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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

Octopussy

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

Detroit

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

Anatahan

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.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Mean Streets

Robert De Niro had a one-two punch in 1973. After Bang the Drum Slowly came his break out role, as the psychotic Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, for which he won the New York Film Critics Best Supporting Actor award. It was also in some ways the breakout film for Martin Scorsese, who, though he has made films on many different subjects, establishes his territory, Little Italy.

As I watched Mean Streets this time I remembered that the very same year, George Lucas released American Graffiti. They are in different worlds but similar in structure--the guys hanging out. In Lucas' California, the guys cruise for girls in their cars. In Scorsese's New York, the guys wander the streets until dawn, drinking and getting into fights. But, as the lead character played by Harvey Keitel says, "it's all about the neighborhood."

The year following The Godfather, which was the first film to really link Italian and Sicilians to the Mafia, Mean Streets followed. Keitel plays Charlie, a soldier in his uncle's regime who mainly collects debts. He has guilt problems, as he's a Catholic, but he decides he will atone for his sins his own way. Consciously or unconsciously, he does this by watching out for his friend, De Niro, who we first see blowing up a mailbox as a prank. De Niro owes money all over town, and a loan shark (Richard Romanus), is tired of waiting. Keitel puts him off, but De Niro continues to blow his money and miss work.

Scorsese uses a moving camera that puts us right in the action. There's a masterfully shot fight in a pool hall that ends with everyone having a drink, but the movement of the camera may have you ducking from a punch. Much of the movie is shot at night, and it makes you wonder when the characters sleep.

The colors are rich and saturated, as well. When Keitel speaks of Hell in an empty church, we cut to a club where most of the action takes place. It is bathed in red light, a hell of Keitel's own making. This is where incidents like a young kid shoots a drunk while he's taking a leak in the bathroom (the killer and victim are both played by Carradine brothers, Robert and David).

As the title suggests, it's a world of violence, and it's a film about masculinity. As a teacher, you see how boys and girls handle problems differently. Boys will fight, and then it's over, while girls will plot and hold a grudge. There are so many moments when the men in this film fight each other, are angry, curse each other (in the pool room fight, it all starts when guy calls another a "mook", and even though he doesn't know what a mook is, they start throwing blows), but they always keep their friendship. That is, until Johnny Boy goes too far, and insults a man's honor, leading to a tragic ending. If you're watching, in that last scene Scorsese has a cameo as the shooter.

De Niro and Scorsese are tied together like John Wayne and John Ford, and during my look at De Niro's films I'll be discussing a few more Scorsese films. The next one they made together is the even more brutal Taxi Driver. Then, perhaps their greatest masterpiece, and the next film I'll be discussing, Raging Bull.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Elevator to the Gallows

Yesterday the world of the arts got a double dose of grief--it was announced the Sam Shepard died last Thursday, and Jeanne Moreau died that day. Moreau was a great actress of French films, and I hadn't realized how many films of hers I'd seen: Diary of a Chambermaid, The Trial, Going Places, La Notte, The Bride Wore Black, and her most famous role, in Truffaut's Jules and Jim. One of her early successes was Louis Malle's 1958 film Elevator to the Gallows, which I had wanted to see for a long time. Through the magic of Amazon Prime I was able to see it right then and there.

Elevator to the Gallows is a key film in the French New Wave. It takes the American noir form (which the French loved and named) and made it into something European. The look of the picture is not quite Hollywood, not quite avant-garde, but a happy place in-between. There are many great shots, proving Malle had a great eye for not only story-telling, but enhancing drama.

The film is a murder story. A businessman, Maurice Ronet, is having an affair with his boss's wife, and they've conspired to kill him and make it look like suicide. Ronet climbs a floor of his office building with a grappling hook, does the deed, and makes his escape. Then everything goes to hell. He's in his sports car when he looks up and realized he left the rope. He dashes back in, gets in the elevator, but the doorman, who doesn't see him, thinks the building is empty and shuts off the power, trapping Ronet.

If that weren't enough, he'd left his car running, so a delinquent and his girl, who works at a flower shop, get in for a joy ride. They have his car, his coat, and his gun. They check into a motel using his name. I'll stop there.

The film opens (and closes) on a tight closeup of Moreau. She had a fabulous face for the movies. Her lips were in a natural pout, and her skin seems to glisten. She sees the youths drive by, and recognizes the car, and thinks that Ronet has run off with the flower shop girl. She spends the night stalking across the streets of Paris, visiting his haunts. Clearly, this film is one of those that would be rendered impossible to make because of cell phones.

At this point the film breaks into three threads: Ronet in the elevator, trying to take it apart or climb down the cable (this scene won't be pleasant for agoraphobics); Moreau wandering the streets; and the two youths, who party with a jovial German couple. One of the great things about the story is that I had no idea where it was going, although the "gallows" part of the title is a clue.

The camera work and editing are sublime. When Ronet shoots his boss, we don't see it, as Malle cuts to a secretary using an electric pencil sharpener. I don't think there's a misstep along the way, as everything is clearly laid out. Unlike Godard, Malle did not really break any movie rules, he just enhanced them. And did Godard have Malle's two youths in mind when he made Breathless?

Another thing about Elevator to the Gallows is that it has one of the best scores I've heard. When I first heard the music I could tell that it was jazz, which was unusual for the time, and then up popped Miles Davis' name as the composer. He also plays trumpet of course, fitting the mood the film. Wonderful stuff.