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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

13th

One of the nominees for Best Documentary Feature was 13th, Ava DuVernay's scathing examination of mass incarceration in America. Perhaps I can sum up the film with one statistic: Black men are 5.5 percent of the U.S. population, but 40 percent of the prison population.

The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that slavery is outlawed, except for criminals convicted of a crime. After that was passed, Southern whites simply arrested black men for the flimsiest of offenses: loitering, vagrancy, what have you. They were then put on work farms, and voila! Instant slaves.

Fortunately that system died out, but was replaced by Jim Crow laws and Blacks being treated as second-class citizens. That stopped with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, but since then there has been, according to the film, a systematic attempt to classify black men as violent criminals, which goes all the way back to the early days of slavery.

There are several speakers, many of the professors of African-American studies, who know their shit. There is a close examination of Birth of a Nation, the film hailed as a masterpiece by cineastes but an awful display of racism, which was responsible for the renaissance of the Ku Klux Klan. An actor, in black face, attacks a white women, who prefers to leap to her death. We can see echoes of this in the series of police shootings, when white apologists for police brutality use code words like "thug."

The prison population was steady for several decades, until Richard Nixon took office and declared a "war on crime." Again, this was code for keeping Blacks in their place, to reassure white fears. Famously, Nixon used this as the "Southern Strategy" to convince white Southerners to vote Republican.

Ronald Reagan's "Just Say No" nonsense drove the prison population up even higher. Penalties for possession of crack cocaine were more severe than powder cocaine, as Blacks tended to use crack and white people powder. Even Newt Gingrich, in the film, agrees that sentencing laws were biased towards black, and he says that no white person can understand what a Black person goes through.

The film also touched on private prisons, and laws passed to make sure people are in prisons. I consider myself aware of most things, but I did not know about ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a mixture of businessmen and politicians who lobby for laws that supposedly limit government, but instead grease the palms of member corporations. Private prisons don't make money without prisoners, and companies that make money off of prisons, like Aramark, a food service corporation, or Victoria's Secret, which uses free prison labor to make their garments, aren't likely to want to see prison reform.

Not only Republicans take heat--Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill is especially lambasted, with its mandatory sentencing and three-strikes and you're out provision. All it did, most of the experts say, is put more black men in prison and separate fathers from children. While white collar criminals were getting sentenced to country club prisons, or just probation, black men with an ounce of marijuana were getting life sentences.

13th is a polemic, but it's a damn good one. It's hard to watch it and not want to immediately go to a Black Lives Matter protest. But then again, I'm the choir being preached to.

Monday, February 27, 2017

The 89th Oscars: The (Correct) Envelope, Please

To get to the elephant in the room, let's talk about the flub first. It will overshadow anything else from this Oscar ceremony, the 89th, and is right up there with Sacheen Littlefeather and Robert Opel, the streaker, in terms of Oscar moments of sheer nuttiness.

To recap, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde (both looking fresh from the plastic surgeon's office), presented Best Picture. To that point, La La Land looked like the film to beat, picking up six awards (though it did not win near as many as some people thought it would). Beatty opened the envelope, and appeared to be vamping, checking to see if there was something else in the envelope, and looking like he was just teasing the nominees. Dunaway, taken aback, chided him, so Beatty handed her the envelope and she said, "La La Land." General pandemonium, and two of the producers managed to give acceptance speeches. Beatty hung around, though, and the third producer said, "We lost." The producer at the mic, Justin Horowitz, announced there had been a mistake, and that Moonlight had won Best Picture. To prove he was not joking, he held up the right card. Gasps, and the La La Land crowd exited the stage and was replaced by the Moonlight contingent.

Host Jimmy Kimmel, at first blaming Steve Harvey (who famously mixed up the name of Miss Universe) found Beatty there to take his lumps. The star realized something was wrong, as he had the Best Actress envelope and card, but instead of pointing it out to someone who could so something about it, he simply handed the envelope to Dunaway, who read out the name of the film on the card.

PricewaterhouseCooper, the accounting firm that has had the Oscar account for 83 years, will now have some explaining to do, and there will doubtless be tense meetings between them and the Academy in the coming days. The best guess as to what happened: there are two envelopes for every award, one at each end of the stage, locked in cases. Each of the holders of those cases know every winner. In error, Beatty and Dunaway were handed the extra Best Actress envelope (as Emma Stone pointed out, she still had the original envelope in her hand while she was addressing the press). Beatty did not notice that the envelope said "Best Actress" on it (a close-up verifies this), and the confusion resulted.

So, why didn't Beatty ask for help, and after Dunaway, really quite innocent in all this, read the wrong name, why didn't the PwC person immediately come out? Two minutes went by, and it was a stagehand that pointed out to the La La Land producers that a mistake had been made. Methinks a head or two will roll at PwC, and the Academy may seriously question the continued connection.

There have been mix-ups before, but nothing on this scale. In 1933, Will Rogers presented Best Director and upon opening the envelope said, "Come on up and get it, Frank." Frank Capra started for the stage, but unfortunately for him it was Frank Lloyd who won. In 1964, Sammy Davis Jr. was given the wrong envelope, but it was caught in time. Davis quipped, "Wait until the NAACP hears about this."

This brouhaha overshadows what I consider the biggest upset in the Best Picture race since 1982, when Chariots of Fire bested Reds. So how did Moonlight do it? It was, adjusted for inflation, the lowest-budgeted film ever to take the top prize. It is the first film solely about black America (I don't recall any white faces, maybe some teachers in the school), and it's the first film with a gay protagonist to win (when Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, it was thought the older voters couldn't tolerate a gay-themed film. Finally times have changed). It is also a critic's darling--it was second on both the Sight & Sound and Film Comment polls for best film of 2016 (La La Land was 16th on Sight & Sound's poll, and didn't even make Film Comment's). To put it simply--it is the most indie-ish, to create a word, film to ever win Best Picture.

It has become almost routine for Best Picture and Best Director to be split. While it usually happened about once a decade from the mid-'20s to the mid-'90s, it has happened eight times in the last nineteen years, close to a fifty-percent rate (that's even considering a stretch from 2006-2011 when they matched). Clearly, the younger voters have no problem splitting their ticket, as is usual at festivals like Cannes, when they never match. La La Land won some technical awards, some musical awards, Best Actress and Best Director, but was not judged Best Picture. Why?

Certainly there may have been some that simply thought Moonlight was better, and may have voted for director Barry Jenkins as well. But what about those who voted for Best Director winner Damien Chazelle (now the youngest director ever to win, breaking an 85-year-old record) but did not vote for La La Land? I am not in the industry and know zero Academy voters, but I can surmise that it was a market correction--after last year's bad press over #Oscarssowhite, some voters were determined to make sure this Oscar ceremony showed diversity. There was a Black person nominated in each acting category (two of them won, for only the second time) and perhaps voters figured they'd honor La La Land's artistry but show they aren't prejudiced by voting for Moonlight. There may be also a bit of anti-Trump backlash, as well. The first Best Picture of his presidency is about gay black men.

I began to sense an upset early on, when La La Land lost both sound awards and then editing. But it began to pick up steam, and though it lost Original Screenplay, that was expected. Once Chazelle won I thought it was in the bag. I was wrong.

Other than that, the show was the usual bloated affair, clocking in as the longest in about ten years. Jimmy Kimmel was an affable host--he was not to blame for the snafu in any way, so I hope he is invited back. His only cringe-worthy moment was bringing in a bus-load of tourists into the theater. In what I'm sure was meant to be charming, the stunt came off as "Look, watch the great unwashed interact with their betters," and went on too long. The parachuted candy worked much better. The Matt Damon trolling was brutal but, I admit, funny. He must be a damn good sport.

