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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Pretty Woman

Garry Marshall died a while back. I was not a fan of his films, although I will give him major props as a TV genius. He created one of the best sit-coms of all time, The Odd Couple (of course using the characters created by Neil Simon) and also was responsible for Happy Days, which was good for a couple of years (until it jumped the shark), Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy. He knew what people liked to watch.

That tendency to appeal to the lowest common denominator didn't work in films, at least not for me. Marshall believed that people went to movies to forget their troubles, which may be generally true but can end up creating treacle. I look to his most popular film, and the only one I was willing to revisit, Pretty Woman, from 1990.

It was a major hit and it made Julia Roberts a star. It is also, in the final analysis, pretty terrible. If it weren't for Roberts, it would be hard to sit through. I was interested to read all the actresses who either turned it down or weren't cast, from Michelle Pfeiffer to Winona Ryder. Roberts, who did already have an Oscar nomination for Steel Magnolias, stole this movie like a thief in the night. That laugh when Richard Gere snaps closed the jewelry box is worth its weight in gold.

So where does the movie go wrong? The script, originally called $3,000, for the amount Gere pays Roberts to be his "companion" for the week, was originally much darker and more concerned with sex work. The vision of prostitution on Hollywood Boulevard in the finished version seems by way of Disney. I have never picked up a hooker on any street, let alone that one, but I'm willing to bet a lot that none of those ladies look anything like Julia Roberts. In the world of prostitution, she would be navigating the corridors of fancy hotels and servicing the likes of Eliot Spitzer. The script tries to justify it, with her friend (the equally unlikely streetwalker Laura San Giacamo) getting her into it, but I just can't believe it.

I also can't believe almost anything of Gere's character, the billionaire Edward Lewis. So he breaks up with his girlfriend, ends up by mistake in Hollywood, picks up Roberts, is amused and enchanted by her, and basically becomes Henry Higgins to her Eliza Dolittle. Right. When Roberts speaks of fairy tales, she isn't kidding, because that's what this movie is. I would guess it pleased more women than men, because Gere plays sort of a certain kind of romance ideal: he's handsome, he's pretty nonjudgmental, and he's rich.

That last thing is what sinks the movie the most. Roberts' character, who longs for a white knight to save her, is really looking for a father figure who will take care of her. Gere romances her by buying her things, taking her in a private plane to the opera, etc. Supposedly she's humanizing him by making him slow down and enjoy the simple things, but that's never really convincing. We get Jason Alexander, playing a rich proto-Costanza, to represent Gere's darker nature, the one that he literally throws out of his life. But it's as if Alexander was from the earlier script, and doesn't belong in this one.

Certain touches I liked, such as Hector Elizondo's sly performance as the hotel manager. But most of Pretty Woman is candy-coated nonsense. That Roberts was able to make this the cultural touchstone that it is is testament to her star power.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

In Memoriam: Gene WIlder

There's nothing like the death of a funny person to make us all sad. Looking at social media today, the world is taking the death of Gene Wilder at 83 very hard, and that's even considering he hadn't acted for more than twenty years, and the greatness of his career was really only confined to about fifteen years. But what a fifteen years.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wilder (he took his last name from playwright Thornton Wilder) made a memorable debut in small part in Bonnie and Clyde. He is a rich kid kidnapped by the bank robbers, and his performance as a highly excitable person sort of established his persona as a man who thought he was in control, but was often in the grip of terrible anxiety.

Like many of my age, I grew up on Wilder. First was The Producers, for which he garnered his only Oscar nomination for acting. Leo Bloom was his most nebbish-y role, a man who memorably screamed, "I'm in pain, I'm wet, and I'm hysterical!" The film united him with Mel Brooks, and the two would make a memorable partnership. leading to Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which incredibly were released in the same calendar year.

The Producers is a comic classic that starts out big, as the long scene between Wilder and Zero Mostel in the opening of the film is comedy gold. From Wilder's security blanket to his falling on his keys to the hatching of the plot, this self-contained scene is so good that it's almost criminal, and while Mostel blusters, Wilder parries with skill, not shying away from Mostel's cured ham.

Before the double-event with Brooks, Wilder made what his perhaps his most famous film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I saw it when I was twelve, pretty much a perfect age for it, and was enchanted. I liked the Tim Burton version a lot, too, so I can't authoritatively say that one is better than the other, but Wilder makes for a much different Wonka. While Depp played a man-child, Wilder is definitely an adult, but an adult who seems to take some delight in the demise of ill-behaved children (unlike the Burton version, we assume the malefactors in Willy Wonka have gone to their doom).

The story about Blazing Saddles is that Wilder agreed to the role as the Waco Kid, which was subdued for a Wilder role, in order to get Brooks to direct Young Frankenstein, and not act in it. Young Frankenstein was Wilder's idea, and he wrote most of the script (he and Brooks were credited and won an Oscar nomination). I've written about the film before, and it's just about a perfect comedy. All over Facebook today people were quoting the lines, from "Sed-a-give?" to "Put the candle back." But what I appreciated about Wilder in the film is that he held nothing back. It was an homage to the Universal horror films, and Wilder acted in that style--his "Life! I've created life!" almost puts Colin Clive to shame.

Unfortunately, Wilder was not a great director. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother delighted me when I was 15--I saw it twice, but while it has moments that hold up it's a little too silly. The World's Greatest Lover and The Frisco Kid were also misfires. But, fortunately, during this time, he forge a partnership with Richard Pryor. Silver Streak (ironically, it's director Arthur Hiller just passed) is an under-rated gem. I haven't seen it in years but I still remember, every time Wilder was thrown from the train, his anguished "Son of a bitch!"

He made two more films with Pryor, the popular Stir Crazy, and then one of the last films for both men, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, which very few people saw. He had a romance with Gilda Radner that produced a few films that I didn't see and didn't get good marks--Hanky Panky, Haunted Honeymoon, and The Women in Red, The latter is mostly known for the Stevie Wonder song, "I Just Called to Say I Love You."

Radner died in 1989 and Wilder worked very little after that, devoting his time to cancer-related charities. I remember him being visible when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out, asked to compare himself to Johnny Depp. But Wilder wouldn't take the bait--he was a kind man (there are numerous anecdotes about his kindness to fans) and then that's about the last I ever saw him. He was passed over many times for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Wilder never really acted a dramatic part, but he was an actor. Though he may have often looked the part of the clown, he was not a buffoon on film, but instead a man who simply played the truth. Many have offered their favorite moment of his acting, but to me, if you want to see great acting, watch the scene in Young Frankenstein when he's locked in the room with the Monster and tells his friends not to let him out, "no matter how cruelly I beg." Of course he immediately goes back on that, and ends up screaming "Mommy!" But then, in an additional turn, he realizes he has to stay in there and manages to charm the Monster. "You're a mother's angel," he tells the crying creature. That's some range of acting in one short scene.

Gene Wilder was one of our greatest comic actors, perhaps the best of the post-War era. The only actor I can think of that rivals him is Bill Murray, who is an entirely different kind of actor. Wilder was one of a kind.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Love

When it comes to '60s-'70s classic rock bands, Love is an example of a group that is respected more than loved. Aging boomers with gray ponytails know who they are, but they've sort of got shuffled out of the deck of great American rockers like Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, whom they inspired. They don't get much play, except for maybe "Little Red Book," which was written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach for the film What's New, Pussycat?, but Love turn it into something that sounds as if it emanated from the coolest kid on the block's garage.

In fact, Love had only two hit singles, so the album I've been listening to for the past couple of week is not called Love's Greatest Hits, but instead The Best of Love, 22 tracks from 1966 to 1969.

Love has one important distinction--they were the first integrated rock band. Arthur Lee, born in Memphis, raised in Los Angeles, was their hard charging lead vocalist. Listen to the way he barks out the words in "Little Red Book" and you hear a master of rock phrasing. Their greatest hit, which peaked at number 33 on the charts, was "Seven and Seven Is," which was an early example of garage rock mixing with psychedelia. It is one of the most blistering rock tracks ever recorded, with nearly frantic vocals by Lee and brilliant guitar work by John Echols.

Later the group eased more into psychedelics, with most of the songs written by Bryan McLean. Songs like "Orange Skies" and "She Comes in Colors" (vaguely reminiscent of the vocal riff in the Rolling Stones "She's Like a Rainbow") made Love the kind of band listened to in rooms of purple shag carpeting, lava lamps, and black lights. But they weren't self-parodying--it was too early for that. Their 1967 album Forever Changes, now a classic, went almost completely unheard, while the Beatles and the San Francisco sound defined the LSD area.

Love may exist as something of a museum piece now, but driving around with the stereo blasting is an enriching experience. As the liner notes point out, the '60s albums that are now hailed were busts back then, like The Beach Boys Pet Sounds and The Zombies Oddisey and Oracle. Remember, number one hits from 1967 included Frank and Nancy Sinatra's "Something Stupid," Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe," and the number one song was Lulu's "To Sir With Love." Hippies weren't the only ones buying records.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Yes in Concert

I've known my girlfriend for over twenty years, but until recently I never knew she loved the band Yes. I kind of like them--I have never bought any of their records, but I certainly know them from years of listening to classic rock radio. So when they played an outdoor concert in downtown Vegas last night, she dragged me along and I had a fine time.

