6/23/17

My Cousin Rachel : Adequate, but Not Memorable?


MY COUSIN RACHEL (2016)
Directed by Roger Michell
Fox Searchlight, 106 minutes, PG-13
★★★


"Did she? Didn't she? Who's to blame?" These words appear at the beginning and end of the latest adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel. The 1952 film stored Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton. Talk about big shoes to fill! Happily Rich Weisz is up to the task of the role of Rachel Ashley, and Sam Claflin is fine as Philip. On a less exciting note, the film is decent but is more of a passing thought than a lingering presence.

The setting is 19th century Cornwall. Philip has just left university with the revelation that he cares nothing for books, the wider world, or clever banter. It's the rural life for him. Philip is an orphan, but a lucky one whose cousin Ambrose acted as a surrogate father. Alas, family news is not good. Ambrose has gone off to Italy, where he married a young wife named Rachel. Shortly thereafter, Ambrose took seriously ill. By the time Philip arrives in Florence, his the cousin has died, news delivered in an offhand manner by Rinaldi (Pier Franceco Favino), an Italian man cleaning up affairs at the empty villa, to whom Philip takes an instant dislike. He's a bit rash, our young Philip—a sort of impetuous man-boy.

Back in Cornwall, Philip is now master of the estate, a role disturbed when he begins to find cryptic and desperate notes among Ambrose's effects suggesting that Rachel is to blame for his demise. Was she? Or was it a brain tumor? Philip is convinced that she is to blame and wishes to avenge his cousin–until Rachel shows up in Cornwall and he is the smitten. This is much to the chagrin of young Louise Kendall (Holliday Granger) who has loved Philip since both were children.

Rachel proceeds to remake the dreary estate, often overspending her allowance. Philip doesn't mind. In fact, he hopes to marry her when he turns 25 and has complete control over his affairs. But does she want such a rash, immature partner? The situation is complicated by the fact that Rachel allows him to possess her sexually on the eve of his important birthday. Does she desire him? The estate? Or is she just being Continental? And why does Rinaldi keep showing up? Is Rachel's outward goodness her true character, or is it her fiery anger that occasionally boils to the surface?

Some of Philip's closest associates–his lawyer and his godfather (Iain Glenn, Sir Jorah in Game of Thrones)–warn Philip to curb his infatuation, but is he too far gone to heed them? What are we to make of the sudden turn for the worse in Philip's health? Is the tea Rachel gives him an herbal cure, or is she slowly poisoning him? Is she, perhaps, a witch?

All of this resolves and, in the end, makes sense, but with the impact of a pulled punch. The film is a sort of mash up of Hitchcock's Rebecca (1949), Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen. Like a lot of pastiche, it's like a copy of a copy. None of this is to say that My Cousin Rachel is a bad film; it's just one that leaves us with the vague feeling that it should have been better. Ultimately, it feels like a costume drama whose major cinematic virtue is the wild Cornish seacoast. Otherwise, it would have been a good Masterpiece Theatre offering.

Rob Weir

6/22/17

Massachusetts Democrats a Symbol of Why the Party Loses


 
Hello, my name is Rob and I am politically disenfranchised. When I go to the voting polls my choices are between Republicans, the selfish and savage minions of Wall Street, and Democrats, the foolish and idiotic mouthpieces of Nowhere.

I live in Massachusetts, putatively one of bluest states in what is often referred to as the Union. I assume the word “Union” is meant to be ironic. Ha ha! It’s almost as funny as terms like “representative” and “The People.”  I don’t mean to sound bitter; I’m actually very sad, because these days "democracy" is just a comfortable lie we tell ourselves.

I won’t write about the Clown in the White House or his Reign of Error. Nor is there much I can add to what has already been said about the systematic ways in which Republicans pander to greed, mephitic social irresponsibility, and mind numbing disregard for the very future of the planet. I expect this from the Republicans. I also expect Democrats to behave like Franklin Roosevelt, not George W. Bush with better grammar. Silly me.

It’s pretty obvious that Democrats are incapable of ruling. I’m not just talking about the four recent Congressional elections they managed to lose to candidates defending the most indefensible politician since Joe McCarthy. I’ve grown accustomed to the fact that Democrats could lose to an eight-year-old write-in candidate if Nancy Pelosi endorsed the Democrat.   

The problem is so simple that the same eight-year-old could grasp it: Democrats don’t believe in democracy any more than Republicans do, but they’re not as good at hiding that fact. Let me illustrate with a case from the Blue Bay State. Last fall a voter referendum did something the Massachusetts General Court (our name for the legislature) had refused to do for years: it legalized recreational marijuana. The same referendum, which is supposed to have the weight of law, placed a maximum 12% tax on pot and placed into the hands of local voters the decision over whether individual towns could ban sales or farms.   Call it grassroots politics, with all intended wordplay.

Before continuing, let me state that I am not a pot smoker. I have never used any drug that didn’t come with an Rx on the label; when you grow up in an alcoholic family, getting high is not a phrase that rings with romantic allure. I’m neither pro- nor anti-pot. I get cross, though, when someone bogarts democracy. The voter intent couldn’t be more clear—done deal.

Except it’s all gone up in smoke thus far. From Day One, Democrats have tried to undo voter will, even though Republican Governor Charlie Baker has signaled his willingness to sign a bill into law. That gesture shouldn’t be necessary in the first place—the whole damn point of a citizens’ referendum is that elected politicians don’t get to say. A word on Massachusetts politics: Democrats control the House by a 124-36 majority and the Senate by 34-6. There is no worry that the GOP can sandbag anything, not even with a gubernatorial veto. Nonetheless, Democrats tried to nullify the referendum altogether, a move that not surprisingly met with so many challenges that they backed off. Next came the successful effort to delay implementation of legal marijuana, which was supposed to happen this fall, but will be delayed for another six-twelve months.

