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Friday, September 30, 2016

The Silver Lining

In reading the liner notes for The Silver Lining: The Songs of Jerome Kern, I learned that Tony Bennett himself coined the term "American Songbook," and he has been keeping it alive for over sixty years. This album is one of a series, each devoted to a great songwriter, and it won the Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal, shared with Bennett and pianist Bill Charlap.

When it comes to American male singers, I've always been a Sinatra guy. I've puzzled over Bennett. His voice is hoarse, but also smooth. Raspy, but clear. At times he seems like he's going to lose the note, but he never does. Listening to him is like watching an adventure movie where you know the hero won't be hurt, but you can never be sure.

Where Bennett excels is in the emotion he brings to the song--he's essentially an actor. One of my favorite songs of all time is "The Way You Look Tonight," presented here unlike any version I know (my favorite is Sinatra's) but touching. Usually it's sung in a way to suggest that all is good in the world, but Bennett brings a bit of wistfulness to it, as if there has been a break-up or argument. No one can wrap their mouth around the word "Lovely" like Bennett.

Kern is best known for being the composer for Showboat, which is considered the first American musical. Bennett does not try "Ol' Man River"--I heard Sinatra try it and it didn't go well, but he is glorious on the others. Kern is described in the liner notes as being the bridge between "Brahms and Charlie Parker," and wrote a lot for movie musicals, notably for Fred Astaire, represented here with "Pick Yourself Up" and "I Won't Dance."

Also on the album are "The Last Time I Saw Paris," which won an Oscar for Best Song, and was a very sentimental song at the time, considering the Nazis had taken the city over. We also get the lovely "I'm Old-Fashioned," which was also sung by Astaire (and many others), I should note that in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, there is a scene when friends Dianne Wiest and Carrie Fisher audition for a role. Wiest sings "I'm Old-Fashioned" and Fisher follows with "The Way You Look Tonight."

It should also be noted that Kern worked with great lyricists. This album is represented by Ira Gershwin, Oscar Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer, and Dorothy Fields:

"Some day, when I'm awfully low
When the world is cold
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight

Yes, you're lovely, with your smile so warm
And your cheeks so soft
There is nothing for me but to love you
And the way you look tonight

With each word your tenderness grows
Tearin' my fear apart
And that laugh..wrinkles your nose
Touches my foolish heart

Lovely ... Never, never change
Keep that breathless charm
Won't you please arrange it?
 'Cause I love you
Just the way you look tonight"

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Wonder Boys

The best of the rest of Curtis Hanson's films was Wonder Boys, a gem from 2000 that was again based on a novel, this time by Michael Chabon. It takes a hoary cliche--the dissolute writing professor--and makes it fresh, funny, and occasionally moving. It's also one of Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire's best performances.

Douglas is a creative writing teacher at a college in Pittsburgh. His wife has just left him. He is a habitual pot smoker, and after an successful novel seven years earlier, has not written another one since, though he has over 2000 pages in the process. It is the weekend of a literary conference, and his pansexual editor (Robert Downey Jr.) arrives. He is also dealing with an extramarital affair with the school chancellor (Frances McDormand), and his very talented and very odd student (Maguire).

What makes Wonder Boys so enjoyable to watch is the great characters. When they get together there's a sense of adventure, such as when Maguire kills McDormand's dog and he and Douglas have to dispose of it somehow, or when a unusual man claims that Douglas's car is his and chases them through the streets. There really is no villain of the piece, except perhaps for Richard Thomas as McDormand's husband, who is doing a book about the "mythopoetic" nature of the marriage of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe, and actually owns the coat she was married in.

The Douglas-Maguire relationship is what resonates most. Wonder Boys at its heart is a buddy film. Douglas manages to turn the cliche on its head (not being a drunk but a pothead is a start). He doesn't have writer's block--he can't stop writing. Maguire, for his part, makes a very authentic eccentric, who loves old movies and seems to be in the wrong time period (he also spins some very good yarns).

There's a few quibbles--the film really doesn't quite know what to do with Katie Holmes, who is a young but very wise student of Douglas's. But overall this is one of the best movies about writers I've seen. And like L.A. Confidential, the script (this time by Steve Kloves) knows what to cut. I read the book, and I recall something about a large snake that gets cut into segments. One dead animal was enough, I suppose.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Welcome to Braggsville

The notion of a post-racial America, and how incorrect that notion is, has fueled a lot of writing. It certainly is at the heart of T. Geronimo Johnson's novel Welcome to Braggsville, which sees a collision of culture when students travel from Berkeley to a small Georgia town to a Civil War re-enactment so they can re-enact a lynching. Bad things happen.

With an unarmed black man killed almost every day and social media acting like a sewer hole to allow the bile of racism to run free (when Prince died many posted, "Just another n*gger dead) or attacking President Obama's daughters, anyone with a working brain knows the U.S., where we said over two-hundred years ago that "all men are created equal," is full of hypocrites. We also know that there are people, not just those in the South, who fly the Confederate flag proudly (here in Las Vegas a person flies theirs, a very large one, on a tall flagpole).

So Welcome to Braggsville didn't really tell me anything I didn't know already. The opening of the book is comic, as we learn about D'aron Davenport, a native son of Braggsville, a racist town in Georgia, and his expatriation to Berkeley, where he becomes part of a foursome of friends--Louis, a Malaysian comedian wanna-be; Charles, a black kid from Chicago; and Candice, a girl from Iowa whom they all seem to be in love with. D'aron (he's white, despite the apostrophe, which he later loses) tells them about the Civil War re-enactment. As a class project, they decide to visit and re-enact another part of Civil War history, the lynching.

The book turns quickly when a tragedy occurs (or perhaps just a death--D'aron doesn't believe it fits the literary definition of tragedy). This happens fairly early in the book, and then Johnson spins his wheels for a hundred or so pages before we get to the climax, in which a rock is lifted to show the worms and beetles underneath.

I give this book three stars out of five for sporadically excellent writing, such as this: "D’aron thought it beautiful, never mind the nag champa, never mind the crusty hippies and gutter punks in greasy jackets stiff as shells lined up on Telegraph Ave hawking tie-dye and patchouli and palming for change. On clear days, a pageantry of wind and water under sun, the bay a sea of gently wriggling silver ribbons, and the Golden Gate hovering in the distance like a mystical portal." But you'll notice that his writing is like jazz--it doesn't follow a lot of rules, especially of punctuation and spelling. At times Johnson's style gets away from him, and it just seems like noodling.

There are lines that made me laugh out loud, such as: "Louis beamed like he’d found a buttered Olsen twin in his bed" or pointed out truths about rural Southern white America: "Then there were his older female cousins—the stripper, the trucker, and the elementary school teacher—referred to as no-count because they’d never married" or his humorous asides, such as "Freud—Nineteenth-century cocaine enthusiast."

But too often I found myself reading something and having no idea what was going on, as Johnson's transitions were almost non-apparent and he seemed to telling a private joke. This book needed a stronger edit, for clarity and coherence.

I do agree with the central premise, though--we are still a racist country, a country that is full of people who lament the loss of the South in the Civil War, and who think that blacks had it good in slavery. One of Johnson's most trenchant comments is: "States’ rights is not a convincing argument. If we say the Civil War was not about slavery, next we will say that slavery was not about race. Even if we get generous and say it wasn’t about race—at first—what else could it become about? How else could you live with that cruelty? If we deny that, then we’ll say that it was actually a beneficent institution, an early model for the welfare state."

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Lesser of Two Evils

Full disclosure: I did not watch the debate last night. I was prepared to, and certainly would have watched were Hillary Clinton still at a close to ninety-percent certainty that she would be elected. But I've been nervously consulting Nate Silver's, watching her numbers go down to 54 percent, with states like Ohio, Florida, and Nevada go from solid blue to red, and I'm scared shitless.

So instead I watched an episode of Salem, walked the dog, and worried. When it was over, I immediately found out what other people thought. I'm like the character in Whit Stillman's Cosmopolitan that doesn't read novels, he just reads the criticism. I've been watching this campaign through my fingers.

Fortunately, almost everyone is saying that Clinton clobbered Trump. The consensus is he started strong, but eventually she got under his skin, bringing up his taxes (he apparently admitted he pays none, and says this is "smart." I wonder how taxpayers will think of his remark), birtherism, his glee over the housing crisis ("that's business," he said, and again, does the person who lost their house or job agree?) and perhaps most effectively, his treatment of women.

Presidential elections always have some weird previous unknown thing that can trip up a candidate, like Michael Dukakis on a tank or George H.W. Bush checking his watch. This is looking more and more like The Simpsons' episode when Mr. Burns ran for governor, only to lose when Marge cooked him a fish with three eyes that was raised in the toxic dump behind the nuclear plant. Mr. Burns spit it out, and his campaign was over. The "Blinky the fish" of this campaign may be Alicia Machado.

