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Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017, Begone!

2017 was, in Chinese astrology, the year of the Rooster
Jesus, 2017 was a shitty year. Not only for me personally, but for the nation I call home, the United States of America. We are rightly the laughing stock of the world, because we elected a glorified carnival barker as president.

As for me, I lost two jobs this year, a record, plus quit another (that I had only for a few weeks). Tomorrow I will be without health insurance, because when they mean "affordable health care," that's not so for those who have diabetes, because Healthcare.gov wants over $800 a month, and I ain't got it. I will have to get some sort of job, maybe an Uber driver, until a bounty is supposed to come in that would set me for life. But of course it's been delayed.

As for the country, Donald Trump has been commander-in-chief for almost a year, and I don't think he's done one thing I've agreed with. It's been like a disaster a day with him. You wake up to see what outrage he's said or committed. To list them all would be too much, but the ones that stick with me are banning transgender people from joining the military, 90 days of golf when he said he would have no time for it, saying he never said his famous "Grab them by the pussy" quote, being unable to discern between climate and weather, rolling back regulations on nursing homes, allowing much of Puerto Rico to still be without power (including the only plant in the world that makes bags for IVs), and calling Meryl Streep over-rated.

Finally was the horrible tax reform law, which will benefit rich people at the expense of the poor and middle-class. The most egregious robbery in U.S. history.

Every year there's a plethora of celebrity deaths, but this year the rock music world was particularly hard hit. Chuck Berry and Fats Domino were old, but we were surprised by the deaths of Tom Petty, Malcolm Young, Gregg Allman, Chester Bennington, Lil Peep, David Cassidy, and Chris Cornell. This year also saw the demise of Mary Tyler Moore, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Demme, Roger Moore, and Rose Marie.

Good things in 2017? I suppose there were, but none come immediately to mind. The Super Bowl was exciting, the first one to go to overtime, but the hated Patriots won. There was a good World Series, and some new stars like Aaron Judge who are very appealing. Doug Jones beat religious crackpot Ray Moore in the Alabama senate race, which gave liberals an early Christmas.

What can be hoped for in 2018? Well, for me, it's getting an inheritance that I hoped to have by now. For the nation it's flipping congress come November, and Robert Mueller releasing damaging findings that could lead to impeachment of both Donald Trump and Mike Pence, which would make Nancy Pelosi president. Sleep on that, conservatives.

May everyone's 2018 be a happy and prosperous one.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Darkest Hour

In an odd coincidence, there were two movies about Dunkirk this year. The one with the place as a title was an up close look at the battle. Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright, is at the other end of the conflict, the politicians bickering. It would make an interesting double feature. For what it's worth, this is the second time Wright has featured Dunkirk in one of his movies, the other being Atonement.

But this film is all about Winston Churchill. One of the most important figures of the 20th century, Darkest Hour covers one month in his life, May 1940. The Germans have conquered Poland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium. The entire British Army has their backs against the English Channel, surrounded by Germans. They do not have sufficient air power.

Prime Minister Neville "Peace in our time" Chamberlain resigns, as he is thought to be too weak to be a war-time leader. Lord Halifax turns the job down, a decision that certainly changed world history. The compromise candidate is Churchill, though many think he lacks sound judgment (the disaster at Gallipoli during World War I is mentioned frequently), and that he drinks too much. In fact, he may have been a high-functioning alcoholic.

But he was brilliant, and he was pugnacious. The film centers on Churchill's desire to fight back, while Halifax and Chamberlain want to negotiate with Hitler, with Mussolini as a mediator. Churchill says, "You can't negotiate with a tiger while your head is in its mouth." The king, (Ben Mendelsohn, a less dashing but perhaps more accurate George VI than Colin Firth) doesn't care for him. Only days after becoming Prime Minister some are maneuvering to have him removed. But he won't back down, and his oratory is his best weapon.

Darkest Hour is a lot of talk, and some heavy English accents (I could have used subtitles). And it's a love letter to Churchill, making his flaws endearing and showing him to be completely right, of course in retrospective. There are many conferences and arguments in the corridors of Parliament with barbed comments thrown about, which is always fun. I loved the scene in which Churchill, hiding in the W.C., calls Franklin Roosevelt for help, but FDR can't help him because of neutrality acts. He can't even send him the planes that England has already bought ("But we bought them with the money you loaned us!" Churchill complains).

I liked Darkest Hour okay mainly because of Gary Oldman as Churchill (the likely Oscar winner). He isn't the first person to come to mind to play the roly-poly man, who admits that all babies look like him. Oldman wears a considerable amount of makeup, but he is magnificent in capturing the complexity of the man, particularly during the famous speeches: "Blood, toil, tears, and sweat," and "We will fight them on the beaches..."

The rest of the cast is good, although Kristin Scott Thomas doesn't have much to do as Lady Churchill, except hector Winston about his lavish lifestyle and being mean to his secretary (played by Lily James).

What is disappointing about the film is that it creates a scene near the end that did not happen, and seems more like one of Churchill's fantasies that reality. It tries to show Churchill as a man of the people, and I'm not sure he counted that as one of his finer qualities.


Friday, December 29, 2017

Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread is about a lot of things: the eccentricities of genius, how to live with a genius, and how relationships can get very twisted. In Paul Thomas Anderson's original script, we get a glimpse of darkness that I'm not sure many people can stomach. For me, a very good movie had a very disturbing ending that went to a place I wasn't ready to go.

The story concerns Reynols Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), one of the top dress designers in the world. He works out of his home, with a bevy of seamstresses and his sister (Lesley Manville) basically running the business. He also has a series of muse/concubines, who provide him inspiration, companionship, and a little sex. The film opens with him finally tiring of one of these women, who demands his attention during breakfast (a very important meal for Woodcock--if his breakfast routine is ruined it can foul his whole day).

That girl is sent packing by Manville, who knows her brother's quirks and works around them, without kowtowing to him (at one point she tells him he doesn't want to get into a fight with her, because he will lose). But that very evening Woodcock goes into the country and finds his next muse as a waitress in a country inn.

Played by Vicki Krieps, she falls for him, even if he is brutally up front with her while using her as a model. "You have no breasts," he tells her. But she is determined to finally be the one to capture him (he has never been married). I won't go too deeply into the plot, but pay attention when Krieps and the cook are out gathering mushrooms.

Phantom Thread, despite its delicious decor, costumes, and English manners, reminds me of the great battling couples dramas, such as Strindberg's Dance of Death, Anouilh's Waltz of the Toreadors, James Goldman's Lion in Winter, or Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It even brought to mind Gone Girl, because all of these plays/movies involve basically unlikeable people who deserve each other.

Day-Lewis, in supposedly his last film, is perfect as Woodcock. Anderson could have made him any kind of artist, from chef to writer to painter, as the greatest of these usually have tics and routines that can't be disrupted. As soon as Krieps is entered into the house, she starts to bother him with noises she makes at breakfast. As for her, she is a schemer, realizing that Woodcock is a mama's boy (he carries a lock of his late mother's hair, sewn into his coat). The actress, who has very little on her resume, is playing the protagonist of the piece, as she is the one driving the action. The conflict of the film is whether she can change Woodcock enough to snare him permanently.

Phantom Thread is not exactly quickly paced, but it is frequently funny. Woodcock, a gentleman to the core, unleashes some pretty foul language when provoked, no more than in a scene in which Krieps tries to cook a special dinner for him but prepares the asparagus the wrong way, much to Woodcock's distress.

I should give a shout out to Mark Bridges, the costume designer, who has to do an excellent job in a film about haute couture, and he does. The film looks great overall, and is an anglophile's dream.

I suspect Bridges will get an Oscar nomination, as will Day-Lewis, but the story just doesn't add up for me. It's as if Anderson wanted to make a film about this subject but didn't know how to end it. Still worthwhile seeing, though, if only for Day-Lewis' perfectly mannered performance.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Post

When the lights came up on after The Post, my friend and I turned to each other to declare it was the best movie of the year. I still stand by that, but in the couple of days that I have gone by since then I realize that it is probably not as it happened--there are too many little moments, like monologues about the freedom the press--but it is damn good story telling. For all you can say about Steven Spielberg and there is some bad, he knows how to spin a good yarn.

The story is that of the Washington Post, in 1971, deciding whether or not to publish what became known as the Pentagon Papers. The film opens with Daniel Ellsberg stealing them out of the Rand Corporation, where he worked. The New York Times gets the first pages, not the whole thing, and publishes them. The attorney general's office gets an injunction against them, citing they are national security.

Then the Post gets their hands on 4,000 pages of the stuff, enough to get their own seat in first class. Editor Ben Bradlee wants to publish them, the injunction be damned. His boss is Katharine Graham, the publisher, friends to some of those in power, and a woman in a man's world. Will they publish?

