December 2020 Artist of the Month Kris Angelis


Kris Angelis is a Florida native who now lives in Los Angeles, where she is an actress and singer/songwriter. Her EP, That Siren, Hope, debuted last January on iTunes, but didn’t make its way to me until October because who the hell uses iTunes anymore? It’s still hanging around the Billboard charts because: (a) It’s really good, and (b) Covid has put a lot of new projects on hold.


Let’s focus is on the it’s-really-good part by starting with the title track. It encapsulates the theme of nearly all of the songs on the album and all I can say is, I hope Angelis hasn’t been as unlucky in love as her lyrics suggest: Thought that shine was a lighthouse/But it was that Siren, Hope/She sang me to sleep/She got me to dream/Turns out her song was just a joke. This song sums up some of the album’s potholes on Relationship Road tales, but it should be said that it has a different musical vibe. It opens with muted guitar bass notes and voice before evolving into an evocation of old-time country music as it might have been sung by a hybridized Connie Smith/Connie Francis clone. (The video is slightly different than the version  got.)


Most of the rest of her music is in a pop folk vein, with Angelis’ twin sister, Alix, adding harmonies. Angelis prefers to simplify things, which is what one should do when a song is dependent upon a clear voice to communicate emotional impact. “Brighter Blue” is a good example of how Angelis has a knack for being inside a melody rather than outside trying to pry it open. She comes at us from the quiet side, but notice how easily she can air out her voice. It’s a fine song marred only by whoa-ooh-ooh-ahh studio harmonies that have become passé and cliché in indie rock. Not needed!


That bump aside, Angelis demonstrates her versatility with two different versions of “Ghost (I’m Alive and Breathing),” the first acoustic and the second with a band. On the acoustic version, she’s a delicate songbird. She ratchets the pace ever so slightly for the ensemble version and sings with more force, as she must within the mix. Both are lovely, and Angelis adds subtle vocal ornaments that embellish but never overwhelm. For the record, it’s about ghosting as in being ignored by an ex-partner, not the incorporeal variety. I prefer the acoustic version, but that’s because I’m a folky at heart. Listen and take your pick. (But why not both?)


Angelis returns to love gone off track on “I Hope I Never Fall in Love Again,” a title that says it all and is wrapped in a pretty song with a waltz-like rhythm. “If I Can’t Have What I Want” oozes painful yearning. The link to the title is: Then I’ll want nothing at all/If I can’t have you. “Misplaced Hope” isn’t the album’s concluding track, but maybe it should be. It’s the most hopeful song in the collection and intones: All hope is not lost/It’s just been misplaced. In addition to being a gorgeous song, it has two other things to which one should pay attention. The first is another understated ornament; listen for the small catches in Angelis’ voice. As for the second, I remind you that Kris Angelis is also an actress, which helps explain why there are filmmaking references in the song.*


That Siren, Hope is (mostly) a quiet album for the quiet time of the year. Yet, somehow, I suspect Kris Angelis will soon be making bigger noises.


Rob Weir


* One lyric says, “This film has no foley yet.” Foley artists record or create background sounds that lend a sense of reality to a film. For example, a foley artist might recreate the sound of wind for a shot done on an inside set. Or if a film pirate pulls a sword from its scabbard, it’s likely not to be a deadly one; a foley artist added the effect of steel being pulled through its sheath.  




December Music II: Divahn, Anthony Garcia, Mercy Bell, The Accidentals


I am a fan of Sephardic music for many reasons, not the least of which is that it’s often a pan-Middle Eastern/North African style whose roots lay in times in which Jews and Muslims were more tolerant of one another because they shared exile status. Divahn is a superb practitioner of Sephardic music and their newest album, Shalhevet (“Flame”) will light up your playlist. It is a US-based five-woman ensemble fronted by Galeet Dardashi, who is of Iranian heritage and comes from a famed musical family. She has an enormous voice adorned with many colors. Listen to the ululation in “Oseh Shalom,” which imbues a kaddish (prayer for peace in this context), or “Lecha Dodi,” a piece introduced by Elizabeth Pupo Walker’s Afro-Cuban hand drum solo. Were it not for her percussion and that of Sejal Kukadia’s tabla, you might think you were listening to an innovative jazz ensemble. That’s not far from the mark as several members have jazz backgrounds. This quintet surprises of many levels. “Bann Choshich” is a complex interweave of voices and instruments, and that’s a pretty neat trick given that the only melody instruments are Eleanor Norton’s cello and Megan Gould’s violin. “Ya’alah, Ya’allah” (Urdu for “Lord, Lord”) again displays Dardashi’s stentorian voice, though supplemented by harmonies reminiscent of Balkan singing. For pure fun, it’s hard to beat “Hamavdil,” a (sort of) round. Listen for the little breakout from Kukadia, whose Gatling gun scat-like interlude–in what I believe to be Gujarati–couldn’t be touched by modern rappers with a ten-foot ego.


