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Monday, July 31, 2017

Mitch McConnell Gets the Sads

One of my favorite words is schadenfreude. It's German for, roughly, the pleasure one derives from watching other people suffer. Only the Germans could have come up with that word.

For progressives, there was plenty of schadenfreude to go around when the Senate defeated the amendment to pass a bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, 51-49. The deciding vote was cast by John McCain, standing right in front of the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell.

This was one of the most exciting Senate events in many years. It seems that every day there was a new vote, and McConnell could never get all 52 Republicans to go his way. A few would peel off for some reason or other. However, the vote to advance the bill to be voted on (sometimes the Senate rules sound bonkers) did get through, with VP Mike Pence breaking the tie.

This was when John McCain, just about eight days after having surgery that revealed brain cancer, came back to Washington to vote. He made a passionate speech about how the Senate should work together for the good of the country, but then voted to advance the bill anyway. He was pilloried by progressives--here was a man who was known for his courage, who had just come from a procedure paid for by fantastic health care benefits, and he voted to strip millions from their health care.

Perhaps this reached through to McCain. Did his staff enlighten him? (It's hard to believe McCain uses Twitter or Facebook). Sometimes a hue and cry can be so loud that it actually gets through, and the vote to deny McConnell and his cadre what they wanted can be directly linked to protest.

For whatever reason, McCain provided the third vote the Democrats needed. To be fair, the real heroes are Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who all along voted against the bill. President Trump sent an attack dog, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, to threaten to remove some of what Alaska gets if she didn't tow the line. She didn't. And isn't that extortion?

I tuned in after McCain's vote, but have watched the video several times--it is fascinating. McCain strides in, after the roll was already being called (you hear Gary Peters of Michigan voting no). McCain, like a regular at a restaurant getting service ahead of others, gets the attention of the clerk. Dramatically, he gives a thumbs down and says, "No." Gasps and applause erupt. For one second McCain looks at McConnell, who is standing with arms folded, staring at him. McCain moves on, and McConnell turns away, realizing his seven years of work had gone down the drain.

McConnell then spoke after the amendment was defeated. It was the saddest speech I've ever heard without actual tears being spilled. He bemoaned how this was a blow to the American people, even though the bill had only a 16 point approval rating. Somehow removing 16 million people from their insurance benefits was something that was going to make America great again.

McConnell, whose picture could be put by the word hypocrite in the dictionary, also bemoaned the stoppage of votes on nominations. That's rich, coming from a man who essentially stole a Supreme Court appointment.

Mitch McConnell, whose lack of a chin (normally I don't like to refer to someone's appearance) makes him look even more shifty than he is, has got to be one of the most hated men in America. He's done more to elude democracy than anyone before. Kentucky keeps sending him back, though, and he won't be up for re-election until 2022. By then he'll be 81. Hopefully he'll retire, facing being in the minority in the Tulsi Gabbard or Kamala Harris presidency.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


Forty years ago you couldn't go anywhere without hearing a song from Fleetwood Mac's album, Rumours, released in 1977. The second album to feature Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who vastly increased the band's popularity, it sold 40 million copies, placing it among the best-selling albums of all times (the math on this is fuzzy). The record produced four singles, all of which made the top ten.

The album also has one of the best behind the scenes stories of any rock record ever made. All of the band members were going through breakups, four of them with other members of the band. John and Christine McVie were divorcing, and Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were ending an eight-year relationship. Mick Fleetwood was also divorcing; later he would have an affair with Nicks.

So many of the songs are about each other. Most pointedly is "Go Your Own Way," Buckingham's blast at Nicks for leaving him. He sings, "Baby if I could I would give you my world, but you won't take it from me," which is putting a lot of pressure on Nicks. He also sings, "packing up, shacking up is all you want to do," which incensed her. But she sang background vocals the song, and they sing it in concert when they are together. If I were her, I would have left the stage when it came up, but she's a trooper, I guess.

"You Make Loving Fun," by Christine McVie, is an upbeat song about love, but it was not about her husband, but another man. Initially she told him it was about her dog, but he later learned the truth.

But beyond that, the album is a delightful selection of pop. One of the strengths of this later version of Fleetwood Mac was that they had three writers and lead singers, each offering a different style. Nicks, of course, with "Dreams" and "Gold Dust Woman," was cementing her legacy as the Welsh witch, twirling in chiffon and top hat. Buckingham writes songs with intricate guitar parts, such as his music-box like "Never Going Back Again," and "Second Hand News." Christine McVie tends to write slow ballads, on Rumours they are "Songbird" and "Oh Daddy," but she also wrote the peppy "Don't Stop," which has become ubiquitous over the years, and was revived in 1992 as Bill Clinton's campaign song.

Out of all these songs, I think my two favorites are "The Chain," which was written by all five members of the band, and "I Don't Want to Know," written by Nicks. "The Chain" has some excellent production and instrumentation, with some great guitar work by Buckingham and drumming by Fleetwood. "I Don't Want to Know" is just a song that makes me feel happy. I like the way Nicks includes the word "honey" in the lyrics, as if it were a girlfriend talking to a boyfriend. Rumours may have surrounded by disharmony, but that song is pure positivity.

Fleetwood Mac has never hit this artistic height since, though they've made some good records. Nicks and Buckingham have done great work as solo artists, and Christine McVie retired for about 15 years (but came back this year for an album and a tour with Buckingham). But it's an all-time classic, a melding of quality pop and critical and commercial success (it won the Grammy for Best Album). It belongs in every rock fan's collection.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Gunga Din

I have another centenary to celebrate. It was 100 years ago that Joan Fontaine was born. I have written about her in a couple of movies: Rebecca and Jane Eyre, but she made many more, mostly dramas throughout the 1940s. She won the Academy Award for Suspicion (which I will write about shortly), and it was when she won the award that a feud allegedly developed between her and her older sister, Olivia de Havilland (they were both nominated in the same category). There's a lot of she said, she said in the reporting on their feud, but it is known that they did not speak after 1975, when their mother died and Joan was not invited.

One of her early roles was a small one in George Stevens' Gunga Din, a rousing adventure-comedy from that great Hollywood year of 1939, that is one of those films people can cite when they say they don't make 'em like that anymore. Based on Rudyard Kipling's poem, it is set in India in the 1880s, when British troops were all over it.\

An outpost is wiped out, and signs point to the revival of the Thuggee, a murderous cult (actually, it was more like an organized crime syndicate). This is where we get the word "thug" from. Anyhoo, three sergeants, who like to rabble rouse but are nonetheless competent, are sent to investigate. They are played by Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, and Victor McLaglen, who is their senior (he would play many more roles like this in John Ford westerns). Their bhisti, or water bearer, is the title character, who wants nothing more than to be a soldier.

Eventually Grant's interest in treasure leads he and Din (played by Sam Jaffee) to a temple made of gold, but it happens to be the Thuggee hideout. Fairbanks, who is set to leave the service and marry Fontaine, reluctantly comes along with McLaglen to rescue them. Eventually Jaffee will risk his life to save the entire British army.

The film is full of action and comedy. Grant is most comedic, as he is constantly getting into scrapes and is obsessed with getting rich.Once he and McLaglen find out Fairbanks is getting married, they try several pranks to get him to stop, such as spiking the punch at an engagement party.

There are regrettable cases of political incorrectness--the Indian actors are all played by white people wearing dark makeup (Jaffee was a Russian Jew born in New York), but the script is fair, letting the Guru (Eduardo Ciannelli, who was an Italian) inform everyone that India had a civilization while the British were still living in caves and painting themselves blue.

I watched this for the second time last night I was never bored. The chemistry between the three leads is great (much better than the chemistry between Fairbanks and Fontaine) the action terrific, and the setting historically interesting. A certified classic.

Friday, July 28, 2017

For Your Eyes Only

For Your Eyes Only, from 1979, is a fair-to-middlin' James Bond film. The producers sought to return to the more scaled-down Bond adventure, so there are no lairs under volcanoes or hundreds of extras in red or yellow jumpsuits. The plot is simply who will get their hands on a vital piece of technology first--Bond, or a Greek millionaire who intends to sell it to the Russians?

Some of the things to like in this film are Carole Bouquet as the Bond girl who is not in constant need of rescue, in fact she saves Bond a few times. There is also some top-notch underwater footage, as the technology sank on a boat in the Ionian Sea and Bond and Bouquet (whose father was a marine archaeologist) take a small sub down to the depths to find it.

There's also a good scene when Bond, at the end of the picture, must scale a vertical mountain to get to the villains (is there nothing that man can't do?)

