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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Kid

There has been so much written about Billy the Kid, fiction and fact, that Ron Hansen's novel of last year doesn't seem at first to be necessary. But, along with Mary Doria Russell's Epitaph, there seems to be a trend lately to write historical fiction that is close to accurate, and that The Kid is. For Western fans, there's not much new here, but it was a pleasure to read.

One of the things I enjoy about Westerns, both in print and on film, is the style of putting grandiloquent language in cowpoke's mouths. You can see this done to death on Deadwood, but apparently these guys had some education, and the education they had was formal. Therefore you get dialogue like “I deserve whatever you hand out in regard to admonishment,” he said. “I done wrong and judge myself kindly in need of correction.”

That statement was by Pat Garrett, the lawman who hunted down Billy, but the Kid himself, who was known by many names--William Bonney, Henry Antrim (that was his stepfather's name) or just Billy the Kid, is a regular cut-up. He's asked for a bit of advice and answers,“Well,” the Kid said, “I would advise your readers to never engage in killing.”

In fact, Billy was a horse thief who got caught up in what was known as the Lincoln County War, a turf struggle between ranchers in New Mexico in the late 1870s. Billy, who stole a man named John Tunstall's horse, was hired by him, and later rode with men who sought vengeance for Tunstall's murder. Billy was nothing if not loyal. His loyalty to the family of his sweetheart, Paulita, would prove to be his undoing. Hansen admires the Kid, who only claimed to have killed two people (he would later kill two more in his celebrated jail break, when he killed a rascal named Bob Olinger with a blast to the face, before which he said, "Hello, Bob") was the stuff of dime novels. Only in his late teens when he perpetrated most of what he was supposed to have done, he had only one picture of him taken in his lifetime, and was by all accounts charming.

The Kid made the front page of the Chicago Daily Tribune on December 29, when it named “Billy the Kid” as the leader of “the notorious gang of outlaws composed of about 25 men who have for the past six months overrun Eastern New Mexico, murdering and committing other deeds of outlawry.” He was quick with a gun but was blamed for every death that happened while he was nearby. Therefore he became Moby Dick to Garrett's Ahab. After he broke out of jail, Garrett says, "I’ll follow the Kid to the end of time, and there will be a fierce reckoning. There will be a whirlwind he will reap while desperately begging for my forgiveness.”

When Billy broke out of his jail he was advised to go to Mexico, but instead went to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, where Paulita Maxwell lived. He was disheartened to find out she was going to marry another man. Garrett went looking for him there, and when Billy went to the father's bedroom, asking in Spanish, "Who is it?" Garrett shot him in the heart, in pitch darkness. He was 21.

The Kid's reputation was revived by a book full of alternative facts by Walter Noble Burns in the 1920s, and then came many film adaptations.“The boy who never grew old,” Burns wrote, “has become a sort of symbol of frontier knight-errantry, a figure of eternal youth riding forever through a purple glamour of romance.”

Hansen, who also wrote of another Western legend in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, writes with a nice, blood and thunder style. I particularly liked the way he sent off characters who would not appear again in the book, telling us what became of them: "Sombrero Jack, by then, had heard of the Kid’s arrest and skinned his way out of town and out of this narrative, but he would find Jesus and finally reform his life and wind up a justice of the peace in Colorado."

At times the telling of the Lincoln County War is very complicated, as there are many names to keep track of (Hansen says in the acknowledgements that he actually removed some characters!) but it's best to read this book not as a history but as a good oater that actually was true. It seems that if there were no Billy the Kid we'd have to invent him.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Cemetery of Splendour

Cemetery of Splendour is a 2015 film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It is the second film of his I've seen, after the Palm D'Or winning Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. Like that film, it is a somewhat hallucinatory piece about people slipping between life and death, but it is more comprehensible and even, at times, funny.

Be forewarned, it is not a fast-paced film. It should be viewed fully rested. Not only does it move at a languid pace--there are long lingering scenes of someone giving someone else a sponge bath, someone relieving themselves, and so on, but at its center are Thai soldiers who have some sort of sleeping sickness. They lie dormant in a small hospital that was once a schoolhouse, and later we learn that it is on top of the burial place of kings who use the soldiers' essence to fight their battles.

Most of the film is told from the point of view of Jenjira, a middle-aged woman and volunteer at the hospital. She forms an attachment to one soldier, Itt, who occasionally does awaken, only to pass out in narcoleptic episodes, to be carried home and back to his bed (it becomes a kind of running gag). She is married to an American man, not her first husband. "I want to have a European husband," she complains to Itt one night. "American men don't have enough money. Europeans are living the American dream."

Also tending to the soldiers is a psychic, a young woman who has helped the police. She is able to contact the soldiers who are sleeping, and in the climax of the film, Itt inhabits her and takes Jenjira on a tour of a palace that was once on the grounds.

I was happy to see this film on DVD, when I could stop and watch it in chunks. I got drowsy and fell asleep once, when a man was teaching the staff of the hospital how to let their energy go, not something helpful to a movie audience. But despite it's non-Western pace, there is a lot to appreciate here, especially the humor. Jenjira visits a shrine to two Laotian princesses. She is later visited by them, who thank her and tell her they are dead. Jenjira tells her a nurse that they look great without makeup, and the nurse says, "Well, you have to be dead to get that look."

Another time, a soldier gets an erection that pokes a tent in his blanket. The psychic, who has never been with a man, looks at it and asks Jenjira if she wants to touch it. "I've touched enough penises in my life," she says, and the psychic pressed down on it, only to see it pop back up again. "Amazing," she says.

As with Uncle Boonmee, this would be best appreciated by those with an understanding of Thai culture. There are many mentions of different regions of Thailand (apparently the South, like the United States, is a different place entirely). In Buddhist culture, things just don't stay dead, but unlike the West, it does not mean it's a horror film.

Apichatpong's films are the only Thai films I've ever seen (I think), but they are not typical of Thai cinema. In one scene a character watches a trailer for a lurid, violent supernatural film. I kind of relaxed. Glad to know some things are the same all over the world.

Monday, May 29, 2017


The Grammy for Best Folk Album went to Sarah Jarosz for her disc, Undercurrent. I must admit that the first time through it I was pondering just how the Grammys decide what goes in what category, as they seem to be divided into very small and delicate niches.

Undercurrent didn't immediately strike me as "folk" music, whatever that means. To me, it's Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, early Bob Dylan, or Joan Baez, with roots in Appalachian music. There's little of that here. But I realize folk has expanded to include artists like Shawn Colvin, who Jarosz sounds a bit like. She writes her own material, so I guess this is more contemporary folk, rather than traditional.

That being said, Undercurrent sounds pretty, but I didn't find it particularly intense. The melodies are nice, the vocals are beautiful, the lyrics are somewhat routine. I didn't want to take out of the CD player and hurl it out the window, but I have to believe that there was music out there was more "folky" than this.

The songs that most reminded me of traditional folk are "Lost Dog," which includes a banjo and has lyrics about a dog burying bones in the backyard that gives it an edge, and "House of Mercy," which features a mandolin and also has a bit of an edge;

"Walls rattle like a diesel freighter
Blood races like a wave
This house wasn't made for strangers
But you come knockin' anyway."

"House of Mercy" also won a Grammy for Jarosz in the Best American Roots Song category.

The most enigmatic song is the last one, "Jacqueline," which is clearly about Jackie Kennedy:

"Jacqueline, I see you there
In your pillbox hat and your
Bright pink dress
Won't you sit and keep me company?"

I'm not sure what the song is about, as it uses the iconography of Mrs. Kennedy but for what? It seems as if the singer is lonely and wants her company, but I didn't get the song completely.

To sum up, I wouldn't call Undercurrent down and dirty folk music, but it's nice and unobjectionable. I've got to just get over the whole category thing.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

My Life as a Zucchini

The fifth and last of the nominees for the Best Animated Feature Oscar of last year is My Life as a Zucchini, a Swiss stop-motion film by Claude Barras. It is deceptively simple and very short (68 minutes) but has some very poignant insights into what childhood is like. Also, unless you are made of stone, you will be tearing up at the end.

Our hero is Icare, or as he likes to be called, Zucchini. He lives a kind of horrible existence with a drunken mother, who drinks beer and yells "Liars!" at the TV. When she dies, Zucchini is taken to a foster home by a kindly police detective. At first he struggles to get along, as he is bullied by a boy called Simon.

Soon enough, they are a family. Unlike most films about orphanages, it is not a Dickensian nightmare. When one girl shows up, Camille, she actually would prefer to stay in the group home then be with her aunt, who is cruel to her.

