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Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Man for All Seasons

The winner of the 1966 Oscar for Best Picture was A Man for All Seasons, directed by Fred Zinneman and adapted from his own play by Robert Bolt. It won six Oscars total, including for Zinneman and Paul Scofield, as the martyred king's counsel Sir Thomas More.

The film is extremely tasteful, like something you would see from the BBC on PBS. The material has been covered extensively, most recently by the TV series The Tudors and the book, TV series and play Wolf Hall. A Man for All Seasons focuses solely on More, though, and his objection to Henry VIII (a raucous Robert Shaw) being named head of the Church of England and his divorce and marriage to Anne Boleyn.

What's different about this story is that Anne Boleyn is barely seen (she is once, in a cameo by Vanessa Redgrave for which she received no pay). The major players, in addition to More, are Thomas Cromwell, the scheming secretary (who was the focus of Wolf Hall), and a society-climbing Richard Rich (John Hurt, in one of his first roles), who is so eager for glory that he commits perjury.

It is Scofield as More, the man who will not let down his principles, that is the backbone of the film. Early in the film, he goes to meet Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles, made to look like death warmed over) who argues that More is the only person who has not agreed, Still, after Wolsey's death, More is named Chancellor, but will not accept what Henry wants, even as the King shouts at him while a house full of guests overhear.

More thinks it will all blow over but Henry, probably through Cromwell, makes everyone sign an oath testifying they are in favor of the Henry's elevation to head of church. More declines, but in a legal argument says his not signing is not an objection. "Qui tacet consentire," he says, meaning "silence implies consent."

Movies about English royalty have always been some of my favorites, such as The Lion in Winter, but A Man for All Seasons is much more sedate. It doesn't revel in the palace intrigue, although it is there. Instead it attempts to make a full-blooded figure of More, and tries to understand his position. Interestingly, I think today most people might think his obstinance infuriating (his wife, Wendy Hiller, certainly does so). More was dogmatic to the point that he gave up his life rather than defy the laws of the Church.

Zinneman directs impeccably, though. He's an interesting figure, making films in almost all genres, from High Noon to The Nun Story to Julia. The film sticks to the nobility--we see few commoners--but the time period seems right, helped by a score by Georges Delerue.

Now that I've looked at all five films, which one would I have voted for? It's a tough call, but probably Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Friday, December 30, 2016

Jackie

I was born during the Kennedy administration, so Jackie Kennedy (and later Onassis) was always one of the most famous women in the world while I was growing up, until her death in 1994. But she was also mysterious, rarely giving interviews. I remember the first time I heard her speak, in a clip from her ballyhooed television tour of the White House. It was shocking--she had a breathy, baby-doll voice, sounding all the world like an empty-headed debutante. But she was much more complicated.

Jackie is an interesting film, directed by a Chilean, Pablo Larrain, and starring Natalie Portman as the recently widowed First Lady. The framing of the film is an interview by Theodore H. White (played by Billy Crudup, but credited only as "the Journalist") that Jackie gives him a week after the assassination. It was in this interview that she mentioned JFK's habit of listening to the original cast recording of the Broadway musical Camelot, thus supplying America a metaphor for his presidency.

On the surface, what he have here is a movie about a woman planning a funeral. The events are from the landing in Dallas to the funeral itself, then the interview, with flashbacks to the tour of the White House. The players are all there: Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy, John Carroll Lynch as LBJ, along with actors representing LBJ's assistant Jack Valenti (who would for years be the head of the MPAA), Lady Bird Johnson, and Greta Gerwig as the White House social secretary and Jackie's school friend. Jackie is determined that he not be buried in Massachusetts, but at Arlington, and that there be a procession from the Capitol to the church.

While this is the skeleton of the film, Jackie is really about iconography and legacy. For someone my age, and perhaps those younger, there are many touchstones of our collective memories--the pink suit, bloodied, and the pillbox hat, the caisson carrying the casket, the riderless horse, the image of the Lincoln speeding away, JFK cradled in Jackie's arms after she instinctively tried to grab a piece of his head from the trunk of the car. I was astonished that Larrain and screenwriter did not include John-John's salute, which for many Americans was too much to bear.

Through her grief, Jackie is aware that she is molding a legacy. We see her in her private moments, and there is almost a feeling of uncomfortableness. She takes a shower, the blood washing off her skin. She smokes incessantly, though she tells Crudup pointedly that she does not smoke--she has full editorial control of the interview.

The film is short, and is mostly a collage of images, told out of order, a portrait of grief and legacy-building. Portman nails the voice, as well as being very convincing in her duality--the public face, and the private woman who is nobody's fool.

Jackie isn't quite the film I expected. It has an experimental feel to it. It's very talky, with a long scene between Portman and a priest (John Hurt) on the nature of suffering. This film is not cheerful, and is much more thoughtful than entertaining, but for Baby Boomers it will have resonance.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mislaid

Mislaid, by Nell Zink, is a shaggy-dog story that touches on racial identity, sexuality, and class distinctions, but it never lands on them long enough to make enough of a statement. I found the book scattered and meandering.

It all starts with Peggy Vaillancourt, who growing up realizing she's a lesbian: "Realizing that her girlhood was a mistake didn’t change her life immediately. She could still ride, play tennis, go camping with the scouts, fish for crappie, and shoot turtles with a BB gun. Around age fourteen, it got more complicated."

In the 1960s, Peg attends Stillwater College, a kind of backwater. I never truly got a fix on what school this is supposed to represent, if any. I know it's in Southeastern Virginia--Old Dominion? The college is described as: "The work you had to do consisted of things like ponder Edna St. Vincent Millay. If you screwed it up, they didn’t criticize you. They invited you to their offices, offered you sherry, and asked you what was wrong."

One of the professors is a well-known poet (well, well-known for a poet) Lee Fleming, who has created a literary review that attracts other poets. He is homosexual, but for some reason he and Peg enter into a rhapsodic affair. Whenever I see films or read books about homosexuals having sexual attraction to the opposite gender I wonder how this plays to actual homosexuals. I found this in the film The Kids Are Alright, and I see it here. Somehow, it seems to me, that it makes homosexuality a choice that can be abandoned at will. At no time are the participants this affair labeled bisexual.

Anyway, they get married and have two children. Eventually she runs away and takes the younger child, a daughter (but not before driving his car into a lake). The son, nicknamed Byrdie, grows up with his father in a life of wealth and privilege, while Peg and her daughter live in squalor. She buys a birth certificate of a dead child and rechristens herself as Meg and her daughter as Karen Brown. Even though they are blond and blue-eyed, they pass as black.

The story ends up at the University of Virginia, where both Byrdie and Karen attend, and we know we are headed toward a Shakespearean reconciliation. There are more comments about college life, especially fraternities. "Parties at The University were considered a chance to blow off steam. To be three sheets to the wind and not show it: That was the ideal, attainable only by the most accomplished teen alcoholics. Visibly drunk: undesirable. Sober: geekdom (undesirable)."

Also in the cast of characters is Temple Moody, an actual black man who is Karen's boyfriend and fellow Cavalier. He is something of a genius, and when he actually gets to college he struggles. I found this to be interesting, as I also knew of very smart kids from high school who went off to good schools and couldn't keep up with a tough schedule.

Over all, Mislaid doesn't really have anything interesting to say and its drollery becomes tedious. I didn't find the characters interesting because they seemed to make choices that were arbitrary. Can't recommend this one.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

James Taylor

I watched the Kennedy Center Honors last night, one of my favorite programs of the year, and this year James Taylor was honored. Anyone over fifty grew up with James Taylor, his unearthly angelic voice singing what has come to be derisively called "Lite-FM" or soft-rock, but he has been incredibly successful doing so, selling over 100 million records.

Taylor, in a way, was an extension of the 1950s, when white performers interpreted roots music in a more palatable and consumer-friendly way. For example, he recorded a blues song, "Steamroller," reminiscent of old style blues, but there's no way this soft-spoken man could get across the blues the way the old-timers did. When he covered other artists, such as with "Handy Man" and "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)" there was an infusion of white bread into them.