Plenty of time to file amendments—more than a hundred so far, many filed by local pols that seem to think that the Catholic Church elected them, not ordinary voters. The current House version slaps a 28% tax on cannabis, a figure that probably won’t pass legal muster, but who knows? The House bill also gives control over local sales and farming to local officials, not voters. Is the real intent  simply to bog down everything until these fools can wrestle away the last semblance of mass democracy? I’d like to say that Senate leader Stan Rosenberg of Amherst has taken the lead in calling out the House. Alas, Rosenberg, who was a champion of local power before he became Senate leader, has joined the Glad-Hand Brigade and become a player. In lay terms, he  has morphed into Mister Waffle.

I'm not sure what will be the final fate of recreational pot in Massachusetts. That’s not the point. Democrats are supposed to represent the will of the masses, but they have no clue who or what the masses are anymore. They have become empty suits that wring their hands with other empty suits when they frequently assemble to dissect why they’ve lost still another election. And they still have no clue.

To all Democrats: Don’t ask me to get excited about your latest vacuous Madison Ave-style ad. Don’t call and ask for a donation unless you want to hear me say, “Political donations are not tax-deductible because politicians are not charities.” Maybe I’ll the word “charitable” to that rant as well. Don’t tell me I have to cast my vote so the Wall Street savages don’t win. Don’t bother, because I’m not sure it’s worth my effort to vote for anyone. I’m disenfranchised.  

6/21/17

Cezanne et moi is a Masterpiece--About Friendshiip

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CÉZANNE ET MOI (2016/17)
Directed by Danièle Thompson
Pathè, 116 minutes, R (language, nudity)
★★★★★

Cézanne et moi takes a look at two men whose work changed Western culture: painter Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) and writer Emile Zola (1840-1902). Cézanne was among the first to declare Impression a spent force that had degenerated into inconsequential decorativeness. His Post-Impressionist works bridged the transition to Modernism with such impact that Picasso declared him, “The father of us all.” Zola was twice nominated for Pulitzer Prizes in literature. His 20-volume Rouzon-Macquart series—which includes his masterwork Germinal (1885)—is the definitive fictional take on the tumultuous years in which France threw off the reign of Louis Napoleon (1852-70) and established the Third Republic (1870-1940), though Zola also skewered the latter in a famed 1894 work, J’accuse in which he exposed the depths of French anti-Semitism.

Now this is out of the way, let me say that everything you’ve just read is secondary in Cézanne et moi. The film is really about deep friendship, tempestuous personalities, egoism, and the wounds that can be forgiven and those that cannot. It is easily the best new film I have seen this year. Don't listen to cranky reviewers whose idea of subtlety is a pause before something blows up. I was hooked from the opening sequences through the closing credits—and be sure to be settled in your seat to drink in both of them. In the first, master cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou lingers over jars of ocher, tubes of paint, vials of oil, and genre painting setups. It may be the lushest use of color I have seen since Scorsese’s Age of Innocence (1993). It is also the calm before the storm.

The movie opens with a schoolyard fight in which young Zola is being thrashed by elementary school bigots for being half Italian. (The child actor so evokes Jean-Pierre Léaud as to suggest homage to 400 Blows.) Zola is rescued by Cézanne in what may be the only fight he never started. This was the beginning of a deep friendship that stretched in the 1890s, when Cézanne’s perpetual enfant terrible behavior clashed too deeply with Zola’s bourgeois comfort and crippling self-doubts. Love is not too strong a word to describe their deep bond, the depths of which made their periodic estrangements tragically sad.   

Director Danièle Thompson uses a kaleidoscopic overview to highlight the Three Musketeers-like boyhood and adolescence of Paul, Emile, and their rotund sidekick Anchille. It works effectively to get us to a young adulthood in which Emile (Guillame Canet) is an impoverished and frustrated writer catching sparrows to feed himself and his widowed mother, Émilie* (Isabelle Candelier). By contrast, Paul (Guillaume Gallienne) is the son of haute bourgeois parents, though he is about to be cast out by an imperious father who finds Paul’s paintings offensive and frivolous. No matter, Emile and Paul assuage their setbacks in a whirlwind of café life, intellectual discourse with other disaffecteds (Pissaro, Monet, Renoir, de Maupassant), the occasional street brawl--like an infamous assault on well-heeled snobs at the 1863 Salon des Refusés--and mutual admiration of each other’s work, a task generally involving one telling the other that his failure complex is misguided. Paul also drowns his troubles in drink, trading art for paint, and models who are often also prostitutes—including Gabrielle (Alice Pol), who will later reemerge as Alexadrine Zola! 

Thompson takes us back and forth in time quickly so she can linger on Zola and Cézanne as adults. We see stunning role reversals: the hotheaded Paul living in rustic squalor amidst the tranquil countryside of Aix-en-Provence versus the measured Zola who thrives on the noise and political crises of Paris while slowly settling into the bourgeois life he outwardly detests.** These contradictions are among the topics of discussion that take place as the two stroll amidst the eye-popping ocher cliffs near Roussillon or in Zola’s stuffed, posh office. Slowly, but inexorably, mutual admiration gives way to mutual recrimination.

This film is a delight for the eyes and not just because of the colorful cliffs and lithe female nudes. Provence’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire, the dam Zola’s father built, Zola’s study, and the French countryside are characters in their own right, as is the Provencal light. Pay attention to how Dreujou contrasts Provence’s radiance with the shadow and subdued light of Paris or Zola’s home. We see this technique also in the somber and smoky hues of the tenements and cafés and sun-dappled Provencal picnics that are like tableaux of Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe. (Both men hated Manet’s work, by the way!) But the clash that divides is the erosion of support and respect for one another as it slides into hyper-critical attacks and unexamined self-centeredness.