The interplay between the children is wonderful. All of them have lived some sort of trauma. One has been abused by her father, another is the child of drug addicts, another's mother was deported. They form a bond, and Zucchini and Camille share a sweet childhood crush. The police officer frequently visits Zucchini, and though you may see the end coming it can't help but move you.

This film is not for small children. It deals frankly with disturbing ideas, and even has a child's view of sex (the man's willy explodes, you see). If a small child were to see this film, they should be prepared for the sadness that goes on in the first part.

The English-language cast includes Nick Offerman as the policeman and Ellen Page as one of the teachers at the home. While My Life as a Zucchini isn't as complex as Zootopia or as sweeping as Kubo and the Two Strings, it certainly merited its nomination.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Too Late

Wow, Too Late is a terrible film. Yet, as terrible films go, it's eminently watchable. Written and directed by Dennis Hauck, this 2015 film is a mixture of Raymond Chandler and Quentin Tarantino, without approaching the brilliance of either, but Hauck does have some directing chops. He just can't write.

The film has a gimmick: there are four scenes, and each one is shot in a single take, a la Hitchcock's Rope. This calls for some ingenuity. In the opening scene, a young woman on a hill in L.A. calls someone. The camera zooms in on the person she is talking to (they are probably a few miles apart). In a hotel scene, the camera follows a character out of a room, down a hall, into the elevator, out to the pool, and into a parking lot. It doesn't have the snap of Scorsese's Copacabana scene from Goodfellas, but technically it's quite accomplished.

Too Late is L.A. noir. That girl on the hill is a stripper (Crystal Reed) who has seen too much. She is calling a private eye (John Hawkes), who arrives, well, too late. She has been murdered. He investigates and exacts revenge, and along the way we find out his connection to the girl.

The film is non-linear, as the four scenes are not in chronological order, a la Tarantino. The set-ups are very nice, too. In addition to the scene on Radio Hill and the hotel, one scene is in a strip club and a bar next door, and another exquisitely lit scene is at a drive-in movie theater. But here's the problem with Too Late--the dialogue.

Hauck may imagine himself a Raymond Chandler, but he's not. Not even close. I don't know what he was intending, perhaps this is an homage and not meant to be authentic, but none of the characters speak like real people do. The patter is wincingly pretentious, the kind of dialogue I might have written in college. And Hauck makes a mistake first-time screenwriters often make--everyone sounds the same, with the same smart-ass sense of humor and ability to speak without saying, "um."

In another bit of Tarantinoism, Hauck uses actors such as Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey. There is also a scene that got it the dubious award of Mr. Skin's Nude Scene of the Year. An actress named Vail Bloom does her entire scene, perhaps close to ten minutes, bottomless. Bloom, of interest to me, is a Princeton grad who was part of a controversy when I lived there. An alt Princeton newspaper ran a feature on the top ten best looking girls of Princeton, and this caused howls from all quarters. Bloom was one of them. She also went to be a Maxim Top Ten Hottie, so presumably she had no issues with this objectification.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Teach the Children

Everything is a political issue today, it seems. Some of them are bewildering. When did conservative Republicans become so hostile to public education? I suppose the core belief of the Republican is that money is not the answer, even when, as it comes to education, this is disproved over and over again.

The Trump budget, scarier than any Stephen King novel, came out this week, and there's something for every right-thinking person to hate. I'll just focus on education. The simple numbers are: 9.2 billion dollars, or a 13.5 percent cut. Just on its face that's bad enough, when the U.S. has fallen behind in the brain race with other countries.

But here are a few particulars: stopping the subsidization of student loans, which makes college more expensive. This is fine for kids who have parents who can write checks to Princeton, but for those who can't, you will spend the rest of your life in crippling debt. The Democrats have it right--make tuition free for community and state schools, which will enable poor students to get a leg up. So many Republicans whine about people not pulling themselves up by their boot straps--what if they can't afford boot straps?

Cuts to Medicaid would impact special needs students. These kids always get the short end of the stick, whether it's the short bus or getting shoved in the worst classrooms. Lest we forget, there is a law (the IDEA, passed in 1990) that ensures every child with a free, public education that best fits their needs.

Proposed is a 2.3 billion dollar cut in a teacher training program that would help reduce class size. Believe me, the smaller the class, the better the education. You can't reach everyone in a class full of fifty kids. And lack of teacher training means poorer teachers. If you don't pay teachers well, no matter how devoted they are they will eventually suffer from burnout and feeling unappreciated, and will have to move on to other careers to feed their families.

Title I, a program that aids high-poverty schools, would remain flat. I teach at at a Title 1 school, and believe me, we need the money. My kids are lucky if they have a pencil, and I end up buying school supplies out of my own pocket. My old principal, who knows a thing or two about high-poverty education, was blunt: throwing money at schools is the solution, not the problem. Of course it has to be spent right, but leave that to people who know what they're doing, not politicians.

Of course, the Republican answer is school choice. Let students from struggling school districts get vouchers to attend private schools (even religious ones). All this does is remove money from public schools, and will lead to the ultimate destruction of public education in the inner cities. Instead, why not give that money to public schools, so they can better themselves?

The villain in all this is Betsy DeVos. It's a crap shoot on who Trump's worse cabinet appointment was--it's hard to top Ben Carson or Jeff Sessions--but DeVos was the one who made me, an educator, the angriest. She has never attended a public school, nor have her children. She got the job by taking Amway money (those annoying people who badger you to join their pyramid scheme) and donating it to Trump. She believes that public education is a "dead end," and that charter schools are the way to go.

I have nothing against charter schools. Las Vegas is full of them, and many of them are tuition-free. Parents of students who have discipline problems would be well to send their children to them, because the atmosphere is much tougher and the education more rigorous (I remember the fear of being sent to military school). But charter schools should be an alternative, not a replacement. For one thing, they have no higher a success rate than public schools. Second, if they don't accept federal money, they do not have to obey anti-discrimination laws. But DeVos wants to change that.

In recent questioning by Congresswoman Katherine Clark, one of my new heroes, DeVos indicated that states had control over who could go to the schools and who couldn't. Clark zeroed in and asked point-blank: could schools deny rights to LGBT students. DeVos, indirectly, indicated that they could. Clark, appalled, asked if a school could receive federal money and discriminate against blacks. DeVos, amazingly, gave the same answer, and it didn't seem to bother her a bit. I wish Clark would have gone a step further and asked if a school could keep out white children.

Caring about education involves caring about the greater good. I used to hear old people whine about school taxes when they didn't have kids in the system anymore--implying, "Fuck it, my kids are out, I've paid my dues." This is the Republican way of thinking--"If it doesn't affect me, I don't give a shit." Unfortunately, this short-sightedness leads to a withering of society. Our civilization depends on our people being well-educated. We don't all need to be geniuses, but it certainly helps when everyone has basic literacy levels, which we don't. My students, who are sixth-graders, come in on average with a third-grade reading level. They are already behind the eight ball, and Trump and DeVos are just going to sink them into the pocket.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Teacher

Being a teacher now I pay special attention to movies about teachers. It used to be that teachers were depicted in TV and movies as heroes (Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love, the TV series Lucas Tanner, Room 222, and The White Shadow) but for the last generation they've been depicted as losers and bunglers, or worse, sexual predators. In Hannah Fidell's A Teacher, it's the latter.

Of course, this is a woman teacher. Somehow we tend to give them more of a pass. A film about a male teacher having sex with a female student is automatically about a monster, as it should be. But female teachers and schoolboys are presented as more complicated, perhaps because most males would have loved to have had sex with their hot teacher.

In this film, Lindsay Burdge is the teacher. She's about thirty, single, and besotted with a senior boy (Will Brittain). We don't know how they got together--it would have been interesting to know who made the first move. They meet discreetly, because she's got a roommate and he has parents, so they fuck in her car, go to his brother's house when he's away, and then to his father's ranch. She can't get enough of him, even though she is fully aware of the career consequences should she be caught.

In many ways Brittain acts like the mature one, and I'm wondering if this isn't a bit sexist. Fidell wrote and directed the movie, but Burdge plays a character who is torn between not getting caught but also being unable to leave him alone. We wait the whole film (a slim 75 minutes) for the other shoe to drop, and it does, through her actions. We've gone on from feeling sorry about her and realize that she's a nut, while Brittain is never portrayed as anything but a hunk who makes eggs for her his older conquest after sex.

