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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Oscar 2017: Best Actress

By my count, Oscars have gone to actors playing mute or deaf characters four times--Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda, John Mills in Ryan's Daughter, Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, and Holly Hunter in The Piano. You can also add Jean Dujardin for his (almost) wordless performance in The Artist. If all the advance word is true, a another may be added this year. It seems Oscar loves performers who don't speak.

But it's still early, so things may change. This is how I see the Best Actress race at the end of October. In alphabetical order:

Annette Bening, Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. Will Annette Bening ever win an Oscar? She's playing a juicy role, that of Oscar-winner Gloria Grahame. The question is whether this film will be released this year. It's been pushed back all the way to December 29th. One thing is for sure--she won't lose to Hillary Swank again.

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water. The front-runner, playing a mute woman who falls in love with a strange creature. The film is sci-fi, so it has something of an obstacle to overcome, but the advance word is great.

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The film has been a hit at festivals, and judging by the trailer McDormand is given some memorable lines. She's been nominated four times before, so seems to be an Academy favorite.

Margot Robbie, I, Tonya. She received a Gotham Award nomination, so apparently the film is not a joke. Tonya Harding certainly is a role full of comedy and drama, and Oscar like performers who play real people. Would Tonya Harding attend the ceremony?

Kate Winslet, Wonder Wheel. Woody Allen is always good at getting women Oscar nominations. This would be Kate's eighth total, for what is said to be a meaty role of a woman living on Coney Island during the '50s.

Also possible: Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project; Meryl Streep, The Post, Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul; Saorsie Ronan, Lady Bird; Jessica Chastain, Molly's Game.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The King and I

I had never seen a production of The King and I before last night, nor have I seen the movie. The production at the Smith Center, directed by Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher, is smashing, dare I say perfect. Being the last night of the run, a few of the understudies got to shine, including Darren Lee as the King.

What I'd like to delve into is the musical itself, first produced on Broadway in 1951. It is the story of an Anglo-Indian woman, Anna, who comes to Siam (now known as Thailand) during the 1860s to teach the King's children (he has more than 60--polygamy was practiced). She and the King butt heads, as she is not used to being treated like a servant, and he's not used to being defied by a woman.

But what strikes me about the show, with music by Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, is its treatment of culture and race. Like South Pacific, it is anti-racist, but cautiously so. The King wants to Westernize, and when he is called a barbarian by someone he is eager to show an English guest that he is civilized. This entails putting the girls in hoop skirts and the King wearing shoes. The entertainment is a ballet based on Uncle Tom's Cabin, with Simon La Gree chasing Eliza across the Ohio River.

That Hammerstein chose Uncle Tom's Cabin for a number that lasts perhaps twenty minutes of the second act is instructive. Of course that novel for some was the first indication that slavery was terrible. The King does not have slaves as such, but everyone must bow before him. There is some comedy involving Anna keeping her head below his, with him laying flat on the floor. But the musical is set during the Civil War, and the King often asks Anna what Lincoln would do (even though she is not American).

There are a few hits from the show that most will recognize: "Whistle a Happy Tune," "Getting to Know You," and "Shall We Dance." I'm afraid the other songs, other than the instrumental "March of the Siamese Children," are forgettable.

I was struck by the similarities to The Sound of Music which the same pair would write a decade or so later. Both involve teachers brought in to teach a brood of children, and with stern fathers. "Whistle a Happy Tune" has the same message as "My Favorite Things," while "Getting to Know You" fits into the "Do Re Mi" slot. The only difference is that there are no Nazis in The King and I and the couple do not wed.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV

Another film from the 1967 New York Film Festival was The Taking of Power by Louis XIV, a historical drama from Roberto Rosselini, who had been commissioned by French television to make it. A third of the country watched it, and it ended up playing at Venice as well as New York.

I'm a sucker for good palace intrigue films. This is no Richard III, it's much more subtle, but it makes for an fascinating film. Louis, who would go down as the longest ruler in European history (72 years) is a young man (it's 1661, so he would have been 23). The country was basically being run by Cardinal Mazarin, but he dies, and Louis decided he's going to run things now, much to the dismay of his mother, Anne of Austria, who had been regent during his childhood (he inherited the throne at the age of five).

Louis is played by Jean-Louis Patte, an amateur actor, who is largely stiff and often seen looking off at his off-stage lines. This served Rosselini's intention well, for Louis was a scared king. He lived through the Fronde rebellion, and his uncle up in England, Charles I, got his head chopped off (he says if Parliament can do that there, they can do it to him).

One of his first steps is to arrest the Minister of Finances, Fouquet, who is accused of dipping into the till (he is arrested by D'Artagnan, of the Three Musketeers). He then does something clever--he changes fashion. He has the most ridiculous, expensive outfit made for himself. He wants the nobility to spend most of their money on their clothes. He wants them to spend a year's worth of earnings on a suit.

Louis would go on to be as "The Sun King" and make the memorable quote, "I am the state," but everybody's got to start somewhere, and everyone has a mother. He gets yelled at her for publicly skinny-dipping with his mistress. But when he is awakened by his servants (it's quite a production) his queen gives the equivalent of a thumbs-up sign, indicating he performed his conjugal duties.

The film looks terrific in a Criterion edition. Many of the shots look like classic paintings. The costumes and sets are exquisite (although Rosselini used matte shots for sites like the Louvre). I wouldn't call it a great film, but an interesting one, especially for history buffs.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A Friend in Town

I had a day off yesterday. Here in the Silver State it was Nevada Day, which is really on October 31st (the day it received statehood back in 1864) but to get a three-day weekend the powers that be shifted it to Friday.

I also had a friend in town, so we had a long day of playing tourist, which as so many people do in Las Vegas, means that I went to places I ordinarily do not go. Locals hardly ever go the Strip, but I did with my friend, who likes to come to Vegas not to gamble but just to soak in the ambience.

We started with a scheme to see the new NHL team, the Vegas Golden Knights, but neither of us were deep-pocketed enough to pay face value, so Steve used his Stub Hub app. We walked to the arena and waited until game time to see if the price of a ticket would fall to $45 or below, but it never did. We wondered at the people who were selling, deciding to get nothing instead of at least a pittance for their tickets. Maybe they got them for free and weren't willing to go low.

So, our hearts heavy, we wandered a little bit in "The Park," a very nice plaza built at the same time T-Mobile Arena was. There are some bars and restaurants and, most importantly, plenty of shade. Vegas in October can be quite lovely, so we had lunch al fresco at California Pizza Kitchen. I ordered the shrimp scampi pizza, and when I was about halfway through it the chef came out and said it wasn't cooked properly. I couldn't tell, but we got a free pizza out of it and between the two of us Steve and I finished it off. I also had a cocktail called the "Cucumber Revival," which was cucumber, pineapple juice, and agave. I had two and felt no pain.

We then looked for a sports book to watch the World Series game. We ended up at Bally's, which has a pretty big one. We sat in chair that are designed for bettors, with a TV screen in front and a counter for filling out betting slips. We watched the game on the big screen, without the commentary of Joe Buck, and between pitches talked about just about everything. I've been friends with Steve over thirty years and we never run out of things to talk about, whether it's sports, politics, or the entertainment business.

Once the game was over we headed over to our favorite dive bar, the Double Down Saloon. They had a lineup of surf-rock bands, which we both love. It took a while to find a place to park, but we saw about half of the opening band, Thee Swank Bastards, a local outfit, who were very good, and featured a burlesque dancer who stripped down to tassels for the last song.

Next up was The Boss Martians, very well known among surf bands, who had a very powerful set. The opening act was Messer Chups, a Russian band who are on an American tour. Their music, based in the surf idiom, with covers of reliable surf songs like the James Bond theme and the Munsters theme, was also a bit more experimental. I was particularly please that the bassist looked like a model. According to Wikipedia, her names is Svetlana Nagaeva, or ZombieGirl, or Zombierella. She reminded me of the back-up band for Robert Palmer in that old video "Addicted to Love," except she could actually play.

The evening ended for us about two in the morning. I'm sure there will be more excitement

Friday, October 27, 2017

Blade Runner 2049

Okay, a few things to get out of the way: I have seen the original Blade Runner, but it was a long time ago and I don't remember much of it. That might have helped some while watching Blade Runner 2049, the long-simmering sequel, which is all about replicants, bio-engineered beings that resemble humans in almost all ways but are not, though in what ways we really don't know.