Some Oscar tidbits: Casey and Ben Affleck now become the 16th pair of siblings to win Oscars. Affleck had ceded favorite status when he lost SAG and his sexual assault charges hovered over him. But the SAG win was over-rated for Denzel Washington; he had never won one, but had won two Oscars.

Kevin O'Connell, a sound mixer, received his 21st nomination this year. Sounds great, and it is, but he had never won. He did this year, for Hacksaw Ridge. In his acceptance speech he looked like he would explode with relief. Greg P. Russell, who has 17 nominations without a win, was nominated for 13 Hours, but was removed when he got caught campaigning. It would have been a delicious irony if the film had won but he didn't get a statuette.

Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim to win an Oscar. All told, I count five Black people who won Oscars, which I think must be a record. Coupling that with Moonlight's win (although the three producers of that film are white) is really the story of the night--the Academy has tried to be more diverse, and it seems to have worked.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Man Called Ove

One of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Oscar, as well as for Best Makeup and Hairstyles, is A Man Called Ove, from Sweden, written and directed by Hannes Holm. It is a curious hybrid of a black comedy and a tearjerker, and may remind you of films like Grand Torino and St. Vincent, where a grumpy old man is brought back to the world by the love of children and/or pets.

Ove is a 59-year-old grouch who stalks his housing project like a martinet, picking up cigarette butts, writing down the license plates of parking transgressors, and insulting everyone who comes in his path. He is in deep mourning of his late wife, and visits her grave regularly. When he is laid off from the job he has had since he was a teenager, he decides to kill himself.

But every suicide attempt is interrupted by someone asking for a good deed. During his attempts he remembers his life. He was a nice guy, handy with tools (he learned cars from his father and developed a life-long love of Saab). He is socially awkward, but meets a young woman on a train who is way above his station, but she loves him anyway and they marry. She is injured in a bus accident, and dies of cancer, and he feels he has nothing to live for.

But he keeps getting interrupted, especially by a young Iranian woman who lives across the path. Eventually they develop a friendship, and he grows to dote on their children. He takes in a stray cat. He opens up about his past and tries to move forward.

This may sound dreadful, but it plays better than it reads. Partly this is due to Holm's delicate balance of the two genres. It is genuinely funny (he ends a friendship with a man because he drives a Volvo) and it may earn a tear or two at the end. It's also helped greatly by the lead performance of Rolf Lassgård, who manages to take a cliche character, the grumpy old man, and make him real.

I have only one major question--when did he go sour? Right after his wife's death? If so, that must have been quite a transformation. We don't really see when he went from good guy to bad. The movie is almost two hours but one scene of him realizing he hated life might have been necessary.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director

There's little suspense for this year's Best Picture and Best Director Oscar. Once La La Land was released, it seized the lead and has fought back all comers. There is a backlash among some that it is frivolous in these perilous times, but the movies don't have to wallow in our fears; sometimes they deflect them. Of course, La La Land is also about Hollywood. This will be the third film in the last six years, following The Artist and Argo, to win with that subject matter.

Usually when looking at a slate of Best Picture nominees, you can eliminate the films that don't have a Best Director nomination. Only two films since World War II, Driving Miss Daisy and Argo, have won Best Picture without a director nomination. Even after the expansion of the Best Picture list, this has held true. So sorry, Lion, Hell or High Water, Fences, and Hidden Figures, the odds are against you. Hidden Figures, which interestingly is the highest grossing of the nine, did win the SAG award for Best Ensemble, but La La Land wasn't nominated because basically it's a two-character film. Also interesting--the film that has the highest box office gross of the nominees rarely wins.

So that leaves four films battling La La Land. If, in a shock the size of the San Francisco earthquake would occur, I believe Moonlight would win. In fact, some are suggesting a La La Land/Barry Jenkins split might happen, because it has become a trend in the last twenty years to honor two different films in the two categories, when before they almost always were the same film. I don't think that's going to happen--Damien Chazelle won the DGA award, the most reliable predictor of the Best Picture and Best Director awards. But Moonlight has both critical approval and a zeitgeist in these xenophobic times--it's about gay black men.

That leaves three films, and I think their chances are in roughly this order: Manchester by the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan, which is my favorite film of the year but probably too much of a downer for Academy voters (but a likely winner for Best Original Screenplay); Arrival, directed by Denis Villenueve, a thoughtful science fiction film that seems to have gotten lost in the dust (but did pick up a WGA award for Best Adapted Screenplay), and Hacksaw Ridge, directed by Mel Gibson, which is half a good film. That Gibson was nominated for Best Director counts as a "comeback," but I don't expect him or the film to have a ghost of a chance.

The real suspense is how many awards La La Land wins. The record is a three-way tie at 11: Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Return of the King. La La Land has 14 nominations. Unless there's a tie in the Best Song category, it can only win 13. Eleven seems like a safe bet, as Ryan Gosling doesn't figure to win, and Original Screenplay seems like a long-shot. But stranger things have happened, and sweeps can overcome good judgment. I also think La La Land may lose Best Costumes, since that award always goes to period films. But then again, who can forget Emma Stone's yellow dress?

Here are my complete picks:

Best Picture: La La Land
Best Director: Damien Chazelle
Best Actor: Casey Affleck
Best Actress: Emma Stone
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali
Best Supporting Actress: Viola Davis
Best Original Screenplay: Manchester by the Sea
Best Adapted Screenplay: Moonlight
Best Foreign Language Film: The Salesman
Best Animated Film: Zootopia
Best Cinematography: La La Land
Best Editing: La La Land
Best Production Design: La La Land
Best Costume Design: Jackie
Best Song: City of Stars
Best Musical Score: La La Land
Best Documentary Feature: O.J.: Made in America
Best Documentary Short Subject: White Helmets
 Best Makeup and Hairstyles: Star Trek Beyond
Best Animated Short Subject: Piper
Best Live Action Short Subject: Sing
Best Sound Editing: La La Land
Best Sound Mixing: La La Land
Best Visual Effects: The Jungle Book

Friday, February 24, 2017

The Never-Open Desert Diner

Now that I live in the desert, I have a fondness for books that take place in the desert, especially desert noir, a particular kind of noir that upends the usual tropes of noir--no rainy city streets, or men in fedoras, or gats, but instead characters who are in the desert on purpose, hiding from civilization, or perhaps trying to hide from themselves.

The Never-Open Desert Diner, by James Anderson, takes place in the desert of Utah. Ben Jones drives a delivery truck down Route 117 (which does exist, I checked, but maybe not in the place that Anderson sets it in). Ben is a pretty standard noir character, a man with integrity who is tested, and is caught up in something over his head. He meets a mysterious woman whom he falls in love with, but he can't have her.

I don't want to go to deeply into the plot, because I enjoyed not knowing where the story was going (it takes a long while before we really understand what's going on), but the title refers to a diner that is on Ben's route that is, well, never open. It's owned by an old cuss named Walt Butterfield, who is not really Ben's friend, but they have a certain respect for reach other. "From 1955 to 1987 the diner appeared in dozens of B movies. There were the desert horror-thriller movies, the desert biker mayhem movies, and the movies where someone, usually an attractive young woman, drove across the desert alone and some bad shit happened."

Walt experienced a tragedy, and shut up the diner and just tinkers on his motorcycle collection. Ben, who is not breaking even and is about to lose his truck, starts to sense weird things going on, like a reality-TV producer wanting to feature him in a show about truck drivers.

Anderson's best work is the kind of lines that make noir books snap, such as: "I didn’t want to be shot, but if I had to be shot by someone, she would have been my first choice," which Raymond Chandler would have proud of, or "Conversation in the high desert was parceled out like water and often with less enthusiasm, each drop cherished for the life it represented."

I recommend this book for those who like noir mysteries and those who like tales of the desert. I happen to in the center of that Venn diagram.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Blob

The Blob is a 1958 B-movie, part of a drive-in double feature, that has gone on to a certain cult status, mainly because it was the first starring role for Steve McQueen, who plays a stalwart teenager who leads his town against a monstrous gelatinous goo from outer space. In reality, the film is comically bad, a natural for Mystery Science Theater 3000, that has long stretches of boredom between sporadic scenes of horrible visual effects.