This is an extremely low-budget film, but much of it is shot in the dark. This was either for verisimilitude or to save on the electric bill. Nevertheless, I'd like to see people's faces in big scenes, not just hear them fumbling in the pitch black.

Fidell has made other films, and I'd be interested to see what their about. On an interesting side note, she is the daughter  of Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times and one of my favorite writers.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


I knew nothing about Patience before I bought it except that it was by Daniel Clowes, the creator of Ghost World, and it was named one of the best graphic novels of the year by Amazon. Turns out it's wild and fantastic, and while it travels well trod trails (time travel) it manages to be fresh and exciting.

Patience is the wife of Jack Barlow, a kind of loser who is reduced to handing out strip club leaflets on the street. She is pregnant, and he doesn't know how he's going to raise his family. He comes home to find her murdered. At first he's a suspect, but is let go when other DNA is found.

We then flash forward to the year 2029. Jack is old and bitter (and in 2029, there will be bright-blue women, something we can look forward to). A prostitute tells him about a guy who has invented a time travel formula. Jack must have it, as he wants to go back in time and save his baby.

That's the start, and there is all sorts of time travel paradoxes explored, some of which come close to Back to the Future and any number of sci-fi shows. But it's all driven by the desperation of Jack. He ends up four years before he met Patience, wondering if her psychotic ex-boyfriend is the killer. He watches as a "nice guy" goes out with her but lures into the woods, where his friends videotape him trying to get a blowjob. Jack, against his better judgment, beats them up. When he accidentally ends up in the year 1985, like the Terminator he decides he's going to kill the old boyfriend while he's a toddler.

The story is brisk and compelling. The artwork is not that great, at least not for this subject. Clowes is good at drawing the quotidian (after all, he wrote a book called David Boring). There are many splash pages of Jack having out of body experiences that don't do much and I kind of skipped over them.

What's great here is the story. I love a good time travel story, especially if all the loops are connected. When one goes back in time and interacts with someone, then that has always happened, right? This is sort of the rules of time travel, at least in works by Stephen King and the Star Trek canon.

I'd love to see this as a movie, too. I've already started casting in my head. Maybe Elisabeth Moss as Patience?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Two for the Road

Two for the Road is a 1967 film, directed by Stanley Donen, starring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as a long-married couple who are constantly at each other's throats. On a trip to the south of France we flashback to many other trips they made through the course of their relationship.

The film, written by Frederic Raphael, who also wrote Darling, was notable for its nonlinear structure, which was (and is still) pretty rare outside of art houses. The film goes from the present to when Finney and Hepburn first met--she was part of a choir group on holiday in France, he a young architecture student, and chicken pox threw them together on a hitchhiking trip that ended in a proposal of marriage.

We also seem them with a very stubborn MG, which ends up in flames, and another trip with his old American girlfriend, her fussy husband, and their impossible child. There's also a trip in which Hepburn has a dalliance with a French playboy.

Much of Two for the Road is darkly comic. We get some great cuts, such as when Finney tells Hepburn she's lucky she will never meet his old girlfriend--cut to them all in a station wagon together. Or when Finney, passed by a car, resolves to never pass a hitchhiker--cut to, well you know.

But the problem with the film is that this wears thin. I started losing interest in the couple halfway through, because I realized that the end would be them staying together (a more honest ending would have had them breaking up, because they were so unsuitable for each other). Finney, in particular, plays an unpleasant character (he creates a stink about room service being late and gets them kicked out of a hotel).

The best sequences are with the Americans, played by Eleanor Bron and William Daniels, playing his specialty--the uptight guy who calculates expenses. They have a spoiled rotten daughter, due perhaps to them observing the rules of Dr. Spock. Bron tells Hepburn that she needs to woo the child, while Daniels tells her that she resents their daughter because she wants one of her own. It's a nice send-up of the new way parents were raising their children, when a good spanking would have done the trick.

I don't know that Hepburn ever gave a bad performance, and she's lovely here, but deserving of a better guy than Finney or the French guy.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ty Segall

Although I had never heard of him before, the name Ty Segall popped up in a couple of different places that I frequent, so I took a chance on his self-titled album (the second in his career--why can't he come up with a title?). It's very good, but if you had told me it was recorded in 1968, I would have believed you.

Segall, who vocally sounds a great deal like Marc Bolan of T-Rex, has a thing for 60s music, veering into psychedelia and flower power (you can't get much psychedelic than a song called "Orange Color Queen"). The songs are poppy and fresh, and may make you think of fur vests and platform boots, but they're also well produced and pleasing to the ear.

Segall even packages the CD likes it a vinyl record, with the lyrics on the back and "sides" (presumably this is exactly how the vinyl edition is package). He has nine songs, including one massive ten-minute epic in the middle, with the inscrutable title "Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)."

The songs vary from the harder rock sound of "The Only One" to the trippy "Thank You Mr. K" to the Donovan-flavored folk-rock of "Take Care (To Comb  Your Hair)." This song, which is very catchy, also has a lyric that sounds as if it were written under the influence:

"Take care to brush your long hair
When you can't brush it any longer
It may just disappear."

The track, "Papers," may be the first song I've ever heard about office supplies:

"But my papers they depend on tape
I stuck them to the wall
Yes the paper depend on tape
So they do not fall"

The makers of Scotch tape may just have a jingle.

I enjoyed this record for no other reason that it's nice to hear someone still making this kind of throwback sound. I may just check out other releases by Ty Segall.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Alien: Covenant

In the first moments of Alien: Covenant, I had a sinking feeling. I saw Prometheus, as I've seen all of the Alien films, but I couldn't remember anything about it except that the fuel was plotted by scientists acting stupidly. But then the characters of Covenant started filling me in. Fear not if you haven't seen Prometheus, they will explain it all to you.

Once I got that out of the way, I hunkered down for a very scary thrill ride, even if it requires the use of the "idiot plot" and very old and moldy horror-film cliches (any character than has to go off on their own but "will be right back" is goner). Again, we have trained people, on an uncharted planet, seeing something they don't recognize, and tapping it just to see what happens. We also have characters trusting androids who are acting suspiciously like Bond villains.

But aside from all that, Alien: Covenant is gruesome fun. Ridley Scott is the director (as we was for the original Alien, now 38 years old, and Prometheus) and it forms a bridge between those two films (although if the box office is good enough, maybe they can wedge another film in there). A crew of fifteen is on a colonization mission, carrying 2,000 people to an Earth-like planet. They are in suspended animation (we see a lot of films like this, including the recent Passengers, and I have to wonder, why doesn't their hair grow while they are asleep?) but are awoken early due to a stellar flare. The captain, James Franco, is incinerated in his pod, so Billy Crudup takes command.

On a spacewalk, another crew member (Danny McBride) gets a rogue signal of someone singing a John Denver song. They track the origin to another planet that meets qualification for habitation. Crudup decides that instead of traveling another seven years to their original destination, they will go there and check it out. Katherine Waterston, second in command, thinks is a bad idea. Lesson: listen to Katherine Waterston.

This planet turns out to be the Prometheus planet. If you remember that film, only the android David (Michael Fassbender) "survived." He's still there, having reattached his head. I'll leave what he's up to for your surprise. The Covenant crew also has an android who is also played by Michael Fassbender, Walter (apparently Wayland Industries, the corporation behind all of this, liked Fassbender's face so much they made many more). This involves neat scenes where Fassbender acts with himself.

Anyhoo, suffice it to say that the planet is thick with the H. R. Giger-created aliens, which I see are referred to as xenomorphs, and they wreak havoc, as one by one the crew are killed off in horrible ways. These films have become a kind of And Then There Were None game, guessing who will live and who will die, That's fun, in a dumb kind of way. In addition to the idiot plot, there is a twist at the end that I saw way ahead of time, and I'm sure anyone who has ever seen a movie can figure out (but of course, the crew can't). It helps if you know your romantic poets.

So there is some eye-rolling involved with Alien: Covenant but also some really good scares and a nice sense of dread that permeates the film. A smarter script would have made this one of the best of the series.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Bone Tomahawk

The movie business is such a mystery. I was looking for a movie to watch last night to fit my mood--I wanted a comedy or a horror movie (some mood!). I ended up watching what could be called a horror-western that I had wanted to see for a while, Bone Tomahawk. It was terrific, and had all the elements of not only a commercial hit (lots of suspense, humorous dialogue, and gruesome violence) but was also well-made, with Oscar-worthy performances. But it hardly got a release, and ended up making under 300 grand. None of the major studios picked it up. Dummies.

