1/22/21

January 2021 Album of the Month: Karen Matheson

 

Karen Matheson

Still Time

Compass Records

 

It’s hard to believe, but Capercaillie vocalist Karen Matheson is on the cusp of her 58th birthday. Her voice has dropped a bit over the years, but it’s still a glorious instrument. In addition to her work with the band, Matheson also drops the occasional album that spotlights her voice; Still Time is her 5th solo album.

 

Of course, when you’ve been performing since high school, front a celebrated band, have recorded with scores of others, and possess an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for your contributions to the arts, the term “solo” just means collections of material chosen by the artist. Still Time is packed with band members and longtime friends, including her husband Donald Shaw (accordion, keyboards), Ewen Vernal (bass), John Doyle, Sorren MacLean (guitars, vocals), and others. Call Scottish songwriter and fretted artist James Grant a co-conspirator, though, as he penned four of the album’s 11 songs. This includes the album’s single “Cassiopeia Coming Through,” which is arranged with the jazz-influenced folk ornaments that’s long been a Capercaillie trait. The song’s blue notes resonate to moody effect courtesy of Ryan Quigley’s flugel horn, but mostly it’s Matheson’s calming tones that carry the piece. In this case, the lyrics owe more to yearnings beneath the magnificent nighttime constellation than to the vain Greek beauty whose name it bears.

 

“The Glory Demon,” a self-descriptive antiwar composition, is another terrific Grant song. Matheson spins it as a quasi-lullaby, though bass, percussion, and electric guitar disrupt our peacefulness, which is precisely the point. It is one of several songs that throw curves. Another is “Orphan Girl,” which lulls us to a tender place, though it’s about a parentless lassie about to be shipped from starving Ireland to Australia–if she passes inspection. Shaw’s tasteful piano, Rudi Di Groot’s cello, and Matheson’s emotion-laden voice throw us off balance. Is this a sad song? Tragic? Hopeful? A cover of Si Kahn’s famed “The Aragon Mill” parallels it. On one hand, the mill has closed and jobs have disappeared; on the other, textile work is arduous, dirty, and poorly compensated.

 

Most of the songs on Still Time are down tempo. Objectively speaking, the record could use more changes of pace. It’s not until track five that we get Shaw’s arrangement of “This Diamond Ring,” the most Celtic-flavored song on the album, though one with some Appalachian flair, with Shaw’s accordion jousting with Hannah Fisher’s lively fiddle and Dirk Powell’s banjo. North Americans will likely find the tune evocative of “Shady Grove,” though it too is actually an older tune. Matheson gives a slowed down cover of “Recovery,” a Runrig song, its folk styling enhanced by Matheson’s precise cadences and Michael McGoldrick’s whistles. It and her version of Robbie Burns’ “Lassie wi' the Lint White Hair” are simply drop-dead gorgeous. (Note: Concert clips have different personnel.)

 

In many ways, though, Shaw’s Still Time defines the album. The recording was done during the current coronavirus lockdown. How many of us feel as if 2020 was a calendar page ripped out of our lives? “Still Time” is soaked in the ambience of a late-night club where jazz and folk musicians have sat down to find common ground. Shaw’s keys tinkle softly, Fraser Fifield’s sax blows forlorn notes, and Matheson gently catalogs all the things that will happen: If you’re still here when the morning comes around…. 

 

Rob Weir

1/20/21

The Searcher Another Superb Tana French Mystery

The Searcher (20200

By Tana French

Viking, 464 pages.

★★★★

 


 

Irish mystery writer Tana French has a devoted following and yours truly is a long-time member of the pack. Unlike most within her genre, French doesn’t have a go-to detective, thus most of her novels treat us to a new cast of characters. Few can rival her when it comes to building new settings into which she places them. The Searcher was partially inspired by American Westerns, hence French’s decision to set the action in the West–of Ireland. Her village, Ardnakelty, is fictional, but internal clues suggest it’s near the coast, perhaps in County Clare. It’s a stunningly beautiful place, but also a hard and wild land.

 

Most French novels move at a crisp clip. The Searcher is a departure in that its main character, Cal Hooper, is trying to slow the pace of his life. He is a recently retired Chicago cop attempting to build life anew by moving to an Irish village, restoring a small cottage, and settling into rural life. Locals can’t imagine that a big city Yank actually wants to live in their village and most assume he’s either secretly working with the Garda (police) on a big case or renovating the abandoned cottage as a rental for summer tourists. Actually, Cal is a classic burn-out case fed up with violent crime, corrupt cops, and drug-infested neighborhoods. He’s also divorced and has a grown daughter, Alyssa, who lives in Seattle. Cal telephones her regularly, though there is tension between them.