What's fascinating about The Blob almost sixty years later is the sociological undertones. The '50s were not kind to teenage angst. The foremost film about teenage delinquency of the decade was Rebel Without a Cause, which this film is almost an echo of, but instead the "rebel" is not a rebel at all, but the most responsible person in town. Teenagers in this film are presented initially as the troublemakers--there's a drag race in the film, as in Rebel, but they race backwards.

The plot, simple as it is, is that a meteor lands in a small rural town (is was partly shot in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, which holds an annual "Blobfest"). An old man finds a small smoking rock, and he breaks it apart and gets what looks like snot on his hand. He can't shake it off, and McQueen and his girl (Aneta Corsaut, who would later play Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show) help the old man to the doctor, and then leave to try to find out more. But by the time they get back the blob has consumed the old man, a nurse, and the doctor.

McQueen tries to tell the police. One is a square deal (Earl Rowe), while the other hates teenagers. There's a malevolent line slipped in: "Just because a teenager ran over his wife on the turnpike doesn't mean it's against the law to be 17." The kids encounter the blob in McQueen's dad's store, but then it attacks the movie theater, and everybody knows it's real. It traps McQueen, Corsaut, and her little brother (a dreadful juvenile performance by Keith Almoney) in a diner, but McQueen figures out that the creature can't stand cold, so they blast it with fire extinguishers and the military drops it frozen into the Arctic. A very funny line ends the film, when McQueen says they are safe as "long as the Arctic stays frozen." "The End" comes up, with a question mark.

In addition to predicting global warming, The Blob was an attempt to subvert the horrible image of teenagers. In addition to the backwards drag race, there's also a very curious scene when Corsault's father, who is also the school principal, hops into one of the kids' cars to get fire extinguishers from the school. When he gets there, he doesn't have the keys, so director Irvin Yeaworth almost lovingly shows a close-up of the principal picking up a stone, and then breaking the window to get in. Maybe in 1958 the teens watching cheered, seeing an authority figure vandalize a high school.

The Blob has become one of the more well-remembered drive-in monster movies of the era. It was originally the opening of a double feature with I Married a Monster From Outer Space, but quickly earned top billing. In a way, the film is nostalgic, full of can-do optimism, teenagers who were heroic when the chips were down, and small-town values.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards, Best Actor

The only acting race with any juice in it this year is Best Actor, and it's a two-man race. Right now most Oscar ninnies have it as a coin-flip, with a presumed front runner getting caught from behind.

The front runner was Casey Affleck, for his role as a lonely man stuck into a horrible situation in Manchester by the Sea. Affleck won most of the precursors, including the Golden Globe. But along came two-time winner Denzel Washington for is self-directed performance in Fences. Washington won the SAG Award, which has correctly predicted the last 12 Oscar-winning Best Actors. Affleck won the BAFTA, but Washington was not nominated.

Perhaps foolishly, I still give Affleck the edge. Some think his being accused of sexual harassment has cost him the lead, but I don't know. I'm always reluctant to buy into these sorts of things. The artist should be separated from the art--Picasso was a horrible human being, but people still go look at his paintings--but there are limits. If a person gave a great performance but then went on a shooting spree at a school it is doubtful he would be nominated, let alone win. But if at all possible, personal things like this should be left out of it.

Affleck certainly deserves the award. I think Denzel Washington was terrific in Fences, but this is one of those "most acting" awards. Washington does just above everything in the movie, while Affleck acts by omission. If Washington wins, he would be only the fourth actor, after Walter Brennan, Jack Nicholson, and Daniel-Day Lewis, to win three Oscars. He would also be the third to direct himself to an Oscar, following Laurence Olivier and Roberto Benigni. One note on the SAG award--Washington had never won one before, so it may have been catch-up time for them, certainly not for the Academy.

As for the other three, it's wait 'til next year. Ryan Gosling might have stood a chance in a complete La La Land sweep, and showing off his dancing chops might have impressed some, but he's on the outside looking in behind these two. Andrew Garfield, as the pacifist medic in Hacksaw Ridge, was nominated for the wrong role. He should have been nominated for Silence, instead of this Gomer Pyle impersonation.

Finally, Viggo Mortensen is nominated as Earth-dad in Captain Fantastic. It's a well done role, but it's the film's only nomination, and in Best Actor category it's a rarity for an actor to win in such circumstances.

Will win: Affleck
Could win: Washington
Should win: Affleck
Should have been nominated: Joel Edgerton, Loving

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was named best film of 2016 by Cahiers du Cinema, Sight & Sound, and Film Comment. Therefore, I couldn't help but have my expectations too high. To be sure, Toni Erdmann has moments of brilliance, but over a two-hour-forty-minute running time they are spaced a bit too far apart. But I will say this--there are scenes that I won't forget for a long time.

The film is about a retired music teacher (Peter Simonischek) who likes to pull people's legs. At the very outset he pulls ours--he tells a package delivery man that his brother is just out of jail for mail bombs and is eating dog food. He comes back to the door as his brother, but it's him, with fake teeth. It took me a moment or two to realize there was no brother.

Simoischek lives with a very old dog, and is barely in touch with his daughter Sandra Huller, who was a big-shot business consultant living in Bucharest. When his dog dies, he has nothing better to do than fly to Bucharest and surprise her. It will turn her life upside down.

He tags along at a reception at an American embassy and embarrasses her in front of a CEO whose business she's trying to win (he tells the man he has hired a substitute daughter who will clip his toenails). After she think he's gone, she goes out for dinner with friends and he shows up in a bad, long-haired wig, wearing those awful fake teeth, and claiming to be Toni Erdmann, who is friend of the Romanian tennis player Ion Tiriac, and is in town for Tiriac's turtle's funeral. Huller does not blow the whistle on him, and despite herself becomes enmeshed in his masquerade.

So what is writer-director Maren Ade trying to tell us? That "Toni Erdmann" is bringing happiness into the hum-drum, all-business life of his daughter? She is very uptight, but is also kinky. One scene I will never forget is when she makes her lover, a colleague, masturbate onto a pastry, which she then eats. If the dad is the free spirit who knows the secret to happiness, I'm not sure it's posing as the German ambassador while your daughter watches her career go down the drain.

Ade could use a better editor. Some scenes go on way too long. I think of when father and daughter visit a local family's house for Easter. He pushes her to sing "The Greatest Love of All," all verses. It's a naked moment for Huller, but it's so cringe-worthy, even though she's not a bad singer, that I wanted to crawl under the chair.

And speaking of naked moments--the scene everyone who has seen it will talk about is when Huller is giving a birthday brunch. She is so frustrated while getting dressed that she answers the door wearing only panties. It's a female friend, so nothing is too shocking, but then she decides it's going to be a naked party. She takes off the panties, and no one is allowed to stay who isn't naked. This leads to some amusing scenes of full frontal nudity (there are two penises seen in this movie, so at least it's fair). Then, if that weren't enough, Simonischek shows up wearing a huge furry costume that is apparently a Bulgarian folk character that drives away evil spirits.

To me, Toni Erdmann's particular moments don't add up and instead it's just a series of strange events. I'm not sure Huller learned anything, nor did Simonischek. I read one review that says it's a long film but never self-indulgent; I think almost the whole movie is self-indulgent (there are also a lot of scenes about the oil business that are completely unnecessary).

German comedies are unusual--it is said to be one of the world's shortest books (along with Italian war heroes or the Amish phone book)--and though Toni Erdmann is at times very funny, it fails when it tries to balance it with pathos. It's a noble effort, and I'm glad I saw it, but best film of the year? No.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Salesman

The first action of The Salesman is an apartment building starting to collapse. It's an apt metaphor for Asghard Farhadi's film, another in which he examines how a marriage falls apart. The building does not completely come down, but is uninhabitable, and there is a large crack in the bedroom of Edam and Rana, a young married couple.