But Taylor still has strong gifts. And in something of a contradiction, the man who made these delicate songs was a man facing a lot of demons, notably a heroine addiction. It's hard to listen to a beautiful song like "Sweet Baby James" and imagine a man with any problems. But if you listen hard to his greatest song, "Fire and Rain," you can hear the ache. It was written about a friend who had committed suicide, and was during one of his periods of addiction:

"Won't you look down upon me, Jesus
 You've got to help me make a stand
You've just got to see me through another day
My body's aching and my time is at hand
I won't make it any other way."

If Taylor had only written this song, his place in the pantheon would be secure, but he wrote many others, including "Shower the People," "Carolina in My Mind," and "Your Smiling Face," a perfect piece of inoffensive pop.

Interestingly, Taylor was discovered by Peter Asher, who brought him to the attention of the Beatles, who made him the first non-Brit to be recorded by Apple Records. He had the look--the long-hair, the soulful look, and the voice of an angel. Taylor doesn't have much hair now, but he still tours and has turned his life around, bringing happiness to millions. There's a lot to be said for that.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Captain Fantastic

Captain Fantastic is a great movie for liberals. It's two main themes are getting away with the consumerism and capitalism of American life, and once doing so, how to raise children in that lifestyle. Though the ending is a bit of a cop-out, it should warm the hearts of progressives and get under the skin of conservatives

Viggo Mortensen stars as the patriarch of a brood of six children who live off the grid in Washington state. They grow or hunt for their food, live in what looks like a yurt, and he home schools them. They know six languages and the eight-year-old can recite the Bill of Rights. At the film's opening, the oldest son, George Mackay, kills his first deer, with just a knife, and is proclaimed a man.

Where is the wife? She's in a mental hospital. The one concession to the modern age the family has is a bus that they take into town for supplies. In town, Mortensen calls his sister to learn that his wife has killed herself. He calls his father-in-law, who was paying for her care, and is told in no uncertain terms that he is not welcome at the funeral. After urging by his kids, they decide to go anyway.

Captain Fantastic paints a rosy picture of life in the woods. Mortensen seems to know about everything, and teaches his kids physics, music, and politics. But there is a sense that this is indoctrination just like someone raising their kids to believe in Jesus. The older son has, without his father's knowledge, applied to and been accepted at the finest colleges. A middle son is rebelling and when visiting children in the modern world likes what he sees. How are you going to keep them down the farm, once they've seen an X-Box?

Frank Langella plays the father-in-law, who hates Mortensen with a passion, seeing him as a child abuser, threatens to fight for the kids custody. He is the embodiment of capitalism, living in a huge house by a golf course. Langella also ignores the wife's wishes to be cremated and flushed down a toilet. After one of his kids is injured, Mortensen realizes that they may belong with Langella, and that his wish for them was a mistake.

It's a thoughtful and emotional film, with lots of gentle humor, no more so than when Mackay meets a girl at a campground and clumsily tries to seduce her. When caught kissing her (his first kiss ever) by her mother he drops to his knee and proposes.

Captain Fantastic (which has nothing to do with the Elton John song of the same name) was written and directed by Matt Ross, does a nice job of presenting both the pros and cons of off-the-grid living. It seems nice, but when I think about living without Wi Fi I draw the line. But I wouldn't have minded the vigorous education by Mortensen.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Sand Pebbles

The fourth nominee for Best Picture in 1966 was The Sand Pebbles, one of those long, big, road show pictures. Directed by Robert Wise, in his follow-up to The Sound of Music, the film starred Steve McQueen, one of the great movie stars of the '60s, who was known as much for his attitude as his acting.

The Sand Pebbles is set in China in the 1920s, when U.S. gunboats patrolled inland rivers to try to keep peace between feuding war lords, the communists, and the newly formed Kuomintang, headed by Chiang Kai-shek. McQueen is a machinist's mate who is assigned to the San Pablo, a ship taken from Spain during the Spanish-American War. The crew call themselves the Sand Pebbles.

McQueen, as was his persona, plays a guy who isn't interested in getting along with others. He's labeled a "Jonah," or a sailor who brings bad luck. He is a genius with engines, but finds that Chinese "coolies" do most of the work on the boat. McQueen warns the captain (Richard Crenna) that there is a loose something or other that will break, but Crenna doesn't believe him until it happens. Then, the Chinese man responsible for the engine gets killed trying to fix it. McQueen trains a new coolie, played by Mako (who earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination).

There are a few set pieces that take too long, such as when McQueen bets that Mako can take the blowhard sailor played by Simon Oakland in a boxing match. McQueen's best (and only) friend, Richard Attenborough, falls in love with a Chinese girl, saves her from prostitution, and marries her, but that doesn't end well. Then the Chinese, to no one's surprise, get tired of having to deal with American gunboats and places it under siege. The San Pablo can not get out of the harbor at low tide, and has to sit out the winter.

The Sand Pebbles is a decent film but would have been better with about an hour cut (it lumbers in at 2:59). The end, when the ship fights its way out, and then McQueen and some other men try to rescue some missionaries (including Candice Bergen in an early role) are very suspenseful, but in those days it seems that a long film was equated with prestige. It's ideal for home viewing, when you can put it on pause and take the whole day to watch, like I did.

McQueen earned his only Oscar nomination for this film, which earned eight nominations but won none. Students of history may see the parallels between this period of Asian diplomacy with the Vietnam War, which was going full blazes in 1966, as the film takes the point of view that Americans were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We usually are.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Campers

Faithful readers, here is my Christmas gift to you: warning you never to watch Happy Campers, an execrable summer camp movie released in 2001. Summer camp movies are usually bad to begin with, save maybe Meatballs and for some, not me, Wet Hot American Summer, but that film is a masterpiece compared to Happy Campers, which is incompetent at nearly every level.

Directed by Daniel Waters, who wrote Heathers, the film was sent straight to DVD for good reason. Although it has a number of recognizable names, none of the acting is good, and it appears to have been photographed and edited by blind people.

The setting is Camp Bleeding Dove, where a group of kids will spend 40 days. There are six counselors, each one a basic type--the jock, the cool guy, the overly cheerful girl, the hippie chick, the nerd. They will attempt to get into each other's pants. The only adult is the camp director, Peter Stormare, who gets struck by lightning, heading into the woods like Tom O'Bedlam, leaving the counselors in charge.

In the cast are Brad Renfro, barely articulating his lines as the supposedly suave guy, who ends up with Dominique Swain (who says things like "Isn't fun great!") and the jock Jordan Bridges, who at first hates the hippie girl (James King) but then lusts after her. The nerd is Justin Long, who would later be the face of Apple computers, but he doesn't get anyone.

The film has no laughs and was probably shot on a minuscule budget--at least that's what it looks like. It does look like a nice camp, with cabins with actual walls (when I went to camp we slept in tents). But the film is a complete waste of time. Avoid at all costs.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Fences

Here's what I learned while watching Fences: Denzel Washington is a great actor, and this is one of this greatest performances, but Denzel Washington is not a great director.

August Wilson's play was years in the making. He wrote the screenplay well over a decade ago (he died in 2005) and insisted that it be directed by a black director. Finally Washington got it made, and it is a showcase of great acting and some brutally powerful dialogue. But Washington's ham-fisted direction, along with an ending that defies belief (I've never read or seen the play, so I don't know if that was Wilson's idea) hamper what could have been a great film, but it merely a good one.

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a garbageman in Pittsburgh in the late '50s. He is bitter, because he was a great baseball player but never got a chance at the Majors (he says that Jackie Robinson couldn't have even made some of the teams he played on). He has a devoted but weary wife (Viola Davis) and a teenage son (Jovan Adepo), who wants to play college football, but Washington doesn't trust that football will do right by him (to show how different times were then from now, when a college scholarship for an inner city black youth is like a golden ticket). He also has a son from a previous marriage (Russell Hornsby) who is a musician, which Washington doesn't approve of.

Washington mostly sits in his backyard, drinking gin and telling tall tales with his friend and co-worker (Stephen McKinley Henderson). He talks about wrestling with Death for three days and three nights. He has also been building a fence for ages. This is the central metaphor of the play and film, signifying the title. Henderson tells him at one point, "Fences can keep people out, or they can keep people in."

