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Thursday, August 31, 2017

Hurricane Harvey

A natural disaster can really test a president's mettle. Especially when that catastrophe seems to be a result of climate change, and you're a president who doesn't believe in it.

Hurricane Katrina was a major fuck-up for George W. Bush, whose most famous quote may end up being, "Heck of a job, Brownie!" His administration was too late to recognize the seriousness of the storm, and the tepid response and tin-eared comments (by, among others, his mother) led to a direct hit on his already shitty presidency.

On the other hand, Barack Obama may have had Hurricane Sandy to thank for being re-elected in 2012. He was on the ground quickly, got effusive praise from Republican blowhard Chris Christie, and seemed empathetic.

As for Hurricane Harvey, which is now the third "storm of the century" in the last twelve years, the Trump administration is showing it's true colors. Donald Trump did visit the storm, wearing one of his Chinese-made baseball caps (which he mentioned are for sale on his Web site) and wished the storm victims good luck. But, unlike even Bush, he did not meet with any storm victims. Perhaps there isn't enough hand sanitizer for him to do that.

Trump is a very strange person, beyond being a bad president. He seems to lack any empathy at all, which I believe classifies someone as a psychopath (I looked up the difference between psychopath and sociopath--a psychopath has no conscience while a sociopath does, but it's weak). His obtuseness is quite amazing, given that he has a staff and you would think of them would point out his lack of grace. But no, he comes to Texas, brags about the size of the crowd, and then moves on to Missouri, which he reminds us, he won big.

If that weren't enough, there is still no head of FEMA or the NAOO, and he has proposed cuts in FEMA so that a tax cut for billionaires can be funded. He still talks about the stupid and completely impractical wall, while infrastructure crumbles. Then he pardons the sadistic villain Joe Arpaio, and talks of eliminating DACA. The guy is truly the Grinch. When will his heart grow by three sizes?

The severity of Harvey took some off guard. It has produced more rainfall than other storm since they've been recording these things. It is obvious to anyone paying attention that global warming may not cause more hurricanes, but they increase their destruction. Hurricanes feed off of warm water, which we have more of, making them more powerful.

Like mass shootings, which prompt anyone with a conscience that we should do something about gun control, Republicans turn a blind eye to this kind of rhetoric. They are like children who cover their ears and start shouting gibberish when there is something they don't want to hear. It is a disgrace that this ignorance (which is, of course, funded by oil companies) will lead to a permanently damaged planet.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017


I haven't had a chance to comment on the passing of Sam Shepard about a month ago. I wrote about his work as a playwright here but he was also a very good actor. Mostly he played supporting parts, and in his later years specialized in cranky old men. He plays one as the lead in the 2011 film Blackthorn.

Director Mateo Gil has a simple gimmick: imagining that Butch Cassidy survived the army attack in Bolivia in 2008. That is Shepard, who is living a quiet life breeding horses. When he hears that Etta Place has died, he thinks it's time to go home (she bore him a son that he's never seen). He withdraws all his money (telling the manager he's never been so well received in a bank before) and is set to go when he's ambushed by a Spaniard, and his horse, with all his money on it, runs off.

This Spaniard (Eduardo Noriega) has stolen money from a mining company. He promises Shepard half the money if he helps him. Against his better judgment, Shepard helps him, but once again he's hunted. If you remember those scenes from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Paul Newman kept saying, "Who are those guys?" you'll feel a sense of nostalgia as Shepard tries to outpace a posse.

There are also flashback scenes, with Butch as a younger man, played by the Kingslayer himself, Nicolas Coster-Waldau. One flashback introduces a Pinkerton agent, played by Stephen Rea (another of my favorite actors) who thinks he has finally caught them. He will play an important part at the end.

Blackthorn (named after the pseudonym Cassidy--which was also a pseudonym--uses) is an okay movie, but works better for those who cherish Westerns and Western history. There is a controversy about whether Cassidy and the Sundance Kid died that day, and this film doesn't state anything definitively, it just plays a what if. The film was shot entirely in Bolivia, which I don't know much about but has some spectacular scenery, including salt flats that are entirely white.

Shepard had a very eccentric and wonderful acting career. He mostly played down-home kind of guys, but he even did Shakespeare (as the Ghost in Hamlet). He always seemed to play a guy who didn't put up with bullshit, the kind of guy you'd want to drink with and have your back (he did play a few villains, though). I'll miss that. He's gone too soon.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Rattle That Lock

After listening to Roger Waters' new album a few weeks ago, I decided to check out another former member of Pink Floyd, David Gilmour, who released Rattle That Lock last year. While Waters was in an angry political mood, Gilmour is more contemplative, letting his guitar do most of the talking.

I don't play guitar and don't know much about it at all, but it's amazing how Gilmour has an instantly recognizable sound. He makes great use of sustain, and his notes are clear and biting. That is evident from the get-go, in the first track, an instrumental called "5 a.m." There are also two other instrumentals.

In the tracks with lyrics, they are cryptic and familiar Pink Floyd themes. Gilmour took over the writing for Pink Floyd after Waters left, so the last few albums were his, and they sound much like Rattle that Lock. Many of the songs are co-written by Gilmour's partner, Polly Samson.

The songs that I liked best were "Any Tongue" and "Today," with "The Girl in the Yellow Dress" bringing out the jazz man in Gilmour.

This is a nice record, nothing transcendent and nothing as good as Pink Floyd. It's interesting that when bands break up, usually because of personal differences, the parts never equal the sum. Only the Rolling Stones seem to realize that. They do their solo albums, but damn if they don't stick together, put out another album, and tour.

Monday, August 28, 2017

The Fireman

I've read all three of Joe Hill's novels--Heart-Shaped Box, NOS4A2U, and now The Fireman, and I wonder if success has spoiled him. The Fireman is another example of a good book that has hidden inside a much fatter one, over 700 pages. I know Joe Hill is his own man and changed his name to establish his own reputation away from his father, Stephen King, but like his old man, these books are getting too long.

The Fireman is not really horror, as all of the bad news is biological. A spore, dubbed Dragonscale, has infected the populace. It causes people to spontaneously combust. He has some fun with it using the names of real people: "Then Glenn Beck burned to death on his Internet program, right in front of his chalkboard, burned so hot his glasses fused to his face, and after that most of the news was less about who did it and more about how not to catch it."

The main character is Harper Willowes, a nurse, who works tirelessly at her local hospital. Somehow she catches it, and this sends her husband, a failed writer of course, into a tizzy. She ends up in hiding with others of those with the spore in an old camp, which becomes something like a cult. Those with the spore have come to like it, and can almost control it by singing. One fellow who can really control it, making fire shoot out of his hand, is John Rookwood, known as the Fireman.

Hill seems to be saying several things at once. Of course, the Dragonscale resembles other plagues, and the isolation of those who suffer from it, like AIDS. But the camp full of people splinters into factions. The ostensible leader, Father Storey, is a fair-minded man, but when he is conked on the head and goes into a coma, his daughter, Carol, becomes something of a tyrant.

Parts of the book are very good, especially the finale, which features the unlikely name of Martha Quinn, MTV V-J. “She came back from the eighties to save mankind. Martha Quinn is our only hope.”

But there's something amiss here. I could never buy into the book. The first thing I would do if I had the disease would be to stay in water most of the time--Hill never says if that would work (I would think things wouldn't burn underwater). His use of Harper's husband and a radio broadcaster called the Marlboro Man as villains is heavy-handed. And there's just so many scenes of people lighting up like matches. He also has a the somewhat amateurish way of obvious foreshadowing at the end of chapters, such as: “We’ll have to take it slow from here on out,” the Fireman said. He had that one wrong"

Like his dad, Hill makes great use of popular culture. In addition to Glenn Beck and Martha Quinn, there are many other mentions of it. My favorite line is: “Men who love the Stones are fixated on cock."

I like about half of The Fireman, and it should have been about half the size.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A View to a Kill

Roger Moore's seventh and last Bond film was 1985's A View to a Kill, and he went out on a bad note. Even he didn't like the film. About the only good things to say about it are the opening song, by Duran Duran, and Christopher Walken as the villain. He is at some of his most Christopher Walkeniness.

Moore was 57 when he made the film, far too old, and was older than his co-star, Tanya Roberts', mother. There is a scene where Walken machine guns several people to death, which is a bit harsh for a Bond film, and Grace Jones as the villain's henchwoman is wasted. The film does make good use of a couple of icons, though, the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Walken plays an industrialist (is there a Marxist interpretation of Bond films, because the bad guys are usually military or industrial) who wants to corner the market on microchips, so he figures he'll flood Silicon Valley by causing a massive earthquake. Bond, in his usual style, actually meets the villain (this time at a horse auction--Walken also cheats at horse-racing by using steroids).