But the film moves along rather listlessly. It was the first Bond film for John Glen, and the pacing just seems off. Also, the villain is pretty unmemorable. In fact, in the only instance I can remember, we are misled as to who the villain is. In the opening credits, though, we do get Blofeld, seated in wheelchair (I believe his last appearance before this was You Only Live Twice) stroking his white cat, and operating a helicopter by remote control with Bond in it. Blofeld ends being dropped down a smokestack, and he wouldn't come back until Christoph Waltz played him in Spectre.

There is also a scene with ice skater Lynn-Holly Johnson (I trust she was a better skater than an actress) who tries to seduce Bond. He actually turns her down, which may also be a first (other than his many rebuffs of Miss Moneypenny).

The film has some gorgeous locations, including Cortina, Italy, at a winter sports resort. There is a chase that incorporates several different winter sports, including the bobsled. The rest was film in Greece, which is one of those places I have to get to.

As Bond films go, For Your Eyes Only is right in the middle area of quality. The song, sung by Sheen Easton, was a hit and can stuck in your head.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Nightmare in Pink

After being dismayed by the rank misogyny in John D. MacDonald's first Travis McGee novel, The Deep Blue Good-by, I was leery of moving on to the next one, but I couldn't resist. I'm glad to say that in Nightmare in Pink, McGee does admit that women are people.

Published in 1964, it's an interesting time capsule of ideas about not only sex, but also on psychiatry, as the climax of the book takes place in a mental asylum. It should be noted that at this time there were many books and movies about being sane but trapped in an institution, and was just after One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was written. This goes back even further to Farewell, My Lovely, when Phillip Marlowe was drugged by a "doctor." I wonder if this is a remnant of the distrust of the practice of psychiatry.

The main plot has McGee, who lives in Florida, going to New York City at the behest of an old army buddy. His sister has recently been widowed, and there's a large amount of money involved. McGee follows leads until he realizes he's blundered and fallen into the hands of the enemy, who have committed him. He admits: "I had walked into the Armister situation with all the jaunty confidence of a myopic mouse looking for a piece of cheese in the cobra cage."

Of course he saves the day. As for his libido, McGee is resistant to seducing his friend's sister, and even turns her down, but she persists because I guess he is just irresistible. He says of himself, "I wished to be purely McGee, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl-finder, that big shambling brown boat-bum who walks beaches, slays small fierce fish, busts minor icons, argues, smiles and disbelieves, that knuckly scar-tissued reject from a structured society, who waits until the money gets low, and then goes out and takes it from the taker, keeps half, and gives the rest back to the innocent."

For MacDonald, who was a quiet office worker for much of his life until he started writing stories for pulp magazines, this must have been some sort of wish fulfillment. McGee, who narrates, talks about women coming to stay with him on his houseboat for a few weeks and being cured of whatever. He is, of course, referring to giving them a proper fucking, so he is providing a service.

Though the books tend to have an antediluvian attitude, they are dizzyingly written. MacDonald has his way with all sorts of subjects, such as this marvelous digression on poodles: "There was a preponderance of poodles. This is the most desperate breed there is. They are just a little too bright for the servile role of dogdom. So their loneliness is a little more excruciating, their welcomes more frantic, their desire to please a little more intense. They seem to think that if they could just do everything right, they wouldn’t have to be locked up in the silence—pacing, sleeping, brooding, enduring the swollen bladder."

But he doesn't write sex well: "And then there was the sweet drugging time of resting, all unwound, all mysteries known, somnolent there in a narrow wedge of light from a bathroom door open a few inches. Time moves slowly then, as in an underwater world. She had hitched herself to rest upon me, so distributed that she seemed to have no weight at all. She had her dark head tucked under the angle of my jaw, her hands under me and hooked back over the tops of my shoulders, her deep breasts flattened against me, used loins resting astraddle my right thigh, a spent mild whiskery weight."

Deep breasts? Loins? Whiskery weight? Hoo boy.

Reading a Travis McGee novel is like looking at a Playboy magazine from the same era. I'm not against this, so I think I'll keep going.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017


Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan's latest film, is getting rave reviews and is penciled in as the first sure-fire Oscar nominee. Therefore, I ended up puzzled and disappointed. I recommend Dunkirk, but not enthusiastically.

It is of course about the evacuation of British and French troops from a corner of France across the English Channel, after the Germans had beat them back and cornered them. 300,000 men were jammed onto the beach, waiting for the Germans to capture or kill them. It's a big deal in England, not as much in the U.S. because they weren't involved (it was 1940). For a certain generation, Dunkirk is a major part of the English conscience, even though it was a retreat.

Nolan, who loves to go non-linear, divides the story into three parts, basically land, air, and sea. The land, or The Mole (not the burrowing mammal but a pier and jetty thrusting out into the Channel) covers one week ot time, The Sea covers one day, and The Air one hour. This makes for some time-bending that can be very confusing, as we go from daylight to night and then back again.

I'll start with the best, and that's The Air, which covers a couple of spitfire pilots who are the only air cover the soldiers have. Although we get a cliche of a gas gauge not working, the storyline here is clear and precise--shoot down German dive bombers. And they do, in some of the most thrilling dogfight footage I've seen (the best, I think, is Wings, way back in 1927, because they used actual planes).

Tom Hardy is the ace, but he doesn't say much (when a German plane goes into the drink, he calmly says, "He's down for the count"). Mostly we only see his eyes, as he's wearing an oxygen mask, but Hardy's eyes do all the talking. The one bit of genuine excitement in the film is when Hardy has to decide, on low fuel, whether to fly back to England or shoot down a bomber headed for a ship laden with men. What do you think he does?

The Sea has Mark Rylance as a proper Englishman, dressed in sweater and tie, taking his boat out to help rescue the soldiers. This is probably the most memorable part of the history of the history, as hundreds of "Little Ships" aided in the cause. He is accompanied by his son and a teenage friend, and they pick up a man sitting atop the wreckage of his ship (Cillian Murphy). He is suffering from what we now call PTSD and when he hears that Rylance is taking the ship towards Dunkirk he is enraged--that's the last place he wants to go.

The Mole is the section I had the most trouble with. It kicks off with a soldier (Fionn Whitehead) surviving a fusillade of German guns. He and another soldier, whom he meets burying another soldier, try to get aboard a ship going out while holding a stretcher bearing another man. From then on I had to check Wikipedia to see what happened, as the soldiers all look alike and there is absolutely no characterization. They are also largely indecipherable, with thick accents. They go to one ship, then jump off when it's hit, get on another ship, same thing, then get in an empty fishing boat and get shot at. At this point I had completely lost the thread.

The other part of The Mole is Kenneth Branagh as the naval commander standing at the end of the pier, peering off to see England. His job is mainly to say "Home" in warm tones, while shedding a British tear. Really, what this section needed was title cards that said simply, "Day 1," "Day 4," etc., to give the audience some perspective on the time passed. Otherwise it appears that Branagh has been standing at the end of that pier for the whole week.

Visually the film is stunning, shot in blues and grays and olive greens by Hoyte van Hoytema. There are many scenes (too many really) of ships going down, and men trapped underwater. One scene, with an oil slick on fire and men underwater beneath it, is hauntingly filmed, as the men have to make a terrible choice--drown or burn.

The score, by Hans Zimmer, is typical Zimmer--too much by half. He uses a lot of metronomic sounds to ramp up the tension. Sometimes it fits and sometimes it's overwhelming, as the film is loud enough already.

I was all set to enjoy Dunkirk, but it just didn't do it for me. It's just okay.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Patton Oswalt

The Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album went to Patton Oswalt for Talking for Clapping. The album itself doesn't seem to be available in CD form, but the performance was also taped for Netflix, which now seems to have replaced HBO as the go to place for comedy shows.

Oswalt is a versatile performer--an actor (he was the voice of Remy in Ratatouille) and is now filling in as TV's Son of TV's Frank on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But he's been doing stand-up for almost thirty years. I found him amusing if not hilarious.

Dressing heavily in what looks like a blue serge suit over several layers (and he did a lot of sweating, which he made jokes about), the portly Oswalt did not tell one-liners, but instead illustrated points by telling stories. Watching him was kind of chatting with him at a party, the guy who tells great stories and collects a group. Some of his stories have no particular point--he describes the worst set of his life, when he tried to MC a show with the stomach flu but a heckler through him off his game by calling him a faggot and he ended up shitting his pants on stage.

His set is also fairly political. He wonders why anyone would be against gay marriage or transgender people, but he's preaching to the choir. He makes other observations, such as on cell phone ringtones, how radio jingles remain in his head years later but he can't remember his CPR training, and parenting--did you know that boys are different than girls? Much of this is not terribly original and he overkills the punchline. Sometimes I liked throwaway lines that weren't necessarily funny but were great set-ups, like "I went to the DMV and the post office on the same day." He really didn't have to say anything after that, because that sounds so horribly funny. The follow-up didn't meet the promise of the premise.