There are some highly-charged moments in the play, dealing with circumstances I don't wish to spoil, since I didn't know they were coming. But Washington makes no real attempt to "break open" the play, including only a few minor scenes that are not set in his house or yard. I'm not a person who believes a film based on a play has to be broken out, but Fences seems claustrophobic. Of course, maybe this was Washington's intention. I'm sure it was not his intention to have strangely framed scenes, with characters wandering off a distance before cutting to a close two shot of them, or characters at the edge of a frame for no particular reason. There is also some instances of weather to heighten dramatic effect, something I find to be lazy.

But as for Washington's performance, wow! This cements his status as one of the great American actors, ever. He's made some bad movies, sure, and even possibly some bad performances, but this character is fully realized, and every emotion is etched on his face. He's a voluble character, but it's his few quiet moments that ring with me. Davis is no less his match, and surely will win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She has a couple of big scenes, letting Washington know where their relationship stands.

The screenplay has some very funny dialogue, too, but a few stagey scenes that don't work, such as Washington telling his best friend and son how he left home at the age of fourteen. Surely that would have come up before in their relationships, but it needed to laid out as exposition for what would come next. It's a bit clumsy,

Fences is a crowd-pleaser, and it is great to see a film about the black experience in America by a black director with a black cast. As the film is full of baseball metaphors, Fences is a clean single, but not a home run.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Witch of Lime Street

Harry Houdini was one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century, not least of which was his prodigious skill in magic and escape artistry. He was also a debunker of spiritualists, which was a fad, if you can call it that, following World War I, when so many young men died that their loved ones were eager to contact them. The Witch of Lime Street, by David Jaher, covers this period, especially a woman who may have been Houdini's match.

"The papers had begun to complain of a plague of Theosophists, demonists, table rappers, and Tibetan sages. Having seen these actors thrive in his dime-museum days, Houdini recognized them returning like vultures after the carnage," Jaher writes. Spiritualist periods had happened before, notably the Fox sisters in the 1840s, who were exposed as frauds. But spiritualism had many backers, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who had lost a son in the war (Doyle would also get in an embarrassing mess when he fell for a hoax of fairies being photographed).

The august publication, The Scientific American, held a contest that would give a prize to anyone who could prove they were genuinely in touch with the spirits. Many, with Houdini's help (he was one of the judges) were exposed. But a Mina Crandon of Boston, who went in the papers by the pseudonym Margery, was a tough nut to crack.

Doyle's father was a painter of ghosts and fairies. "Turning away from his father, Sir Arthur rejected his mysticism. He became an agnostic doctor and then the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who personified deductive thinking. Yet just after Charles died alone in the asylum, Sir Arthur killed off Holmes and joined the Society for Psychical Research. Ultimately, for both father and son, it was the invisible world that beckoned."

While Doyle and Houdini considered themselves friends, they were at opposite ends. Doyle believed spiritualism was a religion; Houdini thought it all a fraud.

Mina Crandon was the wife of a wealthy doctor. She held seances (but not for a fee) and contacted her dead brother Walter, who is a full-born character in this narrative. By turns sarcastic and threatening, he blew whistles, rang bells, and made objects move around the room. Houdini did his best to encumber "Margery" by having her hands held, a woman would inspect her every body cavity before the seance, and luminous paint was put on her feet. But she always seemed to contact Walter. Houdini claimed he could do the same tricks by magic, and eventually Margery did not win the prize and lost many of her supporters. But she was never caught in the act.

The whole thing seems silly now. I once went to a seance that was clearly a show, not for real, and still it was a weird, frightening experience. Many went through hundreds of seances with Margery. At some time I had to wonder what was later mentioned by Jaher: "yet there was one crude ghost-busting tactic he dared not attempt. As Time magazine would report, 'none of those present employed the obvious investigatory stratagem of seizing the ghostly arm and calling for lights.'” Why did these things have to be done in the dark, and why didn't they randomly use flashlights with her?

The book itself is serviceable. It gets bogged down in details and though not particularly long took me forever to get through. I would recommend it for Houdini or spiritualism buffs, but not for the casual reader.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

MIss Sloane

On its facade, Miss Sloane is about the sleazy nature of doing business in Washington. But behind it is an interesting commentary on feminism and the notion of "You've come a long way, baby." It also features a blazing performance by Jessica Chastain, one of our finest actresses.

The subject is lobbying. A lobbyist is a person who, like a lawyer (I think most of them are) takes a client to try to influence lawmakers to give that client what they want. These lobbyists don't usually care what their client wants, therefore lobbyists are also people who have no trouble sleeping at night. The infantile, very naive part of my brain wonders why there are lobbyists at all--don't our representatives vote for what they believe in, reflecting their constituents' will? Boy, am I stupid.

Chastain is a lobbyist and very good at her job. Her firm is being courted by what I presume is the NRA, but the initials are never spoken aloud. They are worried about a bill that would apply background checks to all sales, including within families, etc. (a bill like this just passed in Nevada, amazingly). They would like Chastain to go after the female voter and make guns seem more feminine. She laughs at them--she is personally for gun control. Sam Waterston, her boss, is angry (as he should be) and she is lured away by the firm represented by the Brady people. It turns out she has principles.

So there's a lot of cross-talk about gun control, but this is only a smoke screen. The movie is really about Chastain and the special character in movies of the hard-driven career woman. She is the spiritual daughter of Faye Dunaway in Network, even to the point where she realizes she will never have a relationship or family, so gets her jollies with male escorts. She also sleeps as little as possible, getting through the day on uppers.

This got me to thinking--would this be the same movie with a male lead? Or would it have been a movie at all? The script is an original one by Jonathan Perera. I assume, given the title, that it was always about a woman. Some movies have changed the genders of the lead, but I think Perera, consciously or not, has written a parable about career women that once again shows the emptiness of the life of a woman who puts all her life into her career. It's becoming kind of a cliche.

That being said, the film is okay without being great. It is built around a huge twist at the end that I won't dare reveal but that makes you look back at the whole film in your head and isn't entirely plausible. It is directed by John Madden, now out of the Exotic Marigold Hotel, with a breakneck intensity that could have had some moments of space--it's hard to find room to breathe in its pacing.

But whatever plaudits this film deserves all belong to Chastain. She's had a very busy career, and been in good movies and bad, and I haven't seen all of them (I'd still like to catch up with her version of Strindberg's Miss Julie) but she is in firm control here. Though the character is a cliche, she makes her real, and finds moments of authenticity that aren't in the script.

Miss Sloane, if anything, will make you disgusted to be am American, and compel you to take a shower. Lobbyists, it is implied, are the ones that control the strings of government. They lie, cheat, and blackmail. All of that I believe.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

It's that time of year again when I look back fifty years at what was going on in Hollywood, starting with the films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. I've already looked at two of them: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I watched after the death of Edward Albee, and Alfie, which I took a look at many years ago to compare it to the remake.

In 1966, it was the last gasp of big studios, which were still enamored with road show epics, and the critical darlings came from England. The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was a comic epic, the likes of which aren't seen anymore. Made at the height of the cold war, it was a film that humanized Russians and showed the folly of paranoia, and it was a farce.

Directed by Norman Jewison, the film was written by William Rose, who also wrote It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, to which some of this film owes (along with its long title). The film follows several different characters, has some very memorable dialogue, and a lot of slapstick. What it has that It's a Mad doesn't is a heart, which may be its least appealing part.

Set on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, a Russian sub has grounded itself because of the captain's stubborness--he wanted to see America. "Why?" someone asks. "He had never seen it before," is the answer. A team of nine Russian sailors, led by Alan Arkin (in his film debut) go ashore to try to find a boat to tow the sub out before World War III breaks out. He starts at the rental home of a New York playwright (Carl Reiner) and his wife, Eva Marie Saint. Arkin's subterfuge is seen through by Reiner's young son, so he ties them up and steals their car, leaving them in the hands of Kolchin (John Philip Law). But Reiner somehow manages to get the gun away and bicycles to safely (a man on a girl's bicycle was also used to great comic effect in It's a Mad).

