muslim soldier (his stagecraft of pulling out a Constitution for Trump may just have turned the election), it was time for Clinton to speak. She has never been a great speaker. The line goes that one campaigns in poetry and governs in prose, but Clinton is a prose kind of person. Her speech was functional, and that is fine by me, because that's who she is. If I had to pick one reason why I'm voting for her, other than Trump being the anti-Christ, it's because she projects an air of competence. That, and she's been committed to public service for forty-something years. Trump has never been committed to public service, and I don't think he's interested in it now. As Khan said, he has sacrificed nothing.

But the American people don't seem to value competence and plain old-fashioned smarts that much, which accounts for George W. Bush. The Democrats have always had the smarter candidate--maybe Nixon was smarter than McGovern and Humphrey, maybe not--but Clinton is clearly is a bulb of much higher wattage than Trump, who doesn't know what the word xenophobia means, even though he practises it. Americans want their presidents affable and neighborly, and thus Clinton has spent her career trying to suppress being a policy wonk and instead a PTA mom (remember her line about making cookies back in the '92 race?) She womaned up and admitted that she sweats the details, which was a startling and refreshing confession, it contrast to Trump, who undoubtedly would shove every detail on a subordinate in his misbegotten administration.

But still there was the soft and fuzzies. Chelsea Clinton came on and talked about being read Good Night, Moon and discussing A Wrinkle in Time, and there was much talk about Hillary Clinton's mother, who was abandoned by her parents and grew up in Dickensian circumstances. I'm surprised it wasn't mentioned that Dorothy Howell Rodham was born on June 4, 1919, the same day that Congress passed the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote.

I thought it was a fine speech, and matched the speaker. She wore white from head to toe, like a nurse (who doesn't respond well to a nurse, says I, the son and grandson of nurses) and was reassuring, letting us know that Trump's gloomy speech was not accurate, and his despotic solipsism--"I alone can fix things"--was the statement of a madman (she threw in a Seth Meyers/Amy Poehler "Really?").

But of course there were naysayers. We heard the words shrill, strident, hectoring. I don't find this to be true at all. She does not have a mellifluous voice. Maybe men, who did most of the complaining, prefer the breathy girlishness of Marilyn Monroe's voice. But basing a presidential vote on a voice is, in the words of Sarah Silverman, "ridiculous." She laid out what she was about and what she wanted to do. Clearly, she was moved to the left by Sanders, including talk about economic equality and free college tuition.

Now we wait. If the polls don't move significantly, she may be doomed. If after all that contrast, being the Dark Lord and the Angel in White, she, and the country, may be in for rough seas.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Ace in the Hole

I've seen most of Billy Wilder's films, but I hadn't seen this one, released in 1951 under the title The Big Carnival, but re-released in home media under the intended title, Ace in the Hole. It marked a few firsts for Wilder: the first time he produced, directed, and wrote a film; the first film he made without co-writing with Charles Brackett (he would later make I.A.L. Diamond his writing partner) and his first flop.

This film follows Sunset Boulevard in the canon, and while that film was not a bed of roses, Ace in the Hole is unrelievedly cynical, a damning of the news media is no uncertain terms. Maybe that's why critics hated it--he was hitting home in the newsroom. But sixty years on it's found new respect, because it was ahead of its time, showing how the news media attempts to manipulate stories and bends the truth to make the best story possible.

The story, about a man trapped in a cave and the media circus that erupts around him, was based on a couple of real-life incidents. But for those old enough to remember, it perfectly captures the time in 1987 when little Jessica McLure was trapped in a well. I remember that very well, and how the entire country was glued to the story.

In Ace in the Hole, Kirk Douglas plays a news reporter who's been fired from the best papers in the country. He latches on to a paper in Albuquerque, working for a publisher who believes that the truth is sacred. Douglas is on his way to cover a rattlesnake hunt when he and his photographer stumble across a big story--a local man trapped in a cave looking for Indian pottery. Douglas sensationalizes the story, amplifying a local legend that the mountain is cursed and bribing the local sheriff to make sure he gets all the exclusives. He forces the trapped man's wife (Jan Sterling), who is about to leave him, to play the part of the terrified wife. What's worse is that he convinces the contractor to use a slower method to dig him out, thus making the story last longer but endangering the man's life.

Douglas is masterful as a first-class heel. He rides into Albuquerque in his car which is being towed. He's a braggart and a cynic, and we spend the movie waiting for his heart to thaw. It does, but when it does it's with a power that is shaking. I was disturbed by this film, but not because it's bad, but because it's so good at capturing a certain element of American society.

There is some humor to the film, such as how the sign to the caves keeps changing prices when the story gets bigger, but some of the humor is laced with arsenic, such as when a carnival pulls into the area to give the thousands of people camped there some amusement. It seems that the only people who remember there's somebody buried down there are his parents, including his forlorn mother, who prays and lights candles.

Ace in the Hole is not a feel-good film, and probably couldn't be made today, as a happier ending would be insisted upon. I wonder if a star like Douglas would take on such an unlikeable character, too (he was not afraid of doing so, to his credit). This film deserves to be brought back out into the open.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Manual for Cleaning Women

I had never heard of Lucia Berlin until her short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, was chosen by the New York Times as one of its ten best books of 2015. I'm not completely alone. Berlin, who died in 2004, was mostly published in small presses, and had three collections published during her lifetime, but she never really hit it big.

Reading these stories was a real eye-opener, and I'm glad to be exposed to her work. She wrote about what she knew. She was a single mother of four boys, an alcoholic, had a sister with breast cancer, lived all over the place (Alaska, Oakland, El Paso, Chile) and had a variety of jobs, including being a cleaning woman, a switchboard operator, and a creative writing teacher.

Most of these tales are about the down-and-out in dusty towns. I love "Angel's Laundromat" (her titles are simple and direct): "She lived above me, in 4-C. One morning at the laundry she gave me a key and I took it. She said that if I didn’t see her on Thursdays it meant she was dead and would I please go find her body. That was a terrible thing to ask of someone; also then I had to do my laundry on Thursdays."

The title story is the best, in it we learn things like: "Poor people wait a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc." and "Once he told me he loved me because I was like San Pablo Avenue. He was like the Berkeley dump." Her sentences are often incomplete, and reading them is like listening to a drum beat: "42–PIEDMONT. Slow bus to Jack London Square. Maids and old ladies."

She has many stories about her alcoholism, such as in the story "502": "502 was the clue for 1-Across in this morning’s Times. Easy. That’s the police code for Driving While Intoxicated, so I wrote in DWI. Wrong. I guess all those Connecticut commuters knew you were supposed to put in Roman numerals." In the same story she has left her car in neutral in a parking lot, and it rolls down the street into another vehicle. But the cop can't give her a ticket, because she wasn't driving at the time. The last line of the story is "Of course I had other encounters with Officer Wong after that one, not pleasant at all."

There are many stories about her sister Sally, who has breast cancer and was disowned by their mother for marrying a Mexican. The best is "Grief," about the sisters reconnecting in a Mexican resort after their mother dies, but another is called "Mama" and is simply a dialogue as they remember their mother's cruelty. "'She was witty. You have to admit it. Like when she’d give panhandlers a nickel and say, ‘Excuse me, young man, but what are your dreams and aspirations?’ Or when a cabdriver was surly she’d say, ‘You seem rather thoughtful and introspective today.’"

The greatest thing about Berlin, who seemed to bleed onto the page, was that she was able to hit the low notes as well as the high. She could make a simple joke like "It’s not so strange that I talk to my cat but I feel silly because he is totally deaf" work, or then just let the magic happen in a passage like: I’d chew ice when the lemonade was finished, swaying with my grandmother on the porch swing. We gazed down upon the chain gang paving Upson Street. A foreman poured the macadam; the convicts stomped it down with a heavy rhythmic beat. The chains rang; the macadam made the sound of applause."

