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Friday, March 31, 2017

Joan Baez

Perhaps the most controversial inductee in this year's slate for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is Joan Baez. Not because of quality (that might be Journey, which I'll discuss soon) but because, as they usually say when the inductees are announced, she never rocked nor rolled. Baez is a great American artist, but I never considered her a rock performer. It's best we all agreed that the Hall of Fame should just name itself after Popular Music.

Baez, who is still touring and recording, is best remembered as pure-voiced fixture of the folk revival of the early 60s, and if Bob Dylan was the crowned prince, she was the princess. The two were an item for a while, and I'm sorry I was too young to experience that time, when the world was changing, led by young people who turned to old songs.

Baez has made more than thirty albums, and has performed for over fifty years, so there's a lot of material out there. I picked up a greatest hits collection from her work with A&M records in the '70s, and it's eclectic. I couldn't say what her signature song is--maybe "Diamonds and Rust," which is obviously about Dylan:

"Well you burst on the scene
 Already a legend
 The unwashed phenomenon
 The original vagabond
 You strayed into my arms
 And there you stayed
 Temporarily lost at sea"

The record also includes a few Dylan covers, such as "A Simple Twist of Fate" (in which she sings a verse in the nasal twang of Dylan) and "Forever Young," John Lennon's "Imagine," and one of my favorite songs, Robbie Robertson's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," the only hit song I know of about the Civil War.

Baez, like any good folksinger, knows hundreds of songs, and there a few standards here, notably "Amazing Grace" in an audience sign-a-long. If I could include one more song on this album it would be "Joe Hill," about the legendary union organizer--no one can sing that like Baez.

It's interesting that people like Baez, who were activists back then and vilified by some--cartoonist Al Capp satirized her as "Joanie Phoanie," a communist and limousine liberal. Today Baez's stances, on the environment, death penalty, and LGBT rights, are solidly in the Democratic playbook, and she's received all sorts of accolades, while no one under 50 knows what "L'il Abner" was.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Me, Al Franken Decade

While we wait out the Trump/Pence administration (even if Trump doesn't make it through four years, Pence is almost as bad), as they do one more horrible thing after another (killing bears?) it's been time for Democrats to show their mettle in the "resistance." One of the most visible leaders in the Senate has turned out to be an unlikely one--Al Franken, from the great state of Minnesota. He's been so sharp in his attacks on the administration that his name has been tossed around as presidential timber.

Some years ago that would have been folly, but not so now. We've had an actor as a president, and now that we've had a reality-show host, serial philanderer, and tax cheat as president, why not a comedian? It's a new world, people.

Franken has been visible a long time--he was right there at the beginning of Saturday Night Live over forty years ago. Mostly he was a writer with Tom Davis, and they did a memorable sketch on the absurdity of political races, stating this was why they were communists. Something like that could come up in a presidential race, but it's peanuts compared to Trump.

In 1980, Franken announced that after the '70s, the 1980s were to be the "Me, Al Franken Decade." He left the show after Lorne Michaels did, but came back in the mid-80s and found popularity as the twelve-step addict Stuart Smalley (though a film he did with the character cratered spectacularly). Franken then got more involved in politics, writing books like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, and Lies and the Lying Liars That Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. He got sued by Fox News for using the term "fair and balanced," but the suit was literally laughed out of court.

He then took a job with the ill-fated liberal radio network, Air America. I listened a few times, and remember him calling Sean Hannity stupid. But unlike Hannity and the rest of that crowd, Franken actually ran for office, and won a razor-thin win over incumbent Norm Coleman in 2008. Suddenly, Al Franken was serious.

Conservatives considered it a big joke, but Franken was comfortably re-elected and has proven to be a serious and effective senator. Watching him speak on the senate floor or question witnesses at hearings is thrilling. He has the actor and writer's touch with nuance, and while he isn't particularly funny in his role--he purposely has kept clowning out of his senatorial behavior--he does refer to it at times. He gave a memorable speech on the outrage of not having hearings on Merrick Garland, adding "Scientists tell us that President Obama has ten more months as president." When he recently grilled Neil Gorsuch on a case involving a truck driver who was fired for daring to escape freezing temperatures, he mentioned that he used to point out the absurd, and Gorsuch's decision was absurd.

Franken, like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and a handful of others (I believe Kirsten Gillibrand is the only senator who has voted against every one of Trump's cabinet appointments, but it's hard to believe that Sanders hasn't--Warren actually voted for Ben Carson) have become the faces of the Democratic party and his goofy comic past is in the rearview mirror. A sense of humor is a good thing for a president to have, though. Obama certainly had one, and so did Reagan. Not sure about the Bushes and Bill Clinton--I don't know. Trump, certainly not.

The only drawback against a Franken presidency is that he would be out of the senate, and some think that's where he belongs, fighting the good fight. Also, he will be 69 in 2020. He might be a great VP pick for a younger candidate like Gillibrand.

But, perhaps he just got the decade wrong. Perhaps the 2020s will be the "Me, Al Franken decade."

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

War of the Worlds (2005)

War of the Worlds, directed by Steven Spielberg and released in 2005, is a pretty good example of Spielberg's strengths and weaknesses. It has great storytelling, magnificent set-pieces, and and connects with the audience. It also, though, has rank sentimentality.

Loosely based on the novel by H.G. Wells, this time the aliens don't arrive from Mars, but have buried killing machines under the ground, ready to be activated by pilots who come to Earth during a lightning storm. Regular divorced guy Tom Cruise, a terrible dad who is watching his kids for the weekend, after witnessing people being incinerated by the tripods, grabs his son and daughter and flees.

Okay, a few things that have bothered me ever since I saw this film (and it came out while I was working at a movie theater, so I saw it many times, at least in parts). How could an alien race bury machines under the surface thousands of years ago and humankind didn't happen to find one putting in a water main or subway tunnel? We've dug pretty deep into the Earth, and since the machines were all over, the odds are good we would have found one. Secondly, why tripods? Why didn't they fly? Didn't they see how useless the Walkers were in Star Wars?

So Cruise and his kids find the only working car in Jersey and head for Boston to the kids' mom. Why they think Boston will be safe I don't know, but I guess I wouldn't know what to do, either. They have to cross the Hudson, though, and manage to get aboard a ferry. A tripod knocks the ferry over and they swim to shore. This is where Cruise's teenage son (Justin Chatwick) leaves to join the fight with the military. Cruise can't stop him from leaving, so he is left with his younger daughter (Dakota Fanning, who is great but basically just has to act scared).

The best scene is when Cruise and Fanning find an abandoned house that is occupied by Tim Robbins, whose cheese has slid off his cracker. It seems great at first, as he has plenty of food to share, but Robbins talks about fighting back and is increasingly loony. Then the aliens send a probe into the house, a mechanical eye on a long snake-like tube. It's a bit like the raptor-in-the-kitchen scene in Jurassic Park, and you find yourself holding your breath during the scene.

But again, I have questions. Do the aliens really have that much time and resources to be doing house-to-house searches? Especially when they get to Boston to find a whole series of rowhouses untouched? What did Boston do to get preferential treatment?

The biggest complaint (Spoiler alert, even though the movie is over ten years old) was when Chatwick was revealed to be alive and safe. But come on, there's no way Spielberg is going to kill a kid, even though this film is pretty brutal for him (the aliens eat up humans and use their blood to make some kind of tendrils--it's unclear--and if they eat them, why did they incinerate them at first? It's like burning your dinner).

The ending matches Wells' ending, which is an elegant solution and much better than Independence Day's computer virus. They should have made a sequel just to show how long it took to rebuild everything.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Lost and Delirious

The first thing I don't like about Lost and Delirious, from 2001, is the title. It suggests a comedy, either of the school type (like Dazed and Confused) or a romantic one, like Crazy Stupid Love. Instead it is a deadly serious drama about romantic obsession, and was based on a book called The Wives of Bath, which of course is a literary reference and some suit probably decided that the audience was too illiterate to get it.

The other think I don't like is that it takes itself far too seriously. Set in a boarding school in Canada, our entry into the picture is a mousy (her nickname is even Mouse) girl played by Mischa Barton. She arrives and is roomed with Jessica Pare, a popular, athletic girl, and Piper Perabo, who is the school's rebel (she smokes and spikes the punch, wouldn't you know). Turns out Pare and Perabo are having a sexual affair.

When Pare's sister (a very young Emily VanCamp) catches the two naked in bed, it becomes a crisis as Pare will not allow her parents to find out. So she breaks with Perabo, who, in understated terms, does not take it well. I'd call this a lesbian drama, but both lovers deny they are lesbians. That's kind of an interesting approach--people just love each other, despite their gender.