Anyway, this 2015 film, written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, is a Western in the strictest sense, and it has no supernatural elements, but it plays like a horror movie. A common thief (David Arquette) disturbs the burial ground of an isolated band of Indians who also happen to be cannibals, and are called troglodytes because they live caves. In retribution, they come to town where Arquette has been jailed by the sheriff (Kurt Russell). They abduct Arquette, the deputy on duty, and a woman (Lili Simmons) who was tending to his bullet wound (Russell shot him in the leg).

So a posse of four--Russell, his "backup deputy" (Richard Jenkins), Simmon's husband, who has a broken leg but will not be deterred (Patrick Wilson) and a man who dresses like a dandy but is also an accomplished Indian-killer (Matthew Fox) set out to rescue them. Along the way of course they will encounter obstacles, and by the time they get there they find their adversaries like something out of a nightmare, who make eerie shrieks like banshees.

For much of this movie I was figuratively on the edge of my seat. The characters are great, especially Jenkins' addled old man, who has two great scenes, one about how does one read a book in a bathtub without getting the book wet, and another about the veracity of flea circuses. He has the film's best line when Fox kills two Mexicans who come on their camp: "Brooder just educated two Mexicans on the meaning of manifest destiny." Fox's character is also great, a man who wears a white suit, but is a steely-eyed killer. He says in a meeting of concerned citizens after the kidnapping, "I've killed more Indians than anyone here." An Indian man says, "That's an ugly boast." Fox replies, "It's not a boast, just a fact." I haven't seen Fox since he left the island.

The film is extremely violent, as a movie about cannibals might be expected to be, even when Zahler cuts away right before the horrible part (in a couple of scenes he does not). This gives it the horror flavoring, as the weapon of the title will be used effectively a couple of times.

Siskel and Ebert used to do shows on what they called "Buried Treasures," movies that are really good but didn't get a proper release. Bone Tomahawk is the epitome of a buried treasure.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Impeachment Fever

Here in the U.S. we've got impeachment fever. Since Nixon, it comes about once a generation. Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, Clinton was impeached (but acquitted), and now Donald Trump, to the surprise of no one with half a brain, is on the road to impeachment.

Why do I know this? After all, most Democrats were thinking Trump wouldn't make it through his first term the night he was elected. His whole life has been based on sleaziness, such as intimidating people through lawsuits, not paying people who have done work for him (always get paid upfront with him) and settling lawsuits before the shit can hit the fan. One of his first jobs was intimidating black people not to buy in his father's real estate holdings. According to an article I just read, he was inspired by Nixon man Roger Stone, who taught him you can get away with anything.

So it was only a matter of time, but that we're talking about this not even half a year into his presidency is making short work. It is serious now, because I saw a clip of David Gergen, who is one of the smartest pundits on TV, say it was. Gergen, who I didn't even know was still on TV, is one of the few people who have worked in the administrations of presidents of both parties, showing he cares more the country than party.

Anyhoo, Trump has certainly committed two impeachable offenses of obstruction of justice. One, he fired FBI director James Comey, who was leading an investigation of Trump's associates of ties to Russia. Then, it was revealed, he asked Comey to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, who was working as a foreign agent (for Turkey) when he was named National Security Advisor, a whopping conflict of interest.

So now we just wait and see how long this will take. Over the cries of "witch hunt!" Robert Mueller, former director of the FBI, has been made special prosecutor over this mess. There is the possibility that a smoking gun will be found that shows Russia, with Trump's knowledge, influenced the U.S. election. I don't know if it will go that far, but Nixon was ousted on far less serious a crime.

Probably this will drag on, at least until midterm elections, so the Republicans can lose congress and possibly the Senate. That will certainly grease the rails of Trump's removal. For now, we can't be sure if Republicans, who control both houses, would A: bring articles of impeachment, and B: convict. But if they see their seats on the line, they might.

Or there might be intense pressure on Trump to resign. I'm not sure if he would or not. He probably would if he could spin it so he was doing it on his terms--"I can't lead this nation with this kind of hostility" or maybe his ego wouldn't allow such a thing. Then again, he could resign and Mike Pence, who would become president, would pardon him.

That would mean a President Pence, who is a nightmare of a different sort. He would probably be the most insanely religious president we've ever had. one who puts his "faith" ahead of the Constitution. His presidency would see horrible things attempted against the LGBT community, and lots of problems for abortion providers. But he was a governor, so presumably he could at least be somewhat competent and perhaps keep the country from war.

And I don't know if any pundit has speculated on this, but I will, because it's fun: who would Pence choose as vice-president? He can choose anyone, who then has to be confirmed by the House. If the Republicans control the House, he could go the bat-shit crazy route and picked someone like Ted Cruz or Michele Bachmann. He could go with Marco Rubio, or Paul Ryan. All of these are terrible. There might be a lot of pressure to pick a woman, so in addition to Bachmann there's always Sarah Palin (but I doubt it) or some tea party Congresswoman. The most reasonable choice would be Maine senator Susan Collins, who is the only person who passes for a moderate Republican anymore. She could be the choice if the Democrats control the house. It would be great if they did and forced him to pick a Democrat. If Lincoln could do it with Andrew Johnson, so can Pence.

But that's way down the road. Mueller, who by all accounts is a capable and bipartisan man, will do his job and we'll see what happens. Trump's numbers will continue to decline, and there will be more insane tweets and general hysteria in the White House. As long as he doesn't start bombing North Korea, this will be a circus. Grab the popcorn.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Right Now, Wrong Then

I haven't done well with the Hong Sang-Soo (see reviews of Woman on the Beach and Night and Day). But the third time's the charm with Right Now, Wrong Then, an intriguing film that is open for viewer interpretation.

A famous director, (Jung Jae-young) is in a small city in South Korea to screen his latest film and give a talk. He's a day early, so he wanders around town and visits a local tourist attraction, some kind of palace. He sees an attractive girl (Kim Minhee) and starts up a conversation. She has heard of him, but has not seen his films (the lot of an art-film director). They go for coffee, and she relates that she used to be a model but is now a painter.

They spend the day together. He visits her studio, they go out for sushi and he gets drunk. He tags along to a small gathering of her friends. You think they might hook up until she finds out he has a reputation as a womanizer, and is in fact still married. She tells him to leave her alone.

The next day he is cranky at the screening and rants about how words have no meaning.

This is the end of the first half of the film.

The film then starts over. Same characters, same circumstance. It's like Groundhog Day in a way. The dialogue is the same at first, but the characters are shot from a different angle. Then the dialogue starts to change. She doesn't tell him she's a model. He asks about her parents. At her studio, he criticizes her work and she gets angry, but still goes out for sushi with him. He tells her he loves her, but that he is married. They go to the party but he is so drunk that he takes his clothes off. She finds this funny.

I read about the film a bit beforehand so I knew it was two movies in one, but I can see how someone could be very confused if they were in the dark. But I think this structure is genius. To me, it shows how the choice of words can change everything. If you spent a day with someone there is no way you could reconstruct your dialogue, unless you had an eidetic memory. If you had a second chance, you'd say something different--maybe better, maybe worse, and the outcome might be different. In the second half of the film, Minhee tells the director how honest he is, an it is honesty about being married that keeps them together longer than the first film.

There have been a couple of short films about this premise, played for laughs, and then an entire feature film, About Time, in which time travel is used to try to say the right thing. But Right Now, Wrong Then doesn't allow that luxury, it simply replays the day. I suppose Hong could have made an infinite number of scenarios, each having a different outcome. As a character says in Richard Linklater's Slacker, there is an infinite number of universes for every decision that you make. If you go right, that's one universe, if you go left that's another one. In Hong's story, this is two universes.

The performances are really great, too. Jae-young is particularly good, as he is kind of a stuck-up asshole but plays up the modesty. It's clear that he wants to fuck the girl, and you keep waiting for his move, but he blows it (at least in the first half). Minhee is a young woman who is adrift, complains she has no friends, and enjoys being fawned over for her beauty. Two very interesting characters.

I highly recommend Right Now, Wrong Then. You may have to see it twice to really get the full effect.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Red Turtle

The Red Turtle, one of the nominees for Best Animated Feature at last year's Oscars, has no dialogue. Well, the word "hey" is used several times, but that's it. It is nonetheless a beautiful mediation on love and nature.