Kudos to whomever dug up that golden nugget. Machado was Miss Universe when it was owned by Trump. She won and then, according to Trump, gained an "enormous amount of weight." Turns out it was twelve pounds. But he publicly humiliated her, calling her "Miss Piggy," and, even more dangerously, if that's possible, "Miss Housekeeping," due to her Latina heritage. Clinton, in the great poster slam of the evening, said, "She's now a citizen, and believe me, she will vote." Trump was flummoxed, mewling, "Where'd you get this?" Clinton tied it to his general hatred of women, and he was left blasting Rosie O'Donnell, who has now been mentioned in two presidential debates.

Clinton's strategy, it seems to me, is to hit Trump on his temperament and lack of knowledge, and she seemed to do that last night. She remained poised, apologized succinctly about her email scandal, while he acted like a petulant child. I can't wait for the town hall debate, where Trump may actually get tough questions from audience members, maybe asking more about his taxes. I'd ask him how much money he owed to Russian mobsters.

Here on the left, we can't understand how a narcissistic sociopathic carnival barker can be this close to being president. Sure, it's provided some entertainment. There's been some great memes: Taco trucks on every corner, basket of deplorables (that's from Clinton, and I love the elegance of that word choice), and last night we heard about 400-pound hackers. But except to jaded political journalists, this has not been fun. We are five percent away from disaster.

We've all heard, because of the unpopularity of both candidates, that it's a choice between the lesser of two evils. Bullshit. As someone pointed out, it's the choice between a qualified woman who rubs some people the wrong way and a bigoted, misogynist fascist. That's like saying, of things to consume that are bad for us, that a doughnut is the lesser of two evils compared with cyanide. They're miles apart.

There are, apparently, a number of undecided voters out there that make the polls fluctuate. After last night Clinton's number should go up. If they don't, we all may be doomed. Literally.

Monday, September 26, 2016

L.A. Confidential

In a year when many directors of note have passed away, Curtis Hanson may not be at the top of the list. He was only 71, and suffering from illness for a while. He had an eclectic career, dabbling in many genres, and mostly adapted novels. But to put it in baseball terms, Hanson was like a journeyman pitcher who manages to throw a perfect game. His perfect game was L.A. Confidential.

Released in 1997, L.A. Confidential swept the critics' awards but was swept overboard by Titanic at the Oscars. I like Titanic fine, but it's no L.A. Confidential, one of those films of which can be said there is no false note, no bad moment, not plot holes, not a bad performance, not a wrong word written. Hanson directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Brian Helgeland, for that he did win an Oscar.

L.A. Confidential is based on a book by James Ellroy. If you've ever read a book by Ellroy, you usually want to take a shower afterward, because he shows the venal and the corrupt, usually in Los Angeles. The film opens with Danny DeVito extolling the virtues of L.A.: "Come to Los Angeles! The sun shines bright, the beaches are wide and inviting, and the orange groves stretch as far as the eye can see. There are jobs aplenty, and land is cheap. Every working man can have his own house, and inside every house, a happy, all-American family. You can have all this, and who knows... you could even be discovered, become a movie star... or at least see one. Life is good in Los Angeles... it's paradise on Earth. Ha ha ha ha. That's what they tell you, anyway."

Ellroy, and the film, take great pains to show the corruption and festering behind the sunshine. The book was complex, and one of the great skills of Hanson and Helgeland was cutting it down. They centered the story on three cops, and jettisoned the rest (including a Walt Disney-like figure). The three cops are Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce), who wants to live up to his father's reputation on the force and is a straight arrow, not reluctant to testify against other officers; Bud White (Russell Crowe), an enforcer formed by years of rage about what his father did to his mother, and with a particular problem with wife-beaters; and Jack Vincennes, a cocky narco cop who is consultant to a show much like Dragnet, and in cahoots with the press, who offer him busts in exchange for flashy stories.

In a way, the trio meet the requirements of Freud's definition of the personality. White is the id, who is only after basic needs; Vincennes, the ego, who deals with the reality of the needs of the id in a social world; and Exley the superego, which adds a moral layer to the id and ego. What's great about the film is that they are all at odds at one point or another--White will toss Exley around a room--but they all end up working together to take down a crooked cop.

That cop is played deliciously by James Cromwell. His Dudley Smith is one of cinema's great villains, a smooth operator with a condescending tone (he calls his underlings "lads") and an Irish accent. Hanson and Helgeland also play fast and loose with the dead and the undead--two characters in the book who live are killed off, one surprisingly so (no more surprised was I, who had read the book).

The plot, even though streamlined, is extremely complex, dealing with hookers who are operated on to look like movie stars and the takeover of the rackets after the incarceration of Mickey Cohen. At the center is a mass murder at the Nite Owl coffee shop, in which Exley collars the suspects, but then has doubts about it. This will tie together all the participants, and it will end in a shootout at the magnificently mangy Victory Motel (great credit is due to Jeannine Oppewall, production designer).

I have absolutely no complaints about this film. It launched the career of Crowe (funny that almost twenty years later, in The Nice Guys, he plays a similar character, but much heavier) who makes a perfect guy who is used as muscle but is smarter than even he knows. His relationship with Kim Basinger as the Veronica Lake look-a-like hooker is authentic and touching (I've never really cared for Basinger in anything else). Spacey is great, a guy who floats above it all, taking money from the sleazy press (who is DeVito, also great), and Pearce, who was also unknown then, makes a convincing stalwart who aims to do the right thing.

There are a number of great set pieces, and I must compliment the editor, Peter Honess. There are big scenes, like when Crowe and Pearce shakedown (literally) the D.A. (Ron Rifkin), and another simple one when Pearce enters a building, checks the mailbox number, and proceeds to the right apartment. It is cut in extremely short scenes--just long enough for the eye to retain them--and wastes nothing. I also particularly enjoyed a scene in which Pearce accosts who he thinks is a Lana Turner look-a-like, but Spacey tells him, "That is Lana Turner." (That scene was shot at the Formosa Cafe, which still exists).

L.A. Confidential is just a smashing film, with a great score by Jerry Goldsmith, aces photography by Dante Spinotti (most of it is not shot as noir--much of it is out in the bright sunshine--he and Hanson wanted to shoot it like a contemporary movie). It does justice to Ellroy's book, even with the changes.

Hanson made some other good movies, including Wonder Boys, which I'll get to anon. But for this one, he was perfect.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I've been approved to teach an after-hours class at my middle school. It will be on classic horror films. A lot of kids have shown an interest in signing up, but I wonder if they realize what they're in for. When I say classic, I don't mean Friday the Thirteenth or Nightmare on Elm Street. I'm talking old movies. Really old. I'm starting with the silent classic, The Phantom of the Opera, from 1925.

Most kids nowadays turn up their noses at black and white films; I can only imagine what they will do with a silent film, when they actually have to read subtitles. But I watched the film last night trying to imagine what a 11-14 year-old would think, and the more focused and intelligent should be able to sit through it. It's a bit long for an old movie--1:46--but the story is simple enough.

As silent horror films go, The Phantom of the Opera isn't in the same category as the German expressionist works like Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but I think it's more palatable to younger children (and if the class is a hit, I can do more movies next semester). There's nothing about the direction of Rupert Julian that stands out--he creates a nice, spooky atmosphere in the catacombs below the Paris Opera House. But really, the film stands out because of Lon Chaney Sr.

Chaney, known as the Man of a Thousand Faces, isn't seen on screen for a good while, except in shadow, and then we don't see his face until the famous unmasking scene, when poor Mary Philbin can't resist and pulls his mask off, revealing his deformed visage. That scene made 1925 audiences scream and faint--let's see what it does to jaded tweens. It's his presence that holds the film--the romantic stuff with Christine and Raoul is rather tedious. Chaney, without use of words, makes an excellent psychopath, and one of the first film examples of what a good horror film has: a sympathetic monster.

I find it interesting, and maybe a little sad, then when one Googles Phantom of the Opera the first hits are from the Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, which I saw during its first run. That musical further emphasize the romantic nature, while the 1925 film made it clear that for Christine, there was no Beauty and the Beast thing happening. For her, it was all about looks, and she wanted a boyfriend that didn't live five levels underground. Even if he could play a mean organ. Who could blame her?

Saturday, September 24, 2016


As I close my Kirk Douglas retrospective, it's interesting to look at his post-Spartacus career. Following that film, which I think he is most identified with, his role as a major film star began to wane. He made some good films, notably Lonely Are the Brave and Seven Days in May, but many of them are long forgotten. He did contribute one major thing to American culture--he purchased the rights to Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, had it adapted into a play, and took it on stage. By the time he could get the film made he was too old to play the part of McMurphy, and his son Michael produced it with Jack Nicholson.

I think his last very good film was Posse, which he directed (he also directed a forgettable pirate film called Scalawag). Released in 1975, it's a revisionist Western that has a lot of the tropes of the genre--a really great shootout that has some great stunts, and a lot of action on a train--but is really the tale of political ambition and how it can blind someone.

Douglas plays a U.S. Marshall who always gets his man. He is also running for U.S. Senate. As the film begins he is chasing after notorious train robber Bruce Dern. He pays off an informant and finds Dern's gang, killing them all, including burning some alive. Dern escapes, but is finally captured, and Douglas makes political hay out of it. But Dern still has some tricks up his sleeve.