Bond will meet Roberts, the daughter of an oil man screwed over by Walken, and will join forces. Roberts gives a particularly wooden performance and somehow manages to escape out of a mine and walk on top of the Golden Gate Bridge while still wearing heels.

Walken is a delight, though. He seems to be having more fun than anyone. The film tells us he was a baby experimented on by the Nazis, giving him superior intelligence but making him a psychopath. David Bowie was originally to play the role but he couldn't have topped Walken, who even laughs when he is about to die.

The franchise went on to Timothy Dalton for the next two films, and Roger Moore continued to make pictures, but not on a Bond level. Some of the films he made were Spiceworld and Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. This was also the last film for Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny, who had been in all fourteen Bond films up to that time.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Red River

You may be wondering why it took me so long to see Red River, one of the greatest American Westerns by one the greatest American directors, Howard Hawks, but I have no good answer for you. I did see it this afternoon (a perfect film for a lazy Saturday afternoon) and I can tell you it lives up to its reputation.

One of John Wayne's best pictures that wasn't made by John Ford, Red River is all about cattle, but secretly about fathers and sons. It's somewhat Shakespearean in tone, and a key scene in which the son usurps the father's power reminds me of the scene in which Henry IV catches his son Hal trying on the throne.

Wayne is Thomas Dunson, who at the film's opening leaves a wagon train with one cow, one bull, and a crotchety old friend (Walter Brennan, who else?) and heads south toward the Rio Grande to start his own ranch. He leaves behind his girl (Coleen Gray), but later will learn she was killed when the wagon train was attacked my Comanches.

Escaping that attack was a teenage boy, Matthew Garth, and Wayne and Brennan take him along. After fourteen years and a Civil War, Matthew will grow up to be Montgomery Clift, and Wayne will have a huge spread. But he's broke, with no one to sell the cattle to. He decides to drive them up to Missouri.

He hires a crew, including a gunman, played by John Ireland (who has the name Cherry Valance, which must have been where S.E. Hinton got the name for the ideal girl in The Outsiders). They head north, with a famous scene in which each cowboy gets a close-up while he yells, "Yee-ha!" or something to that effect.

Tensions run high. There's a stampede, which kills the guy who was talking about his future (a cliche, but always a good one). The company is warned about border ruffians attacking drives over the Missouri border. Ireland says he heard the railroad has extended to Abilene, Kansas, which would be a better destination. But Wayne is adamant, and becomes more and more tyrannical as he kills two men who want to quit and is ready to hang two more when Clift takes over. Wayne swears he will kill him.

Red River is an exciting film for Western fans as well as something a Freudian might enjoy. Wayne has become power mad, and earns his exile, while Clift, who has thus far followed orders, realizes his adopted father has gone too far. Later he will meet a rather forward woman (Joanne Dru) who will fall in love with him. She actually ends things.

The ending is a cop out when it comes to Shakespearean endings, but it was 1948 and this is not a film ahead of its time (although the story it was based on is more decisive). But the lead up to it is powerful. Hawks, who made dozens of great movies, knows what strings to pull to make our emotions jump. Who will we be pulling for? Wayne or Clift?

Red River was listed as the fifth-best Western by the AFI. Ford, upon seeing the film, said of Wayne, "I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act." He could, when he wanted to, and he does here.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Ingrid Goes West

Black humor is hard, because walking the thin line between funny and mordant is precarious. Some films end up being too silly, and others tilt the way of mawkish. Ingrid Goes West almost falls off on the side of mawkishness, but manages to be a poignant commentary on the role of social media in the lives of the lonely.

Aubrey Plaza stars as someone we don't know too much about, other than that she is prone to stalking. The film opens with her crashing the wedding of an acquaintance and getting institutionalized. Her mother has recently died, and we get the impression she was her only companion. But then she discovers one of those new breeds of celebrity I have a hard time understanding--the social media celebrity, who gathers followers and then gets paid by companies to praise their brands.

This is Elizabeth Olsen (the second film I've seen with her in a week) and she impresses Plaza with her exquisite taste, whether it's food, clothing, decorating, or books. With the money her mother left her, she decides to move to Venice Beach, California and befriend Olsen.

She starts with the dubious plan of kidnapping her dog and returning it, which works. Plaza and Olsen strike up a friendship (also with Olsen's husband, a hipster with a man-bun played well by Wyatt Russell), and she also develops an attraction with her neighbor, O'Shea Jackson Jr. What's interesting about Plaza's character is that when she feels as if she's liked and appreciated she behaves perfectly normally. It's only when her friendship is threatened, as it is by the arrival of Olsen's loutish brother, than she starts getting crazy.

The film was directed by Matt Spicer and co-written by Spicer and David Branson Smith. I found the script's insight into social media and our nation's craze for our phones to be spot-on. "Where's my phone?" is the first thing that Plaza says upon awakening in a hospital bed. She spends her days and nights going through Instagram, robotically clicking "heart" on all the pictures. She appears to have no inner life, only a need to be attached to those she sees on her phone. She's like the technologically advanced Eleanor Rigby.

One is left with questions. Was she employed? Was she able to function in society? The script could have rounded her out a tad more. Otherwise, this film is as sharp about social media addiction as The Lost Weekend was about alcoholism. It's just another way to fill our lonely lives.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

I Know You Want to See Me Naked

"I know you want to see me naked," Rihanna sings in "Wild Thoughts," one of the videos nominated for the MTV Video Awards. The show is coming up this Sunday, and I'm taking my fourth annual look at the five nominees for Best Video (even though MTV doesn't show music videos anymore).

And yes, Rihanna, I would like to see you naked. This year's quintet of videos all have some sort of comment on female body image, some stereotypical, others with a little more thought. Alessia Cara, a singer whom I had never heard of before, is one of the nominees for "Scars to Your Beautiful," a song about people who are not conventionally beautiful but nonetheless attractive in a "beauty is skin deep" kind of way. It's a nice sentiment, and I hope those youngsters who like the song take the message to heart. But the song is pretty bland, and the video, directed by Aaron A., has nothing to recommend. It's simply Cara standing in an empty room, intercut with shots and interviews of people with some kind of body issue, such a man with half an ear, or an obese woman. I suspect this got nominated because of the message, not the quality of the video.

Also speaking to body image is Kendrick Lamar, in his video "Humble," directed by David Meyers. Now, I can't stand the song, but that's an old man talking. The video, however, is very visually interesting, if not a touch blasphemous. It has Lamar dressed as the Pope, and in a recreation of "The Last Supper," with Lamar in Jesus' seat. It also has him rolling on table full of money, an homage to the old Grey Poupon commercials, and a scene with Lamar's head on fire. A song about rap stars being humble sounds inherently like a contradiction, which may be the joke, and there's a verse about him being tired of Photoshopped images. He wants to see "asses with stretch marks."

The other three videos use the female body as simply eye candy. The aforementioned "Wild Thoughts," by DJ Khaled, with Rihanna and Bryson Tiller, directed by Colin Tilley, is very colorful, but not terribly interesting. It's full of hip-hop posturing (DJ Khaled, not exactly an Adonis, does that thing where rap guys cross their arms, which I thought would be old hat by now). The star is Rihanna, who is in some gorgeous costumes and is a genuine star. Her vocal on this song is hypnotic.

Another genuine star is Bruno Mars, and he's up for "24K Magic." But again, the song is fairly routine, and there's nothing special about the video, directed by Mars and Cameron Duddy. Mostly it's just him and a few buddies dancing in Vegas, wearing what I assume are the latest fashions (loud button-down shirts and shorts). There are also a bunch of girls in skimpy bikinis.

There's also plenty of girls in skimpy bikinis in The Weeknd's "Reminder," directed by Kid Studio. Right away I didn't like the song because it has auto-tune (so does Mars' song) and the video is boring, just shots of The Weeknd and his friends hanging out around a private plane, which seems to be another example of hip-hop excess. I have no idea how this got nominated.

So if I had a vote I'd cast it for Meyers and Lamar, the only video here that shows any ambition. (I particularly liked the use of an anamorphic lens while Lamar is riding a bicycle). It also shows Lamar golfing--will this be the new trend among hip-hop artists?

I note that there are no rock acts in this category. They do have their own category, and the nominees are from the usual suspects: Green Day, Foo Fighters, Fall Out Boy, Coldpay, and Twenty One Pilots, which I'm not sure is really rock. So there you have it--rock is now a ghettoized music form.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Sport of Kings

The Sport of Kings, by C.E. Morgan, was a finalist for this year's Pulitzer Prize and I don't what the panel was thinking. This was a very disappointing book, so over-written it was sometimes funny, and I'm sure that was not the author's intention. Somewhere rattling around in there is a good book about horse racing, but this is padded and lugubrious.