I was hooked by the opening shots of a sea in turmoil, the waves sloshing, the rain pouring down. A single man is bobbing in the waves. He will eventually come ashore on a deserted island. He finds some food, but builds a raft to attempt to leave. The first two times he tries this, an unseen force smashes his raft. The third time he sees that it is a giant red turtle, about as big as he is. The turtle looks him in the eye, and swims off.

Later, the man finds the turtle on shore. He clubs it and flips it over on its back. Victorious, he starts to build another raft, but feels guilty, and realizes the turtle is dead. But then it's carapace cracks, and well, I don't want to spoil it, because I had no idea what was coming.

The film was directed and written by Michael Dudok de Wit, and though it seems like it's based on some ancient folk tale, apparently it is original. What is engaging about this film is the absolute beauty of the animation. Some scenes are so striking, such as a moonlit beach, or the interior of the jungle. It's not necessarily realistic, but it feels authentic. When I was giving art a try I always thought rain was impossible to paint or draw, but Dudok de Wit captures it perfectly. There is also a big scene involving a tsunami that's a whiz-bang moment.

At 120 minutes, The Red Turtle is a nice length, though it does sag a bit in the middle. But for anyone who values animation, this is a must see.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Jungle Book (2016)

The 2016 version of The Jungle Book, one of Disney's recent live-action remakes of their animated films, won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects. But I wonder if it isn't just an animated film with one kid actor? Making The Jungle Book into a live-action film was going to require a lot of effects, because it features talking animals, wild animals. But this film takes it one further by making everything, including the jungle, CGI.

It's the familiar tale by Rudyard Kipling, of a boy literally raised by wolves, watched over by a stern panther, and hunted by mean tiger. Along the way he makes a friend, the bear Baloo, who steals the show. The conflict of the story, along with the tiger, is whether the boy, Mowgli, belongs with humans, whom he does not know, or whether he should stay in the wild.

At first I found the film disorienting, as the effects, though state of the art, are still not realistic. It was kind of jarring to see a very real boy (Neel Sethi) playing to animated figures. It's been done before, and as long ago as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, when Bob Hoskins go to Toontown, it's been done better (of course, that did not require the kind of detail that this film does).

But then the story took over. Jon Favreau directs, and he manages to make the film a story of the harshness of the wild, as well as just sentimental enough. The film really doesn't pick up until about halfway through, when Baloo, voiced by an inspirational choice, Bill Murray, appears. Baloo is a sloth bear (I'd never heard of them before) which are native to India, and is a kind of con man, tricking Mowgli to get him honey (he's Winnie the Pooh more than Gentle Ben). One of the two songs that carry over from the film, "Bare Necessities," (the original "Hakuna Matata") is sung, and Murray gives the bear some delightfu line readings, such as when he goes to rescue Mowgli and says, "Do I have the right monkey temple?"

That's when Mowgli is held captive by King Louie. In the animated film he's an orangutan, but since there are none of those in India, they change him to an extinct giant ape, the gigantopithecus. Louie's big number is "I Wan'na Be Like You," but Christopher Walken singing it, with rhymes to gigantopithecus, is nothing like Louis Prima's in the old film.

Other big stars in the voice cast are Idris Elba, very menacing as Shere Khan, the pissed-off tiger, Ben Kingsley as Bagheera the panther, and Scarlett Johansson, who replaces Sterling Holloway as Kaa, the python (she later sings "Trust in Me" over the closing credits). But Murray, like Phil Harris did in 1967, steals the show.

I found the film mostly enjoyable, although I'm sorry that the tiger, one of my favorite animals, is the villain, while wolves and panthers are made heroic. Somewhere a tiger is shedding a tear.

Monday, May 15, 2017


My next article on this year's entry to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is Yes, who were something of a cause celebre when it came to Hall of Fame rejects. They waited for years to be inducted, and signified a lack of respect that organization had for prog-rock. Finally they made it this year, and really, what was the wait about? They have longevity--in some form or another they've been recording and touring for close to fifty years--and they were very popular, with several classic radio staples and have sold millions of records. What else did they need?

Probably what was needed was a different set of voters. Yes, like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, and Genesis, were almost made irrelevant by punk, which hated this sort of Lord of the Rings-type stuff. Yes, through all their incarnations, have been noted for extremely long tracks, some that take up an entire album side (a college DJ once told me that if he wanted to go run an errand, or have sex in the studio, he simply slapped on a side of Tales From Topographic Oceans, which only had one song per album side) and with lyrics about grandiose ideas and mythical places. But if you're into that sort of thing, they were the best at it.

Yes has gone through many band members, but the core that produced most of the best known stuff was vocalist Jon Anderson, guitarist Steve Howe, drummer Bill Bruford, bassist Chris Squire, and keyboardist Rick Wakeman. Allen White replaced Bruford early on, and Geoff Downes has been playing keyboards a lot longer than Wakeman did, but those five were on the most iconic albums.

I kind of resisted Yes during my teen years, and I think it has to do with Anderson. I just do not like male vocalists who sing as if their testicles are in a vise (the same goes with Robert Plant, perhaps the key reason why I never became a huge Led Zeppelin fan). They were very artsy-fartsy, which I like, but compared to Genesis and ELP and Pink Floyd they just didn't do it for me. But I have to admit that they had some great songs. The most ubiquitous is "Roundabout," which in album form is eight minutes long (there was a customary three-minute single) and can be heard probably once an hour on classic radio. My particular favorite is the more conventional "Owner of a Lonely Heart," which attempts to answer the age-old question: is it better to have loved and lost then to have never loved at all? Yes says, "Owner of a lonely heart, much better than the owner of a broken heart."

The true Yes fan luxuriates in the ten-minute tracks that are listed as having parts, like "Close to the Edge" or "And You and I," which is very lovely and makes best use of Anderson's voice. The musicianship is also top-notch, as heard on songs like "Tempis Fugit." But they even recorded an a capella song (albeit I think Anderson is the only voice, overdubbed like crazy) with "Leave It."

So Yes, you're time of waiting is over. You're in the pantheon. Now if they could just elect the Moody Blues.

Sunday, May 14, 2017


Regression, a 2015 psychological thriller written and directed by Alejandro Amenabar, compels to write about endings. I enjoyed this picture for what it was, a fairly taut thriller that kept you guessing. Although it has two to many dream sequences, it has a good performance by Ethan Hawke as a detective obsessed by a case.

I read, though, that this film got lousy reviews and mostly it had to do with the ending, which I will not spoil. What I learned about endings, from Robert McKee's Story, is that they should be unpredictable but inevitable, that is, you shouldn't be able to figure it out but when it happens it all makes perfect sense. I think that follows in Regression. It may be the beginning that sets it up for failure.

The story is set during a wave of hysteria around Satanic Ritual Abuse, or Satanists holding "black masses" and killing babies or some such. This immediately rang a warning bell, as I know the FBI has never substantiated even one case of it (Fox Mulder, on The X-Files, pointed that out, but of course he did come across the devil). A teen-aged girl (Emma Watson) has fled her home, accusing her father of sexual abuse. Hawke, on the case, enlists the aid of a psychologist (David Thewlis), to hypnotize the father for repressed memories. This opens a can of worms where a whole bunch of people are accused of Satanism, and Hawke starts to lose his mind.

I was involved with the film, enjoying it's dark overtones, and menacing scenes of black-robed Satanists. I knew something had to be up, but I just didn't know what. When the ending is revealed, it was a rather simple explanation, but the only one possible without carrying the film into complete ridiculousness.

For Amenabar, who also made Open Your Eyes and The Others, this is a step down, more like a TV movie. But I was never bored and there are some genuine scares.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time

I read The Minotaur Takes His Own Sweet Time, by Steven Sherrill, because I'm kind of fascinated with minotaurs. I'm a double bull--Taurus and born in the Chinese Year of the Ox--so I suppose that my spirit animal is a bull. I think I'd look good with horns.

So this novel supposes that The Minotaur--it's not clear if it's the Minotaur from the Labyrinth, which would be unlikely because he was killed by Theseus--is in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, working as a civil war re-enactor (one weekend he's Confederate, another Union, and usually dies early). He has no name except The Minotaur, although friends call him Mr. M. He does not say much, usually just "Mmmnnn" or "Unnngh." He, of course, has the head of bull and the body of a man, and lives in a motel room on Business 220 in exchange for work.

The gimmick, if one can call it that, is that no one really notices that he's a minotaur. Well, some do, and shrink away from him, but if we really saw a minotaur in the supermarket I think our reaction would be to call the local news. He goes about his day simply, relishing the butterscotch pie of a woman who works at the Old Scald Village (one of those historical villages where people act out parts) of The Widow Fisk. When he gets his horns caught in the broom-makers skirt, he is misunderstood and banished.