The film is a nice allegory about the political process. Douglas is clearly corrupt--he's bought and paid for by the railroad, but his posse start to wonder about his loyalty. There is also the aspect of the press--James Stacy (who just died last week) is the local journalist who questions Douglas' motives.

If there's anything I can say about Douglas as I move on to other centenarians, it's that he never played it safe. He, like many stars of after the studio system, made his own films with his production company, Bryna (named after this mother) that weren't safe and were provocative. Some were successful, some not. He is largely responsible for the end of the blacklist and launching Stanley Kubrick's career. He never won a competitive Oscar, but was under-rated as an actor. In Posse, we don't get that moment of intense anger until the very end of the film, but it's worth the wait.

Douglas turns 100 in December. Long may he live.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Ralph Stanley

When Ralph Stanley died this past summer, I had sort of heard the name but couldn't tell you much about him. I've rectified that somewhat by listening to some of his best work, and I must say it's a kick.

Stanley was mostly called a bluegrass performer, but he resisted that label, calling it instead "mountain music." The less politically-correct term might be "hillbilly" music, as it's the stuff that most people have heard at the beginning and end of The Beverly Hillbillies. This coincided with the use of Flatt and Scruggs "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" on the Bonnie and Clyde soundtrack.

Mainly the music is based on the sounds of Appalachia. Some of these songs were far older than Stanley himself, such as "Man of Constant Sorrow," which was used in the soundtrack of O Brother Where Art Thou, as was the old, old dirge "O Death," which won Stanley a Grammy Award (I must admit I prefer the Camper Van Beethoven version).

This music is real grandma and grandpa stuff, but also enormously entertaining and toe-tapping. I especially like a song called Katie Daley, and I wonder if this is where Pepsi got a name of a certain drink:

"Oh Come on down the mountain Katy Daley
Come on down the mountain Katy do
Can't you hear us calling Katy Daley
We want to drink your good old mountain dew"

Stanley's voice is a high nasal tenor, and can really hold a note when he wants to. But there are also some good harmonies, such as on "Will You Miss Me?" Of course the common instrumentation is banjo and fiddle, and there a few instrumentals here, notably "Clinch Mountain Backstep."

This music may be niche--I can't imagine there's too many people listening to it in urban areas--but it's fun and taps into my ancestral lineage that goes back to the hills of Kentucky. I certainly couldn't listen to it every day, but I'm glad I had a chance to check it out.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Man in the High Castle

As we head into fall it's time to start thinking (at least for me) about all things scary and spooky. But I don't know of anything supernatural that's as scary as the proposition that the Nazis won World War II. That's been the premise of many alternate histories, but Philip K. Dick's book The Man in the High Castle is probably the best known, and it was into a series by Amazon. I've just seen the first season (another is coming soon) and at times it was so unnerving I had to take breaks from it.

Dick's book, which I haven't read, was set in a 1962 where the Germans and Japanese had won the war. Roosevelt had been assassinated, and isolationism stymied the military build-up and thus the Axis powers won. In the series, the Germans hold the Eastern United States, while Japan has the West Coast. The Rockies are the "neutral zone," a kind of Wild West where anything goes.

The main character is Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos). Her step-sister gives her a film canister before she is murdered by the Japanese police, or Kempeitai. Davalos gets involved in the resistance, and takes the film to the neutral zone. She meets a young truck driver (Luke Kleintank), who is a Nazi agent, but we're never quite sure of his loyalties. He is working for John Smith (a brilliant Rufus Sewell), who is American born but works for the SS and is completely loyal to the Reich.

Meanwhile, Davalos' boyfriend (Rupert Evans) is captured and pressed for Davalos' whereabouts. He won't talk, and Inspector Kido (the fantastic Joel de la Fuente) discovers he is part Jewish. Evans' sister and her children end up gassed, and he is bereft. He decides he is going to assassinate the Japanese Crown Prince (who I guess today is Akihito) but before he can someone else does, but he's been spotted in the crowd with a gun.

There are many other subplots, such as the Japanese Trade Minister (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) attempting to forestall war with Germany by helping a high-ranking Nazi to give Japan the secret of the A-bomb (which in this alternative universe, was developed by Heisenberg for the Germans). But the key element is that everyone is chasing after newsreel films, supposedly showing images of the Allies winning the war, and that are made by someone known as the Man in the High Castle.

What makes this series, created by Frank Spotnitz, work is that it creates a general paranoia that must be felt under repressive regimes. And still, seventy years later, and generations beyond those who experienced it, the sight of men in Nazi uniforms and flags with Swastikas flying over American buildings gives chills. What's really amazing is that by the end of the film, when some things are sorted out (but not all, we do need another season) is that you may find yourself sympathizing with Adolph Hitler.

The acting, writing,and directing in The Man in the High Castle is uniformly excellent. I would also like to mention Burn Gorman, known as the Marshal, who keeps the law in the neutral zone; Brennan Brown, as a snooty American antiques dealer who will play a huge part in the assassination attempt; and Carsten Norgaard as the Nazi who becomes disgusted with the movement and tries to ensure peace.

The final image of the series, which I will not reveal here, calls into question everything we have seen in the series up to that point, therefore I will be there when Season 2 arrives.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Producers

To end my tribute to Gene Wilder, I turn to his first major role, one that made him a star--Leo Bloom in The Producers. He was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and it is one of the funniest performances I've ever seen.The film, too, is one of my favorites, and I've seen it several times.

In retrospect, one might think the The Producers was an immediate sensation, given its legacy and the success of the Broadway adaptation. But Mel Brooks, who harbored the idea for years, struggled to get it made. He eventually had to change the title from Springtime to Hitler, the name of the show within the film, to the eventual title. "Bad taste" was the most common complaint, and though Brooks won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the reviews were mixed.

Zero Mostel, the great Broadway ham, stars as Max Bialystock, once the "king of Broadway," but now a struggling producer who seduces little old ladies as investors. When Wilder, a meek accountant, comes to check the books, he realizes that one could raise an infinite amount of money for a play, but if it is a flop, the investors would not expect a payoff and the extra money, kept off the books, could be kept. Mostel is immediately for it, but Wilder, who has never broken a law, is aghast. Here Brooks introduces the central idea of the film--Bloom's awakening, so to speak, with friendship.

They conspire to make a flop, picking a play by a Nazi which is "a love letter to Hitler" choosing a director with no taste, and casting a hippie burnt out on drugs as their lead. After the opening number, a vulgar musical number that salutes Hitler, the boys think they've succeeded. But the play is so bad that it's funny, and the audience mistakes it for comedy. "No way out," Wilder chants.

There is so much funny in here it's hard to know where to start. Brooks must be commended for pushing the envelope and going places that shouldn't work but do. For example, the gay stereotypes of Roger De Bris,  (which means circumcision) and his assistant, Carmen Ghia, should be offensive, but are played so joyfully that they're not. Also, Dick Shawn as L.S.D., the hippie, is a dated stereotype, and was removed from the Broadway production, but I still laugh at his "Power of Love" number, just because he sells it so completely. And Kenneth Mars, as Liebkin, the author, does the same--a man who is still a Nazi, and brags that Hitler was a better dancer than Churchill, also goes way over the top, but is still kind of sweet.

But it's Mostel and Wilder's show. They make a winning twosome. The film opens with about a twenty-five minute set piece in which Wilder walks in on Mostel with a very funny Estelle Winwood and their sexual role playing (the milk maid and the stable boy) and then engage in a tussle over the plan. Wilder, whom Brooks thought resembled Harpo Marx, gave him some great silent moments, such as when Mostel asks him, "Did I hurt your feelings?" and Wilder hilariously pouts and nods. But this scene is so rich in dialogue I wish I could quote it all. My favorites are when Mostel proclaims, "I'm wearing a cardboard belt!" or Wilder falls on his keys, or the great Wilder moment, "I'm in pain, I'm wet, and I'm still hysterical."

Brooks knew his comedy, from slapstick to double-take, Much of The Producers' humor is Brooks cutting to reaction shots, especially the slack-jawed reactions of the first part of "Springtime for Hitler." Some criticized him for this, because using reaction shots is basically telling the audience how they should feel, but I laugh at them every time. One thing that doesn't work, but we have to let it go, is that the play is not that funny that it would induce hysterical laughter from an audience. In real life, they would have walked out and stayed out.

A few other great lines: When Mostel tells Mars to kill the actors, and Wilder says, "You can't kill the actors, they're human beings, not animals!" and Mostel replies, "Oh yeah, you ever eat with one?" Or when Mostel hires a Swedish sexpot (Lee Meredith) to be a receptionist, and Wilder asks, "What will people say when they see her?" and Mostel replies with a Tex Avery-like wolf whistle. For literary types, there's the gag when Mostel is reading bad plays and reads the first line of Kafka's Metamorphosis: "Gregor Samsa awoke to find himself transformed into a giant cockroach." He tosses it aside and says, "Too good."