Lucia Berlin belongs in the same breath with other great American short story writers. She especially reminds me of Flannery O'Connor. Seek her out.

Monday, July 25, 2016

96 Tears

After a one-year interruption, I have resumed my visits to Cooperstown, New York to attend the induction ceremony at the Baseball Hall of Fame. This year is my 15th visit. My companion was my fellow baseball fanatic, Bob.

We spent the whole weekend soaked in baseball (and dead vice-presidents, if you check the last post). On Saturday the town was packed, the museum elbow-to-elbow, so we held off on that and just wandered around town. Bob got some autographs, mostly from ex-Mets (he's a big fan), including Cleon Jones, who hit a grand slam in the first game Bob ever went to.

Then we attended the Baseball Awards Ceremony, which used to be part of the main event but has been set aside for a different day. Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy was very funny and humble, reminding us that baseball is a hard game to play: "The 25th man on the roster is one-thousand times better than you," and his love of baseball as a child, though he was traded as a little-leaguer. The Ford Frick Award, which goes to excellence in broadcasting, was given to Graham McNamee, who was a pioneer in radio broadcasting, the voice of the World Series for many years. He died in 1942.

Also speaking was a New York City firefighter, who while picking through the rubble of the World Trade Center a few days after 9/11, found a baseball, completely intact. It was a promotional ball from a company inside the Towers, a company that fortunately didn't lose anyone during that day. The ball is now on display at the Hall. Both inductees this year, Mike Piazza, and Ken Griffey Jr., had special connections to 9/11. Piazza's most famous home run was the knock he hit in the first game in New York after the attack to beat the Atlanta Braves. Griffey was contacted by the wife of a firefighter who was lost that day, and asked him to hit a home run for her husband. He did, and is still in touch with the family.

Yesterday was the induction ceremony itself. It was sunny, a little hot, and packed, with 50,000 attendees (the record is 80,000, at the Ripken/Gwynn induction). Bob's membership perk got us a seat, rather than having to sit out on the lawn. There were 48 returning Hall of Famers.

Piazza went first, and was tearful from the get-go. He talked about his father, who was on hand. Baseball fans know that his father is a friend of former Dodger manager Tommy LaSorda, who as a favor got the Dodgers to draft Piazza in the 62nd round (they don't even have that many rounds anymore). Nothing was expected from Piazza, but he worked hard and his power got him to the big leagues. He was Rookie of the Year and eventually became the greatest-hitting catcher in the history of the big leagues. He was humble and grateful, and thanked his wife Alicia, who perhaps I only knew was the 500th Playmate in Playboy magazine history. Being a superstar has its perks.

Griffey was next, and he also wept throughout. He thanked his father, also, Ken Griffey Sr., who had a good career for a number of teams, most especially the Big Red Machine teams of the '70s. Griffey grew up around pro baseball, and was the number one pick in the draft (he is the first number draft to be inducted). He was also funny, talking about not getting mad at his son for swinging a bat at a TV, because, he told his wife, "You can't teach that swing." As he ended his speech he put on a cap backwards, which was his trademark.

Griffy was a great player. My friend Bob and I had a discussion--generally today, Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, take your pick, are thought of as the greatest living ball players. When they pass, who will assume that mantle? It's got to be Griffey. He hit 630 home runs (without the taint of PEDs) and was a brilliant outfielder. The only dent is that was never in a World Series. But in ten or so years he will be considered to be the greatest living baseball player. He received 99.3 percent of the vote, the highest in Hall of Fame history.

This morning Bob and I headed back into Cooperstown for what's called the Legends of the Game Roundtable. A smaller group of fans (this wasn't free and only for members) watched as Peter Gammons asked the two men some questions and solicited some stories. Piazza, though not by name, referred to the broken-bat incident with Roger Clemens in the 2000 World Series--he said, "I'm lucky to be alive." Both spoke of the greatness of Ichiro Suzuki and how Tony Fossas was the toughest pitcher that Griffey faced.

The Roundtable is great because the players are much more relaxed; their speech his done and they're in jeans and just having a good time.

Both men were great players, completely deserving, and a credit to the game. This trip is almost always the highlight of my year. Next year--look for Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and maybe Trevor Hoffman.


Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Grave Hunt of Utica

The grave of James S. Sherman
Today my friend Bob and I went to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, which I'll tell you about tomorrow. Afterward, we engaged in his latest hobby--visiting the graves of U.S. Vice Presidents. He's about to start on a drive cross country where he will see several such resting places, (including some Presidential graves, most of which he's already seen). We were talking about Vice Presidents and we couldn't remember who William Howard Taft's was. We were sitting in a Denny's in central New York when Bob remembered that the man was James S. Sherman. We used our smartphones to find out we were only 15 miles from his grave.

You have to realize that this is a quirk of Bob's that can be fun or extremely exasperating. We went together to Hollywood and spent most of our time in cemeteries, where he even took a picture of the grave of Gummo Marx. But I was up for this adventure, so we plugged the address of the cemetery into Garmin and found it easily. It turns out the cemetery, Forest Hill in Utica, also contains the graves of former U.S. Senator and political boss Roscoe Conkling, former Governor of New York and Democratic candidate for President Horatio Seymour, and for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ward Hunt. We happened by a friendly man who was on the cemetery's board and directed us to the appropriate graves.

As for Sherman, and as for most Vice Presidents who did not become president, there's little to say about him. He was a long-time congressman from New York who was teamed with the Ohioan Taft for geographic reasons. Wikipedia lists no accomplishments of his as veep, except for perhaps pulling Taft to the right, which angered Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as a third-party candidate in 1912, ensuring the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

James S. Sherman
Sherman is the last Vice President to die in office, and he did so with bad timing. He died of Bright's disease only five days before the election. Taft, who knew he was going to lose, replaced him with Columbia University president Nicholas Murry Butler, who received the paltry electoral college votes (they won only Utah and Vermont).

And so, along with so many others, Sherman is a Vice President who is in almost complete obscurity. It was really only in  the modern era that Vice Presidents were given more to do--Carter's partnership with Mondale made a change in Vice Presidential power. In fact, back in Taft's day, presidential candidates didn't choose their own running mates, the parties did. It's not surprising that they wouldn't speak much with each other. As another Vice President, Thomas Marshall, said, "One boy ran off to the circus, another became Vice President. Neither were heard from again."

Saturday, July 23, 2016

They Call Me Tim

So Hillary Clinton did as I predicted, and went with Tim Kaine, Senator from Virginia, as her running mate. It's a very safe choice, as there seems to be little downside with Kaine, although the Fox News/Trump Campaign is trying hard. He's affable, competent, and fairly liberal, though not too liberal. He's never lost an election. He speaks Spanish. Perhaps most importantly, he's a senator from a state with a Democratic governor, which means that he will be replaced by a Democrat (which was not true with Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, or Sherrod Brown).

It seems the people most upset by the Kaine choice is the far left, or the Bernie Bros, who wanted Warren or Brown. But, see above, and it can be almost certain that the left will come to Clinton eventually, closer every time Donald Trump opens his mouth, and she would do better to try to woo white men. And I fail to see Kaine's wicked conservatism. He is for the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, but I don't think most voters even understand it, let alone if they're for it or against it. He has a 100 rating from Planned Parenthood and the Abortion Rights League (although he is personally against abortion, being Catholic, but believes in the rule of law and is fully behind Roe v. Wade) and has a 0 rating from the National Rifle Association. He worked as a civil rights attorney and as a missionary in Honduras. He seems like a real do-gooder.

I would have loved to see Warren, but besides losing her seat in the Senate to a Republican, she's probably more effective as a senator (and may challenge presumptive Minority (or Majority) leader Chuck Schumer for leadership. Tom Vilsack, who is thought to have been the number two choice, is probably more boring than Kaine, and would have been helpful in Iowa, and wouldn't have caused a Senate problem, so he would have also been a good choice,but Kaine has been fully vetted (he was on Obama's shortlist eight years ago).