Meanwhile, the sailors can't help but being noticed, especially after they tie up the postmistress. In a great comic bit, she's tied to a chair that is hung from the wall, but her hard-of-hearing husband doesn't notice her and proceeds to eat his breakfast, oblivious to her screams behind him. Once she's freed, the island slowly awakes to their being Russians invading, and soon the rumors fly rampant. The police chief, the pragmatic Brian Keith, tries to keep things calm, but a veteran blowhard (Paul Ford) fans the flames. When asked who should lead the citizen's brigade, somewhat suggests Ford, who carries a ceremonial sword.

Panic breaks out everywhere. Keith's second in command, Jonathan Winters, keeps exhorting, "Let's get organized." Reiner, realizing Arkin and his men are just the victims of an accident, tries to help them, though Reiner does end up shooting a machine gun at Arkin. Not wounded, Arkin tells him, "Don't do that again."

Things come to a head when the sub pulls into port, demanding the release of the nine sailors (who are actually on a boat). Keith wants to arrest the captain (a droll Theodore Bikel) who is amused and tells him if the sailors aren't produced, he will blow up the town. Ford sneaks away to radio the military.

The ending is one of those "we're all brothers under the skin" things that is inevitable but still a bit too sentimental. But it was one of the first films to portray Russians in a positive light. Arkin was nominated for an Oscar, but it's interesting that he would go on to play roles like Reiner's in years to come (like The In-Laws, for example).

This film is one of my father's favorites, and we share many lines together. When Reiner introduces himself to Arkin he starts with his last name, "Whitaker, Walt" and Arkin thereafter calls him that. When Lou Whitaker played for the Tigers we used to call him Whitaker Walt. Another great line is when the Russians who don't speak English disguise themselves as townspeople and tell everyone they meet, "Emergency. Everybody to get from street."

The physical humor is great, too. Ben Blue, as the town drunk, spends the whole film trying to catch his horse to warn people (he gets the last shot of the film, crying out the title, Paul Revere style). And when Reiner is tied up with telephone operator Tessie O'Shea (a British music hall star who was on the Ed Sullivan Show that same night as The Beatles) there is much hilarity.

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming is a classic comedy. Interestingly, the three leads are all still alive, though Bikel, Keith, and Winters are gone. Also in the film as a young boy is Johnny Whitaker, who would play Jody in Keith's sit-com A Family Affair.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The sixth grade is going to be reading Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory next semester, so I thought I'd better read it. After knowing the story so well from two different movies that I've seen several times, it felt weird to go back to the source, and it was almost like--where did this come from?

The book was written in 1964, and contains just the basic shell of what would become the two films (the Tim Burton version, minus the backstory for Willy Wonka, is actually the closer of the two versions). A mysterious candy maker, who has never let anyone into his factory for years, awards five children the opportunity to tour it. Four of them have flaws that clearly got into the craw of Dahl, while one is poor and virtuous and by being so inherits the factory.

We have come to know the bad children and their sins: Augustus Gloop, gluttony; Violet Beauregard, incessanty chewing gum; Veruca Salt; a spoiled brat; Mike Teavee, excessive TV watching. Dahl, who by all accounts was not a cuddly figure, wrote a lot of children's books but comes across as the mean man who lives next door, shaking his fist at "kids today." Only Charlie, pure of heart, with no vices (except a love of candy that may make him diabetic or prone to tooth decay) escapes unscathed. I'm sure if Dahl wrote the book today he would probably make Mike Teavee either a video-game addict or a cellphone gawker or both.

The text is very simple, which is something I'm looking forward to. It's listed as age 7 and up, which might sound too simple for sixth-graders, but almost all of those in my class are below reading grade. The illustrations are by Quentin Blake (who also illustrated The Witches). Most of the kids will also have seen one or both of the films, which helps, since they are resistant to new things.

I'm kind of at a loss what to think of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The children are unharmed (well, Mike Teavee has been stretched out to about ten feet tall) and Wonka makes no effort to save them, as is shown in the films. The Oompa Loompas (who as represented by Dahl are more accurately shown in the Burton version) sing long songs detailing the children's core fault, a kind of kicking them when they are down (the songs were also used, in truncated form, in Burton's film). Here's a sample of Veruca Salt's send-off:

"Veruca Salt, the little brute
Has just gone down the garbage chute.
(And as we very rightly thought
That in a case like this we ought
To see the thing completely through,
We've polished off her parents, too!)"

Dahl seems to be a man who buys no social excuses for children's behavior, but does not excuse the parents, who are enablers. It's a fascinating peak into the antideluvian world of child psychology.

So Charlie and the Chocolate Factory can be read as a simple tale of a chocolate maker looking for his heir, or as a more insidious indictment of how modern (in 1964) children were being raised.


Monday, December 19, 2016

La La Land

There is a scene in La La Land where Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, on their first date, visit the Griffith Observatory (this is after a screening of Rebel Without a Cause, which is also set there). The two have no trouble getting inside the closed building, and operate all the contraptions. Surrounded by a dome of stars, they lift from the ground and dance in mid-air.

This scene says a lot about La La Land, most of it good. It is unabashedly nostalgic, unapologetically romantic, and doesn't have a bit of gravitas. But it is thoroughly enjoyable, and those who don't want things to get heavy at the movies will enjoy it more than those who do.

The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, even before he made Whiplash. That film got him some credibility, so it was somewhat easier to get an old-fashioned musical with new songs made. Almost all musicals these days are based on Broadway shows or use well-known songs--Chazelle was taking a huge risk. He also took a risk in using two stars who are not known for their singing and dancing.

The movie starts with a traffic jam in L.A., and everyone starts singing and dancing. Two of the motorists have a little road rage. One is a barista and aspiring actress (Stone), the other is a jazz pianist (Gosling). They will meet cute a few times--once when he is fired from his job for playing jazz at a restaurant and not Christmas carols, and at a party where he is reduced to wearing a red vinyl jacket and play '80s hits.

He worships classic jazz, even owning a stool belonging to Hoagy Carmichael;she struggles at auditions, enduring rude behavior while she's in the middle of a crying scene. The two will fall in love while encouraging each other's dreams, even while the process of achieving them will drive them apart.

In an original music, there are a couple of things that are keys to success. One is the songs, of course. They were written by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. While you may not be humming them after you leave the theater, they are engaging enough, especially a ballad Stone sings during an audition (called "Audition"). Stone is the better singer, Gosling the better dancer, and while the film hearkens back to the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, these two are no match for the old pros. La La Land is more like the French film The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, who had an equally musically handicapped Catherine Deneuve.

If Stone is not the greatest singer in the world, she does give the film most of its energy. She is a consummate comedic actress (she shows this every time she hosts Saturday Night Live) and makes us feel the character's every emotion. Gosling, while not quite as interesting, acquits himself well, especially considering he didn't know how to play piano before the filming began. The film was supposed to star Miles Teller and Emma Watson, which would have been interesting but not as good.

Chazelle also chooses a very colorful palette. Stone's dresses, designed by Mary Zophres, encompass almost all of the primary colors, and Los Angeles is depicted as someplace magical (Stone has to walk through Hollywood late at night and not only is there no danger, there are no people--this is not a realistic film). I'm also amazed, and somewhat awestruck, that Chazelle at no time utilizes the Hollywood sign, a major cliche in any film about the place.

Will this film win the Oscar for Best Picture? It might, if voters want to go for something escapist to retreat from the horrible year we've just been through. Though there is conflict, and some will find the ending a let-down, it is an ode to how movies have always existed in the minds of dreamers, to take us away from problems, not to put them before us.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

You Want It Darker

True, weird story: I bought Leonard Cohen's latest and last album, You Want It Darker, on the day he died. Nothing strange about that, as I'm always picking up music by the recently departed, but the twist here is that I had not known he was dead until later. Talk about timing.

And the album clearly demonstrates that Cohen knew he was dying (the cause of his death is still fuzzy--Wikipedia lists cancer and a fall leading as contributors). The songs are full of getting ready for the big sleep. The opening and title track, for example, is a conversation with God about the transition:

"If you are the dealer,
I'm out of the game.
If you are the healer,
I'm broken and lame.
If thine is the glory,
Then mine is the shame.
You want it darker,
We kill the flame."