 

Cal’s first mistake was assuming that a remote Irish village would somehow be immune from the problems he left behind. The second was imagining he could simply ease his way into the rhythms of Irish life. That’s hard to do when you’re tall, single, and your very attempt to keep to yourself makes you a curiosity object. Not that anyone with a neighbor like Mart can expect ‘round the clock peace. Mart has a dog named Kojak, a sweet tooth that Cal feeds every time he goes to Noreen Dunne’s store, and he’s Cal’s entrée into the local pub. Mart’s also a bachelor, though he doesn’t approve of such a life for Cal and is keen to match him with Noreen’s divorced sister Lena. But the biggest irritant in Cal’s life is his suspicion he’s being spied upon.

 

He’s not wrong about that; he catches a kid named Trey Reddy red handed. Trey comes from a dirt-poor home with too many kids headed by a single mum. Soon Trey and Cal form an odd bond of sorts. In exchange for some free labor, Trey can hang around, learn things from Cal, and get fed. What Trey really wants, though, is for Cal to find older brother Brendan, who disappeared. Trey is so persistent that Cal agrees to make queries.

 

If The Searcher has a moral, it’s don’t mess around in things you don’t understand using methods that don’t immigrate. Cal’s Chicago-style investigations are not nearly as clever or as effective as he imagined. My only real criticism of the novel is that Cal’s questioning techniques were too ham-handed to be believable. As anyone who has lived in a small place can tell you, you are seriously deluded if you think you can keep secrets or ask questions without word getting around. They’d probably also tell you that drugs, gangs, and shady characters are not just big-city problems. And they’d surely tell you that no one takes kindly to being considered a yokel.  

 

The worlds of Cal, Trey, Lena, and Lena will attract, collide, clash, and resolve, though resolution comes in messy and open-ended ways. This is the first French novel not written with a first-person narrator, as she wanted to focus on Cal the stranger via his relationship with and impact upon others. In this way, Cal is analogous to Wild West movie loners who drift into a new town cloaked in mystery. Will Cal stay or, like the title character in Shane, ride off in the sunset?

 

The Searcher takes time to develop, but its slow traipse across moors, hills, and bogs heightens our sense of Cal adrift. He is a man looking answers about Brendan, but also seeking life-affirming footholds.

 

Rob Weir

1/18/21

White Heat a Sizzling James Cagney Gangster Film

 

White Heat (1949)

Directed by Raoul Walsh

Warner Brothers, 114 minutes, not-rated (gangster violence)

★★★★★

 

Cody Loves Ma Best
Cody Loves Ma More than He Loves Virginia Mayo
 

2020 was a bizarre year, so this December, while many Americans were busy with tinsel and colored lights, we went on a film noir binge. Others were singing “White Christmas;” we watched White Heat. I’d say we got the better end of the stick. The American Film Institute ranked White Heat the fourth best gangster film of all-time. Such lists are always contentious, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone would dispute that it deserves to rank high.

 

First, a little background. It stars James Cagney, which seems like a natural–except that in 1949, many considered him a has-been. He was 50-years-old, which was (and is) ancient by Hollywood standards, and his previous four pictures were turkeys that flopped with little notice. Cagney was sick of gangster films and Jack Warner’s greatest desire was that Cagney never again appear in a Warner Brothers picture. Nonetheless, writers Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts thought he’d be good in the lead role of Arthur “Cody” Jarrett and convinced Warner to yield. He did and then contracted with the legendary Raoul Walsh to direct the film. The result is why one should never say “never.”

 

Cagney is riveting as an amoral sociopath. From the opening scene wherein he kills four people on a train to the very end, Cagney’s Cody makes Donald Trump look like Mother Theresa. His performance presaged characters in films such as Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Usual Suspects. Cody is married to Verna (Virginia Mayo) and has a gang, but the only person he cares about is his mother (Margaret Wycherly). He tops the most-wanted list but, when not suffering crippling migraines, Cody outsmarts his pursuers, including a unique way to avoid a murder rap. Just as investigators think they have the goods on him, he pleads guilty to an Illinois robbery that occurred at the same time. You can’t be in California and Illinois at the same time, right? Cody is willing to pull a few years hard time; it beats the gas chamber.

 

Hank Fallon (Edmond O’Brien) has a job few would rush to take. As a trusted Treasury Department underground investigator, he is assigned to pose as an inmate in the same Illinois penitentiary as Jarrett to collect intelligence and ingratiate himself into Cody’s gang. Cody has plenty of incentive to return to his sanguinary ways after prison. An underling, Big Ed Somers (Steve Cochran), has deposed Cody, taken up with Verna, and tried to engineer his assassination inside the Big House. And Cody goes absolutely psycho when he learns his mother is dead, possibly by Big Ed’s hand.