The answer is known to most, but it's pretty thrilling watching the back and forth, the arguments for and against. The reporters vs. the lawyers, with Graham in between. The spine of her character is that she is an accidental publisher: her father owned the paper, and when he died the job went to Graham's husband, She says that was how it was then--there was no consideration that she would get the job, that just wasn't a woman's prerogative. She's prone to listen her board (the head of which is fine performance by Tracy Letts), but she trusts Bradlee implicitly.

This has been said before, but Streep is wonderful. You can see her thoughts reflected on her face, her struggle against publishing material that will hurt her friends (notably former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was on the record as saying the U.S. couldn't win the war back in 1965 but troops getting sent over anyway).

Tom Hanks plays Bradlee, and while he doesn't feel as right as Jason Robards in the same part in All the President's Men, he's fine. He enjoys the game, stopping to tell a secretary, "This is fun." In this film we see Bradlee's home life. There's an amusing scene in which his daughter cleans up selling lemonade while all the reporters are in his house.

The Post plays like a spy movie, with furtive phone calls and a literal spy, an intern sent to the Times to see if he can find out what they've got. There's hardly a moment of let up--I don't think I checked the time once.

The Post is strangely relevant, as we are again in a time of combative attitudes between the White House and the press. Actual Nixon tapes are used to hear his reaction, one of them funny in the context of today's administration. We also get a little epilogue that sets All the President's Men up as a sort of sequel.

Of course Spielberg is overly sentimental, especially with a speech by Streep at the end. It's boilerplate, but it's true, and it's nice to hear it in the U.S. at this time.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Greatest Showman

I'm visiting family for the holidays. The plan on Christmas Eve was to see a movie, and since we all went, from my mother down to my seven-year-old nephew,the choice was The Greatest Showman, the sanitized story of P.T. Barnum that is pretty lousy except for Hugh Jackman.

Barnum was a great showman, no doubt about it, but he was also an admitted fraud. The film touches on that, but explains it away by saying he's just making people happy. The film ends with a card with a quote of him saying that the noblest thing you can do is make people happy. He may have said that, but according to Wikipedia, he also said that his main purpose was to fill his coffers.

Directed wanly by Michael Gracy, this version of Barnum's life begins with him as a poor tailor's son, falling in love with a customer's daughter, who is rich. He grows up, and despite her father's disapproval, marries the girl, who is now Michelle Williams. They have two daughters, and he comes up with an idea to open a "Museum of Curiosities." His daughters tell him he needs living things, so he goes out and recruits freaks, such as a bearded lady, very fat man, very tall man, and a dwarf who is rechristened Tom Thumb.

He becomes a great success despite a critic telling his readers that it is a "humbug," which Barnum turns into an advantage. He visits Queen Victoria, and ends up producing a tour of famed singer Jenny Lind.

Through all of this, the film maintains that all Barnum wants to do is make his family happen. The climax of the film, really, is that he leaves the circus behind for a night (his partner Zac Ephron takes over temporarily) to go see his daughters in a ballet recital. It's like a Kodak commercial.

The Greatest Showman is a musical, with songs by Pasek and Paul, who also supplied the songs for La La Land. They didn't seem to adjust though, as the songs for The Greatest Showman are far too contemporary. We've had films where the music was anachronistic, such as Moulin Rouge and Marie Antoinette, but the director isn't making any kind of point here, the music just sounds wrong. And it's not memorable.

In an effort to be socially conscious, the film adds a romance between Efron and Zendaya, who plays a black trapeze artist. They get plenty of stares, and Efron's parents insult her to her face. I'm sure that New York City, where the film takes place, was more tolerant of black and white having somewhat equal contact, but I wonder if it would have really been possible for a white man to kiss a black woman in the mid-1840s, even in New York.

The only reason to see this film is if you're interested in circuses, as there are a few truths in there somewhere, and for Jackman, who is an amazing performer, able to hold the screen if he's doing song and dance or playing Wolverine. I'd like to see him in better musicals, more like Les Miserables. The Greatest Showman is a misfire.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Thunder Road

In 1958, Robert Mitchum starred in Thunder Road (no relation to the Bruce Springsteen song). He produced it, wrote the story, and even co-wrote the theme song. Some think he directed it, but it's credited to Arthur Ripley.

The film has been a cult favorite in the South, as Mitchum plays a driver for his moonshining family. In the hills of Tennessee, Mitchum delivers liquor to distributors but they are not taxed, and are therefore targets of the Treasury Department (who are known as revenuers). Gene Barry plays the guy after Mitchum.

There's also another person  after Mitchum, a gang boss who wants to muscle in on the whole territory. A driver from another moonshining family is murdered, and Mitchum is one step ahead of two groups after him.

Also in the film are Mitchum's son, Jim, who plays his brother (the resemblance is obvious). This role was supposed to be played by Elvin Presley, but Colonel Tom Parker asked for more money than the entire budget of the film. Keely Smith, the singer who just died last week, plays Mitchum's girlfriend, a nightclub singer.

The film plays fast and loose with morals. What the hill people are doing is illegal, and they know it, but the money is too good. Mitchum is portrayed as heroic, even though he is a criminal (he's got the forelock of hair hanging on his forehead, perfectly placed). Since it's 1958 and films must show that crime does not pay, Mitchum gets his comeuppance, but that feels tacked on. The other film about liquor drivers, The Last American Hero, is unfettered by these kind of morals.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride had it's thirtieth anniversary this year, and it's a film that has had an interesting history. I saw it when it first opened, and liked it fine, but it didn't do much business. It was nominated for one Oscar--the song "Storybook Love,"  by the unlikely composer Willy DeVille.

But The Princess Bride became something of a phenomenon through home video. It's a genuinely funny movie, and is very quotable, which leads to popularity via trivia quizzes. The cast is eclectic and the story is both sweet and just a little bit dangerous.

The script was by William Goldman, based on his book. He had been trying to get it made for years when Rob Reiner, who was still an A-list director, agreed to do it. Robin Wright, in her first movie, was the title character, in love with a simple farm boy who is thought dead, and affianced to an evil prince (Chris Sarandon). The farm boy comes back as a pirate (Cary Elwes), and must rescue her with much daring-do. All of this is framed by a grandfather (Peter Falk, doing his shtick) reading the book to his grandson (Fred Savage).

I think the secret of the success of The Princess Bride are three sidekicks. Disney learned, and Reiner and Goldman follow the blueprint, that having funny and engaging sidekicks are the key to a good film in this genre, because the leads are kind of bland. They are of various heights: There's Wallace Shawn, who is remembered for saying, "Inconceivable!" Mandy Patinkin, maybe the most beloved character, is the great Spanish swordsman Inigo Montoya. His line for posterity is, "My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." And then there's the colossal professional wrestler Andre the Giant, who does a surprisingly good job and comes across as rather sweet.

There are also good bad buys. In addition to Sarandon is Christopher Guest as his evil, six-fingered henchman. To top it off are cameos by Billy Crystal and Carol Kane. Crystal, playing a fairy tale character like a Borscht-Belt comedian, adds the line, "Have fun storming the castle!"

While I don't think The Princess Bride is a great movie, it's hard to imagine anyone actively hating it. It's a rare film that is appealing to both children and adults. I've only seen it twice, but I know it has fans who have seen it many more times. I don't disagree with their enthusiasm.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

In the Heat of the Night

The Oscar for Best Picture for 1967 went to In the Heat of the Night. While Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate may have been too edgy (though Mike Nichols won for directing the latter), and Doctor Dolittle and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner too traditional (even though the latter was about interracial marriage), In the Heat of the Night fell into the right groove. It was about social issues--race, mostly--but it was within the template of the standard murder mystery.

Set in a small town in Mississippi, a prominent citizen is found murdered. The sheriff, Rod Steiger, isn't too keen on modern investigation techniques, and his deputy, Warren Oates, pulls in the first black man he can find. He happens to be Virgil Tibbs, played by Sidney Poiter (in addition to appearing in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Poiter also had another landmark film in '67, To Sir With Love). Tibbs reveals he's a police detective from Philadelphia, and a homicide one as well. Steiger puts aside his racism because he realizes neither he nor his dimwitted force can solve a murder.

The story itself is pretty standard. There are a number of suspects, but Tibbs proves them innocent. He eventually solves the crime, and he and Steiger have come to an understanding, if not a frienship (later the film would be made into a TV series).