There is a subplot involving Perabo taking care of wounded hawk, which is an over-obvious metaphor for herself. The hawk will figure in the climax.

Directed by Lea Pool, the film is a lovely depiction of prep school life (the headmistress, played winningly by Jackie Burroughs, is actually a good person) and makes use of passages of Shakespeare. I have new understanding of sections of Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth. And I must say that Pare and Perabo are both outstanding. I haven't seen much of Perabo after her debut in Coyote Ugly so many years ago, she's a kind of "whatever happened to?"

But the script is just too heavy-handed for me to recommend. Those interested in queer cinema might find it an interesting topic of discussion.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Shylock Is My Name

Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson, is the second of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, in which the Bard's plays are turned into contemporary novels. Unlike the first one, A Gap in Time, which basically updated the plot of A Winter's Tale, Jacobson instead takes the essence of The Merchant of Venice--the Jew as outsider--and creates a whole new story. He does, though, toward the end, bring things in line with the play, but not with a pound of flesh. More like just a snip of flesh.

"It is one of those better-to-be-dead-than-alive days you get in the north of England in February, the space between the land and sky a mere letter box of squeezed light, the sky itself unfathomably banal. A stage unsuited to tragedy, even here where the dead lie quietly. There are two men in the cemetery, occupied in duties of the heart. They don’t look up. In these parts you must wage war against the weather if you don’t want farce to claim you." This is when Simon Strulovich, an art dealer, meets Shylock. Strulovich is the main character of the novel. He is a Jew, but doesn't really observe: "Being a Jew was everything to him, except when it wasn’t. Which is a debilitating characteristic of the Jewish mind; unless it is a strength."

However, he has a daughter, Beatrice, who is only sixteen and is a constant point of frustration for him, as she rebels: "My whole life, she thought, has been made a misery by him. She tried to remember a time when he hadn’t pursued her, dragged her out of parties, punched her boyfriends, wiped the lipstick off her face with the back of his hand, pulled her down the street by her hair while clutching at his heart, as though to threaten her with cardiac arrest."

Beatrice is now dating a football player many years her senior, and what galls Strulovich is that he is not a Jew, even though his first wife was a gentile and his father disowned him for it. The only way for him to bless the union is for Gatan, the footballer, to convert, i.e., get a circumcision.

There is a subplot, just like in The Merchant of Venice with Portia, involving a woman improbably named Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing Of Beauty Is A Joy Forever Wiser Than Solomon Christine.and her circle of friends, including D'Anton, an art dealer who runs afoul of Strulovich (note his name's similarity to Antonio, who owed Shylock a pound of flesh). In the last act, everyone comes together in a hullabaloo, and the last line of the book borrows from another of Shakespeare's plays, when a character says, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you."

I found the beginning of the book a bit of a slog, as I was trying to figure out what this had to with The Merchant of Venice, other than Shylock's name. The conversations he and Strulovich have about Judaism are very witty and erudite, but they don't really push the plot forward. It seems that nothing happens, then everything happens at once.

I'm still with this series, there's two more out; adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew and Margaret Atwood's version of The Tempest.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Get Out

On the surface, Get Out is a basic horror film, largely structured around The Stepford Wives (the original, not the horrible remake). If every character had been white, or race had not been commented on, it would have been a solid thriller. But write and director Jordan Peele added another level, which makes Get Out a great conversation piece. It's a metaphor for our so-called post-racial society.

Peele is one half of Key & Peele, the great comedy duo, and I've seen this film described as a comedy, but I wasn't doing a lot of laughing, as it's as creepy as hell. I don't want to give too much away, as I had no idea what was coming, but a young black man (Daniel Kaluuya) is visiting his white girlfriend's (Allison Williams) family for the first time. He's worried, of course, as he's from the city and the parents are both doctors and live in the leafy suburbs. Williams assures him they are not racist.

When he gets there, though, something is odd. They treat him politely, almost too much so. And what's with the servants, two black people who act as if they are lobotomized? It becomes even more odd when a party is thrown, and all the white guests patronize him, like making sure they let him know that they know Tiger Woods or asking him about the "American black experience." When the one black guest, who also seems somewhat vacant, has a moment of lucidity, he tells Kaluuya to "Get out!"

What we have is a genuinely scary horror film combined with a racial commentary. This is nothing new--over forty years there was Blacula--but Peele makes some interesting commentaries on the persistence of black stereotypes--one woman at the party feels his bicep, as if he were on a slave auction block. The home of Williams' parents (played eerily by Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) has an almost plantation vibe, though you can't quite put your finger on why.

Peele show great promise as a filmmaker. The direction is basic, as he doesn't employ too many tricks and lets the story breathe.  Sometimes the foreshadowing is a bit oversold--early in the film Williams and Kaluuya hit a deer on the road. Later we see a closeup of a deer's head trophy on the wall. It's not hard to figure out what will happen to that trophy.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Old Gringo

My very long Gregory Peck retrospective ends with one of his last films, Old Gringo, from 1989, directed by Luis Puenza and based on a novel by Carlos Fuentes. It also stars Jimmy Smits and Jane Fonda, and they are all in a love triangle. Try and wrap your mind around that one.

Ostensibly, this film is about the author Ambrose Bierce (Peck), an iconoclast of the first order, who has gone to Mexico to fight with the rebels under Pancho Villa. He finds himself riding with a general (Smits) who has returned to the hacienda where he was born to wreak vengeance on the rich and mighty. But Smits gets caught up in his past, living in luxury in the abandoned estate, and refuses orders to join Villa elsewhere.

That's basically the story, but the film chooses to revolve around the character of Harriet Winslow, played by Jane Fonda, who is woefully miscast. She is a spinster, longing for adventure, and takes a job as a governess with a rich Mexican family. It just so happens that that is where Smit's army is attacking. She sort of becomes a camp follower, unable to return home, and both Peck and Smits become smitten with her. Despite initially disliking each man, she grows to admire both of them.

The pieces are all there for a good film, but it doesn't hold together. Most of them is due to awful character of Winslow. Fonda was in her early 50s when she played the part, but I sense it was meant to be a younger woman (haven't read the book). It all seems like a vanity production to make her feel like she's still attractive (indeed, it is from Fonda Films). She earned a Razzie nomination for worst actress, but lost to Heather Locklear.

When the film focuses on Peck and Smits, it's much better. They have a great scene by the graves of Smits' family, who were servants at the Hacienda. His father raped his mother, and his father was the first man he killed. Peck is an absolute delight as Bierce, a man is his 70s who has a unique perspective on the world. He is only interested in truth, telling a dying man that he is indeed dying. He is also still a bit of rake. He takes the opportunity to visit the local whore, who asks him he likes women. "I do like women, and I will after I die," he says.

In real life, Bierce disappeared and no one knows what happened to him. There's a question if he even went into Mexico. The film has its own solution to the mystery, which is fairly satisfying if a stretch of the truth. I imagine Bierce would have approved.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Frailty

Bill Paxton, who died far too young last month, was the kind of actor that people might not have known his name, but knew him by sight. I was just looking at his filmography and there are movies I forgot he was in. He was kind of an everyman, who never stood out in a film, and instead filled a role perfectly, such as in Apollo 13 or One False Move or Tombstone. He was also the star of the HBO series Big Love, as a Mormon man with three wives.

But I think his greatest achievement was the 2001 Frailty, which I counted as my favorite film of that year. It was, essentially, a horror film, but is also a film about fathers and sons and faith and skepticism.

Paxton directed the film as well as starred as a typical single dad raising two sons. One day he awakens the boys and tells them he had a vision--an angel has told them that the end of the world is nigh, and they must destroy demons. These demons will look like people, but they mustn't be fooled, and will come to them in a list supplied by God.

This is all told by Matthew McConaughey, a grown man now who was one of Paxton's sons. He is telling the story to an FBI agent, Powers Boothe, who is investigating a serial killer called the "God's Hand" killer. McConaughey believes that man to be his brother, and that he just committed suicide. He takes Boothe to the rose garden where all the "demons" are buried.

The brilliant script was written by Brent Hanley, which explores how faith and madness are just two sides of the same coin. The older brother, Fenton, thinks is father is crazy, while the younger brother, Adam, believes in the cause. What are we to believe? We are certainly led to believe that Paxton is mad as a hatter, but a shocking twist in the end makes us review the entire film.