Mostly I was glad that there were empty seats to sit in and it was a balmy evening. The crowd wasn't sparse, but it wasn't packed, either. The crowd was mostly Baby Boomers or Gen X, with a few youngsters thrown in.

It was called an "Album Tour," and that's because the set list played a couple of albums in their entirety. They started with the 1980 album Drama, which was an interesting choice, as it doesn't really have any of their famous songs on it and it was the only album that featured Trevor Horn on vocals. My girlfriend, who knows the hits, was a little disappointed. They did close the first half of the show with the very recognizable "I've Seen All Good People."

The second half of the show played sides 1 and 4 of Tales from Topographic Oceans, a 1973 album that only had one song per side, each clocking in at about twenty minutes (it became a favorite of late-night college DJs who could slap a side on while attending to other things, such as having sex in the studio). This album was the brainchild of Jon Anderson and Steve Howe, and so alienated keyboardist Rick Wakeman that he left the band. It's not a marvelous choice to play live, unless the audience is stoned or on acid. Thus, the crowd was very hushed and several people stood off to the side, talking and drinking beer.

The only time the crowd got up and moved was their first encore, "Roundabout," probably the song most played on classic rock radio. Grateful for something with a beat and recognizable, it was finally a chance to boogie.

The line-up on stage was interesting. The "classic line-up" I know is Howe, Wakeman, Chris Squire, Allen White, and Anderson. Squire is dead, Anderson and Wakeman have formed their own band, and White was wished a speedy recovery from some kind of malady. That left only Howe on stage from the days of the '70s, though keyboardist Geoff Downes has been with the band a long time. The new lead singer is John Davison, who sounds uncannily like Anderson. Howe, now 69, looked the worse for wear after years of hard living, occasionally reminding me of The Crypt Keeper. But he can still play guitar.

Though I think the album concept was wrong (no "Owner of a Lonely Heart?" no "Long Distance Runaround?") it made for a pleasant evening under the stars. Yes, who have long been ignored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (who have something against prog-rock) are a band that ignites debate, as their excesses can remind one of Spinal Tap. But they put on a good show. And my girlfriend enjoyed herself and got a t-shirt.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

"I Made That Bitch Famous"

The VMAs, or MTV Video Music Awards, are tomorrow night, and though I won't be watching I am interested to see what is going on in the pop culture world that exists completely beneath my radar. I am either happy or displeased that I have heard of all five artists nominated this year, and had even heard some of the songs.

The most conventional song and video is Adele's "Hello," which I think was impossible to escape hearing this year. It's the kind of song that could have been a hit in any time period, and your mom or even your grandma could like it. The video, directed by Xavier Dolan, is very cinematic, shot in sepia tones with lots of wind effects and Adele standing alone, looking off into the distance. There are some nice shots, such as a phone booth covered in greenery. It's very retro, in a way, right down to Adele using a flip-phone.

Two songs are very catchy and danceable, if unexceptional, and would have earned high ratings on American Bandstand with the comment, "easy to dance to." Justin Bieber's "Sorry," directed and choreographed by Parris Goebel, doesn't feature the handsome face of the pop star, but instead consists of a dance crew that looks like a Benneton ad. It's fine, but nothing about it suggests award-worthy.

Drake is nominated for "Hotline Bling," directed by Director-X, and starts with the world's sexiest call center (all the girls have large butts in tight jeans) and then features Drake in a variety of geometric shapes with some interesting lighting. Again, the song and the video are catchy but not very memorable.

I think the winner should be Beyonce's "Formation." I don't care for the song that much--it tries too hard to be whatever it's trying to be (and I can't figure it out, musically) but the video, directed by Melina Matsoukas, is evocative, starting with Beyonce on top of a police car in a flooded New Orleans. The video is a collage of stereotypes of black women, particularly in the plantation days, as well as an indictment of police brutality. It's very well done.

The most controversial nominee is Kanye West's "Famous." The song and the video have created polarization. Here is the lyric regarding Taylor Swift:

"For all my South Side niggas that know me best
 I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
 Why? I made that bitch famous (Goddamn!)
 I made that bitch famous."

West said that he had her approval, Swift denied it. It all stems from when West interrupted her in accepting a Grammy. I don't much about West or his music--I do like that zing at George W. Bush when during a Katrina fund-raiser he said that the president didn't care about black people--but from what I've gleaned he seems to be a very arrogant, egotistical person who thinks he's the modern-day Mozart or something. The song itself isn't very good, and the video is simply a pan over twelve figures sleeping. West, in the center (to fulfill his identification with Jesus he should have had thirteen people, for there were twelve apostles) and various other celebrities, like Swift, Bill Cosby, Caitlyn Jenner, Bush, and Donald Trump, are mannequins. They are also quite naked. Kim Kardashian, West's wife, probably approved, but it seems to be he's on sketchy legal ground to use the likenesses, especially naked ones, of people who he may not have had approval.

In any event, the video, which is over ten minutes long, is artistic but also highly pretentious. The song stops for a few minutes in between, so there's nothing but silence and a good look at Bill Cosby's likeness. For those of you wondering what Taylor Swift's nipples look like, you can wonder how right they got it. I find the video and song misogynistic and values sensation over art. But Werner Herzog liked it a lot. It will probably win. Maybe Swift can interrupt his acceptance speech.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Game of Thrones, Season 2

One of these days I'll catch up with Game of Thrones, since it will end at some point (even before George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books, finishes the last book of the series). I just finished Season 2, what could be considered the glory of Peter Dinklage, who, as Tyrion Lannister, further cements himself as one of the greatest actor/character mixtures in TV history. I looked forward to every scene he is in, every line he spoke. In another fifty years when they are ranking TV characters Tyrion, as played by Dinklage, will be near the top.

It had been two years since I watched Season 1, so it took me awhile to get a sense of who everyone was. There are so many young English men with beards! Robb Stark (Richard Madden) led his army against the boy king, Joffrey (Jack Gleason, in one of the most entertainingly over the top performances imaginable). At the same time, Joffrey's uncle Stannis Baraeton (Stephen Dillane) also wants the iron throne, and seeks to attack from the sea. Dinklage is "hand of the king," much to his sister's (Lena Headey) dismay, and outhinks his enemies at almost every turn. Almost.

Up north Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) is with the Night Watch. I forgot what they were doing up there, but he ends up captured by the Wildlings. Across the sea, Danaerys Targaryen (what a great name, but it's her title--Khaleesi--that people are naming their children) played by Emilia Clarke, leads her people across the desert, and stumbles across a city called Qarth, full of great riches. She wants a ship to take her and her baby dragons across the water to Westeros so she can claim the throne.

My favorite storyline involved Alfie Allen as Theon Greyjoy. He was abducted as a boy and raised by the Starks, but he returns home to the Iron Islands, where he is treated contemptuously by his father and sister. To save face, he returns to Winterfell, the Stark home, and since Robb is gone, takes it with only a few men. He then commits some heinous actions, and is a character both evil and pathetic.

This season seems like a holding place between seasons. The major arc is the battle between Baraethon and Lannister, but once again Clarke and her dragons are the climax of the season. There is also the inclusion of magic in this season, as Qarth has a sorceror who can duplicate himself at will, and a character called Melisandre (Candice van Houten) is the inspiration behind Dillane's march to King's Landing, and she uses some sorcery to dispatch one of his rivals.

The best characters are big--literally. I'm sure everyone got a kick out of Gwendolyn Christie as Brienne of Barth, who can beat in combat most men (she easily dispatches three at one point), and Rory McCann as the "Hound," the Lannister's killing machine, who has a surprising lack of loyalty. On the other hand, another favorite character is very small (and I don't mean Dinklage), and that's Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, who is on the lam and ends up as a serving girl to Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance, who now specializes in playing oily, evil men).

This series deserves all of its accolades. I'll have to try to watch more than one season every two years to catch up.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Nine Queens

A film that had been sitting in my Netflix queue for years (it's from 2000), Nine Queens is a celebrated film in Argentina, written and directed by Fabian Belinsky and from one of my favorite genres--the con man movie.

Ricardo Darin plays a low-level grifter, who mostly steals money from old ladies. One evening he's in a gas station convenience store and sees a younger man, (Gaston Pauls), pulling a change-making scam on the clerk. He takes him under his wing and the two pull small cons. But then, Darin's sister (Leticia Bredice), even though she can't stand him, reunites him with an old partner, who has a scam worth thousands, and deals with counterfeit stamps--the Nine Queens.

Darin and Pauls make a winning couple, as Darin is pretty much conscienceless and Pauls is too empathetic to make a good criminal. Notably, all of the low-lifes in this film pointedly say they are not thieves, as though that was a place they were unwilling to go within themselves.