A few interesting notes from Wikipedia: Brooks originally wanted Peter Sellers as Leo Bloom (the name, of course, comes from Joyce's Ulysses) but he never returned the call. Dustin Hoffman was to play Liebkin, but begged Brooks to let him audition for a little thing called The Graduate, and Brooks, thinking he wouldn't get it, let him.

Brooks still, for a laugh, will pull out a comb and do a Hitler impression. His theory is that if you make fun of something, it will lessen it's power. We can only hope that works with Donald Trump, or one day someone will be performing "Springtime for Trump."

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Oscar 2016, Best Actor: Who Wants Thirds?

The putative front-runners for the Oscar for Best Actor this year are both two-time winners, and both have already cemented their status as Hollywood legends. One of them seems a sure thing for a nomination, the other is in a movie that no has seen yet, but seems to have Oscar written all over it. But could a first-time winner sneak in?

Right now, barring Fences being an absolute disaster, four of the Best Acting nominees feel fairly certain, in films that have already been seen and pleased audiences. The fifth spot could go any number of places.

In alphabetical order, here's my take:

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea: This movie was a Sundance hit and is eagerly anticipated. Affleck, who has one nomination under his belt (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) seems likely here, if his recent legal problems don't hamper him (he was sued for sexual harassment; there was an out-of-court settlement).

Ryan Gosling, La La Land: As of today, La La Land may be the favorite for Best Picture. Emma Stone is getting most of the accolades, and just may be the favorite for Best Actress (that's coming up right here next month) but Gosling may be along for the ride for his role in a musical. When actors do something different from their usual pesonas voters take notice. Gosling has one nomination also, for Half-Nelson.

Tom Hanks, Sully: Believe it or not, but Hanks has not been nominated for 16 years, not since Cast Away. He only has five nominations total, and has been passed over for what were thought sure-fire nominations in recent years. But Sully is a hit, and Hanks is the major part of it. Could he be the second man to win three Best Actor Oscars (after Daniel Day-Lewis)? I wouldn't be shocked.

Nate Parker, Birth of a Nation: This is my going out on a limb pick, and it wasn't so until recently. But revelations about Parker being charged with rape (but acquitted) have cast a pall all over the film. However, there seems to have been a backlash against the backlash, with Parker appearing at screenings and receiving ovations. Time may cool things down. But don't put any money on it.

Denzel Washington, Fences: Again, Fences has not been seen by any press, and Washington's previous two directorial efforts garnered zero Oscar nominations. But there's a lot of hope for this, as it has a black cast and given the cultural climate would ease a lot of wounds if it here a hit. Washington has won two Oscars, one for Supporting Actor (Glory) and one for Best Actor (Training Day).

Also possible: Joe Alwyn, Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk; Joel Edgerton, Loving; Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Snowden; Michael Keaton, The Founder; and Miles Teller, Bleed for This.

Monday, September 19, 2016


It's a funny thing about Snowden--it's a competent thriller with, of course, political overtones (Oliver Stone made it, after all) and I have no beef with it, but a day after seeing it it doesn't stick with me. I can still remember shots from Nixon and Natural Born Killers and even W., but Snowden may be the most conventional film Stone has ever made.

There has already been a film about Edward Snowden, and that was the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, which had three journalists and Snowden in a hotel room in Hong Kong as he gave them information and they published it. Some of those scenes are re-enacted, which is strange given we've seen the real thing. So Stone has expanded the story, telling us about Snowden's earlier days, when he was a gung-ho Bush supporter, how he grew disenchanted with the methods of government intelligence, and how he was influenced by his girlfriend.

This is all well and good. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an excellent Snowden, down to the almost perpetual fringe of beard on his chin and the at times infuriating earnestness, and I am once again impressed by Shailene Woodley, who takes the part of "the girlfriend" and makes it something much more. Having seen Woodley take part at the Dakota Access protests recently crossed into my thinking, and it helped me buy her as a liberal.

But something is missing. We get a little of it--the most memorable scene is when Gordon-Levitt is called into a video conference with his mentor, Rhys Ifans, whose image is projected on a wall, about twelve feet tall, looming like a Big Brother. I think the entire film is summed up in that scene, as what Snowden revealed, that the U.S. government was listening and reading private conversations, emails, and texts, is the very definition of Big Brother.

I was also interested in some of the nuts and bolts of working for the CIA and NSA. There's a mountain in Hawaii where you really get x-rayed before you come in, and spies these days are computer jockeys, likely to wear cargo pants and bowling shirts instead of black trench coats.

Stone clearly admires Snowden, who gets a cameo at the end. While others called for harsh punishment (Trump called for his execution, Clinton demanded his arrest, and Obama was not a fan) it's interesting to see how time changes things--it's possible that Obama may pardon him. The film comes then, at an interesting time then, but it doesn't really make a statement. Oh, you may want to put a Band-Aid over your Web-cam, and don't email or text anything that you don't want Uncle Sam to read, but we knew that already, didn't we?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf (1966)

I had planned to write about the film adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf toward the end of the year, when I annually discuss the nominees for the Best Picture Oscar from fifty years ago. But then Edward Albee, who wrote the play it is based on, up an died, and I realized I'm the only one who sets the rules for this blog, so I'm moving up the date.

As I mentioned in my review of the revival on Broadway a few years ago, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is my favorite play. Albee, following the death of Eugene O'Neill and the kind of petering out of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, assumed the mantle of America's playwright. Ben Brantley in the Times think he held it until Tony Kushner's Angels in America,  but I might stick up for Sam Shepard. In any event, Albee was a giant of American dramatists, and Virginia Woolf was his masterpiece.

It was a sensation on Broadway, both hated and worshiped, and was made into a film by Mike Nichols. It was Nichols' first film, after an amazing run on Broadway that saw five of his plays running at the same time. But mostly he did Neil Simon and other light fare. Virginia Woolf was as dark as a moonless night. He was also working with, at the time, the most famous people in the world, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

The film version is very, very good, but shows the pitfalls of taking a play that is perfect as it is and trying to adapt it for cinema. The play takes one in one living room in almost real time. Some films that are adapted for films that don't "break out" are often called "stagey," because cinema is supposed to be expansive. Who decided this, I don't know. So what Nichols did is very daring. He did break out, but the script, written by producer Ernest Lehman, adds almost nothing. Albee joked that he added one line and was paid a million dollars. What Lehman and Nichols did was try to turn it into a movie.

To those who are too young or too isolated to know the story, it is about four people who are like scorpions in a bottle. George and Martha, probably not coincidently named for the father and mother of our country, are Burton and Taylor. He's an ineffectual, intellectual history professor, she's the blousy daughter of the president of the college (in the play she's older than George, but I suppose no one would believe Taylor was older than Burton). They have returned from a faculty party, and bicker as if it were second nature (she wants to know where the line "What a dump!" comes from. It is never answered, but for trivia buffs it is Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest). It is two in the morning, but Taylor has invited a young faculty member, George Segal, and his wife, Sandy Dennis, over for a nightcap. Thus begin the games.

What follows is some of the most bilious dialogue ever written for the American stage, or for the American screen. Burton and Taylor have something of an understanding in their marriage--they constantly fight--"If you existed I'd divorce you," Taylor tells him, but Segal and Dennis don't quite understand it. Segal, whom Taylor pointedly seduces, is a biologist, whom Burton mistrusts--he's convinced biology will make everyone the same, and end all creativity--ooks askance at the sideshow he's watching. Dennis quickly gets drunk on brandy, and is mocked for her "slim hips" and being a "simp." When she later twirls herself around in a road house, shouting "I dance like the wind," or claps shouting "Violence! Violence!" you both feel sorry for her and hate her.

There's a point you hate everyone in this play, but also feel the deepest empathy. Albee, during his whole career, peeled back the facade, especially of academic and upper-middle-class types. In this play, the skeleteons in the closet are practically dancing--at the center of the play is the supposed son of Burton and Taylor. Though this story is over fifty years old, I choose not to reveal it here.

Nichols and Lehman kept Albee's vitriolic language. It often has the sound of percussion, with the repetition of words like "flop," and "snap!" The insults are often laugh out-loud funny, even when the cut to the bone. Burton says to Taylor: "And please keep your clothes on, too. There aren't many more sickening sights in this world than you with a few drinks in you and your skirt up over your head." They keep the three act structure, with each being a game--"Humiliate the Host," "Get the Guests," ("Hump the Hostess" happens off screen) and then "Bringing Up Baby."

But where the film goes a little off the rails is the scene at the roadhouse. This is where "Get the Guests" is played, where Burton reveals what Segal told him--that he married Dennis because she had a hysterical pregnancy. The rest of the play stays at the house, even if it includes the kitchen or the backyard, but the trip to the road house, complete with a pair of workers there, strains credulity. This play is set in the early '60s but putting a jukebox and a woody station wagon in it doesn't help, it just limits it. Burton, in his sweater and daddy glasses, just looks out of place. It was a mistake.