The film delivers horror by having Paxton kill his victims while they are bound and gagged, with an ax. Sometimes I think this is how I will end up, in the basement of some religious zealot wielding a sharp tool, tied up, my mouth covered in duct tape. These scenes are that vivid and that horrifying.

Paxton directed one other movie, The Greatest Game Ever Played, which I don't recall seeing. It's too bad that there won't be more films either directed by or featuring him.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Trolls

Sticking with mythological figures, there's Trolls, which are really based on a toy from the 1960s and not the Scandinavian creatures that live under bridges and eat people. Yes, Trolls is actually based on those ugly little rubber dolls with a shock of Crayola hair. Maybe next they'll base movies on major appliances.

Trolls, directed by Mike Mitchell, is barely passable animated fare. Although I've never seen a Smurfs movie, I know enough about them that it seems almost the same. The soundtrack is like an oldies radio station, and the story about happiness is something inside of you is as old as the hills.

The trolls are incessantly happy creatures, always singing, dancing, and hugging. What their economy is based on, or what they eat, is not mentioned (one trolls does defecate glitter). Everything is great until Bergens (who are like the trolls of myth) find out that eating trolls makes them happy. The trolls are rounded up and put in a tree and eaten every year. But then they escape.

Twenty years later, they have a new spot in the forest, but their loud partying leads the Bergen chef (Christine Baranski) to find them again. Now a rescue is afoot, led by Poppy (Anna Kendrick), and the one dour, unhappy troll, Branch (Justin Timberlake). Can they manage to rescue the trolls, while also making the Bergens realize the true nature of happiness?

I think the best audience for Trolls is for kids young enough who are still mollified by bright colors, because Trolls as a lot of them. The trolls themselves are cute, but not to watch for an hour and a half. I suppose this is one of the prices of parenthood. Better to put the kids in a room with the thing on TV and leave them alone.

So why did I watch this? It did get an Oscar nomination, for a song written by Timberlake. Those who read this blog know I go out of my way to see any Oscar-nominated film. I went way out of my way this time.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Gremlins

For my after-school horror class, last night I showed them Gremlins, from 1984. You may find it surprising that I had never seen it before. I was surprised to find out how bad it is.

Gremlins was a successful film, and introduced things to the culture, namely the three rules of owning a Mogwai, the Furby-like creature that is unbearably cute. Don't expose them to bright light, don't get them wet, and most of all, don't feed them after midnight. That's when the little furballs turn into reptile-like gremlins, who maliciously damage mechanical things and don't care if by doing so they kill people.

The movie begins with Hoyt Axton, an inventor, browsing through a Chinese junk shop (here is a durable cliche--the Chinese owning stores where mysterious and magical items are purchased by the Western and unwary). Keye Luke, the proprietor, wearing a Fu Manchu mustache, will not sell the Mogwai that Axton finds, but his grandson, oblivious to the danger, sells it to Axton, who gives it to his son (Zach Galligan) as a Christmas present.

Galligan loves it, but does not heed the warnings. Getting it wet makes it multiply, and then, when one of the Mogwais cuts the cord on his clock, he feeds them, and then he was gremlins on his hands. One of them jumps into a pool, and soon the town has a big gremlin problem.

I read up on the origin of gremlins. It's not from some medieval folktale, although the word might be. The concept of a gremlin comes from aviation, when unexplainable mechanical difficulties were attributed to them. One of the more famous uses of them in pop culture was the Twilight Zone episode when William Shatner sees one on the wing of his plane.

The problem with Gremlins, directed with confusion by Joe Dante, is that it is a dumb story, and the special effects are very dated. I'm not sure they were cutting edge at the time--this was two years after E.T., and he was much more realistic than any of the gremlins. We get the requisite plot points, such as Galligan being attracted to a girl (Phoebe Cates) who ends up helping him (her monologue about her father's death is ghoulish fun, even though it's an old Tales from the Crypt story). There are the policemen who don't believe Galligan's story, of course, and the mean old lady who is done in by the gremlins.

One of the more bizarre scenes is when the gremlins attend a screening of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In an example of how times change, when my students heard "Hi Ho" they giggled, Beavis and Butthead style, about the word "ho."

For some reason I passed on seeing Gremlins way back in 1984. My intuition was right.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Bizarro Justice

Gorsuch in his college days, reading William F. Buckley
The hearings are underway on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. There was a time when I would have watched this like a sporting event. The Bork hearings in 1987 were riveting TV, and I even tuned in for less thrilling hearings of David Souter and Sonia Sotomayor.

But I just don't have the heart to watch the hearings of a man who is a pretender to the throne. I don't mean he's not qualified--I imagine Gorsuch woud have been a top candidate of any Republican president--the issue is that the seat should have been already filled by Merrick Garland.

When Justice Antonin Scalia died February before last, President Obama, doing his duty, named Garland as his choice. He was certainly a left-leaning judge, but not a firebrand ideologue. He was a man whom Orrin Hatch, troglodyte from Utah, said he would vote for. But all of a sudden the Republican party, flush with power, decided that the "new" president should get the vote, forgetting that Obama had ten months to go in his presidency. It was an unabashed power grab that has forever tarnished the "advise and consent" portion of the constitution.

The gambit worked, and Garland was never scheduled a hearing. Trump was elected, and now Scalia will be replaced by Gorsuch, an originalist who once ruled that a trucker who left his cargo for fear of freezing to death could be legally fired. Gorsuch, who is the first potential justice who is younger than I am, is one of those college conservatives who are so loathsome and drive reasonable people to want to punch them in the face. Gorsuch graduated from Columbia in 1985, and ran a Henry Kissinger quote by his picture: "The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer." In his prep school yearbook, he cited himself as founder and president of the "Fascist Forever" club.

Both of these might be jokes; the problem is that conservatives usually aren't funny. I did a lot of research back in those days about college Republicans for an aborted book, as it was the time of right-wing groups on campuses making a lot of noise, especially the Dartmouth Review, which trashed an empathetic South African shanytown on the pristine green. Two of their illustrious members were Dinesh D'Souza and Laura Ingraham.

So, the question now before the Democrats is what strategy to take? So far the questioning by the Democrats has not been particularly rigorous--only Al Franken dug into the trucker case and finally called the nominee absurd, and questioned his judgment. Meanwhile, the Republicans are playing Bizarro World. That's the alternate Earth from the Superman comics, made famous in an episode of Seinfeld, in which everything is the opposite. We got to hear Hatch say that the president should be given deference in his choice, a flat-out reversal of his stance last year. The same could be heard from the likes of Ted Cruz, who before the election declared that none of Hillary Clinton's presumed nominations would get hearings. The Republicans are truly gifted at speaking out of each side of their mouths, sometimes at the same time.

What to do, what to do? There's not much, really. Gorsuch will be confirmed, and might get a few Democratic votes (Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, I'm looking at you). If the Democrats were to attempt to filibuster, the GOP could change the rules, adding Supreme Court justices to the straight-up-and-down voting of other federal judges. This would be good, ultimately, because the whole filibuster process, making 60 a majority instead of 51, is inane.

Or do they swallow the bitter pill and wait to see if Trump gets another nomination and picks somebody even worse? Then there would be no filibuster opportunity.

Trump will have his way as long as the Republicans hold the Senate. If Trump continues to be completely unpopular and drags the party with him, lightning may strike and the Dems could take the Senate in 2018 (it's not likely, given who is up for election). Then they could play the game and deny Trump (if he's still in office) any hearings for any judgeships. Turnabout is fair play, as Peter Marshall used to say on Hollywood Squares.

Monday, March 20, 2017

On the Beach

The 1959 film On the Beach, directed by Stanley Kramer, may be one of the biggest downers I've ever seen. It's about nothing less than the extinction of mankind, and (spoiler alert) that's how it ends--no people. But this is not a surprise.

On the Beach is set in Australia. A U.S. submarine, captained by Gregory Peck, arrives in Melbourne. Quickly we learn that there was an atomic war and radiation has killed just about everybody, except for Australians, and that the radiation will reach there in a matter of months. Peck, along with Australian liaison officer Anthony Peck and scientist Fred Astaire, travel to the North Pole to see if the radiation is less there, but no dice. Then they track down an errant radio signal in San Diego, and the result is anticlimactic.

Peck, who has lost a wife and two children, but refers to them in the present tense for his sanity, ends up falling in love with Ava Gardner, who is a friendly drunk who used to be a lover of Astaire's. Perkins is married to Donna Anderson, and advises her to take a suicide pill, and give one to their baby, when the time comes. Cheerful stuff.