 

White Heat plays out as a rampage film whose open questions concern Big Ed, Verna, and Hank’s efforts to maintain his disguise before Cody gets wise. The film’s denouement inside a chemical refinery is everything a noir film should be: full of dizzying perspectives, shadows, skewed angles, tension, and surprises. Walsh filmed White Heat in semi-documentary style. That choice, plus Sidney Hickox’s creative cinematography, lend an air of verisimilitude that’s particularly obvious in the prison material and in the film’s closing moments. White Heat’s final scene has been rightly hailed as one of the era’s most impactful. I shall merely observe that Cagney is involved in one of film’s most dramatic exits.

 

I was surprised to learn that Cagney was not nominated for Best Actor for White Heat. He had worthy competition, but who today remembers Richard Todd in The Hasty Heart or Gregory Peck in the overwrought Twelve O’clock High? O’Brien’s performance also warranted an Oscar nod, but he too was overlooked. Mayo is suitably duplicitous, but the most fascinating woman on screen is Margaret Wycherly. You can definitely detect her impact on Estelle Parsons’ take on Blanche Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde.

 

As is always the case with older movies, one must take into account that the values of the past were not those of today. Mayo’s two-bit double-crosser falls into that category. In today’s crime films, there is hell to pay if the female lead isn’t at least a co-conspirator, but Mayo is a stock figure of Hollywood’s Golden Age: a femme fatale who makes bad things happen to others. You need not condone such roles, but you should not expect to see your version of political correctness on the screen.

 

You can deflect your discomfort by watching a different take on the Trojan horse legend. There is also great amusement in experiencing high-tech 1949-style, as police track Cody via a vintage directional finder while triangulating with a protractor and ruler. By any measure, though, White Heat still sizzles.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

1/15/21

Shuggie Pain is Shattering and Brilliant

Shuggie Bain (2020)

By Douglas Stuart

Grove Press, 448 pages.

★★★★★

 


 

 

I thought Bobby March Will Live Forever was grim. Then I read Shuggie Bain. Richard Russo said, “Shuggie Bain will knock you sideways,” and he wasn’t wrong. Douglas Stuart won the 2020 Man Booker Prize, a remarkable achievement for a debut novel, but as it should be for an extraordinary novel.

 

In some ways, it could be considered a differently authored sequel to Alan Parks’ Bobby March. Both are set in Glasgow, but 20 years apart. Shuggie Bain takes us into the 1980s as Thatcherism hollowed out the Clyde Valley by eliminating jobs in the shipyards and mines. Shuggie—a nickname for Hugh—is born into an Irish-Scottish working-class family already on the skids. Both Shug (Shuggie’s father) and Shuggie’s mother, Agnes, had previous partners. Dissolving a union among Roman Catholics was fraught with extra trauma, given the church’s stance against birth control. Shug walked out on four bairns (children) and Shuggie’s older siblings, Catherine and “Leek” (Alexander) were sired by Agnes’ ex-husband, Brendan McGowan.

 

Shug drives a cab and combines business with backseat liaisons, even though everyone agrees that Agnes looks like young Elizabeth Taylor. Shug, Agnes, and her three children live in Sighthill, a Glasgow complex of down-market high-rise apartment blocks, with Agnes’ parents. Agnes splurges on clothing and cosmetics, but theirs is a hand-to-mouth existence in which its cheaper to have one’s teeth pulled and wear dentures than to see a dentist on a regular basis. Catherine escapes through marriage to a cousin and moves to South Africa, but Leek, who draws expertly, harbors no illusions he can afford art college. As the youngest, Shuggie is a mama’s boy whose effeminate ways make him the target of bullies old and young. Agnes dreams of living in a proper home with a yard and neighbors.

 

Be careful what you ask for. One day, Shug loads Agnes, Leek, and Shuggie into his cab and drives them to their new home in the Pithead section in the northeast outskirts of Glasgow. Then he drives away, as he has taken up with another woman who has six kids. As the name suggests, Pithead was once a thriving colliery. Not any longer. The mines are closed, most of the men are idle, and the landscape is marked by dirt streets, slag heaps, peatbogs, and abandoned buildings into which youths risk beatings from guards as they strip wire from cables to sell. Agnes tries hard to make a go of things, but she gets off on the wrong foot because her neighbors think she’s stuck-up. (She is!) Bridie Donnelly sizes her up as a problem drinker and she’s only wrong by being premature.

 

Shuggie Bain becomes a tale of alcoholism, cigarettes, grease, grit, and battles over turf no one really wants in the first place. As children of alcoholics know, a drinker will do whatever they must to get booze. You can imagine the lengths to which an attractive woman like Agnes might go, but you’ll come up short. You might also speculate what it’s like for a delicate child such as Shuggie, the book’s tragic hero. Again, you’ll be off the mark. Shuggie remains loyal to his mum and that might not be the best thing either. His only real friend is Leanne Kelly, who also has an alcoholic mother, but she’s not exactly a lean-on-me pal.