The book is a saga about a family of Kentuckians. Henry Forge is the central character. We first see him as a boy, dealing with an overbearing father who is a farmer. The family has grown rich and was one of the first families to settle the region. "God, how he hated his father, loved him, hated him—regardless, all the tangled roots of his inherited heart grew forever in the same direction: I am his."

Henry's father is a racist, and when Henry's mother dallies with a black servant there is hell to pay (the servant disappears). Henry becomes fascinated with horses, but the father says there will never be horses bred on the farm. But of course he will die, and as soon as he does Henry goes into the thoroughbred business.

Morgan knows her stuff about horses and racing, and those is the best parts of the book. Forge Farms will become a successful outfit, and an offspring of Secretariat (many real horses are mentioned) becomes his dream horse. The description of the Kentucky Derby is thrilling, and I honestly couldn't predict how it would come out.

I could predict other parts of the book. Henry inherits his father's racism, so we know that his headstrong daughter, Henrietta, will have an affair with a black man. Sure enough, she hires Allmon Shaughnessy, an ex-con, as a groom. He gets his own section, describing his life as the biracial son of a single mother in Cincinatti. This part of the book was the least interesting, as I think we've heard this story a million times.

Morgan frequently goes into a mode that is stream of consciousness that I found pretentious and silly. "It’s all her fault—seductress! She was too voluptuous, too hot-blooded and luxuriant. She lay in the undulatory grasses under green, fireworking trees, drunk on the liquor of Nature when the Other pricked her lip and butterflied her and split the red carbuncle." So goes a sex scene. As a writer of erotica myself, I find almost all literary sex scenes bad because they try to go high and don't mention the dirty bits. Split the red carbuncle? At one point she turns to the reader and asks, "Or is all this too purple, too florid?" Yes.

As long as Morgan sticks to horses this is acceptable. She writes: "The breeders are breeding bigger horses on weaker legs, the owners rarely live around the horses and most are in it for the money or the bragging rights, the trainers and the vets are shooting them up with drugs and running
them injured, and the jockeys are making big bucks on their backs." But lest you feel too bad about the horses, she also writes, "If you closed every racetrack in the world, hung every bridle and threw open every paddock, horses would still race one another on the open plain."

The Sport of Kings is a decent 300-page book trapped in a sloppy 560 page book.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Wind River

Wind River, Taylor Sheridan's directorial debut, is a solid crime drama, not as expansive as the films of his scripts for Sicario and Hell or High Water. He doesn't seem to be aiming as high, and that's fine. This is the kind of movie that when you're struggling to agree to something on VOD everyone should be okay with.

The film is set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, Jeremy Renner, a worker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (he hunts predators, hint) finds a young woman, dead. She was a friend of his teenage daughter, who died three years earlier. The young woman ran several miles, barefoot, through the snow.

Since an Indian reservation is federal land, the FBI must be brought in. That's in the person of Elizabeth Olsen, who is not very experienced (she arrives in frigid Wyoming wearing only a windbreaker). She, the tribal police chief (a very good Graham Greene) and Renner investigate (Renner, who is not law enforcement, ends up involved because of his tracking ability).

It really isn't much of a mystery. The law visits the trailer of three stoners and there's some violence. Renner, tracking some mountain lions, finds a clue that isn't even fully explained, and we see what happened to the young woman and her boyfriend before there's a final gunfight. The film is not really a whodunit, it seems more an excuse to show the way of life of rez Indians (it's not a pretty sight). At the end of the film, there is a P.S.A. tacked on that seems out of place, as the film didn't seem like a polemic.

But I can't be hard on this film. It's not great, but there's nothing wrong with it. In addition to Greene, there's another good performance by Gil Birmingham as the murdered girl's father.

Sheridan has proved himself as a screenwriter, but I need to see more from him as a director to see if he's got the right stuff.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Up the Down Staircase

In the category of "the more things change, the more they stay the same," consider Up the Down Staircase, a film about an inner-city school that was released fifty years ago. As I watched, it seemed not much different than what I faced when I taught at an inner-city school--too much bureaucracy, teachers who were in survival mode, and students who were completely unruly.

Many have heard Socrates' quote, attributed by Plato: "The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers." So complaining about kids is nothing new. Paul Lynde sang, in Bye Bye Birdie, "What's the matter with kids today?" and that was almost sixty years ago. Just think--the kids represented in Up the Down Staircase would now be in their late 60s, just the right age to be complaining about millennials.

Sandy Dennis stars as an idealistic English teacher. She's immediately disillusioned, as there is no time for teaching. She doesn't have enough supplies, or even desks, a window in her classroom is broken, and the students see her as raw meat. She is faced with a plethora of forms (it was amusing to see a bureaucracy before computers--imagine taking attendance in an actual book).

But of course she does her best, and is determined to reach a student (Jeff Howard) who is always getting kicked out. She faces disappointments, such as when a student who was improving drops out, and another student attempts suicide after being spurned by another teacher, who callously grades her love note right in front of her.

I recognized a lot of education today in this 1967 film. At my school there is an up and down staircase, although they are not labeled as such. Though things have changed in technology and teaching methods (no one believes in the lecture anymore--kids don't have the attention span for it) the film, directed well by Robert Mulligan, makes a trenchant statement about teaching in "troubled" schools, where kids fall through the cracks easily. A tyrannical dean treats kids like future criminals, while the teachers are left to fend for themselves.

Of interest in the cast is Jean Stapleton, the future Edith Bunker, as the office secretary.

Up the Down Staircase is gritty and authentic and even at fifty years old, still relevant.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Magical Mystery Tour

I think everyone knows that this year is the fiftieth anniversary of The Beatles' classic album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I wrote about it's fortieth anniversary ten years ago. But The Beatles released another album in 1967 that I think is better than Sgt. Pepper, even though it is not a true album, but half a film score and half a collection of singles.

Magic Mystery Tour was released in November of '67. The Beatles had made a movie of that title, which is almost completely unwatchable, and written some songs for it. Those occupy side one, but what to do about side two? (In Britain, it was released as EPs, which were not popular in the U.S.). So side 2 was a gathering of singles that had not appeared yet on an album. This is where the album soars.

I have a special attachment to this record because it is one of the first albums I bought with my own money. I was about 13, and earned money mowing my grandfather's lawn. He paid me four dollars, and I felt rich. I went to Crowley's department store (department stores used to have record departments, some still do) and bought it. I remember the moment to this day.

Side one kicks off with the title song, a rollicking introduction to the film and an okay song by Beatles standards. Then comes Paul's "Fool on the Hill," which Robert Christgau called the worst Beatles song ever (even worse that "Mr. Moonlight?") I'll admit the lyrics are horrible, but I don't think it's terrible. It is indication of how much the mellotron had become part of their instrument case.

Then comes the oddity "Flying," which is unique in a couple of ways: it is an instrumental, and it is credited to all four Beatles. It has a small charm to it. Following "Flying" is George's "Blue Jay Way,' which despite it's eerie sound is a straightforward tale of how he was waiting for a friend (Derek Taylor) to arrive at his rented house in the Hollywood Hills while he was struggling with jet lag. When I was taking a Hollywood tour we came across the street and I asked the tour guide about it. He said the signs were stolen all the time.

Next up is one of Paul's songs that John derided as "Granny music," "Your Mother Should Know" (it has the distinction of being the final song if you list their songs in alphabetical order--they never wrote a song beginning with Z). Paul loved old music hall-style songs, witness "Honey Pie," and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." It's fine, but nothing great.

Then comes a song that ws in the movie, but also a single, "I Am the Walrus." What does it say about me that this is my favorite Beatles' song? I wrote a paper about it in college. Mostly it is nonsense, in the vein of Lewis Carroll, whom John loved. The opening riff was taken from the sound a British police car siren makes. The song is sort of an alphabet soup of random words--John was amused that professors were giving courses on Beatle lyrics, so he challenged them to figure this one out. Some of the lines have meaning, such as "Element'ry penguin singing Hare Krishna," which a knock on that cult. But what to make of "Semolina pilchard, climbing up the Eiffel Tower?" Semolina, I learned way back when, is a kind of wheat, and pilchard is a fish.

The end of the song includes singers making mock laughter, and snatches of a BBC radio production of King Lear. Did John just turn on the radio to record whatever was on? As I wrote in my paper almost forty years ago, King Lear was Shakespeare's play about madness. And the line, "O, untimely death" would have a poignant meaning in 1980 when John was murdered.

Side 2 is the singles side. The A-side of "I Am the Walrus" was "Hello Goodbye," which is basic Paul but highlighted by the coda, which I believe was inspired by something called a "Tyrolean cadence." This is followed by perhaps the album's greatest masterpiece, "Strawberry Fields Forever." This was John's favorites of his, and an allusion to his youth when he and his mates played near an orphanage called Strawberry Fields. Paul wrote the somber introduction, and then John wrote the somewhat cryptic lyrics: "Living is easy with eyes closed, misunderstanding all you see." The orchestration of this song, with strings, bongos, and brass, plus great drumming by Ringo, make it one of the best Beatle recordings of all time. And that spasm of music at the end, in which we hear John say something--some say it's "I buried Paul," John says it was "Cranberry sauce." They always maintained a mystery about themselves.