Kramer made several social message pictures during this time period, and it was one of the first cold war disaster pictures. The cause of the war is never explained, as none of them know what happened. Astaire speculates that a button was pressed by mistake, and blames Albert Einstein.

Not only is this film grim, it's a slog. I didn't buy the romance angle for one second (it's not in the original novel, by Nevil Shute). There's also a completely superfluous scene with Astaire taking place in a Grand Prix race. When oil is short, why would they have car races?

Please avoid On the Beach if you're feeling glum--it won't help. The extinction of mankind may well save the planet, but radiation is not the way to go, because it would probably kill animals, too.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Beauty and the Beast

It is certainly not unreasonable to see Disney remaking many of their classic animated films as live-action as cynical cash grab. The question of "Why remake a great film," especially only 25 years later, is usually answered simply with, "to make money." But while watching Bill Condon's version of Beauty and the Beast, the cynicism washes away almost immediately, from the use of the Beast's castle taking the place of Sleeping Beauty's castle in the logo opening. This Beauty and the Beast is not just a remake of the original, it's a tribute to the movie-making process.

I haven't seen the first Disney Beauty and the Beast in many years (for that matter, I haven't seen the Jean Cocteau version) so I don't know what if anything is different. It seems the same. Belle (Emma Watson) is a bibliophile in a provincial French town. She is pursued by a callow egomaniac, Gaston (Luke Evans) who is determined to marry her, despite not having a thing in common with her.

Meanwhile, an equally callow prince, after turning away an old woman from his castle, gets a curse put on him, turning him into something that mostly looks a mountain goat with sharp teeth. His staff are turned into objects, though they can talk and move. The old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress (not a witch, thank you) gives him the time it takes for a rose to lose all its petals. He must fall in love, and get someone to fall in love with him, or be stuck forever. But he isn't optimistic--"Who would love a beast?" He must not know about furry conventions.

Through the actions of Belle's father, a kindly artist (Kevin Kline), she gets herself imprisoned by the Beast (Dan Stevens, motion-captured). The staff, led by Lumiere, a candlestick, and Cogsworth, a clock, try to push the two together. Here is where there is some present-day discomfort: is this the Stockholm Syndrome? Does this give hope to every guy who would love to kidnap Emma Watson and make her love them? It's a touchy area, but the script walks a fine line--they fall in love because they find things in common. Luckily there is not Trump/Clinton disagreement to break the deal.

The film is absolutely sumptuous. Count on Oscar nominations for costume and production design. The overall look is classic fairy tale, though there are real things mentioned, like Shakespeare and the Champs-Elysee. But there is also a contemporary feel to it. It moves quickly, and there is a meta nature to it, particularly from Josh Gad as Gaston's companion. There was big brouhaha among the religious right about Gad playing a gay character, with august figures like Franklin Graham calling for a boycott. Gad is playing a gay character, no doubt about it, and there are also three swordsman who are put into women's dresses who seem to be very happy about it. I also appreciated the stage-like casting, with a lot of diversity. There are interracial relationships, and it made me all warm and gooey inside.

The cast acquits itself. Everyone wondered about Watson's singing ability, and while I wouldn't advise a recording career, she was fine. It's tough when you put great singers like Audra McDonald in the cast to compare. Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, Ewan McGregor is Lumiere, and Ian McKellen is Cogsworth. McKellen, after a long and largely obscure (at least in America) classical-stage career, has now been in numerous box office hits. He also has the funniest line of the film at the end, which I won't spoil.

The film is getting good but not strong reviews, and it seems most of them have to do with the business aspects. But one can only review the film before you, not the reasons for its existence. On that level, I had a fine time with Beauty and the Beast. It's a magical two hours.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

One of Us

"Higher up the cliff, the three girls Breivik shot first. Dead. One had celebrated her fourteenth birthday five days earlier. The second, who was fifteen, had just been chosen as a confirmation course leader at her local church, where she also sang in the choir. The third, a sixteen-year-old, had come with Margrethe from Stavanger and the two had shared a tent. The three girls all bled to death before the rescue team got to them."

This is part of the chapter called "Friday" in Asne Seierstead's One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. On July 22, 2011, a young man, possibly psychotic, blew up a bomb outside a government building in Oslo, killing eight. He then drove to an island called Utoya, where there was a summer camp for young members of a progressive political party. He systematically shot to death 69. That total of 77, even in a country like the U.S., where these sorts of killings are commonplace, is disturbingly high.

Seierstad tells the story from a number of points of view. She gives us Breivik's biography. Here are a few quick sentences about him: "Anders was an angry boy and his punches were hard." "The specialists observed a boy who took no joy in life. Completely unlike the demanding boy his mother had described." "The little girls found him disgusting. He was so intense, and he was cruel to animals." "Anders was average at most things: average height, average at school, an average sort of bully."

He would go on to be a tagger (a graffiti artist of sorts), start a company making phony diplomas, and then a recluse, playing video games like World of Warcraft, sometimes for seventeen hours a day. His politics were virulently xenophobic--he fashioned himself a leader in denouncing multiculturalism and was fiercely Islamophobic and anti-Marxist. He corresponded with others in this political demimonde, and claimed he was a member of something called The Knights of Templar, though after he was arrested it was never determined that this organization actually existed.

Seierstad also takes the point of view of some of the victims, particularly a boy named Simon Saebo, a kind of wonder boy, and Bano Rashid, a Kurdish refugee from Iraq, who had embraced her new culture in Norway as well as maintaining her old one.

Breivik is depicted as a classic sociopath, but with a political motivation. He was mostly angered by the changing face of Norway, which of course, unlike the U.S., was once completely white: "By about the mid-1990s, a third of those living in the eastern areas of Oslo city centre were from immigrant backgrounds. The largest group was the Pakistani community, who had come to Norway for work in the 1970s. Their children had one foot in each culture; the girls were closely supervised and generally not allowed out after school, the boys had a freer rein." Breivik, like many political murderers, wrote a long manifesto: "He rattled off a list of the accused. There were cultural Marxists, multiculturalists, suicide humanists, capitalist-globalist politicians, state leaders and parliamentarians. There were journalists, editors, teachers, professors, university leaders, publishers, radio commentators, writers, comic-strip creators, artists, technical experts, scientists, doctors and church leaders who had knowingly committed crimes against their own people."

The book can be slow going until the killing starts, but then it takes hold of you and won't let go. That chapter "Friday," which is the day of the murders (and in Norway is simply called "22 July," like Americans refer to 9/11) is one of the most gripping thirty or so pages I've ever read. He was so calm, but he did manage to yell out, "You're going to die today, Marxists!"

Seierstad reconstructs, from Breivik's writings to survivor accounts, what happened and when (when we read what Breivik was thinking it was all from his pen--he denied Seierstad an interview), After the bombing in Oslo, with even a description of the vehicle by a witness, Breivik had no trouble making his way to Utoya. The entire Norwegian police helicopter unit was on holiday. In a country that rarely saw murder, they were totally unprepared for something like this. "To judge by the way the Oslo police was behaving, little indicated that Norway had just been the target of an act of terror, with an acute risk of secondary attacks. When other districts offered support, their offers were largely declined, even though many potential targets around Oslo remained unsecured."

Breivik moved around the island, killing 69 and wounding many others, including one boy who barely survived a shot to the head which removed his eye and exposed his brain--he would testify against him. Breivik planned to surrender, and he did, and was examined by many psychiatrists. Some said he was responsible for his actions, others said he suffered from inflated narcissism, another said it was Asperger's. Breivik did not want to be judged insane, he wanted a trial.

He got one, and the description is harrowing. There was no doubt of his guilt, but the main thing was his mental status. His lawyers went along with his wish and did not claim insanity, and so he was convicted and sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum for Norway, although he can be held indefinitely if he is still considered a danger, and his lack of contrition in prison indicates he probably will never get out.

This book is very thorough, and I would have appreciated an abridged version, at least for this first two-thirds. There's too much detail about Breivik, particularly in a section where he lives on a farm and concocts his fertilizer bomb. It seems like we find out what he had for every meal.

But by the end of the book I let that criticism go, as Seierstad, a famed war correspondent, writing for the first time about her own country, writes objectively and without judgment. It seems the facts are enough to curdle the blood when it comes to Anders Breivik, certainly one of the worst people you'll ever read about.



Matilda

Last night's show at the Smith Center was Matilda, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's book about a precocious little girl who gets revenge on her grotesque parents and her villainous schoolmistress. As directed by Matthew Warchus, the production is lively and entertaining, with several strong performances by juveniles, and the songs by Daniel Kelly and Tim Minchin are the for the most part engaging, although only a few really grabbed my attention.