There's a title card that tells us that replicants in the year 2049 are new and improved, and always obey (this is sort of like Isaac Asimov's I, Robot). The older models, the ones who did not obey, are hunted down by blade runners. One of them is Ryan Gosling, and he's a replicant. The opening scene has him "retiring" an old model, then finding another one buried on the property.

It turns out this replicant had a baby. In the world of this film, it is earth-shaking news that replicants might be able to breed. The head of the company that makes them, a weird cat played by Jared Leto, wants this baby, who would now be about 28 years old, found, so he can figure out how it was done. Gosling, working for the police, is also assigned to find it. So we get a classic noir tale, as Gosling follows clues wearing a knee-length trench coat and a day's stubble (replicants can grow facial hair, I guess) to figure out who that baby is grown up to be.

Though the film is structured as a noir, of course it is also science fiction. Turns out we have flying cars in 2049, and I hope I live long enough to get one. Of course, the world is a bleak place. The cities are still like the original film, with huge advertisements and holograms (one of them is for prostitution and is naked about fifty feet tall). For companionship you can have a hologram for a partner, as Gosling does (Ana de Armas), who he can talk to, but physical contact is tough.

Leto's assistant (Sylvia Hoeks), also a replicant, is the bad-ass who is chasing down the baby and creating mayhem wherever she goes. We also meet a woman who is responsible for creating the memories that are implanted into replicants, and a human prostitute who fills in for de Armas to make sex possible (this reminded me of the scene in Her where this attempted). The future is not so bright.

The trailer gives away an important plot point that is used as a surprise in the film--the return of Harrison Ford as Rick Deckard, who was the original Blade Runner. If you've been arguing about whether Deckard was a replicant or not, the film answers it definitively. We also get a brief return of Sean Young, who is really nothing but CGI.

I'm kind of avoiding saying whether I liked the film or not. I did, but I'm not sure why. The look is tremendous. Roger Deakins is the cinematographer--will be finally get his Oscar? The sets are beautiful in their bleakness, while Leto's inner chamber is awash with reflected light off of a pool that is mesmerizing. But a few things bother me--the rules of what replicants can and can't do bother me. They are created, without souls, but little seems to separate them from humans. They can bleed, feel pain and emotion (some are always crying). I would have liked more specificity.

Also, since the lead character is basically an android, what does he want? The first thing you learn in writing drama is that a character must want something, and must be always trying to get it. Gosling, because he plays a non-human who is programmed to do his job, is simply following orders through most of the film. At a certain point he takes on the ability to do his own thing--how did that happen? Replicants can also clearly love--he loves his hologram, for instance. How does that interfere with their obedience?

This film creates a lot of interesting questions and doesn't answer all of them, which is okay. The lack of box office (the first film didn't do great business, either, not in its first release) would suggest that any further sequels are unlikely, even though they are set up. I suppose fans will just have to argue about this one for thirty years until Blade Runner 2082 is released.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Made in U.S.A.

Jean-Luc Godard was represented by a few films at the 1967 NYFF, including his 1966 film Made in U.S.A. This film, which was loosely, and I mean loosely, based on a Donald Westlake novel, was unavailable in the U.S. for a long time because Godard, typically, did not bother to get the rights. It's not great Godard, but it's silly fun for fans of his.

It would be the last time Anna Karina, at the time his ex-wife, would star in one of his films, and it is kind of a valentine to her. One of the first scenes of the film is a close-up of her, and the film is full of them, close-ups that show her luminosity. I believe she's in every scene of the movie, wearing colorful dresses and pointing guns and looking like she's having a great time.

She plays Paula Nelson, a journalist who is investigating her lover's death (his name is Richard, but every time his last name is mentioned there is a cartoon sound effect). To describe the plot more than that would be impossible. She meets a very short man named Edgar Typhus who ends up dead; a pulp writer; a few cops; and some characters I can't say what they were. They are given names from cinema and other walks of life--Richard Widmark, Robert Aldrich, David Goodis (a pulp writer who was often adapted by French film directors), and Don Siegel. There are also characters named Richard Nixon and Robert MacNamara.

The film is set us a noir, but is really more an homage to cartoons. Karina says early in the film, "I found myself in a Walt Disney film, but Humphrey Bogart was in it so it was political," which pretty much sums everything up. In addition to cartoon sound effects, the colors are from the pallet of pop art. Often Karina is featured against a wall of bright color, whether it blue or red, or wearing a yellow dress or one that looks like a painting by Mondrian.

The film is diverting enough to stay interesting, as it is only 84 minutes. As to whether it has anything to say, I can't be sure. The title is Made in U.S.A. but it doesn't directly reference the U.S., though it set in the fictional city of "Atlantic-Cite," which looks nothing like Atlantic City.

According to Wikipedia, the film is also based on The Big Sleep, but I didn't see any similarities. Clearly Godard is enamored of Raymond Chandler, though, who once said that to make the plot move on have a man enter the room with a gun. Godard seems to agree, as characters pull out guns several times.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Player or the Clothes?

We're just a few minutes away from Game One of the World Series and I'm excited. I am not a particular fan of either Los Angeles or Houston, but because the Yankees lost to Houston last Saturday I feel a significant relief--a World Series with the Yankees would have been unwatchable for me. These are not the same Yankees that I have come to hate, but they are still the Yankees, who I have hated for forty years. Another Dodgers/Yankees series, which would have been the eleventh in baseball history, would have been too much to take.

So we get two exciting young teams who haven't been to the Series recently--the Dodges in 29 years, the Astros in 12 (their only one, when they were in the National League). I'm rooting for the Astros. I lived in Houston for a couple of seasons when I was a kid. I was an "Astro Buddy" (tickets were cheap and plentiful) and my favorite player was Cesar Cedeno. Today my favorite Astro is Justin Verlander.

Jerry Seinfeld has an old routine where he points out that we don't really root for players, we root for the clothes. When a player leaves your team and goes to the enemy, we don't like him any more. Think of the Boston Red Sox fans and Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, and Johnny Damon, who all went to the Yankees. Red Sox fans never liked them again. I can think of a great example in hockey--Red Wings fans hated Chris Chelios with a burning passion when he was with the Black Hawks, but he came to Detroit and was suddenly beloved. He even opened a restaurant in the Detroit area.

But I hold an exception with Verlander. He was traded seconds before the deadline from Detroit to Houston and has made a huge difference. He has not lost since he was traded and won two big games in the ALCS, burnishing his Hall of Fame credentials. He has gone 24 straight shutout innings in elimination games. He may well be the greatest pitcher in Detroit Tiger history. But even though he was with Houston, I'm still pulling for him. I'm glad he's getting a chance to finally win a World Series (he's been in two on the losing side). He hasn't had to pitch against Detroit yet--I'll deal with that when it happens--so he remains one of my favorite players/

Also, the reptilian part of my brain likes Verlander because he managed to land Kate Upton, bikini model. Because Verlander seems like such a regular guy (I have no idea if he is handsome or not) I can vicariously live through him. I like that Upton, who could probably have any guy in the world, chose a guy from a small market team. How did she escape the clutches of Derek Jeter?

As for who is going to win, I think it will be the Dodgers. Both teams have great offenses, but Houston's went to sleep in Yankee Stadium while the Dodgers have hit all comers. Houston managed to have the highest batting average, the most home runs, and the fewest strikeouts of any team in baseball this year, an amazing stat, but it looks like a good pitching staff can figure out how to stop them. However, the Astros can win the series if Verlander and Dallas Kuechel, their best two starters, can win all four of the games they will start, a distinct possibility.

But I like the Dodgers in six. They have home field advantage, and their bullpen is vastly superior to Houston's. That Astros manager A.J. Hinch chose not to use a relief pitcher in game seven--he used two starters--speaks volumes. The Dodgers' Kenley Jensen has pretty much been unhittable. If L.A. has a lead after six innings, they will win the game.

But Houston can win if they can keep the first four Dodgers in the lineup off the bases. They accounted for 95 percent of the Dodgers' runs in the post-season so far. I think the Astros have to get leads in the games and hope their starters can go deep.

It should be a fun series. When the post-season started I didn't know half of these guys. I knew about Jose Altuve, but getting to watch him is great. He's probably the most exciting player in the game. And it will be fun deciding who has the better beard--Kuechel or L.A.'s Justin Turner.