Then he meets a free-spirited woman, Holly, and her mentally challenged son, Tookus, when they're van breaks down across the street from the motel. That's where an obnoxious man, Danny, runs a wood-carving business: "In his heyday, in his glory days, the Minotaur would have trampled, then eaten such a human as Danny Tanneyhill. These are not those days."

He is touched by Holly, perhaps in love, and there is a sort of competition between Danny and he for her attention. They visit a closed-down farm maze, and The Minotaur only realizes that he will do anything for her.

The book is aptly titled, as The Minotaur and Sherrill are in no hurry to get anywhere. Here is the first paragraph: "The Minotaur lingers, there at the end of this day’s death. The Minotaur dawdles. The Minotaur takes his own sweet time. He finds himself in a moment of stasis, of relative calm. But moment itself is a relative word. The Minotaur’s time is endless, and as such potentially meaningless, empty at its ticking core." The story also takes its own sweet time, as there seems to be no rush to get to a point, if there is one. We don't know much about The Minotaur, only that he is ancient and has lived many places: "The Minotaur is nomadic by default. An intuitive vagabond. He may have been drawn, he may have been compelled, or he may have simply stepped over the chain and wandered up the dirt path for no good reason at all."

It's not a bad book by any means, but requires some patience. If one chooses to, one could see The Minotaur as a metaphor, but I'm not sure for what. Those that have no fixed place in the universe? Those who are shunned as monsters when they are in fact rather sweet, or even boring? There's a touching and erotic scene when The Minotaur pulls a splinter from Holly's butt cheek, and though they never consummate their feelings there is passion between them. Can even a man with the head of a bull find love?

Sherrill, some years ago, wrote a book called The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break, which was the first sighting of The Minotaur. The excerpt on Sherrill's Web site suggests it is of a similar style. I may check it out, because I can't resist minotaurs. If you can't either, pick one of them up and stick with it.

Friday, May 12, 2017

The Association of Small Bombs

"A good bombing begins everywhere at once." So writes Karan Mahajan in his novel The Association of Small Bombs, which details the effects of a terrorist bombing in Delhi. The story is told from several angles, including both the victims and the perpetrators.

In a marketplace, a car bomb is set off. Two boys, brothers, are killed. Their friend, a Muslim, is badly wounded and runs off in a daze. The first part of the book deals with the parents of the dead children--their shock and grief. The prose is well done but I couldn't help but feel we've been down this road before. There has been so much said and written about terrorism that nothing seemed new here.

The book then shifts to the bomber, a Kashmir named Shockie, who operates out of Kathmandu in Nepal. He's a pro at what he does, and while there isn't much characterization, it's kind of fascinating to see how he works and thinks.

The longest section of the book follows Mansoor, the Muslim boy. He goes off to America to learn computer programming, but the wounds in his arms, plus Carpal-Tunnel Syndrome, prevent him from being able to type. He returns to India and feels that the persons arrested for his crime didn't do it, and gets involved in their defense. He also befriends someone who will end up becoming a terrorist.

The Association of Small Bombs in an interesting book, with some beautiful writing: "The best way to describe what he felt would be to say that first he was blind, then he could see everything. This
is what it felt like to be a bomb. You were coiled up, majestic with blackness, unaware that the universe outside you existed, and then a wire snapped and ripped open your eyelids all the way around and you had a vision of the world that was 360 degrees, and everything in your purview was doomed by seeing." But I found the novel lacked focus and was too disjointed, and ultimately didn't have anything to say. For a book about such a traumatic event, I didn't feel much about any of the characters.

I will say that Mahajan seems to be obsessed with bombs and bomb makers: "Bomb makers, like most people, are undone not by others but by themselves."

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Best American Essays 2016

This year's The Best American Essays was an eclectic and interesting collection. Again they feature personal reminisces over almost everything else, but once I've understood that's what they think essays are, I've accepted it. There's even an essay about salamanders ("Big Night" by Jill Sisson Quinn) that manages to tie into her life.

This year's book was guest edited by Jonathan Franzen, most notably known as the author of doorstop novels, but I found his selection pretty good. Of course, I have no idea what he passed over, but I was engaged by almost every essay. Many concerned disease or death, always pleasant topics. Consider the opening line of "Family Tradition," by Lisa Nikolidakis: "On my twenty-seventh birthday, in a two-bedroom bungalow in New Jersey, my father murdered his live-in girlfriend, her fifteen-year-old daughter, then shot himself. I never sensed the shots." Now that's a grabber.

There's also a fascinating essay about treatment for OCD by Jordan Kisner called "Thin Places," which starts with a description of a type of brain operation. The late Oliver Sacks, one of the greatest medical writers of all time, writes about migraines with "A General Feeling of Disorder," and Amitava Kumar lets Westerners know about Indian funeral rites in "Pyre," dealing with the death of his mother. For one thing, sons are expected to shave their heads. Justin Phillip Reed writes about the death of his uncle by lynching, and how it relates to death in movies, in "Killing Like They Do in Movies."

The prolific Joyce Carol Oates writes about her sister, who was institutionalized for severe autism, in "The Lost Sister," which is very moving. Oates hasn't seen her sister, eighteen younger than she, for more than forty years, and while that may sound harsh, it seems completely reasonable once the article is read.

In more buoyant topics, Charles Comey writes about that magic trip after the wedding in "Against Honeymoons," where we learn that the name Viagra resembles Niagara, a frequent honeymoon destination, on purpose. Irina Dumetrescu, in "My Father and the Wine," opens with "Now and then I click a link to find out what the hipsters are up to. The hipsters are raising chickens and
slaughtering them at home, I read; the hipsters are distilling hooch." Her father made wine.

Laura Kipnis writes a very controversial essay in "Sexual Paranoia," which takes on the statistics of college rape. Mostly she's writing that it's not so terrible when a student and a professor hook up/ "But somehow power seemed a lot less powerful back then. The gulf between students and faculty wasn't a shark-filled moat; a misstep wasn't fatal. We partied together,  drank and got high together, slept together." Sticking with sex, I very much enjoyed Katherine E. Standefer's "In Praise of Contempt," which reads at times like a Penthouse Forum letter: "Back in the wash, night settles. Owls. The flutish, descending song of canyon wrens. Stars brightening. The rock ledge, radiating heat. Bats flutter over the wash. Some bird makes a kind of vibrating sound, high-pitched, almost electronic. Then my phone buzzes. It is a picture of his erect cock."

My favorite essay belongs to Jaquira Diaz for "Ordinary Girls," a remembrance of her time as a juvenile delinquent: "All those people, they just didn’t get that there was no way in hell we could care about homework, or getting to school on time—or at all—when our parents were on drugs or getting stabbed, and we were getting arrested or jumped or worse." I would love to have my sixth-grade students read this, but the profanity in it would get me fired. As if my students don't deal with profanity every day.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

I had a great time at Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Sure, it's not as fresh and original as the first film, but the formula--wisecracking heroes, a soundtrack of '70s hits, and this time a baby tree--works like magic.

Second films sometimes work better because there is no origin story. The film opens with the Guardians, sort of heroes for hire, battling a large monster. This serves as the credits scene, and the battle is secondary to Baby Groot dancing to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky." Baby Groot (if you don't remember, Groot was killed in the first film but regrown in a pot) is for the kids in the audience. Adults will probably say they find him tiresome, but will probably be lying.

The Guardians go to get their pay from The Sovereigns, a people who have evolved into near perfection. Their queen (Elizabeth Debicki) looks like Charlize Theron after a bronzing. All looks good but Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) steals the batteries they were sent to rescue. The Sovereigns don't like this and send a fleet of ships after them.

The plot only gets more complicated after that, but suffice it to say that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his biological father, Kurt Russell, who takes human form but is really a planet called Ego. Russell takes him to his world, which is a paradise. But we've seen enough of these movies to know that paradises never are what they seem.

Also involved is Michael Rooker as Pratt's surrogate father, who is a Ravager, or a kind of scavenger/thief. He has been ousted by the greater group of Ravagers, led by Sylvester Stallone, of all people, for breaking the Ravager code. A post-credit sequence (one of five) indicates that Stallone will be back in a far greater role.