Later, he will sing "Heneni, heneni, I'm ready my Lord" heneni the Hebrew word for "Here I am."

Cohen was 82, which is not an age to start planning long-term projects, but this album is full of signals that he knew he would not make another one. Another song uses the leaving a game metaphor, aptly called "Leaving the Table."

"I'm leaving the table
I'm out of the game.
I don't know the people
In your picture frame."

Musically (Cohen wrote all the lyrics, about half of the songs are composed by him) the album is also elegiac, with Schindler's List-style violin. That title track opens with a choir, and then a sinister bass line. My second-favorite song on the record, "Steer Your Way," has a very catchy violin riff, and Cohen's voice, so deep and gravelly it seems to come from the bottom of the deepest well, intones (he doesn't really sing, it's more a spoken word album):

"They whisper still, the injured stones,
The blunted mountains weep
As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make things cheap
And say the Mea Culpa which
You probably forgot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought"

Cohen's loss is devastating for his fans, but of course I have learned to realize that the death of an old man is not a tragedy. But man I will miss hearing new songs by him. He was a poet first, as these lyrics attest, and while this album is certainly not a peppy one, it is full of wisdom. In fact, I think I'd like the song "You Want It Darker" played at my funeral. It beats "Dust in the Wind."

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Finding Dory

As it was the day before a holiday vacation, I showed my students a movie, and this time it was Finding Dory, which turned out to be a good choice as it was new to home video and many of them had not seen it. It is also generally captivating for those of all ages. I got to sit through it twice and it was charming, if a little derivative.

Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, was the breakout character from Finding Nemo in 2003 (gosh, that long ago?) She was given her own film, again written and directed by Andrew Stanton. Instead of Dory getting captured, she remembers that she has parents, and goes all the way across the ocean to find them.

A lot of the appeal of the film has to do with DeGeneres, who manages to voice a character with a serious problem, short-term memory loss, and make it sweet and not mocking (although I couldn't help but thinking parts of it were like Memento). She is helped by Marlin and Nemo from the first film (Marlin is again voiced by Albert Brooks, Nemo this time by Hayden Rolence) and is joined by another great supporting character, Hank, a seven-tentacled cranky octopus, voiced by Ed O'Neill. I would imagine the next film will be called Finding Hank.

Another wonderful aspect of the film is the animation, which so beautifully renders underwater sea life. I love that all the animals speak a common language, and that most are ready to help (there is a nasty squid) and that there have probably been many a marine biologist inspired by Nemo and now this film. It should be clarified, though, that a whale shark is not a whale, but a shark, and therefore a fish. I can get very technical on things like this.

In the great Pixar pantheon Finding Dory is only about middle shelf, as it doesn't break a lot of new ground story-wise, and many of the "family is very important" beats are repeated from Nemo, but even good-not-great Pixar is better than most animated films.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Secret Wars

In the early '80s, I was at my peak of comic book geekdom. I was almost exclusively a Marvel guy, buying almost every title they put out at Forbidden Planet, a huge comic book store in Greenwich Village (thankfully, it still exists, though a few blocks away and in a smaller space). I stumbled across a series they were doing called Secret Wars, and I was so tantalized by it that I went into Forbidden Planet's basement back-issues section and got all twelve issues. Somewhere I have them in storage, but to read it again I bought a one-volume collection, which also gives the history of the series.

Does it hold up after 32 years? Not really, not to a 55-year-old man, but it does speak to the 23-year-old guy I was. The premise was great--a god-like being known as the "Beyonder" somehow transports Marvel's greatest superheroes (though some didn't make the cut) along with some of the greatest villains to a planet created patchwork-like from other planets. He tells them (they only hear his voice) that whomever defeats their enemies will get their heart's desire. It was like Battle Royale with caped vigilantes.

Many serious comic book collectors pooh-poohed the whole thing, mainly because it was created to satisfy a deal with Mattel. They wanted to get into the superhero action figure business. Kenner had bought the rights to DC characters, who had the Superman movies as a tie-in. Marvel had yet to conquer the movie world, so Mattel wanted a big event to coincide with the launch of the toys. Jim Shooter came up with the idea and wrote it. The toys were pretty much a failure (Mattel cut costs), but they did give Marvel the title, as their marketing data showed that boys loved the words "secret" and "wars."

The heroes involved included the Fantastic Four, minus Sue Richards, who was pregnant, and The Avengers of the time (Captain American, Hawkeye, She-Hulk, Iron Man [though Tony Stark was not wearing the suit at the time, Jim Rhodes was], Wasp, Thor, and Captain Marvel (who at the time was a black woman--in her movie coming up she will be played by Brie Larson). Hulk was also there, and at the time he was always the Hulk, with Bruce Banner's brain. He still wanted to smash things, though. Also on the heroes side were the X-Men, with Professor X, Rogue, Storm, Colossus, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine. Controversially (in the story), Magneto was on the good guys' side, though the Avengers just considered him a murderer and terrorist.

Then, of course, there was Spider-Man. Not included was Daredevil, who was then palling around with Black Widow. I think Daredevil fans still are annoyed by that.

The villains side was an odd mix. Most of the Spider-Man villains that we all know, like Green Goblin, Rhino, Elektro, and Sandman, were not included--just Dr. Octopus and the Lizard. There was also Absorbing Man, a group called the Wrecking Crew, who I was not really familiar with, Ultron, Kang the Conqueror, Enchantress, Molecule Man, and most importantly, Doctor Doom, and Galactus, a giant who consumes planets.

The action was pretty good, with a lot of battles and shifting alliances. The X-Men for a while split off into a third group, and eventually Doom tries to go after Galactus, and failing that, takes on the Beyonder himself. It also marked a milestone in Marvel history, as that is where Spider-Man gets his black suit, which was actually a symbiote who would one day become Venom.

Where comic books from this period really date themselves is the dialogue. The Marvel Universe was a giant soap opera, as all characters existed in the Universe and could interact. Since the stories did not stand alone, there was a constant need for exposition (lest an issue fall into someone who didn't know the whole story). One of the nostalgic aspects of these comics is the little asterisk by dialogue that leads to a yellow box in the corner of the panel that says something like, "Last issue!"

And back then the panel style was pretty much the same that had been for forty years. Occasionally there would be a full-page panel, or a two-page spread splash, but the style was nothing like the contemporary comics, which is okay by me because at least in the old days I didn't have trouble navigating through it.

Anyway, we get lots of corny dialogue. There are plenty of Spider-Man quips, and in one battle Absorbing Man actually asks Titania (who was created by Dr. Doom) out on a date. The really annoying stuff is when characters snipe at their own teammates during a fight, Most of it has to do with bragging, especially Hulk, who appears miffed that everyone assumes Reed Richards is the smartest guy in the room. There is also some blatant sexism in the character of the Wasp, with comedy that has her upset that she breaks a nail. Racial issues are handled in a clumsy way, as Rhodey calls Captain Marvel "babe." She thinks it's Tony Stark, and is angered.

There is also the fun but ludicrous physics. The superheroes have a mountain thrown on them, and Hulk is the only one holding it up--150 billion tons. He's strong, but I don't think he's that strong. The deus ex machina is also pretty ridiculous.

Though it was simply a marketing gimmick, Secret Wars came out at the right time for me, and I cherished it. With a few tweaks and a better dialogue writer, it still would be the most awesome Marvel movie yet.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Swamp Creatures

The Trump Cabinet
Since Donald Trump's election a little over a month ago right-thinking (or left-thinking, I should say) have been going through the stages of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and maybe some have reached acceptance, but I won't until he is actually inaugurated.

I have also, while we wait to be annexed by Russia, viewed with a horrible fascination his selection of a cabinet. The meme that emerged from this was his desire to "drain the swamp," that is remove the trappings of politics as usual and find people who would, I don't know, be free of corruption and heal the sick and feed the hungry. This meme, as memes do, turned itself on its head, as Trump has mostly filled his cabinet with oligarchs and generals, which is probably looks a lot like Russia. The most common joke, which is more painful than funny, is that the swamp was drained and what was left at the bottom is now the Cabinet.