My special favorite, who probably wasn't on anyone's list, was Al Franken, who would satisfy the progressives and is a damn good senator. Of course he was also a professional comedian, which carries its own baggage, but would have really made for an exciting choice. But conventional wisdom is that Clinton didn't want an exciting choice. She wants to play defense and let Trump destroy himself as much as possible. Also, there's plenty of excitement in that she may be the first woman president of the U.S.A. Some idiot on CNN last night said this campaign had no excitement, but he's not a woman. We're on the cusp of major history, and that tells me that her advertising should play that woman card hard.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Eisenhower Nostalgia

There's a lot of warm feelings for Dwight Eisenhower these days. The 34th President of the United States, he was a Republican, but today would be considered a moderate if not a liberal Democrat. I was visiting the family in Gettysburg earlier today and visited his home there, where he lived as president and in retirement.

Eisenhower is buried in his home town in Abilene, Kansas, so I sensed no spinning in the ground from the events of the Republican convention this week. I didn't watch any of it, as life is too short and I'd rather keep my blood pressure down, but I enjoyed reading the highlights of what sounds like the continuing Dumpster fire of the Trump campaign.

First, poor Melania Trump gave what everyone thought was a nice speech, but it was revealed to be partly plagiarized from Michelle Obama. The Trump campaign denied it until the actual speech writer confessed. Rudy Giuliani ranted about safety in the streets, looking more dangerous than any black teen in a hoodie. Chris Christie called for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton, while a New Hampshire delegate advocated her death by firing squad. Ben Carson compared her to Lucifer.

Trump's speech last night received roundly bad reviews, as he misstated facts and figures and used the fear-mongering card, a tactic Pat Buchanan used in 1992 that may have torpedoed George H.W. Bush's re-election. But most damaging may have been Ted Cruz's repudiation of Trump, stating that delegates should vote their conscience, and then getting himself booed off the stage. It seemed like a daring move for Cruz, but really it was a calculated move to put him at the top of the list for 2020, presuming Trump loses.

Eisenhower, as shown by the popular meme above, had very progressive ideas, and the U.S. enjoyed it's greatest economic period (of course, it was not exactly paradise for blacks and women, though Ike was on the right side of history on civil rights, sending the National Guard to integrate Little Rock schools). He did not believe in cutting taxes, raising the defense budget, and was for government programs, such as NASA and the Interstate Highway System.

As I learned during today's tour, Eisenhower, after leaving the military, became president of Columbia University, then thought he would retire to his house in Gettysburg (he loved the place from when he commanded tank troops there during World War I). But both parties courted him for the presidency, and he chose the Republican Party because he believed in a two-party system and at that time the Democrats had held the White House for twenty years. The suggestion was that he could have just as well run as a Democrat if the reverse were true.

Eisenhower, from all that I've read, was a man of great integrity (although he probably did cheat on his wife) and was sensible and a straight-shooter. The Republican Party he represented has long gone, and he wouldn't recognize it.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Our Kind of Traitor

The trickiest tightrope walked in Our Kind of Traitor is getting the audience to buy that a civilian with absolutely no espionage experience would be up to his neck helping the British MI6 smuggle a Russian mobster into political asylum. Everytime the brain wants to reject this ludicrous notion, the intelligent script (by Hossein Amini) manages to wriggle off the hook. This makes for a generally good spy flick, with some good thrills and a pair of great performances.

The film was directed by more assurance by Susannah White than would be expected, given her only other major feature is Nanny McPhee Returns. But the film has the sleek, sexy look of a spy film, with lots of soft focus and numerous exotic locations--Marrakesh, Paris, Bern, and London. I haven't read the source novel, but I'm guessing fans of the genre will enjoy the film.

The amateur in this case is Ewan MacGregor as professor of poetry. He is in Morocco on a holiday with his wife, Naomie Harris. They're trying to kick-start their marriage--there's a line dropped in about an affair with a student--but it's not working. She leaves him alone in a restaurant to take a business call when he is befriended by an ursine Russian (Stellan Skarsgard), who takes him out for a night on the town, and then invites him for tennis the next day.

To cut to the chase--Skarsgard is a money launderer for the Russian mob, and has proof that British MPs have taken bribes to open a bank in London to dry clean billions of Russian rubles. Skarsgard knows he's a marked man and wants his family taken to safety, so picks out MacGregor to smuggle a thumb-drive with sensitive information on it back to England.

That's when an intelligence officer (Damian Lewis) gets interested. He's got a grudge against one of the MPs (Jeremy Northam) and proceeds with the case even though he doesn't get authorization from the home office (this is where MacGregor's involvement becomes more feasible. also that he's the only person Skarsgard trusts). So it's a race as to whether the small group of British can get the Russians to safety before everybody gets killed.

What makes Our Kind of Traitor interesting is not MacGregor or Harris's marital woes, or almost anything about them. It's the pathos that Skarsgard brings and the intense focus Lewis does. Both of these men turn in award-worthy performances. I especially liked Lewis, who appears to be a proper English gentlemen but is brimming with anger.

Our Kind of Traitor is not a great film by any means but it makes for a decent evening's entertainment. It's not as complicated as some LeCarre works, it moves briskly, and there's genuine emotion involved.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2015

This years's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror was quite a feast. At almost six-hundred pages, and with 28 stories, some of considerable length, by the time I finished I had almost forgot some of the stories early in the book. Paula Guran, the series editor, much have hard a time winnowing this group down, but I would recommend a slimmer volume in the future.

That being said, some of the long stories are the best. The last story, which is freshest in my mind, is "Kur-a-Len," by Lavie Tidhar. It is reminiscent of Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, with a combo of fantasy/noir/western, and parts of it made me confused, but I enjoyed the effort. There are a lot of great noirish lines, such as: "Gorel of Goliris had been asked to perform many strange deeds. Never, though, had he been given the task of obtaining a pair of living blue eyes for a nameless, dead, and quite possibly deranged god. He had to admit it made a change."

I also enjoyed "Screams of Dragons," by Kelley Armstrong, about a boy with some very special powers, "Dreamer," about wraith-like spirits who play a tag-like game that is deadly to humans, and "Running Shoes," by Ken Liu, which is about a person who is transformed into a running shoe.

In the ancient dug-up demons category, we have John Langan's "Children of the Fang," and Gemma Files' "Wish from a Bone." Both stories are set in the Middle East and involve things should that should be left alone.

"The End of the End of Everything," by Dale Bailey, has one of the book's several great opening lines: "The last time Ben and Lois Devine saw Veronica Glass, the noted mutilation artist, was at a suicide party in Cerulean Cliffs, an artists colony far beyond their means." Other first-line winners are Steve Rasnic Tem for "The Still, Cold Air": "Russell took possession of his parents' old house on a cold Monday morning. The air was like a slap across his cheeks. The frost coating the bare dirt yard cracked so loudly under his boots he looked around to see if something else had made the sound." That's a great set-up, but unfortunately the pay-off is not nearly as good.

In shorter great first lines, there's Alice Sola Kim's "Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying," which goes: "At midnight we parked by a Staples and tried some seriously dark fucking magic." Again, the story does not live up to the that opening.

A few stories I found to be duds, mostly because they were incomprehensible. I read "Combustion Hour," it's in English, but I have no idea what Yoon Ha Lee's story is about. Perhaps because there is a bad opening line: "This story is about the eschatology of shadow puppets." I was similarly puzzled by Laird Barron's "(Little Miss) Queen of Darkness." "Madam Damnable's Sewing Circle," by Elizabeth Bear, is a well-written story set in a brothel in Seattle, 1899, but I didn't get the horror or dark fantasy and it seemed to end in the middle.

Three stories I consider the best in the collection: "The Female Factory," by Lisa L. Hannett and Angela Slatter, set in a women's prison in Australia; S.L. Gilbow's "Mr. Hill's Death," which has a Twilight Zone vibe to it, about a teacher who may just be seeing a You Tube clip of his own death; and, as she did in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Seven, Caitlin R. Kiernan's "The Cats of River Street (1925)," a simple but elegant Lovecraft pastiche about household pets who hold off invading hordes.