But the plot is secondary to the sheer fun of this film. While Baby Groot gets a lot "aws" and laughs (Rooker and Cooper try to get him to steal something, with hilariously futile attempts), I think Dave Bautista as Drax, the musclebound but slightly obtuse member, steals the show. He gets a lot of great lines. There is also the "unspoken" romance between Pratt and Zoe Saldana as Gamora. Pratt gets meta when he compares their relationship to Sam and Diane in Cheers. He might have used the relationship in Moonlighting, but remember that that show went straight downhill after Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis finally did it.

And of course there's the soundtrack. In addition to "Mr. Blue Sky," the moldy oldie "Brandy," a one-hit wonder by Looking Glass, plays an actual part of the plot (Russell calls it the greatest composition in the history of music). and I never thought I'd see an action scene set to Glen Campbell's "Southern Nights."

If this film isn't as good as the first one, I reply with a hearty, "So what?" It's still better than almost any of the DC films. I think there's one more movie in this franchise before it's done, maybe two.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

How to Make a Monster

How to Make a Monster is another in the Creature Features from Cinemax which took the titles of old American International Pictures and refashioned them into new films. Unlike Earth vs. Spider, this one doesn't work at all.

The setting is a software company. A team of programmers has been hired and given four weeks to make a video game scarier. They are led by fast-talking Steven Culp, and include a mountainous weapons nut (Tyler Mane), a stereotypical nerd (Jason Marsden), and a egomaniac (Karim Prince). They are given an opportunity at a million-dollar bonus, so compete with each other to make the scariest monster they can. Also on hand is a sweet intern (Clea Duvall).

A somewhat amusing scene has my old friend, scream queen Julie Strain, playing herself, wearing a motion-capture suit (with her tits hanging out, for some gratuitous nudity). Combining computer mumbo-jumbo and an electrical storm, the suit comes to life, playing the game for real. Bloodshed ensues.

Unlike Earth vs. Spider, there are no real characters here, just cartoons. The film was made in 2004, and so the technology is a little behind the times (only one character has a cell phone, and another has a Palm Pilot). A movie about a video game character come to life might be a good subject (it was tried on a much grander scale with Pixels, which I did not see) but this, written and directed by George Huang, condescends to the lowest common denominator.

One of the producers is makeup and special effects wizard Stan Winston, and he does a nice job with the monster, though.

Monday, May 08, 2017

I Am Not Your Negro

"The story of the Negro in America is the story of America, and it's not a pretty story." So said James Baldwin, author and social commentator. Baldwin was one of the great thinkers America has ever produced, but he was in a kind of war with his country, for he was heartbroken and discouraged by the lack of racial equality.

In Raoul Peck's documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, Samuel L. Jackson reads the words of Baldwin, mostly from the notes on an unfinished book about Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X. Baldwin died before it was finished, but he has a lot to say about all three men, all of whom he admired, even if King and Malcolm were initially at odds with each other.

Baldwin was born in Harlem, but left the U.S. to go France in 1948 to escape the constant discrimination. But when he saw the burgeoning civil rights movement taking shape under King and others, he returned and became an outspoken social critic, writing many books (perhaps most famously The Fire Next Time), giving lectures, and appearing on talks shows. There is footage of him appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, and some amazing footage, presumably from the early '60s, of a show featuring Baldwin, King, and Malcolm, and hosted by a black man.

Baldwin admits that he never hated white people--a schoolteacher he had who encouraged him was responsible for that, so he could never join the Black Panthers or the Nation of Islam. He concluded that white people behaved the way they did for reasons other than their skin color. He also concludes that black anger comes from rage--they would just like white people to get out of their way--while white anger stems from fear. White people, he says, brought black people from Africa and when they were done with them picking cotton they didn't know what to do with them.

Peck manages to make the film visually interesting, even though the whole thing is either footage of Baldwin or Jackson's voice-over. It makes me want to read Baldwin's works--sadly, I've read none of his books or plays.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Chuck Berry

Without Chuck Berry, who died last month, we wouldn't have rock and roll as it is today. It is said of D.W. Griffith that he created the grammar of movies. Berry invented the grammar of rock and roll.

He innovated so many things: he basically invented the guitar riff. When I played his greatest hits the first song, "Maybelline," has just that brief little lick, but as soon as you hear it, you're there in his world. He also established the basic rock combo as guitar, bass, piano, and drums. And, for a many already in his thirties, he set the lyric style of the genre: girls, cars, and the music itself.

Berry was born in St. Louis in 1926, did a little stint in jail, worked in an automobile factory, but then recorded "Maybelline" with Chess Records in 1955. Although there was certainly some "borrowing" going on, Berry wrote all of his own material ("Maybelline" is a version of another song, "Ida Red"). But that song really had everything Berry would be known for: the guitar riff, the heartbreak of teenage love: "Maybelline, why can't you be true?" and cars--the song erupts into a race between a Cadillac and a Ford.

Berry also was a bit meta--he wrote many songs about rock and roll itself. "Rock and Roll Music," and "Roll Over Beethoven" are two songs about why rock was great, and is there a greater line in early rock than "Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news." He wrote many songs about dances, such "Reelin' and a Rockin' ("Well I looked at my watch and to my surprise, I was dancing with a woman that was twice my size").

What may have been lost in Berry's legacy is his gift as a lyricist. Dylan called him rock's greatest lyricist, a pretty high honor. He didn't write what we think of as poetry, but the words were engaging, to the point, and had a kind of magic to them. Consider the words from perhaps his greatest song, "Johnny B. Goode":

"Deep down Louisiana close to New Orleans
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood
Where lived a country boy named Johnny B. Goode
Who never ever learned to read or write so well
But he could play the guitar just like a ringing a bell."

It was noted by many at his death that this song is on a disc attached to the Voyager space probe, and is on its way out of the solar system. Millions of year from now some other race may be enjoying it.

Berry's career slowed down after the British Invasion (even though all those bands were influenced by him) and a conviction of violating the Mann Act. But he did come back with a few songs that are well-known: "You Never Can Tell," which Quentin Tarantino revived in Pulp Fiction in the Travolta-Thurman dance scene, and, ironically, the one hit that Berry didn't write, "My Ding-a-Ling," a novelty double entendre song, was his only number one hit on the Billboard Chart (in 1972). He did have three number ones on the R&B chart: "Maybelline," "School Day," and "Sweet Little Sixteen."

That a rock star lived to be ninety is not a tragedy, but nevertheless his loss will be felt. Listening to his greatest hits all week was a great tonic. He was also a great showman, who patented the "duck walk" seen above, and continued to play live shows well into his eighties.

Mr. Berry: Hail, hail, rock and roll!

Friday, May 05, 2017


While Emma Watson is world famous for appearing in eight Harry Potter movies and now Beauty and the Beast, which is a mega-hit, her film career as an adult got off to a less than auspicious start. Her first two starring roles were in films that barely got released. One of them is Colonia, a political thriller that sees her trying to rescue a boyfriend from the evil clutches of a cult in Pinochet's Chile.

Watson stars as a flight attendant who is in Chile with her revolutionary German boyfriend (Daniel Bruhl) when the coup takes place. That ushered in some very scary times, as many were executed in the soccer stadium. Bruhl is taken to a rural church compound, the Colonia Dignidad (Colony of Dignity), which is run by a religious nut (Michael Nykvist) who believes in sadism and diddling little boys.

Bruhl is horribly tortured but is beaten so badly they think he has brain damage. He's only pretending, though, trying to find a way out. Watson joins the cult unbeknownst to him, finding it a horror, living under the thumb of a matron called Aunt Gisela (Richenda Cary). For the women, it's somewhat like The Handmaid's Tale, as they are forbidden almost everything.

The director is Florian Gallenberger, who won an Oscar for Best Short Film some years ago, and it's got some pretty good suspense, as the pair endeavor to escape not only the compound but the country, as the major nations of the world, including the U.S., supported Pinochet. It's a true story, but some of the events seem highly implausible. But for while you're watching it it does the job of giving you almost two hours of reasonable entertainment. It never got a release date in the U.S. and made only 2.5 million dollars, and it deserved better than that.

It's also the first time I've seen Watson in a role that suggests she has sex. After years of seeing her as Hermione Granger this requires some adjusting of attitude.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Stamped From the Beginning

The subtitle of Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped From the Beginning says it all: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It was a tough book to read, but must have been tougher to write, as Kendi had to wade through four hundred years of American racism. As he puts it in the foreword: "I somehow managed to write this book between the heartbreaks of Trayvon Martin and Rekia Boyd and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray and the Charleston 9 and Sandra Bland, heartbreaks that are a product of America’s history of racist ideas as much as this history book of racist ideas is a product of these heartbreaks."