Probably his best bit was the closer, a story about a kid's birthday party and a strange birthday clown, who came out of the woods and was dressed in very little clown apparel. Oswalt tells it well, and the last line of his show is "a clown with a knife in his chest."

Oswalt comes across as a great guy, rather than the typical neurotic comedian. But his stuff needs to be tightened. I smiled a lot, but I never laughed out loud.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Le Cercle Rouge

Here we have another crime movie from Jean-Pierre Melville, from 1970 and titled Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle). It ranks right up there with The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi as one of the great heist films.

The title refers to an epigraph that is a quote from the Buddha, but Melville made it up. The idea is that when two strangers meet, they meet in a red circle, the place they were destined to meet. In the case of the film, we are talking about two criminals.

First we see a car trying to make a train. It runs a red light--are these all crooks? No, when they get on the train we see one man (Gian Maria Volente) handcuffed to another (Andre Bourvil). The latter is a police detective, escorting his prisoner to jail.

The other man we meet is Alain Delon, who is getting out of prison. But before he goes a guard has an offer of a job for him--that will be the heist. Delon immediately heads to a former associate of his, some ranking member of the syndicate (who also has stolen his girlfriend) and cleans out his safe. He has goons after him, which he kills, so he works up some huger when he stops to grab a bite at a grill.

Volente, the man on the train, manages to escape through a broken window (I'm afraid the windows would have been too strong today, but then there's no movie). Bourvil chases him, but he gets away. Volente ends up climbing into the trunk of a car belong to, wait for it, Delon.

Delon brings Volente into the job and the latter tells him about an ex-cop who is he marksman they need. He's Yves Montand, who we first see in alcoholic delirium. He straightens himself up and joins the team.

The job is a jewelry store, and the heist itself owes a great debt to Rafifi, as the men carry it out in about a thirty-minute scene with no dialogue. But it turns out that the gangster Delon stole from is still very angry.

Le Cercle Rouge is now my favorite Melville film (it seems that every new one I see takes that honor). I love heist films, and this one is great. Montand is needed because a button behind locked but chain doors needs to be pressed, so he shoots it. But the goods have to be fenced (always a big problem in heist movies--see The Asphalt Jungle) and things go awry.

The film was shot in color but when I think of it now I see it in black and white. There are no bright colors and, interestingly, given the title, very few instances of red. Just a few billiard balls (shot from above) and at the end a rose, which sort of predicts death the way oranges predict it in Coppola's Godfather films. It is also full of American noir details, such as men in fedoras and trenchcoats.

The acting is all tough-guy solid (this is a film full of testosterone) and even a little poignant, as Montand doesn't even wants his cut--he's just grateful to be useful.

Le Cercle Rouge is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Sailor's Guide to Earth

The Grammy for Best Country Album went to Sturgill Simpson for A Sailor's Guide to Earth, which I found unremarkable. It's not a terrible record, but after listening to it in the car for a week (since it's short I probably heard it 20 times) only a few songs stuck with me. Ordinarily, I might chalk this up to my general disdain for country music, but this album really isn't all that country.

For one thing, the album's theme, as indicated by its title, is the sea. Not too many guys with cowboy hats and pickup trucks have boats. There's some steel guitar in some of the songs and Simpson's voice has an Appalachian twang but this isn't the kind of music that used to played on Hee-Haw.

That being said, I'd be all in for an intelligent album about sailors and the sea, but this one didn't speak to me. As I mentioned, I only liked two songs, and one is cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom," which is very well done.

The other is the opening track, which gave me hope when I first started listening to it. It's called "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" and is about the birth of a man's first child:

"Hello, my son
Welcome to Earth
You may not be my last
But you'll always be my first.
Wish I'd done this ten years ago
But how could I know that the answer would be so easy?"

This might make father's cry as much as "Cat's in the Cradle."

One of these days I'm determined to like country music that doesn't involve Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, but my search continues.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cop Car

There's an interesting trend in Hollywood to hand over mega-budget films, usually of the comic book variety, to directors who have previously only made low budget independent films. This has worked--see Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman--but has also failed spectacularly, as with Josh Trank and a reboot of Fantastic Four. I see that Trank is attached to another film, but certainly will never be given the keys to Dad's car again.

The recent Spider-Man: Homecoming was directed by Jon Watts, who had two minuscule films under his belt: a horror moved called Clown (which I hope to see soon) and Cop Car, a nifty little western noir. Cop Car is a very good small film, and I have to give credit to whomever at Sony or Columbia thought Watts would be able to handle the reboot of Marvel's greatest property.

Cop Car is about two boys, about ten or eleven, who have run away from home. They are in the middle of nowhere (I suspect it's Texas, but it's somewhere in the plains) when they find a sheriff's cruiser. It is empty. And in the logic that only ten-year-old boys could have, once they find the keys they take it for a joy ride.

Turns out the car belongs to the Sheriff, Kevin Bacon, who was busy burying a body he had in the trunk. He comes back to find his car gone, and he does some quick thinking to try to get his car back without anyone else in the force knowing about it, because I imagine he would have a lot of explaining to do.

What's great about Cop Car is what the movie doesn't tell us, such as why the boys are running away (just a few clues), and why Bacon killed the man. There will be a further surprise in the trunk that the boys find to ratchet up the film a few degrees, and this only makes the film more wacky and pleasurable.

Bacon, one of our consummate unsung actors, is terrific as a guy caught between a rock and a hard place. He sports a great porn-stache and you can always see him thinking, but nothing he does is predictable. It was written by Watts and Christopher Ford.

The actors playing the two boys are very good, and seem like typical boys (the movie begins with them thinking of all the swear words they and eating a Slim Jim). They are James Freedson-Jackson as the more adventurous of the two, and Hays Wellford as the follower.

I think, when it comes to it, that studios want directors who can tell stories. The special effects and CGI and all that other stuff can be handled by other people. Just tell a good story. Cop Car is a great story.

Friday, July 21, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

This century's Planet of the Apes trilogy is unique among film franchises--each film is better than the last. After an excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which followed a so-so Rise of the Planet of the Apes, War of the Planet of Apes is top-notch, a thrilling summer movie that is also extremely though-provoking.

Picking up from where Dawn ended, Koba is dead and Caesar (Andy Serkis) wants peace. If humans will leave the apes alone in the forest, he is content. But that is not to be. Scouts, including Caesar's son Rocket, talk of an area beyond the forest and into the desert where they could relocate. But a force of humans, led by the mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attack, leaving Rocket and Caesar's wife Cornelia dead.

Caesar now wants revenge, and wants to go it alone, but three other apes, including Maurice, the thoughtful orangutan, come with him. Along the way they pick up a human child, who has lost the ability to speak (that will be important, but I will say no more now). They also find a chimp, who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) who was in a zoo but has lived by himself a long time. He is comic relief, as he is clumsy and wears human clothes.

This film reminded me a of a lot of things. It reminded me of other movies, like Apocalypse Now (Harrelson brings some of Brando and some of Duvall), The Great Escape, and there's a shot of the heads of three apes poking over a rock ledge that took me right to the scene in the Wizard of Oz of Dorothy's three friends outside the Witch's castle. Given that some apes are crucified, there are also Biblical overtones.

The movie's themes are even broader. One of the aspects that is very disturbing are the "donkeys," apes that are working with the humans on the promise that they will be spared. This could make you think of black men who fought for the Confederacy (or Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen in Django Unchained). What would it take to make you fight against your own kind?

War of the Planet of the Apes is ably directed by Matthew Reeves, who handles full scale war scenes as well as intimate scenes. He is helped by the exquisite acting of Serkis, and also Karin Konoval as Maurice. The special effects and the acting combine to make it easy to see what these apes are thinking just by their facial expressions (Caesar is usually looking very intense and determined, and pissed off)/ I would have no trouble at all if Serkis is nominated for an acting award for his work--acting is acting.

My only quibble is there are a couple of coincidences at the end that lead to an otherwise satisfying close to the trilogy. You might find yourself wiping away a tear by the end.

War of the Planet of the Apes is first-class entertainment.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bang the Drum Slowly

Robert De Niro has been all over the place lately. Now 73 years old, he has been showing up for panel discussions on important anniversaries of his films (last year it was the 40th for Taxi Driver, this year it was the 45th for The Godfather, though he was the only cast member on the panel who was not in it, he was only in The Godfather, Part II). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama last year (that would not be a likely award from President Trump, whom De Niro said he wanted to punch in the face) and was this year’s recipient of The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award (and thus is on the cover of this month’s Film Comment). He has already won the AFI Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award. He has won two Academy Awards, with a total of seven nominations.