Anthony Garcia
is an interesting guy. In addition to speaking five languages, he’s a musical polymath. I tend to sigh when I read PR material that says a performer draws inspiration from sources as diverse as Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, and Led Zeppelin. Though I might temper the last comparison a bit, Garcia strikes those chords–and a few more. Like maybe a Gothic vibe, as his new album Acres of Diamonds often has spooky undertones. Anybody who invokes Alfred Hitchcock–as Garcia does on “Santa Rosa–is dealing dark cards from the deck. It’s an unusual song adorned by Megan Berson’s emotionally enigmatic strings, some near-yodeling from Garcia, heavy guitar turnarounds, and evocations of waiting for the Boatman to carry him back to the land of the living. “Fire” evokes a “Western” song from the days before it was combined with country music. If you want to know where the Led Zep analogies come from, check out Garcia’s guitar work on “Apparitions,” and while you’re at it, notice some fine writing. As the title suggests, memory ghosts appear: Every voice I’ve ever heard and every face I’ve ever seen/Is hanging from the limbs of what they call the Mirror Tree. Garcia goes acoustic for the contemplative “The Wind,” followed by the more lush “Haunted Halls.” We also get some grunge-like jumpiness (“My Hands Are My Eyes”), something akin to a country power ballad (“For Your Love”), and a song that really does sound like something Cohen would have done (“Jane”). Garcia doesn’t quite connect with each of the masks he pulls on–the title track, oddly, is rather ordinary–but give him credit for having the courage to mix things up.


Mercy Bell
lives in Nashville, by way of California, Boston, and New York. Because she’s now in Music City reviewers are anxious to label her a country star and compare her to Linda Ronstadt, Brandi Carlile, and Sheryl Crow. Never mind that Crow isn’t a country star or that it’s not really fair to saddle someone with a Ronstadt tag. It’s not the only thing reviewers get wrong. She’s also been tagged as Mexican American, when she’s actually half Filipino. Want a label? How about a damn good singer songwriter who–despite titles like “Chocolate Milk and Whiskey” and “All the Good Cowboys”–is really more of a folk artist. The first thing one notices about Bell is the ease with which she sings. She can go big, as she does on her stunning autobiographical song “Black Dress,” but there is nothing forced about her, nor is there a need for vocal gymnastics. You can find most of the tracks from Mercy Bell, which came out in late 2019. I like Bell’s small lyrical twists that get to the heart of things: All the good cowboys know/There ain’t no good ‘ol home sweet home…. A dollar in the jukebox just to dance with you/Oh, but all it does is play the blues. I also liked her song “Skip to the Part” a lot, with the simple linking line where we’re together.  


NPR really likes The Accidentals, but I don’t share that enthusiasm–yet. This Michigan-based trio is fronted by Savannah Buist and Katie Larson. Between them, they bust out normal instruments such as guitars and strings, plus a few oddballs like musical saw, kazoo, and glockenspiel. Michael Druse sits in back and bangs the drums. The best song I heard was “Might AsWell Be Gold,” in which the trio turns folky with harmonies blending in pleasing ways. When they add rock elements, as they do on songs such as “Rollercoaster” or “Damascus Blades,” there’s nothing particularly distinctive about them. The louder volume also makes Buist’s and Larson’s voices sound too young for the material. Mostly, they sound like the kind of band I’d like to hear again in a few years with stronger material that integrates their potential versatility.


Rob Weir






Notorious: Hitchcock, Claude Rains, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman (Hooray!)



Notorious (1946)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

RKO Radio Pictures, 101 minutes, Not-rated (made before ratings system)





Alfred Hitchcock, Claude Rains, Cary Grant, and Ingrid Bergman…. What could go wrong? Not a blessed thing, though I am prejudiced. If all Ingrid Bergman did in a movie was sit by a tree and eat a sandwich, I’d watch it.


Notorious is more than that. First, it’s a period piece; in the days during and immediately after World War Two, Hollywood made numerous movies with Nazis or ex-Nazis cast as villains. Notorious was one of them. (Bergman also made one in 1942. You might have heard of it: Casablanca.) Second, it’s everything we expect in a film from Hollywood’s Golden Age: glamour, attractive leads, exotic locations, intrigue, and snappy dialogue. These make it easier to overlook contrivances.


Bergman is Alicia Huberman, the daughter of an unreconstructed Nazi arrested for espionage in the film’s opening scene. On the surface, Alicia is a world-weary, snarky, and apolitical. Is she? Can she be trusted? That’s a question T. R. Devlin (Grant) needs to assess. He works with the Secret Service* and reports to Captain Paul Prescott (Louis Calhern), with whom he is working on rumors a Nazi enclave in Brazil is working on something “big.” All that is known for certain is that Alicia’s dead father–he committed suicide in prison–had contact with them. Devlin’s job is to recruit Alicia to help crack the case. “Dev” meets Alicia at a party and quickly falls in love with her–how not? –though she warns him she’s not exactly been a Girl Scout in her past. This, not the Nazis, is the source of the film’s title because: (a) It’s 1946, a time in which sexual mores were more restrictive, and (b) It builds tension for what happens next.


It’s off to Rio, where Alicia makes contact with Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), a former lover. As Alicia does her job, Dev becomes increasingly jealous and cool toward her. He even gives his go ahead when Alicia tells him and Prescott that Alex has proposed, and ignores her pained expression. If you think that’s where matters end, you really need to watch more classic films!