What made this film historically important was that it showed Southern racism as something to be almost pitied (Tibbs is threatened thrice by local mobs, but you never get the feeling he's in danger) and presents the black character as the most intelligent and competent. Also, there was "the slap heard round the world," when Poitier questions a white cotton grower, who slaps him. Poitier slaps him right back, a moment of astonishment for conservative viewers and one worth cheering for more progressive viewers. The cotton grower sadly says, "There was a time when I could have had you shot."

Unlike Poitier's character in Guess, Tibbs is not a perfect fellow. He has anger issues, and he realizes he's going after one suspect for personal reasons. In what I think is the best scene in the film, he and Steiger share some food and a beer and talk about the loneliness of the job. Steiger ends it when he thinks Poitier is pitying him.

The film also contains one of the great lines in film history. Steiger says, "Virgil, that's a fancy name for a colored boy. What do they call you in Philadelphia?" Poitier, with as much dignity and righteous anger as he can summon, answers "They call me Mister Tibbs!" That would be the title of a sequel a few years later.

In addition to Best Picture, Sterling Siliphant won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and Steiger won for Best Actor, perhaps a surprise since he won over the recently departed Spencer Tracy. Poitier, out of all those films he was in that year, was nominated for none of them.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Razor Girl

I've been pretty loyal to Carl Hiassen. I think I've read all of his books for adults, all of them comic thrillers about stupid criminals in Florida. But I noticed in his last book, Bad Monkey, he'd lost something off his fastball, and his latest Razor Girl, continues that trend. He's shooting at fish in a barrel.

Namely, he's parodying reality shows. "The election of a black president brought a boom in TV reality shows featuring feisty rednecks, and talent scouts began scouring the Dixie belt in a fevered search for the next Duck Dynasty franchise." A fellow much like Phil Robertson from Duck Dynasty, Buck Nance, is in Key West for a personal appearance. He's the star of a show called Bayou Brethren, which is about a family of hillbilly chicken farmers (in reality, Buck is an accordion player from Wisconsin). He makes some off-color remarks about black and gay people, and runs for his life.

That's just one subplot. The main plot, sort of, is the young lady of the title, Merry Mansfield. The book begins this way: "On the first day of February, sunny but cold as a frog’s balls, a man named Lane Coolman stepped off a flight at Miami International, rented a mainstream Buick and headed south to meet a man in Key West. He nearly made it."

He gets rear-ended by Merry, who was distracted by shaving her cooch while driving. Actually, she's part of an insurance scam to bump drivers, but has been hired out to kidnap Coolman, who is Buck's agent, but they've got the wrong man. So begins the merry-go-round that ends up involving Andrew Yancy, a former detective busted to restaurant inspector, who wants back on the force and tries to solve the case of the missing Buck Nance.

No Hiassen book would be complete without a very stupid villain, and in Razor Girl there is a doozy nicknamed Blister. "Spending time with Benny the Blister had shaken Buck Nance’s confidence in the superiority of the white male.." Blister has killed a Muslim tourist, thinking he was ISIS, and kidnaps Buck and Coolman in an effort to get on the show. This involves the big agency in L.A., and of course Hiassen portrays these people as amoral and avaricious, but this is nothing new--agents have never been potrayed as heroic.

Hiassen also throws in the Mafia. As I mentioned in my review of Wonder Wheel, including the Mafia in a story like this is a cheat, like "it was all a dream." The Mafia in literature have become an omnipotent yet humorous way to deal with pesky things. Want to get rid of a problem? Befriend a mafioso. But don't cross him!

So Razor Girl is a little tired, but still readable. The character of Merry, while clearly a male fantasy, is fun, as is the depiction of the Keys in all their glory: '“Hey!” Richardson called after him. “Don’t forget to send me those pictures of your rash!' Only on Duval Street would such a line fail to turn any heads."

Friday, December 22, 2017

Good Time

Good Time was Film Comment's number one film of the year. It is a crime film, directed by Ben and Josh Safdie. It came and went last summer, despite great reviews, especially noted being lead actor Robert Pattinson.

Good Time has a plot that is a favorite of film makers, the heist gone awry (they never go as planned, do they?) Ben Safdie plays Nick, an emotionally and intellectually challenged man who is in a program after attacking his grandmother. His slick-talking brother (Pattinson) pulls him out, and the two pull a bank robbery (later Nick reveals that Pattinson had planned to buy him a farm, shades of Of Mice and Men).

I was just reading a statistic that 98 percent of bank robberies are solved. It's easy to rob a bank, as tellers are trained not to resist, but it's god damned hard to get away with it. The brothers have a little problem with dye packs in the money.

Safdie is captured but Pattinson gets away, and he spends the rest of the movie trying to get his brother free, which at first means getting bail. His girlfriend of sorts, Jennifer Jason Leigh, steals her mother's credit card to pay a bail bondsman, but it's canceled. Pattinson finds out his brother is in a hospital after being beaten in jail over a remote control, so there's a long sequence in which he takes him out by wheelchair but then discovers he has the wrong guy. That guy knows of some money from a robbery hidden in a haunted house attraction, so Pattinson is sidetracked by that.

Good Time is basically an urban nightmare in Queens (a good place for an urban nightmare). Pattinson's character, basically a cretin, has only one praiseworthy thing about him--he cares about his brother. He has no problem playing with the lives of other people. In one particularly cruel scene he knocks out a security guard, changes clothes with him, and dumps LSD down his throat, so the police take him away.

The film is in a world where everyone someone knows has been to jail, a step of the socio-economic ladder that I have not visited nor would I want to, except in film form. The Safdie Brothers keep things moving, and Pattinson is riveting. Like his Twilight co-star, Kristen Stewart, he has done a number of micro-budget indies, perhaps to atone for those popular movies, and here, looking nothing like Edward, he slinks through the movie like a hungry reptile. He won't get an Oscar nomination, as the film made no money, but he should get one.

Good Time really is an urban version of Of Mice and Men, minus the rabbits. I look forward to more of the Safdie's work. I hope they don't jump to comic book movies, at least not yet.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Wonder Wheel

Woody Allen's latest film, Wonder Wheel, is getting consistently panned, but I thought it was okay, and per usual, he gets the best out of his lead actress, this time Kate Winslet. In certain respects it's similar to Blue Jasmine, his last generally praised film, in that it deals with the mental breakdown of a beleaguered woman.

There are also other certain Allen indicators, such as a romanticism of New York, this time Coney Island, which probably never looked so good, even in its heyday, and an admiration for classic American drama. There are bits of Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and naked references to Eugene O'Neill. Allen, in interviews years ago, stated that comedy was eating dinner at the children's table, and drama was the adults. He has made a few excellent dramas, but this one is a bit shopworn.

It's about 1950, and Coney Island is starting to get seedy. The film is narrated by Justin Timberlake as a lifeguard and graduate student in drama (Timberlake, a fine actor, is too contemporary for this role). He falls in love with the older, harried, Ginny (Winslet), who is in a loveless marriage to the boorish Jim Belushi. She has a son from a previous marriage who is a pyromaniac (this is the only comedy of the movie, as the kid keeps lighting fires, even in his psychiatrist's office). They both work on the boardwalk, she as a waitress in a clam house, and he as the proprietor of the carousel.

Into their lives walks Juno Temple as Belushi's estranged daughter, who is on the run from her mobster husband (Allen has often used the Mafia in his films, but it's getting to be a lazy choice--his actors as mobsters are two guys well known from The Sopranos). Belushi agrees to hide her, while Winslet finds happiness with Timberlake. But then Timberlake falls in love with Temple. Anyone who knows anything of Allen's history will recognize falling in love with the daughter, even step, of your lover is something he knows about it.

The film is beautiful, shot by Vittorio Storarro. I lived in the New York area for almost forty years and never got to Coney Island, but I think I prefer not to go now and just picture the place as shown here. The photography, and Winslet's performance, are the reasons to see this. She plays a difficult woman, always having headaches, almost always disagreeable. She quickly becomes jealous of Temple, for good reason, and the climax of the film is fairly predictable. It's one of those acts that Allen contemplates in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Irrational Man, or Match Point.

I don't think Wonder Wheel is one of his classics but isn't terrible, either. He may be out of comedy ideas, but I'll continue to watch his films. I've seen everyone of them, and haven't missed one in a theater since before 1979.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian is a weird, wonderful novel from South Korean writer Han Kang. Since I don't know much (meaning nothing) about gastronomical cultural biases in Korea, I'm not sure if this is an extended metaphor, or just a case of one woman descending into madness. I have a feeling, though, that vegetarians or vegans in the West, who are already sensitive, will be a little put off by it.

The book is in three chapters, each narrated by a different person in the life of Yeong-hye. First up is her husband, who thinks of himself as completely normal, as his is wife: "And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world."

