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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is a perfectly acceptable film about a subject that makes all but the most hardened Klansmen feel all mushy inside: black women played an important part of putting men into space, and they faced discrimination, indignity, and were relegated into footnotes in history. It is well acted and has the requisite big beats--such as when Kevin Costner tears down a "Colored Women's Bathroom" sign and Mahershala Ali proposes to Taraji P. Henson in front of her whole family.

But what Hidden Figures is not is one of the best movies of the year. It was written and directed by the numbers by Theodore Melfi, and since it "based on true events" one would have to read the original book to know exactly what happened--parts of the film feel inauthentic. Would IBM guys really not know how to operate their own machine, while Octavia Spencer could do it by reading a book about Fortran? Maybe so, but the scene feels loaded.

The notion that Hidden Figures is better than Silence, or 20th Century Women, or Loving is ludicrous. It is simply a crowd-pleaser that will make black people proud and white people content that they would not be so racist way back then.

The three core women of the story are Henson, as a mathematical genius and the main focus of the story; Spencer as a woman who manages a large pool of black women who work on an assignment basis and wants to be promoted to supervisor; and Janelle Monae as a black woman who wants to be an engineer but has to take classes at an all-white high school to achieve it. They all have arcs that it doesn't take a spoiler to know will end well for them (Henson's character, Katherine G. Johnson, who is still alive, was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom at age 97), but were short-changed by the history books (none was mentioned in The Right Stuff, for example).

This is all well and good, and will make the viewer happy, but it is not an artful picture; it hums along like a TV-movie. I have nothing against it as such, but when it gets a nomination for Best Picture instead of better films, it gores my ox a bit.

I did like the acting, particularly by Henson. Spencer got a nomination, and she is kind of specializing in a cliche--the motherly black woman who is wise and patient. Henson has most of the big scenes, but Spencer has the best line, when she is told by her supervisor, Kirsten Dunst, "I really have nothing against you people." Spencer smiles and says, "I know you believe that." I also thought Monae, who is renowned as a recording artist, makes a fine actress, proving it here and in Moonlight. Ali, who was nominated for his role as a drug dealer in Moonlight, here plays a completely different character, an upright colonel in the National Guard.

Costner steals almost every scene he is in, playing a guy who just wants to get the job done, and really doesn't care about race or gender or protocol. It is unfortunate though that the role is yet another white guy whose help is indispensable. Jim Parsons, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, plays yet another uptight genius.

Monday, January 30, 2017

20th Century Women

Mike Mills, in his third film, has become an even stronger writer-director. I thought his last film, Beginners, had a lot of promise, and it is paying off in 20th Century Women. When I read over my review of Beginners (I hardly ever remember movies any more, just whether I like them) I see that the main character had an eccentric mother. Apparently this is autobiographical. In Beginners it was about his father, but 20th Century Women is about mothers.

Set in Santa Barbara in 1979 (my time period) 15-year-old Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) has the normal concerns, but also some very bizarre ones. His best friend is a girl two years older than him (Elle Fanning) that will have sleepovers but not have sex with him (though she has sex with many other guys). His mother, Annette Bening, was a working woman even back in the Depression, and has a curious view of life. She's an extremely permissive parent, sticking up for Jamie when he misses too much school. She fears she is knowing him less every day, and enlists Fanning and a boarder, Bohemian photographer Greta Gerwig, to help raise him.

There is a male presence in the house, another boarder who is remodeling the house (a precise metaphor for the constant state of unfixedness in the family), Billy Crudup. But he's a man-child, who has plenty of affairs but doesn't know how to relate to women. Bening has to teach him how to ask a woman to dance.

It's these five characters who exist in a little world. There's a lot of Wes Anderson in this film--he also makes films about unconventional families and Mills adds Andersonian touches such as title cards telling us when characters were born and focusing on the books they are reading. There's also a great emphasis on music--mostly the Talking Heads (Zumann is beaten for liking them, defamed as an "art fag") and other punk groups of the period.

Motherhood, and its effects on a child, is the spine of the film. Bening has her own influence on Zumann, even if she never seems to get mad at him no matter what he does (a late scene has her participating in a dangerous stunt with him that reminded me of the end of The Royal Tenenbaums when Gene Hackman and Ben Stiller ride on the back of a truck), but there are other kinds of mothers. Gerwig, a lonely person who looks for solace in art and music, is recovering from cervical cancer, caused by her mother taking a fertility drug. Fanning, who at seventeen is far too intense for that age, is the daughter of a therapist who includes her in teen group therapy, a huge ethical lapse that drives them apart (it is well known that the children of mental health professionals are crazier than most).

All the performances are fine, but it's Bening's show. She should have been nominated for an Oscar, as her line readings and facial expressions are thrillingly authentic. She wears no makeup, wears Birkenstocks and smokes Salems (there is more smoking in this film than any I can recall that doesn't star Humphrey Bogart) and seems to have given up on happiness, which drives Zumann crazy. But Gerwig, one of America's more interesting actresses these days, and Fanning are almost as good.

Mills is a director to watch. 20th Century Women was one of the best of 2016.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Dylan Goes Electric

"On the evening of July 25, 1965, Bob Dylan took the stage at the Newport Folk Festival in black jeans, black boots, and a black leather jacket, carrying a Fender Stratocaster in place of his familiar acoustic guitar. The crowd shifted restlessly as he tested his tuning and was joined by a quintet of backing musicians. Then the band crashed into a raw Chicago boogie and, straining to be heard over the loudest music ever to hit Newport, he snarled his opening line: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more!” "

This is the opening of Elijah Wald's exhaustive but enlightening Dylan Goes Electric, recounting the night that "Split the Sixties." It was certainly a pivotal moment in popular music history, but I'm not sure it had a wide effect on popular culture in general. "What happened at Newport in 1965 was not just a musical disagreement or a single artist breaking with his past. It marked the end of the folk revival as a mass movement and the birth of rock as the mature artistic voice of a generation, and in their respective halves of the decade both folk and rock symbolized much more than music."

The book sets up two poles--Dylan and Pete Seeger. Wald begins the book with chapter-length biographies of both men. Seeger was the son of a musicologist, a Harvard grad who was at the forefront of folk music from the '30s on, singing with Woody Guthrie in The Almanac Singers and then with The Weavers. He quit that band over doing a cigarette commercial: “the job was pure prostitution . . . [and] prostitution may be all right for professionals—but it’s a risky business for amateurs.” Seeger was an almost saintly figure in the folk music revival of the late '50s and early '60s, when young people took up the style again, but he had his faults, and could be viewed as holier-than-thou.

Dylan, of course, came from Hibbing, Minnesota, though he invented many lives for himself, such as claiming he rode the rails as a hobo or grew up on a ranch. He liked rock and roll, but eventually drifted to folk music: "For Dylan, as for Pete Seeger, the attraction of folk music was that it was steeped in reality, in history, in profound experiences, ancient myths, and enduring dreams. It was not a particular sound or genre; it was a way of understanding the world and rooting the present in the past." He audaciously went to visit Woody Guthrie, who was dying in a hospital in New Jersey, and sang songs with him.

Folk music was booming then, but like most genres of music, there were fierce arguments. There were purists, who detested the college boy bands like The Kingston Trio, who had lots of hits but little authenticity. Not much has changed, all the way through the punk movement artists were accused of selling out. Dylan was seen as a purist at first, mostly singing ballads written by others, but when he started to write his own music and became a drawing card which made him suspicious in the eyes of others.

The Newport Folk Festival began in 1960, dovetailing the Jazz Festival. Wald gives a history of it that may be a little too thorough for some; it seems like he lists every act that ever appeared there. He does give us a taste of what it was like there--true believers, hanging out with musicians of every stripe. There is a supporting cast of characters, such as Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Albert Grossman, their manager, who basically was the brains behind the whole movement. "Grossman was another beast entirely: he had started one of the first folk nightclubs, Chicago’s Gate of Horn, coproduced the first two Newport Folk Festivals, and hung out on the Village scene, so he was very much a folk world insider, but he was also a brilliant and gleefully rapacious businessman who enjoyed distinguishing himself from the homespun Bohemians with officious displays of wealth and power."

Dylan's songwriting soon set him apart. He wrote "Blowin' in the Wind," which Peter, Paul, and Mary turned into a big hit. He wrote complex masterpieces like "The Times They Are a-Changin'," and "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," "It Ain't Me Babe," and "Mr. Tambourine Man." Many of them were covered by other artists, making him a millionaire. He was set up as a spokesman for his generation: "He was more than a musician, more than a poet, certainly more than an entertainer: he was the Zeitgeist, the ghost-spirit of the time," but he didn't want to be. He had trouble accepting his fame: "He didn’t know what to make of people wanting his autograph—he liked it, sometimes, but it was weird."