Matilda (Gabrielle Guterriez) is a genius, who prefers reading books to watching television, which confounds her parents. Her father is a man who wears green plaid and is a crooked car salesman, while her mother is a ghastly woman who does nothing but practice ballroom dancing.

Matilda plays tricks on her father, like making his hair turn green and gluing his hat to his head, while taking solace in the library, where she entertains the librarian with a story about an escape artist and his wife, an acrobat.

When she goes to school, her teacher, Miss Honey, is very kind, and discovering her abilities, goes to the headmistress to put her in an advanced class. But Miss Trunchbull (great name) hates children, and sadistically imposes discipline. In every stage production this character is played by a man, with comically large breasts, kind of a combination of Porky's Miss Ballbreaker and Despicable Me's Gru, and that's no different here, as the wonderful Dan Pomeroy plays the character.

Matilda ends leading the students in a revolt, by virtue of her superior brain and, added somewhat haphazardly, the power of telekinesis.

The show was on Broadway in 2010, and seemed to be a hit with the smaller audience members in attendance (lots of girls in their nice dresses). I found it to be diverting, but it reminded me of a lot of other things. We've seen a lot of mean teachers, like Mr. Squeers or the one in How Green Was My Valley, and a lot of nice teachers, and this show has both. The character of Matilda is wonderful, though, she is extremely well-read, having taught Russian to herself by desiring to read Dostoevsky in the original, a fact that ends up being handy at the end. She's heroic and principled, and an ideal role-model for girls, even if she does love pranks.

Matt Harrington kind of steals the show as Mr. Wormwood, Matilda's father. He is such an example of greed and stupidity, yet he is oblivious, and has a vaudeville-style number praising the "telly." My favorite number, though, is the second-act opener, with the kids on swings singing "When I Grow Up," which was not only the best song musically, but also very touching.

To sum up, Matilda was a lot of fun, for both adults and children, with lots of stage magic and terrific performances.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Rachel Maddow

I've got a crush on Rachel Maddow. Not that kind of crush; more like an intellectual crush. And she's emerged from the Trump election more popular than ever, and certainly more relevant than ever.

I read about her before I ever saw her--The Nation did an article about her when she was a host on Air America radio, and I believe had just signed with MSNBC. So I was there from the beginning, in 2008, during the heady days of the first Obama campaign. For most of the eight years of her show's history, she's been broadcasting during a Democratic presidency.

And it was a good time to be a Democrat. Obama, despite a few minor slips, was a great president, and liberals could feel almost smug, figuring that we had a lock on the electoral college and there would never be a Republican president again, at least not for the foreseeable future.

But then the unthinkable happened, and liberals everywhere, wandering around shocked and dazed, have sought comfort. There have been marches--my dad marched in one of the Women's Day marches and said it was great to feel like one was among same-thinking people--that not everyone had gone mad. And social media sites have exploded with "resistance" memes. Today my page is flooded with angry responses to the cutting of Meals on Wheels, which annually costs less than one of Trump's visits to Mar-a-Lago.

And we go to our TV sets or laptops or iPhones or wherever we watch our news, and the acknowledged voice of liberalism on television is Maddow. Her ratings have skyrocketed. When Obama was in office, we were content, and didn't need to get fired up, but now we need to hear the antidote to fake news and alternate facts--we need facts, period.

There are a lot of reasons Maddow is terrific. One is that she's so fucking smart. While Fox News plays to the idiocracy (their viewers are the least-informed of any, even lower than people who don't watch news), Maddow's show is aimed at the informed viewer, She's a Rhodes scholar, while Sean Hannity didn't even graduate college. She actually does the research, and while she's clearly biased to the left, she backs up what she says with facts. She doesn't really express her opinion--she simply states facts, and those frame what her opinion is.

I don't watch her show every night, but I do at least try to catch her opening monologue, which can go on for twenty minutes. Often it's like a mini-drama, starting with one story, which leads to her main story. She doesn't shout or scream, though she does have pregnant pauses and looks that are like daggers--you can see the thought balloon above her head saying "So stupid."

She certainly has her detractors, and the whole brouhaha about Trump's taxes seems like a trap she fell into. Trump leaked one tax return that made him look honest, and she fell for it. But last night she moved on to the defeat of the Muslim ban in a Hawaii court, where she was on solid ground and had something to celebrate.

But why do I have a crush on a cable-TV news host? Because from what I've read and seen, she seems so awesome. She likes to fish, she's an expert on mixology, and she's most comfortable in jeans and sneakers. When I lived in New Jersey I had half a mind to apply to be on her staff, but the other half of mind won out and I never did. I could be totally wrong, but she seems like she would be cool to work for--you'd do a lot of research, but it would be rewarding. This is unlike Keith Olbermann, who though I agree with almost 100 percent, is an acknowledged egomaniac and impossible to work with. Maddow just seems so damn friendly. I'd love to have a few cocktails with her and just shoot the breeze.

And I have a fantasy about her--no, not that kind of fantasy. I hope one day she runs for office. Scott Brown, when he ran for re-election in 2012, created a straw woman by claiming Maddow would run against (her permanent residence is in Massachusetts). She denied running, and instead Elizabeth Warren knocked him out of the Senate. But eventually I would love it if she ran for congress. She'd be great at questioning witnesses--imagine her going after Betsy DeVos, or Tom Price, or Scott Pruitt. She'd be fantastic, a born legislator.

But if that day never comes, we'll still have her fighting the good fight from her studio in New York, the Edward R. Murrow of her day, not "normalizing" anyone and conceding the bullshit.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Trip to the Moon

In addition to English and Reading, I teach a class that is basically a dumping ground for kids who don't take a music elective. The teachers of this class set our own curriculum, based on what we know and hopefully the students can tolerate. This quarter is on space, and this week we did lessons on space travel. My turn was to talk about the beginnings of flight and how up until the rocket was invented, the notion of going to the moon was just a fantasy.

One of the most famous moon trip fantasies is Georges Melies' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. It was certainly inspired by science-fiction books by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, but Melies, an incredibly creative man, took fifteen minutes to make a phantasmagorical film that is part Lewis Carroll part surrealism, before there was such a thing.

The film begins with a bunch of scientists, wearing pointy hats and robes, having a meeting. One of them shows his idea for traveling to the moon--basically, they go in a bullet-shaped ship fired out of the barrel of an extremely long gun. They undertake this mission with the casual elan of punting down the seine, wearing their tailcoats and top hats.

The most famous image of the film is when the ship approaches the moon, the "Man in the Moon" appears, his face on the moon, and gets struck in the eye. It's absurd and creepy at the same time. The scientists get out (no spacesuits, mind you, and no change in gravity). They go to sleep and in the night sky they see the Earth rise, the Big Dipper (with a face in each star), and Saturn poking his head out of his planet. It snows, and they awake, going down into a cavern where there giant mushrooms. The men have brought umbrellas, and one of them opens his and it turns into a mushrooms.

Good thing they brought those umbrellas, because they are beset by moon men, who are extremely limber, but easily defeated--just one whack with an umbrella and the explode in a cloud of dust. It's a wonder how they mated.

Our scientists escape by shoving the ship off a ledge. Apparently the Earth's gravity is so strong they merely fall to Earth, with one of the moon men hanging on the edge. They splash down, have a huge celebration, and make the poor moon man dance.

I don't know what scientists knew about the moon then, but it's clear that Melies doesn't care. He has created a world of his own imagination, physics be damned. It's funny, and I think intentionally so (one scientist keeps falling, and I assume this is intentional, so I'm not sure about the head scientist's hat falling off in the beginning). The film was also hand-painted, an incredible innovation for 1902 (Melies did this more than once) and can be considered the first science-fiction film ever made.

What's also great about it is that it's only fifteen minutes long, which meant I could watch it again just before writing this. There are many different versions of it--it was thought lost, and discovered in the 1930s (some of this story is covered in Martin Scorsese's Hugo) and they are different lengths, so there many available on YouTube, such as this one, with a soundtrack by Air. The color version was only discovered in 1993!

Monday, March 13, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Here's a rarity--a blockbuster, tent-pole picture that doesn't play dumb and is satisfying on almost every level. It also has a King Kong that doesn't have a thing for white women, removing the racist stigma of three previous American Kong films.

Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island is sort of a mash-up between Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and Apocalypse Now (lest we miss that connection, there is a character named Conrad, after the author of Heart of Darkness, and another named Marlow, who was the protagonist of that novel). John Goodman plays a scientist who works for a government agency that searches for monsters, which is a stretch of the imagination, and he has satellite photos of an uncharted island. Along with a few other scientists, he is able to wrangle an Army escort.