 

Shuggie Bain takes us through to 1992, when Shuggie is 17, and starting to figure some things out, but Stuart doesn’t tie things up in neat bows. He also leaves hanging the question of ethnicity. We infer that being of Irish stock matters, but to what degree? Despite close proximity and historical patterns of migration, today less than one percent of Scots claim an Irish background. Religion is similarly configured. Highlanders were once Catholic, but that’s the faith of choice for just 16 percent of present-day Scots. How do we explain the plight of the Bains? Ethnic discrimination? Religious bigotry? Substance abuse? Poverty? Stuart leaves such questions open for reader interpretation. The only thing we know for certain is that it was very difficult for women in the 1980s.

 

Shuggie Bain is a shattering novel. It’s also provocative, brilliant, and will indeed knock you sideways. Douglas Stuart’s Glasgow of the 1980s is where dreams died hard and hope struggled to blossom.

 

Rob Weir

 

1/13/21

Oh Canada: Andy Shauf, The Glorious Sons, Julian Taylor, Sultans of String

 

The US/Canadian border is closed at present, but music doesn’t care about boundaries. Here are four Canadian artists to discover.

 


Andy Shauf
is from Saskatchewan, but you can be forgiven for wondering if he might be a lost love child of Nick Drake. Their repertoires differ, but the patter, tonation, and trippy qualities of Shauf’s voice echo those of Drake. Shauf’s newest CD is titled Neon Skyline. It has been labeled “baroque pop,” whatever that might be. The entirety can be heard on YouTube, so maybe you can figure it out. To my ear, Shauf’s baroque pop is folk as churned through the blender with heavy doses of Drake and a soupçon of Paul Simon. Try the Neon Skyline, “Where Are You Judy,” and "Changer." Look for acoustic versions, which have fewer distractions than the studio material.   

 



The Glorious Sons
are from Kingston, Ontario, though a quick listen to songs like “Come Down” and the power ballad “La Cosa Nostra” sounds like Southern fried rock n’ roll. They have a new record titled A War on Everything. The title track isn’t about global conflict. It’s another power ballad, this one a love song and a plea to cut all ties,  run away, and start anew. Glorious Sons are a six-piece band anchored by the muscular voice of Brett Emmons, with his brother Jay on some of the blistering electric leads you’ll hear. Glorious Sons won’t knock you over with poetic lyrics, but they are a nice balance of heavy and light. 

 


Julian Taylor
lives in Toronto and beyond that, he’s hard to pin down. He is of West Indian and Mohawk descent and musically, he dabbles in rock, jazz, folk, funk, blues, and even a bit of classical. He once fronted the rock band Staggered Crossing, but he has toured as a solo artist or with a new band since Staggered Crossing’s demise in 2017. His latest release, The Ridge, explores some of his interests. Good luck finding a label for “Love Enough.” It has echoes of Tex-Mex, Elvis, with some big rolling prairie acoustic bursting through. Many of his songs are quite wordy, but appropriately so for story songs. As a kid, Taylor spent a lot of time on his grandparents’ farm in British Columbia and “The Ridge” is a memory piece about those days. Taylor sings it with aa deep, smooth voice that oozes fondness and a small touch of yearning. “Human Race” is a gentle look at a friend’s struggle with mental illness. A pedal steel guitar gives it a country feel, but it’s basically a heartfelt folk song with a universal message: The human race/We all feel out of place…. Taylor suggests that being fully human boils down to how we handle the aforementioned reality. Once again, his voice is buttery smooth, except when he belts out the outro. “Over the Moon” sounds as if could have been plucked from James Keelaghan’s repertoire. Many of Taylor’s songs are hummable and “Ballad of a Young Troubadour,” which sounds as if it’s autobiographical, certainly falls into that category. The Ridge is an album from which you could pluck any song and revel in it.