The fateful night finally arrives and Wald sets some things straight--there were other electric acts at Newport before, including the Chambers Brothers and the Butterfield Band. Dylan, though, had never performed with a band before. On that night, dressed like a rock star, he used some of the Butterfield Band, particularly Mike Bloomfield on guitar. They hadn't really rehearsed. Dylan was introduced by Peter Yarrow, who was sort of stage managing the event. Dylan wanted the music loud, and it drowned out his signing. This enraged Seeger backstage, who is said to have gone looking for an axe to cut the cables. Wald disputes this, as Seeger did. He wasn't against electrification so much that the music was too loud to hear the words. Someone witnessed Seeger weeping in his car, saying "He had so much promise."

Dylan basically left the folk world and became a rock star, though he has constantly reinvented himself in the last fifty years. The Newport Festival ended after 1969, though it was revived in 1985. Seeger became one of America's most beloved elder statesman (although that seems too stuffy a word) before he died in 2014. Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, thought that post-dates this book.

For Dylanologists and folk music devotees I highly recommend this book. For those who don't care about Dylan or folk music one way or the other, you will probably wonder what the fuss was all about. Wald puts it this way: "the Dylan who presided over what most of us remember as “the sixties”—the Vietnam era, the campus riots, the summer of love, the hippies, the drug culture, the Weathermen—was truly a Zeitgeist, the ghost of a sacrificial Dylan who stood before the elders in the temple of folk music and was condemned, scourged as he carried his electric cross up the Gethsemane of his yearlong tour (the fan in Manchester who called him Judas had it backwards), and finally died so rock could be redeemed."

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Stalking Moon

Gregory Peck starred in The Stalking Moon, a 1968 Western directed by Robert Mulligan (his director for To Kill a Mockingbird) that explores a familiar theme in Western history--the white woman kidnapped by Indians. There were real cases of this, such as Olivia Oatman and Cynthia Parker, the latter case forming the foundation of the John Ford film The Searchers.

Even in 1968, when Westerns about Indians were taking on a more sympathetic tone for Indians, The Stalking Moon firmly takes the position that a white woman, and her mixed-race son, belong in the white world. Eva Marie Saint is the woman, who has almost lost her ability to speak English. She is discovered in an encampment of Apaches by soldiers who include scout Peck. She wants to leave right away, and convinces Peck to escort her and her son to the nearest stagecoach. He learns that her reason for alacrity is that the father of the boy is a notorious killer who will stop at nothing and murder anyone to get him back.

Despite the danger, Peck feels something for Saint and invites her to live at his newly bought ranch in New Mexico. But the killer, the "stalking moon," still manages to track them down, as he has almost superhuman stealth. It will be a showdown between Peck and the killer.

The Stalking Moon is a good solid Western, with some wonderful vistas and old-fashioned virtues. But again, the automatic assumption that the boy, who knows no English and looks Indian, would be better off in the white world is presumptive. The script, by Alan Sargent, stacks the deck by making the boy's father a murderer, but aside from being removed from his mother, this is not necessarily a damning possibility. The boy's father would simply continue to indoctrinate him in the ways of the Apache, which weren't any better or worse that the ways of white European-Americans.

Unlike Cynthia Parker, the character Sarah plays does want to leave Indian life. Parker wanted to return to the Comanches, which was the only life she knew. Of course, no white person could understand why she would want to do this.

Friday, January 27, 2017


It was forty years ago that Pink Floyd released Animals, a concept album that has strange relevance to today. For people of a certain age (like me), the sound is instantly recognizable from classic rock radio, and the album cover, a floating pig over Battersea Station, is iconic.

The album, undoubtedly inspired by George Orwell's Animal Farm, has only five tracks, and two are under two minutes long (that's "Pigs on the Wing," parts 1 and 2). That means the album is dominated by three tracks of over ten minutes, named after "Dogs," "Pigs (Three Different Ones),", and "Sheep." But while Orwell was condemning Stalinism, Pink Floyd was criticizing Western capitalism.

In David Gilmour's "Dogs," the canines are representative of the ruthless and rapacious of society, presumably businessmen who rape the environment or toss aside innocents in their lust for money and power:

"You gotta be able to pick out the easy meat with your eyes closed.
And then moving in silently, down wind and out of sight,
You gotta strike when the moment is right without thinking."

And then, out of the old fascist playbook that is now being used:

"And when you loose control, you'll reap the harvest you have sown.
And as the fear grows, the bad blood slows and turns to stone.
And it's too late to lose the weight you used to need to throw around.
So have a good drown, as you go down, all alone,
Dragged down by the stone."

"Dogs" is over seventeen minutes long, and much of it is the virtuosic guitar work of Gilmour, but the opening is a spooky keyboard riff by Richard Wright.

Next up is "Pigs (Three Different Ones)," by Roger Waters. While only one of the "pigs" is mentioned by name, Waters has openly used the song to indicate any corpulent, trash-rooting capitalist. At a concert in Mexico City, he flashed unflattering pictures of Donald Trump throughout the song. The lyric fits:

"Big man, pig man, ha ha charade you are.
You well heeled big wheel, ha ha charade you are.
And when your hand is on your heart,
You're nearly a good laugh,
 Almost a joker,
With your head down in the pig bin,
Saying "Keep on digging."
Pig stain on your fat chin.
What do you hope to find.
When you're down in the pig mine.
You're nearly a laugh,
You're nearly a laugh
But you're really a cry."

Again, the song is full of instrumental  breaks, likely an indication of the group's fan's fondness for cannabis, and it also has, other than "Don't Fear the Reaper," the best use of a cowbell.

Finally comes "Sheep," the animal metaphor for people who blindly follow the crowd, and a perfect representation of the Trump voter:

"What do you get for pretending the danger's not real.
Meek and obedient you follow the leader
Down well trodden corridors into the valley of steel.
What a surprise! A look of terminal shock in your eyes.
Now things are really what they seem.
No, this is no bad dream."

As Trump has signed one executive order after another that shows he is as malevolent as we all imagined, this forty-year-old album by one of rock's great progressive groups is still accurate. I think that's less a tribute to Waters and Gilmour and the rest, though it is warranted, then to the old saw, that everything comes around again.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Black Magick

In my witch phase, I stumbled across a comic book called Black Magick, which has the kind of premise I'm surprised I haven't seen before: she's a police detective, and she's a witch. I'm guessing it will be a Netflix series before long.

Rowan Black is our heroine, and at the opening of Volume 1 she's in some kind of witch circle, and her cell phone goes off. It's a nice gag, making witches part of everyday life. Her best friend is a teacher. They are actual witches, not Wiccans, able to cast spells and everything.

But it turns out that Black has been personally called to a hostage situation. The man holding the hostages has singled her out, and tries to burn her alive. She casts a spell on him so that he burns up, but she keeps that from her colleagues (along with a lot of other things, such as that she's a witch).

Since this is only Volume 1, I was left hanging, but I liked it a lot. I would have really liked it when I was about fourteen, as the art by Nicola Scott, is very good and very risque. The great thing about witches is their easy way with nudity.

So in this case we have a story where witches are actually the good guys, and some mysterious group is after them. There seems to be no ties to Satan.

The writer is Greg Rucka. If I were a TV producer I'd be on the horn with him right now. Cops, witches, violence, casual nudity--it's a no-brainer.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Hollywood Reach-Around

"Who do I have to blow to get nominated?"
People who don't like the Oscars often cite the notion that it is a bunch of Hollywood elites congratulating themselves. This was further elucidated, especially by conservatives, after Meryl Streep went off on Donald Trump at the Golden Globes. To this I say--well, duh. Of course entertainment awards are mutual masturbation sessions. Do the Oscars mean anything? Except for a boost in box office for some films, absolutely not. They are garish, silly, and often boring. But I am fascinated by them.

I can pinpoint my interest in the Oscars. For the 1971 awards, Life magazine (is there anyone old enough here to remember it?) ran a two-page spread with a picture of all the nominees. I didn't know who most of them were (Jeff Bridges, who's he?) but something about it compelled interest. My parents let me stay up, even though I was only ten years old, and I haven't missed a show since then. I have studied and handicapped Oscars for years, I think because they combine my love of movies with my love of sports. These people are really like horses at the big race.

So, for those who have a kernel of interest, this year had two big stories. One is that La La Land tied a record, set by All About Eve and Titanic, for most nominations with 14. This was pretty much expected, and the film has to be considered a runaway favorite (if Damien Chazelle wins the DGA, it's all over). This will make for a boring awards show, especially for those who hate the film (and I have heard from some). There is a backlash against it by those who find it silly, unrealistic, and without any depth. But I doubt this backlash will effect any voters--they are all in the movie industry, Note some of the recent Best Picture winners--Argo and The Artist. Both about Hollywood. The suspense on February 26th will be whether La La Land breaks the record for wins, which is now a three-way tie between Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. 