Next up was Paul's bit of nostalgia, "Penny Lane," which is a real street in Liverpool (another place where street signs kept getting stolen) that does have a "shelter in the middle of the roundabout." The song is completely charming--I could listen to it over and over again, and is one of Paul's best vocals. It does have one line that invites philosophical musing: "The pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray. If she feels as if she's in a play, she is any way."

The penultimate song is "Baby, You're a Rich Man," which has an Indian flavor, courtesy of a keyboard sounding like an oboe. It's one of those songs that John and Paul stitched together--Paul had the chorus, John was working on the "How does it feel to be one the beautiful people," which was a shout out to the hippies in Haight-Ashbury.

The album ends with "All You Need Is Love," one of The Beatles most iconic songs. It was written for a television show, and they were asked to write something with a simple message. Today it might seem trite and naive to think "All you need is love," but there's a sweet optimism to it. The Beatles lip-synched to the record on TV, accompanied by a live orchestra and several big names in rock, like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Keith Moon in the chorus. There are several cameos of other songs--it starts with "La Marseilles" and in the coda we hear "All Together Now," "Yesterday" "She Loves You," and the song some credit to Henry VIII, "Greensleeves."

I've heard this record hundreds of times, and I listened to it on repeat in the car (my new school is a slightly longer drive, so I get to hear more music). So I spent more time listening to the instruments, and especially Ringo's drumming. He was such an underrated drummer. He hardly ever got a drum solo (I can only think of one, in "The End") but had an uncanny feel for a song. His drumming on "Blue Jay Way" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" matches up with any of the other great drummers of the day. He did not get a song to sing on this record, but his presence is very much felt.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Logan Lucky

Steven Soderberg has come out of a short retirement to direct Logan Lucky, a heist movie set in the American South. If I didn't know better, I would have thought this was a Coen Brothers' movie, because it is full of seemingly dumb characters and lots of amusing details. Then again, Soderberg has never had a particular style--he has made all kinds of movies--so I guess this one is his Raising Arizona.

Written by Rebecca Blunt, which is thought to be a pseudonym, Logan Lucky concerns two brothers (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) from a West Virginia family. Driver thinks the family is cursed--he lost a hand in Iraq, and Tatum has just been fired from his job because he has a blown-out knee. His ex-wife (Katie Holmes) is planning on moving to another state and taking their adorable daughter with them. What else to do? Plan a heist of the Charlotte Motor Speedway (where Tatum worked).

The movie does not make much attempt to be plausible. The heist is planned down to the smallest detail, with dozens of people involved, and some of the events are pretty far-fetched (an entire prison has to throw a riot, for example). But if you don't get caught up in the details, Logan Lucky is very funny and entertaining, with a winking sense of humor.

The brothers enlist Daniel Craig (doing a very fine job with a Southern accent) to be their explosives man. Problem--he's in prison. He also wants his two brothers involved, but they act like two in-bred hillbillies. Also part of the plan is the Logans' sister (Riley Keough). By the end, you'd think there wouldn't be enough money to go around.

Most of the film is the heist itself, which proceeds at a casual pace, given the circumstances. It takes place during the Coca-Cola 600, a major race, so there are NASCAR references galore (quite a few drivers make cameos, but I don't know NASCAR so I didn't recognize them). There are an incredible amount of steps involved, as they need to bust Craig out and get him back before he is missed, they need to disable the credit card machines at the speedway so there is more cash, and they must do this while the place is crawling with security guards.

The end of the film drags a bit, as it is about the investigation into the robbery. Hillary Swank, perhaps the most obscure two-time Oscar winner of all time, makes an appearance as an FBI agent.

Why I give Logan Lucky a thumbs up is because of the little things. That the bar where Driver works is called Duck Tape. That the prisoners' demand during the riot is that they get the new Game of Thrones novel, which the warden (Dwight Yoakam) has to tell them hasn't been written yet. That Craig has to alleviate doubts about his explosive device by writing the chemical formula on the wall. These all made me laugh, as did Driver, who I'm learning is an improvement to every movie he's in. I won't quickly forget how he says the word "cauliflower" in his down-home accent.

The bad? Seth McFarlane giving a terrible performance as an English NASCAR sponsor. He's unrecognizable--when I saw his name in the closing credits I couldn't figure out who he played. The character is totally unnecessary.

It should be noted that this is the second film this year that John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," plays an important part. And both of those films, this one and Alien: Covenant, feature Katherine Waterston. Believe it or not.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2016

The 2016 volume of The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror is a strong one, as almost all the stories have some value. The first half-dozen or so are extremely good, starting off with "Sing Me Your Scars," by Damien Angelica Walters, which is kind of a riff on Frankenstein, as a mad scientist stitches together a perfect woman. That's followed by "There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom," a very eerie story about a woman who cares more about her doll collection than anything else, with pretty good reason, it turns out.

There are a couple of Lovecraftian stories. "Windows Underwater," by John Shirley, alludes to the human/fish hybrids, while a drolly funny "The Deepwater Bride," by Tamsyn Muir, sees Lovecraft's gods among suburban teenagers. It kicks off, "In the time of our crawling Night Lord’s ascendancy, foretold by exodus of starlight into his sucking astral wounds, I turned sixteen and received Barbie’s Dream Car."

There are some mystery homages, too. "The Street of the Dead House," by Robert Lopresti, is "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" from the orangutan's perspective, and my favorite story in the collection is "Ripper," which is really a novella, which creates a character involved in the Jack the Ripper case. I'm a sucker for anything to do with Saucy Jack, and the author, Angela Slatter, is creative by making the character a woman disguising herself as a man to be a policeman. If I were a director I'd want to make it into a film.

Other good stories are "1Up," by Holly Black, which is about old-fashioned computer games, you know the ones you typed in a response and the computer gave you options? "The Greyness," by Kathryn Ptacek, is about Mary Wollstonecraft, and a mysterious woman in gray who watches over her, and the last story, "Corpsemouth," by John Langan, about a Scottish legend.

There are a few clinkers. Kaiju maximus® 'So Various, So Beautiful, So New'" by Kai Ashante Wilson, has a complicated title and I couldn't make heads or tails of it so I had to quit it. "The Lily and the Horn" is a fantasy that is so steeped in cliches, like unicorns, that I could only roll my eyes at it. Here's an example:"The ladies will bring the peacock soup, laced with belladonna and serpent’s milk, and the men...of Mithridatium, of the country of Yew, will stir it with spoons carved from the bones of a white stag," Not for me.

But overall this book bats about ,800, a good showing, and credit to editor Paula Guran.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Something Rotten!

It's a new season at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts here in Vegas, and the first show was Something Rotten!, a very funny musical that is catnip for anyone who likes Shakespeare and musical theater, or both.

Set in Shakespeare's day, two brothers, Nick and Nigel Bottom (already we've got a Shakespeare joke) are playwrights who live in Shakespeare's shadow. They are going to do a play on Richard II, but find out that Shakespeare is already doing it. Nick is the businessman of the two, and he hears about a prognosticator in the seedy part of town. That turns out to be Nostradamus, or at least his nephew, Tom. Nick asks him to look into the future to find out what the hot thing in theater will be. "The musical!" he says.

Tom turns out to have a fuzzy view of the future, as he interprets bits and snatches of musicals. The number that he sings, "A Musical," is full of quotes from different musicals, and it was literally a showstopper. The cast had to stop for a minute to bask in the applause.

Meanwhile, Shakespeare is portrayed like a rock star, a preening peacock who "put the I in iambic pentameter." He gets wind of the brothers' new form, and goes undercover to investigate. Nick, heeding Tom's advice, has stolen Shakespeare's idea (even if he hasn't had it yet), but Tom tells him the title is "Omelette."

So there's a musical about eggs, which is funny, especially when we get a cast dressed like eggs. It's all silly fun.

There's a subplot with Nigel, who is the poet of the brothers, falling in love with the daughter of the local puritan leader (everything he says is a gay double entendre), and an even more minor one about Nick's wife disguising herself as a man to get a job. That part of the show is vastly underdeveloped.

As with many new musicals (this one is unusual these days for not being based on a movie, or someone's songs) the music is not remarkable. The music and lyrics are by brothers Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick. The book is where the show excels, with lots of great gags that are plays on musicals or Shakespeare, such as when the Omelette show has the line, "Frailty, thy name is egg." The book is by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O'Farrell.