Played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, respectively, the couple are part of a Tehranian middle class. He teaches literature in high school, and both are taking part in a community theater production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman (Hosseini is Willy Loman, hence the title).

One of their co-stars, made aware of their search for a new apartment, is a landlord who has a place. They like it, though the previous tenant has left a lot of of her stuff. Slowly it unfolds that she was a prostitute (that word is never used--she was "promiscuous," "had a lot of male visitors," etc.

One night, Alidoosti comes home earlier from a production, while Hosseini meets with censors (one of the several Iranian touches). The door buzzes and, thinking it's her husband, she buzzes him in and opens the door. But as we watch the door slowly swing open from inertia, we realize that it's not Hosseini coming up. As Anthony Lane pointed out in his review, it's a scene Michael Haneke would love.

Alidoosti is attacked, but she does not see her attacker. When Hosseini realizes who was the previous tenant, he thinks it is one of her clients, who mistakes Alidoosti (who was in the shower) for the whore. He goes about trying to track this person down. In another Iranian touch, and what makes it entirely different from a Western film, the couple do not consult the police. In the U.S. a woman brought into an ER with a head wound would automatically attract police presence, but in Tehran it is thought better to just keep it quiet.

Eventualy Husseini finds his man, and it's in a most ingenious fashion that Farhadi introduces him. This leads to a socko finish, an entire last act in one space--the fractured apartment, where Hosseini decides to enact revenge. Alidosti wants to forgive him, and tells Hosseini if he doesn't let him go their marriage is over. Suddenly the stakes are much higher than Hosseini can handle.

The Salesman makes for gripping drama, and Farhadi is a very clever man. Not only does he use the metaphor of the crumbling building at the beginning, but he begins and ends the film with someone being carried down stairs. Hosseini does at the beginning, rescuing a disabled man, while at the end another man is carried down the stairs, dying, while Hosseeini does nothing.

The one thing I have not been able to figure out is, why Death of a Salesman? Clearly Farhadi chose this play specifically, one of the greats of the American theater, as his background story. But the parallels between the stories and the characters don't seem to be there. Death of a Salesman is essentially about how a man wastes his life in pursuit of an ever-out-of-reach dream, and ends up failing his family. What is has to do with The Salesman I will have to ponder more.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pearl Jam

Once again this year I'll be discussing the inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and I'll start with Pearl Jam, one of only two artists to get in in their first year of eligibility.

I regularly bought Pearl Jam CDs throughout the '90s, and as I listened to their greatest hits retrospective, Rearviewmirror, this week I had to consider if they were the best rock band of the decade, and I've come to the conclusion that they were. They grew out of the "grunge" movement of the Pacific Northwest, but were more long-lasting that Nirvana (sadly) and better than and more consistent that Alice in Chains or Soundgarden.

That being said, I couldn't tell you when Pearl Jam released their latest album (a quick Google search turns up one in 2013 that went completely beneath my radar). They began with their greatest album, Ten, and seemingly with every release since then have been less noteworthy.

But that album Ten produced a few of the anthems of the decade, songs about not fitting in, a time-honored rock and roll trope, but with a kind of savage intensity. I think mostly of "Alive," in which a boy learns his parentage isn't what he thought it was (part of Eddie Vedder's biography):

"Son, she said, have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy was nothin' but a...
While you were sittin' home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dyin', sorry you didn't see him, but I'm glad we talked... "

And :Jeremy," about a bully victim who lashes back:

"Clearly I remember
Pickin' on the boy
Seemed a harmless little fuck
But we unleashed a lion
Gnashed his teeth
And bit the recess lady's breast"

Along with "Black," "Once," and "Even Flow" (about a homeless man) these songs lived throughout the decade, with impassioned lyrics, incomparable musicianship, and the unearthly sound of Eddie Vedder's voice, which rumbles in a bass but can be comforting as well as manic. Consider the quiet beauty of "Wishlist," one of my favorite Pearl Jam songs, or the intense screaming on "Do the Evolution."

From "Wishlist":

"I wish I was an alien at home behind the sun
I wish I was the souvenir you kept your house key on
I wish I was the pedal brake that you depended on
I wish I was the verb 'to trust' and never let you down"

Most of Pearl Jam's discography is fairly grim--these guys didn't do novelty songs. Even the one cover they had for a hit, "Last Kiss," is about a guy getting in a car wreck that kills his girlfriend. But even if their songs aren't finger-snapping ditties, there is hopefulness to them. After all, in that very first album, Vedder proclaims, "I'm still alive."

Saturday, February 18, 2017

FInding Neverland (Musical)

Last night I saw the touring production of Finding Neverland, based on the 2004 film that tells the story of how J.M. Barrie came to write Peter Pan. He was inspired by the sons of Sylvia Llewelyn Davis, a free spirited widow whom he was probably in love with, in his own way.

The musical, with a book by James Graham and music and lyrics by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, is an examination of imagination. Brought to life by Diane Paulus, one of the best directors of musicals working today, the show does hit high moments, and is especially relevant to creative types. I think especially of the closing number of Act One, when Barrie is visited by Captain Hook, representing his dark side, urging him to not give up on writing Peter Pan.

Paulus manages to do this with a score that isn't particularly memorable. I couldn't hum one of the songs upon leaving, and every time I think of a song called "Neverland"  I can't help but hear the one from the 1954 musical of Peter Pan--it's a hard (impossible, really) act to follow. What I take with me is the visuals, such as the depiction of Kensington Garden in 1903, or the backstage of a theater with a cast trying to come to grips with the parts they are going to play.

The book, by Graham, is full of exposition but also has some good one-liners, especially for the character of Charles Frohman, the American producer who reluctantly backs Peter Pan. When asked if he has a "child inside him," he says no, "I have an ulcer inside me." Dwelvan David, as a rich-voiced thespian, has some great fun when he realizes he's going to plan Nana, the dog. But he brings the house down when one of the boys asks him, "Don't you believe in fairies?"David responds, "Young man, I work in the theater" (Big laugh.) Then the kicker, "I see them every day."

In a clever bit of double-casting (which was done in the original production with Kelsey Grammer), Tom Hewitt plays both Frohman and Captain Hook in a performance that is an absolute knockout (and an actor's dream, I would imagine). Billy Harrigan Tighe, who just started playing the lead this week, makes a bland Barrie. Of course, after Johnny Depp plays a role with requisite weirdness, its another hard act to follow. Barrie's sexuality is something of a mystery (the movie implies that he and his wife had a chaste marriage) and the truth is that when Barrie met Davies she was still married. The musical has them romantically involved, sharing a single kiss, while I don't think the film suggested that.

Christine Dwyer is quite good as Sylvia, as is Karen Murphy as her mother, Mrs. Du Maurier. I think every show I've seen during the season at Smith Center (six, now) has had children performers, who are amazingly good. Since they rotate in and out of roles and are not announced, I can't single any out, but all four boys I saw last night were superb.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Virunga

There is an impression that all the documentaries nominated for Oscars are depressing, and Jerry Seinfeld made a crack about that when presenting the award some years ago. That's somewhat true, as many of the films are about inhumanity--whether they be about the Holocaust or problems in the Middle East or what have you (the rest of them are documentaries about show business figures, it seems). But instead of the word depressing, I would substitute anger. If you're going to watch these films, prepare to get angry.

That's certainly the case with Virunga, nominated two years ago and directed by Orlando von Einseidel. The title refers to a National Park and World Heritage site inside the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the last home of the mountain gorilla, as well as many other fauna, including elephants. The park has a guard service, who have done battle with poachers forever. In this film, they have to deal with something else--rebels, who believe they are hitched to the star of an oil company.