And, of course, there will be the obligatory shots of Kate Upton in the player's wives section. I will look forward to those.

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Meyerowitz Stories

This may seem odd but when I watched The Meyerowitz Stories, which has no opening credits, I had no idea who wrote or directed it. Turns out it's Noah Baumbach, and it fits firmly in his oeuvre, although more like While We Were Young, Greenberg, and The Squid and the Whale than the films he has co-made with Greta Gerwig. In looking at his resume, I'm interested to see that he co-wrote a film with Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), because The Meyerowitz Stories plays like The Royal Tenenbaums, as re-imagined by Woody Allen.

I guess any movie about neurotic New York art types can be traced to Allen, but there are a lot of similarities. The movie centers around the relationship of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), a sculptor who never got as famous as he wanted to be, and his three children. They are Adam Sandler, who gave up a musical career to be a house-husband for his daughter, now going off to college; a dowdy typical middle child (Elizabeth Marvel), who has grown used to and weary of being ignored, and Ben Stiller as a successful estate manager in Los Angeles, who had a different mother than the other two.

Hoffman is on his fourth wife (Emma Thompson), a lush, and Stiller is planning on selling all his artwork and his New York house, which Sandler is against. Hoffman is a buttoned-down man who is nevertheless full of rage and envy. He can't tolerate the slightest bit of rudeness, and simmers with resentment that his old friend, Judd Hirsch, is getting a show at MoMa while he can only get in a group show at the school where he taught, Bard. Each child has their own problems with him--Sandler and Marvel were ignored by him, while Stiller was smothered. Yet Hoffman is largely oblivious to any of this and for an artist has no real self-reflection.

The first half of the film is much better than the second, when the plot takes a turn for the cliched. The dialogue is sparkling, and Allenesque--Hoffman at one point says, "Maugham was skillful, but not an artist," which reminded me of the line Jeff Daniels had in The Squid and the Whale--"It's minor Dickens." Hoffman's character is very much like Daniels's in that film--intellectuals who have no real emotional connection to those around them.

The film has a number of sub-plots and surprise cameos. Sandler's daughter is a film major at Bard who makes semi-pornographic films, featuring herself (that Sandler can watch them is a bit of a joke, I guess). She is played by Grace Van Patten, who I just saw in Tramps, and I wrote that she had a Shailene Woodley vibe. In this film, not knowing who she was, for a moment I thought she was Shailene Woodley. Someone should get them together in a sister movie. Adam Driver has one scene with Stiller that is very much like the scene with Michael Caine and Daniel Stern in Hannah and Her Sisters, Candice Bergen shows up for one scene as Stiller's mother, and Sigourney Weaver plays herself. Hoffman can't get over meeting her. "She said, 'I'm Sigourney,' and I said, 'I'm Harold,'" he keeps repeating.

While I liked the movie a lot, it is very brittle. Part of this is Hoffman's performance, which is not one-note but the man is one-note. His presence, though humorous, kind of set my teeth on edge. When he leaves the picture for a while, the film takes on a different tone. A scene in which Sandler and Stiller start by apologizing to each other but end up in a hapless fight is both funny and heartbreaking.

Sandler, devoid of any of his annoying tics from his low-brow comedies, is terrific, perhaps best in the opening scene, when he is trying to find a parking space in Manhattan (I've been through that). Stiller has the same neurotic anger he's had in other Baumbach pictures, such as Greenberg and When We Were Young (where Charles Grodin basically plays the Hoffman character) and all the way back to Reality Bites. If I were giving career advice to Stiller I'd advise to play someone isn't so pent up with stress. He should play a guru, or something.

The film was made by Netflix, and got a brief but necessary run for Oscar consideration. What remains to be seen is if the Motion Picture Academy, which was created and maintained by people in the film business, will embrace the streaming business. It will have to happen sooner or later, maybe it will here, but I'm guessing except for a writing nomination, it won't happen this year.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Underground Railroad

Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and is soon to be a mini-series on Amazon. Though slavery has been explored in many recent works of fiction, this one is different. Like the oft-quoted line about the banality of evil, Whitehead's depiction of the peculiar institution is matter-of-fact in its brutality, with line like "In North Carolina the negro race did not exist except at the ends of ropes,".and the slave characters in this book, which is set (I think) around the 1830s are resigned to their fate. Except for two.

Caesar is a slave on a Georgia plantation belonging to a couple of brothers, the Randalls. "James was as ruthless and brutal as any white man but he was the portrait of moderation compared to his
younger brother. The stories from the southern half were chilling, in magnitude if not in particulars." Caesar has an idea to escape, but knows he can not do it alone. He enlists Cora, because she is feisty--she took on another slave with a hatchet when he built a structure in her garden--and because her mother, Mabel, was the only slave to ever successfully escape the plantation.

Caesar has a connection to the Underground Railroad, which in Whitehead's book is literal, not figurative. In fact, a character late in the book had guessed it was figurative. The Underground Railroad here is an actual train that runs in tunnels, with conductors and stations. This bit of magic realism gives the book a hopeful, fanciful air. One just needs to descend some stairs and catch a train to get away, like the train to Hogwarts.

As Caesar and Cora head to South Carolina, a slave catcher is on their trail. His name is Ridgeway, and he's a great villain, because he is smart and articulate. “The name of punishment, dogging every fugitive step and every thought of running away. For every slave I bring home, twenty others abandon their full-moon schemes. I’m a notion of order. The slave that disappears—it’s a notion, too. Of hope. Undoing what I do so that a slave the next plantation over gets an idea that it can run, too. If we allow that, we accept the flaw in the imperative. And I refuse.” He discusses issues with the slaves he has caught, though he is not above putting a bullet in one for singing too much.

Cora will end up making a few more spots. Like Anne Frank, she will hide in an attic in North Carolina, watching a lynching on the public square through a tiny hole. She is the heroine of the book, not only plucky and determined but brave and stalwart.

Though Cora is the main character the narrative shifts to others, such as a white woman who reluctantly houses Cora. I was mystified by one section that features grave robbers in Boston, who never appear again in the story. A short chapter near the end, which recounts what happened to Cora's mother, is painfully poignant. And the book ends, as any book on race relations ends, with a call out to the present: “And America, too, is a delusion, the grandest one of all. The white race believes—believes with all its heart—that it is their right to take the land. To kill Indians. Make war. Enslave their brothers. This nation shouldn’t exist, if there is any justice in the world, for its foundations are murder, theft, and cruelty. Yet here we are."

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Love Affair, or, The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator

Film Comment's Mark Harris wrote an article about what went on at the New York Film Festival fifty years ago (it was the fifth such festival) and a handful of the films are available on DVD, so I thought I'd take a look at them. The first is the oddly and superbly titled Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator.

The film is Yugoslavian, from director Dušan Makavejev, and is set in Belgrade, which of course was a communist country at the time. Although this film has elements of comedy, tragedy, and sex, it is really a political drama, as the film is punctuated with communist credos and propaganda, including a large banner of Lenin.

The slim plot (the film is only 68 minutes long) is about a switchboard operator (Eva Ras), a Hungarian girl. She enters a relationship with a Turkish man (Slobodan Aligrudić), who works for the sanitation department. They have some fun, and a lot of sex (for 1967, this film has a lot of nudity) but there are flash forwards that show us Ras' unfortunate fate.

There are also, strangely, scenes that seem to come out of Monty Python. The film starts with a sexologist explaining phallic rituals, and also includes a criminologist talking about the difficulty in murderers getting rid of bodies, and a sequence on rat infestations. Perhaps my favorite of these interstitial segments was a farmer explaining the wonders of the chicken egg.

Today this film is pleasant curiosity; I'm sure it meant much more to Serbians back in the day when they under the thumb of Tito. The film's lasting legacy is an image of Ras lying on her stomach, naked, with a black cat perched on her behind.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Two Men in Manhattan

Jean-Pierre Melville was enamored with American films and culture, and in 1959 he made a film set in America, Two Men in Manhattan. The exteriors were shot in New York City, though the rest of the film was shot on set in France. It's a beautiful film, and a kind of trip through the New York City of the mind.

Melville plays a reporter based in New York. The French delegate to the U.N. didn't show up for a vote and is missing. Melville's editor assigns him the story, and Melville turns to his alcoholic photographer buddy, Pierre Grasset, to help him out.