All in all, it's a fair collection, but some trimming was in order.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

The last film I'll discuss about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral is plainly called, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a 1957 film that ties in to my Kirk Douglas film festival. In this film Douglas plays Doc Holliday, and Burt Lancaster plays Wyatt Earp. It's not a terrible film, but could have been much better given the stars and director. It also has very little historical accuracy.

Directed by John Sturges (who made Bad Day at Black Rock and The Great Escape), the film really centers on Douglas as Holliday. He's the first character introduced, known as a killer, who takes out Lee Van Cleef by throwing a knife. Earp needs some information from him, and they reluctantly become friends, saving each other's lives.

The two eventually head to Tombstone to help out Earp's brother, Virgil, and it all leads to the famous shootout. There are many inaccuracies, though: Holliday did not accompany Earp to Tombstone, Johnny Ringo was not in the gunfight; the gunfight was not a protracted affair, but lasted only thirty seconds; there is no mention of Curly Bill Brocius or Johnny Behan, nor of either of the two women Earp was involved with (instead they fictionalize a woman for him, played by Rhonda Fleming) and Big Nose Kate, here played by Jo Van Fleet, did have a tumultuous relationship with Holliday, but never took up with Ringo.

Still, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is a passable Western for a Saturday afternoon. Douglas, who I'm fast learning was an under-rated actor, plays Holliday a little differently than the others I've mentioned--he's more robust (though still tubercular) and more of an asshole. But the core of this film, as with the others, is the friendship he has with Earp. When Van Fleet asks him not to go to the fateful shootout, Douglas says, "I'd rather die with the only friend I've ever had."

The direction of the film is not good--the pacing is off, for one, and the script by novelist Leon Uris has too many dead ends. The relationship between Fleming and Lancaster goes nowhere, and could have been completely cut.

There are a lot familiar actors in the film, who went on to TV careers, such as DeForest Kelly as Morgan Earp, Martin Milner as James Earp (who is again incorrectly made the youngest brother and killed off) Earl Holliman as Charlie Bassett, a Dodge City lawman, and a baby-faced Dennis Hopper as Billy Clanton.

Monday, July 18, 2016

The Vikings

By the time Kirk Douglas made The Vikings in 1958, we was a very big star and produced his own movies, as he did with this one. He also wasn't afraid to play an anti-hero, as he did here (although some could see him as simply playing the villain).

Directed by Richard Fleischer, the creative team sought accuracy in everything about the Viking society, from clothes to ships to rituals. That all rings true, even if the standard '50s melodrama weights things down. It could have been more a boys' adventure than a romance, but I suppose they wanted women to see the picture, too.

In some narration by an uncredited Orson Welles, we learn that Vikings have been raiding the English coast for decades. Britain, at that time, did not have a central king or capital. A Viking raiding party, led by Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine) kills the king of Northumbria and impregnates his wife. The supercilious Aella (Frank Thring) takes the throne. The baby is sent to Italy, with the pommel of the king's sword around his neck.

Flash forward twenty years. Ragnar is still king, and he has a manly son (Douglas--though he was a few months older than Borgnine in real life). He is showing an English spy the sport of falconry when they come across a slave (Tony Curtis) with the best bird. Douglas accuses him of stealing it,so Curtis sics the bird on Douglas, blinding him in one eye. From then on the two will cross paths and be enemies and allies, and of course it is revealed early on that Curtis is that baby, and that he and Douglas are in actuality brothers.

The Vikings is full of interesting history, such as that the Vikings didn't sail in open waters because a compass had not yet been invented and they were afraid to get caught in fog so they couldn't navigate by stars. They were also a macho bunch, determined to die with a sword in their hands so they could get to Valhalla, the place of rest for warriors.

That's all fine, but the other major character, a Welsh princess played by Janet Leigh, is the plot mechanism and it just isn't interesting. Douglas lusts after her, Curtis loves her (he and Leigh were married in real life) and Leigh just spends the film looking frightened.

The scenery, filmed in the fjords of Norway, is spectacular, with great photography by Jack Cardiff, who later made his own Viking picture, The Longships.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

I'm happy to report that the reboot/remake of Ghostbusters, titled simply Ghostbusters, did not ruin my childhood (although I saw the first film when I was 23), and I laughed often. I knew I was in for a good time when the pre-credit opening, set in a creepy old mansion in New York, is noted for having luxuries like a "face bidet" and an "anti-Irish fence."

But, overthinking person that I am, I was plagued by several questions. I know that this project resulted in the demise of a possible Ghostbusters III, both by the actual death of Harold Ramis and the foot-dragging of Bill Murray. So they decided to just start over, and in a bold move, director Paul Feig, who made the all-female comedy Bridesmaids, also cast this Ghostbusters with all-female leds.

The film also makes the choice not to acknowledge that there were Ghostbusters in the past, so this is a tabula rasa. The former cast-members (except for Rick Moranis) make cameo appearances as other characters (even Ramis is honored).

So why, since this is all new, is the film so similar to the first one? It's set in New York City, it has the Ghostbusters wearing grey uniforms and carrying machines that capture ghosts, they drive around in a odd vehicle (this time it's a hearse, not an ambulance) and the plot concerns higher-than-normal paranormal activity (there's even a ghost of a someone who died on the electric chair). It's as if Feig decided to be different, but not too different, and essentially remade the first film with an all-female cast.

I will give the cast credit--none of them are echoes of the original ghostbusters. There's no obvious Venkman or Stantz stand-in. Instead we get something a little blander. Kristen Wiig is a physics professor looking for tenure but has a book about ghosts she co-authored with Melissa McCarthy, who is still in the ghost-hunting profession. Wiig loses tenure after beeing seen in a video where she yells, "Ghosts are real!" McCarthy's sidekick is an engineer, Kate McKinnon, who is the only character of any major interest, and she's impossible to describe. Each line reading is an adventure, and she's so committed to her oddball character that she runs rings around the others.

As for Leslie Jones, I'm sorry that the only black ghostbuster, as with the first film, is the only non-scientist. She's an MTA worker who is also an expert on New York City history (why not have made her a historian or a tour guide?) She has a lot of great lines, though, usually in the "sassy black woman" category, such as "If looking good is a crime, I'm guilty as charged!"

The plot is almost irrelevant. A nerdy guy who hates people wants to unleash all the ghosts and rule them all, but this seems like an afterthought. I also wasn't a big fan of Chris Hemsworth's dumb receptionist character, though he was game.

I liked Ghostbusters okay, and we're set up for a sequel if you stay past the credits and remember who Zuul is. But I kind of wished they had gone in a completely different direction. Set it in L.A., London, Las Vegas. Drop all the scientific crap. Make it more like the old Abbott and Costello or Bob Hope haunted house movies. Anything, but this. But for what is, it's okay and worth seeing.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Mike Pence

Like many people, I've been reading a lot about Mike Pence, who was thrust into the limelight by being tapped by Donald Trump as his running mate. I had heard of Pence before; he was brought up by the Great Mentioner in both 2008 and 2012 for Presidential bids, and then made an ass out of himself by signing a law that flat-out discriminates against LGBT people. But of all the quotes I found from him, the one that I think sums him up the most was one he made in 1998: "Smoking does not kill." Suffice it to say, he has reaped several thousand dollars from tobacco lobbies.

The 2016 Republican presidential race has been like no other, so why not the selection of the running mate? There were a lot of factors going on. Trump has alienated most of the party, so most, if not all, of the type of people who would be natural selections for someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio didn't pick up the phone. In another universe, Governors Nikki Haley and Susana Martinez would be candidates, or Senator Tim Scott, the only African American Republican in the Senate, or Rubio, John Kasich, or Scott Walker, defeated but willing to help. But no, anyone with any future in politics wanted no part of the dumpster fire that is the Trump campaign.