 

Sultans of String have been nominated for three Juno Awards in Canada (think Grammy Awards) and the Toronto-based quintet anchored by the voice and lead fiddle of Chris McKhool has quite a following up north and in the United States. You name it and SoS play it: bluegrass, gypsy jazz, Caribbean, flamenco, Celtic, swing, Cuban, Middle Eastern, South Asian…. The one constant is that they are a string band built around two fiddles, two guitars, and percussion. On their seventh and latest release Refuge they even add spoken word. Poet Ifrah Mansour is Somalian, but now lives In Minnesota. Her rap-like poem “I Am a Refugee” is one of many meanings of refuge explored on Refuge. The baker’s dozen tracks look at refuge from numerous angles: embracing nature, immigrating to a new land, seeking safety, experiencing peace, and more. To this end, SoS invited more than 30 guest artists into the studio, the best known of whom are Béla Fleck and Ojibwa writer Duke Redbird. If you’ve heard their past work, you may be surprised to hear instruments such as clarinet, keys, oud, and Persian santur (hammered dulcimer). Redbird’s poetry on “The Power of the Land” dances to faintly Ojibway rhythms and atmospheric strings. McKhool is of Lebanese ancestry and the band’s take on “El Bint El Shalabeya” is certainly one of the more unusual tracks. It takes a traditional tube, adds oud, clarinet, and surf guitar, and turns it into a cross-cultural/ambiguously temporal dance party. “I’m Free” has an Irish/pop feel with McKhool sawing out the melody and Sudanese-born Waleed Abdulhamid manning vocals. “Imad’s Dream,” sung by Imad Al Taha, is about a gay Iraqi man forced to flee his homeland. It is appropriately fashioned as a slow soulful, mournful lament. And so it goes. Each track on Refuge is provocative and expertly done. Sultans of String are definitely a band you should know.

 

Rob Weir  

 

 

1/11/21

Best and Worst Novels of 2020

Best and Worst Novels of 2020

 

I read so many novels last year that my initial list of best fiction had two dozen titles. It is thus with a heavy heart that I have winnowed it to just 10. Alas, I read 9 bad ones as well. All of these have been reviewed and can be accessed by clicking on the Books

 

Read ‘em

 



 

 

 

1. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins:  This 2,500-mile refugee journey will break your heart. You’ll never again be cavalier about illegal immigrants.

 

2. Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Zafon died in 2020, so this is the final chapter in the amazing saga of the Sempere family. Opus Dei, assassins, and murderous mayhem in Barcelona near the end of the Franco regime.

 

3. The Cold Millions by Jess Walter: Spokane in the time of the IWW, free speech fights, and lawless capitalism.

 

4. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Who builds a fancy home in Pennsylvania, who lives in it, who desires it, and what if they’re all deluded?

 

5. Jack by Marilynne Robinson: Simply a beautiful piece of prose. A teacher, a bum, and forbidden love–as in, legally forbidden. The more I though of this book, the more I loved it.

 

6. Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, psychosurgery, fame, trying to stay sane, and those who failed. A strange book that works.

 

7. The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali: Iran 1953. Dreams and those who killed them. Multiple paths taken in a Romeo and Juliet twist.

 

8. The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich: This, not Orange, is the best work by a Native American writer in 2020. Attempting to break a Chippewa clan in the 1950s, family pride, and the strong women who resisted.

 

9. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Crushing black dreams in Florida. A reform school, the perils of optimism, those who survived and those who didn’t.

 

10. Anxious People by Fredrik Backman: Inept bank robbery, an even more inept hostage crisis, and a totally inept police investigation. Funny and moving. No one does human nature better.

 

Honorable Mention (alphabetical by author): Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer; Alice Hoffman. Magic Lesson; Alex Landragin, Crossings; James McBride, Deacon King; Elizabeth Mckenzie, The Portable Veblen; Jojo Moyes, The Giver of Stars; V. E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

 

Pulp ‘em

 

 

1. Just Like You by Nick Hornby: Grow up, Nick!  

 

2. A Murderous Relation by Deanna Raybourn: Victorian detective sets back modern feminism.

 

3 The Golden Cage by Camilla Lackberg: A modern novel that sets back modern feminism.

 

4. Weather by Jenny Offill: Does the last name rhyme with awful? It should.

 

5. The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: Just flat-out boring.

 

6. Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan: So you didn’t like your undergrad days. You’re 39. Time to let go.

 

7. The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin: A take on H. P. Lovecraft that fell flat where it mattered most.

 

8. Love by Roddy Doyle: Two men drink all day. A story that never concludes and who cares?

 

9. Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles: Surprising misfire from a good writer.

1/8/21

Best and Worst Movies I Saw in 2020

 

You could call this a pre-Oscar look at movies. There will be Academy Awards, but does anyone care? Most theaters shut down in March, so this year’s Oscars will be voted upon by the 14 people in New York and the 23 in Los Angeles who saw the films in an actual theater, and another hundred or so who watched them on their tablets and phones as if they were TikTok tripe.

 

My list of 2020 films is based on the 75 films I saw this year–mostly on DVDs. It includes older movies, but I pushed them further down the honor list to give first nod to the newer ones. I also included films that were made in 2019 because they hadn’t yet made it into wide circulation.  Here are Full Reviews of all of the films, except for those marked * which have not yet been reviewed.