Cézanne et moi is exceedingly well acted, with lots of juicy small parts expertly brushed into the film’s canvas. It is also superbly directed and, at turns, tender and heartbreaking. For my money, it’s hard to imagine we will see better cinematography in an upcoming film (though bet on some summer blockbuster winning the Oscar). This film made me think of friendship as a fragile figurine that must be handled with care, lest if fall and shatter. (Think ye of that high school yearbook with its sincere BFF inscriptions from people you’ve not had contact in decades.) Call this one a work of genius about two geniuses who made imprudent decisions.***

Rob Weir     


* The Zola family fortunes took a nosedive when Emile’s Italian-born father, an engineer who built a dam in Aix, died when Emile was just three. In the 1840s, an age before insurance was widespread, the death of a male breadwinner often spelled instant poverty.

**As an ironic footnote, Cézanne’s father left him a small fortune. Today, Cézanne’s work is far better known than Zola’s, though the latter is still considered a literary pillar.

 *** Among other bad calls: Cézanne smashed many of his canvasses and neither had the healthiest of relationships with women other than their mothers.

6/19/17

The Founder Half Good and Half Advertsing

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THE FOUNDER (2016)
Directed by John Lee Hancock
The Weinstein Company, 115 minutes, PG-13 (language)
★★★

The Founder is another example of the challenges of bio-pics. They are always  metaphorical tightrope walks. On one hand you want your central character to be sympathetic enough to keep the viewer's attention but on the other, a lot of intriguing people have more imperfections than a shattered milk bottle diamond. The Founder is similarly flawed. It takes a peek at a very imperfect individual: Ray Kroc (1902-1984), the mastermind who franchised MacDonald's.  

The title is ironic; although he later asserted that a store he started in Des Plaines, Illinois was the first MacDonald's, it was not Kroc's idea. The original MacDonald's was a hamburger joint in San Bernardino, California named for two brothers: Dick and Maurice MacDonald. Our action begins in 1954, when Kroc is a Willy Loman-like salesman for a milkshake maker almost no one wants. When Ray (Michael Keaton) gets an order for an army of them, he's so curious that he drives from Illinois to California to investigate. He is astounded to witness the booming little joint that Dick (Nick Offerman) and "Mac" (John Carroll Lynch) MacDonald are operating and it's the first time he's ever experienced a fast food take-out establishment. As he sits down on a bench, bites into his burger, and declares it the "best hamburger I've ever had," Ray begins to think big.

Here is the first (of many) times in which myth and reality clash. The MacDonalds were cranking out short order burgers, not filet mignon in a bun, so I doubt Kroc experienced an epicurean wet dream from that greasy patty. Also, for the record, White Castle had been around since 1921, and was well known in Illinois, where Kroc was born, raised, and based. The above scene also points the way for another of the film's flaws—John Lee Hancock can't decide if he wants to direct a character study or an extended MacDonald's ad. He opts for both, which is seldom the right way to go. I found the second route to be, if you will, unpalatable. Oddly, though, the film skips the decision to adopt a clown* as MacDonald's icon—perhaps because it has become controversial and is now used by activists a symbol of corporatism run amok.

The film is strongest when Hancock shows Kroc for what he was—an ambitious hustler, glad hander, and schemer. His 'genius' was to foresee the possibilities involved in fast food franchising during the post-World War II economic and baby booms. We also see his egoism, shown poignantly in his curt and heartless request for a divorce from his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) so that he could pursue another man's wife, Joan Smith (Linda Cardellini), who would eventually become his second wife and widow. That romance, however, is also slathered in Hollywood myths, including a wooing scene played out at MacDonald's window after hours that you'd find silly in a film about teenagers. Joan is also the center of another advertising moment. She gets credit for an instant milkshake powder that is tested in a posh Chicago restaurant and pronounced, "the best damn milkshake you've ever had." Ummm… no! That's why Mickey D's eventually went back to actual ice cream. And Joan was no angel, despite her later philanthropy. Ask anyone associated with the San Diego Padres when she owned the team.

Take away the embarrassing moments, and The Founder is actually a decent film. Keaton is a good enough actor to play both charming and oily convincingly. We witness Kroc's ruthlessness in driving out the MacDonald brothers for a cheap buyout, in reneging on verbal agreement to pay the brothers royalties, and in working with industrial lawyer Harry Sonneborn (B. J. Novak) to figure out that the key to fortune lay in control of real estate, not in salted fries, shakes, and assembly line burgers. The film takes us to 1980, when Kroc and Joan—whom he married in 1969—live amidst southern California gilded luxury and Ray preens before a mirror while rehearsing a speech for a different Ronald: presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.

As a film, The Founder is a bit like a MacDonald's meal: fast, filling, and loaded with lots of crap you don't need. But, when you don't have time to cook literally or intellectually, those salted fries fit the bill.  

Rob Weir

* For the record, Ronald MacDonald was patterned after future weatherman Willard Scott's portrayal of Bozo the Clown, a character developed in the 1940s. In 1963, Scott played Ronald "the hamburger crazy" clown in three MacDonald's TV ads. However, Ronald didn't become the corporate symbol until 1974.
  

6/15/17

New Bluegrass: The Riverside, Steep Ravine, Avenhart, Town Meeting, Michael Cleveland

How Blue is Your Bluegrass?

I'm often asked why there are so few young folk musicians these days. I guess the questioners haven't looked too hard because this old land of ours is positively saturated with young 'uns playing bluegrass and flipping the calendar on a genre that, before their arrival, had grown too predictable. Here are just a few recent releases that have come my way.