The two take a somewhat tawdry odyssey through New York in one night. Gasset has pictures of the delegate with various women who might be his mistress. They start with an actress in a Broadway play (she's at the Mercury Theater, certainly an homage to Orson Welles). They go to Capitol Records, where a woman is recording a jazz album (the score is a very rambunctious jazz).

They are then led to a fancy brothel, and talk to almost impossibly blonde and husky-voiced madame. Here is where the film takes one of its occasional trips into a fantasy world. Finally they call on a burlesque dancer, bitter and sarcastic.

While they are at a diner (an exact replica of the diner in Melville's favorite American film, The Asphalt Jungle) they hear some news that ends up leading them to the delegate. Grasset takes some compromising pictures, and the last third of the film pits the journalistic integrity of Melville versus the greed of Gasset, who could sell the pictures for big money.

Two Men in Manhattan is a terrific little noir film, and gives the audience an argument--who is the protagonist? While the plot is seemingly simple--two men looking for another man--they are distinctly different. It might seem easy to tell who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist, Melville muddies the waters with a final shot that is brilliant the way it flips the entire movie.

Melville's performance, while not exactly technically good, works because he is the perfect newsman, with his basset hound eyes and fastidiousness (our first glimpse of him shows him carefully covering his typewriter with a plastic cover). Grasset is perfectly louche, and the film is a showcase of beautiful women of all stripes.

While not Melville's best, it's fascinating and entertaining, and has some really good shots of the city at night.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

The First Transgender Playmate

The cultural news breaking now is that Playboy is featuring its first transgender Playmate. Ines Rau, a French model with a lot of credits, is the choice, and while I'm not quite sure how I feel, the reaction by both men and women is fascinating.

Actually, Playboy ran a pictorial of a transgender woman back in 1991, but she was not a Playmate (in the world of Playboy, a Playmate is more exalted--she gets the centerfold, which no longer has staples). This was significantly ahead of its time, and the decision to have Rau as a Playmate is quite a statement of support for the LBGTQ community.

Interestingly, she is in the first issue following the death of Hugh Hefner (who is on the cover, the first man to grace the cover without a woman rubbing against him). On Playboy's Twitter account, there are dozens (if not hundreds, I stopped looking) of outraged responses, saying Hef must be spinning in his grave. Here's the thing, though--I find it highly unlikely that Hef's successors waited for him to expire to put in a transgender Playmate. For one thing, Hef had already run a transgender model, and secondly, for a monthly magazine, the issue is put together far in advance. Clearly his death only about three weeks ago caused them to pull whatever cover they were going to use and replace it with Hef's picture, and it looks like they pulled ads in the front to insert a feature on Playboy's founder. I'll bet the editorial and production staff put in long hours.

The comments by men are pretty awful, many of them homophobic. I would imagine this is because those Playboy readers who started as boys masturbated to the pictures, and would never do that to a transgender woman. But here's the thing--if they didn't know she was born a man, they wouldn't make any protests, because Rau, though with a sharply angled face, is not out of the league of women who are Playmates. I suppose these guys' reactions are like picking up a hooker and finding out it's a man.

I read the feminist response on Jezebel. Feminists can have a hard time with Playboy. There are those who are adamantly against the exploitation of women, but that's cisgender women. Does it apply to a transgender woman? The comments on the story were full of confusion. I think the best comment was "Yay?" It's a huge step forward for transgender women, in that they are recognized as beautiful females, but at the same time they are now being objectified. What's a girl to think?

Many sane comments confessed that Playboy and Hefner have a complicated legacy. Yeah, Hefner may have been a misogynist (a feminist misogynist) but he and the magazine were always on the right side of social issues. They had black Playmates in the '60s, and many Asian and Hispanic Playmates. They've had Playmates in their '30s (old for Hefner) and Ivy League graduates. So, if Playboy is the enemy of feminism, at least it's been evenly spread.

So how do I feel? Well, if I were much younger I'd be a little put off--I would think I'm buying the magazine to look at naked women that I'd actually want to sleep with. But today, would I refuse a woman like Ines Rau? I'm not so sure. When you get to be my age you realize things like what sex a person was born doesn't really matter. I'm glad Playboy did this, even though they may have angered their base (and they might end up selling a lot of issues just for the curious).

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Lynn Nottage is the first woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Her first win was for Ruined, which was set in the Congo. The setting couldn't be more different in Sweat, which is Reading, Pennsylvania. But there are certain similarities--they are both about characters who come to a certain desperation.

Sweat bounces between two time periods: 2000 and 2008. In the later year, we are introduced to two ex-cons who are out on parole. Jason is white, with racist tattoos on his face. Chris is black, once his good friend. They committed a crime together, but we won't know what it is until the end of the play.

In the year 2000, the action takes place in a bar, and all the regulars work at a factory. The bartender, Stan, was injured on the job, but the others, both black and white, mix easily due to their common place of employment. Cynthia, a middle-aged black woman, is trying to get a promotion to management. Her white friend, Tracey, also tries for it, but Cynthia gets it. When the company tries to restructure the workers' contracts, Cynthia finds herself in a bind--she wants to help her friends, but she has a job to do.

Sweat, which I suppose is named for the liquid expended working on a factory floor without air conditioning (the corporate office is cool) is a fine examination of the plight of the blue collar workers in the U.S. They are in a union, and when asked to take a sixty-percent pay cut, they go out on strike. Scabs are hired, including the bus boy at the bar, Oscar, a Colombian (this, as any savvy play-reader will predict, leads to trouble).

As with Ruined, Nottage does not display anything experimental. The plot is fairly simple--you know that the end will reveal the men's crime and that Oscar will be involved. But what Nottage does well here is depicting the world of the worker. I find it interesting that workers who are on strike would continue to buy drinks (one of the characters, Jessie, is clearly an alcoholic), and since I don't hang out in bars I don't know if that's how people talk in them--it seemed a little too stagey.

The characters, though, are very vividly drawn. The aforementioned Jessie, who is mostly seen passed out, like a character in The Iceman Cometh, has enough lucidity to express a long-held desire: "I wish . . . I had gotten to see the world. You know, left Berks, if only for a year. That’s what I regret. Not
the work, I regret the fact that for a little while it seemed like, I don’t know, there was possibility. I think about that Jessie on the other side of the world and what she woulda seen."

Stan, ruminating on instead of battling a company, maybe it would be best to just pack up and leave, says: "Sometimes I think we forget that we’re meant to pick up and go when the well runs dry. Our
ancestors knew that."

Since I'm not close to New York any more I didn't get to see this play, and perhaps seeing it would have made it more convincing. But the printed version does include the news of the day before each scene. It's not clear whether that is projected on a screen in the acted version.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Eyes of My Mother

The Eyes of My Mother, streaming on Netflix, is one of the more disturbing movies I've seen recently. It is not for the faint of heart, even though most of the violence is off screen. Maybe that's what makes it worst--we imagine it's far gorier than it could be depicted on screen.

I hesitate to detail too much of the plot, because I didn't know what was happening next. Suffice it to say that it's about a girl who grows up to a killer after witnessing her mother being killed. The girl, who is played as a child by Olivia Bond, is named Francisca after St. Francis of Assisi. Her mother was an eye surgeon back in Portugal. One day a door-to-door salesman comes by and asks to use the bathroom. Bad idea.

As an adult, Francisca is played by Kika Magalhãe. She misses her mother, and then her father dies (I think of natural causes, but I'm not sure). She brings a young woman home for sex, but that young woman freaks when Francisca tells her that she killed her father. In the clever editing the film employs, we see the woman saying she has to leave, and then we cut to Francisca scrubbing blood off the floor, and then wrapping some kind of meat to put in the freezer.

There are also chains in the barn, and the "Eyes" of the title has extra meaning. The film is shot in very stark black and white which makes for some interesting images, such a barn door opening revealing a child holding a teddy bear by the leg in silhouette.

What The Eyes of My Mother could be considered is an art-house Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Approach it with caution, because it should unnerve the most callous horror movie fan.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Harvey Weinstein

I don't know if anyone has ever had a swifter fall from power than Harvey Weinstein. Just a few weeks ago he was one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, and in the course of a few days he was accused of sexual harassment by scores of women, was fired from the company he founded, kicked out of the Motion Picture Academy, and is being divorced by his wife. Even his brother has spoken out against him. In the words of Garrison Keillor, "Wouldn't this be a great time for a piece of rhubarb pie?"