The same few names were floating around, and they were horrible. Chris Christie and Newt Gingrich, both unpleasant, were there at the end, along with a general, Michael T. Flynn, who did himself no favors by flip-flopping on abortion rights in his one day in the spotlight. Pence, governor of Indiana and a former congressman, was a late arrival, and as Nate Silver put it, "was the least-worst candidate." The New Yorker's John Cassidy, in his six reasons why Pence was a good choice, put reasons 1 and 2 that he is not Christie or Gingrich.

But of course Trump can't do things very well. How he could handle a world war when he couldn't competently select a running mate is a valid question. Pence's name leaked on Thursday, but it wasn't official. A press conference was scheduled for Friday at 11, but Trump called it off, supposedly because of the attack in Nice (which certainly is bullshit). Several reports indicate that Trump had buyer's remorse, and there was coitus interruptus. He had offered Pence the job, and Pence had accepted, but Trump wanted to back out. Apparently he wanted to go with Christie or Gingrich, but I want to believe he was going to offer it to his daughter, Ivanka, who was the most-most worst pick imaginable.

This certainly couldn't have been fun for Pence, who was flown East and had filed paperwork to remove himself from the ballot for re-election as Indiana's governor. Not only would he be left at the altar, he would have been without a job. Finally Trump tweeted the news that Pence was the official pick, so the two have still not appeared together as a couple.

I must say Pence, of all the available options, is the least-worst. I could have seen Rubio or Bush or Ted Cruz picking him. He looks like a generic businessman, with Lego hair, an aged Ken doll that seems about as exciting as a wet newspaper. But he was no shoo-in for re-election, as he made Indiana a laughing stock with the Religious Freedom Act, a law designed to allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people. Pence, like Trump, is based on hate--he is homophobic, hates immigrants (he battled to keep Syrian refugees out of the state), and a hater of education, as he slashed education money for corporate tax breaks. He is another white guy in a suit (it's notable that of Trump's finalists none were women or people of color) who will probably go back to being a radio host, the job he had before being a congressman.

During the debate, I hope someone asks him if he still thinks smoking is not a killer, and also if the Earth is flat or if gravity exists. We already know he's a climate change denier.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Boy & the World

One of the nominees for the Best Animated Feature Oscar was Boy & the World, a Brazilian film. I've now seen all five of the nominees and this one, directed by Ale Abreu, is the most abstract, with a slender narrative and an emphasis on visuals, which is perhaps something an animated film should be.

The boy, who is named Cuca (that is never spoken--there is no dialogue) who looks like a light socket, lives in a rural farming village. He enjoys playing outdoors. He seems like Calvin without Hobbes. One day his father, a gaunt man who plays the flute, takes a train, presumably to the big city to look for work. Cuca follows him, encountering things he's never seen before.

That's pretty much all I got out of it. Boy & the World is only 80 minutes, so it's not that difficult to sit through, but I admit I did find my mind wandering at some points. Without language some areas were unclear--did he befriend a man on a bicycle, who let him stay with him?

Most of the scenes are groovy animation, which might be aided by hallucinogenics. At one point the boy is given a kaleidoscope (he tries to blow into it) but then looks inside and is mesmerized. In some ways Boy & the World is a very long glimpse into a kaleidoscope.

I will add that the ending, which I won't discuss here, is extremely poignant and might bring a tear to the eye.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Detective Story

I didn't know much about Detective Story before I watched it last night, and wow was it good. Based on a play by Sidney Kingsley, it was directed by William Wyler in 1951 and stars Kirk Douglas in his one of his most intense roles (and that's saying someone) as a cop who never compromises.

You can see the stage origins, as it has one set--the detective squad room at the 21st precinct in New York. We see the various oddballs and other characters that come through--it might have been an inspiration for the old Barney Miller TV show. It starts with a scatter-brained shoplifter (Lee Grant, an Oscar nominee) who is constantly apologizing for bothering everyone. Later a pair of burglars are pulled in, including one (Joseph Wiseman, who was later Dr. No) just a little too close to madness.

Douglas is Jim McLeod, and the case he's been working on is a doctor. Now, this is a 1951 film, so the word "abortion" is never mentioned, but it's pretty clear what's going on--this obstetrician has killed woman in botched abortions, and Douglas is hell-bent to put him away. But the doctor has lawyered up, and warns the cops that he wants his client not to be touched by rubber hoses or any other methods. The lawyer also insinuates that Douglas has a personal reason to be after this doctor, and to ask his wife about it (Eleanor Parker, also an Oscar nominee).

One can see what's coming, and even though there's a predictability it's still fascinating to see Douglas, who sees things in black and white, confront the reality that he's not much different from his father, who was a career criminal. "You're a cruel, vicious man," Parker tells him. Douglas was never one to shy away from histrionics, but there always entertaining to watch.

Other members of the cast include William Bendix, as a kindly detective and Burt Mustin, as a janitor. Mustin, for people of my age, was a fixture on TV through the fifties to the seventies, as he always played an old man. That's because he was old--Detective Story was his first professional role, and he was sixty-seven years old. Also notable is the photography by Lee Garmes, who uses deep focus photography to excellent results.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Black Lives Matter

A few short words about Black Lives Matter, and the fooforall that is going right now in this country over race (my goodness, have we stepped into the Wayback Machine and emerged in 1965?)

Black Lives Matter, as a movement, grew out of an alarming habit of police officers killing unarmed or incapacitated black men (women are not immune, one woman arrested for a traffic incident "hung" herself in her cell in Houston). The cops who perpetrate these outrages are either not indicted or acquitted. The message to black people: our lives don't matter, when compared to the word of the police, even when video evidence shows otherwise.

This is perfectly rational in my view, and in no way racist. The deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in a suburb of the Twin Cities, the latter who was legally carrying a gun and was stopped for a possibly non-existent broken taillight renewed the cause of Black Lives Matter, as did acquittals of those who killed Freddie Gray, who somehow had his back broken resisting arrest.

Into this mix came Micah X. Johnson, who was not affiliated with Black Lives Matter and, by all accounts, a deeply troubled man, the kind who might be equated with Dylan Rooff or Timothy McVeigh. Angered by treatment of those of his race, he misguidedly singled out innocent police officers, who ironically were doing their duty helping a Black Lives Matter protest continue peacefully. Johnson's actions were horrific and evil.

But, the troglodyte right wing of the Republican Party (an increasing large part of it) sought to tie the two together, and suggest that Black Lives Matter is inherently racist. Repugnant Rudy Giuliani and some bleach-blonde bimbo named Tomi Lahren both embarrassed themselves, the latter comparing BLM to the KKK. Just how many white people has BLM lynched?

What stupid white people don't seem to grasp is that Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, and All Lives Matter are not mutually exclusive. I liked the poster I put above. Any sentient being knows that All Lives Matter, but for black people in this country it is not inconceivable that they could feel like deer during hunting season. Or, put another way, if a group has a fund raiser for breast cancer, that does mean they don't have sympathy for those who have lung cancer, or any other disease. We all have our cause, and it's usually one that hits close to home. For black people, it's the notion that a young black man can set out in his car and not come back because of an ill-trained and/or sociopathic cop.

I value the work policeman do. I have a step-brother who is a cop, and he's one of the good guys, as are 99 percent of cops. But man that less than one percent is making this country into a roiling mess. I don't what the answer is--more body cameras, certainly, and better training. Open carry laws aren't helping--how is a cop supposed to know when a legally carried gun isn't going to be used on him? (And, by the way, Texas is an open carry state--where were the heroes taking down Micah Johnson? Running away, most likely).

The problem is not Black Lives Matter. The problem is much deeper, rooted in the words of an old song by Public Enemy--"Fear of a Black Planet."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Deer Hunter

With the death of Michael Cimino last week I thought I'd revisit his greatest (only) triumph, The Deer Hunter, which I hadn't seen since it's first release. Time has not been great to this film, which I still find to be over-rated and over-rewarded.