As Darin and Pauls try to get the stamps they encounter obstacles, and Pauls is constantly wary of the schemes Darin may be hatching. There are several twists along the way, and though I'm embarrassed to admit it, I didn't see the very big twist coming at the end. There's no way I'm spoiling it, because the main pleasure in watching this film is absorbing the twist and then playing the film backward in your head and realizing how the pieces fit together.

The film was remade in the U.S. as Criminal, which is coming up on my Netflix queue.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

My Kirk Douglas film this week is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a Disney film, personally produced by Walt Disney, that was big hit back in 1954, mostly for its then cutting-edge special effects and sense of adventure. It hasn't dated well, though, as at times the boats look like they belong in bathtubs, and the giant squid attack, for which the film became famous (and inspired a ride at Disneyworld) looks fairly ludicrous.

The year is 1868 and there are reports that a giant sea monster is sinking ships. A research vessel heads out to look for it, including a renowned professor (Paul Lukas), his apprentice (Peter Lorre), and a devil-may-care harpooner (Douglas). Finally they spot the monster and attack, but it turns on them and they sink, leaving the three main characters in the drink. They find the monster, discovering it's actually a submarine.

They are taken aboard, and meet Captain Nemo (James Mason). At first he wants to just toss them overboard, but keeps them alive, mostly because there would be no film without them. Mason is like the world's first Bond villain--he's created a submarine with advanced technology in order to get revenge on the nations of the world for creating war--he sinks ships that are carrying equipment to make ammunition.

There are some back and forth philosophical discussion with Lukas, who for a while takes Mason's side, if only because he wants the secrets of Mason's technology. Douglas, however, just wants to escape.

Based on the classic early science-fiction novel by Jules Verne, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea can be fun if viewed in the proper context, but I was frequently bored. The acting, especially by the normally great Douglas, is strained and unconvincing. I have no doubt this was great stuff in 1954 (it won two Oscars, for set design and special effects) but over sixty years later it's only interesting historically.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Oscar 2016: #OscarsMaybeNotSoWhite

Birth of a Nation
When the Oscar nominations are announced on January 24th, what everyone will be looking for is not necessarily who gets nominated, but what color they are. A third straight year of no people of color being nominated would be a public relations disaster even bigger than last year. Fortunately, there are several films being released later this year that have black themes, and I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to say that there's about a 99.9 percent chance that one of the twenty performers nominated will be an African-American.

I'll get into that further in my posts on the various acting categories, but I'll start with Best Picture. So far this year the pickings have been slim, and in looking over the slate of films coming out later this year, only a few films jump out at me. Usually I can guess about five out of ten films right (the nominees are anywhere from five to ten films) but I wouldn't put much hope in that this year. This is the kind of year that could be very kind to small indies or to blockbusters. A nomination for Captain America: Civil War? Not completely out of the realm of possibility.

Here, in alphabetical order, are ten films I'm banking on, as of now. Only one has been released.

American Pastoral, Oct. 21, Ewan MacGregor. Although I am somewhat hesitant because this is the first film directed by MacGregor, it should be remembered that because of the large preponderance of actors in the Academy, actors turned directors are treated very kindly. One of two Philip Roth adaptations this year (the other, Indignation, probably won't be nominated in this category, though it may be better), American Pastoral is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on a weighty subject: a successful Jewish businessman's life is turned upside down by the radicalization of his daughter during the 1960s.

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Nov. 11, Ang Lee. Lee's films can't be ignored. I loved the book, but as I read it and envisioned it as a film I wondered how it would succeed as a film, since much of its comedy comes from description, not from plot or dialogue. It's about a unit of soldiers who are honored as heroes at a Dallas Cowboys' Thanksgiving game, and the hypocrisy of it all. I will be interested to see Steve Martin as a Jerry Jones-type owner.

Birth of a Nation, Oct. 7, Nate Parker. This film has been a favorite for an Oscar since it wowed them at Sundance and got purchased by Fox Searchlight for 17.5 million. Purposely co-opting the title of D.W. Griffith's racist masterpiece, Parker writes, directs, and stars in this story of the slave rebellion by Nat Turner. Oddly, the film may have hit some trouble with the relevation that Parker was once charged with rape as a college student, but acquitted. Will that stick until Oscar nominations? Hard to tell. A reminder that no person of color has ever won the Best Director Oscar.

Denial, Sep. 30, Mick Jackson. Haven't heard a lot about this film, but after seeing the trailer it hits a lot of Academy buttons. It is the true story of a woman who is sued for libel by a holocaust denier. As the stereotype goes, films about the holocaust, however tangential, strike chords with Academy voters, and this at least seems to be a well-done project. Starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall as David Irving, the denier.

Fences, Dec.16, Denzel Washington. Washington's only other feature as a director, Antwone Fisher, didn't exactly thrill many, but this adaptation of August Wilson's play will provide several opportunities for black actors to be nominated, notably Viola Davis and Washington himself, as a former Negro League ballplayer turned trash collector who is dealing with issues in his own life and the world around. If this is any good at all, it should garner several above the line nominations.

Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears, Aug. 12. The only one of these ten that people can now see, it's a crowd-pleaser about the world's worst singer. Films about entertainers usually do well with the Academy, but this is a twist given she's bad. But it could strike a nerve with actors who secretly may feel that they have no talent. It's a lush period piece, which helps, and while Meryl Streep has not been in as many Best Picture nominees as you might think, (both of her wins for Best Actress were in films not nominated for Best Picture) her performance, as well as the "comeback" of Hugh Grant, should help.

La La Land, Dec. 2, Damien Chazelle. The writer/director of Whiplash is back with another musical film, this time about the relationship between a jazz pianist (Ryan Gosling) and a waitress (Emma Stone). Hard to know with this one, as an original musical hasn't been nominated for Best Picture since (and check me if I'm wrong) Doctor Dolittle in 1967.

Loving, Nov. 4, Jeff Nichols. While Birth of a Nation has gotten most of the Oscar buzz for black-themed films, it may be this film that sneaks in, and I'm going to make it my ridiculously early pick as winner. Directed by Jeff Nichols, who has made several fine independent films, it details the plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia, a 1967 Supreme Court case that tested Virginia's miscegenation laws. I know so many mixed-race couples these days that it may come as a shock to people today that interracial marriage was once outlawed. Look for Ruth Negga, who plays the wife, to be a breakout star.

Manchester by the Sea, Nov.18, Kenneth Lonergan. The Academy has been hit or miss with Lonergan, but this film was another Sundance sensation, being bought by Amazon for 10 million. It stars Casey Affleck as a man returning to his home town to assume legal guardianship for his late brother's son. Said to be almost unrelievedly bleak, maybe too much so to get traction in this category.

Miss Sloane, Dec. 9, John Madden. I'm going with this film, knowing almost nothing about it, as my zeitgeist film. Jessica Chastain is the title character, a lawyer fighting for gun control measures. May not do well in fly-over country, but among the liberals of Hollywood this could strike a nerve--if it's any good.

Other possibilities: The Light Between Oceans, Sep. 2, Derek Cianfrance; Snowden, Sep. 16, Oliver Stone; Sully, Sep. 9, Clint Eastwood; Hell or High Water, Aug. 12, David Mackenzie; and Silence, Martin Scorsese. This last film, about missionaries in Japan, would seem to be prime Oscar bait, but a release date has not been announced. It will probably be released in award-season, but might be pushed to 2017 as well.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins was a real person, sort of the William Hung of her day. She was a patron of the arts, a society matron who sponsored many musical events. She was also completely delusional about her own talent. Her husband, a failed actor who presumably married her for her money, became devoted to her and did everything he could to help her pursue her dream.

It's a tricky subject to make a movie about. Jenkins, played by Meryl Streep, is a figure of comedy and pathos--we laugh at her, not with her, and we also feel sorry for her. When Streep first sings, which is a little bit into the film, kind of like the first sighting of the shark in Jaws, one is induced into gales of laughter. But when we see others laugh at her, we kind of get outraged. It's the skill of Streep, director Stephen Frears, and screenwriter Nicholas Martin that though there are sideshow elements of Florence Foster Jenkins, the emotion that most comes through is simple love and loyalty.

I read the Wikipedia article on Jenkins. She was from Philadelphia but adopts a kind of mid-Atlantic rich-people accent. She's very reminiscent of all the characters Margaret Dumont played in the Marx Brothers' movies. Some questioned whether she was in on the gag, but this film firmly takes the stance that she was not, and that she lived in a kind of fantasyland. She had a disease which I won't reveal here that may have contributed to her delusion, but Streep, who continually gives us great performances, manages to create a character that dares us to mock her, and we can't do it.

The film is, in certain aspects, a comedy. Frears, probably too much, employs the use of the reaction shot, when people first hear her sing. Nina Arianda, for example, playing the trophy wife of a businessman, has to be dragged out of a concert on her knees, laughing so hard. Much of this is given to Simon Hedberg, playing Streep's mild-mannered pianist, who is too polite and too poor to say what he really thinks, and quietly endures Streep's screeching and caterwauling (she at times sounds like a squeaky chew toy in the jaws of a dog). But of course he comes to love her, and though he risks his reputation, he decides he will play for her at Carnegie Hall, the climax of the film.