The film was nominated for thirteen Oscars. Taylor and Dennis won, Burton and Segal were nominated. Taylor was certainly not everyone's first choice--she was a glamorous movie star, and the role had been played by older, less photogenic women like Uta Hagen and Elaine Stritch. But she was game, braying like a jackass when called for. Burton was more tailor-made for the part, keeping his Royal Academy accent, sounding just like an ineffectual history professor. When the play is done right, it's the character of George who "wins" the evening, and I'm not sure Burton does that here.Taylor was the bigger star and she gets the lion's share of attention.

Nichols does film the interiors in the house masterfully. There are many, many close-ups, two-shots, and intriguing three-shots--I can't imagine how many set-ups there were. Often the actors are photographed from below, making them look like monsters. especially George and Martha. It was shot in black and white, by Haskell Wexler (he won an Oscar, the last for Black-and-White Cinematography, by then it was old hat) and has the proper boozy, smoke-filled feeling. The opening shot is of a full moon, as if it were a Universal Wolf Man picture, and then we see that moon again, just before the last act, which Albee called "Walpurgisnacht."

While the film version is not up to the stage version, it is still a monumental achievement, and Albee, who was kind of embarrassed by the attention he got for it, certainly probably appreciated the money it generated, still captures the essence of the play, as described by Martha: "George, my husband... George, who is out somewhere there in the dark, who is good to me - whom I revile, who can keep learning the games we play as quickly as I can change them. Who can make me happy and I do not wish to be happy. Yes, I do wish to be happy. George and Martha: Sad, sad, sad. Whom I will not forgive for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes, this will do."

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Lust for Life

In 1956 Kirk Douglas played Vincent Van Gogh in Vicente Minnelli's Lust for Life. Douglas was born to play Van Gogh--just look at his self-portraits and see how much they looked alike.

Douglas was also an actor who could capture intense emotions, as I have discussed. Here he plays Van Gogh in all of his mania, from his desire to help people (which led to his being a missionary in a coal mining region of Belgium) to his vivid paintings, with thick brushstrokes and bright colors.

Van Gogh's story is a tough one. He was mentally ill, and knew it (he had himself committed--he painted one his best pictures, "The Starry Night" from his room in an asylum) and only sold one picture in his lifetime, despite having a devoted brother who worked in art gallery. Of course we all knew he sliced his own ear off. Again, Douglas throws himself into the role, and was nominated for an Oscar (Yul Brynner won).

Winning an Oscar for the picture was Anthony Quinn as Paul Gaugin. The center of the film is when the two live together in Arles, where Van Gogh made some of his best paintings. Van Gogh longed for friendship and companionship (we see early on his spectacular failure at trying to propose to his cousin) but Gaugin was a person who didn't need it. At first they are like the odd couple of post-impressionists, and constantly fight about art (it's not many movies that has a serious discussion of Millet). But after Gaugin says he is going to leave is when Douglas takes his razor to his ear.

Lust for Life had the benefit of the cooperation of many museums, so we actually see his artwork (think of Pollock, Ed Harris' film, which was not allowed to show any of Jackson Pollock's work). Van Gogh was a giant in the art world, despite his lack of success while alive (he died at 37) and it's so important to actually see the work. We also see the inspiration. I gave a little gasp when he walks into the pool room that would become "The Night Cafe," a painting I've seen a few times (it's in New Haven, Connecticut). The garish colors are immediately recognizable.

Lust for Life (an interesting choice for a title for a man who committed suicide) is a good film, especially for fans of art. If a viewer didn't give a fiddler's fart about art, it might drag, as there are long sequences that are just Van Gogh painting or talking about painting. It also violates Chekhov's rule of the gun. At the end, we see Van Gogh painting "Wheatfield with Crows" and he can't take it anymore, scrawls a suicide note, and pulls a gun out of his pocket. We have not seen him with a gun before then, and I can't imagine why someone would feel the need to be armed in the middle of a wheatfield while painting. It's a weird moment.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Head Full of Ghosts

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay, winner of this year's Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel, is a nifty book that's not about ghosts, not in the way we understand them. On the surface it is about an exorcism, but what it's really about is the madness that exists in the surface tension of families, and the exploitation of tragedy.

The book is told in flashback by Meredith Barrett, now twenty-three, and we are to understand that she is the sole survivor of something horrible that happened to her family. She is giving interviews to a writer who is penning a book about it. Gradually it unfolds--Meredith's older sister, Marjorie, was exhibiting strange behavior. After psychiatry did not help, the girls' father looked to religion, became convinced Marjorie was possessed by a demon, and engaged a priest to perform an exorcism.

If that weren't enough, and to counter financial woes, the entire thing was filmed as a reality TV show called The Possession. Meredith was only eight when it occurred, and is torn between love and fear of her sister, who at times menaces her with lurid stories. "'You have to remember that story about the two sisters. You have to remember all my stories because there are— there are all these ghosts filling my head and I’m just trying to get them out, but you have to remember the story about the two sisters especially. Okay?'" Marjorie tells her.

In a further bit of post-modernism, Meredith pseudonymously writes a blog that deconstructs the entire show. The writer asks her how she can distance herself enough from the reality of the situation to write it about it objectively.

While the book doesn't have the scares that other exorcism books have--who can hope to top William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist--it doesn't really try to do that, and instead becomes a kind of commentary on the whole exorcism business. Many exorcism films are mentioned in passing. It's as if Tremblay realized he couldn't just sit down and write an old-fashioned exoricsm book and instead went meta. It works. A Head Full of Ghosts is not very scary, but it's a good read.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Bud, Not Buddy

"Most folks think you start to be a real adult when you’re fifteen or sixteen years old, but that’s not true, it really starts when you’re around six. It’s at six that grown folks don’t think you’re a cute little kid anymore, they talk to you and expect that you understand everything they mean." This is the statement of ten-year-old Bud Caldwell, one in a long line of orphans in young people's literature. He's the narrator of Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis.

The difference with Bud is that he's African American and the book is set in 1930s Michigan. When the book begins, Bud is in Flint in a "home," and clutches tight to a cardboard suitcase that contains his only possessions, including some things from his mother, who died when he was six. One of the items is a flyer for a jazz musician, Herbert Calloway, who performs in Grand Rapids. Bud is convinced that the man is his father.

After a disastrous stay at a foster home, where a boy terrorizes him by sticking a pencil up his nose to see how far the word "Ticonderoga" can go, Bud skedaddles. He finds a Hooverville, and tries to jump a freighter with his friend Bugs, but fails. So he hoofs it, and meets a kindly train porter who teaches him not be a young black man out alone in the middle of the night.

He then makes it to Grand Rapids and finds Calloway, who thinks he's up to something, though the other band members take to him, especially a Miss Thomas, the band's singer. There's a nice warm feeling through the book once Bud escapes from the mean family--this book's conflict is larger than Bud's problems, for he is actually pretty lucky the way things go, considering.

Bud is good company. He has many rules for how to avoid trouble, and has some plainspoken truths, like: "I knew a nervous-looking, stung-up kid with blood dripping from a fish-head bite and carrying a old raggedy suitcase didn’t look like he belonged around here." Or: "I can never get why grown folks will put a kid all alone in a bedroom at night. It’s just like they give the ghosts a treasure map and instead of there being a big pot of gold where X marks the spot, there’s some poor kid that’s sound asleep."

I had intended to teach this to my sixth-graders, but at the last second we were told we could only order two books, not five, so this one got sacrificed. Too bad, because I think they would have enjoyed it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Black Widow

Scarlett Johansson is the highest-grossing actress of all time. It seems safe to say it is her six performances as Black Widow in the Marvel Comics' Universe, and not her turns in indies like Ghost World and Lost in Translation, that have earned her this record. It may be then safe to say that Natasha Romanov, the Black Widow, is the most viewed female film character of all time.

Black Widow has never been a major Marvel character, though. When I was reading comics, she was teamed with Daredevil, and later with Hawkeye. I don't think any female character had their own book in those days. But over the last couple years, writer Nate Edmondson and artist Phil Noto put out what was one of the better Marvel series of the year. I read the three volume compilation, which has 20 issues of Black Widow and one of The Punisher.

In the movies, Natasha Romanov was a former KGB agent turned Avenger (and S.H.I.E.L.D agent). That's true in these comics, but there are her adventures aside from those groups. She is basically an assassin and mercenary, and has a devoted attorney, Isaiah. She takes jobs all over the world, mostly killing bad guys, but this is a direct contradiction of the old comic book code, which disallowed such wanton murder. But now she is a cold-blooded killer.

The through-story of these three volumes is her at odds with an organization called Chaos. She does battle with quite a few terrorist types, usually falling on or off boats and, while completely skilled in martial arts, doing a lot of shooting. She is a fairly closed personality. We see one flashback of her as a little girl in Russia, where she kills a guy, and is allowed one fantasy of being in love with Matt Murdock (Daredevil). She also adopts a cat.