In the coming weeks I’ll be having my own retrospective of his career, as I haven’t had a chance to write about many of his films. The only major films I've covered are Taxi Driver and The Deerhunter, along with his recent David O. Russell renaissance of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy. So there's a lot to look at, including some films that I haven't seen.

This is my second time seeing Bang the Drum Slowly, which was De Niro's first major film, an adaptation of a novel by Mark Harris (which I read when I was about 12, I think after I saw the movie) about a dying baseball player, a catcher, and his relationship with a star pitcher. It was a well-received film, and earned an Oscar nomination for Vincent Gardenia as the team's blustery manager. But I think it hasn't aged well, and seems to be missing pieces of the plot. It's only 97 minutes long, but it could have used some extra scenes to provide more context.

De Niro is Bruce Pearson, a second- or even third-string catcher. When the film begins Henry Wiggen (called "Arthur" because he wrote a book--instead of "author") is driving with De Niro from the Mayo Clinic to De Niro's home in Georgia. He has Hodgkin's disease, but the two play it very close to the vest, not even telling his parents.

Pearson is a rube; not very smart, and he knows it, while Moriarty is a city slicker that wears purple suits and likes to obfuscate. For a baseball movie, there is a lot of talking. There's a long scene in which Moriarty negotiates his contract (to show hold old this movie is--1973--Moriarty is asking for $120,000 a year. I think Alex Rodriguez probably made that in one game). He takes less money, but insists that he and Pearson have to be a package--whether traded or sent down, they have to be together.

Then much of the movie is Gardenia trying to figure out what they were doing in Minnesota. Moriarty comes up with several creative lies, thinking that Gardenia will get rid of Pearson once he finds out. But actually, once the team learns, they all come together as a team, stop ragging Pearson, and win the World Series.

The book, as they do, has much more information, but I don't remember it. Why, for example, is Moriarty drawn to Pearson? Were they friends before his illness? I suppose the spine of the film is friendship, and that does come across, as Moriarty is true blue, but I didn't feel the film offered any great truths. Compare it to Brian's Song, which came out a few years earlier, about Gale Sayers' friendship with his dying teammate, Brian Piccolo, and see the difference. The latter film had grown men crying. Bang the Drum Slowly seems purposely unsentimental.

It was directed by John Hancock, and has that grainy look that a lot of '70s movies have. The colors are subdued and muddy--even Moriarty's purple suits are toned down. The baseball scenes seem authentic, although De Niro was much too slight to be a catcher, but he seems to have learned how to swing a bat. Though called the New York Mammoths in the film, the team is wearing the uniform of the Yankees, and the film was shot in Yankee and Shea Stadiums.

As for De Niro, he wouldn't play a part like this again. Once he made Mean Streets, he for years played aggressive, even psychotic characters. Bruce Pearson is a happy-go-lucky guy, and though he knows he's dying, he has only really one bad moment, when he tells Moriarty he's scared. But his comic timing is evident, particularly in a scene in which he's part of a team singing group, and tries to keep up with the dance steps. De Niro has said he's always been more confident with comedy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Christina's World

Andrew Wyeth was born 100 years ago this month. The son of illustrator N.C. Wyeth (and the father of Jamie, another artist), he was one of the most famous and successful American artists of the twentieth century, yet his place in the academy is not secure, most probably due to his being a realist painter in an age of abstract art. Realism as a form of painting died out after the invention of the camera, which provided all the realism anyone would need.

Wyeth's most famous painting is Christina's World, painted in 1948. It is one of the most famous American paintings; I would venture to guess it's the most famous of the twentieth century, and right up there with "Whistler's Mother" or the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart that adorns the one-dollar bill as the most famous of all American paintings.

It is realistic, but the story it tells is open to interpretation. The facts are these: the model is Anna Christina Olson, who lived in Cushing, Maine. Wyeth saw her crawling across the field from a window and was inspired to paint her. The house still stands, and you can tour it if you'd like.

Why was she crawling? If you look very closely at her hands you can see that she is crippled. Olson suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a polyneuropathy that affects the muscles and is similar to muscular dystrophy (it was once sub-classified as form of MD).

At first glance, without that knowledge, I see a woman stranded. Some people may like to go and lay in the grass, but even though we don't see her face there seems to be some peril in the picture. She is a long way from the house and barn, and there is no indication that anyone is there to help her. How did she get there? She is heading toward the house, with a body language that suggests, to me at least, desperation, as if something were chasing her, or as if she was terribly late for something.

It appears from the reality that Olson, given her affliction and getting used to it, crawled easily and for great distances, and perhaps she was just on a simple jaunt. But Wyeth has made her seem stopped in movement--she wants to move, but can't. To me, it's a terrifying painting, something of a horror story.

When the painting was first exhibited it didn't cause much stir, and was bought by the Museum of Modern Art for $1,800, where it still is today. I'd say it's value now it is considerably higher. It is frequently parodied--Google Christina's World parodies and you'll see some good and bad. My favorite is of Montgomery Burns in Christina's position (it hangs on his wall). Most recently, I've seen Chris Christie in a beach chair in that field.

I could look at this picture for hours, even though it is only a girl, a field, a house, and a barn. So much could be told from it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

In Jackson Heights

The last of the three films from the list of the 25 best movies of the century published by The New York Times that I hadn't seen was In Jackson Heights. This actually dovetailed with wanting to see this film because its director, Frederick Wiseman, won an honorary Oscar last year. I actually had the DVD from Netflix but accidentally sent it back, so I got it back again.

Wiseman is well thought of in documentary circles, but I had never seen one of his films. He usually follows the same template--find some kind of institution: a prison, an mental asylum, a school, a ballet company, and simply document it with a camera. There are no voiceovers, no interviews, no one talks to the camera. It's fly on the wall filmmaking.

His latest project was to take on a community, Jackson Heights in Queens, New York. According to someone in the film, Jackson Heights is the most diverse neighborhood in the world, with 167 languages spoken. I wouldn't have even though there were 167 languages spoken in the whole world.

Wiseman moves from topic to topic, with just a few overarching threads of narrative. One is the increasing gentrification of the area, with small business owners forced out by raised rents, and stores like the Gap and Home Depot coming in. During one sequence, an activist explains how this happens, and it's mostly due to taxes. Another is the prominence of the LBGT community, which flourishes in Jackson Heights. It's where the Queen Pride Parade takes place, and we sit on meetings with support groups for elderly gay people and transgenders. At the end of the film, Bill DeBlasio is the first mayor to take part in the parade.

There are of course a lot of immigrants in the neighborhood, and much of the film is in other languages. A meeting of immigrants allows a woman to tell a harrowing story of how her daughter crossed from Mexico and spent 15 days lost in the desert.

While some of this is very interesting, the movie is over three hours long. I watched it in two pieces, and there are so many committee meetings that you get the idea that everyone in the neighborhood is an activist. That may be a skewed view--after all, if you're only seeing meetings, you're not seeing people who don't attend them. I was amused by a small group of ladies sitting in a restaurant knitting, talking about the state of a small cemetery. The talk swerves to old movie starts and how many of them were gay. "All the actors I liked were gay," a woman says. "I wonder what that says about me."

What I liked most were some of the transitions, especially those that go inside businesses. We visit an Indian salon (I finally realized what "threading" is), a dog grooming shop, and a poultry processing business where birds have their throats slit, are tossed in boiling water, defeathered, and then cut up in the most brutal way you can imagine.

I also loved the scenes of people just going about their business--walking down the street, sitting in a park, window shopping, or dancing at a club. The colors of the fruit and vegetable stands are vibrant, and sometimes you can smell the food cooking.

There are certain areas not viewed. We do see the city councilman in a meeting, but there are no other shots of politicians, nor schools. The film seems to be skewed toward the elderly, like a 98-year-old woman who complains that she has no one to talk to, or the LGBT community, who may have been more cooperative to get their stories told.

In Jackson Heights is sporadically interesting, but I felt a little like some of the parishioners in a scene in church--a few of them had their eyes closed.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Douche Doesn't Fall Far From the Bag

It can't be easy to be a president's close relative. Most of the time, they are considered off limits, and when they are criticized decent people cry fowl, such as when Rush Limbaugh called Chelsea Clinton, then a teenager, ugly. But there have been a few presidential relatives who have earned their brickbats, such as Billy Carter and Roger Clinton. Now we have perhaps the stupidest presidential relative of all time, Donald Trump Jr.