This brings Samuel L. Jackson into the picture, as a the colonel of a helicopter squad just about ready to go home after the peace treaty (when you're in a movie, never do anything dangerous when you're about to retire or be sent home). Jackson, with his dead-eyed stare, is very good, less of the parody of himself that he has become (he doesn't say motherfucker, but he does emit a "Bitch, please!" Also on the ride are a professional tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson).

What's unique about Kong: Skull Island is there is no teasing. In many monster movies, such as the first King Kong, which is a great picture, you don't see the creature until well into the movie. That is not true here. As the helicopters fly in, Kong is there, swatting them out of the sky. Since the soundtrack is a boomer playlist, instead of Wagner playing as the copters go in, it's Black Sabbath.

Many men of his men are killed and Jackson wants revenge. But, as the party is split into two, the civilians (Hiddleston, Larson, and Goodman et. al.) discover an inhabitant on the island, John C. Reilly, who crash-landed during World War II. He's the Colonel Kurtz of the story (though he is named Marlow), who lives with an indigenous tribe and tells them all about Kong. "He's like a God here," he says, and the protector of the tribe from underground dwelling lizard-like creatures.

That's a lot stuff, but it keeps things moving. There are some great action scenes. Kong will, of course, eventually tee off against the "big one," and it's a great fight. A few characters are surprisingly killed off, and there is a real sense of danger.

But what I most appreciated was Larson was not set up as the Fay Wray/Jessica Lange/Naomi Watts character. She's a woman in man's field, no nonsense about her job. Kong does not become enamored with her (Hiddleston does, sort of), so we lose the fear-of-miscegenation angle that the previous films have unfortunately displayed (see the scene in Inglorious Basterds where the original King Kong is discussed as a metaphor for American slaves).

The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous feature was a Sundance film, The Kings of Summer. Unlike some indie directors, like Josh Trank, Vogt-Roberts seems right at home in big-budget land. I also liked the cinematography of Larry Fong, who gives Skull Island unearthly light that makes a viewer feel just a bit uncomfortable. Fong has shot many of Zack Snyder's films, that you can hardly see at all, so it's nice to see Fong out from under Snyder's untalented thumb.

Kong will be back, and if you stick through the credits you'll see the connection to Godzilla. I already feel like that the climactic fight in Kong: Skull Island was a fight with a giant lizard, so the upcoming film may be overkill. But I'll buy a ticket.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Electric Light Orchestra

The next Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee I'll be taking a look at is one of my favorites, a key part of my adolescence, Electric Light Orchestra (ELO for short). For a few years in the '70s their combination of rock and classical music produced a number of hits and at least three great albums.

ELO, throughout their history, has basically been Jeff Lynne. He and drummer Bev Bevan had been together in a band called The Move, but then created ELO. Befitting the time period, Lynne's expertise was in the studio--ELO toured, but that wasn't their raison d'etre, and in fact they created a ruckus when it was revealed that during their concerts they used pre-recorded material, which is pretty common today.

My introduction to ELO was in 1976 when A New World Record was released. I kind of paired them with Queen as the bands I liked the most, who most sounded like the late lamented Beatles. That album was full of great songs, like "Livin' Thing," "Telephone Line," and "Do Ya," which has one of my favorite least-subtle lines in rock--"Do ya, do ya want my face, woman?"

The followed it with a double-album, Out of the Blue, which is still one of my favorites. It's full of Lynne's poppy, string-filled songs, many of them about the weather--in fact, one side is called "Concerto for a Rainy Day." It ends with one of the most cheerful songs in all of rock, "Mr. Blue Sky," which is the kind of song to play when you're in a bad mood because you will certainly feel better upon hearing it. It also has "Wild West Hero," a plaintive regret at not living in the Old West (though Lynne probably got his impressions from Roy Rogers films, certainly not from the real thing) and "Sweet is the Night," "Turn to Stone," and the trippy "Jungle."

My interest piqued, I went back and bought Face the Music, their album before A New World Record, and it has a couple of m favorites on it--"Poker," a furious song about cards, and "Fire on High," an instrumental that has many different movements to it, one of which was used as the theme song for Howard Cosell's TV show.

After Out of the Blue they went on, but their popularity waned a great deal. They did songs for the lousy Xanadu movie,and Lynne produced for other people and was one-fifth of The Traveling Wilburys. But they have a great catalog. Since my ELO records were on vinyl, I didn't own any CDs of them and picked up a greatest hits CD. Some of the songs on there are very early, such as the terrific "Showdown," and "Strange Magic," but inexplicably it's missing "Can't Get It Out of My Head,"a haunting love song.

Though ELO is known for being orchestral rock, with lots of instruments and studio tricks, I think one thing that is under-rated is Lynne's voice. He's just about 70, so grew up along with rock and roll, and many of his songs are throwbacks to Chuck Berry and other roots pioneers, and his voice is perfect for those songs. But he also obviously knows his classical music, and mixed the two together in a wonderful way. Consider this lyric from "Rockaria!"

"She's sweet on Wagner
I think she'd die for Beethoven
She loves the way Puccini lays down a tune
And Verdi's always creeping from her room."

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Duel in the Sun

After the phenomenal success of Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick tried to capture lightning in a bottle twice, producing and writing the adaptation of Niven Busch's novel Duel in the Sun. It didn't work. The film was critically panned, though there are defenders of it today, notably Martin Scorsese, Directed by King Vidor, Duel in the Sun is mostly overblown melodrama and spectacle, much like Gone With the Wind but without the memorable scenes and, frankly, the kitsch.

Jennifer Jones plays a biracial (half-breed was the term used in the film) woman whose father kills her mother and hangs for it. She is sent to live with a distant cousin (Lillian Gish, Oscar-nominated) who is the wife of the owner of a vast ranch (Lionel Barrymore, in his Mr. Potter mode). Barrymore has two sons, and in Biblical fashion one is good, Joseph Cotten, and one is bad, Gregory Peck. Both fall in love with Jones, but Cotten is a gentleman while Peck just takes what he wants.

The film, true to its title, has a few duels in the baking sun. The motif of the film is the oppressive sun, as this is Texas and it can pretty fucking hot there. There are numerous shots of the sunset, and these are effective. What is not effective is the phony makeup on Jones to make her look part Indian, and her performance, while getting an Oscar nomination, is way over the top.

I also found it quite disconcerting to see Peck play such a villain. Of course, this was still early in his career. This was 1946, and the following year he would star in Gentleman's Agreement and mostly thereafter play heroes, and with To Kill an Mockingbird he would be remembered as playing characters of the greatest worth and dignity. But man, is he a bounder in this film, and it just doesn't suit him.

Every so often a good moment sneaks in. When Jones and Peck have their final confrontation, Jones has a great expression on her face, and the beads of sweat on her are a nice touch. I also liked the few bombastic scenes provided by Walter Huston as a "sinkiller," a kind of lay minister of the time. The film, in it's prologue, states that these men were charlatans. Huston makes that perfectly clear. On the other hand, Butterfly McQueen is back playing yet another dim-witted servant, showing that Selznick's ideas about race were pretty awful.

This also may the film with the most horses in it I've ever seen. The toughest job on Duel in the Sun may have been the horse wrangler.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Tanna

Another of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film was Tanna, from Australia. Now, you might think Australians speak English, and they do, but this film, directed by Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, is in the native language of the Yakel people of the island of Tanna, which is part of the nation of Vanuatu.

It is a very interesting and entertaining film, part anthropology and part Shakespeare. In regard to the latter, we see that the same stories of humanity happen to people no matter what corner of the Earth they live in.

In this case, it's Romeo and Juliet, but with a twist. The Yakel people are among the last to live in primitive fashion, i.e., they don't use money, live off the land, wear what would be considered unacceptable clothing in the modern world (women regularly go topless, while men just wear a penis sheath) and they worship a volcano. Of course, this brings up the question of just what is civilization. What they do makes them happy, they sustain themselves, and they live in a paradise. Why is worshipping something actual visible any more ridiculous than worshipping something that can't be seen?

But, there are troubles with other tribes. Early in the film, two Imedin warriors, rivals of the Yakel, attack the Yakel shaman, whom they blame for spoiling their crops. The chief of the Yakel, Charlie, tries to patch things up by promising a bride, Wawa, to the Imedin. But Wawa is in love with the chief's grandson, Dain. They run off together, potentially causing a war that would kill many.

So, instead of Juliet loving a member of the wrong family, it's the opposite--she wants to stay with one of her own.