If Streep is the show, it wouldn't be the same film without Hugh Grant as her husband. He is like Cerberus in keeping reality away from her. He pays off critics (one, Earl Wilson, he is unable to, which leads to crisis), and makes sure that only friends hear her sing. Her decision to play at Carnegie Hall, giving away tickets to servicemen, taxes his abilities. But Grant also has a girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) stashed in an apartment (this part does not seem to be historically accurate). He tells Hedberg that Streep and he have an understanding, but when she unexpectedly arrives at said apartment, there is some use of closets in hiding places.

Florence Foster Jenkins is also lovely to look at it, with period costumes, cars, and decor, and for the ridiculous opera costumes that Streep wears. I expect some Oscar nominations there, and it's a slam dunk even now that Streep is nominated. Grant also has an excellent chance. It's a lovely film with a lovely message.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hell or High Water

I think I can now proclaim what was the best film of a poor summer: Hell or High Water, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie. A contemporary Western noir, it stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as bank-robbing brothers and Jeff Bridges as the Texas Ranger trying to capture them.

The film is, at its core, a meditation on wealth and poverty. The reason the brothers are robbing banks is that their ranch, which belonged to their late mother, is about to be foreclosed on (in a reverse mortgage--beware those folksy ads by Robert Wagner). But oil has just been discovered on it, so in order to keep it in the family (it was left to Pine's two teenage sons) the men have decided to rob banks--but only branches of the bank that has threatened to foreclose.

In a way, it's a bit of Robin Hood and some of the Grapes of Wrath. There are many cutaway shots of billboards advertising debt relief, and Pine gives a speech about how his family has been poor for generations; that it's like a disease. His brother, Foster, is doing it as much for the fun of it, though. He's just out of jail, and is the mastermind behind the heists. He does impulsively rob on bank while Pine is eating in a restaurant across the street. Pine asks him, "How did you stay out of jail for a year?" and Foster answers, "It wasn't easy."

Bridges, still using his Rooster Cogburn accent, is terrific as a guy nearing retirement. His partner (Gil Birmingham) is half Comanche, half Mexican. Bridges spends most of the film teasing him about his heritage, which sounds worse than it is. The actors convince us that though Birmingham would love the insults to stop, there is a close respect between the two men. Though the film is tragic, Bridges provides a lot of comic relief. A scene in which he and Birmingham order dinner at a diner in small Texas town is hilarious.

Bank robbery, like kidnapping, is a crime that is almost impossible to get away with anymore, at least in the U.S. Someone says to Bridges, "the days when you could rob banks and get away with it are long gone." So you know this isn't going to end well, but Sheridan's script is very clever in how it gets us to root for both sides--we want the brothers to get away with it, but we also want Bridges to catch them. The rule for ending a movie is that in be inevitable but not predictable, and that holds true here.

I should also add that this film could be a favorite of the NRA. At one point the brothers are waylaid during a robbery by a town in which it seems everyone is armed, and then Foster sends patriotic citizens running with an AR-15. If only everyone carried an AR-15!

I have no idea how well this movie will do, but I hope it isn't forgotten around awards season. Bridges deserves a Best Actor nomination, and the script and direction should be remembered, too. There's also a great musical score with lots of songs that perfectly describe west Texas.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Mothra

The other night I went to see the latest edition of RiffTrax Live, in which they riffed on the classic Japanese monster film, Mothra.

After doing a little research, I was surprised to learn that Mothra appeared in many, many films, including several Godzilla films as well as several sequels, including three editions of The Rebirth of Mothra. This one, though, is the first, released in 1961. It is an example of Kaiju, which means monster, which of course was very popular in Japan at that time.

Now, I don't think of moths as particular destructive, except to clothing, but Mothra does some serious damage, To summarize the plot, some scientists visit an island in the "radioactive" zone (it's clear that Kaiju were a response to the atomic bomb dropping on Japan, giving the national psyche a scar) in the Pacific. They find two identical small women, about a foot high. A ruthless businessman (I'm not sure why he is with the party) kidnaps them and wants to put them in a show (they sing and dance). This enrages the natives of the island, who hatch a giant egg.

The larvae of Mothra then swims across the sea to Japan, makes a cocoon on a giant tower, and turns into a giant moth (no amount of missiles or any other projectiles does the larvae any damage). Once as a moth, Mothra wreaks havoc, mostly by the flapping of its wings, which blows around cars (of the Matchbox variety) and knocks buildings over. The good guys, led by a Lou Costello-like reporter and a linguistics professor, save the twins, and give them back to Mothra, and all is well, except for the giant clean-up to come.

The RiffTrax guys had some great lines of course. Upon the giant moth flying over the city, we hear "Quick, build a giant cedar chest!" Two particularly vicious, and possibly libelous lines, or when the oily businessman captures the two extremely petite Asian girls and we hear, "Do you know how much Woody Allen will pay for this?" Later, a sign reading "Secret Fairy Cruise" compels the line, "Travolta and Cruise are starting a cruise line?"

Sometimes it's hard to goof on a movie like this because it's funny enough already, with the ridiculous special effects and hammy acting, so at times the riffers let the movie speak for itself. I was waiting for a line on how the editor of the paper looked like a fish, and then near the end I got my wish, when we hear as a non sequitor, "I'm two-thirds catfish."

Before the film was a short featuring Soapy, a giant bar of soap that visits a boy in the night, like one of Scrooge's ghosts, to talk about the importance of cleanliness. Again, these hygiene films from the '50s are funny enough on their own, but RiffTrax gives them that special oomph.

After the film, which was at Sam's Town casino, my companions and I were just in time for the show at Mystic Falls, the atrium inside the hotel. It's a faux mountain scene, with animatronic animals, a fountain, and lasers. At show time, a wolf with red eyes comes out of his lair to oversee the proceedings, which includes a tribute to Dale Earnhardt, which kind of comes out of left field. The whole thing was completely cheesy and thus perfect for Las Vegas.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Stranger Things

It took my abiding fascination for Winona Ryder to get me into the world of streaming. I had heard so many good things about her new show, Stranger Things, that I didn't want to wait for the DVDs and got myself one of those doohickeys that stick into your TV and magically I was offered all sorts of shows. Technology comes late to me.

Anyway, Stranger Things, which I've now finished (the concept of all episodes being available at once is still novel to me, though I did not watch more than one episode a day) was a great start. It was compelling television, and also nostalgic, as it played like a Steven King novel as directed by Stephen Spielberg (which I believe has never happened, but now it doesn't have to). Beginning with the credit font, which looks King book covers, to the adventures of children, which reminds one of Stand By Me and It, this has King's fingerprints all over it. Spielberg comes in with the character of Eleven, who is very much a human E.T.

The show is set in prime King/Spielberg time--1983. The setting is a small town in Indiana that is also home to a laboratory run by the Department of Energy. They've let loose some kind of monster, which snatches a boy who is part of a quartet of Dungeons & Dragons players. His mother is a harried single mom (Ryder), who begins to believe that her son is communicating to her via Christmas lights. At first the town's police chief (an excellent David Harbour) thinks she's nuts, but when he realizes that a body found in a quarry might not be the boy in question, starts to suspect the government of a cover-up.

Meanwhile, the three remaining boys start their own investigation. They are aided when they find a mysterious girl in the woods, known only as Eleven. She has escaped from the government facility, and has amazing telekinetic powers (shades of Carrie and Firestarter). She doesn't know much of the world, but the boys befriend her and she uses their role-playing nomenclature to indicate that Will, the missing boy, is in a place called the Upside Down and threatened by something called the Demagorgon.

In eight crisp episodes, created by the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things does a magnificent job of creating a world, anchored by Ryder, who plays that mom with a gusto that is eye-opening to those of us who have followed Ryder's every move. The sight of her grabbing an ax from the shed and then sitting on her couch, the ax across her lap, ready for a monster to come through the wall, is gripping. The show also hinges a great deal on loyalty--between the three boys and Eleven (though her inability to fully communicate with them will lead to misunderstandings) and then Harbour, when he starts to believe Ryder, are affirming. Harbour plays one of the great heroes of this year's entertainment, superheroes be damned.

I should also point out the wonderful performances by the children, including Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven, who does not have many words but is wonderfully expressive (and gets a great mad face when she's about to use her telekinesis), Finn Wolfhard as Mike, the Dungeon Master and leader of the group, who falls a little in love with Eleven, and Gaten Mattarazzo as Dustin, the group's comedian (and compass expert) are also wonderful.

The show has a terrifically satisfying ending, with Harbour and Ryder going into through the rip in time and space to find Will, but there's just enough doubt to justify a second season. I can't wait. Stranger Things is an example of how the many platforms beyond cable and network have made this a golden age for television, that has just about eclipsed feature films (at least from Hollywood churns out). Stranger Things is better than any film I've seen this summer.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Young Man With a Horn

In the 1950 film Young Man With a Horn we again see Douglas playing a character that is not completely likeable. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film was based on a novel that was a roman a clef about cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. This story is cleaned up somewhat, given a happy ending (Beiderbecke died at 28) but still has a gritty feel to it, depicting its immersion in the world of jazz.