The story of three Russian-Americans from the a steel-mining town in Pennsylvania who go off to fight in Vietnam, The Deer Hunter mixes an odd kind of sensationalism (the Russian roulette sequences) with a fake sense of community. I have no idea what a company town in Pennsylvania was like in the early '70s, but I'll be it doesn't feel like this. Most of the scenes in the early part of the film felt like a beer commercial.

The three main characters are Mike (Robert De Niro), a sphinx-like man who is buttoned so tight it's amazing he has friends; Christopher Walken as Nick, a kind of popular guy, and Stan (John Savage), who is getting married. There are a few other guys who are friends, notably John Cazale, who still has Fredo Corleone in his system (a scene in which De Niro won't lend him his boots seems very Godfather-ish). The lone female character with anything to do is Meryl Streep as Nick's girlfriend, but she starts to feel warm towards Mike, though he does nothing to indicate why that should be.

The first act ends abruptly, with the guys finding themselves together in a North Vietnamese prison camp, where they are forced to play Russian roulette. This scene is the best in the film, full of gut-wrenching suspense, but it is extremely controversial because it is made out of whole cloth--there is no recorded instance of Viet Cong employing this method of torture. I wonder how Americans would feel if the North Vietnamese, or the Japanese or Germans, for that matter, made a film about Americans making their prisoners play the game.

Interestingly, Russian roulette was the core of the script. It was originally a film about guys in Vegas playing it, and it was transplanted into a movie about Vietnam. The Deer Hunter was one of the first films to deal with Vietnam, although it is completely apolitical--it might as well have been World War II or Korea, as there is no mention of anyone opposing the war or what it stands for.

The third act follows De Niro home, where he fumbles into a relationship with Streep, finds Savage in a VA hospital, missing both legs, and then goes back to find Walken in Saigon, where he is addicted to Russian roulette. Here's a problem--Russian roulette is not a game of skill--it is completely luck. It is impossible to think Walken could have survived more than a few games of playing it, certainly not long enough to earn a nickname--"The American."

Finally the film ends after a funeral, with the assemble singing "God Bless America." What are we to make of this? Is this completely ironic, a passive/aggressive way for Cimino to be political, or is it sincere? Again, it feels like a commercial, like "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet."

I haven't mentioned the deer hunting scenes. De Niro is almost mystical about it, not the kind of guy who hunts as a communal experience just to drink beer. He takes it super seriously, and talks about how the deer must be killed with one shot. That "one shot" is repeated later, in one of the many obvious points of the film. Others include the spilled wine on Savage's bride's dress (meaning bad luck) and the choir music used for De Niro walking through the forest. We know the forest is like a cathedral for him, we don't reed the redundancy.

The Deer Hunter has fine qualities, such as Vilmos Zsigmond's photography and Walken and Streep's performances (Walken won an Oscar and it was the first of umpteen nominations for Streep), but mostly I found it to be a faux epic. Cimino studied Scorsese and Coppola and this is what he came up, but he lacked their authenticity. I never saw Heaven's Gate but if it is the disaster many say it is then I wouldn't be surprised after seeing The Deer Hunter.

Monday, July 11, 2016

St. Marks Is Dead

When I worked in New York City during the '80s and '90s I always enjoyed a trip to St. Marks Place, though it wasn't very often. Usually I met my friend Steve at a dive bar called the Grassroots. We would get a pizza from a place on the corner and bring it to the Grassroots where we would order pitchers of Rheingold. Good times.

Upon reading St. Marks Is Dead, by Ada Calhoun, I'm glad to hear Grassroots is still open, as so much of the street is gone. Although Calhoun, who grew up on the street, doesn't mention, the life of the street is very much parallel with 42nd Street, which has also lost much of its grimy character to gentrification and wholesomeness. St. Marks was tawdry, but in a much more bohemian sense. As Calhoun notes in the subtitle, it was American's "hippest street."

St. Marks Place runs for only three blocks in what is now called the East Village (a map would have been nice for those who have never set foot there). Roughly, it runs from Astor Place in the west to Tompkins Park in the east, and one can think of it has being a replacement name for Eighth Street, which continues west and east of each of those points. It was once an Indian trail, and then part of Peter Stuyvesant's land, the Dutch governor. The name appeared first on maps from the 1850s, though it was known as that long before, named for the church St.-Mark's-in-the-Bowery. Early residents included Alexander Hamilton and his wife.

Over the years the street would change complexion, continually reflecting the new. Immigrants, of course, were a key factor. For a time at the turn of the 19th century, Jewish gangsters controlled the streets, and many tunnels and hidden back rooms show what life was like during prohibition. Later German, Polish, and Ukrainian immigrants held sway, and even as late as my time in the city many restaurants, such as Kiev (now closed) were still a testament to those days.

It was during the depression and on through the post-war years that the street changed. Political revolutionaries such as Leon Trotsky and Emma Goldman were around. Rents were ridiculously cheap, so it became a haven for artists and writers. Frank O'Hara and W.H. Auden lived there. In the surrounding streets, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Koonig had studios. Then came the Beats.

"The word 'Beat' was a carnival term, referring to to carnies' poor income, an a drug term, meaning one who has been cheated in a deal. Itinerant writer, poet, and drug addict Hebert Huncke, thinking the word evoked the state of having been beaten by the world, introduced it to some writer friends, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg."

St. Marks became the "Champs-Elysee of the counterculture." The best jazz could be heard at the nearby Five Spot. Gay culture, as much as it could, was abundant. The old-timers resisted, but eventually were pushed out. That has been the pattern ever since, as the Beats gave way to the hippies, the hippies to the punks, the punks to hard-core, and now, alas, to corporate America.

Calhoun lists many oddballs, mad geniuses, and important businesses that lined the street. Musicians like the New York Dolls and the Beastie Boys got their start there. Fillmore East was around the corner. The Electric Circus was a nightclub that flourished in the '60s, and Kim's Video, also now closed, was the place to go for the cineaste (the clerks were snobs). During the '70s, when New York was in dire straits, it was a place of danger and drugs, and many who declared the street dead (from whence the title comes) are nostalgic for something that no one should be nostalgic for--it's like missing the peep shows on Times Square. When the Gap moved in in 1988, most heard the first death knell. Rents have gone way up, and now, perhaps truly St. Marks is dead.

While I enjoyed the anecdotes and facts (when Calhoun mentions a building she gives the street number) I also found it a bit of a laundry list and not well tied together. The book is more like a snack than a meal. I can't tell you why this particular street became the place that it was. A lot of names are mentioned, sometimes the book is not chronological, and again, a map really would have helped (some places nearby are mentioned, which is totally okay, but we don't get much more help than "a few blocks away").

Still, this is a fun book for those who like New York cultural history. At least I got a taste of the street when it still had St. Marks Comics, the St. Marks Bookshop, and the Astor Place cube (which will be returned to its stand in August--I learned that the actual title is Alamo. Who knew?)




Sunday, July 10, 2016

Wyatt Earp

As mentioned in my review of Tombstone, there were competing Wyatt Earp films. Initially, Kevin Costner was attached to Kevin Jarre's script, but exited because he wanted it to be more about Earp, so the result was Lawrence Kasdan's horribly bloated, three-hour-plus film simply titled Wyatt Earp, released in 1994.

I saw the film in first release, but just this weekend watched in again on DVD, which comes in two discs. I watched one disc one day and the second the next, and it occurred to me that one could skip the first disc entirely and miss nothing. Kasdan, and presumably Costner, wanted to use the life of Earp as an American myth, the typical American story, starting in a cornfield and ending on a boat off the Alaska coast. But Wyatt Earp's life was hardly typical. He was a gambler, a part-time policeman, and a boxing referee, but mostly a hustler. That contradicts the golden-hued photography of this film.