Bluegrass is so deeply associated with Appalachia that we sometimes forget that California is also a hotbed. A new recording titled Appalachia in the Morning comes from a band called The Riverside that is actually from California. It was formed by six friends and other than their names—Jake Jeanson (guitar), Lorien Jeanson (mandolin), Sarah Organista (bass), Evan Kramer (percussion), and Denise Barbee (banjo)—I can't tell you much about them except that Barbee's banjo is the center of most of their music, though probably not in the way you'd expect. Hers is a quiet and gently paced style that indeed evokes the feel of morning. In fact, this release often feels (in a good way) like you've just shaken enough sleep from your eyes to sashay into the early morning sunlight. Each track is gentle, peaceful, and warm. The songs speak mostly to the idea of finding a safe haven, be it a place, a person, a mental space, or home. Personal favorites include "Lorien Ruth," "Starry Night" and "Appalachia," but everything on the release is inviting and goes down easy. Wish I could say more, but there were no credits available for this release. Note: Don't confuse the above band with a Polish heavy metal band of the same name, or an outfit called Riverside Bluegrass Band. ★★★ ½ 

Another fine California band is Bay Area-based Steep Ravine. They also confound expectations of what bluegrass sounds like. Their winter sampler, a prelude to a new release to be titled Turning of the Fall, is a smooth and contemplative offering that's on the quiet end of the musical spectrum. Lead vocalist/guitarist Simon Linsteadt sets the mood with his mellow tenor, mellow being the dominant mood. "C'mon Home" has accented cadence evocative of traveling down a trail at a slow trot rather than a gallop. In a similar vein, the sweet harmonies of "Daylight in a Jail Cell" put one in mind more of a pleasant morn than a day behind bars. It, like many of the selections, is driven by Jan Purat's fiddle. Purat goes gypsy jazz on "Dark Eyes," appropriate given that he studied at the California Jazz Conservatory. The quartet, which includes bass player Alex Bice and drummer Jeff Wilson, also shows off its jazz influences in the deliberate pacing of their selections. "The White Mare" is the fastest paced song on the sampler, but it too is controlled rather than breakneck. And it's hard to top "Waiting Blues," with its tight harmonies and comfortable melody. ★★★ (Harmonies missing on YouTube clip.) av

Let's stay out West for another intriguing band. Think of a bluegrass with the tranquil vibes of indie favorites The Fleet Foxes mixed with the inventive newgrass of Tony Rice and you have a good approximation of Avenhart. Avenhart is also the name of this Denver-based sextet's debut EP. The four songs on the EP all address the fragility of love. "Fade Away" uses an acoustic guitar/banjo intro to create ambience that is both bittersweet and smooth. Banjo player Phil Heifferon's lead vocals sometimes remind me of Paul McKenna's in their polish, but with an edge that's part husk and part whisper. "Fade Away," like the other three tracks, has a lovely melody. Will love endure, or will it burn too bright and fade away? The setting is perfect for such a song. "If I Go" has a peaceful feel, but also sounds a warning: "I ain't never coming back, if I go." In "Enough," that same message is stamped with sorrow: "I never want to see you again/No matter how much I do." All of the songs are instrumentally graced by the mandolin of Alex Drapela, Alex Goldberg's bass, Payden Widner's guitar, the fiddle of Olivia Shaw, and the guitar of Andrea Pares—the latter two of whom lend lovely harmonizing vocals. My only brief against this fine band is that I'm not sure that the spirited instrumental breakout works on a will-she-call song as frangible as "Madeline." You should sample this band; there is much to love. ★★★★

Venturing east to Massachusetts, Town Meeting is a scrap-yard band, a deliberately raw mix of country, folk, blues, and bluegrass, with lots of backwoods gospel influence. I call it scrap-yard for the minimalist string band approach to the instrumentation in most of its selection. And there’s this: the release title, If I Die, alerts that their repertoire is heavy on songs about death. Some, like “Time,” are upbeat—a sort of rockabilly/skiffle hybrid powered by Brendan Condon’s craggy vocals and instrumental breakdown energy. Although this quintet is from the Central Mass town of Ayer, on “Verge” you’d swear they must hail from the Southern Appalachians. By contrast, “Missionary Street” has some strong blues harmonica and the song sounds like Paul Simon checked into the “St. James Infirmary,” “Wash My Hands” has an Everly Brothers vibe, and “Digging" is retro outlaw country. In my view, the band overdoes “not afraid to die” material and could do with a dollop of sheen to smooth overly rough edges, but sample them on NoiseTrade and see what you think. ★★ ½

Michael Cleveland was a child prodigy who first appeared at the Grand Ole Opry at the tender age of 13. Since then he's won enough awards to fill a duplex, including 10 IBMA fiddler-of-the-year honors. Fiddler's Dream (Compass) has a delightful nostalgic feel—as if it were an old-time radio show. The tone is set by the title track, a standard that was originally an Arthur Smith tune. Cleveland goes into full hoedown mode, dueling with the banjo like he's in a race with the Devil. He prefers the full-tilt approach, which we hear also on "Henryville," "Sunday Drive," "Earl Park," and the deceptively named "Northeast Seaboard Blues." There's not a hint of newgrass on this recording; Cleveland opts for the Old School formula of setting supercharged melodies and breakout solos—sometimes mandolin, sometimes banjo, sometimes flat-picked guitar—and he brings them home with his flying fiddle. Think you're a good dancer? I defy you to keep up with Cleveland's duet with Jason Carter on "Tall Timber." Cleveland stays in the old-timey mode for a delightful cover of the John Hartford staple "Steamboat WhistleBlues," featuring Sam Bush on vocals. There's also the sweeter touch of "I Knew Her Yesterday," and the melancholic feel of "The Lonesome Desert." The only cut that didn't knock my socks off was the concluding "Nashville Storms," in which the musicians noodle around hoping for a soup to appear, but it says it all when a reviewer's only complaint is of the bonus track.★★★★ ½




6/14/17

I Am Not Your Negro (Sadly) Remains Relevant

I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO
Directed by Raoul Peck
Magnolia Pictures, 93 minutes, PG-13 (language, brief nudity)
★★★★