Dean lived among the Yakel for seven months and heard this story, which took place in 1987, and thought it would make a good movie. All the actors are amateurs and tribespeople, and they're pretty good considering they had never even seen a movie before. Charlie, the chief, is particularly good, and a young girl Selin, Wawa's little sister, gives a very realistic performance for a child.

The Yakel people are very aware of the outside world--some of the elders visited with British royalty--but choose not to change their ways. There is an amusing scene when the two lovers, looking for a place to live, visit a Christian settlement. "These people freak me out," Dain says, and Wawa agrees. "Let's just live in the forest," she replies.


Thursday, March 09, 2017

The Best American Mystery Stories 2015

Otto Penzler, in the 2015 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories, writes in the foreword about something that I've mentioned in the write-ups on the last few of these books. "The psychology of crime has become the dominant form of mystery fiction in recent years, while the classic detective tale of observation and deduction has faded further into the background," and "The working definition of a mystery story for this series is any work of fiction in which a crime, or the threat of a crime, is central to the theme or the plot." My answer to this that the series title should be changed to Crime Stories, but I suppose that doesn't have the same sense of, well, mystery.

But there is a story that has a bit of mystery to it, and that's "The Adventure of the Laughing Fisherman," by Jeffery Deaver, about a young man obsessed by Sherlock Holmes stories. This is not a pastiche, but more of an homage, with a very clever twist. He also correctly notes, "Paul owned all of the various filmed versions of the Holmes adventures, though he believed the old Grenada version with Jeremy Brett was the only one that got it right."

In the area of inner city crime, there's "Apocrypha," by Richard Lange, which states, "The freaks come out at night, and the farther east you go, the worse it gets. Sidewalk shitters living in cardboard boxes, ghosts who eat out of garbage cans, a blind man showing his dick on the corner. I keep my gaze forward, my hands balled into fists. Walking hard, we used to call it."

Some stories are from the perpetrators point of view, or at least of a family member who sees what happens. These include the very fine "A Man Looking for Trouble," which has a great opening paragraph (something of a must for crime stories), "My uncle was a man named Bill Jordan, and in 1972, when I was sixteen, he came home from Vietnam, rented a small box house on the corner of South and Christy, and went to work on a section gang with the B & O Railroad. If not for my mother and her romance with our neighbor, Harold Timms, perhaps my uncle would have lived a quiet and unremarkable life, but of course that’s something we’ll never know." "Cowboy Justice," by Andrew D. Bourelle, is a blood-soaked story about a couple of brothers from Montana in Reno to avenge their brother's death at the hand of some meth dealers. And "A Bottle of Scotch and a Buck Knife", by Scott Grand, is another story about justice being dealt out without benefit of the court system.

There are stories about police. "The Snow Angel," by Doug Allyn, concerns a cop investigating the death of a young girl in a cold Michigan winter. "The Shot," by Eric Rutter, shows us a police sniper who has lost his nerve. And "Red Eye" teams up Harry Bosch and Patrick Kenzie, the characters of Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane, respectively.

A few stories have exotic locations. "Staircase to the Moon" by Theresa E. Lehr, is about Japanese-Australian pearl divers. "A Kidnapping in Koulev-ville," by Kyle Minor, is set in Haiti. "Wet Rain," by Lee Child, is set in Dublin.

I'm not sure what my favorite story is, but the one that sticks with me the most is "Many Dogs Have Died Here," by James Mathews. It's about a loner, a vet living on a quiet cul-de-sac, whose life is turned upside down by a war widow. She introduces herself to the neighbors by slashing their tires. It's a nightmare story, really, that seems very true to life, and may have you questioning just what you'd do in the same situation.

This collection was edited by James Patterson, one of the most successful authors in the world, whose ubiquity is legendary. The choices here are solid, but I sure do miss a good whodunit.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Elephant Man

The Elephant Man, David Lynch's film from 1980, covers two things I wanted to write about: Anne V. Coates, honored with a Governor's Award by the Academy, edited many films, but received five Oscar nominations. Two of them, Becket and Lawrence of Arabia (for which she won) I've covered, but three, though I've seen them all, I haven't reviewed on this blog. One of them is The Elephant Man, which features the lately departed actor John Hurt, in what is perhaps his most famous role.

Oddly, it is a role in which he is not seen. He plays John Merrick (who in reality was Joseph Merrick), a terribly deformed man who is touched by kindness after a long life of misery working in freak shows. Lynch, who at the time had only made Eraserhead, chose to make the film visually interesting, with frequent interstitial shots of Victorian industry--belching smoke, greasy mechanical works, gaslight, open fires--but the script is strangely sentimental and superficial.

Anthony Hopkins is Dr. Treves, who hunts down Merrick in a freak show, where he is billed as The Elephant Man. His "owner," Freddie Jones, is persuaded to let Treves examine him, but when it is realized how badly he was treated, Treves decides to let Merrick stay in the hospital. His deformities are great, and makeup artist Christopher Tucker gets it just right--the enlarged skull, the lamprey mouth, the numerous fibrous tumors all over the body. We see Merrick in fits and starts before he is fully realized, and just like London society, we come to terms with it, proving that a person can get used to anything.

But beyond the stunning visuals, with cinematography by Freddie Francis, the overall message is murky. At one point Hopkins realizes that he's no better than Merrick's despicable handler, Freddie Jones, he just has a higher class clientele. But he asks and answers his own question, and the film moves on without much introspection. And Hurt, who does admirable work under so much makeup, doesn't have much of a story arc, He's a sweetheart, and despite living in a cage most of his life, is polite to a fault. His only angry moment is when he is pursued by a mob in a train station, uttering his famous line, "I am not an animal! I am a human being!"

So The Elephant Man is basically a film about a man who experiences great misery and great joy, and while intriguing and engrossing, doesn't really offer any deep insight into the situation.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

March

What a great man John Lewis is. Born in humble circumstances in Alabama, he went to school in Nashville, where he got involved with the civil rights movement. He then became a ubiquitous member of the cause, considered one of the "Big Six" of the movement, along with Martin Luther King Jr., and was at all the key moments associated with the struggle. He has written his own autobiography, but a few years got into a project with writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, In a stunning three-volume graphic novel, March, Lewis tells the story of the Civil Rights movement.

March is the perfect primer for the period of history from the 1950s to 1965. It doesn't into great depth, like Taylor Branch's massive three-volume work, but it does the job in an easy-to-swallow manner. The story is framed by Lewis', now a congressman from Georgia, attending Barack Obama's inauguration on January 20, 2009. On that historic day for Black America, Lewis reflects on his past. I'm only sorry I read this after Obama had gone, when up is down and we may have to fight for the same things all over again.

Book One covers Lewis' childhood and young adulthood (actually, he's only 25 years old at the end of the trilogy). During this period, in Nashville and elsewhere, lunch counter sit-ins were taking place. Lewis participated in many, and rose in the ranks of leadership. Some time watch video of those who took seats at counters, asked to be served, were told to leave, but sat there for hours, peacefully, while insults were hurled and food was dumped on their heads.

Book Two is mostly occupied with the Freedom Riders,busloads of activists who were routinely jailed and beaten. Lewis becomes the chairman of SNCC (the Students' Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). Lewis doesn't pull punches about some of disagreements, particularly in Book 3, with the SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Council). But all agreed that non-violence and going to jail was the answer.

Covered in the books are the murders of Goodman, Cheney, and Schwerner, the March on Washington (Lewis is the only speaker that day who is still alive), the bombing of the church that killed the four little girls, Sheriff Bull Connor's deplorable tactics of police dogs and fire hoses, the sparring with Robert Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson, who kept telling the Black leaders to be "patient," and then finally the march on Selma. Today is the 52nd anniversary of "Bloody Sunday," the initial attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where Lewis was wounded very badly in the head.

Everyone is in here, from Malcolm X (who Lewis ran into in Nairobi, Kenya) to Fannie Lou Hamer to James Farmer to Andrew Young to Rosa Parks, to Harry Belafonte. The book ends with the triumphant signing of the Voting Rights Act (which was gutted a few years ago by the Supreme Court) and Lewis' embrace with Obama on inauguration day, and a signed card by the new president that read, "Because of you, John."

Reading this book, which is very well organized by Andrew Aydin, who works in Lewis' congressional office, makes one very proud to be an American (and ashamed, that it took so long). I did find Nate Powell's art to be a bit sketchy, and he's not great at faces--most everyone looks alike, and his rendering of Lyndon Johnson wasn't very accurate--but these are quibbles. This book should be read by every American, and thankfully, though Obama is out of the White House, Lewis is still in Congress, a stick in the eye of Donald Trump. His advice? March.