But that run-of-the-mill existence ends when Yeong-Hye stops eating meat. This is where the cultural part kicks in. In America, vegetarianism is not thought of as being lunacy, and one can certainly have a healthy diet without it (probably a lot healthier). But apparently in Korea this is craziness. Her husband tolerates it, but her parents are mortified. The woman also starts to rapidly lose weight, which I don't think would be true. Many people who go meatless end up packing on weight with too much bread, sweets, and cheese.

This is why I think the vegetarianism isn't just a choice for her. Indeed, she proclaims that it came to her in a dream: "Yells and howls, threaded together layer upon layer, are enmeshed to form that lump. Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides."

The first chapter ends when her father literally shoves meat into her mouth, and she cuts her wrist with a fruit knife. Her husband divorces her.

The second chapter gets even weirder, and is narrated by Yeong-Hye's brother-in-law. He's a videographer, and begins to have sexual fantasies about her, mostly stemming from hearing that she has a Mongolian mark (which we would call a birthmark). "Its pale blue-green resembled that of a faint bruise, but it was clearly a Mongolian mark. It called to mind something ancient, something pre-evolutionary, or else perhaps a mark of photosynthesis, and he realized to his surprise that there was nothing at all sexual about it; it was more vegetal than sexual." He asks her to model for him--he paints her nude body with flowers. Then he paints himself and has sex with her.

The final chapter is told from her sister's point of view (the husband of the videographer). By now Young-Hye has anorexia and will not eat anything, and thinks of herself as a tree. Her sister notes, "Her life was no more than a ghostly pageant of exhausted endurance, no more real than a television drama. Death, who now stood by her side, was as familiar to her as a family member, missing for a long time but now returned."

So what exactly is The Vegetarian about? I honestly have no idea, but I enjoyed the ride. A person steeped in Korean culture may have a better idea. If this book had been written by an American it might be a comment on consumerism, which is akin to eating. But I have the feeling there's a deeper meaning in Korea, where history and culture go back a lot further.

The Vegetarian was translated into English by Deborah Smith, and it makes a suspenseful read. That Yeong-hye is not allowed to speak for herself leads us to consider that the narrators may not be reliable. Certainly the second section, with the sexual fantasies of a man losing his bearings, objectify her. He sees her as a canvas. The first section is more about culture, where a grown woman can be infantilized by her parents, who literally shove food into her mouth. The third section may well be about madness--that the vegetarianism the young woman goes through is indicative of mental illness. Certainly this view is not held in the West.

The Vegetarian is not like any book I've read before, and is a short and terrific read.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Atomic Blonde

Charlize Theron, after her role in Mad Max: Fury Road and now Atomic Blonde, seems to have settled into a role as premiere bad-ass female. Now 42and still a knockout, she's often played roles that required hand-to-hand combat and weaponry, but nothing so much as her role as Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 operative in Berlin as the wall came down.

The film doesn't have a lot new to say. I thought back to La Femme Nikita, from 1990, and there was Modesty Blaise before that. Theron did it herself in Aeon Flux in 1995. The more realistic and specific setting gives the film a patina of authenticity, although we get the usual Bond/Bourne habit of having our hero defeat many people single-handedly. It wasn't as bad as the Japanese segment of Kill Bill, but it will do.

Theron, right before the Berlin Wall comes down, is assigned to find a list of all agents that was hidden in a fellow spy's watch (this McGuffin is always ludicrous--why would any agency put all their names in the same place?). It was first in the hands of a Russian spy, who has put it in the open market. She is assisted by the English guy in Berlin, James McAvoy. But can she trust him? She's told to trust no one, so I guess not.

There's also a mole loose in British Intelligence. There's not a lot of people it can be, and I'm still not quite sure who it was. Also, in a more modern twist, Theron has the requisite spy-movie sex, but with another woman (Sofia Boutella), a French agent.

As much as these kids of films pop up--there are about four or five "female assassin" movies on the Black List, screenplays that are well-liked but not yet made, they don't do great business, which makes the success of Wonder Woman all the more remarkable (I'm of the opinion that upcoming Ocean's 8, with an all-female cast, will bomb). Theron plays the role as a very cool customer, hardly moving her lips. I don't know how many of her own stunts she did--if none of them, then she really hardly did anything here. But it's all very high in the spectrum of cool--I think the adolescent male likes the idea of a woman who can beat the shit out of a man, and so do women, but for different reasons. A sequel does not seem to be in the works, though.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Big Sick

The Big Sick, which is a terrible title, came out this last summer to do middlin' business with great reviews, but I was kept away by the title. It's been lauded on many top ten lists and some key awards organizations (shut out by the Golden Globes, but nominated for the SAG ensemble). It may actually get some Oscar nominations, so I thought I should see it.

I'm of two minds about it. I appreciate that is a romantic comedy with intelligence. I've written here that romantic comedies used to be a genre of films that were worked on by the best of Hollywood, but are now mostly stupid junk that ends up being aimed at women who fantasize about home decor and/or weddings. But The Big Sick is smartly written, drolly funny (not laugh out loud funny, but many smiles) with winning performances.

But! This is a true story how star Kumail Nanjiani met his wife, Emily Gordon (they are the co-writers, Zoe Kazan steps in for Emily). They meet cute, as he's a comedian and picks her up by writing her name down in Urdu (he's from Pakistan). They hit it off but he can't commit to a relationship with her because his family expect him to marry a Pakistani girl, and he would be ostracized if he married a white girl. Understandably, Emily dumps him.

Then comes the sick part. I realize this a true story but that doesn't mean it makes for good drama. Emily gets a mysterious infection and is induced into a medical coma. Her parents (Ray Romano and Holly Hunter) come to her side, and can't get rid of Kumail. He is a constant presence, and the parents get to like him. The problem with all this is that it feels like an adolescent fantasy. It could be a woman's--oh, he was by my bedside the whole time, now I know that he really loves me--but Emily has none of that. Instead it's a male savior complex--I'll help her while she's sick, and she can't help but love me.

Movies about illnesses are a tough sell in cynical times like these. If you keep thinking that this is true, and that the two do actually get married and write the movie together, maybe it will work for you. It almost did for me. Nanjiani's scenes with his family are very good, as he resists their attempts at arranged marriage (every time he comes over for dinner, an eligible woman "drops by"--he keeps their headshots (!) in a cigar box. This is a welcome insight about cultures in America that still retain customs of the old country, even though they want their son to have an American life.

Nanjiani, who is unfamiliar to me (I've never seen his act or the TV shows he's been on) is appealing if a little wooden (he has to explain his jokes, and he keeps apologizing). Kazan is very appealing, but it's Romano and Hunter that steal the show, even though I really can't picture them together. Romano still has traces of his Everybody Loves Raymond character, and Hunter is the usual spitfire, but they give the film a lift during the sometimes maudlin hospital scenes.

I give The Big Sick a modest thumbs up, but it's not Oscar material.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Also nominated for Best Picture in 1967 is one of Stanley Kramer's well-intentioned but ultimately dated exercises in liberal guilt, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? It was released almost exactly 50 years ago, and at the time was quite shocking--it showed the first screen interracial kiss, and was the first film to deal with miscegenation in a positive light.

Kramer did this by using old film tropes and old stars--it ended up being more about the leads--Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. It was their ninth and last teaming, and Tracy died just seventeen days after filming ending. The producers could not get insurance for him, and his bad health was apparent to everyone.

Anyhow, the plot is set in motion by their daughter, Katharine Houghton (Hepburn's real-life niece) arriving home with a surprise--a fiance. Only he's black. This shocks Hepburn, who learns of it first, but she's quickly on board. Tracy plays a liberal newspaper publisher whose objections were often heard to this kind of marriage--the problems they will encounter, especially their children. It was a way to sound noble while exhibiting his racism, which he never had to encounter before.

Eventually Poitier's parents arrive (his mother, Beah Richards, is also immediately for the union) but his father is even more stubborn than Tracy, a sideways shot at the conservatism of pre-King blacks (the maid, played by Isabel Sanford, is also against). The story is structured like a play, with characters pairing up for conversations. It ends with Tracy giving about a five-minute speech, his valedictory, declaring "In the final analysis, it doesn't matter a damn what we think. It's how they feel." He then goes to declare his love for his wife, and Hepburn looks on with tears in her eyes, knowing he was dying, and knowing they were each other's great loves. It puts the racial aspects of the film on the back burner.