Everything wrong about Junior can be seen in this picture. Anyone who would purposely kill an elephant for sport is someone I don't want to know, and then to take the tail as a trophy seems even worse. Is he going to frame it? Turn it into a whip to use on Russian prostitutes? Who knows. All I know is that when his time comes, I hope he's being stomped by an elephant.

But what makes Junior really stupid is the scandal now erupting about a meeting he took with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign, in which he was seeking dirt on Hillary Clinton. Also in the meeting was Paul Manafort, the extremely shady ex-Trump campaign manager, and Junior's brother-in-law Jared Kushner, whose most impressive feat seems to have been marrying well. According to an email trail, this lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, was representing the Russian government, and was not acting as an independent Russian citizen. Soooo, what we have here is an American citizen, three of them, seeking aid from a foreign government in an attempt to electioneer.

The talk after this revelation, which Junior confessed to (his dad says he was being "transparent") was whether this was illegal, good politics, or just stupid. The President says anyone would take this meeting, because it was good politics. Except that's patently false, as most people would go directly to the FBI. Junior's reaction was "I love it." Unfortunately, he got no information. Does that matter? If you rob a bank but get no money is that illegal? The best quote about this was, if you spend an hour casting a line into the water, but catch no fish, weren't you still fishing?

Was it illegal? Yes, if you interpret that Junior, Kushner, and Manafort were part of the campaign. Manafort certainly was. Take a look at statute 52 U.S.C. 30121, 36 U.S.C. 510, which states that: "A foreign national shall not, directly or indirectly, make a contribution or a donation of money or other thing of value, or expressly or impliedly promise to make a contribution or a donation, in connection with any Federal, State, or local election." If you interpret that "other thing of value" is damning information against a candidate, then clearly the Russian lawyer is guilty (note that the words "impliedly promise" are in there, so it doesn't matter if she had anything or not). But what about Moe, Larry, and Curly? "No person shall knowingly solicit, accept, or receive from a foreign national any contribution or donation prohibited by paragraphs (b) through (d) of this section."

If this is not limited to financial contributions, which I don't think it does, then they are all guilty of receiving, or attempting to receive, information that would contribute to their campaign.

This is going to drag on for months, I suspect. The Fox-Right is saying who cares, after spending months denying that it ever happened. The old "what did he know and when did he know it" that dogged Nixon will now dog Trump, as the meeting happened with two of his relatives and a campaign manager in an office a floor below him. As much as Sean Hannity and Trump himself try to wish it away, it won't go away.

But what has come out of this is a hilarious set of memes and parodies. I've heard the rumor that Junior is considered the Fredo of the family (the memorable Godfather character played by John Cazale who finally erupts at Michael, "I'm smart!"). A meme on Facebook had Steve Bannon carrying out the same execution as in the film, on a fishing boat. Junior, with his brother Eric, also bear an unsettling resemblance to cartoon idiots Beavis and Butthead, and even more disturbingly, to Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay--not a physical resemblance, but one of filial privilege. Their father is already someone who was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. I can't imagine what these two bozos believe.

We can only hope that all three of these men go to jail for breaking this law, but the odds are against it. But was there a moment when the President, not the brightest bulb on the chandelier, got his eldest son in a room alone and laid him, saying something like, "What were you thinking?" Oh, to be able to see or hear that and treasure the irony.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sarah Silverman

I think I've had a crush on Sarah Silverman since I saw her doing some stand-up and she made a reference to how Ron Jeremy masturbates with an extended pinkie, as if he were holding a cup of tea. A cute girl, talking about porn? That's all it takes. Over the years since then I've only grown to admire her more, for her political stances, for her honesty about her life, and because she's so fucking funny.

Silverman has become a "serious actress," but last night I watched her Netflix stand-up special A Speck of Dust. It was a delightfully vulgar 70 minutes, ending with her asking the only man in the audience who believed in God (or at least raised his hand) if he would let God come in his mouth.

But there was much more. She covered a range of topics, mostly about her own life. She talked about visiting a laser hair removal clinic (the highest-rated one within three blocks of her home), her experiences as a bed-wetter at summer camp, her dog, who turned her on to squirrels (she says that squirrels are like cokeheads--they only remember where 80 percent of the nuts they bury are).

She also spends a long section talking about a life-threatening emergency she had, when an abscess in her windpipe nearly killed her. She was rushed into emergency surgery, but felt her preparatory anesthetic wasn't strong enough. "I'm not high enough!" she wailed, and to prove it, she discussed Brexit in great detail (this is all proven by the videotape which is shown during the closing credits).

She performed before a very appreciative audience--it almost sounded as if the laughter was sweetened. It was a good audience though--when she was telling a story about her sister in college, that seemed to be leading to a rape story, but instead turned into a shitting-one's-pants story, she was amazed at how quiet they got. "That's called a relief laugh," she said, analyzing her comedy mid-stream. She has an endearing quality of saying "put a pin in that," so she can come back to a topic after a digression.

Silverman has gotten in trouble on occasions. In the film The Aristocrats she jokingly accused talk show host Joe Franklin of raping her, and he didn't get the joke. She also used the word "chink" in her act in an ironic way, which made the Media Action Network for Asian Americans angry, again, for not understanding the joke. During her act she said that comedians have to be careful, and apologized for the metal detectors that the audience had to pass through.

Silverman has covered it all-stand-up, sketch comedy (she was a short-lived performer on SNL, which didn't know how to use her), her own sit-com, and now movies. I'm not sure what her best venue is, perhaps just having her stand in front of a crowd and talk about her life.

And she's now dating Michael Sheen. That just doesn't sound right. He was married to Kate Beckinsale. It seems wrong.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The North Water

The North Water, by Ian McGuire, is the kind of story you might call a "yarn." Set primarily on a whaling ship in the waters around Greenland, it has primordial conflicts: man indifferent and unsentimental nature, and man vs. evil, in the guise of man. Right now it's the best book I've read all year.

It is in the 1850s in Hull, England. "He shuffles out of Clappison’s courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth." In Chapter One we are introduced to Drax, one of the more villainous characters in recent literature. He's signed up for a whaling voyage, but before he goes he murders someone. He's not done.

The ship is the Volunteer, owned by a Mr. Baxter, captained by Brownlee. Our eyes and ears will be Patrick Sumner, the ship's surgeon, who was trounced out of the army after being framed in India. He is a man of rational thought and a forward thinker, much out of place among the scalawags aboard a whaling ship. But there is a harpooner named Otto who is a religious philosopher, and the first mate Cavendish, is a foppish fellow.

Whaling is a dying business, as they have caught and killed most of them. We learn that Baxter and Brownlee have made a deal to sink the ship for the insurance money, but before that happens a cabin boy, who had been sodomized, is brutally murdered. Pretty much everything goes to hell after that, and there is so much suspense and surprises that I dare not share more.

What makes The North Water great is that it is written in a style that evokes Victorian novels--for example, the characters speak in a kind of formal English interspersed with vulgarity, and thus we get the archaic spelling of "Esquimeaux," but it easily accessible to today's reader. There are no digressions, such as those that turn people off from Moby Dick; it's a trim, fast-paced adventure, with lots of derring-do and the death of a polar bear: "He drops the blubber knife onto the snow and pushes both his bare hands down into the dead bear’s steaming guts. His frozen fingers feel like they might burst apart from the warmth. He grinds his teeth and pushes his hands in deeper. When the pain reduces, he pulls them out, dripping with red, rubs his face and beard with the hot blood, then picks up the knife again and begins to sever and remove the bear’s innards."

It's also one of those books that make you glad you live in modern times, such as when Sumner operates on someone using only ether to empty out bile from the stomach.

I love sea adventures, and especially those that take place near the poles,so I was inclined to like The North Water from the beginning, but it more than lived up to my expectations. It's a must read.

Friday, July 14, 2017


After the credits of The Spy Who Loved Me, we are told that James Bond would return in For Your Eyes Only. Not so. Because of the release of Star Wars, and the excitement about space movies, Moonraker would be the next Ian Fleming novel filmed, and the fourth to star Roger Moore. It was released in 1979, and is one of the sillier Bond movies ever made.

In this film Bond is investigating a missing space shuttle. He meets with the head of the company that makes them, Drax (Michael Lonsdale, who makes for one of the better Bond villains). Drax immediately tries to have Bond killed, which is kind of stupid--why have a British secret service agent turn up dead on your property? They try putting him in a high-speed accelerator, shooting him during a pheasant hunt, then later send an assassin armed only with a wooden sword, chase him through the canals of Venice, and later a boat chase on the Amazon. Never to they think of just putting a bullet in his head.