Incredibly, there are still those who ask why so much attention is paid to race. This ought to be self-evident in the age of Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, but I can think of few more poignant ways of explaining why race matters than Raoul Peck's documentary I Am Not Your Negro*. It is a look at playwright, novelist, and poet James Baldwin, who was also one of the sharpest and smartest social critics of his day. Therein lies a tale of its own; Baldwin's day was 1924 to 1987 and the fact that we wrestle with the same crap with which Baldwin grappled thirty years after his passing is a searing indictment of American society.I Am Not Yur Negor

The film is loosely based on Baldwin's Remember This House, his planned remembrance of three martyrs he knew well: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin had finished just 30 pages of this book at the time of his death**, so this film isn't really about these three individuals as much as it is a reflection on what Gunnar Myrdal dubbed An American Dilemma back in 1944: race and racism. Peck's film is a pastiche of words from Baldwin himself, Samuel L. Jackson's narration, and archival footage—some of which features many of Baldwin's friends and associates: Harry Belafonte, Marlon Brando, Lorraine Hansberry, Charlton Heston, Sidney Poitier and others.  But Baldwin didn't even spare friends; he insisted, for example, that most of Poitier's films were a bromide for white audiences. Baldwin also noted that American "entertainment is often difficult to distinguish from the use of narcotics," a phrase Peck uses to buckshot his film sprays of images such as a Doris Day film clip followed by Baldwin's trenchant thoughts on school desegregation and archival photographs of Little Rock in 1957. There are also snippets of Hollywood embarrassments such as Dance, Fools, Dance and Uncle Tom's Cabin.  

One of the film's unintentional spotlights is cast upon the dumbing down of American culture. There is footage from The Dick Cavett Show that makes this painfully clear. Watch any (non-PBS) talk show of your choice and ask yourself when was the last time it devoted an entire segment to someone with the articulate genius of James Baldwin, gave that individual free rein to deliver an unvarnished indictment of American society, and then introduced a Yale philosophy professor to comment upon it! (Okay, that guest, Professor Paul Weiss, was a pompous ass, but really—who does this anymore? Surely not Jimmy Fallon or Seth Myers.)

I Am Not Your Negro is not a perfect film. As noted, it isn't really based very much on Remember This House because thirty pages isn't much to go on. Whether Peck's structure is a brilliant patch job or a chaotic jumble probably depends upon the age of viewers and their familiarity with the people, events, and references flashing on the screen. In a controversial move, Peck completely ignored Baldwin's homosexuality. It's contentious whether doing so was an inexcusable obliteration or a wise choice that kept the focus on race. It is, however, completely fair to take Peck to task for suggesting that Malcolm X's assassination was a direct result of white racism. Malcolm was, indeed, often the subject of white ire, but his 1965 murder was at the hands of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim group. ***   

Still, I Am Not Your Negro is a powerful look at white privilege. Baldwin's charge that "This is not the land of the free" is, tragically, as true then as now. There is a telling moment near the end of the film in which he claims, "I can't be a pessimist because I am alive. I'm forced to be an optimist." Yet Baldwin's worn countenance, his heavy sighs, his arched eyebrow, and his resort to scolding are the marks of a prematurely aged fighter who has taken enough blows for one lifetime. Still, all Americans should feel the sting his punishing left hook: "What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I'm not a nigger, I'm a man, but if you think I'm a nigger, it means you need it." 

Rob Weir

* For younger readers, "Negro" was the preferred term for African Americans in post-World War Two America until around 1974, when it was supplanted by the term "black." The "Black Power" movement of the late 1960s and James Brown's 1968 hit single, "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)" were instrumental in shifting language in ways consonant with black-generated cultural identities, but it took a while for these to shake their associations with fringe radicalism.  

** When Baldwin died, his publisher, McGraw Hill, attempted to sue his estate for the return of a $200,000 advance. This suit was dropped in 1990, an outcome occasioned by public outcry and negative publicity. 

*** Malcolm X was a Nation of Islam loyalist until a 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca, which convinced him that the exclusivity of Black Muslims was wrong, as was their assumption that all non-whites were racist. He became a universalist Sunni Muslim, thereby infuriating the Nation of Islam. 

6/12/17

Gaiman's Snarky Norse Mythology Works

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NORSE MYTHOLOGY (2017)
Neil Gaiman
Norton, 281 pages
★★★★

If I Had a Hammer...
Like many kids of yore, I devoured tales of Greek gods, dragons, ghouls, and monsters. Of all the tales, though, I especially loved Norse mythology. I’m sure that Mighty Thor comic books had something to do with it, but I think it was also because there’s something more “human” about the Asgard gods. To be sure, the Greek Olympians were every bit as flawed, lusty, and petty as Norse deities, but they were also more aloof—more like bickering philosophers than exaggerated versions of people you might actually know. By contrast, Odin was a one-eyed usurper who overthrew the Frost Giants, and his bearded, cloaked, slouch-hatted appearance made him seem more like a wizard than a god. He often missed things with just that one eye, so there was plenty of mischief opportunity for Loki, who was as much a spoiled child as a god. And his brother Thor had his magical hammer Mjollnir, but he was definitely more brawn than brain.  Add the beautiful Freya, the handsome Balder, and some elves, dwarves, and giants and Norse mythology paved my way for Lord of the Rings. Besides, who can resist gods whose realm is connected to earth by a rainbow bridge (Bifrost)?