Best Of:

 



1. 1917:  A World War I drama from director Sam Mendes shot through with surrealism, class bias, the futility of the conflict, and how lives were cavalierly wasted.

 

2. Portrait of a Lady on Fire: At last! A film about lesbianism that’s more than a 100-minute striptease. We only had to wait for an 18th century tale set on a French island.  

 

3. Little Woods: A 2018 film, but tremendously overlooked. Would you risk jail to walk into Canada to buy drugs to help a family member? Gritty and gripping.

 

4. They Shall Not Grow Old: Peter Jackson’s painstaking restoration of World War I soldiers (and their voices) brought to color as it would have been seen then.

 

5. Joker: A surprise. This backstory of Batman’s nemesis is akin to a dystopian update of Day of the Locust.

 

6. *Duck Soup: The Marx Brothers greatest film. It’s silly, but also one of the best antiwar movies ever made because the Marxes refused to take war seriously.

 

7. An Education: A 2009 film in which high schooler Carey Mulligan succumbs to the charm of an older man who is dodgy on several levels.

 

8. Parasite: Won Oscars last year, but made it here in ’20. A South Korean grifter film in which laughs yield to darker things.

 

9. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: I never tire of this Ken Kesey story of lunacy inside the asylum. In 1975, Jack Nicholson was a real actor.

 

10. *White Heat: A 1949 James Cagney noir crime masterpiece directed by Raoul Walsh. Watch for a review later this month.

 

Almost Made It (Alphabetical order): A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, *A Day at the Races, The Dreamers, John Lewis: Good Trouble, *A Night at the Opera, Notorious, Pain and Glory, Secret Honor, Sorry We Missed You.

 

 

The Stinkeroonies. Watch at your own risk:

 


 

1. *Love Happy: Last Marx Brothers film; Harpo’s idea and he never again spoke of it!

 

2. Soup to Nuts: The Three Stooges when they played second fiddle to others. Even the Rube Goldberg machines are lame.

 

3. Wild Nights with Emily: Dickinson as a lesbian? Maybe, but this film lacked everything that was brilliant about Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

 

4. The Gorgeous Hussy: Proof from 1936 that Hollywood has a long track record of screwing up history. Intrigue as it did not go down in the Jackson administration.

 

5. One Upon a Time in Hollywood: Counterfactual and self-indulgent nonsense from Quentin Tarantino, America’s most self-indulgent director.

 

6. The Long Day Closes: That describes the experience of watching this stultifying 1992 film of a little boy in post-WWII England.

 

7. The Souvenir: A film student in Sunderland, UK so clueless that one wonders how she managed to make it out of primary school. Semi-autobiographical and totally dull.

 

8.  In a Lonely Place: Once considered a noir classic, but its psychology is so outdated that all we watch is how Bogart’s pants begin below his breastbone.

 

9. The Searchers: 1956 John Ford Western starring John Wayne. Once a classic, now a dinosaur of rejected values.

 

10. First Cow: Some have hailed it as 2020’s best film. Nope! This one telegraphs more than Western Union.    

 

 

 

1/6/21

The Vanishing Half "Almost" a Great Novel

 

The Vanishing Half (2020)

By Britt Bennett

Riverhead, 345 pages.

★★★★

 


 

 

Scholars often claim that race is a social construct, a fiction we choose to believe. If sounds obtuse, read The Vanishing Half. Britt Bennett’s book is a novel, but it speaks a sort of truth. That’s why it tops a lot of lists of the best novels of 2020.

 

The Vanishing Half is a six-part series of vignettes set between 1954 to 1986. Its ground rule is set in the opening chapter. Mallard, Louisiana, is a “black” town with a difference established a century earlier: a scheme to breed away blackness. In Mallard, the whiter one appears, the higher one’s status.

 

The Vigne family bought into this. The problem, though, is the outside world. Lighter skin means something in Mallard, but not much beyond if one looks and acts black. That’s one of the reasons why the four sons of Blake and Adele Vigne are dead by age 30. The girls flee Mallard at age 16, with Stella passing for white, and Desiree moving to Washington, DC, where she works before marrying the dark-skinned Sam Winston. Together they have a daughter, Jude.

 

The Vanishing Half then spans the next 32 years in time. Desiree’s marriage falters and she hides out in Mallard, where her lover is the dark-skinned Early, who was supposed to find her and Jude for Sam. Stella, one the other hand, marries a white Boston banker’s son and settles into a life so bourgeois that she teaches statistics at California college, has a daughter named Kennedy, lives in posh neighborhoods, and even adopts racist attitudes toward African-Americans. It is a story of separations, Jude’s and Kennedy’s as well as Desiree’s and Stella’s. The opening chapter, “The Lost Twins,” makes us wonder if the paths of the two sisters will cross in the future, or whether either will ever again see their mother.