It's a very good cast, the highlights being Rob McClure as Nick (somehow he reminded me of Paul Giamatti), and Blake Hammond as Tom.

Something Rotten! is a theater nerd's dream come true.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

How to Talk to Girls at Parties was a short story by the great Neil Gaiman, and then a graphic novel, with art by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba. It is soon to be a major motion picture, but looking at the cast list I see it has been greatly expanded. Instead, it would have made a better half-hour show. Pity the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits aren't still around.

It's really a one-joke story, but with broader implications if you want to see them. Enn and Vic are two fifteen-year-olds. Vic is the more cocksure of them, and leads Enn to a party. Enn is very shy an inexperienced, but tags along. Vic urges him to just talk to girls.

When they get there the party is in full swing, with strange music Enn has never heard before. Vic immediately connects with the girl who answered the door, Stella, while Enn just kind of wanders around until he finds a room with only one girl in it. He decides to talk to her.

She responds with words, though in English, make no sense. He goes along with it, though, as if she were chatting normally. Later he will meet two more girls who do the same thing. One says that she is a living poem, and three different things at once. The reader will get what's going on before Enn does, as all the girls called themselves "tourists." Vic, who took Stella downstairs, will end up running for his life.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties is both a gentle comedy about the foibles of hapless teen-age boys, and a primer on how teen-age boys should treat teen-age girls. It's a slim volume--64 pages, and can be read in one setting. For all the big stuff Gaiman has written, this seems like a throwaway. But a nice one.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Ghost Story

David Lowery's A Ghost Story is unlike any movie I've ever seen, and for the most part, that's a good thing. The title is literal, but it's not the kind of ghost story we're used to, which is also good. Instead of a fright-fest, it's a meditation on time and grief.

A couple, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, live in a small ranch house. The film has very little dialogue, which is good, because I couldn't hear what the two were saying anyway. I do know that Mara wanted to leave the house, but Affleck felt an affinity for it.

Early on Affleck is killed in a car accident. Mara identifies him in a hospital, but after a while he rises and starts walking, covered in his sheet like a kid at Halloween. No one sees him. A portal to, I suppose, the great beyond opens up, but he chooses not to enter it, and walks back to his house, where he will stay for a long, long time.

Mara eventually moves out, but Affleck is rooted to the spot. She never sees him, but he can make himself known. When she comes home after a date with another man he makes the lights flicker and knocks books off a shelf. There is a ghost in the house next door (wearing a floral sheet) that he can communicate with silently.

Different people come and go in the house. A single mother and her children are driven out by his antics. Other people move in, and we get the longest bit of dialogue when a man delivers a long monologue about how nothing really matters because we're all going to get swallowed by the sun. Affleck makes the lights flicker after he's done.

There's more that includes time-bending. Time for Affleck as a ghost is different than hours, as years go by like seconds. All the while he tries to chip away at paint to get a note that Mara left in a crack in a door jamb.

A Ghost Story is not scary, but it is spooky. Lowery's choice to have Affleck covered in a shroud was a good one. It might seem silly on paper, but having people going about their business while a shroud-covered man watches them silently is arresting. He has two black holes in the sheet, but we can't see his eyes.

The film is very slow moving. For the first fifteen minutes or so I thought it would be torture, because there's a long scene of Mara eating an entire pie, But it picks up and becomes absorbing.

Kudos also to Daniel Hart, who composed an excellent score.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tell Me I'm Pretty

I saw on social media a while back someone stating that rock was dead. This person clearly doesn't investigate enough, as there is still a lot of good rock out there if you look for it. You just have to look for it. The Grammy for Best Rock Album went to Cage the Elephant's Tell Me I'm Pretty, and I'm glad to say that it's good rock and roll.

I'm also glad to say that Cage the Elephant's stuff can be classified as garage rock. Looking through the credits, I see no mention of synthesizers. And singer Matt Shultz styles himself after Iggy Pop, so there's no auto-tune.

There are ten songs on Tell Me I'm Pretty and none of them are clunkers. They are all chugging, drive forward gems--no seven-minute epics, no slow love ballads. Relationships between men and the women they love are the subject of many of the songs, though. The best line on the record that made me laugh every time I heard it is from the closing track, "Portuguese Knife Fight": "I want to waste my life with you." What girl could resist that?

My favorite songs are "Cold Cold Cold," which has some excellent drum work by Jared Champion, "That's Right," which sounds a bit like a circus band, and "Too Late to Say Goodbye," which if you didn't tell me I could guess was released in 1966.

The album was produced by Daniel Auerbach of the Black Keys, and if you've read my reviews of them you know that's a positive thing.

About their name: I'd heard of Cage the Elephant, and always assumed "Cage" was a noun, like it was an elephant named Cage. But no, they got the name from a random lunatic who was screaming, "You must cage the elephant!" So it's a verb. Makes more sense.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Nazi Punks Fuck Off

This weekend's tragedy in Charlottesville made me think of the old Dead Kennedys song, "Nazi Punks Fuck Off," because that is what most Americans are thinking today, and what the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, said in kinder words. They should just go away.

The reactionary right has always been around us. In high school, thirty years ago, we did a unit on the lunatic fringe, and my teacher who was amused by these people more than disgusted, had some of their materials, such as a book called "Hitler Was My Friend." They were so tiny and so grotesque that no one took them seriously.

What's different about today is that this very vocal but very small minority has been emboldened by the Trump presidency. David Duke, who like mildew just won't go away, said as much when he said that Trump owed his election to them. We've seen videos of idiots yelling at people of color in stores, backing up their hatred with statements like, "Trump's in power now."

The image of hundreds of white nationalists walking down the street holding tiki torches is one of the most disturbing in the Trump era, and that's saying something. These men (mostly), bearing low IQs and psychological problems, whether it be low self-esteem or severe xenophobia, are angry about the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The removal of confederate statues has picked up steam lately, which is a good thing, but not for those who think the South should have won. I have written before on this space that these statues have a place in our culture, but only as museum artifacts, like items from slave quarters. Lee was a traitor, and has no business being celebrated in any town square.

But these nincompoops have another idea, and their fear of being marginalized (three hundreds years of white domination is not enough for them) gives them the willies. So, with Trump in office, and police showing a marked difference in their treatment of white offenders versus black, they crawl out of the woodwork like roaches.

Of course they have a right to speak and march, if they get the right permits. Just as people have the right to counter-protest. It's when two groups face each other that violence can happen. This is where Trump misguidedly says that it's "on both sides." The fact is, the racist faction are the violent ones. People marching for racial equality are usually peaceniks. They might fight back, though.

The event was capped by tragedy when a young white nationalist plowed a car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman. A whole nation wonders, "What was he thinking?" and the answer is blind hatred. And of course, these people are not that bright. They are, on average, uneducated. He has been captured and his trial should be a spectacle. I wonder what his defense will be? My brakes didn't work?

Many editorials and cartoons and statements are talking about what a dark day this was for America, and that's right. Nazis and the Klan had reached the state of cartoon villains. They hadn't gone anywhere, they just were hidden in the caves of embarrassment. With their hero Mr. Trump, who ran on a platform of racism and xenophobia, in office, though, we have to deal with them again, and they will be defeated and forced back into their holes.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Godfather Part II

After Robert De Niro made a splash in 1973 with Bang the Drum Slowly and Mean Streets, he was still unknown to the general public. Only film critics knew his name. But that changed somewhat in 1974, when he appeared as the young Vito Corleone and won an Oscar for The Godfather Part II, Francis Coppola's sequel to his amazing The Godfather.

Coppola, after making the number one grossing movie of all time (it was eclipsed by Jaws just a few years later) had complete creative control. He used two parallel stories. One of them is in the "present," and picks up where The Godfather left off. Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is one of the most powerful Mafia dons in the nation, lives in luxury on Lake Tahoe, and is looking to make a deal with Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg, based on Meyer Lansky) to open hotels in Havana, Cuba.

His plan is interfered with by one of his old capos, Frank Pentageli (Michael V. Gazzo) who is at war with another family in Brooklyn. He wants the go ahead to kill his rivals, but they are close to Roth, so Michael refuses. This all takes place during the party for the first communion of his son, similar to the first movie, which opened at Connie Corleone's wedding.

The other story takes us back to the turn of the century Sicily, where young Vito, nine years old, is orphaned by the local don. He makes it to America, and is quarantined at Ellis Island with smallpox. When we next see him, he's working at a grocery store and has started a family. A neighbor, who turns out to be the young Clemenza, introduces Vito to a life of crime when they burglarize a house and steal a rug. But the local don wants his cut of the money. Vito decides to kill him.