But the rest is pure mayhem, and very well done. I'm still not used to the way comic books are drawn these days--there are much fewer word balloons and more abstract ways of showing action. But the artwork is terrific--Noto resists having Natasha look like Johansson--she looks more like Bella Thorn--and the action is relentless. Some familiar faces pop up. In addition to Daredevil and the Punisher, Winter Soldier, Hawkeye, and S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Maria Hill (who took over from Nick Fury) are on hand. I don't follow Marvel Comics religiously anymore so I was surprised that Captain America is now black.

No matter how old I get I still get a thrill from reading superhero comics, and when they are as well done as this one, I realize why. They are fun, they are exciting, and they appeal to a certain part of my brain that arrested at about age 15. Is it any wonder that all of Marvel's female characters are beautiful?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


The case of Leopold and Loeb has so fascinated us in the over ninety years since they committed murder that it has spawned several works of fiction and nonfiction. The most famous is Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, but the most accurate is Richard Fleischer's 1959 film Compulsion, which changes the names but basically gets the facts correct. It also has the bonus of Orson Welles as the Clarence Darrow character.

In the film, Judd Steiner (Dean Stockwell) and Artie Strauss (Bradford Dillman) are brilliant college students--they are both under twenty but in graduate school. They subscribe to the theories of Nietzsche, and believe that due to their superior intellect they do not need to follow the laws of the common man. They plan a murder of a boy just to prove their point. But Steiner leaves his glasses behind.

The film is almost a docudrama, though it seems to have been intended for part of a drive-in double bill with it's horror font title card. But a lot of good people were involved. Dillman, Stockwell, and Welles shared the Best Actor award at Cannes that year. E.G. Marshall plays the prosecuting attorney. Richard Anderson is Stockwell's disapproving older brother, and Edward Binns plays a newspaper reporter. In the one nod to fiction, a character played by Martin Milner, who is friends to the killers but also a cub reporter, is the one that finds the glasses. I also believe a character played by Diane Varsi is added just to give the film a little sex, as Stockwell takes her out birdwatching but ends up attacking her.

Leopold and Loeb were Jewish, which is not made reference to except in their names, and their sexual orientation was suspect. It appears that Dillman's character was gay, and he got his kicks by "ordering" Stockwell to do things. Stockwell's sexuality is much more nuanced, though the film dares go there when Welles pointedly asks him if he has ever dated a girl.

Compulsion mercilessly does not show the murder or the young boy at all, other than as a body under a sheet at the coroner's office. Dillman is so fascinated by it all that he actually aids the investigation and gives the cops false leads. But Marshall, who smells a rat, eventually catches them in an error on their alibi, and is able to associate the glasses with Stockwell.

As in real life, Welles decided to plead the boys guilty, appealing only to the judge to try to spare the boys' lives. Darrow gave a twelve-hour closing argument. We only see about ten minutes of it, but it's bravura acting by Welles and terrific direction by Fleischer.

Other than an actual documentary, Compulsion is as close to getting the Leopold and Loeb case right, and is also a damn fine film.

Monday, September 12, 2016


Clint Eastwood's career as an octogenarian director has been inconsistent to be sure, but it's instructive to compare his last two films, one of them I hated (American Sniper) and one I loved (Sully). Both of them are about heroism, and that heroism basically is doing one's job well. But while Chris Kyle was killing people and lying about his record, to all accounts "Sully" Sullenberger was simply doing his job, which meant looking out for the lives in his charge.

Sully, the simple title of the film, works on many levels. It is a taut thriller, even though the entire world knows how the main event turns out. It is an effective legal drama, especially because most of the world did not know that part--that Sullenberger, while receiving adulation in the media, was evading being scapegoated for his water landing on the Hudson after a bird strike. Simulations showed that he could have returned to LaGuardia, where he took off, or landed at nearby Teterboro, but his gut told him otherwise.

Also, it is an acting showcase for Tom Hanks. Hanks, now sixty, has moved on to a different sort of role, as he has showed in Captain Phillips, Saving Mr. Banks, and Bridge of Spies. In all of these roles, plus Sully, he bears a weight. It's hard to imagine this is the same actor who started with light comedy. I haven't seen Hologram for a King but that's the same kind of role, a Death of a Salesman type role. Hanks is no longer the class president of Hollywood, he's the dean.

I believe Hanks is in every scene, and he nails it. We Americans know what Sullenberger really looks like, but when we see the real man at the end he's the one who looks like a fake. Hanks effectively captures a man who is torn between the world wanting a piece of him because they love him and another group of people who want his head on a platter. It's impossible to imagine what Sully went through, but Hanks seems to have figured it out.

I also liked Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, Sully's blunt first officer. There a bunch of fine character actors, like Jamey Sheridan and Chris Bauer, on hand, and Laura Linney does nicely with a thankless role that has her always on the telephone and never in a scene with Hanks. But this is Hanks' show, and Eastwood's, who brings in this flight in swift fashion, with spectacular effects.

It's certainly no coincidence that Sully was released on 9/11 weekend. There are scenes of an airplane flying low over New York City, and we all can feel what that must have been like, a mere eight years after a much more disastrous outcome. This is like the anti-9/11, when numerous people (especially the multiple boats that were on the Hudson) reacted immediately to the emergency, but this time with no lives lost. You, like I, may get a little tear in your eye.

Sunday, September 11, 2016


This week's Kirk Douglas film is Ulysses, released in 1955, which kind of kicked off the "peplum" craze of the '50s, which were Italian sword-and-sandal films usually based on Greek myths. Produced by Dino DeLaurentiis and Carlo Ponti, Douglas and Anthony Quinn are the only American actors in the cast, and I can't be sure that they dubbed their own lines. The print needs restoration, but as these things go it's not bad.

It is, of course, based on the poem by Homer concerning Ulysses' odyssey back home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. He has been cursed by Neptune (this is a big error in the film--Neptune is a Roman God--it's Poseidon that's the Greek god of the sea), but is aided by Athena. Unlike the poem, the gods do not make personal appearances.

The film begins with the tribulations of Penelope, played by Silvana Mangano (who was also Mrs. DeLaurentiis), holding off the suitors who are waiting for her to pick one to marry her (they assume Ulysses is dead). She holds out hope, though.

We discover that Ulysses has washed up on shore on a nearby island, his memory gone. He becomes engaged to Naausica, but eventually his memory returns, and we see the episodes with Polyphemus (the Cyclops), the Sirens, and Circe, the witch, who turns him men into swine (Circe is also played by Mangano). By necessity in a feature-length film, much is cut, including Calypso, the Lotus-Eaters, and Scylla and Charybdis. The proper form for the poem is a miniseries, and there was a decent one made in 1997 starring Armand Assante as Ulysses. With all the platforms for long-form television, it wouldn't be a bad idea to try another adaptation now.

This film does include one of the my favorite scenes in all of literature--when Ulysses returns to Ithaca, dressed as a beggar, and wins the contest (he is the only one who can string his bow and shoot an arrow through the holes in ax handles). He and his son, Telemachus, then slaughter all of the suitors. It's very cathartic.

Douglas, who was quite the he-man, is perfect for the role. While an incomplete version of the story, it won't offend most scholars and is fairly entertaining.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Silver Streak

One of the fondly remembered aspects of Gene Wilder's film career was his pairing with Richard Pryor. They made four films together, including Another You, which was the last film for both men but apparently a disaster that I have not and probably will not ever see.

I do remember fondly their first pairing, Silver Streak, released in 1976, and directed by Arthur Hiller (who also passed away this summer). It is kind of a Hitchcockian comedy, in that while definitely comedic, the central storyline is a murder (or two or three).

Wilder plays George Caldwell, a mild-mannered book editor who is taking the title train from Los Angeles to Chicago (even in 1976, there had to be many script insertions to explain why so many people are still taking the train). He meets an attractive woman (Jill Clayburgh) who is the secretary of a professor who has just written a controversial book on Rembrandt. During lovemaking, Wilder spots the very same professor dangling dead outside his window.

Though Silver Streak is highly preposterous (is there really that much violence in the world of museum curation?) it's an enjoyable lark. Wilder plays straight man most of the time, especially when Pryor is introduced about halfway through the film as a career criminal who decides to help him. (Oddly, Pryor is particularly restrained as well. He had recently been kicked off/quit another film, so perhaps was overboard in minding his P's and Q's). Wilder's big comedic moment, unfortunate to look at today, is when he pretends to be a black man, covering his face with shoe polish and trying to jive. But he does slip in a line that he parroted from Young Frankenstein: a shoeshine man, who has sold him his radio, Kangol cap, and shoe polish, asks him if he wants anything else. "Nothing!" Wilder practically shouts, reminding us of his refusal of beverages from Frau Blucher.

Still, this film is fun, and Wilder walks a fine line between romantic hero and buffoon. He is thrown off the train three times, and always punctuates his exit with a robust, "Son of a bitch!"  But the romance between he and Clayburgh is weak. She has a nice couple of seduction scenes, but spends the rest of the film being dragged around by the bad guys. Another bit of lunacy comes when, at the climax, federal agents give Wilder a gun and let him participate in the concluding shootout. Really?