The film is very witty and well-acted, but it makes a critical mistake in retrospect that Kramer knew he had to make. The film portrays Poitier as perfect. He has no flaws. He's a doctor who has done everything but win the Nobel Prize. He hasn't even gone to bed with Houghton. But he had to be perfect, since that would have made the only reason to be against the marriage to be racial. With seventeen states still having anti-miscegenation laws on the books (it was before Loving v. Virginia was decided, ending them), the point was race. A movie today, when mixed race marriage is much more acceptable, would have to made both man and wife (Houghton was pretty much perfect, too) more realistic.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? received Oscar nominations in all four acting categories. Cecil Kellaway, as a nosy priest friend, was in the Supporting Actor category, Richards in Supporting Actress. Hepburn won, her second Oscar (she was only halfway done). Tracy's wife was in the audience should he win posthumously. but he didn't. He lost to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night, the next film I will discuss.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Nocturama

Film Comment has released their annual poll of the best films of the year. I've seen some, but many of them were never released out here in the desert, and some of them I've never heard of. But I do due diligence in trying to see them all.

First up is Nocturama, a French-language film, set in Paris, and directed by Bertrand Bonello. It is a film that refuses to follow normal narrative rules. As I understand it from things I've read, this is on purpose, making it in exercise in style and at the same time largely incoherent.

The film is about terrorism. For the first half of the film, we follow eight young people as they move about the city, planning bombings in a couple different places, as well as setting a statue of Joan of Arc on fire. After they set off the bombs, they hide out in a department store all night.

That's about all I know because that's all the script tells us. It does not say what they believe in (there a few words about the failure of democracy), how they met, or why they would all hide out in the same place, making them sitting ducks. The second half of the film is especially dumb, as the bombers play music, try on clothes, and have sex in the store. Doesn't basic common sense tell a group like this they need to immediately split up after committing their crimes?

The characters are also thinly drawn. In the opening scenes, we get statements of what time it is, but not of who is who. I only picked up some names as the film went on. Four of the characters are couples, and the group is interracial, but nothing is really said about that, though it would have made the film more interesting.

Those who praise the film seem to like that it is unconventional, but I found the film to be dull and had no stake in any of the characters. Frankly, I find it difficult to see how Nocturama could be on any best of the year list. It's a dud.

Friday, December 15, 2017

City by the Sea

One of the saddest things about Hollywood in the last twenty years is the de-evolution of Robert De Niro's career. Aside from the three films he's made with David O. Russell, he's made mostly crap. Perhaps the blame can be put on his insistence that he's better at comedy (he certainly was great in Silver Lining's Playbook). Or perhaps he just wants to work (or make money).

He has a large body of work this century that is highly forgettable. One of them is City by the Sea, from 2002, which for some reason was in my Netflix queue. It's got a good cast--he co-stars with Frances McDormand and a young James Franco, but it's a fairly routine cop film. What stands about it is that De Niro did not just phone in his performance. He grabbed me instantly and took me into the film.

Roughly based on a true story, De Niro plays a cop whose father was executed for murder. He grew up in Long Beach, once a lovely community, the "City by the Sea," which is now run down. He walked out on his wife (Patti Lupone) and son (Franco) some years earlier, and now Franco is a junkie. After an altercation with a drug dealer, Franco is now wanted for murder.

The film shows the balance De Niro must show in performing his duty but watching out for his son. The film was directed with general competence by Michael Caton-Jones, who ably shows the decay of a neighborhood. One of the key sets is a former casino and amusement park now fallen into disrepair and used as a shooting gallery.

Also in the cast are Eliza Dushku as Franco's girlfriend, and William Forsythe, a reliable villain, as the chief drug dealer in the era. City by the Sea is an okay time-waster, but it shows that even in less sterling projects, De Niro can still bring it.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Alias Grace

Margaret Atwood has been a prominent author this year, but it's for her back catalogue turned in to streaming series. Her best known novel, The Handmaid's Tale, has been hailed as prophecy and an Emmy-nominated series on Hulu (I read the book years ago and have watched two episodes of the show, which is terrific but very disturbing) and her 1996 novel, Alias Grace, has been turned into a Netflix show. I've watched a few episodes after finishing the novel.

The book itself is very good if a bit convoluted. But eventually it takes shape after some shifting narratives. Grace Marks, a young woman who emigrated to Canada from Ireland, has been arrested for murder. Her accomplice, Jim McDermott, was hanged, but her sentence was commuted to life in prison. She was initially in an asylum but then moved to a prison, and her good behavior has earned her the opportunity of doing needlework in the governor's mansion (many of the chapters are titled after types of quilts).

This is all true--Grace Marks was a celebrated murderess. "The reason they want to see me is that I am a celebrated murderess. Or that is what has been written down. When I first saw it I was surprised, because they say Celebrated Singer and Celebrated Poetess and Celebrated Spiritualist and Celebrated Actress, but what is there to celebrate about murder?"

Atwood creates a fictional psychiatrist, Dr. Simon Jordan, an American who has been enlisted by the local clergyman to write a report that might lead to Grace's pardon. The book is then set up as alternating between her story, as told to Jordan, and his own experiences. He becomes obsessed with Grace, and substitutes his feelings for her with a sordid affair with his landlady. Jordan is weak and ineffectual, and does not help Grace at all, though they form a certain kind of bond during his interviews.

Grace's story starts with passage to Canada from Ireland. Her mother dies aboard the ship. Her drunken, abusive father gets her a job as a maid, where she meets a young friend, Mary Whitney (she will later take Mary's name when she is on the lam). Mary dies from a botched abortion. After a few changes of employment she ends up working for a Mr. Kinnear, along with the head maid, Nancy Montgomery, and the ruffian McDermott. The events of the murder are clouded in mystery. Did Grace participate in them, strangling Nancy with her own kerchief? She can not remember the event.

Victorian pseudoscience is on display, as a one-time peddler turned hypnotist attempts to get to the bottom of things with Grace, but that brings about a surprise. Is Grace a liar, or a victim?

As with many of Atwood's books, Alias Grace is a look at the treatment of women, shoddy as it was. The knowledge of medicine and psychology is crude: "Respectable women are by nature sexually cold, without the perverse lusts and the neurasthenic longings that drive their degenerate sisters into prostitution; or so goes the scientific theory."

Jordan and Grace's fates are interesting handled. Of course Jordan was fictional, and Atwood gives him an ironic destiny, as he goes off to fight in the Civil War. The real Grace vanished into history, and I won't spoil what Atwood does with her, other than it is humane, more than she was treated by society.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Doctor Dolittle

It's that time of year when I look fifty years back at the films nominated for Best Picture. I've been watching several films from 1967, but now it's time for the big five. But, I've already written about two of them: The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. Both of these films were game-changers, so naturally they didn't win. I highly recommend Mark Harris' book Pictures at a Revolution to get the behind the scenes on all five nominees.

The worst nominee that year, and probably in the top ten of worst nominees of all time, was Doctor Dolittle. It bombed financially and was universally hated by critics, so how did it get nominated? The truth is that studios still had major clout and Academy members had loyalty to their studios, and 20th Century Fox put this film out as their choice. They also wined and dined members, in what would be against the rules today. Thus, a film nobody really liked got a Best Picture nomination.

The film tells the story of a doctor who gets along better with people than animals (it sorts of prefigures autism--clearly Dolittle is on the spectrum). With the help of his parrot, Polynesia, he learns to talk to animals, and has a thriving practice (though he earns little money). He longs to find a rare animal, the giant pink sea snail, and along with a friend, a little boy, and a woman, sets sail and ends up on a floating island.

I read some of the Doctor Dolittle books when I was a kid and remember liking them a great deal. I went to see this film when it first came out, and I'm surprised I managed to sit through it, because it is a colossal bore. I don't why they made a children's film two and a half hours long. There's very little to keep young ones interested, other than animals and some slapstick. The songs, other than the Oscar-winning "Talk to the Animals," are entirely forgettable.

Doctor Dolittle also had tremendous problems getting made, outlined in Harris' book. First, Alan Jay Lerner was hired to compose the music and procrastinated for over a year, and got fired. Then, during production, they had to deal with both Rex Harrison, a monstrous man, and all the animals. There must have been shit everywhere (and I'm not talking about Harrison).

There's not much to recommend this picture. Harrison is good, though there's a lot of Henry Higgins in the performance (he talks-sings as he usually does). There's also a kind of creepy love triangle. Samantha Eggar, who plays the high-born woman who initially hates Dolittle, first seems to fall in love with his friend, Anthony Newley. Newley even sings a song about how happy he is. But by the end of the film she plants a kiss on Dolittle's mouth, and seems to be pining for him. Women--so capricious.

I watched this film on DVD on a Sunday afternoon when I could stop and start it frequently, the only way to tolerate it.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Blood in the Water

I like to think I'm up on my U.S. history, but if you're like me, you may not know much about Attica except that Al Pacino shouts it in Dog Day Afternoon. I did know it was a prison uprising, but I did not know that it was handled extremely badly by the government, with almost all the deaths attributed to New York State Troopers, including hostages, 43 in all with many more wounded.