When it was first released, The Godfather Part II had mixed reviews. Some critics thought it was over long, and the back-and-forth story was confusing, which is odd since it's routine now. In something of an upset, it ended up winning the Best Picture Oscar (Chinatown had won the Golden Globe) and De Niro, nominated for Best Supporting Actor along with Strasberg and Gazzo, upset Fred Astaire, who was a sentimental favorite for The Towering Inferno. It's amazing that Astaire and De Niro, at polar opposites of acting style, could have been in the same category.

In the years that have followed, the sequel has been reconsidered. Roger Ebert, who is always honest when he made mistakes, reappraised it. I hadn't seen the film in a while, and when I watched it yersterday I was caught in its power. I think it's every bit the film The Godfather is.

While The Godfather was about the corruption of the American dream, Part II is more about the destruction of the soul of one man. We may think of the quote from Mark: "For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"as the film ends with Michael, alone, living in a fortress.

I think the parallel stories work great. They make great transitions, and show us how the immigrants--the Italians and Jews of New York--sidestepped the law to make their fortunes. In the other half, they are successful but live in a constant state of being hunted, either by the law (we see a great deal of Kefauver hearings) or by their rivals. "I don't want to wipe out everybody," Michaels tells his brother Tom (Robert Duvall), "just my enemies." But his enemies are just about everyone.

There's so much to love here. Gordon Willis returns as cinematographer (and was again overlooked by the Academy, who thought his films were too dark) and Nino Rota's score, along with Carmine Coppolas, Francis' father, is hauntingly beautiful (it was playing in my head all night). The recreation of 1916's Lower East Side is brilliant. And there are many small but great performances, including Bruno Kirby as young Clemenza, Gastone Maschin as Don Fanucci, and G.D. Spradlin as a corrupt senator.

But it is the principal performers who are remembered. I think this is one of, if not the best, performance by Pacino. This is before he turned into a bombastic ham, and still was able to control himself. He erupts a few time, like when he has the great line about his assassination attempt, when he was shot at in his house: "In my home? In my bedroom? Where my wife sleeps and my children come to play with their toys?" But mostly he does the slow burn. Watch his face as he listens to Spradlin insult his ethnicity, knowing he's plotting his revenge (he will frame Spradlin for the murder of a prostitute). Or the burning anger on his face when his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton) tells him she had an abortion. That was one angry face.

Gazzo is also great, and it was serendipity that he was in the film. Because Richard Castellano, who played Clemenza in the first film, could not agree to terms, his character was killed off and replaced with Pentageli, with his smoker's voice and Italian charm. Strasberg, the legendary acting teacher, had only made a few films in the '30s when Coppola tapped him. He shows that he's not just a great teacher, the way he seems like a kindly grandpa but then can agree to a hit by saying, "He's small potatoes." Amusingly, Strasberg, then 73 years old, was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer.

De Niro, for his part, does a superb job of not imitating Marlon Brando but capturing his essence. He has the husky voice, and while almost all of his lines are in Italian, one of his few English lines is "I'm gonna make him an offer he don't refuse." This time while I watched I noticed how well he moved, as he runs along the rooftop during the killing of Don Fanucci scene. That is such a great scene altogether. Fanucci helps himself to an orange from a fruit stand (continuing the orange as death theme) during the San Gennaro festival. De Niro waits for him on the landing of his apartment, unscrewing the light bulb. I loved the way Fanucci taps the bulb to get it to come on before De Niro shoots him. Breathtaking.

And then there's John Cazale as Fredo. His arc in the film is the most moving. Not the equal of his brothers, he's tolerated in the family business, but makes a deal with Roth, not realizing that it would be part of an assassination attempt on Michael. He wanted something for himself, as he was passed over for don. There are four great scenes: when Michael, at New Year's when the Cuban rebels have chased out the government, gives him the kiss of death and says, "Fredo, I know it was you. You broke my heart." Then, when the brothers talk on the porch. Fredo is almost supine in a chair, reflecting his spinelessness. "I'm smart!" he cries, bemoaning the way he has been treated. Michael disowns him.

They will reconcile at their mother's funeral, but it's chilling when Michael hugs him while at the same time giving his gunman, Al Neri, the go-ahead to kill him. Then, in the boat, while saying a Hail Mary, Fredo is murdered.

The Godfather Part II, along with The Godfather, are in my top ten favorite films. I usually just lump them into one film so I can have room for another. I'm glad that it held up. It's moving, horrifying, and expertly made.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Other Side

Roberto Minervini, an Italian, made this 2015 documentary about a certain segment of the American population. Just what they are on "the other side" of is not clear. And though this film was made while Obama was president, it's relevant now. This is Trump's America.

Minervini is in West Monroe, Louisiana, among the trailer trash. For the first two thirds of the movie he follows Mark, a forty-ish ex-con who lives in a trailer with Lisa. They both do a lot of drugs and Mark seems to be only intermittently employed (the film doesn't say if he's on public assistance). Mark allows Minervini amazing access. He is filmed as he breaks into a school with his nephew, has sex with Lisa (soft-core porn) and most disturbingly, shoots some kind of drug (meth?) into a visibly pregnant woman. That woman is also a stripper, who does her act with her big prominent belly.

This portion of the film is sad because Mark is clearly intelligent. Late in his segment he says he's going to turn himself in for three months in jail so he can get clean. Lisa asks if they can't get clean without jail, but he knows he can't be around the stuff.

The final third of the movie is scary stuff. It's a glimpse at one of those paramilitary groups that have machine guns and play soldier in the woods, preparing for martial law and their guns getting confiscated. The interesting thing about these guys is a lot of them are ex-military, yet they are preparing for a revolution and seem to have forgotten that the president is their commander-in-chief. Yet they put an Obama mask in a car and blow it up (Mark is also anti-Obama, calling him a nigger). The Obama mask makes another appearance on the head of a woman who is giving a man a blowjob.

These weekend warriors get a lot of press attention, and they are a lunatic fringe, but I'd be interested to see what they're doing now since I'm sure they are happy with Trump. One post from a deranged right-winget I saw on Facebook today called for martial law so all "libtards" could be rounded up. Maybe they are the ones that will fight Alex Jones' civil war if Trump is impeached.

Is this America? I hope not, but I wonder if this is how the world sees us. The last line of the movie is "Fucking America!" spoken by one of those who is waiting for the revolution. This could have been the title of the film.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Les Enfants Terribles

Jean-Pierre Melville's second film was Les Enfants Terribles, released in 1950, which was based on a novel by Jean Cocteau. The novel was published in 1929, and for many years Cocteau refused to allow it to be made into a film. He was impressed, though, with Melville's first film, La Silence de Mer, and allowed Melville to make it. But Cocteau kind of hung around the set, and the actors deferred to him, which made Melville mad.

It is a Melville film, though, with lots of interesting angles and noir touches, even before he started making noir films. In essence, the film is a black comedy (I thought a lot of it was funny) about two siblings who can't quit each other.

Elisabeth and Paul live with their invalid mother, who Elisabeth takes care of. Paul is at school, and has a boy-crush on a notorious miscreant. That boy, in a snowball fight, hits Paul in the chest, who collapses. The doctor says he has a weak heart and needs to rest. Then the mother dies, and the two young adults hardly ever leave the house. They are joined frequently by their friend Gerard.

Eventually Elisabeth gets a job as a model (the old-fashioned kind, who works in a dress shop) and meets a friend, whom she invites to live with them. Paul and this new girl, Agathe, have an instant love/hate reaction (she looks just like Paul's crush). Then Elisabeth marries a rich guy who up and dies, and leaves her a huge mansion, where the four of them play house and Elisabeth goes to great lengths to make sure Paul stays with her always.

The film is buoyed by the ebullient performance of Nicole Stephane as Elisabeth. She enjoys playing the martyr, and she and Paul are always fighting about something, but also playing secret games. Their relationship is not incestuous, but profoundly disturbing. Paul is played by Edouard Dermit, who has a lot of energy but little subtlety. Jacques Bernard is much better as Gerard, who somehow finds sustenance from these two weirdos.

The film has a claustrophobic feel, especially during those scenes in which Paul and Elisabeth are in the same small bedroom. When the film moves to the mansion, it still feels that way, because despite the 18 rooms the four seem to gravitate to the same room. Melville frequently shoots from the floor or from the ceiling, rarely from eye level, so we never feel comfortable with these characters.

I liked the film, which is narrated by Cocteau, but the whole thing seems unsure of itself. The ending is also very melodramatic and doesn't seem entirely authentic, although Elisabeth's actions are always unpredictable.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017


Roger Moore's sixth and penultimate appearance as James Bond was in one of the most implausibly titled movies of all time. When Ian Fleming wrote the book Octopussy, the word "pussy" still had more innocent connotations of referring to a cat (although, I'm sure he was well aware of its other meanings, otherwise how do you account for a character named Pussy Galore). But by 1983 everyone knew what a pussy was supposed to be. I remember the jokes going around the dorm when it came out--"What, does she have eight of them?"