Monday, March 06, 2017

Logan

Logan is getting some great reviews, I think partially because though it's a Marvel property it doesn't seem like one. No cities are destroyed, there's no Spandex, and it's far more character-driven that most comic-book films.

However, though I liked Logan for the most part, let's not go overboard. This, the swan song of Hugh Jackman playing the role of Logan/Wolverine, has some effective moments and good performances, as well as some savage action scenes (no cities may be destroyed, but more than one person loses their head) there is not a lot of originality to the script, by director James Mangold. While I was watching I thought of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and also Stranger Things (which, granted, came out after Logan was written). A writer on the Cracked website compares it point by point to Children of Men, and it's very convincing.

The year is 2029. and Logan is working as a limo driver. Mutants have ceased being born (I may have missed something in the canon, otherwise I don't know why this is). He drinks a lot and is starting to feel the effects of age (he is over two-hundred years old). His healing properties are far slower, and he walks with a limp.

Logan also cares for Professor Charles Xavier, who has a brain disorder--when he doesn't take his medicine his mind can create an earthquake-like occurrence. He is being kept in a toppled water tank near the Mexican border.

Xavier has picked up the presence of another mutant, a girl called Laura. She is brought to Logan from Mexico City by a nurse who has witnessed a genetic experiment to create mutants by artificial means. Thus, Laura, who is largely mute through most of the film, bears an uncanny resemblance to Eleven from Stranger Things, except Laura's power is to be a baby Wolverine, clawing and ripping at her foes.

Of course, the evil corporation that is conducting the experiments has people looking for her, especially Boyd Holbrook, as a man with a mechanical arm. Logan and Xavier set out taking her to a haven for mutants in North Dakota for crossing into Canada (the immigration aspects are interesting, given the times we live in).

The gruff hero helping a child (as it turns out, children) is as old as movies, it seems, and Logan doesn't really further the genre. Jackman, who has played Wolverine in eight films now, still manages to make the character interesting, especially in his frailties (though he still can use those claws). Patrick Stewart, as Xavier, who is also likely done with the character, goes out on a high note, although some may consider his British stage acting a bit hammy. It occurred to me that this might be an opportunity for Stewart to get an Oscar nomination (he's never had one), but at this time last year I was thinking about John Goodman for 10 Cloverfield Lane.

I dare not spoil what happens here, but it is poignant without being too awash in sentimentality. It's a fitting end for both Logan and Xavier's characters, but as a guy who wrote for Marvel Comics once told me, "No one stays dead except for Uncle Ben."

Logan, at two hours and seventeen minutes, is a bit too long, and has too many cliches, but it's okay and a must for X-Men fans.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Paradine Case

Alfred Hitchcock made so many films that there were bound to be a few duds, and 1947's The Paradine Case is one of them. It's a courtroom drama with a miscast Gregory Peck as a defense attorney following in love with his client, on trial for murder. While watching, all I could think of was the much better film that would come from Billy Wilder, Witness for the Prosecution.

I thought of that film both because the big moment in the film is a hostile witness, and Charles Laughton is in both. Here he is a lecherous judge who seems to enjoy sentencing people to death. His performance, so casually malicious, is the highlight of the film.

Alida Valli (here credited as just Valli) is a woman who is arrested for poisoning her much older, blind husband. Her solicitor, Charles Coburn, engages Peck, a brilliant barrister. Peck is married to Ann Todd, a perfectly good wife, but he is drawn in by Valli's exoticism. He will hear no aspersions on her character, especially by the dead man's valet (Louis Jourdan), whom he decides did it, and tries to prove it in court.

This was Hitchcock's last film for David O. Selznick, and Peck recalled that he seemed bored by the whole thing. That shows in the final product, as it simply chugs on with no real suspense. The main twist, so to speak, happens off screen.

There are a few great Hitchcockian moments. When Jourdan is called to testify, he enters behind Valli in the defendant's box. Hitchcock keeps the camera focused on her even while he tracks on Jourdan behind her, giving us an idea of their relationship. But too much of The Paradine Case is just soggy melodrama.

I've mentioned a few times that Peck appeared as British men without attempting an accent. He tries one here, and I now see why he didn't bother in other films.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings, nominated for Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Visual Effects, is one of the best adventure films I've seen in a while, animated or not. It also happened to coincide with a unit I'm teaching in my class on fantasy films and the hero's journey, and it epitomizes that structure.

Directed by Travis Knight, what is amazing about the film is that it is an original script. It seems like something right out of Joseph Campbell, and despite it's Japanese setting is not some ancient Japanese tale, but it certainly has the elements of many other hero adventures without feeling like a rip-off.

Kubo is a boy of about ten living with his mother. She escaped her evil family, who had taken one of Kubo's eyes as a baby. He is able to use paper to make origami, which he takes to town to tell stories. The catch--his origami can move without being touched. He plays a shamisen (I looked that up), a three-stringed instrument, and spins yarns about a samurai warrior named Hanzo (who was Kubo's late father) who does battle with the Moon King. But he never finishes his stories--he has to get back before sundown, the only time he is vulnerable to his evil aunts and his grandfather, who wants his other eye.

Of course one day he will stay out after dark and his aunties come after him. His mother manages to hold them off, but he is sent to the Far Lands, where he must find three pieces of armor that will enable him to defeat his grandfather. He is guided by a snow monkey and then by one of Hanzo's samurais, who has been cursed into being part beetle. This all fits the classic quest model--hero seeks magic objects, aided by sidekicks, chased by evil villains, all while making personal discoveries.

This is a smashing film, with terrific stop-motion animation. The sisters, who float and wear kabuki masks, are great. There is a terrific battle with a giant skeleton. The climax is poignant, and with mercy, not revenge. As much as I liked Zootopia, I would have voted for Kubo and the Two Strings for Best Animated Feature.

The voice cast is quite famous; Charlize Theron as the mother and the monkey, Matthew McConnaughey as the beetle, Rooney Mara as the evil sisters, and Ralph Fiennes as the Moon King. This is an all-around terrific film.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Blackstar

I start my second annual listen to the "other" Grammys with Blackstar, winner of the Grammy for Best Alternative Rock Album. It's not really rock, but it is certainly alternative, especially to the relatively bland Adele, who won for Best Album, but for David Bowie to win four posthumous Grammys when he won only one when alive I guess is what we'll have to live with.

I bought Blackstar just after he died, as it came out only a few days before his death, but didn't get a chance to write about it until now. I think it's good I gave it over a year to think about and then listen to intensely again. It's really a masterpiece, especially the nearly ten-minute opening title track, which in that time takes the listener on a magic journey.

"Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)"

Clearly, Bowie knew he was dying when he wrote this record. A black star could be interpreted to be a black hole, which is the end cycle of the life of large stars. It's somewhat akin to John Lennon's "God," which he lists things he is not, as Bowie sings, "I'm not a film star, I'm not a pop star, I'm not a marvel star, I'm not a porn star, I'm not a white star. I'm a blackstar."

It also connects to his persona of Ziggy Stardust and the album that so heavily refers to the word star, both as a celestial object and a person of great fame. I could go on and on about the lyrics and their meaning, but here's a good place to delve into it.

The song is in different pieces (I always love a song like that) and has impeccable production values, by Bowie and his long-time associate Tony Visconti. Since in one of my imaginary lives I'm a drummer, I marvel at the complicated time signatures of Mike Guiliana.

There are six other tracks on the album. One of them, "Girl Loves Me," which refers both to George Orwell's 1984 and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, sounds most like Bowie, and could have created around the time of the Thin White Duke and Diamond Dogs (which contains the song "1984").  The literary allusions continue with "'Tis Pity She's a Whore," which is the title of a 17th-century drama by John Ford.

If the lyrics of "Blackstar" weren't enough, Bowie titles another song "Lazarus," who of course is the Biblical character brought back to life by Christ. If you watch both the video for this and "Blackstar," you can see the references to death, particularly that in both he wears a blindfold with buttons for eyes, perhaps suggesting the pennies placed on eyes of the deceased.

David Bowie was one of the great musical geniuses to come out of the rock world, and he transcended it. Much of this album is not traditional rock, mixing jazz and what I suppose would be simply called experimental music. He was never one to rest on his laurels. We can be thankful that like Leonard Cohen, he had a chance to write his own musical epitaph. One can only imagine what other great stars, like Lennon or Prince, would have had a chance to do with that knowledge.