Of course they all have to be confirmed, but with a 52-48 edge for Republicans in the Senate, the best that can happen is the Democrats make major stinks at the worst nominees' hearing (a few of them are unobjectionable, relatively speaking). This will annoy Trump and make his finger hurt from tweeting, and for the worst choices there could be filibusters that will tie him up and make his tiny brain explode.

So here's the list, though of the Cabinet-level positions, Agriculture and Veterans Affairs have not been chosen. Presumably Agriculture will go to someone from Monsanto, or some company that makes weed killer. Veterans organizations have objected to the names floated for the VA, including famous dingbat Sarah Palin, who is neither a veteran or much of an administrator.

Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson. After bandying about such strange names as Rudy Giuliani and David Petraeus, who would have to be pardoned to take the job, Trump went with Exxon CEO Tillerson. Tillerson would presumably be asked to divest himself of any Exxon stock, but these guys seem to think rules don't pertain to them. He is also very cozy with Vladimir Putin, and was probably suggested by Putin himself in one of Trump's unauthorized late-night calls to the Russian leader and tickle buddy.

Secretary of the Treasury: Steven Mnuchin. Another scary business guy, Mnuchin is now a hedge-fund manager, which, to paraphrase Woody Allen, is like a notch below child molester, and worked at Goldman Sachs, one of the banks that nearly ruined our economy. Trump spent a lot of hot air on how Hillary Clinton spoke at Goldman Sachs, and now he has appointed two people who used to work there. One Trump voter was dismayed that her new president appointed the man who foreclosed on her house.

Secretary of Defense: James Mattis. Philosophically, this is not a bad choice. Mattis was a Marine Corps General who was in charge of military operations in the Middle East, appointed by Obama. What I can't get around, and haven't seen much discussion of, is that according to the law, he is not eligible. Under Title 10, U.S. Code Section 113: "There is a Secretary of Defense, who is the head of the Department of Defense, appointed from civilian life by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. A person may not be appointed as Secretary of Defense within seven years after relief from active duty as a commissioned officer of a regular component of an armed force." Mattis retired in 2013, and mathematicians will tell us that that is not seven years.

Attorney General: Jefferson Session. The elfin Alabama senator is one of the worst picks Trump has made. Sessions was denied a spot in the federal judiciary twenty years ago for racist remarks, which will surely be brought up again. He also has a special thing against people who smoke pot. But more importantly, he is against almost all strides made for rights of the individual made in recent years, such as same-sex marriage and making a road to citizenship for undocumented workers. His confirmation hearings may be the most fiery, although there is a thing called Senate privilege that may have some laying off of him.

Secretary of Interior: Ryan Zinke. A congressman from Montana, he seems to have been selected because he sat on the Committee for Natural Resources. He was only elected to Congress in 2014. Although he only has a ranking of 3 (out of 100) from the League of Conservation Voters, he does seem to believe in global warming, for now, and does not favor transferring federal land to state control. It seems like Interior Secretary always goes to someone from the West.

Secretary of Commerce: Wilbur Ross. A billionaire, even richer than Trump, Ross' greatest claim to this job seems to be that he donated to Trump. Strolling around his Wikipedia page finds that he started the International Coal Group, and did so without workers having unions, health care or pensions. I guess he's not a compassionate conservative.

Secretary of Labor: Andrew Puzder. One of the "fox guarding the hen house" picks, Puzder is the CEO of CKE restaurants, that include Carl's Jr. and Hardee's. He is fiercely anti-worker, against minimum wage raises, overtime pay, and the Affordable Care Act. Along with education, of which I will speak of shortly, the labor movement in the U.S. is one of the areas most likely to experience a four-year nightmare while Trump is in office.

Secretary of Health and Human Services: Tom Price. Yikes. Price, a congressman from Georgia, is a doctor, but is one of those cabinet picks who is being put in charge of an agency he would really like to dismantle. He is against abortion, against gun control (which seems counter to promoting "health") and is against the Affordable Care Act. I think if he had his way more poor people would simply die.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson: Like Interior getting Westerners, HUD usually gets a minority, and Trump has tapped Carson, the house Negro of the Republican Party. Carson initially didn't want a Cabinet post, since he has no government experience (which didn't stop him from running for President). But instead of getting HHS (he is a doctor) he got HUD, presumably because he lived in public housing, which is like saying I could be Secretary of Transportation because I once flew in a plane. Carson is another fox in the hen house, since he is against the very kind of housing he grew up in, against the Fair Housing Act, and a Jesus freak. He famously thinks that the pyramids were built to store grain.

Secretary of Transportation: Elaine Chao. She was once the Secretary of Labor, and as these things go she will probably be confirmed easily, but will she do anything about the crumbling infrastructure of this country? Oh, who is she married to? Why, it's Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, and now under a microscope for avoiding the Russian hacking issue. A step removed from nepotism.

Secretary of Energy: Rick Perry. Former governor of Texas and Dancing With the Stars contestant, Perry ran for president wanting to eliminate this department, though he couldn't remember the name of it. There seems to be a certain cosmic sense to this--after Perry was left a slack-jawed yokel on a debate stage because he couldn't remember the Energy Department, he will now run it. Probably into the ground. Don't be concerned: it just deals with nuclear materials.

Secretary of Education: Betsy DeVos. This pick is the worst, and angers me the most as a teacher. DeVos has absolutely no qualifications for this position, other than donating nine million dollars to Trump's campaign. She has absolutely no connection to public schools--never went to one, never sent her children to them. She is an advocate for charter schools and private school vouchers, especially to religious schools. If she had her way, public education would be a smoldering ruin, and all the advances made for equality in educating would be turned back 50 years (charter and private schools do not have to provide an equal education for all). If that weren't enough, the family fortune comes from Amway, and her brother is the head of Blackwater, two of the most odious companies on Earth.

Secretary of Homeland Security: John F. Kelly. Another retired Marine Corps general, I don't have any particular disgust with this pick, as the other names floated, Sheriffs Joe Arpaio of Arizona and David Clarke, of Milwaukee, were vile. Kelly seems to have been picked to keep those Mexicans out. Maybe he'll supervise the building of the wall.

There are other cabinet-level positions that require Senate confirmation. One is Ambassador to the U.N. which went to South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. She has no foreign policy experience, but maybe Trump figured an Asian-Indian would fit in over there. I don't think she can do any damage. Who can do damage is Scott Pruitt, the Attorney General of Oklahoma, tapped to be head of the Environment Protection Agency. This is a guy who has actually sued the EPA many times, and comes from a state where they frack so much the earthquake rate has gone through the roof. He may actually render this agency completely powerless. Like Sessions and DeVos, one of the worst Trump picks.

Other Trump picks, like Darth Vader admirer and casual racist Steve Bannon, and Michael Flynn, a general out of Dr. Strangelove, are advisers and do not require Senate confirmation. We're stuck with them, until they are indicted for something, and maybe even then.

God help us all.


Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall

For many, 2016 has been an annus horribilus. There was a presidential campaign that was unendurable but the resolution was even worse, and the ongoing results are horrifying (see my entry tomorrow). It is perceived that many beloved people died, such as David Bowie, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel, Merle Haggad, Leonard Cohen, Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman, and your favorite, but I think this is true of any year, it just seems like the latest year is worse.

For many the prospect of four years with Donald Trump or Mike Pence leading the free world is so terrifying that we must turn to our artists as salvation, and mostly we turn to song. For a moment it seemed like the anthem of our melancholy was Cohen's "Hallelujah," played by Kate McKinnon, in Hillary Clinton get-up, after Trump's win. She only sang a few of the many choruses, but the most touching was:

"I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah"

This, of course, just days after Cohen died. Perhaps the man couldn't stomach the idea of a Trump presidency. Some pointed out it was hypocritical of Saturday Night Live to publicly mourn a Clinton loss, as they allowed Trump to host during the campaign and gave him a lot of free publicity.