The other, larger story, is that seven actors of color were nominated, a record (six of them are of African lineage, one is East Indian). Three black women are nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category, a record for any acting category. Barry Jenkins is the fourth black Best Director nominee, and in a first, a black woman was nominated in the Best Editing category (both for Moonlight). Two black men, Denzel Washington and Pharrell Williams, are producers in the Best Picture category, and three of the Best Picture nominees are about black American life.

I think this last sentence is key--I may be incredibly naive, but I don't think there's racism at work in the nominating process. This year saw a lot of black nominees because there were good movies with a lot of black actors. If Hollywood continues to make these films, #OscarsSoWhite will permanently go out of business.

But certainly there is a historic lack of representation of black winners. I was struck by two factoids from his year's nominations: Viola Davis is the first woman to receive three nominations, and Octavia Spencer is the first black woman to receive a nomination after she had won.

Snubs? Well, there are always some, even if they have to be invented. I suppose the closest thing to one is Amy Adams getting passed over for Arrival even after it got all the necessary nominations for a Best Picture win--director, screenplay, and editing. I suppose her nomination went to Ruth Negga of Loving, who gave a very good but understated performance--no obvious clip for her--which goes against a lot of Oscar history. Or maybe it's Meryl Streep, getting nominated for a technically good but ultimately frivolous role in Florence Foster Jenkins. It's Streep's 20th nomination; she has lost more times than the runner-up, Katharine Hepburn, was nominated.

Another supposed snub was Deadpool getting completely shut out. After nominations from the PGA and WGA, some Oscar ninnies were giddily wondering if it would get a Best Picture nomination. Except for Heath Ledger's nomination for The Dark Knight, no comic book movie has ever gotten an above the line nomination, and it wasn't about to start with Deadpool. Let's get real.

A few perpetual bridesmaids: Kevin O'Connell got his 21st nomination for Sound Mixing for Hacksaw Ridge. He has never won, and holds the record for Oscar futility. He's in the same category with Greg P. Russell, who has now 17 nominations without a win (this time for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi). They will probably both lose to La La Land.

In the music category, Thomas Newman got a nod for Passengers. His family has wracked up a lot of Oscar nominations. Uncle Alfred had 43 nominations and nine wins. Cousin Randy has twenty nominations and two wins, but didn't win until his 16th try. So Thomas can take solace, he now has 14 nominations without ever winning.

Over the next 33 days I'll put up my thoughts on who will win, as I always do. It might be pretty easy this year, although I'm already struggling over who will win Best Makeup and Hair Design.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Alternative Facts

I didn't watch the inauguration. I fully identified with the Facebook clip of Malcolm McDowell, bound, eyes forced open, made to watch horrible acts of violence while the music of his beloved Ludwig Von was playing. Fuck history, life is too short to spend even a few minutes torturing one's self.

I did read his speech, which was probably written by Steve Bannon, because it had the ring of fascism. "American carnage," a nice touch. Bannon may be a sci-fi fan; it lifted text from two villains--Bane in The Dark Knight Returns and Avatar's Colonel Quaritch--we know Bannon identifies with Darth Vader.

The inauguration crowd was small, which unleashed all sorts of fury from the Trump crowd. Sean Spicer, his designated prevaricator, said it was the biggest crowd of all time, which was debunked by the Department of Interior and the Secret Service and our own eyes. The next day, Trump spokesperson and cable-TV regular Kellyanne Conway channeled George Orwell by coining the term, "alternative facts."

Wow. Of course, the liberal media immediately pounced on this, calling "alternative facts" falsehoods, or better yet, simply lies. Conway, or whoever is feeding her this shit, doesn't seem to understand the definition of fact that I give my own students: a thing that is indisputably the true. "Indisputably" and "true" are kind of key elements in a fact. One plus one equals is a fact. The sun rises in the East is a fact. Alligators are reptiles is a fact. None of these are open to dispute; there are no "alternates."

This is just part of the Trump's team to say something, no matter how ridiculous, to make it look like King Donald is infallible, even if it's to defy the laws of science (which of course, has a liberal bent). Stephen Colbert, years ago, coined the word "truthiness," that is, having the appearance of truth, but "alternate facts" takes the cake. How she could say that with a straight face is mind-boggling.

I just Googled Conway to find out where she came from. She grew up in Hammonton, New Jersey, which I have passed through, and is the blueberry capital of the state. She has a law degree, and worked as a pollster and strategist for this rogue's gallery: Dan Quayle, Fred Thompson, Jack Kemp, Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, and Mike Pence, before outdoing herself with Trump. She was also a pundit in the 1990s, if that's the word for women like Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham. She is 49 years old, but looks most of the time has if she has just spent the night in a haunted house that added years. She could scare small children.

She laughably showed up at the inauguration in a patriotic red white and blue outfit that looked like the flag threw up. Props for her lack of shame, and for the guy who snuck in the "I'm with stupid" sign during a photo-op.

As bad as Friday was, one of worst days in human history, Saturday was much more uplifting. I didn't march, but was gratified to see all that did. I have a feeling that Trump will never stop seeing resistance like this. Not only is there no honeymoon, the American public vaulted away from the altar. As for those who say we should give him a chance, what exactly in his past suggests that he will be a good leader? And in his first few days in office he screwed over mortgage owners, vets, the Indians of Standing Rock, the potentially uninsured, and the environment. We have an oil fat cat as Secretary of State, and a cabinet that is full of rich white people are war-mongering generals. This is a nightmare. We must resist every day in every way.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Hocus Pocus

Continuing my witch film series, I turn to 1993's Hocus Pocus, Disney's take on witches. It's intermittently amusing and relatively harmless, with the laughs mostly aimed at tweens, with some scares for young children, but not much for adults accept an absolutely committed performance by Bette Midler.

Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker are three sisters who live in Salem during the bad time, 1693. They are captured and hung for stealing children and sucking the life essence out of them to keep them young. The older brother of one these kids is turned into a cat, and also made immortal. He's tried to keep anyone from resurrecting the sisters.

In 1993, a new kid in town (Omri Katz) tries to impress a girl he's crushing on (Vinessa Shaw), and lights the black candle that brings the sisters back to life (on Halloween, no less). The comedy comes from them adjusting to modern life (one of them rides a vacuum cleaner) and trying to catch Katz's little sister (Thora Birch, six years before American Beauty) so they don't turn to dust at dawn.

So we get a lot of the witches, a kind of female Three Stooges, chasing the kids but being constantly outwitted. Midler, the leader (or Moe), gives an inspired performance, with buck teeth and that red fright wig hair. Najimy is kind of like Curly--she's a doofus, but she can smell a child. Parker is dim and boy-crazy (and blonde).

There are a few gags that are promising but don't go anywhere. At a party for adults, Midler puts a spell on them that they will dance until they are dead, but we only get one more shot of them. Doug Jones plays a revived cadaver who looks a bit like Edward Scissorhands. The one bit I laughed at was Garry Marshall as a man wearing a devil costume--the sisters think he is actually Satan. Penny Marshall plays his exasperated wife.

Hocus Pocus is competent children's entertainment but nothing terribly special.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Motown: The Musical

Who doesn't like Motown music? If there is somebody out there who doesn't appreciate The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5, Smokey Robinson, or Marvin Gaye, I don't think I want to know you. How can you get a more perfect song than "My Girl," recorded by the Temptations and written by Smokey Robinson. Or "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," or "I Want You Back." Therefore, Motown: The Musical, is certainly going to make people happy, because it is an almost never-ending string of hits that defined an era.

That excuses the fact that the book of the musical is a self-serving snit by Berry Gordy, who wrote it himself. Gordy, certainly one of the most important people in American pop music history, writes of himself as a misunderstood genius who was betrayed by almost all of his acts for money, then graciously decides to forgive them.

The story is framed as a flashback. It is just before the TV special honoring the 25th anniversary of Motown, but Gordy doesn't want to go. He's too bitter about all the people on the show who left him. We then go back to his beginnings, worshiping Joe Louis, writing songs for Jackie Wilson, and then starting his own record company from almost nothing (well, there was a thousand-dollar loan from his parents).

He then acquires talent. First Robinson, then the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who wrote many of the great hits. He records Marvin Gaye and the Marvelettes and Martha and the Vandellas. After one of his salesman is told that white people will never listen to black singers, they break through, mostly because of The Supremes. He and Diana Ross have a relationship, though there is no mention of his wives (he and Ross never married, and the story tells us that she left him after she was offered 20 million by another record company).