 

The children have crises of their own. Jude partners with Reese, and he has major identity issues. But there is never a question of Jude’s race. Like her father, she is dark-hued, though she certainly has a mind of her own and courage to spare. She eventually parlays her studies at UCLA into a medical degree. Kennedy rebels by becoming an actress, generally not the easiest ticket to a bourgeois life. The novel eventually takes us to New York City at the height of the AIDS crisis.

 

There’s a lot going on in Bennett’s 345-page book–perhaps too much. Like many novelists these days, Bennett tries to check all of the right boxes: race, gender identity, outings of various sorts, poverty, domestic violence, self-doubt, fluffy popular culture, and more. Would a very good novel have been even stronger had Ms. Bennett focused more narrowly? At times, the novel’s six parts function like a long play in which we wait to find out what coheres and what does not.

 

A line from the book’s third part sums its most fascinating exploration. To return to the lede on the social construction of race, Stella muses, “There was nothing to being white except boldness. You could convince anyone you belong somewhere if you acted like you did.” In this respect, The Vanishing Half is a reverse of Mark Twain’s last great novel, Pudd ’n head Wilson, which featured a slave who was white in all but demeanor and circumstance. Bennett infers appearances again when the whip-smart Jude goes to UCLA, but–shades of a Spike Lee rant–on a track scholarship. You might also pick up on long-standing discussions about “high yellow” women (those with light skin) as well as studies on passing for white.

 

If we put these in companion with other themes I mentioned, it means that some get shorter shrift than others. Shuffling too many “big” issues at one time comes fraught with danger. At what point does box checking become oversimplification? To be clear, I liked this book very much, but if pressed to judge whether it’s one of the best of 2020, I’d have to reply, “Almost.”

 

Rob Weir

 

1/4/21

In a Lonely Place Ages Badly

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Directed by Nicholas Ray

Columbia, 94 minutes, Not Rated (pre-ratings system)

★★

 


 

 

In a Lonely Place makes a lot of top 100 films lists and is considered a film noir classic. It doesn’t get that kind of love from me. Although its lead actors, Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame–and several within the supporting cast–are excellent, the film promises a lot, but delivers junk mail.

 

Dixon Steele (Bogart) is a Hollywood screenwriter. To say he has a temper is akin to saying Donald Trump has ego issues. Bogart has his trousers hitched up to just under his breast bone, which might explain his caged tiger explosions. He’s at his favorite restaurant/watering hole one evening trading jaded lines with a drunken pal, Charlie Waterman (Robert Warwick), whom he calls “Thespian,” an allusion to being a washed-up actor. Agent Mel Lippman (Art Smith) has been trying to get Dix, his client, back into screenwriting and tells him he has a producer on the line who only wants a faithful adaptation of a novel. Dix has little interest in reading it, but an enthusiastic hatcheck attendant, Mildred Atkinson, liked the novel a lot. Dix invites her back his to place to tell him about the book rather than read it. The more Mildred talks, the less Dix wants anything to do with the project. She leaves to walk to a nearby cab stand, as Steele eyes a sexy new neighbor.

 

The next morning, Steele gets a call from Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), who served with Dix during World War Two. Brub is now a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department and discovers from him and Captain Lochner (Carl Benton Reid) that Mildred Atkinson was murdered the previous evening. Dix’s complete disinterest in the tragedy makes him a prime suspect in Lochner’s eyes, though Brub doubts it. Luckily, that sexy neighbor, Laurel Gray (Grahame), vouches for having seen Dix staring into her window at the time Mildred was murdered.

 

Is she lying? Again, Dix does little to help deflect suspicion. He and Laurel begin a torrid love affair and, for the first time, Dix contemplates settling down. Several creepy episodes with Brub and his wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell—“Jeff” is her nickname) and a list of dismissed assault complaints a mile long again casts suspicion on Dix. Laurel is both in love with and scared to death of Dix, who is controlling of her and violent towards others. So, do we have a crime tale or a love story? It’s hard to say. Oddly, for a film about a screenwriter, Andrew Solt’s screenplay is as full of holes as a bum’s sock.

 

Few actors have ever rivaled Bogart when it comes to portraying volatility. As noted when I reviewed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart easily switched from man to simian. When Laurel says she was initially drawn to him because that she liked his face, we can be sure it wasn’t his devolved countenance. Bogart plays Dix like he’s sitting on the lid of a boiling pot. Grahame, who was married to director Nicholas Ray at the time, is also very good. She’s a tough cookie, but she crumbles at the right moments. Art Smith is superb in a supporting role as a milquetoast agent and Warwick adds comic relief.