The first half details Earp's upbringing with a stern father (Gene Hackman) who tells his boys, "Nothing matters but blood. Everyone else are strangers." This becomes the spine of the film, as the Earp boys stick together, much to the chagrin of their long-suffering wives. We see Earp transitioning from happy-go-lucky to a cold-hearted killer. Dime-store psychology assumes that it's the death from typhoid of his first wife, He becomes a sheriff in Dodge City (alongside Ed and Bat Masterson). The first half of the film ends before he even gets to Tombstone.

The second half is more interesting, if only because we are introduced to Doc Holliday (Dennis Quaid). Holliday is the role of a lifetime for any actor, as it was for Val Kilmer and Victor Mature. Quaid plays him as even more hard-bitten and scowling, but a loyal friend.

The whole business with the "cowboys" is handled mostly accurately, although the real reason for the shootout--that Billy Clanton thought Wyatt Earp was going to reveal him as an informant in stagecoach robbery--is not touched upon, probably because it's too complicated for a movie to grapple with. But the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (or just outside of it) is handled correctly, as is Earp's dissolution of his relationship with Mattle Blaylock (Mare Winningham) and taking up with Josie Marcus (Joanna Going).

Honestly, if this film had just cut the first half, except for one or two short scenes with Hackman, it would have been much better. It gets more right about the activities in Tombstone and beyond (including the trial and the brutal murder of Frank Stilwell) than any other film, but goes way overboard in its attempt to make Earp some kind of American type.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Colvin & Earle

I've been a fan of Shawn Colvin even before she made her first record, and while I don't have any Steve Earle records, I'm somewhat familiar with him, especially his fiery political music. Therefore I was really stoke for their first pairing, self-titled Colvin & Earle. Unfortunately, though it's a nice listen, it seems inconsequential. It sounds like what it might well have been--a couple of buddies just playin' music.

Colvin and Earle wrote half of the album; the other half is covers. The new stuff doesn't break any boundaries, either musically or lyrically. The opening track, "Come What May," has a toe-tapping rhythm, but I honestly can't remember any of the tunes after a week of listening to it. The lyrics are gentle bromides about love and being happy with what you have ("Happy and Free").

The covers are an interesting assortment. Most are hits from the '60s, such as "Tobacco Road," which gets a nice funky rendition, and the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," which is basically the same arrangement the Stones did, without the recorder, which confuses my memory. There is also a cover of the nugget "You Were on My Mind," by We Five, which again doesn't alter the original much.

Colvin has an angelic voice, Earle not so much, and often his voice is buried in the mix, but not enough to detract from hers. The voices just don't mesh at all.

I really wanted to like this record but I doubt I'll be playing much again.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Romeo & Juliet (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company)

Regular readers of this blog know that I will see just about any production of Romeo and Juliet. It's not my favorite Shakespearean play, but because I was in it way back in college I'm always up for seeing what approach a director takes. I've seen many film productions and I don't know how many stage adaptations--maybe five or six, ranging from Broadway to amateur.

Last night I had a chance to see Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford's take on the play, broadcast to cinemas live from the Garrick Theater in London (I doubt it was live--since London is about eight hours ahead of my time it would have been 3:30 in the morning). But it was certainly a film of a live production, with an audience and everything. Interestingly, the cinematic presentation was in crisp black and white, to go with Branagh's slant--this Romeo and Juliet is very Italian, but set in post-war Italy, and modeled after the films of the period, such as by Fellini and Antonioni.

I approve of that approach, but it was kind of muted because he uses nothing but English actors. They use occasional Italian and dress in period clothing, but are thoroughly British. For example, playing Lord Capulet is Michael Rouse, who at one point wears a sleeveless t-shirt (what is uncomfortably sometimes referred to as a "wife-beater," a staple of Italian men's wardrobes), but he looks no more Italian than a member of the House of Windsor. The only character looking vaguely Italian is the Nurse, played in fiery fashion by Meera Syal.

That aside, the production is mostly good, but one casting error kept it from being excellent. I would like to applaud Lily James as Juliet. Known to audiences from Downton Abbey and Branagh's film of Cinderella, she gives Juliet a backbone and lots of vim and vigor. Some Juliets are too simpering, but James plays her as if she were Rey in the latest Star Wars film (she should play her sister in the next film). She is of course beautiful, but nobody's fool.

Unfortunately, Richard Madden as Romeo was no match for her. Before the play Branagh announced that Madden was dealing with a badly hurt ankle, so maybe that had something to do with it, but he seemed distracted and not particularly interested in what was going on. He and James had no chemistry, and he gave little passion to his role. He played opposite her in Cinderella, and is Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, but here he looked like the second lead in a sit-com. It didn't help that in the final scenes he was wearing a windbreaker.

The most notable casting was Derek Jacobi, the venerable Shakespearean actor, as Mercutio. That role is usually played as a contemporary of Romeo's, but Jacobi is 77 years old. Branagh, in some commentary before the film began, said he got the idea from a description of a down and out Oscar Wilde. The casting worked well, as Mercutio, deep down a sad man, seems even more pathetic by hanging out with much younger men. The only place it doesn't work is with his fight with Tybalt, which seems pretty foolhardy.

The staging is fast and furious. Some scenes are cut, of course, but some that are usually cut are kept in, such as Paris' death (I'm always for keeping it in, because he's so smug), but the Friar's scene with Juliet in the vault is cut (and his monologue explaining what he did is kept in) and the apothecary scene is not there, so we don't know how Romeo got the poison. The opening fight scene is very short, as are most of the fights. But Romeo's revenge against Tybalt is staged with violent gusto.

Some of the other cast members worth noting--Lady Capulet is an unrecognizable Marisa Berenson (she was the next big thing back in the early '70s when she made Barry Lyndon), and special plaudits to Kathryn Wilder as Peter. When we did Romeo and Juliet back in the day, we also had the servant played by a woman who did a great job playing dim, and Wilder does that hear. Bravo!

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Champion

Now that the year is half over I've got to hustle to get around to all the centenaries celebrated this year. Great artists born in 1916 include Gregory Peck, Shirley Jackson, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Jackie Gleason, Harry James, and two who are still alive: Olivia De Havilland, who just turned 100 a few days ago, and Kirk Douglas, who will be 100 in December.

Douglas was a great movie star who still manages to be unsung--he never won an Oscar in competition. His typical role was of a man with great intensity--impressionists usually zeroed in on moments of anger. His later years were marked by grand, historical films, such as Spartacus, probably his most famous role. But earlier in his career he played many roles of more subtlety, including noirs like Out of the Past.

His first starring role was as a boxer in 1949's Champion, directed by Mark Robson. Here is all of what Douglas offered--a handsome, vigorous man, but also a heel. He plays Midge Kelly, a man from poverty, who accidentally ends up a boxer. He is loved by his crippled brother (Arthur Kennedy) and has a manager (Paul Stewart) devoted to him, but he turns against them when he has a chance to get ahead.

Douglas, who also grew up in poverty (his memoir is called The Ragman's Son) may have found something to identify in Kelly, although he was surely a nicer man than this character. This guy is pugnacious and cocky, a scrapper. When he find himself looking for work in a club he is asked to fill in for a scratched boxer. He has no technique, so loses, but Stewart sees something in him and offers him training. Douglas and Kennedy are partners in a diner, so he says no, but when he finds out that was a scam, he ends up putting on the gloves.

Kelly's treatment of women is also very harsh in this film. He romances the daughter of the diner owner (Ruth Roman). They are forced to marry, but as soon as the ceremony is over he walks out. When he beats the number one challenger (against orders from the bigwigs who fix the fights) he takes his girl (Marilyn Maxwell), who is only interested in money. Later, he will dump Stewart and sign with another manager, and then takes his woman (Lola Albright), only to break her heart.