The script for Notorious was written by Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood’s most celebrated writers. He was nominated for six Oscars and won two, including one at the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1927. Check out his Wikipedia page and you’ll be stunned by the titles with his name on them. You can thus assume that Notorious has good dialogue, frisson, and twists. It is often called film noir in style and there are elements of that, though I’d call it a noir/spy thriller hybrid. Because it’s a Hitchcock film, you can anticipate there will be skewed perspectives, psychological tension, and things that happen in shadows. For novices, Hitchcock always appears as a split-second cameo in his own films. (I’ll help you this time. Watch the party scene in Alex’s Rio mansion. Hitchcock comes to the table, tosses back a glass of champagne, and walks off camera.)

Hecht was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar for Notorious, but didn’t win. That was just, as without top-shelf acting, the film wouldn’t have worked. Hitchcock famously said that in each of his films there were parts that made no logical sense but, when he made them well, no one noticed. It’s child’s play to find logical inconsistencies in Notorious, most notably the failure of Alex or his Nazi friends to draw conclusions about why Dev is always hanging around when Alicia claimed only to have met on the flight to Rio. Or Alicia’s claim she was forced to kiss Dev when her smooch was obviously not coerced.


One watches Notorious because its eye candy is irresistible. Grant and Bergman were beautiful people, and Hitchcock and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff knew their way around cameras. Notorious is in black and white, but their work helps make the case for those (including me) who argue that it’s often more emotionally impactful than color, especially when one wishes to bathe shots in shadows. The rear projections of Rio suggest another way the world has changed: Notice how relatively empty it was.


Notorious is a pas de deux between Grant and Bergman–a ritual of attract-repeal-attract. At several junctures, minor characters remark on what a lovely couple they make. Yes, they do. Rains, though, deserved his Best supporting Actor nomination, as his was the harder part to play. We know he is wrong for Alicia, but Rains has to thread the needle between ruthless Nazi, lovesick husband, and mother’s boy. On that score, Austrian actress Leopoldine Konstantin–better known for silent films– was terrific as Madame Anna Sebastian, Alex’s mother. She turns on a dime from imperious and unapproving mother to Nazi panther.


Notorious is usually ranked among the top 100 best films in English. One might argue there are more than 99 better ones, but not I. Because. Ingrid Bergman.


Rob Weir


* If you wonder why the Central Intelligence Agency wasn’t on the case, it wasn’t founded until 1947.










Double Indemnity a Hollywood Classic

Double Indemnity (1944)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Paramount, 107 minutes, Not-rated (pre-ratings system)





It was 1944, and the studio system whereby actors were bound to a particular employer for the life of their contracts was waning but remained in place. Paramount Studios wanted to expand Fred MacMurray’s bankability by casting him as an amoral character.  What better way to sully his nice guy image than to give him top dog billing in a gritty film noir movie? Edward G. Robinson reportedly balked when Paramount asked him to play a supporting role. He need not have worried, as he stole the film!


Director Billy Wilder brought MacMurray and Robinson together with Hollywood legend Barbara Stanwyck for a film that earned seven Oscar nominations. It didn’t win any, but it’s now listed by the American Film Institute (AFI) as the 29th greatest American film of all time. That’s debatably too high, but it’s certainly a gem. The idea came a book written by James Cain of an actual 1927 murder, and the screenplay was handed off to Raymond Chandler. He knew a few things about gritty tones and was responsible for the film’s hardboiled language.


Walter Neff (MacMurray) is a Los Angeles insurance salesman and the protégé of Barton Keyes (Robinson), who ferrets out fraud for the firm. On his rounds, Neff swings by a well-appointed home to remind Dietrichson (Tom Powers), a rich client, that his auto insurance has lapsed. Dietrichson isn’t home, but Neff instead meets his younger, second wife, Phyllis (Stanwyck). Sexual frisson begins the moment Neff spies her ankle bracelet as descends the staircase wearing a dressing gown. Insurance gives way to open flirtation and before you can say “murder!” Walter and Phyllis are lovers plotting the demise of her husband. A can’t-be-bothered husband, a little salesmanship, and a dollop of chicanery results in Dietrichson’s unknowing signature on a $50,000 life insurance policy with a “double indemnity clause” that pays out $100,000–more than $1.8 million in 2019 dollars–should he die an accidental death. All Walter and Phyllis have to do is plan that “accident,” execute it, and lie low until the money is paid out. Like that ever happens!  


There is a subplot involving Lola (Jean Heather), Dietrichson’s daughter from his deceased first wife. She is naïve and good-hearted, but also a spoiled and willful young woman involved with a man named Nino Zachetti (Bryon Barr), who can’t make up his mind if he’s a suitor, a chauvinist pig, or an empty-headed punk. Frankly, neither actor is very good, and Heather is actively horrible. (She had one previous movie credit and never had another after Double Indemnity.) Porter Hall appears in a semi-comedic role as an unexpected witness (of sorts). His performance comes close to being over the top, though he does provide a ray of sunshine amidst the noir. Those three roles lead me to dispute the AFI ranking, although Double Indemnity is essentially a three-person movie.