Weinstein has been the focus of the news media (the shooting in Las Vegas is already old news) and collective soul-searching. We have heard from a lot of women in the film business who have had harrowing experiences with the man, from A-listers like Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow to actresses just coming up, like Sarah Polley, who wrote an excellent op-ed in The New York Times. She wasn't interested in acting enough to fall for his evil bargain, but how many have?

This has ignited a discussion of sexual harassment, both based on nothing but words (he asked some women to give him a massage or watch him shower) to the ultimate (Rose MacGowan has accused him of rape). Every bit of it was inappropriate, unprofessional, and possibly criminal, but what Polley said in her essay is both eye-opening and, in a sense, unsurprising: Weinstein is not an outlier.

Men who accumulate power, especially men who may not be particularly attractive, counterbalance their sad days in high school by treating women like collectible objects, like stamps or baseball cards. I have no idea what Weinstein'sex life was like as a teenager, but as an amateur psychologist I would suggest it was not stellar. Some guys get girls by learning the guitar, others produce movies, because both industries attract young women who are willing to do anything to get what they want. Of course, I want to believe that not all movie producers are like that, anymore than rock stars are, but when one becomes as powerful as Weinstein, and is treated with such deference, the repugnance oozes out.

Imagine being so powerful you could hit on Angelina Jolie and not be outed? I don't know the particulars, but she was clearly afraid to speak out, whether out of embarrassment or fear for her career. And, of course, that this society, who could have a hung jury in the Bill Cosby case, still is reluctant to believe claims of women who are harassed or assaulted. Cosby was for years a lovable performer--Weinstein has never been lovable, and because of his power more people seem to be willing to accept the truth. He also made a half-hearted confession/apology, blaming it on growing up in the '60s and '70s. Please.

Weinstein has his supporters: Donna Karan and Lindsay Lohan are with him, probably hurting their own careers, because why would any woman want a dress from an enabler like Karan? (Lohan's career is already dead). What remains to be seen is if there are men who years ago enabled Weinstein, like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. This could make Hollywood sizzle like a cauldron.

I've been saddened to see women on my Facebook page write #me too; some of them I've known for almost forty years and I didn't know about it. It just makes me embarrassed to be a man.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Certain Women

I've seen almost all of Kelly Reichardt's films and enjoyed them all, but they will never be mistaken for a Fast and Furious film. Her films are slow and contemplative, but nonetheless gripping because the situations are fraught with emotional tension.

Certain Women, a 2016 film, is based on three short stories by Maile Meloy, all set in Montana. The three stories are played out consecutively, with short codas at the end. They intersect only briefly, but are all set in the same world.

Each of these stories end with a whimper, not a bang. If you've been raised on typical Hollywood films you might expect more vivid endings, but they are not, and the message here seems to be that if you're lonely, deal with it, and life goes on.

The first story features Laura Dern as an attorney representing a man (Jared Harris) who wants to sue his employer for an injury. She's been telling him that he can't, because he's already accepted an insurance payment. When a man tells him this same thing, he accepts it, but tells Dern he's going to shoot up his workplace. Instead, he takes one man hostage, and Dern is called in to talk him out.

The middle story has Michelle Williams as a tense woman on a camping trip with her jovial husband (who we saw having an affair with Dern) and her sullen teenager. She wants to buy a huge pile of sandstone from an old man (Rene Aubernojois), and butters him up, while the husband (James Le Gros) undermines her efforts.

Finally, in the best story, Lily Gladstone plays a lonely horse rancher who seems to have no regular human contact. On a whim she attends a class at the high school, that turns out to be school law, taught by a lawyer, Kristen Stewart. Stewart has a four-hour drive, both ways, while holding down a full-time job. Gladstone becomes smitten with her, having dinner with every night after class and giving a ride on a horse. But when Stewart quits the job due to the long drive Gladstone is determined to see her one more time.

Certain Women is a display of the little things in life that we deal with. Granted, Dern's story is more dramatic, and involves a gun, but the other two stories are simply wrought, with simmering emotions--there's more going on in what isn't said that what is.

The performances are terrific. Harris, an Englishman, does an American accent for the first time I can remember and it took me a while to recognize him. Gladstone, who won some awards for this performance, acts mostly with her face. There is a long scene in which she drives away with her last encounter with Stewart. Will she break into tears? What's written in her face speaks volumes.

Reichardt is not a director that is likely to tapped to direct the next Marvel film. She makes small, delicately filigreed films that don't make a lot of money (this one made more than a million, her highest grossing). But they deserved to be seen.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life

Most Americans, especially if they went to high school, know Shirley Jackson for her story "The Lottery," one of the most famous short stories in 20th century American literature. But did you also know she wrote eight novels (including one of the best ghost novels ever written, The Haunting of Hill House), and wrote popular domestic comedies about her four children, a precursor to Erma Bombeck? She also had written in her biography on a book jacket that she was a practicing witch.

Jackson, whose centennial was last year, receives a scintillating biography, subtitled A Rather Haunted Life, by Ruth Franklin. Based on her correspondence, Franklin has pieced together a full portrait of a writer who remains underrated, perhaps because she was not glamorous and died at the age of 48.

"Jackson’s brand of literary suspense is part of a vibrant and distinguished tradition that can be traced back to the
American Gothic work of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James. Her unique contribution to this genre is her primary focus on women’s lives," writes Franklin. Indeed, almost all of her work is seen from a female point of view, and are about women who feel like outsiders, as she did. She was born in California, but moved to Rochester, New York, as a teenager. She was awkward and overweight. After a short stint at the University of Rochester, she transferred to Syracuse University, where her writing talent started to blossom. She also met Stanley Hyman.

"Stanley closed the magazine demanding to know who Shirley Jackson was. He had decided, he said, to marry her." Hyman was a Jew from Brooklyn, and would go on to be a well-known critic and academic. He would also be far less than a perfect husband. He had frequent affairs. "Stanley had already made it clear that her recriminations were useless. The more she expressed her jealousy, the
less he paid attention." Yet, "she already believed that she could only love a man whom she found superior to her in every way."

Despite Hyman's successes, he would get lost in her shadow, as she sold many stories during the 1940s, mostly to The New Yorker (Hyman would be an occasional contributor for years). "The Lottery" would appear in that periodical in 1948, and would earn more mail that any other story they ran, most of it hateful. The story is about a ritual performed in a bucolic town square that has someone being stoned to death to please God and make sure the crops come in. People had never read anything like it.

Jackson would go on to write eight novels. Her last two are the most famous, The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which was published in 1962. After that she struggled with agoraphobia and could not write, but had begun writing a new novel when she died of a heart attack.

Jackson and Hyman were part of the literati, despite living most of their married lives in North Bennington, Vermont, where Hyman was a professor. They were good friends with Richard Wright and Howard Nemerov, and enjoyed parties, eating and drinking. Jackson had four children, though she loathed housework. This led to two books, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, that were comic essays about her family. Many people couldn't reconcile the writer who explored the dark parts of the soul with the light touch of her domestic books. She also wrote a book, fittingly, on the Salem witch trials, which earned her quite a bit of money. Her view of witchcraft, as it is today generally accepted, is that it represents female power and the male fear of it.

Franklin describes Jackson as someone besieged, either by Hyman or her mother, who after Jackson receive a good review in Time wrote to her how bad she looked in the photo. Jackson wrote a scorching retort, but never sent it. "Even at this point in her career, with six published novels and two popular memoirs, Jackson still felt she had to prove her worth to her parents. She never missed an opportunity to emphasize how successful she had become, reporting back to them on just about every lecture, reading, and conference."

This is a terrific biography, even if you haven't read any of Jackson's works. It is almost a dual biography of Hyman, who gets his own chapter, but it would be hard to separate them. I must say, though, that I still don't know who Jackson really was, emotionally speaking. I don't think this is a fault of Franklin, but that despite her letters and unfinished material, Jackson was a hard nut to crack. I suppose, given the mysterious nature of her writing, that that is appropriate.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Lust for Life

Lana Del Rey's new album, Lust for Life, dares to pinch a title from Iggy Pop, but the result is such a luscious, complex record that I'm sure Mr. Pop won't mind. The album is so layered that I gave it two weeks in the car, rather than my normal one.

I must admit that part of the reason I liked listening to this album over and over is that it's sexy. You could add this to your collection of music to be played during concupiscence. The title track has Del Ray breathily pleading, "Take off your clothes, take off all your clothes."