Frankly, Gordy should have just been made this a concert, like the old Beatlemania, with look and sound-alikes singing the songs, and jettisoned the story. Because the music can't be beat, and there's some wonderful talent on display. For many of the songs we only hear snippets, but there are full productions of "Dancin' in the Streets," "My Girl," and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." There is also an extended sequence of Diana Ross's debut in Las Vegas, where she sings "Reach Out and Touch" with audience participation that, though a crowdpleaser, seems indulgent.

Motown: The Musical will basically just want you to get out your old records or go on Youtube or download these songs. They will not, as much as he wants to, make Berry Gordy a cuddly figure.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Crystal Cave

I have long been a fan or Arthuriana, but have yet to be bowled over by any of the literature. I've read most everything from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Marion Zimmer Bradley, but I haven't found the perfect Arthur literature. One of the writers I hadn't explored was Mary Stewart, who wrote many books on Arthur as well as a famed trilogy on Merlin, who of course was linked to Arthur. The Crystal Cave was the first of that trilogy, first published in 1970.

This is basically Merlin's origin story. He is the bastard son of a king in Wales. He doesn't know until he is a teenager that he is the son of Ambrosius, the Roman leader who fights the Saxons to become King of all England. Ambrosius is the brother of Uther, who Merlin helps father Arthur, so essentially Merlin and Arthur are cousins, according to Stewart.

Merlin narrates, and we follow him as he discovers the place of the title, where he is taught by an old sage, Galapius: "I was in a globe lined with diamonds, a million burning diamonds, each face of each gem wincing with the light, shooting it to and fro, diamond to diamond and back again, with rainbows and rivers and bursting stars and a shape like a crimson dragon clawing up the wall, while below it a girl's face swam faintly with closed eyes, and the light drove right into my body as if it would break me open."

He discovers he has a sort of second sight, but is not the wizard of popular entertainment. He doesn't cast spells, read fortunes, or carry a wand. In fact, there's sort of a wink at that, as he's talking to his servant: "Aye. Looks like the sort of stuff they think a magician ought to wear." I went over to look. "Not long white robes with stars and moons on them, and a staff with curled snakes? Oh, really, Cadal —" "Well, your own stuff's ruined, you've got to wear something. Come on, you'll look kind of fancy in these, and it seems to me you ought to try and impress them, the spot you're in."

The books leads to Merlin using his uncle, Uther, to sneak into the wife of the King of Cornwall's bedchamber so that he may father Arthur. In some legends (I think it was the movie Excalibur) Merlin makes Uther look like Gorlois, but here they just storm the castle, and Arthur's mother, Ygraine, is very much looking forward to the assignation. All this because Merlin prophesizes: "I tell you, a King will come out of this night's work whose name will be a shield and buckler to men until this fair land, from sea to sea, is smashed down into the sea that holds it, and men leave earth to live among the stars. Do you think Uther is a King, Cadal? He's but a regent for him who went before and for him who comes after, the past and future King."

Interestingly, the book is written like a romance novel without romance. Merlin has one stab at sex and botches it. Years later we know he will be done in by the seduction of a woman named Vivian, or Nimue, but that's not in this book. Here he is kind of a stick-in-the-mud. The writing, as is usual with historical romance, is overly formal, without any hint of vernacular. For example: Like a drunkard who as long as there is no wine to be had, thinks himself cured of his craving, I had thought myself cured of the thirst for silence and solitude. But from the first morning of waking on Bryn Myrddin, I knew that this was not merely a refuge, it was my place. April lengthened into May, and the cuckoos shouted from hill to hill, the bluebells unfurled in the young bracken, and evenings were full of the sound of lambs crying, and still I had never once gone nearer the town than the crest of a hill two miles north where I gathered leaves and cresses." That's pretty, but the whole book is like this, as though the writer were afraid to let her guard down.

I will still seek out my own personal Holy Grail--the ideal Arthur book. I was not bowled over enough to continue this series.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Pork Chop Hill

What is the best film ever made about the Korean War? There haven't been too many of them. Some may say M*A*S*H, which really wasn't about Korea but Vietnam. The worst is probably Inchon, but the best may be Pork Chop Hill, a straight-forward battle film that manages to be very critical of wars operated for political reasons.

Gregory Peck plays a lieutenant in charge of a platoon that is told to take the title hill. The hill has no strategic value, and the last group that tried to take it suffered heavy casualties. The war is near the end, and negotiators are hammering out a peace treaty, but Pork Chop Hill becomes a pawn in their negotiating, completely ignoring the loss of life.

Peck's men take the hill, but realize they can't hold it unless they get reinforcements and they are not allowed to withdraw. Like the film and subsequent TV show of M*A*S*H, the insanity and futility of war is on full display.

The film was released in 1959 and was one of the last films by Lewis Milestone. It has a large cast of actors who would later become more famous. I was able to spot Martin Landau, Robert Blake, Norman Fell, and eventually Rip Torn, who of course looked or sounded nothing like his later character of Artie on The Larry Sanders Show, but I recognized his eyes. There are also brief appearances by Harry Dean Stanton, George Peppard, Harry Guardino, and Gavin MacLeod (whom I did not spot).

The cast was diverse, as the army had been desegregated, and Woody Strode plays a black soldier who exhibits cowardice (but there is another black soldier, played by Clarence Williams III, who is brave, so I guess they felt things were balanced)> A key role is played by George Shibata as a Japanese-American lieutenant (who was an actual soldier). He's great, playing a guy with a droll sense of humor. He is assigned to lead a bayonet charge, and says, "My people have a way with this Banzai stuff."

Almost the entire film is the battle, and it's done extremely well. It reminded me of playing with G.I. Joes when I was a kid. A first-class effort all the way round.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Greatest President of My Lifetime

Today is a dark day for many Americans. We are like prisoners on death row, awaiting our executions, or, perhaps more accurately, Earthlings waiting for the comet to hit, wiping out everything.

I have lived through ten presidents, and tomorrow will be the eleventh. Of course I'm not old enough to understand what Kennedy or Johnson was like firsthand, but I do remember Nixon and how evil he was. And I can say, without too much hesitation, that Barack Obama is the greatest president of my lifetime.

I first wrote about him oven tears ago. At that point I couldn't imagine he could be president. A black president? In my lifetime? When the era of colored-only bathrooms was in my memory? That was absurd. How thrilled I was when he was elected, even though I had been laid off from my job only a few days before. And then eight years ago, how proud of my nation I was when he was inaugurated.

He has turned out to be the president of a progressive's dreams. Sure, there is some quibbling. He took too long to come around on gay marriage (thank you, Joe Biden, who by the way was a great vice-president), he didn't close Guantanamo, and his policies on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed cloudy. But his accomplishments are many. I could Google them and list them here, but we all know what they were. The most amazing thing he did was accomplish so much while half a Congress and half a nation were virulently opposed to him. They questioned his religion, his birthplace, his love for America. I find it amazing that anyone could see him speak, especially in moments of mourning (his speech in Tucson following the shooting there was genius) and not understand how much he does love this country.

I think his major success was righting the ship after the stormy few years before he took office, when the economy tanked, the auto business was in ruins, and we were mired in wars that had no seeming purpose or end. Above all, he did it with grace and dignity. I've had several dreams about Obama, and in some of them I was working for him and wanted nothing more than to make him pleased. He's the kind of guy you'd love to have as a neighbor, a brother-in-law, a college roommate (except for the smoking). The word that best describes him is mensch. I'd love to share a long car ride with him, talking about sports, music, and any other topic he'd like to touch on. I admit it, I've got a man crush on him.

And that's only half the story. Michelle Obama has been a great first-lady, even if she does have guns for arms. I know she has said she has no interest in public office, but I'd vote for her in a second. She is smart, she is compassionate, she is a humanitarian, just like her husband.

This all ends at noon tomorrow, when the comet hits the Earth. The Obamas will still be around, probably not commenting on the new president--they're too classy for that. They never commented on impersonations, or jokes about being monkeys. They're above that. The contrast is stark--we go from a great man, a man of the ages, to a buffoon, a common huckster. From the smartest president in a generation to the stupidest. From a man who speaks in paragraphs to a man who Tweets in misspelled words.

As a self-taught student of history, I still think Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president--how could anyone come through the Civil War with such greatness as he did--but Obama is right up there, along with the Roosevelts and George Washington. Not only for what he did, but for who he was. These past eight years have been like a golden age, a short respite from the darkness and misery we've gone through pretty much unabated for forty years. Perhaps he was the outlier, and we're back to our sorry business. If so, I'm glad to have had a chance to live through it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Witches (1990)

How odd it is that Nicolas Roeg, who directed some of the most insane, daring, and sexual charged films of his generation, like Don't Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed a whimsical if macabre children's film. The Witches, based on the book by Roald Dahl and released in 1990, is really a trifle, but the kind of trifle enjoyed by kids who identify with Wednesday Addams.