MacMurray played against type with enough aplomb that occasional meaty dramatic roles later came his way. Some may recall his stint as Tom Keefer in The Caine Mutiny, though he settled back into easy-going roles such as widower TV dad in My Three Sons. Stanwyck was already a Hollywood legend by 1944, and would remain so for the remaining 20 years of her movie career. She played the scheming Phyllis Dietrichson with antiseptic calm and icy cruelty. Few, however, could have predicted that Robinson would be the member of the troika with the smallest but most memorable part. He is such a bundle of neurotic energy that when he complains of pains in his gut, we first suspect ulcers. It’s not; it’s the gnawing intuition that gets under his skin when he suspects a scam but hasn’t yet figured out the angle. Robinson grabs us long before we find out his role in the mystery. Thus, when he tells Walter he suspects Phyllis had her husband bumped off, but people who think they can get away with murder are on a one-way trolley ride that ends at the cemetery, our hearts jump before Neff’s does.


Okay, so maybe Double Indemnity is slightly overrated. Still, acting like that of MacMurray, Stanwyck, and Robinson elevate even lousy movies. Double Indemnity is not one of the latter. It is a genuine American classic.


Rob Weir






Le Quattro Volte a Perplexing Tone Poem

Le Quattro Volte (2010)

Directed by Michelangelo Frammartino

Venture Films, 88 minutes, Not-rated





In symphonic music, a tone poem is a work that invokes writing, art, or something else non-musical. The film Le Quattro Volte has been described as a tone poem to one of Pythagoras’ lesser known theories. Describing the film is akin to asking how one would make a movie about music. I don’t mean a musician; I mean the music itself. Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino made such an attempt back in 2010. Le Quattro Volte garnered great praise from film buffs and intellectuals. Based on its worldwide box office of just $255,000, they were probably the sum total of its audience.


First things first. You don’t need to speak a single word of Italian, because no one else does either. It is not a silent film per se–we hear goat bells, barking dogs, the huff of an underpowered truck climbing steep Calabrian hills, wind, and background human voices–­but there is no dialogue of any sort. So, what’s it about? That’s not so easy to describe either. It translates as “the four times,” and this is where Pythagoras comes into play.  


Pythagoras (570-495 BCE) is remembered mostly for his mathematical theorems, especially the one relating to the area of right triangles. He was also a philosopher of what today we’d call an esoteric bent. He thought that he had lived multiple lives, but not in the way one associates with Hindu reincarnation. His view was related to what is sometimes called the transmigration of souls–though it has a fancy name, metempsychosis–but he did not think the soul’s fate could be altered by any force such as karma. His four “times,” or migrations, go from human to animal to plant to mineral. Okay, try putting that in a movie.


Maybe an easier way to comprehend Frammartino’s film is to view it as a circle of existence representation in four acts. This helps make sense of an unexplained opening scene in which men with shovels flatten steaming holes in what looks to be a miniature volcano. The true first act, though, involves an elderly shepherd. He is wracked by a persistent cough and is clearly dying, but he and his dog faithfully shuttle a large flock of goats between their tin-and-wood pen and tufted pasture lands each day. He also peddles snails to local villagers for their cooking pots, but mainly he’s so frail he can hardly be bothered to brush away the ants that crawl over his face as he rests beside a tree. At night, he treats his cough by drinking dust from the church floor mixed with water.


Act two, after the goatherd’s death and an eerie religious procession that looks like a colorized scene from a Bergman film, involves the birth of a goat kid, its weaning, and its separation from the flock. It rests beside a tree before night falls and the screen goes black. We next see a wintery landscape and a tall fir swaying in the breeze. At this juncture, the fate of the tree takes over. Call it act three. Act four moves us to the mineral realm.


Each act ends with blackness, and each is also a metaphor for other things. The tree, for example, stands for cultural remembrance. I will not pretend that this film is for everyone. There is no true narrative of any sort, it’s often open-ended perplexing, and the pace is deliberately slow. How else to represent the passage of time? The languid pacing, though, provides cinematographer Andrea Locatelli with a rich canvas upon which he paints the languorous rhythms of life in a poor Calabrian village. Although human souls toil largely without machines and sometimes work hard, no one seems rushed. Maybe no one is in a hurry to become a mineral!


At times Le Quattro Volte reminded me of Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life, but mostly it’s simply unlike anything else. Is it profound, or intellectual posturing? That’s really up to the viewer to decide but, to come full circle, it helps to imagine it as a tone poem, not a conventional film. Think of its silences as meditative and its sweeping pan shots as immersion within nature and its transformations. If you give it a try, be patient. You could even watch it in individual segments, walk away, and repeat. But I must emphasize that if you like movies with wall-to-wall action, steer well clear of this film.


Rob Weir



Citizen Reporters a New Look at Muckraking


Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America (2020)

By Stephanie Gorton

New York: Ecco 288 pages + back matter.





What’s the difference between investigative reporters and muckrakers? Usually, if you agree with them, they’re reporters; if not, they’re muckrakers. That’s how it played out for Samuel S. McClure, his namesake magazine, and those who wrote for him during the golden age of investigative reporting (1890s into the1920s).


McClure’s spotlighted some of the most impressive writers in the history of journalism, including Ray Stannard Baker, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack London, Frank Norris, Emily Post, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Mark Twain, and Ida Tarbell. McClure also featured British writers he cajoled: J. M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson…. It is no exaggeration to say that McClure’s and competitors such as The Atlantic, Century, Colliers, Harper’s, and Munsey’s helped invent the Progressive Era.