Von Einseidel uses four characters to tell the story. We meet a sector warden of the Guards, who participates in the funeral of another guard (the sacrifice of these men is very moving--they die by the score, to protect their country's natural resources), as well as a gorilla care-giver. He is in charge of four orphaned gorillas, the only mountain gorillas in captivity.

The chief warden is Emmanuel de Merode, a dashing Belgian who takes his job as seriously as one would hope. Also telling the story is a French journalist, Melanie Gouby, who surreptitiously  records her dinners with employees of SOCO, the British oil company that wants to drill inside the park, which would violate international law.

One could easily take Virunga and turn it into a feature narrative film. Gouby is young and attractive, and watching her doll herself up for dates with the SOCO guy made me think of Blood Diamond. She also tapes a so-called mercenary who says, "Who gives a fuck about a monkey?" If I were Gouby, I would have a hard time resisting cracking a bottle open over his head.

That Virunga Park even exists seems a miracle. This is a very war-torn part of the world, and as the events of the film unfold, a rebel group calling itself M23 try to take the park. They are under the impression that they will receive part of SOCO's profits, even though the company distances themselves from any violence. It once again proves that oil companies are among the worst of humanity.

There are bright spots. The care given to the baby gorillas (one of them dies--hanky warning) is wonderful to see. Then again, the guards come across an elephant that has been murdered and beheaded. It's hard to understand.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

The only Shirley Jackson I had ever read, which most people have read--"The Lottery"--has me interested in reading more of her work. I started with her last novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which again features the tyranny of the mob, and also is a case for agoraphobia.

The Blackwood sisters, Constance, who never leaves the house past the garden, and narrator Mary Katherine (called Merricat) live with their infirm Uncle Julian in large house that is well off the road (the town, as is most of Jackson's works, is supposed to be North Barrington, Vermont). The family is shunned and ridiculed by the townspeople, as we learn in one of Merricat's visits to buy groceries. Only later do we learn of a tragedy when four members of the family were killed when arsenic was put into the sugar bowl. Constance was tried and acquitted.

The sisters are very happy in their odd world, though, and Uncle Julian, who was not killed but hurt badly by the poisoning, is just as dotty. It's when Cousin Charles comes to town, looking for the family fortune, that things start to go wrong. He charms Constance and is at odds with Merricat, who practices a kind of magic that involves totems: "On Sunday mornings I examined my safeguards, the box of silver dollars I had buried by the creek, and the doll buried in the long field, and the book nailed to the tree in the pine woods; so long as they were where I had put them nothing could get in to harm us."

A fire is the climax of the book, when Charles is driven away, unable to carry the safe, and the towspeople join in on a riot, destroying the sisters' things. But they respond with a kind of resilient forebearance, spending the night in Merricat's hiding place but returning and rolling up their sleeves and "neatening" the house. The upper half is gone: "Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky."

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a book that mixes whimsy and dread. Though they are not supernatural, there is something unearthly about the Blackwood sisters and their house. Merricat explains: "Blackwoods had always lived in our house, and kept their things in order; as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world." The sisters are the kind of people who can't deal with reality, and the attempts by Charles to deal with them are both funny and sad--we like that he can't win, but we're sad that the sisters don't understand basic truths.

Unlike "The Lottery," certainly, We Have Always Lived in the Castle ends with a wave of humanity, a kind of "everything's going to be all right" that is always welcomed. Later this year, when my fall supernatural theme will be ghosts, I hope to read The Haunting of Hill House.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards, Best Actress

In the Best Actress category, there is yet another lead-pipe cinch. Emma Stone, even before La La Land's release, was the favorite to win, and survived some other women mentioned. When the dust has settled, though, she is still the overwhelming favorite.

Why? The actress is extremely likable, and though young (28) that is not a problem in this category--she's older than last year's winner, Brie Larson. She has also been nominated before, and she does something that most performers are deadly afraid of putting on film--singing and dancing.

During the last few months there was noise about Natalie Portman winning again for Jackie. It is a wonderful performance, but she has won before and the film didn't get the traction that some thought it might--it's only other nomination is in costumes. That Portman didn't win the Golden Globe is telling.

That award went to Isabelle Huppert, who might be Stone's main competition. There have been only two wins by a Best Actress in a foreign language film, but Huppert certainly has the goods as a woman with revenge on her mind in Elle. There might be something of a career-award sentiment, although most Americans don't know who she is (she's made over sixty films).

In the don't bother writing a speech category there is Meryl Streep, with her twentieth nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins. The role is one of great skill, playing a woman is the world's worst singer and feeling intense sympathy for her, but Streep is not likely to win a fourth Oscar for this.

It is notable this year that all four acting categories feature a person of color; in the Best Actress category it's Ruth Negga playing a woman taking anti-miscegenation laws to the Supreme Court in Loving. It's a performance that often isn't nominated, because Negga plays her very quietly, and has no big moment "Oscar-clip" scenes. That probably will ensure that she doesn't win. It's very well possible that three actors of color will win on Oscar night, but not all four.

Will Win: Stone
Could Win: Huppert
Should Win: Stone
Should have been nominated: Amy Adams, Arrival

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Ring

Today in my after-school horror film class, I showed the kids The Ring, and some of the kids got so scared they ran out of the room. It's interesting to watch children who don't extensive knowledge of film structure think a movie is over when the scariest scene is coming up (that was true with Poltergeist, too).

The Ring is a 2002 film, directed by Gore Verbinski, that was adapted from what has become a fertile ground for remakes--the Japanese horror film. This time it is set in Seattle, where two girls begin the thing (reminiscent of the Scream films) discussing a video tape that kills you if you watch it, but not for seven days.

One of the girls is dead of a stopped heart, the other is confined to a mental institution. The girl's mother turns to reporter Naomi Watts to try to get to the bottom of things. In some rather easy steps she finds the tape, watches it, and then gets that warning phone call that says "Seven days" (if only I could have arranged to have my phone ring after the video is shown--the kids would have jumped out of their skins). Her son's father, Martin Henderson, is a photographer and tries to get to the bottom of where the video came from, but it's a clue in the video, a lighthouse, that leads Watts to an island where there has been a lot of tragedy.

The Ring is one of the more effective horror films of this century, and it does it without much gore, sex or profanity, which is how I could show it to my students. Verbinski and his team are successful in creating such a sense of dread that anything can set one off. I particularly liked the use of a lone tree set against the sky, and the almost constant presence of rain (probably why it was set in Seattle). The video in question is also quite creepy, especially when the woman Anna Morgan looks at the camera while facing a mirror.

Watts, who is one of my favorite actresses, finds the right balance of incredulity and dogged persistence, and then amps it up after her son watches the tape. Brian Cox has two scenes, one of them quite shocking, and is his usual reliable self.

When everything seems to be over, and the mystery is solved, there is another scene, a masterpiece of fright, when the little girl climbs out of the well and comes right through the TV set. It has such resonance in today's pop culture that a sequel of sort was released a few weeks ago and a prank was pulled in an electronics store, with a girl dressed like "Samara" seemed to pop out of a TV set.

Of course, given the quick obsolescence of video, nobody is going to die these days. There are no VCRs to play the damn thing.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Batman Lego Movie

Perhaps the most interesting credit for The Batman Lego Movie is that the Executive Producer is Steve Mnuchin, our brand new Secretary of Treasury in the Trump administration. That makes some sense, because this iteration of Batman makes the caped crusader seem just like a certain orange-hued billionaire president.

As I guessed last March, The Batman Lego Movie is far better than Batman v. Superman, but it isn't as charming as The Lego Movie. I mean, you can't go wrong when one of the first gags in the movie is that a plane belongs to McGuffin Airways (a McGuffin being a term Alfred Hitchcock used), but at times it is so busy that I felt a bit overwhelmed (I misread the times for my theater and ended up watching the 3-D version, which might not have helped).