I'm glad this film held up for me, because it was a favorite when I saw it forty years ago. A few interesting faces pop up, like Fred Willard, who looks impossibly young. It was a pretty good moneymaker, and again, inspired a short but vibrant team-up between Wilder and Pryor, who don't sound good together on paper, but did on film.

Friday, September 09, 2016

The Right to Sit

I'm a little late on this, but the tempest is still in the teapot on whether athletes should be required to stand at attention during the National Anthem. Well, of course they can't be required, but what is amazing about all this is that has become any story at all.

Colin Kaepernick, the black backup quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, decided to stay seated during the anthem before a pre-season game. You'd think he had just pushed a school bus full of kindergartners off a cliff. There were two basic reasons people had a bug up their ass: that Kaepernick should take all his money and shut up; or that the reason he protested was bogus.

Let's address the first, with part of the second. There is nothing written anywhere, including the Constitution, that says if you make more than a certain amount of money you can't protest. Kaepernick believes that this country is oppressive to blacks. Not necessarily oppressive to him, but to blacks in general. So basically people are saying if you make enough money, you are not entitled to care about the less fortunate, just be thankful you have money and sit down (or, in this case, stand up) and be quiet.

Secondly, and this issue is one that really divides Americans right now, is that there is still a wide-spread belief that everyone is this country is treated equally. This is bullshit and everybody knows it. Athletes more famous than Kaepernick have been pulled over for "Driving While Black," (ask Joe Morgan about it) and when white Stanford students get three months for rape while black men selling cigarettes on the street are choked to death, come talk to me about equality. He's as right as rain.

Now, as to whether he should stand for the anthem. That is up to him. There is no law the compels him to. There is no law that compels anyone to say the Pledge of Allegiance, and loyalty oaths went out a long time ago. Conservative blowhards like to say, "Men died for your right to stand for that anthem," when the saying should go, "Men died for your right to choose whether or not to stand for that anthem." Some people have a funny definition of freedom.

Also, it is apparently okay for an Cheetoh-hued politician to criticize America and get adulation, but do it when you're a black athlete and you get pilloried.

I'm of the opinion that playing the anthem before sporting events is dumb and meaningless. Do we really need to pat ourselves on the back before every high school football game that we have the best country in the world? It's a kind of enforced patriotism that makes the song lose it's effectiveness every time it is played. Go to a ball game and count the people buying hot dogs while the song is played, or taking a piss. Nobody cares. My friend's father used to swat men on the head if they didn't remove their caps while the anthem played. But he was old school (and wrong). They should do away with the practice, just like the should stop having children recite the Pledge.

Kaepernick as had a lot of support. Other athletes, like Megan Rapinoe and Brandon Marshall, knelt during the anthem. while the Seattle Seahawks are thinking of doing it as a team. Troglodytes exist, though, like John Tortorella of the New York Rangers, who said he'd bench anyone who doesn't stand. What if the whole team didn't? Would he forfeit?

Kaepernick's jersey is now the number one selling of all NFL paraphernalia. I'd like to think it's in solidarity, but I have the feeling a lot of them are being burned by yutzes.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Blazing Saddles

My opinion of Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy, has changed over the years. For one thing, I found it inferior to Young Frankenstein, released the same year, because Blazing Saddles seemed like it contained everything but the kitchen sink, and didn't know how to end. For another, as a proper white liberal, the use of the "N" word offends me. But, as Brooks has said, you can't have a movie without that word.

In this Gene Wilder memorial period I watched it again the other night and enjoyed myself. It does have an ending, and a rather clever meta-one, with Wilder and Cleavon Little going into the Chinese Theater to watch how the movie ends, and then Little telling Wilder he's going "nowhere special," and Wilder saying he's always wanted to go there. Also, I've come to grips with the racist parody--Brooks did the same thing with Hitler. When you make fun of something, it lessens its power.

For those too young to have seen it, it's a send-up of Western movies, using anachronisms, much like a Mad Magazine parody. Harvey Korman, as an oily government official, wants to buy up land in a town the railroad is going through. He contrives to make everyone leave by sending the all-white town (everyone's name is Johnson) a black sheriff (Little). Of course, Little outsmarts everyone. It is a Warner Brothers picture, and Little is like Bugs Bunny (he even does a Bugs Bunny gag at one point, delivering a candy-gram with a bomb in it).

Wilder plays his sidekick, the Waco Kid, a former gunfighter turned alcoholic who is still fast on the draw. There's not much for Wilder to do, other than to be a straight man, which is so unlike his usual madcap roles. I was interested to read that Brooks offered the part first to John Wayne, who politely declined because it was too "blue." Gig Young was then cast, but was going through actual alcohol withdrawal, and Wilder was brought in. As I've mentioned before, the rumor is that Wilder agreed provided Brooks direct Young Frankenstein.

The part of Bart was originally to be played by Richard Pryor, who was also a writer on the film, but no one would insure him. Korman's part was offered to Johnny Carson and also Wilder. The actor who steals a good chunk of the film is Madeline Kahn as Lili von Shtupp, the "Teutonic Titwillow," a Marlene Dietrich pastiche that earned Kahn an Oscar nomination. Her song, "I'm Tired," done in a German Elmer Fudd voice, is one of the highlights of the film.

Most of the film is very crass, though it seems tame today. One of the most famous scenes is when some cowboys eat beans and then fart, maybe the first time gas was passed in a major Hollywood release (a related inside joke is that Brooks plays Governor Le Petomane--the name comes from a long-ago entertainer who could fart tunes). There's also the scene in which Mongo, the huge man played by ex-football player Alex Karras, cold cocks a horse. He later says, in stupidese, "Mongo is pawn in the game of life."

But there are also some other, off the wall lines that hit me rather funny. I laughed when Wilder said he "killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille." Or when Sam Pickens, as Korman's henchman, says, "What in the Wide World of Sports?" Sight gags abound, such as Klansmen having "Have a Nice Day" logos on the back of their hoods, or when Brooks is trying to put a pen back in its holder, Korman says helpfully, "Think of your secretary," and the pen slides right in.

The film may be the end of the era before political correctness took over. They actually made a TV show out of it; the pilot can be scene on the DVD. It's amazing to watch a network show that makes liberal use of the "N" word. Despite that, I have come to agree that it is one of the best comedies ever made, just not as good as either The Producers or Young Frankenstein.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

H Is for Hawk

The author, Helen Macdonald, gets absorbed in the world of falconry as a way to deal with her father's grief in H Is for Hawk, which is very moving, expressive book about a hobby that most of us know nothing about. She writes reverently about it and her goshawk, called Mabel. My only concern is, what good does this do for the hawk?

"Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail. You might spend a week in a forest full of gosses and never see one, just traces of their presence. A sudden hush, followed by the calls of terrified woodland birds, and a sense of something moving just beyond vision." Macdonald, since childhood, has been fascinated by birds of prey. "I was a scrawny, too-tall child with ink on my fingers, binoculars around my neck, and legs covered in plasters. I was shy, pigeon-toed, knock-kneed, fantastically clumsy, hopeless at sport, and allergic to dogs and horses. But I had an obsession. Birds. Birds of prey most of all. I was sure they were the best things that had ever existed."

Her father, a photographer and one time airplane spotter, has died and she, a college professor, is bereft. She plunges into books on the subject and gets herself a goshawk, which is a large hawk that feeds on rabbits and pheasants. They can be trained to sit on their trainer's fists and then fly off to hunt, returning to their owner.

Macdonald is never so brilliant as when she describes Mabel: "The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers."

She also writes a parallel story of T. H. White, the man best known for writing The Once and Future King, who was also a falconer, and wrote a book about it called The Goshawk. Macdonald notes how his love of the sport infuses his stories. "Reading The Sword in the Stone after reading The Goshawk is a deeply curious thing. You start to confuse which forest is which. One is the tangled wildwood of Arthur’s Britain, a refuge for outlaws, hawks and wicked men. The other is the tangled forest around Stowe. It too is a refuge for outlaws, hawks and wicked men, the place White hoped would give him the freedom to be who he was."

Falconry is a pretty fascinating hobby, but Macdonald warns: "Breeding goshawks isn’t for the faint-hearted. I’ve had friends who’ve tried it and shaken their heads after only one season, scratching their newly greyed hair in a sort of post-traumatic stupor. ‘Never again’, they say. ‘Ever. Most stressful thing I’ve ever done.’" It sort of represents, at least I think it does to Americans, as something the very rich do. There was a commercial where someone won the lottery and went out got a falcon. Macdonald quotes another writer: "The American writer and ecologist Aldo Leopold once wrote that falconry was a balancing act between wild and tame – not just in the hawk, but inside the heart and mind of the falconer. That is why he considered it the perfect hobby."

But here's my problem with the book, and one that is almost hardly addressed--how is it justified to take a wild animal and imprison and train it? Goshawks are not domesticated, Macdonald makes that clear. They are not pets. Therefore it is taking a creature meant for the wild and using it for the amusement of humans. Even if it helps someone get over their grief, it's not a boon to the hawk. She does make a passing aside to those who object: "How you can talk of love for a bird after subjecting our wonderful predatory birds to such torture is beyond a normal mind,’ the letter ran. ‘Is there not enough cruelty in the world without adding to it for one’s amusement or hobby?’" She does not answer the question.