The film follows pretty closely the book, although in the film, naturally, the Norwegian little boy becomes an American. He is still orphaned in the care of his grandmother, and they move to England. She knows all about witches--they are bald, they have no toes, and they can smell children.

When the two share a seaside holiday, they have the misfortune of attending the same time as the coven of English witches having their annual meeting. The High Grand Witch, played imperiously by Anjelica Huston, shows off a formula that will turn children into mice.

Our hero, Luke, gets captured and turned, but with the help of his grandmother (Mai Zetterling, a famed Swedish movie star) get their revenge. It's all pretty silly with lots of slapstick, including a turn by Rowan Atkinson as the Basil Fawlty-ish hotel owner. The one major difference in the film is that the boy is returned to his human form, which seemed like a big cop-out.

The Witches in engaging enough but is caught in a place between fare for young children and a horror comedy for older children, and both might be disappointed. I will say that the makeup used on Huston is top-notch--she's really grotesque.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


Elle, which recently won two Golden Globes, is a disturbing, interesting, but not entirely satisfying psychological thriller directed by Paul Verhoeven with an electrifying performance by Isabelle Huppert. I left the film figuratively scratching my head. What did I just see?

The film begins in black, with the sounds of a struggle. Then we see a cat, calmly watching as its owner is raped. The woman is Huppert, her assailant is wearing a ski-mask. He leaves, and she calmly cleans up the broken vases and takes a bath, the blood from her invasion soaking the bubbles. As she's taking a bath, your mind is screaming--"you're destroying evidence," but she has no thought of reporting the crime to the police.

Turns out Huppert is the CEO of a video game company that creates very violent games, and she is the daughter of an infamous mass murderer. She thinks about revenge, and purchases items to protect her, like mace and an ax, and when the perpetrator leaves her little notes and texts suggesting he's closer to her than she thinks, she doesn't really freak out, I mean, not like I would.

What Huppert and Verhoeven do in this film is make a victim of a crime a horrible person. There are many subplots (too many) that show her as an awful human being. She is disgusted by her elderly mother's romance with a younger man. She is sleeping with her best friend's husband. She isn't helping matters with her son, who is having a baby with a monstrous young woman (when it becomes obvious that the child is not his, she is the only one who points it out). But because she is being stalked by some kind of psycho, we cut her some slack. A lot of slack.

Then the film takes a turn that I imagine might anger many feminists--it angered me. I don't want to go into it, but let's just say when she finds out who her rapist is (and I figured it out pretty easily) she doesn't react the way we want her to, or the way the film is marketed. This isn't so much a revenge film as a film about a woman who is seriously fucked up, long before she was raped.

Other than Huppert's clever performance, Elle is far too sordid and unpleasant for me to recommend.

Monday, January 16, 2017


The Pretenders, as the name of a band, have been around for almost forty years, but there has only been one constant--Chrissie Hynde. Two years she put out a solo album, Stockholm, that I didn't think much of. Perhaps she needs to use The Pretenders name, because the new album, Alone, is Hynde somewhat back to form.

The whys and wherefores of the difference between a Hynde solo album and a Pretenders album these days are mysterious. The musicians on this album are not the any of the old Pretenders, they are mostly session musicians, along with the producer and guitar player Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Hynde plays no instruments on this record, just sings, and has co-written most of the songs.

The title track gets things thumping with a tribute to solitude:

"Nobody tells me I can't
Nobody tells me I shan't
Nobody tells me 'you're doing it wrong!'
I'm at my best. I'm where I belong.

That sounds like a woman who isn't looking for a relationship right now. At 65, she's been divorced twice. But there are other songs on the album of the typical love variety, such as "Roadie Man," about a love for those guys, who, as Jackson Browne once sang, "Pack it up and tear it down:"

"I'm in love with a man,
He's in love with the road.
It's no surprise, it's no riddle,
A roadie's wife plays second fiddle,
To the razzle dazzle of the stage,
She has to be a widow and a sage."

A much better song is "Blue Eyed Sky," a ballad that celebrates a long-nurtured love:

"No one understands me
Like my baby
No one understands
Like that man.
He knows
I will never leave him,
No one understand me,
Like him."

I think the gutsiest song on the album is "I Hate Myself," which is not so much a song about self-pity as one about self-recognition:

" I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate myself
For backing the wrong horse
I hate myself, I hate myself, I hate my masquerade
Of black and blue
I hate myself, I hate my reckless, phony
Self-destruction course
And coming last, conceding second best to you."

Musically, the album is solid rock and roll, as one would expect from one of The Black Keys. Hynde's voice is in perfect form--on "Alone" she starts by talking the song, but then hits one of her smooth, high notes and Hynde fans are on board. So whoever happens to be in The Pretenders, the only one that matters is Chrissie Hynde.

Sunday, January 15, 2017


If you know that Martin Scorsese, early in his life, wanted to be a priest, you can understand why one of his passions was bringing Shusaku Endo's novel Silence to the screen. It is about Jesuit priests in seventeenth-century Japan, and their struggle to avoid apostatizing themselves in the face of persecutors.

This is a stunning film, both visually and intellectually. Within there is a mini-course on theology, and while some scenes seem redundant (there is a bit too much torture and execution for my tastes--we get it) it is almost always gripping, despite it's near three-hour length.

Silence follows a familiar trope in films, from The Searchers (one of Scorsese's favorite films) to Saving Private Ryan--the search and rescue film. A priest, played by Liam Neeson, is forced to apostatize (that is, renounce his faith) by the inquisitors of Japan, who are Buddhists and outlaw Christianity. Word of this reaches the head priest in Macao (Ciaran Hinds). Both of these characters, I was interested to read, were real people.

Hinds briefs two young Jesuits (who are fictional and played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver). They don't believe that Neeson has given up his faith, and are determined to track him down, even though it is highly dangerous for them to set foot in Japan. They go anyway, led by a guide (Yosuke Kubozuko) who has apostatized many times, and will many times again, believe he can be absolved by confession. The two priests find a small community of Christians living in hiding.

The title Silence comes from the fundamental trouble with the priests; faith--why is God silent in the face of such suffering? It also shows how Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is rooted in suffering, and that the promise of paradise after death comforts those that are suffering. It becomes a test, led the inquisitor (a very good Issey Ogata), and a simple one--deny your faith, and you will go free. If you do not deny it, you will die. He takes this further after Garfield is captured--if he will renounce his faith, Ogata will let many Christians go free. If Garfield refuses, they will be killed.

The film, while at times being very violent, is mostly talk. There are many conversations about faith and absolution--between Garfield and Driver, Garfield and Ogata (their conversations are central to the film) and then a stunning scene between Neeson and Garfield, where Neeson explains why Christianity can not take hold in Japan (today only about one percent of Japan is Christian). In a way, Silence is like My Dinner With Andre with the topic as religion with the chance that one of their heads will be cut off.

The acting is impressive. Garfield has had a good year, with this film beside Hacksaw Ridge, in two very different roles (though both about devout men). Driver, who suddenly seems to be all over the place, has a smaller role but I think a more interesting one, as he plainly struggles more with his faith, while Neeson really only has a cameo but knocks it out of the park. The Japanese actors are all terrific, especially Ogata, who is a man who smiles as he tells you you will be tortured.

Silence has a few false endings, but I think ends with the right shot, which I certainly won't reveal here. I think how one views the film will depend on their own religious beliefs. As a nonbeliever, I kind of felt sad that so many people went to hideous deaths out of a sense of duty to Jesus Christ, but at the same time I had to admire their courage. I would have said anything to stay alive, but just crossed my fingers behind my back.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Yearling

One of Gregory Peck's first starring roles was in 1946's The Yearling, which earned him his second Oscar nomination (the first was in 1944 for Keys to the Kingdom, which I can't find in any form). It is unabashedly sentimental family fare, and cynics may well hate it. It takes a simple story and builds it to something universally epic, and at times goes overboard (the choir on the soundtrack should have been cut).

Directed by Clarence Brown, and based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, The Yearling is set in 1878 in central Florida, when it was a wilderness and not a haven for theme parks. Peck, his wife, Jane Wyman, and their son, Claude Jarman Jr., eke out a meager existence as they grow various crops in a cleared out section of forest. They have already lost several children, so Wyman is reluctant to bond with Jarman, and she is a cold fish. Peck, who would play the quintessential movie father seventeen years later in To Kill a Mockingbird, establishes credentials in this film. He loves his son and they have a special bond.

But Jarman wants a pet, and on that Wyman is obstinate. He is friends with a neighboring boy, a kind of odd duck who crippled himself when he jumped off the roof, determined to fly. That boy has a thing for animals, and Jarman is envious.

One day they are out hunting and Peck is bitten by a rattlesnake. He shoots a doe to wash his wound in blood (that's a new one on me). That leaves a fawn orphaned, and Jarman (with Peck's help) takes in the little deer as a pet. Of course, deer eat vegetation, and eventually conflict arises.