Batman was an amusing supporting player in The Lego Movie, and Will Arnett is back in his own adventure. He is solipsistic, narcissistic, thin-skinned, and a bit power mad, and doesn't learn from his own mistakes, just like a certain president. He also has trouble saying he's sorry. In short, he's a basket case.

The message of the film is that everyone has to work together to make things happen, with the new Gotham City Police Commissioner, Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson) emphasizing cooperation with Batman instead of just calling for his help. Meanwhile Batman's arch villain, The Joker (Zach Galifinakis) is upset when Batman tells him he doesn't need him. Batman zaps him to something called the Phantom Zone, where the worst villains are kept, crossing genres with King Kong, Sauron, and Voldemort. The Joker frees them all, creating mayhem in Gotham City.

Other DC characters are on board, most specifically Robin (Michael Cera) and loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, who does not voice Voldemort, even though he played him in the films. Weird). There are also brief appearances by the Flash, Green Lantern, and other DC characters such as Condiment King, who really is a DC villain. The Joker tells us to Google him.

With Arnett's growling voice, there is much humor mined from Batman's loneliness. He eats re-heated lobster thermidore, then retires to a private screeing room to watch Jerry Maguire, at which he howls with laughter. Everything about this Batman is so silly and childish, but it is in line with the Batman mythos, as there is a meta sensibility, going back to the '60s TV show and even the serials of the '40s.

I would have liked it more if it had dialed down the sappy message, made the action scenes a little less seizure-inducing, and concentrated on the comedy.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

1989

The Grammys are taking place right now, but I don't watch. In the music business, what tends to rise to the top is not cream, but mediocrity. I am heartened that David Bowie has won four posthumous awards so far (he only won one while he was alive) which just makes me ask, "What were you waiting for, him to die?" I guess the answer is yes.

I've been looking at Grammy Award winners from the categories that are usually not awarded during the televised portion, but I'm going to end that with the winner from last year, 1989 by Taylor Swift (I will begin with tonight's winners in the coming weeks). Swift, who began as a virginal country singer, is now a megastar, and 1989 was the biggest selling album of 2014. She is one of the most famous people in the world, and seems to be friends with every model that walks a runway. But is her music any good?

1989 is named after the year she was born, and supposedly her lyrics are very personal (it is said that to break up with her is to get a song written about you). Her switch over to pop was probably a smart move, as country has its limits, and I'm guessing most of her listeners are girls or young women. Upon the first listen, I found her to be quite mediocre, but after a few more go-rounds I started liking a couple of the songs, but there is no circumstance that this could ever be considered to be the best album, out of thousands, produced in a year's time frame.

First of all, I personally don't like this style of dance-pop. Swift mentions Madonna and Annie Lennox in the liner notes, but it's more like Madonna (Lennox is much more interesting and subtle). There are many producers, but the sound is canned, and though drummers are credited it sounds like a drum machine--there are no solos of any merit, it kind of sounds like a karaoke machine.

Swift co-wrote all of the songs, and it's clear that at least a few are about her. The most obvious is "Shake It Off," which is also one of the best on the record.

"I stay up too late
Got nothing in my brain
That's what people say
That's what people say
I go on too many dates
But I can't make them stay
At least that's what people say
That's what people say
But I keep cruising
Can't stop, won't stop moving
It's like I got this music
In my mind, saying it's gonna be alright
Cause the players gonna play, play, play
And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate
Baby I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off"

This is nice way of responding to critics, without animosity and just positivity. I also like certain little touches, like the way she adds, "Mmm hmm" after "That's what people say" and a barely perceptible giggle after "I go on too many dates."

Another song that has a terrific hook is "Bad Blood," though the lyrics are more simple minded.

"Now we've got problems
And I don't think we can solve 'em
You made a really deep cut
And baby, now we've got bad blood, hey!"

There's not much of an attempt to rhyme here. Poems don't have to rhyme, songs should.

1989 is, as Larry David might say, "Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good." But it's not very ambitious, appeals to a low (but not the lowest) common denominator, and her winning a Grammy for it is more a thank you from music executives that someone can still sell records.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Keys of the Kingdom

I mentioned before that I couldn't find a way of seeing Gregory Peck's first Oscar nomination, for the 1944 film The Keys of the Kingdom, but I did manage to find a used DVD for sale on Amazon, where apparently you can buy anything. In my ongoing Peck film festival, it was viewed last night.

This film was made at a time when priests were venerated. Just that same year Bing Crosby won an Oscar for Going My Way. The oddness of good-looking men becoming celibate didn't seem to strike people back then, I guess. If a movie is made about a priest these days, he's seriously messed up, or if he's a good guy, he has a way with a gun or kills vampires.

But back in '44, a priest was a spiritual hero, and I don't know if even Bing Crosby could have matched up against Peck's Father Francis Chisholm, who spends his career in a mission in China.

The film opens in Scotland (as in all his roles, Peck does not attempt accents) with Roddy MacDowell playing young Francis. He witnesses his parents die due to anti-Catholic violence, and is raised with friends of the family, including a girl. He grows up wanting to marry her, but attends a Catholic college, where he is finally persuaded to become a priest.

His first few curacies are failures, so he is sent to China, where he finds the church in ruins and most Chinese against him. The Chinese will go to Church if they are given money or rice, but he wants only true Christians. He is helped by a true Chinese Christian (Benson Wong) and together they open a dispensary. Peck, armed with only a medical book, saves the life of the local Mandarin, who thanks him by helping him rebuild.

The film is framed by Peck as old man. He is back in his old parish in Scotland, and a Monsignor (Cedric Hardwicke) is bent on getting him to retire. But he reads Peck's journal, and realizes all the good he has done.

Directed by John M. Stahl, produced by Joseph Manckiewicz, and written by Manckiewicz and Nunnally Johnson (you don't get much better than those two) The Keys of the Kingdom is solidly made and unabashedly sentimental. One of the subplots is when three nuns arrive, and the Reverend Mother (Rose Stradner, who happened to be Mrs. Manckiewicz) are at odds. She has the sin of pride, and can't see herself as equal to the Chinese, but she of course will come around in a very moving scene. We also get Vincent Price as a preening bishop, so not all the clergy in the film are held in high esteem.

There are some other familiar actors here, such as Edmund Gwenn as Peck's mentor, from the twinkly Barry Fitzgerald school of priests (he likes to fish) and Anne Revere as the wife of a Methodist missionary. There are also some non-Chinese actors playing Chinese roles, which isn't done so much anymore (except for Emma Stone in Aloha). But viewed in the time period in which it was made, The Keys of the Kingdom has a lot to admire, least of all the usual expert acting by Peck.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The New Guy

There's only a few plots in high school comedies--nerds defeat jocks, and loser gets girl, or both. In The New Guy, it's the latter, with the added trope of the nerd reinventing himself as the cool guy, then realizing he was better off being true to himself.

DJ Qualls is our nerd, Dizzie (named after Dizzie Gillespie), who is in a funk band with his equally nerdy friends (including a young Zooey Deschanel--this was a 2002 film). They call themselves "blips," as blips on the radar, hardly noticeable. In his first day of senior year he tries to be more positive and ends up getting his penis broken by a wheelchair-bound librarian.

He decides he's going to go to another school and, after a stint in jail for disrupting a church choir (led by Gene Simmons, of all people) he takes advice from Eddie Griffin, who teaches him how to be feared and respected. Qualls takes this to a new school, where he takes on the alpha dog and becomes the most popular kid in school, winning the jerk's girlfriend (Eliza Dushku). Of course, he will be outed by the end, but all turns out well, as it always does in high school comedies.