But I agree with a lot of people that the song of the age is now one that is 54 years old, written by a twenty-year old folk singer from Minnesota. I'm talking about "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall," and it was recently performed by Patti Smith, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature for its composer, Bob Dylan. It seemed a perfect juxtaposition: the godmother of punk singing a timeless song by the troubadour of her generation, her long gray hair like a priestess. She flubbed the second verse, and had to start over again, but that seemed to make it just more human--she was told that it seemed to symbolize all of our struggles.

The song, like many of Dylan's, is inscrutable. It appeared on his second album, The Free-Wheelin' Bob Dylan, though it seems as if it belongs to his later period of ten-minute songs. It was first performed in September 1962 at a folk hootenanny at Carnegie Hall, organized by Pete Seeger. He told each act that they had three songs and ten minutes, but Dylan told him one of his songs was ten minutes long.

The timing disproves that it was written about the Cuban missile crisis, and Dylan has denied it's about atomic fallout, "it's just a hard rain," he said, "not an atomic one."

Written in a question-and-answer form of an ancient ballad called "Lord Randall," it consists of five stanzas, each with a parent asking a question of a blue-eyed son, a darling young one. There is no chorus, only verses. The first has a number in each line: "twelve misty mountains," "six crooked highways," "seven sad forests," "a dozen dead oceans," "ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard,"

The second, in response to "what did you see, my blue-eyed son," may be the most powerful, and includes incredibly vivid imagery such as:

"I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
 I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
 I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
 I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’"

The third verse is the answer to "what did you hear, my blue-eyed son," and again has the kind of imagery a poet would give his eye teeth to come up with:

"Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’
Heard ten thousand whisperin’ and nobody listenin’
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley"

Each verse ends with the line "And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard. It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall." Is that a warning? Or just a statement of fact. Rain, like death, is unavoidable (in most parts of the world) and we have learned to live with it, in fact it is necessary for life. But, as we have seen in hurricanes, it can be deadly.

So now, in this Age of Trump, a hard rain is a-gonna fall. Will we grow, or will we drown?


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Macbeth (2015)

The most famous witches in all of classic literature are the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, who famously begin the play by saying,

"When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

And so they do in Justin Kurzel's adaptation of the play, released last year and starring Michael Fassbender as the Thane of Glamis, later the Thane of Cawdor, and finally King of Scotland, and Marion Cotillard as his devoted wife. The witchcraft element of the play is probably what led to it being thought of as cursed; no self-respecting theatrical professional will ever say it out loud--it is always called "The Scottish Play."

Scholars have always considered Macbeth to e a play about the mad pursuit of power, or that behind every great man, there's a woman, only this time stood on it head. For those who don't know, Macbeth is in the service of King Duncan, and puts down a rebellion. Duncan rewards him by promoting him to Thane of Cawdor (after the traitorous old thane is executed). Macbeth had received a prophecy by the sisters that he would be both Thane and King someday, while his buddy Banquo would one day sire a line of kings. 

Duncan visits Macbeth's home and the Macbeth's decide they will kill him. The king's heir, Malcolm, hies it hence. No one suspects Macbeth at first, but it's a little convenient that he kills the two guards before they can be questioned. Macbeth visits the witches again and they say that he will never be beaten until the Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane (the castle) and he cannot be defeated by any man born of woman. This gets him a little cocky and he starts killing people, including Banquo, who visits a banquet as a ghost. Then, in one of the more horrifying scenes in all of Shakespeare, he has Macduff's, who is loyal to Malcolm, wife and children slain. To make it even worse, Shakespeare writes the scene in which Macduff is told of this. "What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?" he cries.

Of course, this being a tragedy, Macbeth and his scheming wife will get theirs. The witches were dabbling in word play, as Macduff was born by Cesarean, so not really by woman born. When Macbeth finds this out you can almost hear him saying, "Stupid witches."

After Hamlet, Macbeth is probably Shakespeare's greatest tragedy, and certainly his darkest. Kurzel, trying to make things interesting, endeavors to make the Macbeths somewhat sympathetic--the opening image is of their child's funeral, which is not in the text. Lady Macbeth says later,

"I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck'd my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash'd the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this."

She says this to make Macbeth feel less than a man for hesitating in killing the king, but Kurzel incorporates this into her "Out, damn spot" speech by having her speak it in a church to a hallucination of her dead child.

As for Macbeth, we are led to believe this is all PTSD. Kurzel shows the battle in which Macbeth beats the traitor, and it looks like what a tenth-century battle might look like. So basically Macbeth is like the vet that comes home and shoots up a convenience store or something, instead it's killing his way up the line to the throne.

I don't mind the interpretation, even if I don't agree with it. To accomplish this, besides Lady Macbeth soliloquy, Macbeth delivers the play's most famous speech, the one that begins "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," while standing over his wife's dead body, and then picking it up and holding it. Usually she dies off stage and he is told of it by a messenger. This is a poignant touch, though I don't buy that they're sympathetic.

Kurzel sets the play when it was set, a relief, and with mostly Scottish actors, despite the very French Cotillard, who is excellent (and sexy--a good Lady Macbeth should be sexy, because she holds this over her husband). Fassbender is also very good. It's a tough part to play. I haven't seen too many stage versions--just one professional, I think, with Raul Julia, and it was so unmemorable I had to look it up to remember. There have been many film versions, the one I'd like to see is Orson Welles. Laurence Olivier tired to get it made and couldn't.

There are a few things left out. The sisters other famous line, "Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and cauldron bubble," is cut, along with that whole "eye of newt" scene. But eerily, Kurzel adds a silent child witch, making them a foursome. He also cuts the porter scene, famous for being the only comedy in the play, occurring right after Macbeth kills Duncan. It is supposed that Shakespeare added it to give the audience a break--the film does no such thing.


Monday, December 12, 2016

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea may not be the season's feel-good movie, but it is one of the best, and Casey Affleck will be tough to beat for Best Actor honors come Oscar time.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (it's hard to believe this is only his third film) the film is a searing look at grief and the ties of family, and even though it is steeped in tragedy, it has a rude humor to it, I am somewhat familiar with the part of Massachusetts where it takes place (and was filmed) and they get that right, too, with the gray skies and serene but forbidding ocean.

The story is pretty simple: Affleck plays a man living a life of quiet desperation in a one-room basement apartment, working as a maintenance man in Boston. One day he gets a call--his brother, who has a history of heart trouble, is in the hospital. By the time he gets up the coast, his brother is dead. He is astounded at the reading of the will to discover that he has been entrusted guardianship of his nephew, a teenager (Lucas Hedges). The boy's mother is an alcoholic who spent time in a psych ward.

Despite his love for his nephew, Affleck is aghast at this. He doesn't want to leave Boston, and when we consider that he gets a free house and an income from his brother's estate, we wonder why. But it is slowly revealed that Affleck has an ex-wife in town (Michelle Williams) and has dealt with tragedy before, and the good times he spent on his brother's boat with his nephew can't compensate for his loss.

Don't let the somber nature of this film scare you away. The dialogue is brimming with humor, especially the sparring of Affleck and Hedges. Affleck discovers Hedges basically has a dream life--he is on the hockey team, in a band, and has two girlfriends. He is sleeping with one, but the other has only progressed to "basement stuff." In one absurdly funny scene, Hedges enlists Affleck to keep his girlfriend's mother distracted while he has sex with his girlfriend in her room.

The film is long, but moves by quickly. Lonergan and editor Jennifer Larne have seamlessly intercut flashbacks. In one scene, when a doctor is taking Affleck to the morgue to see his brother, there's a cut to a scene with the brother (Kyle Chandler) very much alive in a hospital bed, being told of his condition. There's an initial "wait a minute" moment, but then we understand and after that, without use of changing Affleck's appearance (it would have been easy to give him a beard or something in flashbacks) we instinctively know when we are in flashback.

The performances are all top-notch. Williams only has a few scenes, but one of them is a doozy, when she runs into Affleck with her baby from another husband and apologizes to him, and he just can't take it. Hedges, who was in Moonlight Kingdom (thought I don't remember him in it, but one of his girlfriends is played by Kara Hayward, who was the young lead in that film) is a future star. But it's Affleck's movie. I've read that Matt Damon was initially to play the part (and direct) and then John Krasinski (who ended up producing) but for whatever qualities they have Affleck is the right choice. He's a broken man, a shell of himself, and the weariness shows on his face. One particular moment sticks with me. He has at his brother's funeral and meets Williams' new husband for the first time. He doesn't say anything, but they way his eyes wander over his man shows us what he's thinking. It's a wonderful performance.