Citizen Reporters focuses on McClure and Ida Tarbell, the first full-time female features writer in American history. Stephanie Gorton’s eminently readable account flip-flops between the two to give germane biographical details and to offer contrasting points of view. She also interweaves developments and politics of the age–from anarchist terrorism to world fairs, inventions, the New Woman, and the New Journalism. New ideas were in the air.


McClure was a master at reinvention. He was a short, wiry man born who grew up in a County Antrim blackhouse and immigrated to Indiana with his widowed mother. Things weren’t much better at first, and McClure did a stint as a pedlar. He managed to get through Knox College, a minor miracle as he spent more time on the student newspaper than in the classroom. His break came as editor of The Wheelman, a trade publication for Pope Bicycles, which he turned into a sporting publication. McClure never really stopped being a pitchman. He managed to woo and marry Harriet (“Hattie”) Hurd, a professor’s daughter, after a dogged pursuit and over her family’s objections.


Ida Tarbell was McClure’s opposite, including being tall. She haled from the oil region of Western Pennsylvania, and enjoyed financial comfort before her father was ruined by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil juggernaut. It was only then that he noticed of the ugliness of the region, or how Standard Oil crushed smaller manufacturers. She graduated from Allegheny College, taught briefly, and got her start in journalism with The Chautauquan, a journal for the adult education summer resort in southwestern New York. She moved to Paris when Impressionism was in bloom and wrote of her experiences for American newspapers.


Gorton portrays McClure as a man of boundless energy who cooked up one scheme after another. He often traveled to Europe–sometimes for business and sometimes to recover from probable bipolar disorder–and he was not an easy man for whom to work. When one of his half-baked ideas was opposed by more pragmatic staff, he acted as if was surrounded by traitors. The exception was Tarbell, the calm in the storm and his confidant.


McClure’s became famous for crusades against corruption. Baker wrote about Coxey’s Army, the Pullman strike, and race riots. Steffens produced an entire series on graft in American cities and covered both the Mexican and Russian revolutions. As for Tarbell, she began by writing biographies (Lincoln, Madame Roland, Napoleon), but gained fame for investigative pieces, including exposés of Standard Oil that led to numerous pieces of Progressive Era legislation and the breakup of Standard Oil. She also placed U.S. Steel and General Electric under her social microscope.


Some scholars assert that muckrakers made Theodore Roosevelt. That’s debatable, but Roosevelt certainly helped unmake the muckrakers. Gorton presents Roosevelt’s rants against reformist journalists–he tried to turn Baker, whom he knew personally–as if they were extremists. That was perhaps true of Steffens, who was briefly a communist, but it was not the case for most. Tarbell actually developed sympathy for John Rockefeller, and was conservative in her personal habits, morals, and belief in fair play. She enjoyed easy-going banter with Standard Oil’s Henry Huddleston Rogers, who could be so ruthless he was nicknamed “Hell Hound Rogers.” Tarbell, who never married, was often upheld as a feminist, but she was initially suspicious of it and only embraced feminism in semi-retirement.


Gorton suggests that Progressive Era reformers bit the hand that fed them when attacking magazines like McClure’s, but blames McClure for the decline of the magazine. He was small in stature, but large in ego. McClure engaged in several affairs, which the staff tried to scuttle, as such revelations were ruinous at the time. Oddly, Hattie–a more organized business person than her husband–sometimes enabled his philandering. Ultimately, McClure’s erratic behavior and constant attempts to launch new magazines led Tarbell to push back. He dismissed her and she and several other writers bolted to The American Magazine, a competitor. In 1911, the McClure’s board fired their founder and World War One hastened the demise of muckraking journals.


Gorton gives us a look at the inner workings of a magazine whose reformist fires burned briefly, but brightly. She is to commended for taking us beyond stereotypical views of such publications. As suggested in the lede, muckraker is a loaded word. Congress and the White House often get too much credit for the Progressive Era correctives. It is hard to imagine reform would have been as sweeping without journalists such as S.S. McClure and Ida Tarbell.


Rob Weir



The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue a Page-turner


The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue (2020)

By V(ictoria) E. Schwab

Tor Books, 444 pages.





Music, novels, and legends are replete with tales of meeting the Devil at the crossroads and striking a bad bargain. Somehow, the story never grows old and The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is another good one.


It begins in the village of Villon-sur-Sarthe in the northwestern part of France. Addie LaRue is a free-spirited jeune fille with a mind of her own and is more drawn to her woodworker father than her severe, tradition-based mother. When you live in the 17th century though–the story begins in 1698–tradition is not something one can simply ignore. Yet Adeline is more determined to do so when her father takes her with him to peddle his wares in Le Mans, a giant city for a country girl. Fast forward to 1714, and Adeline is now of marriageable age. Her parents have picked out her husband-to-be, Roger, a solid guy, but one Adeline has no desire to wed.