Del Ray co-wrote all of the tracks, most of them with Rick Nowels. There are sixteen in all, for 71 minutes of music. Normally an album that long would put up red flags, but I don't dislike any of them.

Most of the songs, as the title suggests, are about love. One of them "Cherry," also lifts from "Scarborough Fair" with a lyric "rosemary and thyme," but does substitute "cherries and wine" instead of parsley and sage. One of the better songs is "Coachella--Woodstock in My Mind," which is about her being at the festival in California while tensions were escalating with North Korea:

I was at Coachella
Leaning on your shoulder
Watching your husband swing in time
I guess I was in it
'Cause baby, for a minute
It was Woodstock in my mind
In the next morning
They put out the warning
Tensions were rising over country lines
I turned off the music
Tried to sit and use it
All of the love that I saw that night"

A similar sentiment is expressed in "When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing."

"Boys, don't forget your toys
And take all of your money
If you find you're in a foreign land
Boys, don't make too much noise
And don't try to be funny
Other people may not understand"

There are many guests on the record--The Weeknd, Sean Lennon, who sounds disconcertingly like his father, and Stevie Nicks, who certainly must be an inspiration for Del Rey. Their song is called "Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems."

"But we're just beautiful people
With beautiful problems, yeah
Beautiful problems,
God knows we've got them"

Those lyrics are a bit in tongue and cheek, as are those to "God Bless America--and All the Beautiful Women in It."

In another bit of artistic theft, Del Rey includes a song called "Heroin," which Lou Reed used fifty years ago. This is one is not about her taking the drug, but someone she cares about.

"I'm flying to the moon again
Dreaming about heroin
And how it gave you everything
And took your life away"

I feel like I've just scratched the surface talking about this record. Her voice, the production, the lyrics, all of them are great, and listening to it put me in a very pleasant state of mind.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Return to Red River

Some might find it audacious for Johnny D. Boggs to write a sequel to Red River, the classic 1948 film starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. Actually, he has written a sequel to the book that it was based on, and it's a solid, old-fashioned Western that could have been written in 1948.

The book picks up with Matthew Garth, who was played by Clift, as he manages the ranch he inherited from Thomas Dunson (who was played by Wayne). It's twenty years later. He married Tess Millay, the prostitute (although that word isn't used in the film or in this book) and has two sons, Lightning and Tom. The secret is that Lightning is not their natural son.

Garth, like Dunson twenty years later, is short on cash, and has to drive his cattle across the Red River and into Kansas. The book takes a little too long setting this up--I think the drive starts about halfway into the action.

"Longhorns. Some of these, no, probably almost every last one of them, a descendant of the first cattle brought to Mexico by Gregorio de Villalobos back in 1591, after Christopher Columbus had deposited some in Santo Domingo back in 1494. Around 1690, a herd numbering roughly two hundred had been trailed to a Texas mission near the Sabine River. Now Mathew Garth had to get these cattle to Dodge City, Kansas." This kind of stentorian prose and research is to reading like macaroni and cheese is to food. It's not great, but it's comforting, especially to those who like old Westerns.

The cattle drive, of course, is fraught with danger--a stampede, a fire, and someone following them. It may be Jess Teveler, wanted by the Texas Rangers, and who has something against the Garths. The ending provides the traditional showdown and gunplay.

Every once in a while a read like this is a great switch from literary fiction. Boggs is clearly a student of this genre. And any book that can have a passage like this is fine with me: "For more than five weeks, they had been wet, and they had been dry. Baking underneath a broiling sun or freezing in their soaking clothes after a cold rain. Mostly, they had been bone tired, aching, miserable. Awake before sunrise, then in a saddle till noon, a quick bite of food washed down with coffee, a fresh horse, and back in the saddle."

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Little Mermaid

In an odd but successful trend, Disney is taking their classic animated movies and turning them into Broadway musicals (or, making them into live-action movies, or both). One of those was The Little Mermaid, the 1989 film that revived the moribund animation department, and the first of the Howard Ashman and Alan Menken scores.

The movie was delightful, and the stage version is, well, okay. I saw it at the Smith Center on Sunday night, and there were many children in attendance, and it was geared more toward them, or the child within us all.

The production design and lighting are great at depicting an undersea world, and there are many characters who are flown on cables to make them look like they're swimming. In some cases it looks like the actors leave stage and are instantly harnessed--I hope they're safe.

The story is based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, but with a happy ending. However, if you read into the story on a social and psychological level, it's about a girl who wants to deny what she is and become something else. She is Ariel, a mermaid who is fascinated by humans. Her father, the King of the Sea, Triton, hates humans, because he thinks they killed his wife.

Ariel has fallen in love with a human prince, whom she saved from drowning. She makes a deal with Triton's evil sister, Ursula, a sea witch with tentacles and two electric eels as henchman. If Ariel can get the prince to kiss her, she will be human forever. If she doesn't, she becomes Ursula's slave.

As usual with Disney, the most interesting characters are the supporting ones. In The Little Mermaid it's Sebastian the crab, played as a Jamaican Rasta man (in this production by Melvin Abston). He gets the two best numbers: "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl." (Both songs were nominated for Oscars, "Under the Sea" won). There is also a seagull who has a problem with pronunciation (played by Jamie Torcellini). And Jennifer Allen is a hoot as Ursula, playing her as a campy diva.

The leads are fine. Diane Huey is Ariel, and she has a fantastic voice, and Eric Kunze is suitably bland and handsome as Prince Eric.

The production was beautiful to look at, but seemed to lack a spark. A slapstick number with a French chef, "Les Poissons," fell flat, and I just couldn't get into the story, since the message seems so retro. Also, other than those two Sebastian numbers, the other songs are pretty forgettable.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Imagine Me Gone

One of the finalists for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone is one of those books that proves Tolstoy's line that "all unhappy families are different in their own ways." Of course, the first part of that quote is that "all happy families are alike," but there are no happy families in literature. I doubt there are any in life.

The book covers thirty some years in the lives of a married couple and their three children, using revolving narrators. John, the father, is a distracted Englishman, worrying about his career. His wife Margaret is a long-suffering mother, the kind of domestic goddess that still puts up Christmas stockings even after her kids are completely grown.

The three children are somewhat stock types: the manic depressive, the uptight gay guy, and the exceedingly normal sister. What they all have in common is that their lives are hijacked by the crazy one, Michael, the oldest, who pines over women he can't have and is in and out of hospitals.

This happens early in the book, so it isn't much of a spoiler--the dad kills himself. We don't know how, he just goes into the woods and doesn't come back. He has taken the children back to his native England for a few years, then returns to Massachusetts. I would imagine a suicide of a parent is something that one never gets over, but he isn't mentioned much afterward, as Michael becomes more depressed, taking a smorgasbord of pills.

The book has five narrators, but I kept looking forward to Michael's. Despite his neuroses, he's a hoot. One chapter is hilarious, as he is on a cruise and sends letters to his aunt that turn into a narrative about white slavery. He mentions that his younger brother Alec has gone missing on the boat: "Apparently, he’d been abducted by a child-prostitution ring down on deck 3. English, Russians, and he thought maybe Dutch. He was about to be sealed in a crate and smuggled to a Soviet resort on the Black Sea when he managed to secrete himself on the bottom of a curtained tea trolley that rolled him into the kitchens."

Michael also loves music--his only regular income is writing record reviews--and he meets the girl who will send him over the edge in a record shop: "I toured the remaining indie record shops on Saturday mornings when the new shipments arrived. It was on one such outing, after many dateless years, that I encountered Bethany. She had a tiny glistening nose stud, and a nearly shaved head, and was flipping through a bin of Aphex Twin. Need I say more?" Michael is attracted to black women, and attempts to enter a graduate program in African-American Studies. He admits, "romantically, I would have been a lot better off as a lesbian of color, that’s for sure."

Michael is so interesting that this makes the rest of the family a little dull. Alec is a writer for a political news outfit, and maneuvers his way through his first serious relationship (he also picks up a man on a train and gets a blowjob in the parking lot). Celia, the middle sister, has the least interesting life, even though she counsels troubled people. She has a boyfriend she's not sure about, gets pregnant, has an abortion, and fields Michael's frantic calls.

But I liked this family, and I felt for them. I'm about two clicks away from ending up like Michael, and the strain of a family member with mental illness is shown here in a clear light. The ending, which didn't pack as much of a wallop as it should have, indicates that a sibling with Michael's kind of condition sucks the vitality out of all other family members. But what is a person to do?