As it turns out, Neil Gaiman had the same obsession as I. Who better to update Norse mythology than he? Few understand twisted stories as well as Gaiman, the brainchild behind The Sandman, American Gods, and dark marvels such as The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Gaiman knows good material when he has it and possesses the wisdom not to over-tinker. He hasn’t changed the substance of the stories; his is more of a hipster’s edit. He has shortened many of the tales and has rewritten them in his own voice: direct, snarky and filled with irreverent addenda. When Odin meets Hel, Loki’s half-rotted corpse daughter who rules the realm of the dishonorable dead, he remarks, “You are a polite child. I’ll give you that.” Later, Gaiman describes Odin’s novel escape from the giant Suttung: “Odin blew some … mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.” You don’t get Greek gods doing any of that!  Nor are their moral lessons the likes of: “No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass.” Gaiman’s gods bicker like bullheaded schoolyard children and are just as impulsive, albeit more deadly. Sometimes they kill just to cover up their mistakes.

Norse gods could themselves be killed. In fact, all of them perish in a final clash with the Frost Giants called Ragnarok, the Norse equivalent of the Apocalypse and just as preordained. It is, appropriately, Gaiman’s final chapter. But I don’t want to preordain anyone’s pleasure by delving more into this book’s content. To be sure, Gaiman’s propensity for being a bit too hip and snarky for his own good is in evidence in this book but if you’ve never read the Norse myths, or have only encountered them in the dreadful Hollywood Thor movies, Gaiman should be your starting point for a deeper exploration. If, like me, you enjoyed these stories when younger, read Gaiman for a glimpse back at your childhood imagination. A final note: Too many kids are sheltered from stories such as these today in the mistaken belief they are being spared from trauma. Nonsense! Kids adore gory, off-color stories filled with monsters and giants, so let them cross that rainbow bridge when they come to it.

Rob Weir

6/9/17

News of the World a Western for Adults

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NEWS OF THE WORLD (2016)
Paulette Jiles
William Morrow, 209 pages
★★★★

One of the virtues of being a voracious reader is that you occasionally stumble onto something you'd not normally consume and find it a delectable treat. That was exactly my experience with News of the World.

It's a (sort of) Western, a genre I normally avoid—mostly because too many of them are Zane Grey wannabes and I read Grey (and Wister, L'Amour, etc.) when I was a kid. News of the World is different in content and sensibility. It takes place in Texas five years after the end of the Civil War—the fighting part of that is. Texas was quite different in the 1870s than it is today. Places like Dallas, Kerrville, Llano, and San Antonio were cowtowns—and rough ones to boot. Fort Worth was still a fort, a needed one as Kiowa, Comanche, and several other tribes roamed freely and raided frequently. Shall we say, though, that it was a toss-up as to who was more "savage," the unconquered Natives or the floozies, con artists, and drunken, gun-toting white lowlifes that populated not-yet "civilized" towns.

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd is the unconventional hero of News of the World. At age 71, Kidd is both bone- and world-weary. As a boy he witnessed the War of 1812, and he participated in Mexican and Civil conflicts. He fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, but with little enthusiasm. He is sick of violence and has little time for Reconstruction politics and unbowed racists and Democrats lamenting the end of slavery. His priorities are more immediate. Kidd misses his late wife, a rich Mexican woman whose passing left him with estranged adult children and no bankroll. Kidd ekes out a modest living as a reader; for tens cents a head, audiences listen to Kidd read from papers from around the nation and the world. Call it the 19th century's approximation of the World Wide Web. Even if you were literate, most people in rural Texas would have never laid hands or eyes on papers from back East or abroad.

Against his better judgment, Kidd agrees to take on a daunting task: a 400-mile ride from Wichita Falls to Castroville, Texas, to return ten-year-old Johanna Leonberger to her surviving relatives. Don't imagine a Rooster Cogburn type of story; the Kiowa killed Johanna's German immigrant parents when she was six, and she was raised Kiowa. Johanna has forgotten both German and English, has adopted Indian culture, and her Kiowa family is the only one she remembers. Kidd doubts he can complete the journey, but he needs the $50 (in gold) reward.

That trek makes Jiles' story much better than your average paint-by-the-numbers Western. To be sure, there is plenty of treachery, action, and danger, but the tale is really about the relationship between Kidd and Johanna. Captain Kidd is genteel and erudite like his piratical namesake, but how does one communicate across language, culture, and trust barriers? Jiles populates the back scenery with assorted ex-slaves, desperadoes, legitimate do-gooders, and some whose quality of mercy is strained. Jiles also lets us inside Johanna's Kiowa brain to give us three under-served points of view: that of a female, a child, and a Native American. She brings it all home in a crisp 209 pages that you'll turn faster than the Captain flips newspaper pages. Give this one a chance, even if you can't imagine you'd enjoy a Western.

Rob Weir

6/7/17

Nikki Lane, Leslie Tom, Amy Stroup, Ani-DiFranco: Let the Women Sing Out

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This review roundup features four female vocalists not afraid to explore their artistic borders. 

If you like sassy women airing it out in front of a kick-ass band, you can't find many better than Nikki Lane. One of the cooler things about Lane is that she doesn't possess a naturally big voice. She could have easily opted for the whispery breathless little girl sounds that are so in vogue these days. Instead she boldly cuts loose, as if she were a mash of Loretta Lynn, Tom Petty, and Wanda Jackson. Her latest record is titled Highway Queen. The title track is a compelling mix of outlaw country, badass rock, muscular singing, and soul-stirring electric guitar. This is a continuation of a formula she developed on her previous release All or Nothin' (New West Records) that was released in 2014 and is one my favorite outlaw country/Americana records. It featured full-tilt energy, style hopping, and attitude galore. Check out the sexy organ and Lane's bump-and-grind vocals on the title track of that one. Or maybe you'd prefer her girl-group-meets-The Bangles "I Don't Care," the surf guitar of "Seein' Double," the honky-tonk defiance of "Man Up," or the spontaneous living room feel of the first section of "Love's on Fire." Want to dance with anger? Check out "Sleep with a Stranger."  I've not yet heard all of Highway Queen, but rate All or Nothin' ★★★★ ½