Adeline has spent time with Estelle, an eccentric old woman and spinner of yarns, who tells her about the old gods. Adeline is fascinated, but Estelle offers a sober warning: “No matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.” These gods, Estelle admonishes, are fickle and exact a steep price for answered prayers. Can you say “Pandora’s box?” Faced with an impending bond with Roger, Adeline slips into the woods and violates Estelle’s advice. This is her first encounter with Luc. Adeline tells him that she wishes to be “free” and without attachments.


Lesson Two: Semantics matter. Luc grants her wish, but with the spin is that no one will remember Adeline. The moment she leaves someone’s presence, that person cannot recall who she is. She can’t write her story or name; the words disappear on the page. Luc also owns her soul when she’s done with it. Soon, she has trouble saying her own name; hence she becomes Addie.


By now, perhaps you suspect that Luc may be Lucifer. That’s never really spelled out, but some Biblical scholars think that Lucifer was one of the old gods. (Satan, Mephistopheles, Lucifer, and Beelzebub are often conflated in the Old Testament, so these are debates over identities of each.)


Addie revels in her freedom, though Luc pays periodic visits to see if she’s ready to keep her part of the “deal.” Addie ignores him and experiences many things: the French Revolution, the building of the Eiffel tower, opera in Munich, Chicago during Prohibition, two world wars, Frank Sinatra when he was a new phenomenon….  She even returns to Villon, but each time it is less familiar to her. She has lovers of both sexes, who discover her anew each day, and meets fascinating people who forget who she is when she walks into another room. Oddly, she and Luc become close; she is “my dear Adeline” to him, the only being who remembers her, and is perhaps in love with her. Luc tells her, “You move among them like a ghost… not really human,” and in her darkest moments she thinks, “Living in the present, and only the present… is a run-on sentence.” How does Addie leave any sort of a mark?


In 2014, she is in New York City and meets Henry Strauss, a smart but unambitious man who works in a used bookstore. For some reason, he remembers her. Why? How? Addie is head-over-heels in love with Henry, and maybe with Luc as well!  The latter presses her to spend eternity with him, but that would mean consummating their deal and handing over her soul. You can’t change a deal with a god, can you?


Although I would not call The Invisible Life of Addy LaRue a great work of literature – whatever that means – it’s certainly a proverbial page-turner. It works because it touches upon an existential human dilemma: insofar as we know, we are the only species on earth consciously aware of its own mortality. Many humans fear death and yearn for immortality of some sort. Addie LaRue works for the same reason readers devour stories about vampires. In each case, the question is what would you give up to be immortal, or to get what you most desire? Would you accept gifts from a visible deity, or hold onto vague promises from one who never appears?


Like vampire tales, Addie LaRue is full of romance and dread, discovery and danger, thrills and terrors. Schwab certainly knows how to spin a great story and hers is a fresh look at both the crossroads legend and the encounter between Jesus and Satan in the Wilderness. Schwab spins us across 300 years of history, and deposits us in the 21st century. What would you trade to see the 22nd, 23rd, and 24th?


Rob Weir



"Harriet " a Nice Intro to Harriet, but Hold the Melodrama!



Harriet (2019)

Directed by Kasi Lemmons

Focus Features, 126 minutes, PG-13 (violence, racial slurs)



tells the story of one of history’s more remarkable individuals: Araminta (“Minty”) Ross (1822-1913). Don’t recognize that name? How about Harriet Tubman? That’s the name she chose when, in 1849, she fled on foot from bondage from a plantation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and made her way to Philadelphia.  


That journey would have been enough trauma for most escaped slaves, but instead Tubman became a major “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. The diminutive Tubman–she was barely 5’ tall–made 13 returns across the Mason-Dixon Line and liberated an estimated 70 slaves. Once the Fugitive Slave Act went into effect in 1850, she also helped smuggle those without freedom papers into Canada. (The Canadian Federation, as a British Commonwealth partner, abolished slavery in 1833.) Tubman went on to become the first African American woman to command Federal troops and led an 1863 raid in South Carolina that freed an additional 750 slaves.


Director Kasi Lemmons–who also cowrote the screenplay with Gregory Allen Howard–concentrates on Tubman during the years 1852-60, with a coda concerning the South Carolina raid. Kudos for casting Cynthia Erivo as Harriet. Erivo portrays Harriet as equal parts country girl, spitfire, and fiery adversary. We don’t get much information about her childhood, and the source of the visions she endured is merely alluded to. (An overseer hurled a metal weight at another slave, missed, and instead struck Harriet in the forehead. Tubman suffered painful headaches that one biographer suggests were epilepsy.)  For Minty, the breaking point came when she married John Tubman in 1844. Documents surfaced that showed that she and her mother was supposed to be freed when the latter turned 45. Minty approached her master Edward Brodess, but the documents were ignored. The last straw was the sale of her three sisters, which occurred after Edward died and left his widow Eliza (country singer Jennifer Nettles, looking a lot like Amy Poehler) with crippling debt.


In Philadelphia, Minty became Harriet Tubman after meeting black abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom, Jr.), who coordinated Underground Railroad raids. She would eventually also meet William Seward, Frederick Douglass, and John Brown. (She took  part in planning for Brown’s ill-fated 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.) Tubman even returned to Maryland to liberate her husband (Zackary Momoh), only to learn he assumed Harriet was dead, had taken another wife, and didn’t wish to flee.