I appreciated the humor of the book more than I did the sorrow, and for that reason alone I recommend it. If you have a loved one who committed suicide or has a mental illness, it may be tough. Nobody's committed suicide in my family, and are mental illnesses are the kind that are high-functioning.

Monday, October 09, 2017


There was an article in the Times about ten pretty good indie films Netflix has made for their platform, and I'd only seen one of them (Tallulah) so I added them all to my "watchlist" (the live-streaming version of the "queue") and took a look at Tramps, written and directed by Adam Leon. It's an okay film that is undone by cliches.

There are two parallel stories that have a boy and a girl meeting. At first they dislike each other (well, she dislikes him). They are involved in a caper, with some narrow escapes, and of course by the end she likes him. I think part of this taps into male fantasy, as there is no real chemistry between them and for them to run off together is inevitable but not authentic.

Callum Turner is Danny, a would-be chef. His older brother is a criminal who is to deliver a briefcase to a woman on a subway platform. Danny is driven there by Ellie (Grace Van Patten, part of the seeming endless Van Patten acting family). She is a kind of bruised figure, running from what we infer is an abusive boyfriend.

Turner fucks things up so they have to get it right, lest the underworld types who are behind this will anger, which involves them going to the Westchester suburbs to retrieve the briefcase. This is, I suppose, to contrast the world of the elite with their low-level existence (Turner lives in an apartment with his mother, who runs a betting parlor in it). He's the quintessential nice guy, she's the sullen girl, like the old Fiona Apple song (Van Patten is fine, but she seems to have taken tips from Shailene Woodley).

Tramps is only an hour and a half but feels longer--it could have been an hour easy. There are an incredible amount of trips on mass transit. Watching the film is like riding a subway that is taking longer than usual to get to its destination.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Would you believe that I had never before read any of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books? Somehow they eluded me during childhood. Well, I'm going to be teaching the book soon so I thought it appropriate that I actually read it.

Though this is the book that most people know of the seven-book series, it is not the first. Apparently the first book, The Magician's Nephew, has nothing to do with this one.

The book begins during the blitz in London. The Pensey children, Peter, Edmund, Susan, and Lucy, are sent to the country to stay with an elderly professor in a very large and mysterious house. They are exploring the house when they find a room that is empty except for a wardrobe full of coats. Playing hide and seek, Lucy hides behind the coats and finds herself in another world, where it is snowing. She meets a faun named Tumnus, and learns that she is in Narnia, where it always snows but is never Christmas.

Of course her siblings don't believe her, but the professor does. Eventually they all end up in Narnia, where the White Witch has cast a spell keeping it winter. She can also turn someone into stone. But a lion, called Aslan, arrives (I don't know where he was) and he and the children help defeat the witch in battle.

The book is often cited as a Christian allegory, as Aslan is killed but resurrects. But other than that, I didn't feel beat over the head by Biblical allusions, so I found it safe for atheists. But while it may be beloved by children, I find it spotty. It seems like a summary of a longer book. There is an interesting plot point when Edmund, hooked on the witch's Turkish delight, betrays his siblings (Judas?) Other than that, the plot is pretty weak.

My main trouble with the book is twofold: why did Aslan wait around for the Pensey children to show up before he did anything about the witch? Were they necessary to defeat her? Secondly, I'm not a fan of the way that war is the answer to the problem.

It's neat that the kids stay in Narnia, grow up to be adults, kings and queens, etc. and have forgotten about the wardrobe, until they accidentally come across it. When they go back into it, they return to the exact time they entered it, as children.

The book is so matter of fact that I'm struggling right now to think how to teach it. In a secular school I don't want to emphasize the Christian aspects of it. The writing itself is not florid at all; it's written as if someone were telling the story.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

Rock and Roll of the 1940s?

And so begins the annual and pointless arguing about who should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as eighteen nominees were announced. As usual, some are intriguing and some are head-scratching.

I think the most interesting nominee is Sister Rosetta Tharpe (pictured). She was a gospel singer, but played electric guitar--back in the 1940s. It is generally accepted that rock records (mostly called "race" records) didn't come along until the 1950s (Ike Turner's "Rocket 88" is often called the first rock and roll record), but Tharpe mixed her gospel with R&B. She even recorded a record called "Rock Me" in 1938. As an innovator, she will likely be elected, though I wonder how many of the voters have actually heard her records. She died in 1973.

There are no first-time nominees this year, and only two in their second year of eligibility. One of them, Radiohead, should be a no-brainer, but for some reason they weren't even nominated last year. I run hot and cold on them, but there's no question of their influence and achievement. The other new band on the list is Rage Against the Machine, which I think fall short.

Another no-brainer and first time nominee are The Moody Blues, even though they have been eligible for 28 years! The Hall has a distinct prejudice against progressive bands--their album Days of Future Past is considered the first progressive album ever released, but they had a lot of hits in '70s and have been a classic rock staple ever since. I suspect they won't be elected this time, but should be.

The Cars, who have now been nominated three straight years, should get in this year. I really liked them a lot. A band I did not like, Depeche Mode, may get in. Dire Straits, who dominated radio for a few years, probably didn't make enough albums to be elected, the same with The Zombies, who despite making one of the best psychedelic albums of all time (Odessy Oracle) only made two albums total. There has to be some longevity involved. It would be like electing Joe Charboneau to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

One of the gripes about the nominees is that some of them are not really rock and roll. Nina Simone was a great singer, but I would call her a jazz singer. But if Joan Baez can get elected, perhaps she will, too. And as hip-hop and rap are considered rock, there should be no reason that LL Cool J should not be elected.

The others are unlikely to be elected, although Bon Jovi is interesting. They were certainly huge in record sales, but not critically acclaimed. But Journey's election last year may justify their election. The Eurythmics also had some big hits, but again, didn't last that long.

Kate Bush, Judas Priest, MC5, The Meters, Rufus, and Link Wray, despite their respective brilliance, are probably non-starters. I'm very interested to see what happens with the J. Geils Band, who had a long career before their radio-friendly hits of the late '70s/early '80s, and are considered one of the best live bands ever.

I would vote for: The Moody Blues, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Radiohead, The Cars, and the J. Geils Band. I have no earthly idea who will be elected.

Friday, October 06, 2017

Oscar 2017: Best Actor

Taking a look at the movie calendar for the rest of the year, the Best Actor Oscar race looks unusually skimpy. Sure, there's Tom Hanks in a Steven Spielberg movie, but other than that the biggest stars didn't make movies this year of had flops. This has set up what is perhaps the easiest forecast of the upcoming Oscar campaign.

Because there's only one obvious nominee, I'm going take some very wild-ass guesses. In alphabetical order:

Chadwick Boseman, Marshall. Boseman, who has specialized in playing the great black men of the century (Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and now Thurgood Marshall) stars in a legal drama when the hallowed Supreme Court justice was a lawyer. Interestingly, it is not based on Devil in a Lemon Grove, a popular book about Marshall defending black boys for murder in Florida. This all depends on the impact of the film. If it doesn't open with a splash, Boseman will be forgotten, no matter how good he is.

Daniel Day-Lewis, The Phantom Thread. No one knows much about this movie, but we do know that Day-Lewis and director P.T. Anderson teamed for one of Day-Lewis's three Oscar wins (There Will Be Blood). Day-Lewis's announcement that this is his last film may help him get a nod, but he's said that before.

Domnhall Gleeson, Goodbye, Christopher Robin. Another actor playing a real person (author A. A. Milne), which the Academy loves. Gleeson, the son of Brendan Gleeson, has been in many good movies over the last few years, and again, it all depends on how the film is received. Looks like a weepie.

Hugh Jackman, The Greatest Showman. What's that, another real person? Yes, Jackman plays P.T. Barnum in a musical. Couple with Jackman's gritty finale as Logan earlier in the year, he really displays his range. He got a nod for Les Miserables, and if this film is a hit I think he's a safe bet.

Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour. It seems folly to announce a winner in October, but Oldman may have this sewn up now, playing Winston Churchill (yet another real person) in tons of makeup. Oldman was only been nominated once before, but has the kind of respect (imagine a man playing Sid Vicious and Churchill). The film has been by critics and Oldman has been anointed.