Rick Martin is orphaned at any early age, raised by indifferent older sister. He wanders into a church and is fascinated by the piano. After the service he teaches himself the hymn. Later, he will be drawn to the sounds of a jazz club, and a kindly trumpet player (Juano Hernandez, in a touching performance) teaches him how to play.

Martin grows up to be Kirk Douglas, who takes jobs with dance bands, but longs to just let loose. This gets him fired more than once. Along the way he meets a sweet and innocent singer (Doris Day), called Jo Jordan, which makes me wonder if she was based on Jo Stafford, but he becomes romantically involved with the witchy Lauren Bacall, a dilettante who may be a Lesbian ("I'm tired of the way you try to touch me!") she tells him, even after they're married. Douglas goes into an alcoholic downward spiral, insults his long-time teacher, and with the help of his true friends gets the help he needs.

The story is narrated by Hoagy Carmichael, who I've decided I would have liked to have been if I could be anybody in history. A great piano player, composer, and a decent actor, and Ian Fleming said he pictured James Bond as looking like Carmichael.

Of course Douglas didn't play the trumpet, but he did a good job faking it. It was actually played by Harry James. It's James' centennial this year, and in the weeks ahead I'll be writing more about him.

Young Man With a Horn is an okay picture, with a few too many cliches, but once again Douglas' intensity on screen makes it more interesting than it should have been.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Ironweed

Hector Babenco only made three English-language films, The Kiss of the Spider Woman being the first. His second was the highly anticipated but ultimately disappointing Ironweed, released in 1987. It earned its stars, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, Oscar nominations, but I think was ultimately too downbeat to capture the public's interest.

Base on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by William Kennedy, which happens to be one of my favorite books of all-time, Ironweed is part of Kennedy's Albany Cycle, a series of books about the interconnected Phelan and Quinn families. Ironweed is about Francis Phelan, a one-time baseball player who lives as a bum, punishing himself for accidentally killing his baby son.

Phelan is played by Nicholson, and if anyone needs a reminder that he was a great actor and not just a personality should watch this film. Sure, the trademark Nicholson grin comes out a few times, but his role is downplayed. He is a beaten man, haunted by ghosts of the men he is killed (one was Nathan Lane, a scab in a trolley strike whom young Francis stoned in the head). He has an on-again off-again relationship with Helen (Streep), who struggles to maintain her dignity though neither one knows where they will sleep from night to night. Nicholson's acting when he visits his son's grave is about as good as it gets.

The crux of the plot is Nicholson's decision to return home again. His wife (Carroll Balker) and son (Michael O'Keefe) are forgiving, not so much his daughter (Diane Venora). The scene, which he meets his grandson and shows him a baseball signed by Ty Cobb, has a lovely nature to it, but the whole film needed some quicker pacing. There is no redemption for anyone, which can work in a piece of literature but is tougher to pull off in a film.

There is also a scene in which concerned local citizens raid a hobo camp, which has no foreshadowing and no context. The film is set in 1938, so I imagine there was a lot of homelessness in those days.

I think the scene everyone knows from the film, if they know one at all, is when Streep, once a nightclub singer, gets a chance to belt out "He's Me Pal." Her imagining of how it goes is quite different than reality, and her attempt to maintain her pride is just heartbreaking.

Ironweed was a noble effort, but ultimately a failure. Perhaps some books can not be made into good movies.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Indignation (2016)

I read and loved Philip Roth's Indignation, but never imagined a film could be made out of it. The book is narrated by Marcus Messner, who is, well, indignant but also borderline insane. There isn't a lot of plot to the book, and it's almost all talk.

But writer-director James Schamus chucked a lot of the filmmaking "rules" and has made a fine film. Set in 1951, it details Messner's leaving his family in Newark, where his father has set him crazy with over-protecting him (young men in the neighborhood are coming back in body bags from Korea) and goes to bucolic Winesburg College in Ohio.

Messner is Jewish, and is roomed with two other Jews. He refuses to join a Jewish fraternity, as he just wants to concentrate on his studies. He is attracted to a young blonde woman in his history class, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and one of Roth's tropes, defined on Seinfeld as "Shiksa-peal" rears its head. They go out on a date, and while it appears to end very well for Messner (he gets an unsolicited blowjob) in fact this act of goodwill will lead to a downward spiral for both characters.

As many critics have pointed out, Indignation is a film that puts character, not plot, first.  Logan Lerman, an actor I guess I have seen in one of the Percy Jackson films, is terrific as a young man who is haunted not so much by demons but by his own notions of superiority. Winesburg (certainly named after Sherwood Anderson's book Winesburg, Ohio) has compulsory chapel, and Lerman, being both Jewish and an atheist, resents having to go. He lays this out in a fantastic scene with the Dean (Tracy Letts) which is very long (some critics note it is eighteen minutes) and brings up Bertrand Russell. If only for this scene, which is an antidote to every lousy summer blockbuster we've had this year, Indignation deserves applause.

There is also another great scene with Linda Emond as Lerman's mother. She has noticed the scar on Gadon's wrist, and implores her son to give her up. She is not old world--she tells him she would be fine with him marrying a gentile, but doesn't want that kind of stain to inflict itself on him.

Given it's release date, I don't expect Indignation to get any awards love, but Letts, also the author of August: Osage County, who perfectly plays a condescending blowhard, deserves nominations, as does the script by Schamus. It's thrilling to watch a film that actually assumes intelligence and literacy from its audience.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

An Ember in the Ashes

If I had never read another YA novel about a dystopian society where a plucky girl works against the totalitarian authority while being torn between two boys before, I'd tell you that An Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir, is pretty good. It's got some good suspense, creates an interesting world, and invokes a sense of mystery (not all of them solved--this is the first in a series). But, despite the rave reviews by others, I must warn that this book seems very familiar. Elements of The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner, and The Giver are all here.

The book is set in an alternative place, not Earth, with medieval technology. The people are in charge are the Empire, or Martials. They have enslaved the people called the Scholars. There is a resistance, of course. The Martials have a strict code of evil, which is mostly carried out by enforcers called Masks, who actually wear masks that have embedded into there skin.

The novel alternates chapters between two characters, Laia and Elias (I'm always puzzled when an author gives her main characters such similar names). Laia is the daughter of deceased resistace leaders (shades also of Harry Potter). As the book begins, a Mask kills her grandparents and captures her brother. She will do anything to save him, so goes to the resistance. She is sent under cover as a slave-girl to the commandant of Blackcliff, where the Masks are trained, to spy for them in exchange for them breaking her brother free.

Elias is a Mask in training. He is the son of the commandant (who is a woman, and is pure evil--she usually deforms her slaves in some way just to let them know who's in charge) and is ready to escape, as he doesn't fit in. But the augurs, who are kind or oracles that can read minds and predict the future, decide that there is to be a new emperor, and Elias is chosen as one of four "aspirants" who will go through four trials to determine who it will be.

There's a lot of plot in this book, and most of it is well done. Laia is, of course, mistrustful of all Masks, but when Elias begins to be kind to her she is drawn to him. She is also drawn to Keenan, her contact in the resistance. For his part, Elias is best friends with Helene, who is also an aspirant. Are they in love with each other? Will Helene really kill Elias if she has to?

I would recommend this book to any reader, young or old, who has never read anything like this before.  But for those who read these things all the time, An Ember in the Ashes may seem very derivative. I'm also not a big fan of books that don't completely exist on their own, and leave too much to be answered in a sequel that I probably won't read.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Sympathizer

"I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or a horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simply able to see any issue from both sides." This is the beginning of Viet Thanh Nguyen's novel, The Sympathizer, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize. I am of two minds about this book. I loved the prose, which is soaring and witty, and at times reminded me of my favorite all-time book, Catch-22. But at the same time, Nguyen tends to let his story get away from him, and there were times I found myself lost in the plot.

The narrator is an unnamed aide-de-camp to a General in the South Vietnamese army. He is referred to only as the Captain, and his narration takes the form of a very long confession he is writing to someone called the "Commandant." The opening chapters of the book refer to the fall of Saigon, when the Captain gets out with the General, and they all end up in California, where the General opens a liquor store and the Captain works for a professor in Oriental Studies; "He had hung an elaborate Oriental rug on his wall, in lieu, I suppose, of an actual Oriental."

The Captain is a bastard, born of a Vietnamese mother and a French priest. He has studied in the U.S., and speaks perfect English: "Some of my countrymen spoke English as well as I, although most had a tinge of an accent. But almost none could discuss, like I, baseball standings, the awfulness of Jane Fonda, or the merits of the Rolling Stones versus the Beatles."

But he had a love/hate relationship with America:  "America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl! America, a country not content simply to give itself a name on its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA, a trifecta of letters outdone later only by the quartet of the USSR."