This is all very dramatic stuff. Lemmons assembles a good cast, but she slips when drama becomes melodrama. A major subplot involves Harriet’s dealings with Gideon Ross (Joe Alwyn). Alwyn is very good as a blue-eyed son of privilege who tries to keep Minty in line when she’s on the plantation and pursues her when she flees. There is frisson between the two that implies past closeness with hints it might have been sexual. Is Gideon looking out for her safety, or is he the Devil in disguise? It doesn’t matter; he is not an historical character. Gideon is at best a composite; at worst he’s like Harriet’s elegant Philadelphia boarding house keeper Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monáe): a complete fiction. Also on the melodramatic side is Lemmons’ elision of time. The suggestion is that Harriet was constantly bursting into Still’s office to demand another raid to free more Maryland slaves; in truth, her ventures took place over an 11-year period.


I give Lemmons a (half) pass on the latter, given that it’s very difficult to bring biography to the screen. All movie biographies shrink time and, when done well, we seldom notice. I noticed. There are a few other invented characters as well, including black slave catchers Bigger Long (Omar J. Dorsey) and Walter (Henry Hunter Hall), though such individuals were real enough.


If you don’t know very much about Tubman’s life, Harriet is a decent introduction. I would, however, encourage you not to let this film substitute for learning more. What you see on the screen can be mostly trusted, but despite its tough subject of slavery, Harriet sometimes plays against its full horror through Hallmark-like sentimental interludes. A question that constantly perplexes me is why screenwriters feel the need to embellish when history hands them ready-made drama.


As a final aside, it is important at this moment in our own history to step back from notions that African Americans freed themselves. What the Underground Railroad did was remarkable and Harriet Tubman is a personal hero, but despite a spate of works–grounded more in now than then–the total number of slaves who escaped was around 100,000. That is impressive, but a small dent in the 4 million who remained in bondage. It took a civil war to end slavery.


Rob Weir


Dead Man Don't Wear Plaid Ages Better than a Suit



Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

Directed by Carl Reiner

Universal Pictures, 89 minutes, PG

(In Black & White.)




If I told you that you could see 25 Hollywood legends in the same film, would you watch it? And, no, I’m not talking about some self-congratulatory industry-made documentary. I’m talking about a feature film. Could you, for example, resist seeing Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Ava Gardner, and Barbara Stanwyck in the same picture as Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Cary Grant, and Burt Lancaster? Okay, how about if I throw in Steve Martin and make it a comedy?


Say what!? Some of you may know that legendary director, writer, and actor Carl Reiner passed away in June. Back in 1982, he directed Steve Martin in a spoof of film noir/detective films and titled it Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. It got mixed reviews back in its day, but from the perspective of 2020, Reiner’s film wears much better than its titular clothing ensemble. In today’s mashup culture, Dead Men is the cinematic equivalent of photo stitching. It involved just eight contemporary actors of their day, and only three of them: Martin, Rachel Ward, and Reiner had major roles. Reiner filmed in black and white, because it allowed him and film editor Bud Molin to switch seamlessly between his “live” actors and clips from 19 films from the 1940s–most of them from Hollywood’s film noir days.


If you’re shaky on what film noir means, the word noir is French for black. Film noir was heavy on the use of moody black tones, fog, silhouettes, dreamy ambience, and low-key lighting. It was perfect for crime pictures, especially those involving hard-broiled detectives. The basic idea was to bathe the screen in atmospherics appropriate for films bristling with deception, sexual tension, psychological strain, and unexpected violence. In other words, a murder mystery that can only be cracked by a jaded gumshoe who straddles the line between criminality and respectability. Reiner mined a trove of noir films–including The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and Suspicion–and  his movie bears some resemblance to Notorious, though not every film he used is considered a classic. And, of course, a younger Steve Martin (37 at the time) is there to make sure things stayed on the silly side.


 In brief, Juilet Forrest (Ward) hires private investigator Rigby Reardon (Martin) to investigate the disappearance and presumed murder of her father, Dr. Forrest (George Gaynes), a renowned scientist and cheesemaker. (Yes, you read that correctly!) Martin first asks his partner (Bogart) to search for clues and soon two cryptic lists emerge: Friends of Carlotta and Enemies of Carlotta. But who is Carlotta? As Rigby wades more deeply into Dr. Forrest’s misfortune, Rigby falls for Juliet, the case gets hotter, and something very nefarious emerges–possibly involving Nazis.


At this point I should say that few comedians can get away with as many “cheap” jokes as Steve Martin and make us laugh so damn hard at them. Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid sports breast and “willie” jokes, bullets being sucked out snakebite-style, Martin in horrifyingly bad drag, cups of Rigby’s “world-famous Java,” and cleaning lady “trigger”references,. These are just the tip if the bullet. Don’t think too much; just go with the flow. They work because Martin simply oozes so much put-on smarm that it becomes charm. Aussie Rachel Ward was then on the cusp of her big moment–she would star in the TV series The Thorn Birds the next year–and she appears fresh, spunky, and up for the challenge of performing with a spontaneous talent like Martin. Carl Reiner shows up later in the film, but he was already a comedic giant who, in many ways, paved the way for guys like Steve Martin. Don’t be surprised to see Reiner nibble at one corner while Martin munches at the other when it comes to scene-chewing.