This book will classify that the idea we are a post-racial society is a lie.  "The United States remains nowhere close to racial parity. African Americans own 2.7 percent of the nation’s wealth, and make up 40 percent of the incarcerated population. These are racial disparities, and racial disparities are older than the life of the United States."

Kendi structures his book (the title comes from a speech by Jefferson Davis, who said that inequality between blacks and whites was "stamped from the beginning") with five "guides": Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis. He takes us basically through American history, but through the prism of racism. The ignorance is staggering. There were arguments between those who believe in "polygenesis," that is, black people weren't human, and those who believed in "monogenesis," that blacks and whites were both human, but blacks were descendants of Ham, the son of Noah, who was cursed. Its hard to know who was more foolish.

Kendi's definition of racism is "any concept that regards one racial group as inferior or superior to another racial group in any way." He calls those who don't believe this antiracists, and they include people like Bill Cosby, who Kendi cites as an assimilationist who denies culture heritage, especially when he made a campaign of believing "he was showing African Americans what was possible if they worked hard enough and stopped their antiracist activism."

I found Kendi's discussion of pop culture most interesting, citing such racist films (in his view) as The Birth of a Nation (no-brainer there), Tarzan, Gone With the Wind, King Kong, and most interestingly to me, Planet of the Apes, which had never occurred to me, but his description of the fear of a black planet makes sense, if you associate with apes with blacks, as many white racists do. "While Tarzan put on America’s screens the racist confidence of conquering the dark world that prevailed in the first half of the twentieth century, Planet of the Apes held up in full color the racist panic during the second half of the twentieth century of the conquered dark world rising up to enslave the White conqueror."

Kendi is not strictly objective, lending support for the idea of Ebonics as a legitimate language, and favoring cultural diversity over assimilation. He finds the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a good thing, but notes "The Civil Rights Act of 1964 managed to bring on racial progress and progression of racism at the same time." He also has some bad things to say about Brown v. Board of Education: (Earl) "Warren essentially offered a racist opinion in this landmark case: separate Black educational facilities were inherently unequal and inferior because Black students were not being exposed to White students."

So you may find yourself angry while reading this book, both at Kendi and at the nincompoops throughout American history. But I suspect more often than not you'll be nodding in agreement. The book ends with Barack Obama president: "Barack Obama presented himself as the embodiment of racial reconciliation and American exceptionalism." I'd hate to think what he's going through now. Perhaps a sequel is in the works.

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Swimming to Cambodia

There are a lot of t-shirts for sale on Facebook that feature Charlie Brown, his head turned downward in sorrow, with the speech balloon reading, "I still miss" and some artist, ranging from David Bowie to Andy Williams. Well, I still miss Spalding Gray, and I realized this even more when I watched Swimming to Cambodia again.

I decided to take a look at it again because of the director, Jonathan Demme's passing, but like Stop Making Sense, Demme is not the story, it is the artist he shoots. In this case, it is Gray, performing a monologue at a little theater somewhere in Soho. He walks in in his uniform of flannel plaid shirt, sits at a desk with a glass of water and a spiral notebook (I believe it had Ronald McDonald on the cover) and starts.

Demme, in a fascinating supplemental interview, calls Swimming to Cambodia a perfect film, and he isn't bragging, as he says he just has a sliver of that; it's mostly Gray. I couldn't agree more. The brilliance on display here is staggering--it's hard to imagine anything more trenchant, funny, or revealing. Though this is a film of a man sitting at a desk, it feels like it as more action than any Transformers movie.

The story revolves around Gray's small part in the film The Killing Fields. He spends eight weeks in Thailand and tries to find his "perfect moment." Gray is a kind of like your weird uncle who has crazy adventures you might like to have but would probably chicken out of. His perfect moment turns out to be swimming so far out into the Indian Ocean that he fears he will drown. He smokes Thai stick on the beach and it's like "a demented Wallace Stevens poem with food poisoning." In great detail he describes the Bangkok sex trade, where one can go to a massage parlor and pick a girl from a lineup of them watching TV. He goes to a live sex show where a girl shoots a banana out of her vagina.

I've seen Gray live four times, but this was my introduction to him, way back in 1987. What I wonder at is his structure of the monologues--they are not in chronological order, but instead crafted like exquisite narratives. He takes a few tangents, such as when he talks with a Navy guy who had his finger on a button at a nuclear silo. They chat in the Amtrak bar car, which Gray calls "a rolling confessional." Here Demme steps in a bit, as the conversation is cut so that Gray speaks to his right, and the Navy guy to his left, and the cuts give the illusion that two men are speaking to each other.

Gray also gives us the background of the film, about how Cambodia was overtaken by a madman named Pol Pot, who led the greatest autogenocide (killing his own people) in human history. The U.S. government, of course, was mostly at fault, as they bombed the shit out of the country, deposed the prince, and installed a guy named Lon Nol. Gray points out, "Nobody knew anything about Lon Nol except that Lon Nol is Lon Nol spelled backwards."

He is approached to be in the film by director Roland Joffe, whom Gray describes as "Body of Zorro, heart of Jesus, eyes of Rasputin." He is excited to be in the film, and brings along his girlfriend Rene (Schafransky, who produced the film) but is tempted by the "devil in his ear," a second unit director named Ivan, who gives him the Thai stick and lures him out into the water. It is Athol Fugard, the great South African playwright, who steers him back to reality. "The sea is a great lady--you may play in her, but not with her."

There is a lot of laughter in this film, such as how Gray deals with a noisy neighbor (he acts out how his WASP kind dealt with things like this in 1964) and how he had trouble memorizing a bit of dialogue in the film that took 66 takes and had to be redubbed anyway.

If Demme had only made Stop Making Sense and this film he could have been called great, and while Gray had more monologues (Monster in a Box was also made into a film) I think this was his pinnacle. It is political, harrowing, funny, and moving. He was a one of a kind talent, and Demme captured him perfectly.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Circle

I haven't read Dave Eggers' book, The Circle, but I'm guessing it's a satire. If it's anything like the script of the film adaptation, by James Ponsoldt, it would have to be, or otherwise it should have never been published. The problem is, Ponsoldt's should have been satire. It is not.

The Circle is supposed to be some kind of warning about how social media is removing our privacy, and I must admit it worked a little bit--I wondered if I should just get off Facebook on the drive home, but I didn't. Certainly there are privacy issues today. Most everything is on camera, and our information is bought and sold like Pokemon cards. But this film is so simplistic it plays like Paranoia for Dummies.

Emma Watson plays a cubicle drone (the first indication this film is wrong is that she works taking phone calls at the water company but doesn't have a headset, she uses an actual phone) who through her friend gets an interview at The Circle, which is like Facebook, Google, etc. In her interview she's asked "Joan Baez or Joan Crawford" and snaps back, "Joan Didion." (This is what passes for intellectual banter, I guess). She gets the book and works in "Customer Experience." The campus is like a huge playground, with yoga classes and volleyball courts--it's a nice send-up of those big Silicon Valley companies (and reminds me of the job Homer Simpson gets that turns out to be with a James Bond villain).

This is all funny but then we are expected to think that there's a total buy-in at the company. Watson takes the weekend to go kayaking alone in San Francisco Bay and goes to party at her parents' house (her dad is Bill Paxton, his last role). She's gently admonished that she didn't attend any events at The Circle. She is encouraged to be part of a community, and doing things alone seems to be frowned upon. I've worked at companies like these, when everybody knows no one wants to have anything to do with work after quitting time except administration. It's an introvert's nightmare.

The CEO of The Circle is a Jobsian figure played by Tom Hanks, who thinks knowing everything is the ideal. He's Big Brother in blue jeans, and his second-in-command is Patton Oswalt, who wears a suit but has the same idea. They want to have all information stored in the same place--The Circle--and the employees clap like seals at the notion.

After Watson has a kayaking accident but is saved by the use of drones, she is recruited to have her life put on display, wearing a camera and putting cameras in her residence (she seems to live on campus). So she is basically a willing Truman Show volunteer, and the whole film falls apart. We are led to believe Watson's character is intelligent, but she suggests that voting be made mandatory and that people register and vote via The Circle, like a good little fascist. It's only a tragedy that wakes her up, and we really don't see the transformation.

The Circle would have been much better if it followed one of two directions--make it so over the top that it's satire, or make it much more morally slippery, and seduce the audience like Watson is seduced. Instead, her character is made completely stupid while Hanks and Oswalt are obvious villains. The movie is a bowl of mush.