So Moonraker is basically about the incompetence of Bond's foes and Bond's pure luck. Consider that he escapes the boat chase in the Amazon in hang-glider, and lands precisely in the spot that he is looking for. If only Percy Fawcett had been so lucky.

Anyway, what Drax is up to is building a space station (it jams radar, so nobody knows it's there) where he will populate it with beautiful people and build a master race. He will poison the earth with a gas made of orchids, killing everyone, and then repopulate with his beautiful people.

As with most Bond villians, Drax is absurdly rich, and some of the pleasures of Bond films is observing these guys. Drax lives in California, but in an estate that is completely French, even the stones. Even though the movie is stupid, Lonsdale gives the role the kind of arrogance one would expect of a rich guy who would do something like that. Every time he thinks Bond is dead and then sees him again, he says something really droll. But it's his own fault--just kill him!

What really drags this movie down is the Bond girl, Lois Chiles. She plays Holly Goodhead, a CIA agent going undercover in Drax's operation. She's a lovely lady but gives one of the most wooden performances in the history of acting. I don't think there's any inflection in any line she delivers. And after watching a few of these movies close together Bond's promiscuity becomes more distasteful. In this film he just moves in and kisses women, whether they give him a signal to or not. It's just icky.

There's also an amusing if disheartening use of product placements. After an escape on a cable car in Rio, Bond is led on chase and goes past billboards for 7UP, Marlboro, British Airways, and Seiko. All of them are thanked in the closing credits.

On the plus side, Richard Kiel returns as Jaws, the very tall hit man with metal teeth. In this film, though, he is given a love interest, gets to be the good guy, and even says a line. All this due to popular demand. There is also some cleverness from the music supervisor. A pass code into a secret laboratory are the five key notes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the theme from The Magnificent Seven is heard as Bond rides across the pampas.

I wouldn't say this is the worst Bond film ever made--I haven't seen all of the Pierce Brosnan ones--but it's not a good one. Even the theme song is unremarkable.

Thursday, July 13, 2017


What exactly is a goth? It is defined as a subculture of youth that wear black clothing, have pale skin, and affect a kind of ethos found in Victorian horror (when Gothic literature abounded). There was (is?) a genre of rock called Goth, with the most recognizable names Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, The Cure, and Joy Division. This all according to Wikipedia.

The Mountain Goats, one of the most interesting bands recording today, have created an album devoted to Goths, with that as a title. It is not an album of Goth Rock, though, Their last album was a themed record all about professional wrestling. This time the theme is kids from the '80s, dressed in dark eyeliner, imagining they were vampires, listening to Sisters of Mercy.

I am not nor never have been a Goth, but I understand it. I just thought the whole dress-up thing was silly. But this is a good record, with songs by John Darnielle, who is also a novelist and writes great lyrics. But may I suggest that in the future the band print their lyrics in a font that can be read, so I don't have to go to the Internet to get them?

Some of the songs need annotation for someone like me. For instance, a song called "Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds" is helped enormously by knowing who Andrew Eldritch is (I did not, until Googling--he was the singer for Sisters of Mercy). Thankfully I have heard of Gene Loves Jezebel, which is the subject of the last and best song, "Abandoned Flesh":

"Robert Smith is secure at his villa in France
Any child knows how to do the spiderweb dance
Siouxsie has enough hits to keep the bills paid
Every New Year's in Los Angeles, you can still see Richard Blade
But the world forgot about Gene Loves Jezebel"

It's a song about how a band can hit some heights and then, through internecine squabbling and other factors break up and be completely forgotten (although they are still together today). This attitude is reflected in another song about musical principles, in "Shelved":

"Maybe dad is right
I'm still young
And I can write C++ just as good as anyone
I know this guy at Lucasarts
He says they're looking for hands
In fifteen years I'll be throwing back beers
With my feet in the sand"

Another song, "Wear Black," of course refers to the color of a Goth's choice:

Wear black on your forgotten red heart
Wear black in the present tense
Wear black when you come around
Wear black in your absence
Wear black high as a kite (wear black)
Wear black dead sober (wear black)
Wear black when the struggle starts (wear black)
Wear black when it's over (wear black)

There's a certain droll humor to the record, as evidenced by a lyric in "The Grey King and Silver Flame Attunement," in which Darnielle sings, "I'm hardcore, but I'm not that hardcore," perhaps referring to extremes like teeth filing or having artificial horns installed in one's head. And in "Unicorn Tolerance" (a great title) we get lyrics that may contain a wink:

"Dig through the graveyard
Rub the bones against my face
It gets real nice around the graveyard
Once you've acquired the taste"

Musically, as I said, this is not a Goth record. It's more like California pop. Pointedly, there is no guitars (as listed on the liner notes) along with no "pitch correction."

I imagine this album will strike chords with those who went through a Goth phase, and have embarrassing pictures of themselves going to the prom in a black dress and fingernail polish, or had The Cure posters on their wall. As stated, this is not the case for me, but I still enjoyed the hooks of the music and the cleverness of the lyrics. And who is Richard Blade?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Who Are the Hall of Famers of the Future?

I watched baseball's All-Star game last night and enjoyed it, mostly because I felt like an alien from an outer space who had come down and knew nothing about the current players.

I know I've been out of touch with baseball when there are starters on the All-Star team I've never even heard of. Marcell Ozuna? Zach Crozart? George Springer? Nolan Arenado? Charlie Blackmon? Nope, wouldn't know you if you fell on me. But now I do, so I feel refreshed, and with my head back in the game.

Now, I knew all the players when I was a kid and collected baseball cards and scrutinized the box scores. For instance, I know that the 1971 All-Star game, which was played in Detroit, featured six players that hit home runs, and all made the Hall of Fame: Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Roberto Clemente, Reggie Jackson, Harmon Killebrew, and Frank Robinson. Bench and Jackson were still relatively young; but the other four were established stars who had already punched tickets to Cooperstown. In fact, 20 of the players who were named to those teams are now in the Hall of Fame, plus both managers. I checked the rosters of the 1933 teams, the very first All-Star game, and 18 of those players (on a much smaller roster) are in the Hall (also including both managers).

So, forty years from now, are people going to be looking at this game and seeing Hall of Famers?Hard to tell now, because this was a very young group. There are sure-fire HOFers that weren't even named to the team, like Albert Pujols (since moving to Anaheim, he is settled into an okay but not great player, but has over 600 home runs and almost 3,000 hits, so he's in) and Adrian Beltre, who is just shy of 3,000 hits. Other probably Hall of Famers not chosen are Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander of Detroit, Carlos Beltran (who is still playing--he's back in Houston), Ichiro Suzuki (already over 3,000 hits) and possibly C.C. Sabathia.

But what of the group that was in Miami last night? The first player that comes to mind is one who didn't play, Clayton Kershaw. Pitchers can go south all of a sudden, but Kershaw, barring a complete collapse, looks like a HOFer. He's pitched ten years now, which makes him eligible, and is an incredible 140 and 62 and has been the best pitcher in the game for a few years now. Another pitcher who doesn't have to do much more to be in is Zack Greinke, who is 166-104. With pitching the way it is now, it's unlikely that anyone will get 300 wins anymore, so it will be win percentage, E.R.A., WHIP, and newer stats that determine greatness.

Of the two starting pitchers, Max Scherzer stands a good chance, should he keep it up. He's 135-74 through ten seasons. Chris Sale hasn't played long enough, but should he pitch another five years like he has now, he has a great chance.

Of the hitters, there aren't too many that were in the game that have ten or more seasons. Robinson Cano, the MVP (pictured), does, and he's on a HOF track. He has just under 2,300 hits, so if he plays another four seasons at his average of 193 hits a year, he will surpass 3,000. He also has 295 homers, a lot for a second-baseman, and a .305 lifetime batting average.

The other home-run hitter last night was Yadier Molina, who is a tough one to guess. Molina has long been most appreciated for his defense and handling of pitching. Catchers in the Hall usually have great hitting stats, but not always--consider Ray Schalk, who only had 1345 hits and 11, that's right, 11 home runs (of course playing mostly in the dead ball era). Molina will probably get to 2,000 hits, and has 117 home runs, but is highly regarded by broadcasters, sportswriters, and fellow players. He may just get in for being the dominant catcher of his generation.

And then there are the players who have less than ten years of service who certainly look like Hall of Famers, barring injury or a complete collapse: Jose Altuve, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, and dare I say Aaron Judge, who is a rookie yet already is one of the most engaging stars of the league?

That's what's great/weird about sports. We can look back at 1971 and say, "Now those were All-Stars," but did some old-timer say, back in '71, "Now 1933, those were the real All-Stars."