 

Normally, those fine performances would cover the leaden ones of Lovejoy, Reid, and Martha Stewart–no, not that one–who cameoed as Mildred. Alas, the film’s cheap psychology and unexplained motives don’t weather well. Solt dropped the ball in several notable places. Why introduce the detail that Dix was Brub’s commanding officer in the war if you’re not going to do anything with it? More seriously, if your central character is as violence-prone as Dixon Steele, shouldn’t there at least be a motive for his anger? Does he have PTSD? Was he jilted? Did he get screwed by the movie industry? Is he an alcoholic? Give us something, for heaven’s sake.

 

In a Lonely Place has a noir look and psyche, but it’s all dressed up and never leaves the apartment complex in which Dix and Laurel reside. It’s a film in which you turn over your hands in a “That’s it?” gesture.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

1/1/21

Bobby March Forever a Gritty Look at Glasgow in 1973

 

Bobby March Will Live Forever (2020)

By Alan Parks

Canongate, 320 pages.

★★★★

 


 

 

Have you read all of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache novels? Looking for something grittier until she writes another? Scottish author Alan Parks might be your cuppa. His is a hardboiled take on crime that’s more Raymond Chandler than Penny–especially if your Glasgow patter is up to snuff.

 

In many ways, Parks’ detective, Harry McCoy, is the anti-Gamache. He has a drinking problem, is morose, has shady friends, acts on impulse rather than reason, is rough-tongued, and hasn’t had a girlfriend since Angela moved out two years ago. Like Gamache, though, he cares little about self-aggrandizement, remains incorruptible amidst cops on the take, and must wend his way around politicians who care more about appearances than truth.

 

Bobby March Will Live Forever is the third installment of Parks’ Harry McCoy novels. It wouldn’t hurt to start with book one, though you can jump right into this one if you’d rather. It is set in 1973 (with flashes back to 1969-70), a time in which Glasgow is awash in drugs, casual violence, hippies, and hippie poseurs. If you’ve been to Glasgow in the past 30 years, you won’t recognize McCoy’s city: slums, dangerous alleyways, shebeens (unlicensed bars), hookers, and men with faces ruined by knife-wielders sending a message from crime bosses. That is, when they’re not corpses instead.

 

If you think you’re having a tough few weeks, try Harry’s on for size. Alice Kelly, a 13-year-old girl, has gone missing. It’s the sort of thing Harry normally investigates but a rival, Bernie Raeburn, has been promoted and takes charge. Raeburn got his advance by being, as they say in Scotland, an arse-licker, and a corrupt one at that. Raeburn’s loathing for Harry is made manifest by handing him low-level assignments. McCoy knows Raeburn is incompetent, but he holds his tongue lest he hand Raeburn an excuse to fire him.

 

The city is in the midst of a heart wave, that leaves Glaswegians sweating and reeling and the press and politicians are screaming for the polis (police) to find Alice. Alas, Harry has lesser fish to fry. He finds rock musician Bobby March dead with a syringe in his arm– a seemingly routine death for a once-promising guitarist whose fame bus left without him –and Harry is supposed to find a missing bag that Bobby’s father would like to have returned. He’s also given robbery files to investigate, which is not his métier and, as if he didn’t have enough to do, his former boss Hector Murray, asks him to look for his 15-year-old niece Laura. It’s off the record, as her father is the Deputy Head of the Glasgow Council and has parliamentary ambitions.

 

Harry is a good detective because he has tons of underworld contacts, not the least of which is Stevie Cooper, a boyhood friend from the same downscale neighborhood. Stevie can now afford the trappings of bourgeois life –courtesy of drug dealing– but he keeps a full stable of thugs close at hand, including one who doubles as his gardener! Stevie owes Harry a few favors, as Harry helped him kick heroin.

 

McCoy, with some help from younger colleague Douglas Watson (“Wattie’), must somehow make sense of all the madness going on around them. Before the dust settles, McCoy has brushes with a Bobby March fanboy, Angela, dope dealers, Wattie’s pushy girlfriend/reporter, a photographer who wants to document Glaswegian poverty, the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the unwashed and the unhinged, and Raeburn. McCoy will also get the shite kicked out of him a few times.

 

Alan Parks’ style has been described as “tartan noir,” a descriptor that’s both catchy and appropriate. Bobby March Will Live Forever is gritty, violent, and morally ambiguous. It may be too much so for those with mild dispositions, and it will certainly be so for those who like Agatha Christie-like resolutions where everything is tied with a neat bow at the end. Harry McCoy novels are more in the mold of deciding which battles you can win and which ones you probably can’t. Verisimilitude or surrender to nihilism? You decide.

 

Rob Weir

 

Wiktionary has a useful list of Scottish phrases and slang: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:Glossary_of_Scottish_slang_and_jargon