Heather Ann Thompson's Pulitzer Prize-winning account, Blood in the Water, contains everything you need to know about the riot. "One might well wonder why it has taken forty-five years for a comprehensive history of the Attica prison uprising of 1971 to be written. The answer is simple: the most important details of this story have been deliberately kept from the public. Literally thousands of boxes of documents relating to these events are sealed or next to impossible to access."

Prison conditions in 1971 were not ideal (have they ever been?). Two weeks after an inmate's death emotions came to a boil, and the prisoners were able to take control of the prison. "The two COs watching over the A Yard group, John D’Arcangelo and Walter Zymowski, felt their knees go weak as a group of prisoners approached them and snatched their rings of keys. These officers watched helplessly as the group went over to the door to A Tunnel and, after struggling a bit to open the lock, flooded into the already cramped space to join in the fracas."

Many of the prisoners had been radicalized by either Islam or the current political situation. A list of demands was drawn up. "Observers," neutral people who would make sure there was no funny business, were called in (these included newspaper columnist Tom Wicker and politicians such as Herman Badillo). Meanwhile, the state police gathered outside the prison walls, chomping at the bit to rush in.

The first quarter of the book covers the siege. Demands were argued over. Black Panther Bobby Seale was brought in to talk to the prisoners. Some demands were unlikely to be met, such as being allowed to go to another country, but the sticking point was general amnesty, since one of the guards died after the takeover. Eventually Governor Nelson Rockefeller had enough and the police, along with the National Guard, went in. It was carnage.

Rockefeller and the state spun it that the prisoners had committed atrocities, when actually they tried to save the hostage's lives. The state police just started shooting, killing hostages as well as inmates. Prisoners were also tortured, and medical treatment was slow or completely lacking.

The rest of the book is about the investigations and trials that happened, some of them all the way up until the 2000s. Prisoners were charged with murder. Some were convicted, some acquitted. Then, a man named Marcus Bell, who initially worked for the prosecution, realized that the state was lying and switched sides. A lawyer named Elizabeth Fink worked on a suit brought by the prisoners against the state of New York, and won.

That prisoners won money for a riot they started outraged the surviving hostages and the families of the dead, who received a pittance. Another lawsuit was launched, and anger by these families against the prisoners cooled when they realized they had a common enemy--the state. These families eventually won some money, forty years later.

Blood in the Water is a long book, and full of details. It wasn't a slog, but certainly the action of the first part is more interesting than the seemingly never-ending trials of the last part. Those with only a fleeting interest should be warned away (this would have been an ideal book to be abridged by Reader's Digest). But the book does have dramatic arcs. Some people stand out as characters, such as Frank Smith, known as "Big Black," a prisoner who was tortured who fought for years for restitution, organizing the legal efforts and eventually befriending Dee Quinn, daughter of a guard who was killed.

Thompson's subtitle is "The Attica Prison Uprising in 1971 and Its Legacy." The legacy is not improved conditions in prisons. Nothing improved and prisons today are overcrowded and guards just as brutal. Instead, Thompson writes, "The Attica prison uprising of 1971 shows the nation that even the most marginalized citizens will never stop fighting to be treated as human beings. It testifies to this irrepressible demand for justice. This is Attica’s legacy."


Monday, December 11, 2017

The Disaster Artist

What is it about bad movies that we like so much? While watching The Disaster Artist, which is about the making of supposedly the worst movie ever made, I of course thought of Ed Wood, which was about the worst director ever. Bad films are used for fodder for what's called "riffing," whether it's on MST3K or in your own living room.

But it takes a special bad film to be celebrated. Just another Hollywood clunker won't do. They have to be cheap, and here's the important thing--they have to be made by people who think they are creating greatness.

That's the case of Tommy Wiseau, a mysterious creepy guy who made The Room, which I've never seen but now I don't think I need to. It plays midnight shows and by all accounts is terrible, but the passion involved in its production shows through, and people can't help but love it.

James Franco directs and plays Wiseau in The Disaster Artist, and while it's not as good as Ed Wood it has its pleasures, most of them involving Franco's performance as a genuinely weird guy.

The film also starts Franco's brother, David, who gets to play the thankless role of the bland guy, Greg, who is our entry into the film and Wiseau's world. He is in an acting class in San Francisco and is impressed by Wiseau's completely over the top rendering of the "Stella" scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. Despite Wiseau's inherent weirdness (he has some sort of accent, a kind of Eastern European/brain damage kind), plus a mysterious source of money, and it seems no other friends but Greg. They room together in L.A. and try to become stars. One of the film's faults is that it can't convince me why a normal guy like Greg would ever room with this guy, because I certainly wouldn't.

They both struggle, although Greg's good looks get him an agent. Wiseau has a hilariously vicious encounter with Judd Apatow, who in no uncertain terms tell him he'll never make it. So they decide to make their own money. Wiseau writes a script about a man betrayed by his girl. They hire a crew, including Seth Rogen as script supervisor, who has no idea what he's getting into.

The "making of" part of the film is very funny, but, like Ed Wood, you appreciate the effort Wiseau. Things do get ugly--people quit, and when Greg moves in with his girlfriend, Allison Brie, Wiseau acts like a jealous lover.

I think, although Franco as a director doesn't quite nail it, that the spine of the film is Wiseau's essential loneliness. The cast wonders whether the script is from his own life, and clearly he is coming from a place of deep pain. He is also wounded whenever it is suggested he has the look for villain roles. "I am not villain," he wails.

The film has to rest on James Franco's performance. With Ed Wood, there were hardly any normal people, with terrific performances by Martin Landau and Jeffrey Jones and Bill Murray. But The Disaster Artist is just Franco, and is basically like the "Springtime for Hitler" sequence in The Producers, with comic shots of people looking slack-jawed at what is going on. Rogen, playing his standard part, has a lot of good sarcastic lines, but it's Franco who makes the movie worth seeing. He deserves an Oscar nomination.




Sunday, December 10, 2017

Vagabond

A young woman, a vagrant, is found frozen to death in a ditch. Who is she? Where is she from? Where was she going? In Agnes Varda's 1985 film Vagabond, these answers are not easily forthcoming. As played by Sandrine Bonnaire, the young woman seems to have come out of thin air, or perhaps it's the sea.

We do know her name, it is Mona Bergeron. She is a drifter, going from place to place, "camping," as she calls it, although she is really homeless. It is winter, and she sometimes sleeps outside in a tent, but will crash with a kind person (or sometimes will squat in an otherwise abandoned house). She likes cigarettes, occasionally has sex with other drifters, and is not a particularly happy person.

Does she have a family? We can assume so. She says she was in secretarial school when she took off, but who knows if what she says is the truth. She is defiant, and unsentimental.

The homeless are an issue in almost every Western nation, and when we see someone and think about it we may wonder what their story is. When it's a young person, we might assume a runaway, mental illness, drugs. Mona does not seem to do drugs--she sometimes gives blood for money, which a heroin addict couldn't do. She is also not working as a prostitute--at one point, an actual streetwalker chases her away, saying the sight of her will lose business. Though film is not a medium for smell, we are told several  times that she reeks, and by the clothes she wears we can almost smell it.

This is a difficult film to watch. For one, we know she comes to a bad end, as the first image is of her corpse. Varda does not give us a wrapped-up explanation, such as her being "misunderstood," or any other tidy reason. She does give her a bit of mythology, though. The first time we see Mona, she is naked, emerging from the sea, like Aphrodite.

I've got a few more Varda films to see, but of her narrative films Vagabond is her strongest.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Nutshell

Ian McEwan is one of my favorite authors. He's written about all sorts of things, from the deadly serious Atonement to the comic Solar. Of his books I've read, Nutshell is his most comic by far--it's a murder mystery told by a fetus.

Yes, our story is narrated by a fetus. It has no name, of course, but it has quite a vocabulary. The conceit is that the little fellow (he is male, I recall) has an education that would rival an Oxonian, and he hears everything and understands it. He can't see, of course, and at times that defies logic: how could he understand the concept of "purple?" But it's very funny.

The title comes from one of my favorite Shakespearean quotes, from Hamlet: "Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad
dreams." As the novel begins, our hero is in utero with his mother Trudy, who has broken up with his father, a poet, and taken up with his brother, Claude, whom the baby finds quite stupid. "And Claude, like a floater, is barely real. Not even a colourful chancer, no hint of the smiling rogue. Instead, dull
to the point of brilliance, vapid beyond invention, his banality as finely wrought as the arabesques of the Blue Mosque. Here is a man who whistles continually, not songs but TV jingles, ringtones, who brightens a morning with Nokia’s mockery of Tárrega." The baby realizes, to his horror, that they plan on killing his father.