This is a pretty bad film, directed by Ed Decter, with the usual bawdy humor and homosexual panic jokes. I never cracked a smile, but I kind of admired the effort that was made, especially by the cast, who must have known how bad it was. Qualls, with his head shaped like a puppet's, makes a winning underdog (he played the same kind of role in Road Trip) and as the coolest dude in school, manages to make everyone tolerant of the outsider (including a very short actor playing a tuba).

It's a tired premise (I remember Rachel Lee Cook just had to take off her glasses in She's All That, so this one at least made the hero work hard) but with enough positive energy, and funk music, that I would give it two stars instead of one.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor

In the Supporting Actor category, there seems to be a clear favorite: Mahershala Ali, for his role as a kindly drug dealer in Moonlight. Ali won many critics' awards, though he was upset by Aaron-Taylor Johnson of Nocturnal Animals at the Golden Globes. But Taylor-Johnson was not even nominated for an Oscar, so after winning the SAG Award, Ali's path seems clear. After two years of no acting nominees of color, it seems likely that both Oscars for supporting performances will go to black actors.

The possible upset here would be Jeff Bridges for his role as the droll Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water. Bridges was great, and is a popular actor with the Academy, and if he had never won before he would be the favorite. But he got his career award for Crazy Heart, and has won no precursors.

The rest of the category can save time by not writing any speeches. Dev Patel was fine in Lion, as the grown up Indian boy looking for his mother after being adopted by Australians. Patel, only 26, has established a career very quickly as the go-to East Indian actor (though he is British by birth) appearing in Slumdog Millionaire and both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films. This is his first nomination--I expect more to come, but not this year.

But Patel is not the youngest in this category. Lucas Hedges, as the troubled teen in Manchester by the Sea, is only 20. If he were to win, he would just beat Timothy Hutton as the youngest ever to win this category, but I don't see it happening. He should enjoy the party.

Finally, Michael Shannon better win an Oscar one day. He makes every role he plays interesting, and he's got a good one in Nocturnal Animals as a detective with a Biblical sense of justice. I might be tempted to vote for Shannon here, except for a scene in Moonlight that Ali just kills, and he doesn't even say a word.

Will win: Ali
Could win: Bridges
Should win: Ali
Should have been nominated: Ralph Fiennes, A Bigger Splash

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Poltergeist

After seeing Nosferatu and King Kong and the kids not feeling excited or scared, I realized I had to jazz up my after-school horror film class. I had to go modern, I had to go color. So I went with Poltergeist, the 1982 ghost story that is more pyrotechnics than chills, but still offers some genuine spookiness and made us, for the moment, wary of our television sets.

Nominally directed by Tobe Hooper, but written and produced by Steven Spielberg, Poltergeist helped 1982 be a very good year for Spielberg, as it was released within a few weeks of E.T., the Extraterrestrial. Hooper had directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but there are varying reports on whether he directed all of Poltergeist. Spielberg's fingerprints are all over it.

This was Spielberg's great suburbia period, when magical things happened in generic cul-de-sacs. This one is in a new neighborhood, Cuesta Verde. A salesman for the development (Craig T. Nelson) is living in one of the homes, along with his wife (Jobeth Williams) and three children. The youngest, Carol Ann (Heather O'Rourke) has a conversations with something coming from the TV set when it is static (I had to explain to my students that in 1982 TV was not a 24-hour enterprise).

Other things start happening--chairs rearrange themselves, lights flicker, and then a tree breaks through a window and tries to grab the son (Oliver Robins). While dealing with this, the parents leave Carol Ann alone to be sucked into her closet, where she disappears, except when the TV is on, then she can talk to them from some other dimension.

Parapsychologist Beatrice Straight is brought in, and the film skips the usual "nobody will believe us," as they open the door to the kids' room and find objects spinning around. Instead we move right along to a tiny psychic (Zelda Rubinstein) muttering mumbo jumbo but succeeding in pulling Carol Ann back. But don't you know it's not over--remember that clown doll sitting in the chair?

In a spin off the old "ancient Indian burial ground" plot, the houses in Poltergeist are built over a graveyard, but a modern one. But head man James Karen (I remember him from doing Pathmark commercials) saved some money by just moving headstones and leaving the bodies. Apparently they are the ones making mischief inside the house, but the plot is fuzzy because Rubinstein refers to "the Beast," and there's a couple of monsters that appear. Exactly what is happening is not clear.

The film was a big hit and spawned sequels and a remake in 2015 that completely escaped my radar. It's also become the stuff of legend as two of the children from the film died very young--O'Rourke at only 12, and Dominique Dunn was murdered at 22. Robins, happily, is still alive and well.

As for my student's reactions--they enjoyed it, and even had to hide their eyes during the clown scene. "No more clowns!" I was told.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford's second feature, is the cinematic equivalent of gilding the lily. It is a film within a film, and the film within is a nice, tough desert noir, as if adapted from a pulp novel by Jim Thompson. If left to stand alone, it would have been powerful and satisfying. But, not leaving well enough alone, that film is wrapped with another, far less interesting film that mostly features Amy Adams staring into space.

The premise is that Adams, a gallery owner, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), who had always been a struggling writer. As she reads the book, it is acted out for us, with Gyllenhaal playing a second role as the father of a family accosted by hoodlums on a Texas highway. They kidnap and murder his wife and daughter (the wife is played by Adams look-alike Isla Fisher), and the crime is investigated by Michael Shannon (Oscar-nominated).

Every so often, when something dramatic happens in the book, Adams looks up, shocked (perhaps because her look-alike is brutally murdered in the book). We see flashbacks of how the couple met, wed, and divorced. She basically gave up on him and his supposed weakness (her mother, Laura Linney, warns her of it) and ends up with a rich man (Armie Hammer). As the shell of the film progresses, it becomes clear that Gyllenhaal has written the book as a giant fuck-you to Adams.

But all of that melodrama detracts from the terrific core of the movie. Shannon is terrific, as is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays the lead scumbag. This part of the film crackles with intensity, and is expertly shot and designed (the "killing" trailer certainly looks the part). There are interesting questions about justice, and the ending is as brutal as I've seen in a while.

But that's not the end of all of Nocturnal Animals, because there is the "real life" coda that kind of lets the air out of the tires. The book that it is based on, I presume, had the same structure, but Ford would have better off just shooting the noir part. In fact, I think it might do everyone well to re-release it at some point doing just that.

Monday, February 06, 2017

Captain Horatio Hornblower

Once upon time Jimmy Carter was making a speech at a Democratic National Convention and was giving a tribute to Hubert Humphrey, whose middle name was Horatio. Carter wrapped up his fiery encomium with a call to recognize the great deeds of Hubert Horatio Hornblower--uh, Humphrey!

Carter could have been forgiven, for he grew up in an era where everyone knew of Captain Horatio Hornblower, a fictional British navy stalwart in the Napoleonic wars, created by C.S. Forester in twelve books. One movie was made from three of those, Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck.

There aren't many swashbuckling movies anymore. The Pirates of the Caribbean series resurrected the pirate movie, but no imitations have flourished, and they stopped at one making films of the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey/Maturin books with Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which was pretty good. But in 1951, when this film was made, movies about warships firing cannons at other were staples, and Captain Horatio Hornblower stands as one of the best of them

Raoul Walsh directed Gregory Peck as the title character. Peck doesn't even attempt an English accent, but he's ramrod straight and impervious to danger. The film begins with his ship, the Lydia, on a secret mission. He has gone into the Pacific to give arms to a rebel against Spain, who turns out to be a maniacal dictator that wants to be called "El Supremo." Peck does as ordered, and captures a Spanish galleon for him. But a week later he finds that Spain has switched sides, and is now an ally of England, so he has to get the ship back.

This first battle scene is so much fun, as Peck's captain, even though out manned and outgunned, outmaneuvers the dictator. The film then hits a lull as the character of Barbara Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington's sister) is put aboard Peck's ship. She is played by Virginia Mayo, and though they start off rough, the two will fall in love, even though Peck is married and Mayo is affianced.