Leslie Tom uses the hashtag "UnapologeticallyCountry" and that sums her to a tee. Her recent EP Leslie Tom (Coastal Records) is a throwback to when female country music was really big voices singing about love, heartaches, and family. There are several honky-tonk selections that immediately put one in mind of Patsy Cline, including a cover of one of Cline's signature songs, "Leavin' On My Mind." Tom does it as if it were a country/café torch song. Hers is indeed a big voice and she's not afraid to air it. What I really liked was that Tom steers clear of processed sheen. She even gets a little bit corny on "Hank You VeryMuch," a tribute in which she skillfully interweaves Hank Williams song titles. And if you want to wallow in a roadhouse weepie, check out "Breakin' My Own Heart," a twangy 1950's throwback featuring country legends Hargus "Pig" Robbins on piano and Lloyd Green on pedal steel. Later, there's a love song duet with Kevin Moon; a patriotic tribute to her grandfather, a World War II vet; and; and a tongue-in-cheek reflection on motherhood, "Hardest Thing I'll Ever Do." You don't get much more unapologetically country than a line like: "You're a Goldilocks with your daddy's eyes/You're a ketchup smile with greasy French fries."  ★★★★

Amy Stroup has enjoyed commercial success—literally; some of her work has made its way into advertisements, as well as movies and TV shows such as "Pretty Little Liars." She's based in Nashville, also fronts the indie band Sugar and the Hi-Lows, and some have called her an alt.country performer. Hmmm… Based on Tunnel, I'd say she's stretched that label to the breaking point. Picture Enya with a younger-sounding voice and more ventures into the pop realm. Mix with the dance hall pulsing tones and loops of someone like Ariana Grande or Debbie Gibson, and send all the vocals through an echo chamber. That's what Tunnel is like. "Dark Runs Out" is very Enyaesque with its soupy electronics and swooshing swells; and the vocals in "We Finally Found Out" literally linger in the background of an electro-keyboard drone that slide in with choral backup singers. We catch that similar quality of a song (not quite) breaking through from the mist in "Curious Heart." Don't hold out for a lot of lyrical insight from this album, as most of the arrangements are too hazy, thick, and echoey for us to ponder poetry. The closest Stroup gets to straight-on songs come in the piano/guitar/snare opening of "Hold What you Can" or the pop vibes of "Far From yesterday," but both of these also get an aural bath at some point. The most surprisingly track is "Falling," with its surf guitar and late 1950s feel. It's hard to argue with Stroup's success, though I'm less willing to call Tunnel any sort of artistic triumph. It has its moments, but overall it feels over-produced and under-realized. ★★

When you put yourself on he griddle as often as Ani DiFranco does, you better be able to take the heat. She shocked LGBT fans when she married a man and had two kids. She pissed off hipsters when she did some projects with trad folkies, and took grief from self-styled revolutionaries for going to a songwriters' retreat at a luxury resort that was once a slave plantation. Has Ani sold out? Hell no! Her Play God EP lays to rest that silly notion by reprising some of her rebellious favorites. The title track—included as both a studio and a live take—is a soul- and funk-influenced no-holds-barred defense of reproductive freedom: My right to choose/You don't get to play God, man/I do…. "Subdivision" is an in-your-face smack-down of white privilege: White people are so scared of black people/They bulldoze out to the country/And put up houses on little loop-de-loop streets/And while America gets its heart cut right out of its chest/The Berlin Wall runs down Main Street. The only heat DiFranco deserves is that her songs are sometimes so political that her famed staccato guitar style and changing rhythms are necessary to cover lyrics that don't scan well. DiFranco's voice has matured to something akin to a huskier version of Melissa Ferrick and this EP is less folky and more soulful. Don't like that? DiFranco's "All This" is her refuse-to-compromise rejoinder. ★★★ ½

Rob Weir

6/5/17

Why Spring MLB Games Matter (Sort of): And Other Baseball Thoughts




Or do they count more than we imagine?
I usually do a preliminary evaluation of the Major League Baseball season sometime around the All-Star break. This year, though, I want to turn my attention to other matters, including the old adage that spring training games don’t matter at all and those in April and May hardly matter. These are, at best, half truths.

Confession time: I ignored the New York Yankees impressive spring training record and picked them to finish last in the American League East. They currently sit atop it. I still don’t think the season will end that way, but simple math makes my last place prediction unlikely. By the end of May, the Yankees had already won 30 games and unless they fall apart completely, they will put to rest the notion that early games don’t matter. There are 112 games left to play. Tons of baseball, right? Yes and no. To finish the season with a winning record, the Yankees can go a paltry 52-60 (.464). Tweak this slightly. If the Yankees play .500 ball (56-56) they will finish with 86 wins, possibly good enough to get into the postseason.

The Astros, at a blistering 38-16, would have to implode not to make the postseason, but let's consider the Cubs, last year’s World Series champs. At the end of May they were a mediocre 25-27. I still think they will win the weak NL Central, but there’s almost no chance of them duplicating last year’s 103 wins. They’d have to go 78-32 to do so, a stunning .709 pace. None of these numbers mean that the Yankees or Astros will go to World Series or that the Cubs won’t, but they are provocative.

Sheath Your Sabermetrics:

The fast start of the Yankees and the unexpectedly decent ones of the Twins, Brewers, and Rockies fuel my saber-skepticism. I don’t reject all sabermetric analysis, but there sure is a lot of junk science lurking among the useful stuff. The two worst categories are UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) and WAR (Wins Above Replacement value). UZR only works if every batted ball goes consistently into apportioned zones, each chance is of equal difficulty, and all external variables are taken into account (field conditions, shifts, weather, the quality of the pitchers, etc.). Impossible. But nothing is as dumb as WAR, a form of voodoo math that purports to measure how many wins or losses an existing player brings to the team in comparison to a theoretical replacement player. A what!?