But the Captain is, all the while, working for the exiled government. He even performs a couple of hits, killing someone who is always referred to as the "crapulent major" (shades of Joseph Heller). He even gets a job consulting on a movie about the war, in what is obviously about Francis Coppola and Apocalypse Now. This section, over much too quickly, provides some of the angriest bits of humor in the book (Nguyen, in an interview, has professed his obsession with this film). "A golden Oscar statuette exhibited itself to the side of his telephone, serving as either a kingly scepter or a mace for braining impertinent screenwriters. A hirsute show of manliness ruffled along his forearms and from the collar of his shirt, reminding me of my own relative hairlessness, my chest (and stomach and buttocks) as streamlined and glabrous as a Ken doll." "He" is only referred to as the "Auteur," but the aim is clear. In a very funny pun, the Captain tells us that the last line of the film is "The whore! The whore!" a riff on Apocalypse Now's quotation of Eliot, "The horror! The horror!"

The Captain goes back to Vietnam to enlist in some sort of foolish plot to overthrow the government (I think) and is captured and what we read is his confession. But the Commandant doesn't like it, as he has not renounced America enough. In fact, the Captain does miss America: "My chances of returning to America were small, and I thought with regret about all the things I would miss about America: the TV dinner; air-conditioning; a well-regulated traffic system that people actually followed; a relatively low rate of death by gunfire, at least compared with our homeland; the modernist novel; freedom of speech, which, if not as absolute as Americans liked to believe, was still greater in degree than in our homeland; sexual liberation; and, perhaps most of all, that omnipresent American narcotic, optimism, the unending flow of which poured through the American mind continuously, whitewashing the graffiti of despair, rage, hatred, and nihilism scrawled there nightly by the black hoodlums of the unconscious."

Now that's good stuff. But as much as I enjoy these quotes, I found myself adrift in the story many times. There is a huge twist at the end, when a person is revealed to be someone from earlier in the story, but I couldn't remember who that person was. That's probably my fault, but it points to a problem in the narrative--Nguyen does not clearly tell us where we are or who everyone is.

The book, as funny as it is (a woman's legs are described as longer than the Bible but much more fun) is angry. Nguyen was born in Vietnam during the war and came to the United States when he was three, but is perturbed by everyone on all sides, not just the Americans. Like Catch-22, toward the end of the book the kidding is put aside for a scene of horror: a female agent is tied naked to a table and sexually degraded, while the Captain watches. It is told in a way that is about as terrible as one could imagine.

The Sympathizer is a book about war, but also about the process of assimilation, about a person who seems to be out of step with whatever society he is living, and a cry of anguish at the evils of humanity. Clearly those who thought it prize-worthy didn't have as much problem with the plot as I did, so perhaps a closer reading would have been in order.


Friday, August 12, 2016

case/lang/veirs

Readers of this blog know I am a big fan of Neko Case, so it took me by surprise to see she had made an album, e.e. cummings-ly titled case/lang/veirs, with K.D. Lang and Laura Veirs. Lang is, of course, a folk/country star of the first rank (great trivia question--who was on the first cover of Entertainment Weekly--K.D. Lang!), while I must admit unfamiliarity with Laura Veirs.

I've been listening to the album for about a week now and while it isn't as strong as Case's solo work, it has it's charms. Unfortunately, there is no lyric sheet, so I can't quote any lyrics, and I'm beyond the days of playing a record over and over again to figure them out (I particularly remember doing with that cassette tapes, rewinding for two seconds and playing it over and over again. Michael Stipe--I curse you for this!)

The songs are also co-written by all three, I think (the type on the DVD jacket is so small and in red against a blue background, so I would need a magnifying glass to read it). Case and Lang's vocals are very identifiable, so the voice I don't recognize must be Veirs.

The opening track, "Atomic Number,"  has contributing vocals from all three, and in the video the number is 42, which either reveals a fondness for Douglas Adams or for molybdenum. Case's songs, if I'm discerning enough, are typical of her--somewhat pessimistic, but with a weakness for optimism, such as "Delirium," a lovely love song, or "Behind the Armory," in which she sings, plaintively, "I still want you to love me." She also appears to have written "I-5," which has a hint of menace.

Lang takes lead vocals on torchy ballads, such as "Why Do We Fight?" "Blue Fires," and "Honey and Smoke," and Veirs' songs are more folky with an Appalachian flavor, such as "Song for Judee" and "Georgia Stars."

I think my favorite song, other than "Delirium," is "Best Kept Secret," which I think features Case on vocals. The full line is "You're the best kept secret of Silver Lake." Silver Lake is a kind of hipster area of Los Angeles, and I think there's a story here.

In any event, there isn't a clunker on this record, and while it doesn't match Case's solo efforts, it is a must for her fans.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Suicide Squad

When you go see a film with terrible reviews, the bar isn't set that high. As I watched the beginning of Suicide Squad, I thought it wasn't too bad, better than Batman vs. Superman, at any rate. Then, about halfway through, whatever the film has going for it rapidly evaporates, and it becomes ugly, nasty, and brutish (sorry, Thomas Hobbes).

The premise of the film is that a goverment official (Viola Davis), with Superman being dead and all, wants to collect a group of supervillains as a team to fight crime. We are quickly introduced to them, one by one, and to start with the team isn't very impressive. There's a trick-shot hit man (Will Smith); a guy who can throw a boomerang (Jai Courtney), who is of course Australian--talk about cultural stereotypes; a kind of hybrid of a human and a crocodile (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who desperately needs skin moisturizer; and a pyschotic former psychiatrist, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), who seems to have no other talent than carrying around a baseball bat and a pistol, and has some pretty good martial arts chops.

The only guy I'd want on my team is Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a cholo who can shoot fire like a flamethrower. But he feels guilty about incinerating his wife and children, so he doesn't want to use his power. For this we're supposed to feel sorry for him. Later, they add a character called Slipknot, who's good at...climbing. They immediately kill him off, maybe for his lame ability or bearing the name of a terrible rock band.

The government agrees with Davis' plan, just in time for a crisis--a 6,000 year old witch has inhabited an archaeologist (Cara Delevignge). Somehow she releases her ancient brother, who inhabits some poor slob on the subway and starts creating havoc. So this motley crew goes in and tries to defeat him.

There's all sorts of side plots. Batman (Ben Affleck) appears now and then, as he put away most of the criminals. Robbie is the Joker's (Jared Leto) girlfriend. He sealed the deal by giving her a lobotomy, which is an excellent way to find love. Leto, unlike Jokers of the past, isn't remotely terrifying, looking instead like some downtown performance artist. Cesar Romero was scarier. Look for Leto to win a Razzie.

Suicide Squad was written and directed by David Ayer, who made a decent World War II film in Fury. But there in the credits, like a boil on a bubonic plague victim, is the name Zack Snyder, as Executive Producer, and Ayer has followed his playbook, with a foul, dark mood and very little of the fun that makes people like comic books.

I will give credit to Smith and Robbie for trying hard, though. Smith, even though his character can only shoot straight, is given some depth by loving his daughther. Robbie brings a certain mania to the part that makes us want to see more of her, and the ending implies that we will. Whether a character that dresses like a streetwalker, wearing a shirt that says "Daddy's Little Monster," is a blow for feminism, I'll leave to academics, but if I had daughter I wouldn't want her to see this character in action. What was wrong with her harlequin outfit? That might get a kid interested in the Commedia dell' Arte.

I think the central problem of this film is that the audience is never comfortable rooting for anyone. All of these characters are despicable psychopaths (or sociopaths) and the only redemption they are allowed is to become friends with each other. None of them ever mentions saving humanity as something rewarding. Smith has that daughter, but he also says he is incapable of love, and that he kills people and sleeps like a kitten.

Suicide Squad, like most of the films based on D.C. Comics in this latest universe, is a wasted opportunity.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Last Train From Gun Hill

The Last Train From Gun Hill, from 1959, is a taut, well-executed Western starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. The only thing that detracts from enjoying it is spotting how many other films it is similar to, especially Bad Day at Black Rock, which was made by the same director, John Sturges.

That film was about a lone man trying to mete justice in a town where no one would help him. That's pretty much it here. The film also has a time element, which reminds one of High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma.

Douglas plays a marshal in a small town somewhere in the West. He is married to a Cherokee woman, who is coming back from the reservation visiting relatives with their son. She is accosted by two men, who rape and murder her. They leave behind a saddle, though, and Douglas knows who it belongs to.

That would be Quinn, once his best friend, now a cattle baron who owns everything and everybody in Gun Hill. It is quickly surmised that his son (Earl Holliman) is one of the men involved, and Douglas calmly states he will take him back for trial. Quinn begs him to leave his son alone, or he will have to kill him, but Douglas is a man of principal (and it was his wife, after all), and imprisons Holliman and holes up in a hotel room until nightfall, when the last train will leave at nine.

The Last Train From Gun Hill isn't as good as any of the films I mentioned it's like, but it's fun anyway, proving one can mine a lot of Westerns out of just a few story ideas. Douglas and Quinn give fine performances, and Carolyn Jones, just a few years away from playing Morticia Addams, plays Quinn's lover, whose loyalty is tested--it seems Quinn has a thing about beating her up.