Things come to a rousing finish when Peck, back in Europe, steals a French ship and then sinks four of Napoleon's ships. Some convenient deaths will allow he and Mayo to get back together at the end.

Except for that dreary middle, Captain Horatio Hornblower is good adventure. I must have born too late, because I thrill to those scenes of ships firing at each other, masts snapping like twigs. There isn't too much swordplay in this film, but enough, and it just rouses the blood. This movie is a grand entertainment.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Mister Monkey

Mister Monkey is a gem of  a novel, full of humor and pathos, but what I found most interesting was the structure. It's not really a book of interconnected stories, but each chapter follows one character in a kind of "create-your-own-adventure" tale, all centered around a third-rate production of a children's theater production of the title.

In a small theater in the shadow of the High Line in New York, a production of Mister Monkey, the Musical, is running. It is a professional production, but just barely, We are introduced to the goings on through an actress, Margot, who wants to be a star but is now in her forties. Yale-trained, "she has changed from a girl showing the world what it is like to love someone who will never love you into a woman having a daily shit fit because of the ridiculous costume some sadistic half-mad children’s theater director is making her wear."

During the production, Margot will get humped by the boy playing the title character: "Margot has been molested by a boy in a monkey suit! And she kept on acting right through it. Somehow she stayed in character. How professional is that? Or is she just another female victim, putting up with anything that any male of any age thinks he can get away with?"

The next chapter will focus on the boy, Adam, who is being raised and home-schooled by a single stage mother: "His mom gave him an A plus. What could be more pathetic than being graded by your mother on an essay that (a) is totally made-up and (b) you wrote in twenty minutes, late, in your bedroom, while watching porn on your computer?"

The story then follows a grandfather and his grandson, who watched the show, and then to boy's teacher, who goes on a disastrous date, and then to the author of the original book, who is now rich, and then to the waiter who gets free tickets to the show, who feels an attraction to Margot. I'm not sure I've ever read a book like this before. Just imagine that you were in a city and decided to follow one person, and then that person meets another person, and you follow that new person, and so on? There are coincidences that strain credulity--at one point someone says New York City is a small town, which is not true mathematically but perhaps it is spiritually.

At the heart of this novel is a sense that no matter woebegone this musical is, it is meaningful to those who perform in it and those who watch it. Prose writes, simply but truly: "Art is art, theater is magic, no matter how humble the venue."

Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Fits

I was flipping through the latest Film Comment and saw their 20 best list, which is derived from a poll of film critics. Now, these critics tend to like things esoteric and slow-moving, and generally spurn Hollywood. So I had seen only six of the 20 listed. But now, in this new wondrous age we live in, I realized I could see a number of them right then and there through live-streaming. Number 18 on the list was The Fits, which was free through my Amazon Prime membership. Imagine that--I read about a minute and minutes later I can watch it!

The Fits is only 72 minutes long, which was also appealing (now that I'm a teacher I like to go to bed early) but it seemed twice that. Directed on a microbudget by Anna Rose Holmer, using amateur actors, the film is a bit of a poem with a mystery--girls on a dance team are falling victim to seizures--the fits.

The main character is Toni, who hangs around the community center with her older brother, who runs the boxing gym. She learns how to box and workout, and is a tomboy. But she is drawn to the dance team, full of popular girls. She tries out and makes it, but then the girls get these seizures. She is determined not to have one, and thinks some of the girls want them. At first the drinking water is blamed, but nothing is found wrong in it.

There is no answer to the mystery and no real resolution of anything. Holmer used dancers from Cincinnati (where the film was shot) for the film, and one of them, with the great name of Royalty Hightower, was given the lead role. She isn't given much to say but has a nice way of listening and reacting.

If the seizures were a metaphor for something, I couldn't get it. Holmer is said to have researched similar incidents. They go back throughout history, the most famous being that nasty business in Salem. This also reminded me of Meghan Abbot's novel The Fever.

The Fits shows a lot of promise for Holmer, but I hope her next film is a bit less opaque.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress

I'm kicking off my annual Oscar predictions with the easiest category to call: Best Supporting Actress. Ever since the producers of Fences shrewdly put Viola Davis in the supporting category, rather than lead, she has the award sewn up.

Davis is a mixture of a historical trend that honors actors who are due, and also those who manage not to get steamrolled by their flashier co-stars, this time Denzel Washington. She should have won for The Help a few years ago, and that there were no Oscar nominations for actors of color for the past two years may see a swing that sees three black actors winning this year.

While Davis is a worthy winner, Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) has gotten into the same category--when is she going to win an Oscar? This is her fourth nomination, and while she has not become a big star as far as name goes, she is always worth watching. She doesn't have much screen time, but her scene apologizing to Casey Affleck may be the best five minutes of any performance this year.

This category is so rich that in another year Naomie Harris, as the central character's crack-addicted mother in Moonlight, might have won. I was stunned to hear she filmed all her scenes in three days, as she plays three different ages and three different stages of addiction. While she has made her mark in action films (two Pirates of the Caribbean films and two Bond outings) her future in dramatic work seems assured.

Some nominations are for the role you play (such as Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God--almost any competent actress would have won for that role) and who you are, such as Nicole Kidman in Lion. I venture to say what can't be proven--that if some unknown Australian actress had played the part there would be no nomination. Kidman is okay in the role, and has one "clip" scene, but this is hardly her best work or one of the best five performances of the year.

Rounding out the category is Octavia Spencer in Hidden Figures (the first time three black actors have been nominated in a single category). Spencer, of the three main performances in Hidden Figures, is the least flashy, and familiar; she's gotten it down pat playing sage women of a certain age. Hey, whatever pays the bills. She won't win, and it's a shame Taraji P. Henson wasn't nominated in the lead category.

To sum up:

Will win: Viola Davis
Could win: Michelle Williams
Should win: Davis
Should have been nominated: Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

What Happened, Miss Simone?

I'm catching up with Oscar nominees, but it occurred to me there were a few from previous years that were never released on DVD. It turns out they are Netflix productions, and you can watch them on streaming, but not on DVD. Now that I have joined the 21st century and have streaming, I'm going to catch up with them, too.

The first is What Happened, Miss Simone? a documentary by Liz Garbus about the legendary jazz singer Nina Simone. I had heard the name, but didn't know much about her, so I found it pretty interesting, even if the style of the film is pretty familiar (the winner last year was another musician bio, Amy, about Amy Winehouse).

Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in North Carolina. She was a musical prodigy, and wanted to be the first African-American woman to make it as a classical pianist. She was refused entry to a conservatory in Philadelphia because she was black, so she took a job in Atlantic City playing popular songs. She was told to sing, so she did, and that became her ticket to fame (she changed her name because she didn't want her family finding out she was singing "devil's music.")

She became very popular in the early '60s. She married an ex-policeman who became her manager, but who also beat her. She was energized by the Civil Rights movement, and became increasingly militant. She wrote and recorded a song called "Mississippi God Dam," which is much more pointed that any of the other songs that were recorded around then. She was not into non-violence.

Her activism caused her career to dry up. She eventually moved to Africa, then to Switzerland and finally Paris, where she died at the age of 70.

The film is buoyed by the subject matter, but doesn't deviate too much from the form. Garbus chooses to begin the film with a comeback concert at Montreux in 1976. Simone walks out on the stage, looking like an African queen, curtsying formally, before sitting down at the piano. We get lots of old interviews with her, performance footage (amusingly, she performed on Hugh Hefner's Playboy's Penthouse) and there were interviews with those who knew her, including her daughter, who says she thought both of her parents were nuts.

Simone's voice was magnificent, but she never really got over the regret that she didn't become a classical pianist. For most of the life depicted on film, she never was very happy. But it's a good introduction for those who don't know her, and a must for her fans.