The best thing about The Yearling is its appreciation of nature, both in the photography (the cinematography, in Technicolor, won an Oscar) and in the writing. There is a rhapsodic scene in which Jarman and his yearling run through the woods, joining a herd of deer, set to Mendelssohn. While the film is full of cornpone humor and raw emotion, it almost works better as a nature documentary.

For a double-feature of traumatically sad movies about the deaths of animals, throw in Old Yeller, or, sticking to the deer family, Bambi.

Friday, January 13, 2017


I have a few more witch movies to go, one of them being Suspiria, a 1977 film directed by schlock-master Dario Argento. Set in Germany, it concerns a young dancer (Jessica Harper), enrolling at a prestigious dance school. But strange things are happening. First, one of the students run out into a storm and takes refuge in a friend's apartment. She sees ghostly eyes out of her window, and then is stabbed repeatedly.

Later, a blind man is attacked by his service dog, maggots infest the place, and Harper learns that the school was founded by a woman who was thought to be a witch. One of her friends ends up falling into a pit of razor wire.

Suspiria is certainly vividly rendered, with anamorphic lenses and lurid colors (red filters are frequently used, setting a mood but making things difficult to see). The film seems to have been shot on a measly budget, and the music, by a band called Goblins, is mixed much too loudly, while the dialogue is barely audible. Argento made a lot of these movies and is venerated by some, but he's not a very good technical filmmaker.

Also, the plot doesn't make sense. If the dance school is indeed a front for a coven, just what are they up to? They don't seem to be turning the girls into witches, or eating them, or anything else nefarious. It just seems like it was written in to give the film an evil overtone (unlike many witch films, Satan's name is not invoked). The film is gory, but the special effects are not that good, so even when a woman is stabbed directly in her beating heart it shouldn't spook anyone. I found the whole thing unpleasant without being thrilling.

Jessica Harper had a short but interesting career. She was in a few high profile films of the early '80s, like Stardust Memories, Pennies From Heaven, and My Favorite Year, but not much after that. According to Wikipedia she is now writing children's books. She was a very interesting actress, too bad she didn't do more films.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Finders Keepers

I don't know how many Stephen King books I've read--a lot--and I'm always amazed at how he draws in the reader. The prose flows so naturally, so effortlessly, it's like we're hearing him read it to us. There's no obfuscation, no experiment language, and a steady current of sardonic humor. Perhaps this is why he isn't taken seriously by many critics.

In Finders Keepers, the second in the Bill Hodges series, King does it again. This is a sequel to Mr. Mercedes, in which the hero was a retired detective. He's back again, but doesn't appear until near the middle of the book. Instead we're told two parallel stories. One, set in the 1979, concerns the murder of a J.D. Salinger-like author. He lives in seclusion in New Hampshire, and hasn't written in years. A young psychopath, Morris Bellamy, wants to know if he's written anything else, and robs him. The writer, John Rothstein, mocks him, and dies for his trouble.

Cut to nearly forty years later. The murder goes unsolved, but Bellamy is arrested for rape. A teenage boy, Pete Saubers, finds a trunk filled with cash and several dozen notebooks--the unpublished works of John Rothstein, hidden by Bellamy. So, as King alternates stories, we are led down the dark path to when Bellamy will meet our boy Pete.

With many King books I've dreaded both reading on and not being able to resist. This is the way of Finders Keepers. The forces of evil and good are on a collision course. The inclusion of Hodges, who now runs a private detective agency called Finders Keepers, is almost superfluous. His character development was the most important in Mr. Mercedes, but here he's more of a standard good guy. Two of his sidekicks from the first book, especially Holly Gibney, who appears to be somewhere on the autism spectrum, are back, but the story is about the nature of obsession and ownership. The title is a childish refrain that I still hear--a kid finds a pencil on the floor, so it's his, regardless of the claims of the person that dropped it. Bellamy is so obsessed with Rothstein that he can't stomach the idea of someone else possessing what he wants.

The killing of a writer by an obsessed fan may be a stretch, but it's certainly happened before in other areas, most notably John Lennon. King gives it a spin, though, as he is a voracious reader and probably has had his own scrapes with lunatics (and, of course, he wrote the ultimate obsessed fan book in Misery). This also allows him to give some of his opinions on writing: "A good novelist does not lead his characters, he follows them. A good novelist does not create events, he watches them happen and then writes down what he sees. A good novelist realizes he is a secretary, not God.”

I was talking to someone today who is a fan of King and read Mr. Mercedes, and said something I think is correct--the Hodges books are a different kettle of fish for him because they are not supernatural (at least not yet--there are hints to come that I'm sure are answered in the third book). Instead these two books are about monsters that are very much human, committing horrific acts of violence for the flimsiest of reasons--they're insane. My colleague was saying she did not like to read books like that, and I understand, But maybe that's why they get under my skin so much.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Golden Globes and Golden Showers

For someone who has a gilded toilet, the element Au has not been kind to Donald Trump this week. On Sunday night, at the Golden Globes, a weird awards show that somehow got prestigious even though only about 80 people vote on it (it's as if your block voted on their favorite movies and TV shows) made headlines when Meryl Streep, very likely the best actress Hollywood has ever produced, took the opportunity of winning a lifetime achievement award to rip Trump for his mocking of a disabled reporter back during the campaign.

This, as they say, set the Internet on fire. Predictably, the right attacked, saying that Trump's "mocking" has been debunked. A series of videos showing Trump waving his arms like a spastic person several times indicates, they say, that he wasn't mocking this guy, he just always waves his arms like that. I'm not sure I buy it, because in the video in question, Trump holds his arms exactly like that reporter does. Trump also says he never met him, but he prefaces his fake spasm by saying "You gotta see this poor guy." Also, anytime Trump says anything, we can be sure he's lying.

 But beyond that, Streep picked just one issue of many that shows that Trump is a horrible excuse for a human being. Do Republicans really see this man as a shining knight on a horse, and not a money-grubbing, heartless cretin? Their blindness is really amazing. Streep could have picked many other things--"Grab 'em by the pussy," wandering naked into Miss Teen USA's changing room, attacking the Mexican-American judge, wanting a registry of Muslims, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

We also heard a round of "celebrities should keep their mouths shut," as if becoming famous requires turning in one's freedom of speech. This is especially ironic since these people just elected a famous, rich TV star. One who has a gold toilet, and cares about the common man about as much as he does about yesterday's bowel movement. If I wanted someone to have my back, and guessed who cared about me as a human being more, I'd take Streep in a heartbeat.

The most predictable response came from Trump himself. On Facebook some friends and I, right after the speech, played Trump Tweet Bingo. I got the "over-rated" square, but missed on "Hillary Flunky." One is over-rated, of course, unless they like Trump, then they become the best ever (somewhere in Trump's brain, Jackie Evancho equals Beyonce). As Steven Colbert put it, "Over-rated? Have you seen Sophie's Choice?" I doubt being called over-rated hurts Streep any. She was once called too ugly to play the girl in King Kong, which was a huge bomb.

But here's what's galling--that Trump engages in these petty snits while also being President-Elect of the United States. Can you imagine Barack Obama taking after a criticism of him? No. Trump seems more concerned about Streep and Alec Baldwin than income inequality, bad drinking water, or Russia's intervention in Syria. He is so thoroughly non-presidential it's surreal. They say Nixon's downfall seemed Shakespearean, and Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal was written by Beckett. Trump's presidency, no matter how short it is, seems to be written by Ionesco.

Trump's bad week continued with an intelligent report that suggests Russia was blackmailing him. Here's one headline: "Donald Trump Denies That He Hired Russian Hookers For Golden Shower Party." Now, whether true or not, that is not a headline one wants to see one's name in. The facts of this report are in question, but the humorists of America seized on Trump enjoying being urinated on with glee. "Tinkle, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," tweeted Frank Coniff. "Inauguration Day Weather Update: 100% Showers," tweeted Andy Borowitz. If that weren't enough, another article said that Trump may be the fattest president ever, even heavier than Taft. One could almost feel sorry for him, except for the fact he's incapable of feeling sorry for anyone else so fuck him.

The talk now is that eventually the Republican Party will gang up and invoke the provisions in the 25th Amendment, declare him incompetent, and remove him so that Mike Pence can take over. That would be fun to watch, even though Pence is in some ways worse. But then Trump would be free to have women pee on him whenever he wants.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Omen

In the wake of the phenomenal success of The Exorcist, there was a short period when A-list horror films were made. The first of these kind of copycat films was The Omen, released in 1976, directed by Richard Donner. The makers of the film confess in the "making of" extras that the film couldn't have been made without the presence of Gregory Peck.