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Oh how I wish I could have watched Spider-Man: Homecoming with fresh eyes. There were a lot of little kids at a fairly busy Tuesday matinee today, and I wish, like them, I didn't know about how this was the third Spider-Man in the last 15 years and the difference between Sony and Columbia and was just able to enjoy it like an eight-year-old. To its credit, I did feel like an eight-year-old part of the time, enough that I recommend it.

First of all, I have to get around my purist objections. It started with Captain America: Civil War, Spider-Man's debut in the MCU. What? Mentored and supplied by Tony Stark? Treated like a snot-nosed kid by the rest of the Avengers? Heresy. Spider-Man was created before Iron Man (albeit by just about six months) but Spider-Man has always been the most important Marvel character of the Silver Age and beyond (and, to my thinking, the most powerful) and Peter Parker created all of his own gadgets--he didn't no stinkin' Tony Stark. But in the MCU, I guess Iron Man is king, so I have to accept it.

That being said, Tom Holland, who is actually 21, does pass for a 15-year-old, true to the character's origins. He is not yet at home with his powers, and doesn't quite know how to use Stark's suit. This makes for a lot of slapstick, maybe too much (I like my Spider-Man confident and sarcastic) but as authentic as a superhero movie can be. If you had awkward high school years, you may flash back while watching.

The film begins at the end of the first Avengers film, with the clean up of the alien attack on New York City. Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) has the contract, but is given the bum's rush by the government. He steals a few alien artifacts found on the job and his crew set up a criminal enterprise, with Keaton inventing a winged harness that enables him to fly.

Meanwhile, Spider-Man has helped Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the intramural squabble among the Avengers, and hopelessly awaits his next mission. He is a sophomore in high school, and has a crush on a pretty girl named Liz (Laura Harrier) and a nerdy best friend (a wonderful Jacob Batalon).

Downey wants Holland to concentrate on small-time crooks, but when Holland stops an ATM robbery he realizes he's on to something big, and takes on Keaton, aka the Vulture. He almost causes the Staten Island Ferry to sink, so Downey takes the suit away, but of course Spider-Man will save the day.

Spider-Man has always been my favorite superhero. He was the first to have normal problems, like catching colds, and had a great wit long before Deadpool. Some of the changes to the character, such as having Aunt May played by a vibrant Marisa Tomei rather than an old lady (Tomei is 52--hard to believe) make sense. But watching Holland play Spider-Man as a noob is a little disconcerting. And where is his Spider sense?

The action scenes are fairly routine--the director is John Watts, who has only made two small films, but he doesn't embarrass himself. The climactic fight between Spidey and the Vulture is in the dark, and somewhat confusing. Oh, and it wasn't lost on me that Keaton is playing a winged villain after playing Batman and then Birdman. He must have had a good laugh when he got the script, and kudos to him for having the sense of humor to play the part.

Mostly, Spider-Man: Homecoming is just okay. It's nice nostalgia--in the opening credits we hear a symphonic version of the old cartoon theme--a few very funny lines (Batalon, when aiding Spidey on a school computer, vamps an excuse to a teacher: "I was watching porn."). There is also a terrific twist in the film that though highly coincidental I didn't see coming.

I really want to see his next film, when presumably Iron Man can get the fuck out of the way. Spider-Man, in the comics, was never an Avenger--he was a loner, a rogue. Let him do his own thing next time.

Monday, July 10, 2017

You Get Me

You Get Me is touted as a "Netflix Original," but there's nothing original about it. The screenwriter credit, given to Ben Epstein, should be shared with the author of Fatal Attraction, and any number of other films about psychotic teen stalkers. Beyond that, the movie is flat and uninteresting, and seems much longer than it's 89 minutes.

Taylor John Smith plays a 17-year-old kid (all the kids in the movie look at least college age) who has a great set-up--he has a decent job, and a great girlfriend (Halston Sage, which sounds like a J. Crew color). When he finds out that she had a drunk and slutty phase in her past, they break up for a night, and he ends up in the bed of Bella Thorne. But he's still in love with Sage, and goes back to her. Thorne doesn't like it, and she's crazy.

From there on You Get Me, directed without much style by Brent Bonacorso, is completely predictable, and also very stupid. One of Sage's friends suspects Thorne is up to something, so her smoothie gets poisoned. No one seems to think to investigate this. Thorne pretends to be pregnant, but no one asks for a test result. And when Smith thinks that Thorne has done something violent to Sage, he doesn't call the police.

I'll admit I only watched this film because of Thorne, who is very easy on the eyes. She's one of the executive producers, so she must have wanted to be in this. My suggestion to her is to try smarter scripts that don't rip off famous films.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Le Samourai

Le Samourai, from 1967, is Jean-Pierre Melville's look at a modern-day samurai. The first few minutes of the film are Alain Delon, as Jef Costello, lying in his dingy apartment, and we get a title card giving us some of the Bushido code. He is a hit man, living a monastic lifestyle, alone except for a pet bird.

He has been contracted to hit a nightclub owner. He does his job, but is seen by several people, including a pianist, close-up. He uses his girlfriend as an alibi, and also hits an all-night poker game to further cement his alibi. That's where he is picked up, and the detective, though not all the witnesses identify him, pegs him for the man. Then Delon gets stiffed by his employers, and with the police following him, he tries to get his money.

Except for a few exceptions, Melville made crime films, and this is a good one. It is full of empty space, which instead of slowing the pacing, only makes it move faster and tenser. When  I watch a movie at home I usually also stop it a few times to check Facebook or something, but this one just flew by. Each shot is carefully planned and executed.

I did have some problems with the plot, though. If he's such a great hit man (he has no police record), why would he walk into a busy nightclub to kill someone with so many witnesses? Then why would he go to a poker game with a bunch of lowlifes--that's where he got picked up. Why not just lay low for a while?

Aside from that, Le Samourai is a terrific little noir. It has two femme fatales--the pianist is Cathy Rosier, and the girlfriend is Ms. Delon, Nathalie, who is a stunning beauty. Like Les Deuxiemes Souffle, Le Samourai also has a brilliant detective (this time Francois Perier). That Delon wears a trench coat and fedora through most of the film, and never shows any emotion, is yet another nod to American noir films (he reminds me a lot of Alan Ladd in This Gun For Hire, but Ladd had a psychological background--Delon is a cypher).

There isn't a lot of violence in this film, most of it is the cat and mouse game played by Delon as he tries to elude the police following him. There's a wonderful scene on the subway that William Friedkin must have had in mind when he made The French Connection four years later.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Find Myself a City to Live in

Think about where you live. Why do you live there? Was it your choice, or is it just happenstance? When we're kids we have little to no say in the matter. I was born in Michigan, then moved around to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and then back to Michigan, where I spent my puberty years. I moved to New Jersey in tenth grade and except for four years of college (in New York) I lived my entire adult life there, until I moved to Las Vegas in 2014.

And now I'm thinking of moving on. I moved to Vegas for two basic reasons--I had always been fascinated with the place and they had teacher openings. But my teaching career seems to be over (I won't go into it, other than to say I got screwed over by my administration) so there's nothing much to hold me here anymore. Today it is like 117 degrees out, and that's not fun.

I wrote about my impressions of the city about two years ago here, and my opinion hasn't changed much. The weather is great, from about October to May, and the surrounding mountains are beautiful. But the city itself is a grind, with horrible traffic, crime, and a sense of despair.

So, if I do go, where to? It's weird having the opportunity to just move anywhere. What are my criteria? I don't mind moving to a place where I don't know anyone. I moved here with one friend, my ex-girlfriend, and she's still my only friend here (I don't make friends easily). I could move near my family--my dad is in Michigan, my mom is in Pennsylvania, but I don't think I want to deal with cold winters anymore. Why should I if I don't have to?

There are scads of "Best Cities" on the Net, from "Best Cities to Be Young and Broke" to "Best Cities to Retire to." No "Best Cities if You're Old and Broke." I'd prefer a smaller town, and I was drawn to Traverse City, Michigan, but they get 80 inches of snow a year. Nix. Same for a multitude of attractive places in Vermont. Too fucking cold. Even Fargo, North Dakota was on a list for retirees. What retiree wants to have to get a battery jump every morning?

So, no harsh winters. The second criterion is that is has to be a blue state. That lets out otherwise decent, blue dot places like Austin, Texas, Athens, Georgia, or Berea, Kentucky, or various cities in the Carolinas. I do not want to be surrounded by slack-jawed yokels in Make America Great Again hats. Nevada has been blue for a few elections now, and Vegas is firmly Democratic, so I could think about the northern part of the state, such as Reno or Lake Tahoe.