Other possibilities: Jake Gyllenhaal, Stronger; Michael Fassbender; The Snowman; Tom Hanks; The Post; Bryan Cranston; Last Flag Flying; Sam Elliott; The Hero.

Thursday, October 05, 2017


Here in Las Vegas, it was the day after the mass shooting. School was still open, but my fellow 6th grade English teacher suggested we not teach today, just show a movie, as the kids may be unsettled. Actually, I think my students were fairly unfazed. But what movie to show? Since we are reading Bud, Not Buddy, about a black boy during the 1930s. I thought of a movie I haven't seen in years, but is also about a black boy in 1930s America, and is rated G, Sounder.

Sounder was released in 1972, and was nominated for Best Picture, but it was the year of The Godfather. Stars Paul Winfield and Cicely Tyson earned their only nominations, but the star of the film is Kevin Hooks, as David Lee, the son of a sharecropper who possesses above average intelligence and the desire to make something better of himself.

The setting is Louisiana, where Winfield and Tyson and their three children operate a farm for the town grocer. Life is hard--the opening scene shows Winfield and Hooks and their dog, Sounder, hunting for a raccoon. It's not for sport, it's for dinner, and when the raccoon eludes them Winfield is upset his family won't have meat. This upsets him enough that he purloins some meat from a local smokehouse, but is found out and arrested. Sounder, chasing the truck taking Winfield away, is shot by a deputy, and runs off in the woods.

Winfield is sentenced to a year of hard labor. The family, because Winfield is black, is not told where he is sent. A friendly white woman finds out and Hooks goes on a journey to find his father.

Sounder is a quietly moving family film. Today's kids might have too short an attention span to enjoy it, though my students seemed to tolerate it. The era's racism is subtle--most of it is expressed in that's just the way it is. The sheriff can't let Tyson see Winfield, because he's "just following orders." The family lives with it, but in a powerful speech, Winfield tells Hooks that he loves him but wants him to leave the farm, because he doesn't want his life to be mapped out for him. This is what the American dream used to be--one's children exceeded the success of their parents. This is not necessarily true anymore.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Blood Work

Clint Eastwood has played a cop many times, most notably Harry Callahan. He plays an FBI agent in Blood Work, 2002 film he also directed, and while he's convincing, and the film is based on a novel by the great crime writer Michael Connelly, the film is merely competent.

Eastwood plays a celebrated FBI agent who always gets his man, but is stymied by a serial killer who leaves numerical clues. Eastwood spots the killer in a crowd surrounding the latest crime scene, and chases him, but has a heart attack.

Cut to two years later, when Eastwood has just had a heart transplant. He is retired and living on a boat. But a woman approaches him and asks him to solve his sister's murder. Why him? It's her heart that is inside his chest.

That's a good grabber, and we go through much of the usual--a couple of false suspects, and the killer is someone we wouldn't have guessed, for reasons that connect to Eastwood.

If the script is merely ordinary, Eastwood's direction is crisp. He is, of course, his stoic, grouchy self, but also shows his tender side with the son of the murder victim (who gives him an insight into the code of the serial killer, which expert decoders couldn't figure out).

Jeff Daniels plays Eastwood's boat bum neighbor in a very good performance (I don't think I've ever been let down by Jeff Daniels).

Blood Work, among Eastwood's many films, is not far from the bottom. But Eastwood hasn't made too many clinkers, so that's okay.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Casino Royale (1967)

Charles Kaufman, an agent turned producer, had an idea to make a James Bond film. He purchased the rights to Ian Fleming's Casino Royale--all the other Bond novels were in the hands of Albert Broccoli, whose offer was turned down. Initially Kaufman wanted Howard Hawks to direct and Cary Grant to play Bond. But instead of making a straight Bond film, he ended up making a "psychedelic movie." It's unclear if Kaufman even knew what psychedelic meant, he just knew it was popular.

The resulting film is a glorious mess. The film was directed by five different directors. There is more than one James Bond (by some count, there are dozens). The script is incoherent. Peter Sellers, who plays one of the Bonds, was fired (or quit) midway through production and had to be edited into or out of certain sequences. Yet it has its charms, particularly the sequence with, of all people, Woody Allen.

There are a lot of big-time actors in this who risk making fools of themselves. David Niven, who would have made a great Bond in the 1950s, plays a retired Bond. Leading intelligence officers from many nations, including John Huston, who directed his segment, William Holden, and Charles Boyer, ask him to come out of retirement because agents are dying and missing. He refuses until they blow up his house.

The gimmick is that Bond is replaced by other spies who take the name and number 007 (something that has been suggested to account for the fact that Bond never seems to age). Niven heads to Scotland, where SMERSH attempts to assassinate him (Deborah Kerr, a great actress, is forced to climb down a drainpipe).

The action then switches to Sellers, who is a Baccarat expert. He is trained as a new Bond, with the intention of playing Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and beating him so that he loses a lot of money that belongs to SMERSH. Sellers wanted to play Bond straight, and is the least funny person in the film. Welles hated him so much that the two did their game at separate times.

Then comes a tedious sequence with Joanna Pettet as Mata Bond, who is supposedly Bond's daughter with Mata Hari. Considering Mata Hari died in 1917, this doesn't make much sense. Anyway, Pettet has an adventure that I've already forgotten.

The final sequence, directed by Val Guest, is the best, if only because it is revealed that the major villain is Jimmy Bond, Niven's nephew, played by Allen. Obviously Allen wrote his own lines, such as when he says to the beautiful Dalia Lavi, "We will run amok, or if you're too tired, we will walk amok." Jimmy's nefarious plot is to release a chemical that will make all women beautiful and kill all men taller than 4'6''.

The set for Allen's lair is terrific, a multi-colored series of corridors that truly makes the film psychedelic. But the ending is ruined by a farcical melee that includes cowboys and Indians and cameos by George Raft and Jean Paul Belmondo.

The best thing about Casino Royale is the score by Burt Bacharach, particularly the main theme played by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I think I could listen to it for several hours. There are also dozens of nuble young actresses, including a very young Jacqueline Bisset (here billed as Jacky) who looks absolutely delicious.

Also on the DVD is a kinescope of the very first appearance of James Bond, a teleplay starring Barry Nelson in a one-hour version of Casino Royale. Peter Lorre plays Le Chiffre. It's pretty boring, but knowing that Barry Nelson was the first actor to play Bond can be useful during trivia night.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Monkeys Leaving Backs

I feel a little silly writing about baseball when about 600 people were shot by a lunatic some ten miles from where I live, when Puerto Rico has been blown back into the stone age, and when we don't know whether Tom Petty is dead or not. But, the playoffs are starting tomorrow, my favorite sports time of year. Ten teams, and all of them, as we have seen from past years, have a decent shot. Except Minnesota.

The Red Sox in '04, the White Sox in '05, the Giants in '10, the Cubs last year. Slowly but surely the monkeys on the backs of the original sixteen Major League clubs have left and gone back to the jungle. All, that is, except for the Cleveland Indians, who have not won a World Series since 1948. They came tantalizingly close last year, and they are my pick to win it all this year, mostly for the reason that it makes sense dramatically. They also had an all-world September, setting an American League record for consecutive wins at 22. Of course, none of this guarantees anything.

I have the premonition that the Indians and Cubs will have a rematch. The Cubs are the third seed in the National League, but should take care of the Washington Nationals, because Dusty Baker is a terrible short-series manager and Max Scherzer is hurt. The Dodgers, who at one point were threatening to set the all-time record for wins in a season, ended up with 102, a worthy number, but in the post-LaSorda era have also found numerous ways to lose in the post-season. I think they'll beat the Arizona Diamondbacks (but just barely) but lose to the Cubs.

In the American League, the Twins have never beaten the Yankees in a playoff game, and aren't about to now, so the Yankees will play the Indians, a good series, and the Red Sox will play the Astros, a better series. The Indians will handle the Yankees, maybe in the full five games, and the Astros, with a rejuvenated Justin Verlander, will edge the Bosox. The Indians will then beat the Astros.

If the Indians do win the World Series, the onus will be on two of the first expansion teams. The Astros, once the Colt .45s, have never won a World Series, and neither have the Washington Senators/Texas Rangers. The Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals have never been in a World Series, the only team in MLB that hasn't.

I'm psyched. I'm going to root for the Indians, with the Astros as a back up. And since I live in the Pacific Time Zone I get to watch the games in their entirety. Play ball!