Peck was then an eminence grise of Hollywood, sixty years old and making interesting choices (he would a few years later play a Nazi fugitive in The Boys from Brazil). In this film he was a high-placed diplomat, who is told by a priest in a Roman hospital that his baby has died at birth. Unable to face telling his wife (Lee Remick) the news, the priest offers a deal--another infant, born at the same time, to an indigent mother with no family. Peck takes the child. The time of birth? June 6, at 6 A.M. They will name him Damien.

The Omen has been around now for 40 years and most of us know it, but I had fun remembering the first time I saw it, which must have been on HBO. My friend Bob remembers that he saw it late on night on TV while babysitting, and it gave him a bit of a chill. The film does not have the overall gore of The Exorcist, but instead arrives slowly and stealthily, like the Rottweilers that serve as Satan's guards. A nanny hangs herself at the boy's birthday party. A priest shows up spouting nonsense, so it seems, but gets skewered by a lightning rod trying to get into a church. And then, in a memorably shot scene, when Damien, aided by her Mrs. Danvers-like nanny (Billie Whitelaw), trikes past his mother standing on a table, who falls, along with a goldfish bowl. Something is definitely wrong with Damien.

Peck, who is by now the Ambassador to England, starts to believe the priest, and then is helped by a photojournalist (David Warner), and the third act is a kind of Dan Brown thriller, as they hop from city to city, tracking down who the boy's mother was, interpreting Revelations, and finding other disturbing news. In perhaps the film's most "wow" scene, Warner loses his head to a pane of glass (the devil, it seems, has a sense of humor and we can see the inspiration for The Final Destination films, along with Rube Goldberg). The climax, with Peck wresting Damien away from Whitelaw and then...well, if you haven't seen it, I'll stop there. I will mention the eerie last shot, with Damien with the President of the United States, turning and giving us a sly smile. It made me think what's going to happen on January 20th, and whether Donald Trump has a 666 birthmark under his comb over.

The Omen was a hit, but sequelitis killed the prestige horror picture. I think the last blow was The Amityville Horrror, and then fright films went back to where they belong, to B pictures. But The Omen is a genuinely creepy film. I don't know if Peck and Remick thought they were slumming, but they are stalwarts, and the music by Jerry Goldsmith, full of choirs and church organs, won an Oscar.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Birdman Soundtrack

Ironically, the Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media went to a soundtrack that wasn't even eligible for an Oscar, Birdman. The original drum soundtrack was by Antonio Sanchez, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deemed that it had too much other music (including pieces by Mahler, Rachmaninoff, and others) that it wasn't eligible. Well, rules are rules, but I'm glad the Grammys recognized it.

I've always been drawn to drumming. Other people may play air guitar, but I air drum, or at least drum on my steering wheel. When I saw the movie, over two years ago now, I was immediately struck my the mostly drum-only score, which has a jazz feel but also some rock and roll. There's jokes about using the drum solo as a time to go pee at a concert, but I like drum solos, and I've tried to appreciate the difficulty of drumming (I sure picked up some of that in Whiplash).

Rodriguez's score creates a kind of chaos, as when drumsticks crash it almost sounds like walls breaking down, our the loss of sanity by the main character, played by Michael Keaton. It certainly isn't soothing--if you listen to meditation music there isn't much drumming.

The rest of the music is also wonderful. It includes part of Symphony No, 9 by Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 2 in E Minor by Rachmaninoff, some Ravel, some Tchaikovsky, and an absolutely lovely choir piece, "Chorus of Exiled Palestinians," by John Adams.

I don't know many soundtracks anymore, but this one is a good one, and even after several days of playing it I'm not tired of it and hear more things.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Fun Home

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Fun Home, the winner of the 2015 Best Musical Tony, at the Smith Center here in Vegas. It's a very small, intimate musical, indicating its origins as an Off-Broadway production at the Public Theater, but it packs an emotional wallop.

Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, Fun Home is structured as a memory play. The contemporary Bechdel looks back on two periods in her life. She grew up in an unusual household, with a father that was not only a closeted gay man, but also a man of peculiar, demanding ways. A part-time mortician (the kids call their home the "Fun Home" as an abbreviation of funeral home) and high school English teacher, Bechdel's relationship with her is problematic, to say the least.

The first period is of Alison at about ten, when she and her two brothers make the best of living with a father who is difficult and a mother who is withdrawn and passively chooses to accept his affairs with mostly younger men. The other period is when she goes to college and realizes she is a lesbian, finds her first girlfriend, and undergoes the tragedy of her father's suicide.

While the show is very powerful, is very funny at times. The small Alison (played very well by Alessandra Baldacchino) has one of the best numbers, "Ring of Keys" (a stereotype of lesbians is that they carry massive key rings) after seeing a very butch woman and feeling a comradeship. The children also have a lovely number called "Welcome to Fun Home," in which they imagine a commercial for their business, "with ample parking down the street." Small Alison has an affinity for The Partridge Family, and when the going gets bad she imagines them all singing a happy song "Raincoat of Love."

Medium Alison, at Oberlin College, attempts to go the Gay Student Union, meets a fully out lesbian, and embraces her new found identity. She writes her parents to tell them the news and is happy with her father's acceptance and her mother's reluctance to talk about it. At the end of the story, she takes a drive with her father (and hear there is a time bend and the adult Alison takes her place) and she laments, in "Telephone Wire," that she can't talk to him. The show ends with the audience in tears as the three Alisons join each other for the final number, "Fly Away."

Directed by Sam Gold, the original director, has an excellent cast, with Kate Shindle (a former Miss America) as Alison, Abby Corrigan as Medium Alison and Robert Petkoff is particularly strong as the father. The music is by Jeanine Tesori and the book and lyrics by Lisa Kron (it was the first show to win the Tony written exclusively by women).

I see Fun Home having a long future of being performed by colleges and forward-thinking high schools for years to come. My girlfriend, who has a lesbian niece, lamented that her niece couldn't see it. It will be meaningful to anyone in the LGBT community, or anyone who feels like an outsider.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

I showed my sixth-graders Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, and though it was solidly directed toward the tween set, I may have liked it more than they did. It's not a great movie by any shakes, but it has amusing moments and most of all it takes a stance on some of the education controversies existing today.

Directed by Steve Carr, and based on one of James Patterson's gazillion books, the film is about Rafe (Griffin Gluck), a very creative boy who has a problem with authority. He's been kicked out of a couple of schools and is starting a new middle school. Problem: the principal is martinet with an absurd amount of rules who cares nothing about the kids except their scores on a standardized test.

The principal, Andy Daly, catches Gluck drawing a mean-spirited cartoon and throws away his whole notebook, which contains many of his drawings. He vows revenge, and in a bit of a maudlin but poignant twist, is guided by his brother, who happens to be dead. He's not a ghost, just an imaginary friend.

Gluck's plan is to break every single rule in the student code of conduct book. He has a friend in the school AV nerd (who of course without her glasses is stunning) and his sister. A subplot that is funny but unbelievable is that his mother (Lauren Graham) is dating a narcissistic pig (Rob Riggle) who wants to send Gluck to military school and is obsessed with animal print furniture and bought a sports car even though he can't drive a stick. There's just no way a woman with as much sense as Graham wouldn't see right through a guy like that.

The film, through satire, comes down pointedly against standardized tests. Daly's toadying assistant principal, Retta, put its it: "Teach to the test, not the kids," an attitude that any teacher worth his or her salt is disgusted by. Of course, these tests are a reality, created by a government who knows nothing about what goes on in a classroom or what children, especially in poor neighborhoods, goes through everyday.

I think most children of middle school age will like it (and I think most people will agree that those years are the worst of your life) but I recommend this film more for teachers and administrators and those that think standardized testing makes any sense at all. It doesn't.

Friday, January 06, 2017

The Sellout

Paul Beatty's The Sellout won the National Books Critic Circles Award and the Mann Booker Prize (the first American to do so) with this raucous racial satire. I found the writing so dazzling that I recommend it just for the belly laughs, though I found the plot, and indeed the author's message, to be obfuscated.

From the opening line, "This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything," to the very end we are treated to such dexterity with language that I can't possibly quote every line that made me laugh. Beatty has all sorts of thing to say about individual things, like Washington, D.C.: "with its wide streets, confounding roundabouts, marble statues, Doric columns, and domes, is supposed to feel like ancient Rome (that is, if the streets of ancient Rome were lined with homeless black people, bomb-sniffing dogs, tour buses, and cherry blossoms)" or L.A.: "If New York is the City That Never Sleeps, then Los Angeles is the City That’s Always Passed Out on the Couch."

The narrator of the book (we only know his last name is Me) has a case before the Supreme Court, and the book flashes back to tell us what he's been charged with. This is unclearly laid out, but apparently includes bringing back his home town of Dickens, California, which had disappeared from the map, and making it segregated. He also has kept a slave, the last living Little Rascal, called Hominy: "But he had the misfortune of being born in Dickens, California, and in America Hominy is no source of pride: he’s a Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African-American legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ’n’ Andy, Dave Chappelle’s meltdown, and people who say “Valentime’s Day.”"