The script, by James Poe, does a nice job of getting the characters out of their predicaments. I mean, we know who will live and who will die, and when Douglas tells Holliman "I've never killed an unarmed man," he means it and won't. So the ending is very satisfactory, and the way Sturges stages the final showdown alongside the waiting train is nicely done.

This is the kind of movie that used to great to stumble across on TV on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Truman Show

I hadn't seen The Truman Show since it was released in 1998, but I read an article recently about how it is one of the most prescient films about the media (along with Network) that's ever been made. Think about it--before The Truman Show, the term "reality TV" didn't exist. Did The Truman Show predict it, or inspire it?

Written by Andrew Niccol (it was very much like a Twilight Zone episode from 1989--I seem to remember a lawsuit about it) the film taps into something primal about us--that we are being watched. I remember, as a kid, imagining that my life was a movie that people were watching. There is even a delusion, in which people live their lives thinking they are being filmed, that is now named after the film. After all, if we are raised in a religion that has an all-seeing, all-knowing God as the patriarch, than we are made accustomed to the idea of someone watching our every move. Now, with technology the way it is, it can be possible to monitor someone 24/7.

For those who have yet to see this brilliant film, directed by Peter Weir, it concerns a TV show that runs 24/7, following a baby from birth, then as an adult, where he lives, unaware of his predicament, on a huge soundstage. He is Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey), a genial man who is a virtual prisoner of his surroundings, which are directed by Christof (note the use of Christ in the name), who is, in essence, Truman's God. Every move of his is filmed, and all the people he knows are actors, including his wife (Laura Linney), mother (Holland Taylor), and best friend (Noah Emmerich).

The various problems this creates are handled with aplomb by Niccol and Weir (according to the BTS, Weir asked that the film be made more lighthearted than Niccol's original concept, which was dark). Using Carrey, who up until that time had never made a drama, helped. We immediately root for Carrey, and along with him, try to figure out what's going on.

The film is structured so that we know very little more than Truman does. A light falls from the sky. It rains only on Truman. Linney is constantly talking like a TV pitchwoman. There is nothing he can do to leave the idyllic town in which he lives (his "father" was killed off in a boating accident to make him afraid of water, and the only road out of town has various obstacles). Then, halfway through the film, we are introduced to Christof and his crew, who are in a control moon hidden by an artificial moon. An interview with Christof gives us exposition (a little clumsily).

There are differences between The Truman Show and modern reality television. No show would work 24/7, as there is too much downtime. Secondly, they don't need to use unwilling subjects. Z-list celebrities and complete unknowns have made careers out of opening their lives to the camera--they flock to it, rather than run away. These shows, whether competitions, like Big Brother or The Bachelor, or just "a day in the life of" spectacles like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or the like, are edited and repackaged to make things more dramatic. We see some of that in The Truman Show--he is attracted to an extra (Natasha McElhone) who rebels and is kicked off the show.

The Truman Show is just about perfect, but I would have liked a few minutes more to explore what is discussed in the BTS--the actors. Linney talks about her character, and how she would have gotten bonuses for every time she sleeps with Truman. The principals in the show would have to practically live their entire lives playing their characters--where would Linney go to take a day off? Christof (Ed Harris, in an Oscar-nominated role) talks of wanting a conception and birth on live television. What would the thinking be of an actress who would take on that responsibility? Emmerich's character has been on the show since he was seven-years-old. It's like a longtime soap opera part, but he doesn't get to leave it.

You could construct an entire semester's college course out of The Truman Show--theology, philosophy, media, and the sacrifices of acting. For example, it's interesting to me that Christof has built a city like most American cities, only better (no crime, no garbage, perfect weather). But since Truman knows nothing else, he could have made any kind of world, one that may have required far fewer extras, or set in medieval times, or what have you. The possibilities for creating this world would be endless.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Sound of Music (The Smith Centre)

Culture is a relative term in Las Vegas. There is plenty of middle-brow culture--Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Carrot Top (he may be low, actually). There are plenty of Cirque du Soleil shows, Penn and Teller, and the Blue Man Group, but where Vegas is lacking is in live theater. It can be found, but it takes some doing. Unlike New York City, where there are hundreds of plays and musicals every night of the week, there is no such equivalent in Las Vegas.

However, a few years ago Las Vegas took a step to improve this by building The Smith Centre, a complex with several theaters that features jazz, ballet, opera, and other classical music. It also has something called the Broadway Las Vegas series, which imports nine Broadway-style musicals for the culture-starved.

Unfortunately, there are no straight plays in the series, which is my interest, but I decided to bite and buy a subscription. Mostly I did it for my girlfriend, who had never seen a Broadway show, or any other of its type, before. When she learned that The Sound of Music, Rodgers and Hammerstein's golden oldie, was the first show, she got very excited. It was quite an ordeal to get her to the show--she broke her knee on Wednesday but she was a trooper and with the aid of a wheelchair, an elevator, and a kind usher, we were seated in the first row of the balcony.

Now, The Sound of Music is not my idea of high culture. I'm more interested in some of the musicals coming up, especially Fun Home. But watching The Sound of Music is like going to see a favorite old band in concert--you know all the songs.

This production, directed by Broadway pro Jack O'Brien, is very well done and professional. It doesn't take a lot of risks--maybe having three large Nazi banners during the Salzburg festival is a bit eye-opening--but its pleasing to the eye and ear.

Having recently seen the movie, I was struck by the differences. For anyone who doesn't know, the plot concerns a novice, Maria, who is sent to be a governess for the seven children of a widower, Captain von Trapp.  She is a free spirit, he is a tight-ass, but of course it will be music, hence the title, that will bring them together. But there are those pesky Nazis.

The differences from the film are many. "My Favorite Things," in the movie, is sung by Maria with the children, but in the show it's with the Mother Abbess (in the show she sings "The Lonely Goatherd" to calm them during a thunderstorm). Also, the film fleshes out the relationship with Maria and the children, and Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer weren't so far apart in age that it made their marriage icky. Also, the movie made a villain of Rolf, but in the show he doesn't turn them in. But we also don't get the punchline of the nuns stealing spark plugs.

Here, we get an actress who is of an appropriate age, and she belts it out of the park. Kirsten Anderson, plucked out of college to be in the tour, is irrepressible and just about perfect. Her Captain, Ben Davis, is given grayed hair, and since Anderson doesn't look much older than Paige Sylvester, who plays Liesl. In real life, Maria von Trapp was twenty-five years younger than her husband, but I couldn't help but feel a little queasy about the whole thing. The Captain is an impossible role to play, as he has to change his entire outlook on a dime, but Davis has a fine voice, if he isn't maybe too stiff.

I didn't find anything else to complain about. Merwin Foard makes a terrific Max Detweiler, and the children, while not given individual moments like the film does (except for Sylvester, who gets "Sixteen Going on Seventeen") are all wonderful, especially in "So Long, Farewell." (A man down the row from me couldn't help but accompany them on the "cuckoo!")

The best voice in the show can usually be found with the Mother Abbess, here played by Melody Betts. It's color-blind casting, as Ms. Betts is African American, which O'Brien made a little fun of by giving a comic pause after she says, "I was brought up in the mountains, too."

The evening's greatest success was that my girlfriend loved it. I'm the kind of guy who likes to see familiar things through the eyes of someone else, which is like seeing it for the first time.

And, by the way, the Smith Centre is quite a place, as grand a theater as I've been to, rivaling Lincoln Center. And I have nothing but good things to say about their staff.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Fight

After the death of Muhammad Ali, I read an article in the New York Times listing the best books about Ali. One of them was The Fight, by Norman Mailer, which I had never heard of before. I was aware that Mailer covered the 1974 championship fight, Ali vs. Foreman, the "Rumble in the Jungle," by his appearance in the wonderful documentary When We Were Kings. I am a Mailer fan, despite his tendency for being too in love with his own writing, so I read it and loved it.

Reading Mailer's journalism, as I have with Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, is to be aware that much of it will be about Norman Mailer. He was an egomaniac--he was a great writer and he knew it. So it is with The Fight, in which Mailer refers to himself in the third person (mostly as "Norman") and is unabashedly an Ali fan: "There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their
lack of worth. If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven — so says the silence around his body when he is luminous."

The fight was held in Kinshasa in what was then Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of Congo) and there are all sorts of layers of meaning in Mailer's discussion of African politics, Bantu philosophy, and n'golo, a word meaning power. The fight was in 1974, not exactly post-racial America, and Mailer is respectful of Blacks (he capitalizes the word) but is not, as we might say today, down with all of black culture.

The match certainly was a media circus, even taking place halfway around the world from Madison Square Garden, where most heavyweight championship fights were held. Not just Mailer but George Plimpton and Hunter S. Thompson were there, Mailer discusses them (Thompson's reply to everything was "bad Genet") as well as the various trainers, managers, and hangers-on, especially Drew Bundini Brown, Ali's assistant trainer who maintained that he could not read nor write. And, of course, Don King: "King wore diamonds and pleated shirts, dashikis with gold pendants, powder-blue tuxedos and suits of lipstick-red; the cummerbunds of a sultan were about his waist, and the pearls of the Orient in the cloth he wore. How he could talk. He was the kuntu of full dialogue, and no verbal situation could be foreign to him."