Octopussy is also a pretty silly movie. It seems to try to continue the trend of making Bond films more spy-like and less buffoonish, with a plot about stolen Russian jewels and an attempt by a Russian general to set off an atomic bomb so disarmament will happen, and then he can invade Western Europe. Not ridiculously far-fetched.

But the film goes back to the winking at the camera attitude that Moore is associated with. In one sequence where he is escaping through an Indian jungle, chased by hunters on the backs of elephants, he encounters spiders, a tiger, a snake, and a crocodile. He also swings on vines while doing a Tarzan yell. That moments may be an all-time low for Bond films.

Some also complain that Bond, for the climax of the film, is in a clown outfit. I like that, because I like clowns (the first scene after the credits is of a clown being chased through the woods by a knife-thrower). But when the circus performers attack the lair of the chief villain (Louis Jordan, a Frenchman playing an Indian) it's just laughable.

The Bond "girl" is Maud Adams, who doesn't appear until after half the movie is over. The second Bond girl, Kristina Wayborn, doesn't get killed, which is unusual (sleeping with Bond is more dangerous than ice-road trucking). Who does get killed is Vijay Amritaj, who is a very good actor for a professional tennis player.

By this time Moore was tired of playing Bond. He only played it (Timothy Dalton and James Brolin auditioned) because Never Say Never Again, which brought back Sean Connery, was coming out the same year and the studio wanted an established star in the role. Moore would come back for one more Bond film.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden is a deliriously entertaining thriller, which will keep you guessing right up to the very end. It is also very erotic, especially if you like the sight of two beautiful naked Korean women in the throes of ecstasy.

Set during the Japanese annexation of Korea, The Handmaiden is a confidence game story, which I love. A dissolute crook (Ha Jung-woo) knows of a young woman (Kim Tae-Ri)who has been cloistered in her uncle's house her whole life. She has a fabulous inheritance waiting for her, which the uncle wants, so he's going to marry her (he is not her blood relation). Ha, who has talent as a forger, arranges to work for the uncle and plans to seduce the girl, marry her, have her committed to an insane asylum, and take her money.

To aid her, he employs a ragamuffin (Kim Min-Hee), an expert pickpocket, to get a job as the lady's handmaiden, and encourage her to marry Ha. But when Min-Hee and Tae-Ri fall in love (their first sex scene includes a shot from the point of view of a vagina) everything changes. The film is in three parts, each revealing a secret, as some of the previous scenes are shown again but from another angle. I found it ingenious, as each character has a card up their sleeve.

The Handmaiden was directed by Park Chan-Wook, director of The Vengeance Trilogy. It's a lush film, with stylish costumes and sets, and beautifully photographed by Chung Chung-hoon.

What gives the film extra spice is the subtext of pornography. Early on we are told that the lady (Kim Tae-Ri), is forced by her uncle to read to guests. We also learn he has an extensive book collection. What we learn later is that she is reading antique pornography, and that his collection is erotica. "I'm a man who likes to hear dirty stories," the uncle (Cho Jin-woong) says. He is a real odd duck, who is carried by a servant on his back and always wears black gloves. He threatens Tae-Ri with a visit to "the basement," and we don't know what she sees, as it's left to our imagination, but given his character we can't even summon up how horrible it must be.

In addition to being sexy, The Handmaiden has some gruesome violence, especially in one of the last scenes, where some fingers are cut off. But compared to Park's other work, it's relatively sedate. I do wish I spoke Korean, though, because the phrase "Fucking hell" is used a few times. I wonder what the literal translation is?

Monday, August 07, 2017


As someone who grew up in the Detroit Metropolitan area, I'm always interested in films and books set in Detroit. Not that I ever went there, except to go to Tiger games. When I lived there in the '70s it was a cesspool of human misery, and I believe things have only gotten worse.

The turning point for Detroit's future was in July, 1967, when a race riot broke out and lasted four days. Forty-three were dead, 7,200 arrested, and 2,000 buildings destroyed (most by fire). The white flight that had already started accelerated, and the city, which was once the fifth-largest by population in the United States, is now the 18th. In 1950, the population was 1.8 million, today it is about 672,000, one third of what it was.

Kathryn Bigelow has made a film, simply called Detroit, that showcases the riot, or more specifically, what is known as the Algiers Motel Incident, in which police killed three young black men. I've got to imagine the Detroit Chamber of Commerce is real happy that a movie called Detroit is all about violence and police brutality.

I found the film enthralling, with the heart of the movie the night of the incident, which was the third night of the riot. The film begins oddly, with a cartoon telling us about the Great Migration. Then we see the start of the riot, when a blind pig (an illegal bar) is raided while throwing a party for two returning servicemen back from Vietnam. When everyone is arrested (all black), a crowd gathers and somebody throws a bottle at the police and that sets it off.

This part is rather sketchy, and jumps from "Day 1" to "Day 2" to "Day 3" so quickly I thought it was going awfully fast. But what screenwriter Mark Boal has done is rather clumsily introduced the Algiers Motel section. The motel, a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, was full of people that night. A singer (a brilliant Algee Smith) and his friend decide to stay there for the night, and take a room in an old house behind the motel called the Annex. There are bunch of young men there--I don't know why, I guess it was a hangout. Smith meets two white women by the pool (it is unclear if they are prostitutes or just pretending to be). The girls taken them back to the annex.

One of the young men (Jason Mitchell) decides to egg on the police and National Guard by firing a starter's pistol out the window. Naturally, the police and Guard take this seriously, and pinpoint it to that house. Three cops bust in, kill Mitchell without so much as a "put your hands up" and then line up everyone else against the wall. They are told that they must reveal the name of the shooter and where the gun is or they will all be killed.

This scene lasts about an hour and is dominated by Will Poulter as the chief sadist. Poulter, who looks kind of like Howdy Doody, is only 24, making the contrast severe--how could a young, fresh-faced guy be so sadistic? Also, Poulter had killed a man earlier in the day, shooting him in the back for stealing groceries.

The scene is harrowing, as Poulter and two other cops beat and terrorize everyone, including the two women (it didn't help that they found two white women with a black man in the same room, even though nothing was going on). Observing is a black security guard (John Boyega).

Three people will end up dead, and the film ends, somewhat anticlimactically, with a trial. I won't spoil it, but given that today it is almost impossible to convict a policeman for brutality, even when there is video evidence, the verdict is not surprising.

It's amazing that this took place fifty years ago and is still extremely relevant. Though the film has its flaws (for one thing, nobody can say for certain what happened, so the script is making guesses and assumptions, which is why the officers involved, though their names were changed, are suing).

So, this will make not only the tourism industry of Detroit (is there one? Other than for sports or to tour Motown's first building, there's no reason to go) and policemen all over the country mad. It will also make the viewer mad, that people got away with this then, and are getting away with it now.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Is This the Life We Really Want?

Roger Waters, who was the main creative force for Pink Floyd's glory days of the '70s, has a new album out. He's made some noise in concerts in which he takes shots at Donald Trump, most notably putting up pictures of the president while he sings "Pigs."

The album, Is This the Life We Really Want?, includes some audio of Trump, and in one line Waters refers to the president as a nincompoop (which is a great word). That's in the title song, when Waters sings:

"Fear, fear drives the mills of modern man
Fear keeps us all in line
Fear of all those foreigners
Fear of all their crimes
Is this the life we really want?
It surely must be so
For this is a democracy and what we all say goes"

This is very trenchant, but probably falls on deaf ears. If there are any Pink Floyd fans who voted for Trump, they probably won't have their minds changed. But he makes a good point--is this the kind of people we want to be, as judged by who we elected president?

Waters also takes on religion, imagining himself to be God in "Deja Vu":

"If I had been God
I would have rearranged the veins in the face to make them more resistant to alcohol
and less prone to aging
If I had been God
I would have sired many sons
and I would not have suffered the Romans to kill even one of them
If I had been God With my staff and my rod
If I had been given the nod
I believe I could have done a better job"

The album is pretty much in that vein throughout, a kind of manifesto of the Resistance (even though Waters in British). There's a lovely song about war in "Broken Bones," and an angry song called "Picture That" which refers to Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and this bit:

"Picture a courthouse with no fucking laws
Picture a cathouse with no fucking whores
Picture a shithouse with no fucking drains
Picture a leader with no fucking brains"

Musically, these songs are very reminiscent of Waters' work with Pink Floyd, especially The Wall. You would recognize immediately who it is just from a few bars. As with The Wall, there are lots of different kinds of sounds and special effects--one song has a beeping in it that everytime I heard it made me think my car was telling me something.

I think the most interesting song is "Bird in a Gale," which is a great image to begin with and then has experimental sounds that set it apart from the rest of the album.