I haven't seen everything yet, and I haven't quite sorted out what my favorite film of the year is yet, but it just may be Manchester by the Sea.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Blood Kin

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem, is some Southern Gothic horror complete with runaway kudzu, a few ghosts, something mysterious buried underground, and mostly a villainous, snake-handling preacher. It takes a while to build up momentum, but has a bloody good ending.

We are in southeastern Virginia, far away from the D.C. area, and Mike Gibson, a troubled young man, is back in his home town to take care of his aged grandmother, Sadie, The story alternates between the present day and Sadie telling Mike the story of when she was a girl.

The Gibsons are Melungeons, a mixture of races (we knew them in northern New Jersey as Poor Jackson Whites): "No one ever uncovered the answers to their mystery, although the theories were many. Cousin Lillian preferred the one that said they were Raleigh’s Lost Colony. Cousin Ella liked to think they were descended from Ponce de León’s men. Neither cared to discuss the theories that they were descended from runaway slaves and halfbreed squaws." Also, "They were spirited, them Gibsons. Black nasty magical."

Sadie is a Gibson, and her uncle is the preacher, a domineering man who handles snakes. Snake handling is still practiced in a few churches in the U.S., and every time somebody dies from it we can all smugly chuckle about it, but Tam, in his description of Sadie's first time going to a service, is horrifyingly vivid: "His face came like a ghostly oval out of the blackest part of the night, rushing towards them like he had wings, the rest of him so dark that pale face was all she could see, like he was the moon or something, set loose from its heavenly tether and flying through the night sky." then later, "The preacher stood up straight then, like he could stretch every bone in his body to make himself taller, and he was already a tall man. His lips spread out like they were reaching for his ears. He made probably the widest smile she’d ever seen, but it was the way she imagined one of them African crocodiles in her geography book smiled, because his eyes weren’t smiling at all. They were like two black stones down at the bottom of the creek."

The preacher will be more than he seems, as bad as that already is, and will be part of the resolution set in modern times. But Tam's book hums along with all sorts of Southern mysticism, such as a pair of old people called the Grans--I'm not sure who they are grandparents to--who live deep in the woods and appear not to ever die, and an illiterate midwife who is a healer and aids Sadie in their battle against the preacher. There's also Mickey-Gene, thought to be stupid, but who is revealed to be quite the reader, and in the climactic moments quotes from Macbeth.

Some of the early parts of Blood Kin are slow, but it redeems itself in the end, when the kudzu can't be burned back and the dead rise. This is possibly not a book for some with ophidiophobia.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Twelve O'clock High

One of Gregory Peck's five Oscar nominations came for 1949's Twelve O'clock High, which many World War II Air Force veterans claimed was the most true-to-life war film ever made. I had never seen it before, and was amazed to find that it had very little combat in it, and it was mostly about leadership. Not surprisingly, it is shown at service academies when leadership is taught.

In the fall of 1942, the only Americans in action in Europe were pilots flying out of England. In this film the 918th is a bomber squadron hitting German industrial targets. The commanding officer is Gary Merrill, but he has become too close to his troops and is relieved, replaced by his superior, Brigadier General Peck. Peck brings a no-nonsense approach to command, immediately angering just about everyone, and almost all the pilots want a transfer.

Along with his faithful adjutant (Dean Jagger, who won an Oscar for the role) they hold up the paperwork to see if a few successful missions will improve morale.

A lot of this is based on real people and events. Some thought that what they were doing--daylight precision bombing, some of it without fighter support--was nuts. A major raid on a ball bearing plant, called Black Thursday, is represented here near the climax of the film. The footage is real, taken from both American and German planes, so when a plane explodes it's not special effects. There's a moment when Peck watches one of his planes obliterated, realizing his air exec is on board. He can only take a moment to let that sink in before he goes on.

The upshot of the film is that, in the military at least, you can't coddle your men. Peck tells them that they might as well think of themselves as already dead--don't think about going home, that will make it easier. But after being in command for a while, he starts to take pride in them and see them as individuals, the same fate that befell Merrill.

I was expecting a much more action-packed film, but I got a much more thoughtful, if sedate, film. It was directed by Henry King, who made five pictures with Peck (including The Gunfighter, reviewed below).

Friday, December 09, 2016

Traveller

The Grammy Award for Best Country Album went to Chris Stapleton for Traveller. It's the debut album for the hirsute songwriter who wrote songs for many other artists before cutting his own record.

I have a very contentious relationship with country music, which I'm sure I've mentioned before. I hate fake country, with guys with expensive cowboy hats and fancy boots who have never been near a cow. My idea of torture would be to be forced to watch the CMA Awards show. But I like authentic country, like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Willie Nelson. Stapleton is closer to those guys, though I don't know if he's ever roped a steer.

I imagine he has had a sip or two of whiskey, as that particular libation features heavily in the lyrics, and should have been the album title. It is in two titles; "Tennessee Whiskey" (which he did not write) and "Whiskey and You" (which he did). Per the country music code, his songs are mostly about loneliness and turning to a bottle to escape his pain. But Stapleton, with his low growl of a voice (which at times sounds like Bruce Springsteen) sells it.

My other favorite song on the record is another one he didn't write, called "Was It 26," And even though this song was written by Don Sampson, he captures the flavor of the album:

"Livin' hard was easy when I was young and bullet-proof
I had no chains to bind me, just a guitar and a roof
Emptied every bottle, when I poured I never missed
I had blood shot eyes at twenty-five or was it twenty-six
Didn't seem to matter what price I had to pay
Cause anything worth havin', I’d just lose anyway
Friends worried about me they’d asked if I was sick
Thought I wouldn’t die at twenty-five or was it twenty-six"

Another country staple is the guy who blows a good relationship, and Stapleton does that well with "Nobody to Blame":

"She took down the photograph
Of our wedding day
Ripped it down the middle
And threw my half away
And I got nobody to blame but me"

The music is tinged with rock, and I don't believe there are any steel guitars, which is another annoying aspect of country music, so this one is refreshing. I expect bigger things from Chris Stapleton.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Gunfighter

The Gunfighter is one of those fascinating psychological Westerns that I love. The title suggests there are shootouts a-plenty, but there are only two. Most of the film is talking, and most of that in a bar. But it is great nonetheless.

Gregory Peck is Jimmy Ringo, the fastest gun in the West, but he's older and tired. The title is a curse--every town has what he calls a squirt gunning for him. Everyone wants to be man who kills Ringo.

At the film's opening he encounters just such a fellow (a young Richard Jaeckel). "He's not so tough," Jaeckel says, and his companions warnings he does not heed. Peck has to kill him, and learns that he has three brothers who won't care who drew first. So he hits the trail, the brothers following (one of them is Alan Hale Jr., later the Skipper on Gilligan's Island).

Peck heads for a town where his long estranged wife (Helen Westcott) lives. She's changed her name, and their son doesn't even know who his father is. Peck wants to give up gunslinging and open a ranch where nobody knows him, and hopes to talk to Westcott. He runs into the Marshall, who happens to be an old crony of his (a very good Millard Mitchell). Marshall, in the interest of Peck and the town, wants him to leave, but is willing to let him stay to talk to Westcott.

So Peck stays in the bar (tended by Karl Malden) while children (including Peck's son) and gawkers want a look at him An old man who thinks Peck killed his son takes a vigil in a room across the street, waiting to shoot him. The brothers are on their way into town. And another squirt (Skip Homeier) says "He doesn't look so tough."

This is a terrific old Western, directed by Henry King. It wouldn't be made today--not enough action, too much dialogue. But the script is taut and the suspense palpable. In our hearts we know how it will end, but it's painful nonetheless. And Peck is great--when was he not?-- as a man trying to leave behind his past, which, in the movies at least (see Out of the Past) is not possible.