But I think the center of the Venn diagram for moderate weather and liberal politics is the Pacific Coast--California, Oregon, or Washington (I also like the Pacific Time Zone because late night sports events are over well before bedtime). Southern California does have great weather, but I can't imagine living in the environs of Los Angeles, with their horrible traffic. San Diego is a possibility, but a lot of Republicans around. San Francisco is too expensive. If I moved to California, it probably would be to a town called Arcata, well north of Frisco, where the government is run by the Green Party.

Arcata would be hard to get to, though, with no transportation hub nearby. I don't want to be a hermit. So what about Washington or Oregon? Here is where I think I will land. Portland is said to be a great city (although a recent incident showcased they do have a racist sector), while there are several coastal cities and two college towns, Eugene and Corvallis, that are highly rated. They also have one of the best cities for hippies, Ashland.

I'm further drawn to Washington. That state hasn't gone Republican in a presidential election since Ronald Reagan's landslide in 1984. They haven't had a Republican governor since 1985. They currently have two Democratic senators (both women) and haven't had a Republican senator since 2001. The Eastern part of the state is largely Republican (three out of nine congressmen are GOP) but the West Coast is solidly liberal.

Throw in the fact that my ex-girlfriend, who is still one of my best friends, inherited a house from her grandfather in Lacey, Washington. She wants to get the hell out of Vegas, too, and she's lived here nearly fifty years. Lacey is right next to the capital, Olympia, which I think is my place to go. It's very liberal-friendly, the weather is moderate (if it does snow, it hardly ever affects traffic) with the only downside being rain. But I like rain--it's one of the things I miss about living in the desert. It gets less rain than Miami or New Orleans, anyway.

So, by this time next year I may be there, or someplace else. It's nice to have the freedom of movement, which not all countries have.

Friday, July 07, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola's strangely toothless remake of Don Siegel's film from 1971 that was a Clint Eastwood vehicle. Coppola has said she wanted to focus more on the women, and that's true, but she has also removed almost all of the lurid, Southern Gothic nature of the previous film, and instead has presented a bland entertainment.

The story of the two films is pretty much identical--a wounded Union soldier, in this case Colin Farrell, is found by one of the girls of a largely abandoned boarding school. She helps him, and much to her reluctance, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman), takes him in. The presence of a man in a female-only enclave stirs up desires and jealousies, especially those of the spinster teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and a precocious teenager (Elle Fanning) that leads to tragedy.

The only way in which Coppola's film exceeds Siegel's is the way it looks--the cinematography is stunning. Coppola changes the location from Mississippi to Virginia, and I'm not sure how much Spanish moss there is in Virginia, but Philippe Le Sourd does a magnificent job of capturing the moonlight and magnolias South.

But here is what Coppola has removed, and I think to the detriment--in the 1971 film, the headmistress had an incestuous affair with her brother. There is a scene in which Confederate troops show menace and threaten rape. The nubile teenager tells her age as 17, and basically throws herself at Eastwood. The climactic scene, which I won't reveal here, is a prolonged, suspenseful scene in Siegel's film, but in the Coppola version it's over in about thirty seconds.

Perhaps most importantly, Coppola does not retain the slave character played by Mae Mercer in the 1971 film (it is explained away in one line--"the slave have run off"). Many critics have written that Coppola has made a Civil War film that doesn't even talk about the issues of the Civil War. Indeed, this could have just as easily been a German soldier in a French school, or an American soldier in a Japanese one, or so on.

But I think that's a little unfair, because all of Coppola's films are about people who are trapped, mostly women. Whether it's Tokyo, the Chateau Marmont, or Versailles, she's interested in characters who are invisibly chained to a way of life. But in The Beguiled, who is trapped? Kidman and the girls, as prisoners of the way of life that is "gone with the wind?" Or Farrell, who is literally a prisoner of a school full of girls who lock him in his room and basically emasculate him.

If I had not seen the original film (which I did over the weekend) I might have liked this better, as it does not compare well. If I hadn't, I might have though to myself, "Is that all there is?" but I know that there is more, and Coppola took it out and added not much of anything.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

You Only Live Twice

Taking a break from my look at Roger Moore Bond films, I go back fifty years to the release of You Only Live Twice, after which came the first of Sean Connery's retirements as 007 (he would come out of retirement twice). It's a solid Bond film, full of the usual tropes, and gave us the lair under a volcano.

As I read about The Spy Who Loved Me, I was reminded that much of that film was "borrowed" from You Only Live Twice. In the older film, a criminal organization (SPECTRE) steals space capsules from both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., hoping to start a war (in The Spy Who Loved Me, it's submarines). There's a large evil headquarters to destroy, complete with metal doors that are supposedly impregnable. There is no memorable henchman, but the key villain, Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) does get away. He's been back many times, and is still alive after Spectre. Both villains in these films prefer ichthyological murders--Curt Jurgens uses a shark, Blofeld piranha. There is even a cigarette used as a weapon in both films.

There is also the usual misogyny. Bond has sex with by my count four women (two die, one by piranha) and three are initially resistant but succumb to his charms. When he meets the head of the Japanese secret service, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) he is treated to a bath, tended to by four geisha girls. Tanaka tells him in Japan, the man is boss, and Bond grunts agreement. Later, to go under cover as a Japanese man (ludicrous on its face) he marries a a female Japanese agent. "Is she pretty?" is all he has to ask. Tanaka has a good joke by telling him she's a pig, but she ends up to be the beautiful Kissy Suzuki (she is not referred to by name in the film, but is in the book, in which she bears Bond a child and dies).

The action is fairly usual. There's a fight with about a hundred dockworkers, a chase with Bond riding in a mini-helicopter, and then the apocalyptic ending, with Bond managing to destroy the evil spaceship before it can snatch another American one (when I first saw this as a kid, I was horrified by the death of the astronaut in the pre-credits sequence, who is left on a cut tether in outer space, probably to asphyxiate).

Again there's the endless resources of SPECTRE, with its employees in red and yellow jumpsuits and lots of guys in lab coats and clipboards and someone counting down to help us out (as well as having its own space program). The only departure from the usual Bond film is that it is set almost entirely in Japan. Bond admits he had never been there before (odd, since he was a Naval Commander during World War II) but did take a first in Oriental languages at Cambridge, so can speak the native tongue.

It's no wonder Connery tired of the role. He was coaxed back for Diamonds are Forever and the non-canonical Never Say Never Again. In my opinion, though, he did make the best Bond.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

The Gleaners and I

The second of the three films of the 25 best of the century (so far) as determined by The New York Times is another one that completely missed my purview, a 2000 documentary called The Gleaners and I. It is by Agnes Varda, whom I certainly know, having seen Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond, but this one missed me.

It is a very short and personal film about gleaners, as you might guess. But gleaning is a word that covers a lot of ground, so to speak. She was inspired by a painting by Jean-Francois called "The Gleaners," depicting three women gathering the harvest, presumably of wheat. This is the old-fashioned meaning of the word. Once the harvest comes, the food has to be collected, and back then it was backbreaking work. Today is it done by machines, but Varda finds some old-timers who used to do it by hand.

But gleaning is more than that. Most farmers leave to rot tons of food they don't need. Potato farmers, for instance, get rid of potatoes that are too large or too small, and just leave it on the ground. In France (don't know about the U.S.) it is perfectly legal for the poor or thrifty to go on private land and pick unwanted vegetation. Varda visits camps where indigents live, mostly surviving on the waste of farmers.

In the city, gleaning is better known as scavenging. This is done for food, and I know in the U.S., as well as many other places, I imagine, there is a subculture of those who live on food they find in Dumpsters. Most stores and restaurants throw out vast quantities of food, mostly food that has passed its expiration date, but those are cautious and the food is still perfectly good, if you can get over the fact that it's been in the trash. I don't know if I could. I was shocked to see people eating perishables, like meat, they found in the garbage.

Gleaning also extends to junk, and what we Americans call picking (there's a whole TV show built around it). Varda visits artists who make work out of junk, and she herself finds a clock with no hands, which she displays in her home. She likes that no time passes on it (she notices gray hair and is disturbed by the lines in her hands, which she photographs close up).

Finally, Varda sees herself as a gleaner, as what she has collected--the stories, the people, the culture--she puts in her movie. She shot the movie on a hand-held camera, herself, in video. It's a small little film but it says a lot about the human quest for survival, and the nature of art. And, by the way Academy, why hasn't Varda been given an honorary Oscar? She's one of the last of the New Wave filmmakers, and as she shows in this video that is now 17 years old, she's not getting any younger.