In a few weeks I hope to find out what the other front man of Pink Floyd, David Gilmour, has been up to.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

The Conquering Tide

The Conquering Tide, Ian Toll's second book in a planned trilogy about the war in the Pacific, could have been called the Turning Tide. After the early successes by Japan in the war, such as taking Singapore and Indonesia, this book, which covers the conflict from Guadalcanal to Guam, showcases one American victory after the next, advancing westward, the Japanese on their heels.

It wasn't easy, though, as Toll describes skillfully the struggle and death tolls. Guadalcanal took months to take, as it became a war of attrition, with the Japanese soldiers starving. As one reads this volume, it becomes clear that for the Japanese people, their reluctance to surrender and fight to the death cost them an entire generation of men

Guadalcanal was a major turning point in the war, and it began a domino effect. Toll writes, "At the end of 1943, Allied victory in the South Pacific appeared certain. What remained in doubt was the cost to be paid in lives, and (relatedly) the time it would take."

The Philippine Sea, the Gilbert Islands. the Marianas Islands. These were taken, bit by bit. The new Hellcat fighter was vastly superior to the Japanese Zero, and Japan began running out of pilots who knew how to fly. The vast superior of American industry was showing, as they churned more aircraft carriers.

While some of the book can be a bit taxing, as there are so many commanders and so many types of ships, planes, etc., The Conquering Tide is eminently readable. Toll brings to life the many characters and some of them stand out. Of course, Admiral Nimitz, who commanded the Navy in the Pacific, is paramount. "Two decades later, following Nimitz’s death, Spruance told a reporter that fear was a near-universal human trait,a condition that even the bravest men labored to keep in check. But Nimitz was out of the ordinary: “He was one of the few people I knew who never knew what it meant to be afraid of anything.”

Also featured are William "Bull" Halsey, Jocko Clark, and especially Dudley "Mush" Morton, the skipper of the submarine Wahoo. Toll devotes a whole chapter to submarines. "Every submariner was a volunteer. The submarine force did not want men who did not directly aspire to wear the twin-dolphin insignia. In most circumstances, any officer or sailor who wanted out was granted a prompt
transfer back into the surface fleet." Morton was a character, who frequently ambled around ship in his bathrobe. But he was tough and aggressive, and told his crew that there mission was to sink Japanese ships. They did so by the score, including sinking some by firing "down the throat," which, if I'm reading it right, is firing a torpedo directly at a ship as its coming toward the submarine and hitting it in the bow.

Toll gives equal time to both sides, and calls out bravery when he sees it. Of the taking of the island Tarawa in the Gilberts, which was an amphibious landing fought by Marines, he writes: "It was the proudest and the most terrible day in the history of the Marine Corps. Men fought with extraordinary
courage, returning to the line of fire even after having been wounded several times."

The superiority in air combat made heroes, too: "Lieutenant (jg) Ralph Hanks, an Iowa pig farmer before the war, became an “ace in a day” by shooting down five Zeros in a single skirmish." Another hero was Edward O'Hare, a flying ace who was shot down, his plane never found. Chicago's O'Hare Airport is named after him.

Toll also writes about the disillusionment of the Japanese hierarchy. The nation had never lost a war, and had trouble believing it could be losing this one. Censorship was high, and the citizens were told that each loss was really a gambit to draw the enemy closer to home. In truth, those Japanese who were on the ball knew the end was near. "The Pacific War had entered its endgame. But another 1.5 million Japanese servicemen and civilians would die before the heart was knocked out of the men who ruled Japan."

Friday, August 04, 2017


Here's a cinematic curiosity. Anatahan, written and directed by Josef Von Sternberg (it was his last film), is a film set on a small island in the Marianas chain. I had been reading a book that mentioned Japanese soldiers who remained on islands not knowing the war was over (one did on Guam until 1972) and that reminded me that I had this film on my watch list on Amazon Prime.

The film was released in 1953, and has an all-Japanese cast. What's curious is that they are not subtitled, nor even dubbed. They play the scenes in their native language, and an English-speaking narrator (Von Sternberg himself) describes what's going on. It's disconcerting at first, but you get used to it.

Basically Anatahan is a kind of Lord of the Flies set after World War II. About a dozen sailors are shipwrecked on the island after being sunk by an American plane. They find two people living there--a man and a woman. They assume they are married (they are not), and after years of being marooned, power struggles develop.

The officer in charge tries to keep military discipline. He rails at the men for drinking coconut wine and lusting after the woman. He is vigilant at a machine gun they brought to shore, waiting for the enemy to attack. Eventually the men realize he has no power anymore, and he loses face.

Then there is the desire for the woman. The film is ambiguous about what goes on, but it appears that she remains celibate throughout the ordeal (although she is shown nude, bathing). Two of the men find guns in the wreckage of an American plane, and use that for power. In turn, several of the men assert their dominion but they end up planted in the ground.

Anatahan is an interesting commentary both on the Japanese bushido code and on civilization itself. I must say that I would assume in most cases men would not be so polite and pass the woman around like a bowl of mashed potatoes, but perhaps the male instinct of being king would create a situation like this.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Martin Landau died a couple of weeks ago. His career had defined stages, such as his TV career of the '60s and '70s, and then an eclipse, but was revived at the age of 60 when he would go on to have three Oscar nominations and win for Ed Wood in 1994 (I have reviewed that film on this site). The first of these films was 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, a film that also is a key film for its writer and director, Woody Allen, as it's really his last great comedy.

Allen has been obsessed with many things over his film career, but perhaps the most visited thing is guilt. In addition to this film, he focuses on it in Match Point and Irrational Man. Can a man kill someone and live with it on his conscience? Allen, by virtue of these three films, seems to think so, as the killer rationalizes the guilt away.

Of course, Jewishness is also one of Allen's themes. And in this film it is ever so, as Landau plays Judah Rosenthal, an opthamologist who has become a skeptic, but is haunted by the devoutness of his father, who said that "God sees everything." Landau jokes during a speech that may be why he specialized in opthamology.

Crimes and Misdemeanors tells two parallel stories. Landau, who has a good and prestigious life, has made a mistake by having an affair with an unstable woman (Anjelica Huston). She is threatening to tell his wife (Claire Bloom) everything. He intercepts a letter (today, with email, this would be a different story). Desperate, he turns to his gangster brother (Jerry Orbach) for help. Orbach, who cynically believes that Landau does not understand the real world, agrees to arrange a hit on Huston. Landau can't believe he's going through with it, and after it's over, he's consumed by guilt.

The other story is comic (mostly). Allen plays Clifford Stern, a make of small documentaries. His wife (Joanna Gleason), is sister to a very successful TV producer, Alan Alda. Allen finds Alda to be a pompous ass, and Alda plays the part to the hilt, making banal pronouncements like "If it bends, it's funny. If it breaks, it's not funny." Alda reluctantly hires Allen to shoot a documentary about him, but Allen's real passion is a film he is making about a philosophy professor who believes that there can be joy in life. Thus it is a terrible shock when the philosopher kills himself, leaving a note that says "I've gone out the window." Allen remarks, "In Brooklyn we don't commit suicide. We're too unhappy."

Allen falls for a production assistant (Mia Farrow), and woos her, but she is resistant, and when she arrives at the climactic wedding on Alda's arm, he is devastated. "My worst fears are realized," he says, and is sitting alone when Landau, who is also a guest at the wedding walks by. I love the way the two threads are brought together, as Landau, speaking as if telling a fictional story, relates everything that has happened, and how he awakened one morning and felt no guilt whatsoever, and life is happy for him. Allen says he couldn't live with the guilt, and we see the two alternatives to atonement.

While the Landau half is very dark, Allen lightens up his half, even if he doesn't get the girl. There's a lot of great lines, such as when Allen reminds his wife that they haven't slept together since April 20th. He remembers because that's Hitler's birthday. Later he will tell his sister, "I haven't been inside a woman since I visited the Statute of Liberty." Speaking of the sister, there's a diversion that is strange. She tells Allen of meeting a man in the personals and having him do something horrible to her. Allen tells his wife, "A strange man defecated on my sister." Gleason asks, "Why?" Allen responds, "Is there any anything I could say to satisfactorily answer that question?"

So we get Allens essential struggle--is man good? Is there a God? In a Wild Strawberries moment, Landau visits his old house and has a flashback to a Seder when he was a child. His atheist aunt spars with his devout father, who is asked, "You'll take God over the truth?"

In a few years Allen's life would be a tabloid spectacle as his relationship with Farrow's adopted daughter would come to life. His career never stopped, though, and he's managed a film a year all these years later. I think Husbands and Wives was a very good film, and dramas such as Match Point and Blue Jasmine have been very good, but the high standard of comedies he made from Annie Hall to Crimes and Misdemeanors, such as Manhattan and Hannah and Her Sisters, have not been reached since then.