What sustains the concept is the uproarious and absurdly erudite narration of the fetus. His first line is "So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for." He gives us insight into a situation we've all been in but have no memory of, such as: "Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose," or "How solipsism becomes the unborn."

Trudy is not one to have read all the literature on pregnancy, because not only does she have sex rather late in her gestation, but she drinks wine. But the little bugger doesn't mind: "I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good
burgundy (her favourite) or a good Sancerre (also her favourite) decanted through a healthy placenta."

This is funny stuff. The second half of the book, after the crime is committed, is the fetus listening to the investigation. In the end, before Trudy and Claude can escape, he does the only thing he can possibly do. It fulfills the mandate of endings: be unpredictable but inevitable.

Nutshell is a wonderful comic novel, McEwan writes giddily, as if he came up with the idea and finished in, laughing at his computer (or whatever he writes with). Hard to see how could they make it a movie, though.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Cleo from 5 to 7

Agnes Varda's 1962 film Cleo from 5 to 7 is one of the major films of the French New Wave, along with Breathless and The 400 Blows. It was existential film about a flighty young singer, which doesn't seem to go together and at times I found it confounding. It's more of historical importance than entertaining.

Varda, as the title indicates, shoots the film in real time, cheating a bit here and there during car rides. Each chapter is about five minutes long,and follows the time along perfectly. Cleo packs a lot into an hour and a half (it doesn't go all the way to seven o'clock), especially when I realize I can spend that much time doing nothing but laying in bed.

The time of the film is Cleo waiting for a medical test result. She fears she has cancer. The first scene is at a fortune teller, where she is having tarot cards read for her (interestingly, the shots of the cards are the only color in this otherwise black and white film). The reader sees only bad things for her, and withholds some information, which makes Cleo even more panicked. She meets with her personal assistant, Angele, and they go shopping for hats, but Cleo is only interested in black hats, even though it's the first day of summer.

From then on she goes home, meets briefly with her lover, who has no time for her, and then goes back out to meet her friend, a nude artist's model. "I'm happy with my body, not proud of it," she tells Cleo. They take a drive, and Cleo ends up in a park, where she meets a young soldier who is back from the Algerian War (this is a topic throughout the film, as it has to be--it would be like making a film about American in 1968 and not mentioning Vietnam). The soldier is a philosophical sort, who makes Cleo feel better.

Corinne Marchand plays Cleo, in what appears to be her only major role. She is a pop singer, and there is some horseplay when she is visited by her collaborators (composer Michelle LeGrand plays one of them). She also visits a movie theater, where she watches a silent short film in the manner of Harold Lloyd, starring Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina. Godard has been wearing dark glasses and it gives him a dim view of the world; once he throws him in the river he sees the world in a better light.

All of this can be said to be a commentary on mortality. I can't imagine what I would go through in Cleo's place, especially for one so young. She is preparing for a death sentence, while at the same time trying not to think about it. An entire life can go by in such a short period.

This was Varda's major contribution to the New Wave--the features that followed weren't as celebrated (or available) until Vagabond in 1985.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Farewell, My Lovely

Another major Hollywood centenary this year is that of Robert Mitchum, who was born in 1917. While never included as one of the Hollywood greats, he was a reliable leading man who mostly played the tough guy with a heart. Interestingly, he died within a day or two of Jimmy Stewart. On their show, Gene Siskel said that Stewart was his favorite movie star, Roger Ebert said his was Robert Mitchum.

I'm going to try to sneak in a few Mitchum movies I haven't seen before the year ends. Many of his best films can be found on my site, such as Out of the Past, The Night of the Hunter, and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, as well as a few that I wouldn't say are great films: The Track of the Cat and The Sundowners.

I'll start with Farewell, My Lovely, an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel featuring Philip Marlowe. It had been made originally under the title Murder, My Sweet in 1946, but this is the kind of book that deserves a remaking every generation or two. Mitchum played Marlowe, much older than the character is supposed to be, but his basset hound expression gives credence to the claims that Marlowe is "old and tired."

The story is considerably different than the book and the first movie. It still begins with Mitchum telling the tale to the police in flashback. He had been hired by a mountain of a man, Moose Malloy (Jack O'Halloran, a former boxer) who is just out of the can and looking for his girl, Velma. As with many detective novels, a second job, involving a stolen jade necklace, will link together and end in a shootout on a yacht (in the book it's a beach house).

What is changed is interesting. For one, the concept of race is added, as Mitchum, going to where Velma last worked, is in the black part of town. Secondly, the character of Jessie Florian, the washed up dancer, is treated much more sympathetically. In the book, she has the face like a "bucket of warm mud," but here Sylvia Miles plays her with much more depth (she would earn an Oscar nomination for the part). Thirdly, the character of Jules Amthor, expert on jade, is changed to Frances Amthor, a madam. Finally, and perhaps most significant, the character of Anne, the "good girl," is cut completely.

Still there is Helen Grayle, the femme fatale, played sleekly by Charlotte Rampling. Also still there is much of Chandler's writing, much of it in voiceover by Mitchum.

In small roles are Harry Dean Stanton, as a crooked cop, and Sylvester Stallone, who I believe has no dialogue as a thug (he does get to shoot someone).

Farewell, My Lovely, directed by Dick Richards, isn't top drawer Chandler--it can't touch the original The Big Sleep or Murder, My Sweet. Mitchum was the only actor to play Marlowe twice--he would play him again in a remake of The Big Sleep set in London (!) a few years later.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Blue Jay

Having time on my hands that I didn't expect to have, I went looking for a movie on Netflix and landed on Blue Jay. Mostly I choose movies by time, because if it's no good at least its short.

The film was released briefly in 2016 before going to Netflix streaming, and is very basic: mostly two characters. It's more like a play than a film, though it has a few artful touches, such as being in black and white. Blue Jay was written by Mark Duplass, who also starts, and was directed competently by Alex Lehmann.

Duplass and Sarah Paulson bump into each other in a supermarket in their old home town. They used to date years ago, and have both come back for a spell. Small talk in the supermarket aisle turns into an entire night together, as they reminisce and almost rekindle the spark they had twenty years earlier.

For the most part I liked this film. Duplass plays a sad sack, while Paulson appears to be normal and successful (but of course she's not). The film even includes a ticking bomb: Paulson has bought ice cream that is in the trunk of her car. They keep referring to it, and my OCD was kicking in because I never would have left it in there. Lehmann might have added interstitial shots of the ice cream melting for suspense.

Paulson and Duplass find all sorts of stuff relating to their relationship in his mother's old house (she's dead, he's renovating) including, somewhat unbelievably, a cassette tape of them pretending to be married adults with children. Do couples in high school really do that? Duplass doubles down on this, with the two of them acting out that it's their twentieth anniversary. I found this to be ridiculous,

Of course there's a big reveal at the end that I won't spoil. At 80 minutes, Blue Jay (the film is titled after a diner that they visit) seems long, maybe because it's just the two of them and it's hard to stay interested in just two people for that long. Also, Duplass' acting is not up to Paulson's.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Crazy Rhythms

I'm working on a play. I haven't said those words in over thirty years, and it's good to say them. Once upon a time I was a playwright, and that's what I wanted to be, but like so many wishes and dreams, it didn't pan out. Since then I've written screenplays and short stories and one novel, but I think plays are the thing for me.

In coming up with an an idea, I decided to return to days I remember well: it's 1980, the day after The Empire Strikes Back opened. The setting is a comic book shop, but next door is a record store (selling only vinyl, maybe some cassettes).

The year 1980 was an interesting one, as I went over the list of releases that year. Classic rock was heaving its last breaths. Paul McCartney and Elton John both out new albums that years (fuck, they still are!), but to us college kids the future lay in new wave. I was never really into punk, I mean hard-core punk like The Sex Pistols and Ramones (although I have learned my proper respect) but I was very much into new wave. While Pink Floyd's The Wall still dominated many college dorm stereos, new groups like The Police and Talking Heads were gaining my interest.

One group that I missed entirely was The Feelies, who are now thought of as indicative of that era, as much as Joy Division. They were from New Jersey (not too far from where I lived in 1980) and formed in 1976. From the cover of their first album, Crazy Rhythms, which came out just before in time to be mentioned in my play, they look pretty clean cut. And they were in response to punk, not part of it, so they get dumped in the huge rock pile called "post-punk." They are also labeled jangle-pop for their very loose and easy guitar work. To get into the mind-set of 1980 I listened to it this week.