There are also moments of questionable ethics. Mabel tracks down a rabbit, the prey slipping down a hole, the hawk losing its grip. Macdonald reaches in and grabs hold of the rabbit, assisting the bird. I felt very sorry for the rabbit there, thinking "dirty pool." Should a human assist a predator? Shouldn't the rabbit get its fair chance?

My fundamental belief is that wild animals should be left alone and not exploited, whether it be in a circus on on the wrist of someone looking for inner peace. Otherwise, this is a dazzlingly written book, though even at a short length it feels drawn out, as if it should have been a magazine piece. But I'll never look at hawks the same way again: "Mabel held her wings out from her sides, her head snaking, reptilian, eyes glowing. It felt like I was holding the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle. Soft grass underfoot. One hand out to steady myself, we picked our way around to the final corner. And then I slowly extended my gloved fist out from the screen of brush."

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory

I remember distinctly seeing Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory for the first time. I was ten, and me and my brother were going to the movies. We had the choice of Willy Wonka or Million Dollar Duck. We went to see Willy Wonka, which was a good choice, since the next weekend it was gone from the theater and Million Dollar Duck was still there (so we saw that). Needless to say, though Willy Wonka was not a financial success upon opening, it's legacy has long outlasted Million Dollar Duck.

With the death of Gene Wilder, AMC Theaters honored him by screening Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Blazing Saddles. I saw the former, having seen the latter many times (but then I went and watched the latter on home video just now). The theater was packed, and everyone clapped upon seeing the man's name in the credits and then his first appearance, which he improvised: the limping, stern figure who then does a somersault and welcomes everyone with charm.

The film has a long and interesting history. It was basically made to support a candy bar. Note that it was produced by David L. Wolper and Quaker Oats. Roald Dahl wrote the screenplay, but disowned it, mainly for the fizzy drink sequence and the use of Slugworth. The title was changed because the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, would remind people of the Vietnam War--"Charlie" was the name used for the Viet Cong. Every member of Monty Python (the British ones, that is) were considered for the title role, yet the role went to an American who made the part his own, even after Johnny Depp played it.

The film has a cozy, '70s feel to it. The special effects aren't that special, and the Oompa Loompa numbers are refreshingly awkward--those fellows weren't much as dancers. But there are some very funny moments. In the first act, during the search for the golden tickets, we get the supercilious teacher who can't divide two by a thousand (Charlie Bucket has only bought two Wonka Bars--"Two? Two? I can't do two!" the teacher wails). The computer expert who thinks he can crack the code, but the computer has ethics. The news media treat the search bigger than all news stories. And when Charlie finally finds that golden ticket, the audience applauded.

The remainder of the film, the tour of the factory, is a minor masterpiece of drollery, as if Edward Gorey had teamed with Dahl. Though Wilder assures Charlie that all the children are alright (to review, Augustus Gloop is sucked through a pipe to the fudge room, where he may end up in a boiler; Violet Beauregarde turns into a giant blueberry and needs to have the juice squeezed out of her; Veruca Salt is deemed a bad egg and sent down the trash chute--whether the furnace is lit that day no one knows; and Mike Teevee, shrunk down due to being televised via Wonkavision, is being sent to be stretched in the taffy pull) I prefer to imagine more ghoulish endings. Wilder, when the children are in trouble, says, "Stop. Help," without exclamation points. He is a man who is clearly making a point.

The Wilder moments I love include when he gives his Poe-like poem while on the boat:

"There's no earthly way of knowing...Which direction they are going... There's no knowing where they're rowing... Or which way the river's flowing... Is it raining, is it snowing?...Is a hurricane a-blowing? Not a speck of light is showing...So the danger must be growing... Are the fires of Hell a-glowing?...Is the grisly Reaper mowing?...Yes! The danger must be growing..'Cause the rowers keep on rowing..And they're certainly not showing...Any sign that they are slowing!"

By the end he's screaming like Leo Bloom during an anxiety attack, or Victor Frankstein while bringing his creature to life. My other favorite moment is when he tells Charlie that he broke the rules: "You get nothing! You lose!" again in that inimitable Wilder mania.

The film ends sentimentally, and the audience loved it, Tim Burton be damned (he hated the movie, thinking it "sappy," which made him remake it). But when Wilder, in the zooming Wonkavator, tells Charlie: "I can't go on forever, and I don't really want to try. So who can I trust to run the factory when I leave and take care of the Oompa Loompas for me? Not a grown up. A grown up would want to do everything his own way, not mine. So that's why I decided a long time ago that I had to find a child. A very honest, loving child, to whom I could tell all my most precious candy making secrets." Then, after Charlie asks if Grandpa Joe can come too, "The whole family. I want you to bring them all." Well, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.

The battle will rage whether this film or Burton's is better. I liked them both, but I think, despite the financial success of Burton's film, those who have seen both will prefer the first, directed by Mel Stuart, mostly because of Wilder. My girlfriend, who had seen the second but not the first, turned to me early on in the film. "I like this one better."

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Story of Alice

Alice in Wonderland, as popularly known, is one of the most enduring books ever written. Not only did author Lewis Carroll write a book that has been found in nurseries for going on over 150 years, but he created new words and several quotations in Bartlett's. Beyond the text itself, the Alice books have a lore to go with it, and Carroll's life, while in some ways dull--he was a don at Oxford--have also provided a century and a half of interpretation.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst has captured all of that in The Story of Alice. I've read a biography of Carroll, but this is more than that. It's a biography of a book, which includes Carroll, real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and Alice Liddell, who was the model for one of the most famous little girls in literature. Douglas-Fairhurst also examines Carroll's influences and his legacy, at least up until the 1930s. My only quibble is that he does not push on to more recent adaptations and interpretations of the books.

Carroll, as most know, was an odd duck. He was a mathematics professor by profession, a writer, and a photographer. But he may be best remembered by literary types as a man who had an obsession with little girls. Any study of Carroll today and his relationship with girls seems inordinately creepy, but was not considered so back then. "The most probable conclusion is that Carroll’s strongest feelings were sentimental rather than sexual, and the only way he could keep them from fading over time was to invest them in something more permanent than people. Whereas real girls grew in unpredictable spurts, and sometimes changed out of all recognition, art was reassuringly constant," Douglas-Fairhurst writes. There is a section on how Carroll regarded kissing--it was appropriate to kiss girls under twelve, but older than that would be unseemly.

This is exacerbated by his photography: "more than 50 per cent of his total recorded output were photographs of children, mostly young girls." And, some of them were nudes. They included pictures of Alice Liddell, and Douglas-Fairhurst writes of one: "The whole relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell is capable of producing similar uncertainty in modern readers, and it is not only photographs like 'Open Your Mouth and Shut Your Eyes" that ask us to decide whether the surviving traces of their friendship should be viewed as evidence of Carroll’s innocence or as something more like a crime scene."

The Story of Alice recounts Carroll's early life, his creation of the story, then the publication of it (he held a tight hand over it), the contributions of artist John Tenniel, and the aftermath. Carroll lived long enough to see stage versions, but not film, and Douglas-Fairhurst discusses many of those, up to the 1934 MGM version. (I would have liked to know what he thought of the Tim Burton film and it's sequel).

Alice, for her part, married well, and while the character became world famous she faded into anonymity. She lost two sons in World War I, and, when an old lady, auctioning off Carroll's gift to her, the original manuscript of Alice's Adventures Underground, the world was astonished to realize she was still alive. She was feted and even invited to New York for the centenary of Carroll's birth (which is the subject of another film Douglas-Fairhurst doesn't mention, Dreamchild).

What I found most interesting is how the Alice books fit into the larger Victorian culture. Childhood was really invented during that time--before that, children were seen as just small adults, expected to work and not be fussed over. "Alongside the older evangelical view of children as little slivers of sin, they were now seen as holy innocents untainted by the dirty compromises of adult life; they were beacons of hope that lit up the moral fog around them." Little girls were especially useful as symbols of innocence, especially in the work of Dickens. But Carroll did something different--he wasn't sentimental: "it was still broadly accepted that the primary task of a children’s book was to guide manners and improve morals; if it also entertained its readers, that was merely a dusting of sugar on the pill." The Alice books are vastly entertaining, and have practically no moralizing.

While Carroll may be the most retroactively psychoanalyzed author in the history of letters, the fact remains that his books have always been popular. "By the end of the century, key moments from both Alice books would feature in jigsaw puzzles, stereoscope slides, nursery ware, card games and many other pieces of merchandise," and beyond that, "by the end of the nineteenth century it had become something more like a cultural multiverse, a loose network of real places and intangible ideas where the line that divided the actual from the possible could be stretched and blurred. Inevitably, deciding where the ordinary world shaded into a more exotic alternative was largely a matter of perception."