I really liked Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid when I saw it in the cinema back in 1982. I positively adored seeing it again on Netflix. Reiner’s film is the difference between making an audience laugh at moronic humor and making comedies for morons, the latter being my candid assessment of about 90 percent of every comedy made since 1990. Dead Men is both funny and a capsule look at 1940s films that will also make you wish to see some of them. You should, as they too are lessons; in this case they illumine the gap between craft and mere production.


As a final note, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid was the final film dressed by Edith Head. Ms Head (1897-1981) was, simply, the most famous costume designer in Hollywood history. It was also the final film for composer Miklos Rozsa, and also featured music from Steve Goodman, who died shortly after the film opened. Goodman was a brilliant singer/songwriter.


Rob Weir


The Cold Millions: Fine Novel/Great History Lesson

The Cold Millions

By Jess Walter

Harper, 352 pp.





An old labor song asks, “Which side are you on?” Not everyone is taken with The Cold Millions by Jess Walter. It’s often a tough book. If you believe America is and has always been, a middle-class society, Walter rubs reality in your face. Some (all-too-young) bloggers are unaware that this historical novel is indeed “historical.” It takes us to Spokane in 1909, the center of one of the more traumatic labor uprisings of its day: a free speech battle led by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).


Spokane was a classic boom town. A burgeoning timber industry and the discovery of rich deposits of gold, silver, and lead extending from eastern Washington into Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene region swelled Spokane’s population from 350 to 104,400 in 30 years. Do not imagine for a nanosecond that the need for laborers meant decent wages or respect for working people. Spokane was also a place in which a relative handful of investment capitalists grew fabulously wealthy, built a nouveau riche enclave for themselves and bourgeois supporters, and considered their workforce as no more valuable than mules, shovels, or dynamite. For the hoi polloi, Spokane was burlesque and vaudeville halls, brothels, flophouses, bars, job sharks, and hobo camps. Naturally, it bred socialists, anarchists, and assorted other radicals. Bet on the fact that not all of the dynamite will be used to blast rock, but don’t assume you know who will be using TNT for nefarious purposes. Spokane was also home to private industrial armies, labor spies, crooked cops, and agents provocateurs.


Walter’s novel is built upon fictional characters who interact with historical figures. It centers upon two orphan brothers from Montana, 16-year-old “Rye” (Ryan) and 23-year-old “Gig” (Gregory) Dolan, who join the legions of drifters in search of work. By the time Rye catches up with Gig in Spokane, the latter is already a Wobbly (member of the IWW) and is devoted to a cause neatly summed by a line in the Preamble of the IWW Constitution: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” Rye is better educated than his brother, though Gig is working his way through War and Peace in a self-improvement campaign. Rye’s hope that he and Gig can also improve themselves economically is challenged by local cops who routinely treat working stiffs and drifters as trash to be beaten for sport. Victims include their gentle friend Jules, who is part Native American, and a tramp named Early, who advises them to stop listening to IWW fantasies, embrace anarchism, and resort to violence.


That’s not their way. Gig has his eye on Ursula the Great, a burlesque singer who performs with a mountain lion; and Rye meets Lemuel Brand, a mining tycoon, and doesn’t quite know what to make of him or life from the top rail. When the free speech conflagration breaks out, they must figure out which side they are on. In brief, the IWW strategy–which worked brilliantly elsewhere–was to defy local ordinances banning large rallies. Wobblies saw it as a violation of the First Amendment and recruited out-of-work laborers to hop railroad cars and flood the streets. Wobblies mounted soapboxes, gave speeches, were arrested, and were thrown into jail. Success came when it cost cities so much to feed the prisoners that ordinances were repealed, strikes continued, and employers were forced to negotiate. That’s not how it went down in Spokane, where elites reacted with unspeakable brutality.


Another reason why some have struggled with The Cold Millions is that Walter wants readers to do their homework. He uses period lingo, IWW slang, and labor terminology without translating it. (They’re usually obvious from context, but there are phrases that might send you to Google.) Walter also expects you to sort fictional characters–such as the Dolans, Urusula, detective Dal Daveaux–from real ones like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Frank Little, Clarence Darrow, Joe Hill, and Wesley Everest. One should read up on the IWW and its free speech battles–Flynn was later a cofounder of the ACLU, then a communist–but you can get by if you think of everyone as either real or a composite of historical figures.


Walter is a superb writer who knows how to spin a tale. He enhances The Cold Millions by interjecting lots of which-side-are-you-on dilemmas and wrapping  them in an unorthodox mystery. All of these–plus his use of the falls on the Spokane River as an inanimate character–keep readers off balance. Walter’s sympathy for the underdog earns him comparisons that I and other reviewers have invoked: John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and John Steinbeck. It is a thrilling read deliberately written in a retro style reminiscent of the aforementioned.


Walter gets history right, not just in the broad strokes but also in the background details. Reading The Cold Millions is simultaneously a lesson in early 20th century labor struggles, gender dynamics, anti-immigrant animus, technological development, and class consciousness (emergent, undeveloped, and/or buried). Think of The Cold Millions as a title with multiple meanings. If the novel discomforts you, ask, “Which side am I on?”


Rob Weir