There are a few interesting things about this record. One, they have some of the longest mostly silent intros I've heard. The first song "The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness," goes for many seconds without a sound, which made me think my CD player wasn't working. "Forces at Work," at over seven minutes, more like a prog-rock song than punk, the intro, with just some very minor tapping noises, goes almost two minutes.

They also do a Beatles cover that is better than the original, which is very rare. "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey" is one of the most punk songs the Beatles ever did, and The Feelies get it. A chugging guitar lick throughout and vocals that sound like they are coming from the next room are winners.

All the songs are fine here, including the very pop "Fa Ce-La," "Moscow Nights," "Raised Eyebrows," and the title track. Lyrically they are not great poets, but the title track (which ended up being the name of a record store in Montclair, New Jersey) does have some remnants of the era:

"Said it's time to go, well alright
I don't wanna go, I say alright
You never listen to me anyway
You're always talking, never much to say
You remind me of a TV show
That's alright, I watch it anyway
I don't talk much cause it gets in the way
Don't let it get in the way"

Monday, December 04, 2017

The Untouchables

In writing about Robert De Niro movies it may strange to include The Untouchables. De Niro is a supporting character, the mob boss Al Capone. But it has become an iconic De Niro role. The baseball bat scene. The crying turn to smiling at the opera. Or "I want him dead! I want his family dead!"

Really The Untouchables had two scene stealers. Sean Connery, in as much a thank you for all the Bond money as for the performance, won the Oscar for playing the straight beat cop who helps Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness beat Capone. He grinds out his line as if he were chewing gristle, and I couldn't tell if he was trying an Irish accent or just using his own Scottish one.

But he's fun. The Untouchables is a fun, flashy film, even if it is unhistorical and derivative. After all, that's what Brian DePalma is known for, right? He took the template of the old-fashioned gangster picture, made it look sleek and modern, and cast it well (Costner, the lead, is made blander than it would seem possible). But he's also a director who has other directors swimming around in his bloodstream. For Dressed to Kill he borrowed from Hitchcock, but in The Untouchables it's Sergei Potemkin. In the train station scene, which is a great set-piece, the baby carriage scene seems thievery more than homage.

The film is sumptuous in all its colors, and it's great sets and costumes. David Mamet's script is surprisingly sentimental--could he have really written the scenes with Ness and his wife and children? At least in the fight between Connery and the crooked police captain the "fucks' start flying out.

As for history, the TV show on which is was based was before the time of the demographic of the 1987 audience. I think they might have been trying to tap the Scarface crowd, and Paramount owned the intellectual property of the TV Untouchables. They went from nine Untouchables to four (was anyone else surprised that Charles Martin Smith's accountant character knew how to ride a horse?) and made a taut, wonderful story. And a story it was. Eliot Ness was real, Al Capone was sent up for tax evasion, and Frank Nitti was an enforcer for Capone, but Nitti did not fall into a car from a significant height--he outlived Capone and became his successor.

But no matter. The Connery character is completely fictional, and this is more like the Westworld version of T-men and gangsters.

And as for De Niro, the reason I watched it, this seems to be about the time he lets his inner spotlight-hugger comes out. Al Pacino would perfect it in Dick Tracy, and De Niro would do almost the meta thing in Analyze This, but his Capone is just great prosciutto ham. The little speech about teamwork in baseball before the punishment, or the way he wears his camel-hair coat down the stairs while calling Costner out on his threats. It's a star turn by a great star.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Old School

My three year experiment in becoming a teacher has ended, and pretty much for the reasons that kept me from doing it many years ago. But more about that in a minute.

Three years ago last fall I came to Las Vegas after my good friend who lives here said that there was a shortage of teachers. I was temping and my prospects were dim and I've always been fascinated by Las Vegas so I jumped. I took a six-week course that enabled me to be hired by the Clark County School District, and I got a job teaching sixth grade English (six weeks is not long enough to learn how to be a teacher).

That was probably the first mistake. I had hoped to get a high school job, because my great character flaw is a lack of patience. So me trying to keep calm a room full of 11 and 12-year olds just wasn't a good proposition. But I had been looking for a job for a few months and took it, and I lasted two and a half years.

There was some good and some bad in those years. My biggest problem was classroom management, which is maintaining discipline through a consistent dispensation of rewards and consequences. But I just couldn't get it. No matter what I did the kids, being kids, were rowdy. Some were quiet as mice, but if you have two or three kids who will not do what their told, despite being sent to the dean, given detention, or having their parents notified, it will disrupt the class. I was both a softy and a meanie--I tended to look the other way on some things just to avoid problems, but when I did address something it inevitably involved yelling.

My third year through I thought I had improved, since the dean, who is on my permanent shit list, gave me a glowing observation. At the same time, though, she was recommending non-renewal, which meant it would be recommended to the Board of Education that I be terminated. This would likely keep me from getting hired anywhere else in the country. The acting principal suggested I resign, which would not indicate I did anything wrong, and try my luck elsewhere or at charter schools. After consulting with the union, they suggested the same thing, so I did.

I still thought I had what it took to be a teacher. I know my content backwards and forewords. The mistake I was making is that education is not the same as it was when I was a kid. I look back to my sixth grade teacher, who was a tough and strict man, and I don't think he would made it in this day and age. If kids talked he made them go sit in the hallway (verboten now--you have to be able to see all students at all times). He did not hit children, he grabbed them under the chin (he only did this to me once, when I lost a textbook). The principal paddled children, though, using a board drilled with holes that he called the "Board of Education."

Anyway, after a desperate summer of looking for work, including taking a job briefly at Dominos Pizza as a driver, I finally got a job at a charter school, teaching sixth grade again. I thought this might be different--it's more rigorous, does not push kids through grades like shit through a goose, and has a more structured atmosphere. At first it was great. The kids were like an oil painting, and I was able to handle things.

But then they, like kids do, got rowdier and rowdier. Remarks I made got back to my supervisor, such as when I called a kid a class clown and added, "Do you want a rubber nose and big shoes?" This was not taken well by the parent or my supervisor, although I thought it was a good line and perfectly appropriate for a kid who was purposely trying to disrupt the class (I didn't admit this, though). I was not allowed to write the names down of misbehaving students on the board, lest this stigmatize them. I could not say the word "hell." I did not use any other swear words, and I would never, ever, call a child stupid or dumb, but if they were not doing their work I let them know it.

Then I sent an email to a parent telling them their child needed an "attitude adjustment." I saw nothing wrong with this, but it went off like a bomb with administration. My psychologist, who used to be a school psychologist, thought there was nothing wrong with this. I was now an emotional wreck, walking on eggshells, fearing even making eye contact with my supervisor, who had nothing good to say about my work.

Thursday I had my semester evaluation, which couldn't have been much worse. I think the highlight was being told, as an English teacher, that I had the students reading too much. If you ask me, if a student had nothing else but a stack of books, if they read them they'd be educated. But no, there's all sorts of things you have to be aware of: Bloom's Taxonomy, Kagan Strategies, and then differentiated education for students with learning disabilities. I did acknowledge their accommodations, but was told I wasn't doing enough for them. I realized that according to my supervisor, I knew nothing. And maybe she's right. She did compliment me for not saying "hell" anymore.

That night I decided to resign, effective the end of the quarter. I have no other job lined up, but I do have some money coming my way that may enable me to retire. I'm certainly not going to teach anymore. I think I could teach college, or accelerated high school students, but you can lead a horse to water but you can't make them drink, and many of these kids don't want to drink.

Children are not the same as I was. They have very short attention spans. They are raised by mostly indifferent parents who don't discipline, and leave it to teachers. They have no respect for teachers. I was afraid of my teachers, at least until high school, when you could pal around with some but their was still respect. My sixth grade teacher, Mr. McLaughlin, who could be downright nasty (if he caught you chewing gum he'd make you sing a song in front of class while you threw it away) also had some fun with us. He'd show us movies and then show the film backwards (it was actual film, of course) which was always good for laughs. During the 1972 play-offs, when the Detroit Tigers were playing, he'd put the games on. And though he could be frightening, I learned. I grew up in an era when children could be hit or maybe even humiliated a little, and I turned out fine, in fact while I'm no genius, I think I'm pretty smart.

But those days are gone. Children are now treated like hothouse flowers, coddled, examined by endless standardized tests. If they are not engaged, it's the teacher's job to make them so, in some case enacting miracles.

All through school, and my memory may be spotty, I never remember any of my teachers being observed by administration. Certainly not Mr. McLaughlin. If he's still alive (he would have to be in his eighties) I'd love to tell him this story, and discuss teaching then versus now. But I'm done. I'm old school, and this leopard can not change his spots.