Those who actually watch baseball instead of spinning algorithms know that among the game’s beauties is its ability to defy logic. Show me the WAR cipher who, in 2016, said that if the Yankees benched Brian McCann—a player most WARmongers like way better than I—that Gary Sanchez would rise from the minors and hit 20 homeruns in 53 games. That was, of course, a statistical fluke. This year he has four after 52 games and that’s my point: you can’t come up with foolproof models for a sport with this many variables. That’s why unexpected players end up as heroes in situations where the models say they should fail.

By the way, that I still think win/loss records matter for pitchers. There are lots of guys with “great stuff” and great stats who can’t seem to miss bats in crucial situations. Witness this year's Cubs' starters (which I predicted, by the way).

On the Field:

Although the Yankees probably won’t bring up the rear as I predicted, I’m not seeing enough pitching to avoid a tumble down the standings. Mashiro Tanaka’s agent is the only reason Tanaka isn’t undergoing Tommy John surgery; it would ruin his chance to use his opt out clause and squeeze a few more bucks out of some sucker. The Yankees have ridden big bats and a great bullpen thus far. The bats are likely to cool at some point and the pen is already exhausted from a subpar five innings and out starting staff.

I will say, though, that it would delight me if the Yankees ragtag pitchers took them further than the Red Sox dream staff of Sale, Price, Porcello, Pomeranz, et. al. Don’t think it will happen, but I’d love to see the sabermetrics crowd try to explain that one.

I’m enough of a Stathead to think Ervin Santana’s 7-2 start is a fluke. Bet the Twins can’t wait to get a haul for him before his past catches up with him. I’ll bet they also wish they could find a taker for Brian Buxton, the new poster child for the Can’t-Miss-But-Did prize. I’m afraid I still don’t believe in the Twins—not yet, anyhow. I might have to rethink the Diamondbacks, though. As for the Rockies, who the hell knows in that ballpark?

I didn’t think the Phillies would be good, but I thought they’d be better. I also thought the Mets would be good enough to win, but I sure didn’t foresee most of their pitching staff succumbing to injuries. The Giants have the same problem. Lousy April-May records will make it hard for either to make up ground. Pittsburgh sure has looked bad as well. Lucky for the Bucs they are in that weak NL Central.

Of course, just about anything could happen. Remember how the Jays went from hopeless to first two years ago with an August/September burst? Or how the Braves and Red Sox fell off the cliff in 2011? But I'm not sending in advance orders for Twins/Rockies World Series tix.  

 Rob Weir

6/2/17

Eagle Huntress is Nest-Bound

THE EAGLE HUNTRESS (2016)
Directed by Otto Bell
Sony Pictures Classics, 87 minutes, English subtitles, G (animals harmed)

The Eagle Huntress played at my local cinema for so long I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Here’s your answer: Not much. The Oscars wisely withheld a Best Documentary nomination for this contrivance, and I don’t generally use the words “Oscars” and “wisely” in the same non-ironic sentence. The Eagle Huntress depressed me—not the subject matter, but the thought that audiences are so starved for something honeyed that they will settle for watered-down NutraSweet.

The film follows Aisholpan Nurgaiv’s quest to become a champion eagle handler. Aisholpan comes from twelve-generations of respected eagle hunters, but faces a challenge: this young Kazakh is a girl seeking to make her mark in a sport hitherto reserved for males. Alas, this is only a perseverance tale for young girls for the terminally Politically Correct crowd. Aisholpan’s major obstacle isn’t gender—it’s getting up to snuff. Her father, Rys, has allowed her to handle eagles since she was tiny, is 100% supportive of her goal, and aids her at every step. And, because his family is associated with a line of exalted eagle executors, those who would cleave to patriarchal tradition can only sneer and tut-tut Aisholpan’s boldness. I must admit that they look quite regal doing so in their colorful Kazakh robes, structurally impressive hats, and imposing moustaches, but we already know they can’t stop her, so pull the plug on that piece of potential drama. Ditto Aisholpan’s ascent into an eagle aerie to kidnap a three-month-old eagle. We see her belay down a rock face with Rys playing out the rope, but we also know she won’t fall or be mauled by a PO’d Golden Eagle Mama because this is a G-rated film for heaven’s sake.

Director Otto Bell swears that he didn’t stage any of the dialogue or scenes, but it sure plays that way. But I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because I don’t want to add “lousy script writer” to his job description. Imagine Werner Herzog in one of his worst bouts of New Age excess. Sprinkle with dad/daughter bonding. Knead into bland Disney-like dough. Add more filler than the last five pages of a paper from a panicked sophomore sixty minutes from deadline. Sound appetizing? Shots of the Mongolian steppes and craggy snow-covered mountains are breath-taking in their beauty, but they are often National Geographic discursion merely masquerading as back story to Aisholpan’s appearance before bemused co-contestants and skeptical judges.

The Eagle Huntress is essentially the Westminster Dog Show for eagles and handlers in exotic costumes. Aisholpan competes at a festival in a town several days’ horse ride from where her semi-nomadic herding family is camped. Over the course of three days she has to demonstrate her prowess in making her eagle come to her (in several situations), grab onto bait, gracefully soar onto her arm, and simulate various hunting maneuvers. Although it’s unclear if this is part of the competition or a tribal confirmation of her status, Aisholpan and her father also set off for snowy high elevation to meet the ultimate challenge of having her eagle kill a fox. For the squeamish, rabbits and sheep don’t fare very well in the film either.   

Aisholpan is fearless and charming and the scenery is awe-inspiring, but overall The Eagle Huntress is turgid, dull, and fake-feeling. Its 87-minute length could have been pared to twenty and lost nothing in the telling. Call this one as over-sold as its Sia pop song theme: “You Can Do Anything.” All that’s lacking for the total force-fed feel-good package is a troupe of dancing puppets.

Rob Weir