So what we have here is a thoroughly unlikeable character, but it's through Douglas' force of will that if he isn't somebody we'd like as a friend, it's still someone we want to watch. He becomes champ, but the climax of the film is when he defends the title against the man he beat early on. In a twist for a boxing film, many viewers might actually be rooting against Douglas. I won't spoil it here, but the ending was a surprise, which most boxing films do not have.

I'll be watching more Douglas films that I haven't seen before or at least in a very long time. Watch this space.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Sniper

The Sniper, a 1952 film by Edward Dmytryk, is included in my collection of Columbia Noir films. It is a noir in some ways, in it's use of the streets of San Francisco as a back drop and the use of the killer as the main character, but is also something of a police procedural, and is one of many films of the period that tries to simplify the psychological reasons behind crime.

Arthur Franz plays a troubled young man. We first see him in a room in his boarding house, pointing a gun out a window. He doesn't shoot, but he is tormented. He tries to keep himself from shooting by burning his hand on a hotplate.

He is a driver for a dry cleaner, and delivers clothes to a pretty woman (Marie Windsor, playing a nice person for once). She is nice to him and invites him in, put practically pushes him out the door when her boyfriend shows up. He follows her to her job as a lounge pianist and climbs to the roof of a building across the street, where he shoots her.

The police are then involved, led by Adolphe Menjou as Lt. Kafka (I wonder if the writers had any fun with that or if it's just a coincidence). When Franz strikes again, killing a woman who rejects him in a bar (she somehow doesn't believe he built a five-mile long bridge in Hawaii) the whole town is on edge, and there's tremendous pressure on the police. Of course, eventually Franz will leave too many clues, and he's captured.

What sets The Sniper apart is it's almost documentary-style filming. In a way, it reminded me of The Naked City, also shot on location, also documenting cops using old-fashioned shoe leather, and also with an older actor as the lead investigator. The hills of San Francisco are used to great effect.

But the film goes the extra mile with the character of a police psychologist, played by Richard Kiley, who tells the cops that pulling in a lineup of previous sex offenders is a waste of time--that peepers stick to peeping, rapists to raping, etc. He also tells a room full of bigwigs that if sex offenders were given treatment instead of simply jailed and let go, there wouldn't be these kind of crimes. His concerns are waved aside.

The Sniper is a disturbing film, especially at the climax, when a painter on a tower spots Franz, and Franz, panicking, shoots the man, whom we never see but in an extreme long shot. There's something extra vicious about not seeing the face of someone who is killed.

Dmytryk was one of the Hollywood Ten, who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was jailed for contempt of court, but later named names and his career was rehabilitated. Stanley Kramer, who produced The Sniper, was the first to hire him.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Tombstone

The film that most people know about the Earps and the O.K. Corral is probably Tombstone, a successful release from 1993, which came right before the much more epic Wyatt Earp (which I'll talk about in a few days). I've come across many men of a certain age who consider this one of their favorite films, and have posters of it in their office.

To be sure, it is fairly accurate historically. There are differences that are almost too small to mention, such as Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany) already being in Tombstone, having given up acting to be the mistress of Johnny Behan before Wyatt Earp ever arrived. But the film gets the mechanics of the gunfight right, and also continues to show the "vengeance killings" that occurred afterward.

Wyatt Earp (Kurt Russell, an unsung actor in perhaps his finest performance) is in town with his brothers to set up a faro game. He literally muscles out the local dealer (Billy Bob Thornton) and has no interest in being a peace officer. But his older brother Virgil (Sam Elliott) becomes marshal after the death of the former one, and all of the brothers get involved in a squabble with the "cowboys," an organized gang who run things. They team up with Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) to rid the town of the blight, but this is just the start of things.

Directed by George Cosmatos and written by Kevin Jarre, Tombstone does a great job of incorporating a lot of characters and complexity into a two-hour-and-fourteen minute film. They do leave stuff out, like the stagecoach robbery that is central to the reason the shootout happened, as well as the trial that the Earps underwent after the gunfight. But they got the characters right. Wyatt Earp was a stoic, bullheaded man, and that's how Russell played him. He doesn't use his gun often, unless he's hitting someone over the head with it. His line, "Are you just going to stand there and bleed?" seems authentic.

But Kilmer steals the show. He should have received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Holliday, a southern aristocrat and dead-eyed killer. He has the best and most memorable lines, which you can get printed on a t-shirt or coffee mug: "I'm your huckleberry," or "You're a daisy if you." The key line is when one of Earp's posse asks Holliday, who is dying of tuberculosis, why he's helping Earp. "He's my friend," is the answer. "I've got lots of friends," says the other man, and Holliday replies, "I don't."

The friendship between Kilmer and Russell is the spine of the movie, and it's poignant, as when Russell visits Kilmer in a sanatorium near the end of the picture. Each man had a woman (Earp has two in the film--his relationship with Mattie Blaylock, who becomes an opium addict, is true and doesn't even scratch the surface) but the bond between the two men is what's important.

Also in the film are some old cowboy actors. Harry Carey Jr. is Marshall Pat White, who was killed by Curly Bill Brocius (Powers Boothe) just like as happened in real life. Charlton Heston is in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it role as a rancher, and the film is narrated by Robert Mitchum, who closes with this great line: "Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929. Among the pallbearers at his funeral, were early western stars William S. Hart and Tom Mix. Tom Mix wept."

Of all the Tombstone movies, Tombstone may not be the best, but it is the most entertaining.

Monday, July 04, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan

There's been a lot of debate if the character of Tarzan is just too antiquated for these times. Edgar Rice Burroughs was no enlightened thinker--the overall tone of his books were racist, and early Tarzan films didn't exactly portray the African natives in a positive light. Basically, what we had was a European taking his natural spot as King of the Jungle because he was naturally superior to the darker race.

So David Yates and his team have tried again, with The Legend of Tarzan, perfectly aware of what they were dealing with, and the result is a bending over backwards to make the whole thing PC. The natives have actual characters, not just a mass of "ooga booga" savages, and the villains in the pieces are colonialists. And while Jane spends most of the film as a damsel in distress, she can more than hold her own.

So if this is Tarzan for the modern age, I was kind of disappointed. The film looks great, but was so wrapped in apologia that I was longing for some simple adventure, without the looking at the audience and saying, "We're not racists."

In this Tarzan, our man (Alexader Skarsgard) has hung up his loincloth and is living the life of English gentry as the Earl of Greystoke. In the Belgian Congo, King Leopold's right hand man (Christoph Waltz) is looking for some legendary diamonds. He strikes a deal with a chief (Djimoun Hounsou)--he gets the diamonds, if Waltz can deliver Tarzan to him. So Waltz contrives for a phony diplomatic mission, in which Skarsgard is to come. But the plot thickens when Jane (Margot Robbie) insists on coming along, as does an American diplomat, Samuel L. Jackson.

In this film, Tarzan turns out to be a combination of Spider-Man and Dr. Dolittle, as he has a special bond with animals, especially the gorillas he grew up with. In Tarzan movies, we accept that a person can leap off a cliff and grab a vine that will hold his weight, or that a man could fight a gorilla and not be completely ripped from limb to limb. Everyone involved sells the whole concept, even Jackson, who brings some anachronistic contemporary qualities to his character (who was a real person,) But I felt drained by the PC nature of the film--the underlying cause is against slavery, certainly a noble one, but to me Tarzan films demand a certain silliness, a certain Saturday-afternoon serial quality.

Skarsgard and Robbie, both sleek as panthers, make an attractive pairing, and Waltz can do these Euro-villain parts in his sleep (he is the heir to Alan Rickman in this regard). In fact, most of the suspense of the film is wondering what animal will kill him, which I won't spoil here. We also get the answer to the question why natives never rode zebras.

As summer blockbusters go, The Legend of Tarzan is tolerable if not scintillating. It's not as profound and moving as Greystoke, the last serious attempt at the character was. If the film can make it's money back there could be promise in a sequel, as the ending suggests that you can take the boy out of the jungle, but you can't take the jungle out of the boy.