Mailer does pay Foreman his respect. "He did not just hit hard, he hit in such a way that the nucleus of his opponent’s will was reached. Fission began. Consciousness exploded. The head smote the spine with a lightning bolt and the legs came apart like falling walls. On the night Foreman took his championship, who could forget the film of Frazier’s urgent legs staggering around the ring, looking for their lost leader?" The great paradox of Foreman is that at that time Ali called him "The Mummy," mostly because he didn't speak much. Years later, those who are only young enough to remember him for his loquaciousness in his grill commercials may find that hard to believe.

Mailer inserts some amusing anecdotes, such as going on a pre-dawn jog with Ali. He managed to make it two and a half miles, and walks back alone. He hears a lion roaring, and imagines the headlines of his death, and how it would been a more appropriate death of Hemingway. Later he is told that it was a lion from a nearby zoo.

Finally the fight. Mailer either took copious notes, watched a film of it, or had a fantastic memory, because he recounts it almost punch by punch. He notes that Ali used right leads, a dangerous tactic since it left him open for retaliation. We hear about Ali's rope strategy, he lay back and let Foreman punch himself out. It's thrilling writing: "Again they moved through invisible reaches of attraction and repulsion, darting forward, sliding to the side, cocking their heads, each trying to strike an itch to panic in the other, two big men fast as pumas, charged as tigers — unseen sparks came off their moves." Then he writes of the champion, thought to be unbeatable, as he fell: "He looked like a drunk, or rather a somnambulist, in a dance marathon."

For a few moments,  after the fight, Mailer found himself the only reporter in Ali's dressing room. "The only sign he had been in a fight is that he moved with an extra subtlety of anticipation like a man who has been in a wreck and does not know where pains will yet disclose themselves."

The fight was forty-two years ago, and I didn't see it live (it aired at four o'clock in the morning local time, presumably to be able to show it live in the U.S.) but I was certainly aware of it. No one thought Ali would win, except those who really knew their boxing, and the heart of Ali. The Fight has got to be the best chronicle of that great sporting event, and is a must for both fans of boxing and Mailer, one of the America's greatest writers.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Tallulah

Let us now consider the career of Ellen Page. It was just under nine years that she burst into stardom in Juno, gaining an Oscar nomination. But her projects since then haven't exactly been as high profile. She followed Juno up with major releases, such as a couple of X-Men films, Whip It, Smart People, and a supporting role in the well-received Inception, but since then she's kind of slid off the map. She's been in a few indies I've seen and reviewed here, such as The East and Super, but nothing major.

That may well be intentional. Page, after years of rumors, officially came out as gay in 2014. She made a film, Freeheld, about gay-marriage rights that garnered pre-release Oscar buzz but sank without a trace. She has been politically active, an outspoken vegan and human rights advocate. She has been hosting a TV series, Gaycation, that explores gay culture around the world.

She has also executive produced a new film on Netflix, Tallulah. Dear readers, I must be honest with you--I hadn't heard of this film until it was brought to my attention by Mr, Skin, which screamed the headline that Ellen Page was finally going nude. Indeed, Page, early in the film, goes topless in a sex scene (with a man). I'm glad to tell you that the movie is pretty good.

Written and directed by Sian Heder, the plot sounds like a Lifetime movie. Page plays a homeless girl, living in a van with her boyfriend (Evan Jonigkeit). They eat from dumpsters, and have no fixed base. He's from a well-to-do family in Greenwich Village and wants to go home, so leaves her in the middle of the night. With no where else to go, she shows up at Jonigkeit's mother's house (she's played by Allison Janney), who wants nothing to do with her.

Sneaking into a hotel and eating off discarded room service trays, Page happens into an amazing situation. A ditzy rich woman (Tammy Blanchard), on the lam from her husband and going on a date with another man, thinks Page is hotel staff and asks her to babysit her one-year-old. Even the homeless Page, who is basically feral, is appalled at how the baby is walking around naked and approaching open windows. But she takes the money and watches the baby, but when Blanchard comes back drunk and passes out, she impulsively steals the baby and goes back to Janney, telling her the child is her son's.

So we get the usual bonding between the two disparate types of woman--the free-spirited Page, and the uptight academic Janney, who's husband left her for another man, They fight, they reveal truths about themselves, yada yada yada. But the acting and the writing is unsentimental, and you can believe the situation, as unbelievable as it is.

I don't believe, at least I prefer not to believe, that coming out as a lesbian can hurt an actress's career. I have to wonder if the sex scene, which is otherwise completely gratuitous, is a way for Page to tell the world that gay people can play straight, just as straight people have been playing gay for years. I think Page is a great talent and hope to see her in films that actually play in theaters (her next film, according to Wikipedia, is a remake of Flatliners, which I'm not really excited about).

If you have Netflix, though, check Tallulah out. It's funny, it may bring a tear to your eye, and Page and Janney are consummate pros.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Notes on a Clinton Rally

I was a Bernie Sanders supporter, but when it became apparent he was not going to win I did an about-face and had no hesitation about supporting Hillary Clinton. Would I prefer someone like Elizabeth Warren? Sure, but I'd be happy as a clam to see Clinton become the first woman President of the United States.

So I donated some money and now get about five emails a day. One caught my interest--she would be making an appearance in Las Vegas, where I live. I had nothing special to do on that day (I'm a teacher on summer vacation) and I thought, how often do I get the chance to see a potential president in person?

The answer is hardly ever. When I lived in Jersey City, I went to a Michael Dukakis rally. Four years later I went to hear Bill Clinton, as he was giving a speech in the courthouse and the suckers who weren't VIPs listened to it outside. When he was leaving the building I saw the back of his head. I have never seen Barack Obama in person. So this was my best chance.

I RSVP'd, thinking it would give me privileges like a chair, immediate access, and perhaps a chance to discuss with the candidate issues like Common Core and fracking. No such luck--it meant nothing, there was only one line in. But the Democrats in charge did something right--they constructed a tent outside the venue (a union hall) that was air-conditioned. They probably expected 115 degree temperatures, but instead it kept us dry from a drizzling rain.

The line moved pretty fast, but I was saddened to see we would all be standing, like rock fans in a mosh pit. My poor feet held up, just barely. But the show started on time. First we heard from my congresswoman, Dina Titus, and then the Democratic candidate for Senate, Catherine Cortez Masto. They were followed by the man Masto is hoping to replace, Harry Reid, and the candidate herself, in a green pantsuit.

When it came time for Clinton to speak, she gave what I imagine is her standard stump speech, tailored for the location. Las Vegas, given all the construction and hotels, is a big union town (the largest employer is the school system, and many of the teachers are union). The hall belonged to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Clinton, as shown in her convention speech, is not about soaring poetry--she talked about sewer systems and electric grids, which of course, means jobs. She also hit on some education points, such as reducing interest on college loans or refinancing them, and free community college. Nothing about ditching Common Core or her take on standardized testing. Also, not to much about the environment--the word fracking was not mentioned.

She also talked very little about foreign affairs, and more about her idiot opponent. But she didn't talk about his fetish with nuclear weapons. Instead she went after his outsourcing of manufacturing ties, suits, and furniture to other countries. And how he brings in immigrant workers to employ at his golf courses, saying that there are no American workers to do the job. And his atrocious treatment of small businesses by not paying them. She specifically mentioned a drapery company in Las Vegas that was stiffed for $400,000 and had to go out of business.

Trump has a presence in Las Vegas. He has a hotel, and of course he fought unionization. Note that he does not have a hotel and a casino, because he could not get a casino license. Let that sink in--Trump is ineligible to have a casino license in Las Vegas.

There was one moment of extra excitement. I was keeping an eye on the Secret Service agents who surrounded her. They looked like tough guys, scanning the crowd, waiting to snap into action if needed. Not five minutes after I considered this they did snap into action, moving like panthers as they descended upon some animal rights activists in the front row who breached the security line. Clinton, unflappable, said they made a good point, and must be protesting Trump--"he and his sons kill lots of animals."

I've wondered at the sense of these people protesting there. Animal cruelty is a corporate activity, not a political one. Hillary Clinton manages no farms, no laboratories, no zoos. I'm all for animal rights, but there's a time and place for everything. These people weren't PETA, but like PETA, they can sometimes shoot themselves in the foot. And it's just plain rude.

They were outside after the event, maybe ten people. There were a handful of counter-protestors, one with a "Never Hillary" sign. An older woman said that Hillary was going to send her grandson to war. My reply was, "Donald Trump wants to use nuclear weapons." Let them vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein, or better yet, stay home on election day.

Nothing Hillary Clinton said or did made me any less likely to vote for her. Donald Trump has narcissistic personality disorder, and may be in the pocket of the Russian mob. If that isn't enought to dissuade people from voting for him, I don't know what is.