At a certain point I gave up on following the plot, or lack of one. The narrator is in love with a sassy bus driver, who at one point deserts her route and takes the bus into the Pacific Ocean, and had a father who was an intellectual who seemed to take relish in pointing out the racist nature of America before being gunned down by police. There is also a villainous character named Foy Cheshire, who hosts a black-oriented TV talk show (I kept thinking of Tony Brown's Journal) who is disgusted with the narrator, and calls him "the Sellout."

Really The Sellout is a long riff on the black experience in America. The funniest stuff is about Hominy and the Little Rascals. Beatty points out the curse of many Rascals, who died young, and makes up some episodes that showcase racist attitudes, such as Hominy being used as bait for sharks. I actually think the Little Rascals were not that racist, as it was perhaps the only entertainment of the day that showed black and white kids playing together.

The Sellout is very funny, but also has some serious anger in it. Beatty holds no prisoners, and takes no sides, lambasting almost all races. The narrator has serious issues with his father, but learned important things from him: "A long time ago, my father taught me that whenever you see a question on the cover of a news magazine, the answer is always “No,” because the editorial staff knows that questions with “Yes” answers would, like graphic cigarette warnings and close-ups of pus-oozing genitalia that tend not to deter but encourage smoking and unsafe sex, scare the reader off."

But finally he decides, "Sometimes I wish Darth Vader had been my father. I’d have been better off. I wouldn’t have a right hand, but I definitely wouldn’t have the burden of being black and constantly having to decide when and if I gave a shit about it. Plus, I’m left-handed."

Thursday, January 05, 2017


After watching Lion I thought about when people say a movie is "manipulative." Usually that's not a compliment, but I think all movies and books and plays are manipulative. The creators are trying to make us feel a certain way, to set us up for the cry, the laugh, or the thrill. When someone says a movie is too manipulative, it's usually because the manipulation is obvious. A good movie manipulates you without you even knowing it. Lion is a movie where you feel manipulated at every turn.

Lion is not a bad movie. It's directed competently by Garth Davis in his debut, and he is able to incorporate Google Earth as part of the story without it seeming completely ridiculous. The acting, especially by Dev Patel, is strong. But the script by Luke Davies, and even the entire premise, is full of road signs telling us how to feel and when.

The story, which is true, has a little Indian boy following his brother to take a train to a job. The older boy leaves his brother to sleep on a bench, but the little brother gets curious and finds himself on an empty train, where he falls asleep. He awakes on a moving and empty train, with doors that won't open. The train finally stops in Calcutta, a thousand miles away. He doesn't know his mother's name (and she is illiterate) and butchers the name of his home town.

He ends up in an orphanage, where he is taken in by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and grows up to be Dev Patel. He has a pretty nice life, though the couple adopt a second Indian child who has a lot of problems. But when Patel gets to be in his twenties he starts to think more about his family left in India, and how they must have gone crazy looking for him. Some friends, including his girlfriend, Rooney Mara, urge him to use Google Earth, because he remembers certain things about the train station. He gets obsessed, looking at every train station within a certain radius of Calcutta.

So what, exactly, is the point of Lion? We know how this puppy is going to end from before we even take our seats, if we read anything about it or even look at the poster. Is it simply to have a good cry? Is it to highlight the atrocious way India takes care of its children (an end card states that 80,000 Indian children go missing every year, which kind of startled me, not because of the number, which is horrible, but because the film was not a polemic)? I'm not really sure. Okay, I did get teary at the end--it would be hard not to unless you have a piece of coal for a heart, but I hated myself for it.

Lion is really a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with top-drawer talent. For people who like that sort of thing, go for it. But it's being mentioned as a Best Picture Oscar contender and this is very wrong. Patel, should he get a nomination, would be worthy. Kidman has a weepy scene that may earn her a nomination, but it's only because she's Nicole Kidman. An unknown actress wouldn't get a sniff.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Best American Travel Writing 2015

"I’m obsessed with blank spots on the map, the places nobody goes," so writes Christopher Solomon in "Baked Alaska," one of my favorite pieces in the latest (to me) edition of The Best American Travel Writing 2015. The editor is Andrew McCarthy, yes the same Andrew McCarthy who was once sort of part of the Brat Pack, but is now a travel writer and editor, and he gets why we read travel. This book is full of far-flung adventurers, not people looking for best deals on hotels, or what day is the best to fly on.

As McCarthy puts it, "Back in Sir Richard Burton’s day, tales brought back from darkest Africa had real import. Freya Stark’s journeys through Persia were a revelation. Ernest Shackleton’s escape from Antarctica with every soul intact was the stuff of real heroism. How do we top that? The 10 best beaches in the Caribbean right now(!)?"

The articles contained here have our heroes off to distant places like a luxury ski resort in North Korea ("The Great Pleasure Project," by Tim Neville); Moldova, which sounds like it's a made-up country but is not (Steven Connelly Benz's "Land of the Lost"); Varanasi, India, where people come to die ("Ashes to Ashes," by David Earley); Patricia Marx taking a cargo ship in "A Tale of a Tub," and not one but two articles about Timbuktu, which when I was a kid was usually referenced as the most remote place on Earth (and where there are, yes, blue people). Those two articles are "My Timbuktu," by Adriana Paramo and "Bonfire of the Humanities" by Patrick Symmes, and both mention the same music festival held in Mali (Timbuktu's home country) and the devastating effects of radical Islam.

There are also some interesting journeys, such as Paul Theroux's tour of the American South in "The Soul of the South," which includes beautiful passages such as "Mary T opened a bottle of blueberry wine from a winery in Harpersville, and though it was a warm noontime, a fly buzzing behind the hot white curtains in the small back dining room, we stood and clinked schooners of the wine and toasted our meeting—the ancient Mary T, the nearly blind Randall, and myself, the traveler, passing through" and such helpful observations as "No one on earth—none I had ever seen—is more polite, more eager to smile, more accommodating and less likely to step on your toe, than a person at a gun show."

Kevin Baker travels the U.S. by train ("21st Century Limited"), which is still possible: "American train stations were once the most magnificent in the world. Even in the smallest towns, they tended to be little jewels of craftsmanship. In bigger cities, they were the first monumental modern buildings erected without reference to God or king, built by the people to move the people." Needless to say. not so much anymore, especially if you've been to the new Penn Station.

And then there's Paul Salopek's "Our of Eden Walk," when he sets out to walk from Ethiopia's Rift Valley, where Homo Sapiens first appeared, to Tierra del Fuego in the southern tip of South America, the last place they migrated to. This would seem to be impossible, and I wonder if he made it, as the article ends with him in Syria, with still a long way to go.

But back to Alaska. My two favorite articles are this one, in which an outdoorsman and two others travel to the least-visited of National Park locations. "Nobody comes to the Alaska Peninsula by accident. Even fewer come here for fun." I also loved Lisa Abend's "The Sound of Silence," who has the same spirit: "when I read a British newspaper story about Inverie, the only town on the Knoydart peninsula, one of the most untouched parts of the Scottish Highlands, I thought it might be just the cure for my misanthropy." Seems reasonable. She goes on: "It would be a 16-mile trek through steep and rocky terrain, and at hike’s end, I would be in a town with a population of roughly 100 people, no cell-phone coverage, and a pub billed as the most remote in mainland Britain." Sould like bliss.

The collection also has a few humorous pieces, such as "Ship of Wonks," by Iris Smyles, where she goes on a cruise for physics buffs in the attempt to meet a fella, "Behind Closed Doors at Hotels," in which Gary Shtengyart explains: "When I travel alone, when my only companion and source of affection is the hypoallergenic wedge of pillow with some silly hotel monogram on it, when the jet lag and the unfamiliar sun make me feel like a dust speck blown across the earth (an alien dust speck that will never know the love of another human being again), when all these planets align, one thing will happen: someone in the room next to me will be having very loud sex."

I also enjoyed the somewhat comical but somewhat serious "Hail, Dayton," which is all about Dayton, Tennessee, where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place, and there is a re-enactment every year. Rachel Maddux writes, "In the Beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, or maybe he didn’t, but either way vast ribbons of peat came to rest under what became the foothills of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, and in time the peat became coal, and later the railroads arrived, along with mines and coke ovens, and near one lazy arc of the Tennessee River workers built homes to return to after their long days of burrowing and burning, and the homes became a town, and the town was called Dayton."

So bravo to Andrew McCarthy, who understands that travel writing is about taking risks and going to the empty spots on the map, and not to the latest resort in Ibiza. Well done, and I'm sorry I mistook you for Andrew Shue.