6/14/21

Ashley Riley, Dana Sipos, Gessami Boada, Steven Keene, Sierra Hull: June 2021 Music

 

 

 

Name that Category

 


Ashley Riley
is one of those Venn diagram performers who gets labeled “Americana” because she’s not quite country, folk, or pop. Listen to a few tracks from Set You Free and you’ll know what I mean. “Close to Me,” an earnest pleading for a restoration of intimacy, finds Riley on acoustic guitar, but is sung country chanteuse style and is backed by some indie rock atmospheric electric instrumentation and studio backing vocals. Although Riley doesn’t have a big voice, she’s not afraid to air it. The title track finds her drifting up to an approximation of a pop diva performance, though the fact that she builds to instead of going full leather lung from the start it is an indication that’s not cut from that cloth. “Cut My Losses” also has pop chops, though the song–about a woman about to set herself free–could easily be taken from the studio and performed as unplugged folk or country. A YouTube clip of Riley performing “Make Me” demonstrates the ease with which Riley can simplify and go full acoustic. As faithful readers know, I am a fan of keeping things real.

 


Canadian singer/songwriter Dana Sipos is another artist who is hard to peg. Her new project The Astral Plane might conjure expectations of swirling Grateful Dead-like sonics, but hers is a different sort of experimentation. Sipos lives her explorations; she dwells amidst old-growth forests on Vancouver Island. Her songs often depart from surface implications. One might, for instance, assume that “Skinny Legs ” is self-referential for the willowy Sipos, but the song is actually about her grandmother. The sentiments echo bluegrass themes, but she performs it as you see in the video–as if it’s part performance art. “Breathing Barrel” is a moody, enigmatic piano- and hand drums-shaped offering that’s where cool jazz meets mysticism: Be the Breathing barrel with its pomegranate throat/And your mouth wide open the shape of the ocean. Barrel breathing is a yoga term, but this song seems to be more about discovering the divine within nature than anything one could do on a mat. “Daniel” is a reflection on the tale of its Old Testament namesake, and “Hoodoo” an amalgam of Badlands landscape and the Kaddish. It’s that kind of album, whatever that might be. I simply surrendered to its stark beauty.      

 


Gessami Boada
is a Spanish artist who often gets slapped with a jazz label. On començo jo fits, yet it doesn’t. “Com is no fossis ningúcould be considered jazz, but it also has big vocal rises more in keeping with commercial pop. “Oh What a Night” is a fragile little song that, once one subtracts the vibes, sounds as if it’s a poignant moment from a musical. “Los Dos” opens with jazzy guitar runs, but eventually sashays and sways–another mashup. Much of the categorical ambiguity is due to Boada’s voice, which is supple enough to cross genres but sounds as if it’s best fitted for hook-laden songs. “In the Shadows of Your Mind” is instrumentally sparse, but Boada’s vocals are playful and take us to places that are definitely better suited for the age of YouTube.

 


Steven Keene
is an artist with a social conscience whose music toggles between protest and acoustic blues. An album titled Them & Us pretty much tells you which side he’s on. He’s topped by a black chapeau on the album cover, but a listen to the title cut suggests he ought to be wearing a white one. If you are wondering where protest music has gone, you’ve not been hanging out in Keene’s neighborhood. It opens with a line that’s obviously cribbed from Dylan and uses it to questions about all manner of social injustices, beginning with the inanity of border walls broadly defined. You’ll also hear echoes of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John,” weaves several other protest songs into the mix, updates them musically, and leaves us shattered by how relevant they remain. “On “Save Yourself,” Keene turns to electric blues to explore other current issues and deliver the message: Before you save the word/Save yourself. Like all great troubadours, Keene has his requisite love song, though his “I Can’t Have You” has a twisty core of regret. Mostly, though, Keene is both a righteous and upbeat guy. “We’ll Find a Way” defines his outlook–name the obstacles and figure out how to overcome them. Kudos to Keene for an album that’s simultaneously retro and as relevant as the morning news.

 


If you need a refuge break from heaviness, Sierra Hull will do the trick. Check out “Beautifully Out of Place” to see why she’s one of the meteors streaking across the bluegrass skies. Think that’s a fluke? Listen to her give old Johann a workout on Bach’s “Sonata No. 3 in C Major.” And she was just goofing off! She serves up a meaty mando-based cover of “People Get Ready,” and, yeah, she can kick butt on guitar too. She does Bill Monroe proud on “Old Ebenezer Scrooge.” Check out her other videos to see how far she’s come in just a few short years. I swear there can’t be any bones in her hands. Hull’s just 25, so I have a feeling this meteor will get brighter still.   

 

Rob Weir 

6/11/21

Minari Mildly Overhyped, but Sweet

 

MINARI (2020)

Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

A24 Films, 115 minutes, PG-13

In English and Korean (with subtitles)

★★★

 

 

Minari is director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical remembrance of his boyhood. Set in 1983, it follows the Korean-born Yi family, which moves from California to Arkansas so that paterfamilias Jacob (Steven Yeun) can pursue his dream of farming his own land. Another reason is to provide his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) with a slower pace of life so she won’t lose her job. Both need the income from their unglamorous job of sexing chicks.

 

Jacob promises that the land will soon Monica and their children: 7-year-old David (Alan Kim) and pre-adolescent Anne (Noel Kate Cho). Suffice it say that Minari is not a Korean version of The Biggest Little Farm. Steven fancies himself a savvy Americanized immigrant, but his confidence is greater than his understanding of how hard it is to find water, till long-dormant land, or generate enough money to escape the chick-sexing line. He bungles a few essential things, like money conversion. He nearly loses $100 to a church collection plate. In 1983, there were more than 2,200 Korean won to a U.S. dollar, so you definitely don’t want your Korean mind to kick in at such a moment!

 

Culture clash moments are among the film’s more memorable moments. The Yi family has left a Korean enclave in California to enter a world of trailer home living, the polite smiles of locals who (at best) see them as exotic, and charismatic Christianity. Hired man Paul (Will Paton) is so religious that he casts out demons and each Sunday shoulders a wooden cross on wheels down dusty roads.  

 

It’s all too much for Monica, who threatens to return to California. Instead, Steven sends for her mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) to come live with them. She is a pistol and not necessarily the best role model for kids. Soon-ja sees no harm in teaching children adult card games or letting loose with Korean swears. She terrifies David, not to mention that he must share his bedroom with his crazy grandmother.

 

Much of the film focuses on Soon-ja’s relationship with the kids, especially David. She helps him overcome his shyness, thinks his weak heart is nonsense, and prescribes vigorous outdoor life. The two share a secret minari garden deep in the woods by a creek bed. (Minari is an edible member of the water dropwort family sometimes called Chinese celery, though it looks more like parsley.) 

 

Minari captured hearts at Sundance and won various film awards around the globe. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, and Yuh-jong made history by be4coming the first Korean to win a best supporting actress Oscar. She did a nice job of playing a crotchety old woman filled the brim with joie de vivre. It’s not a pathbreaking performance by any means, though it’s probably deserved recognition given her competition. (Few have seen the films in which the other four nominees appeared, though I would argue that Olivia Colman had a meatier role in The Father.) Given a choice, I might have honored two different performances from Minari. Now 9-year-old Alan Kim is a heart-stealer who expertly handled a role in which he was akin to a small bird pecking away at his entrapping shell piece by tiny piece. Will Patton is at the other end of the performance spectrum. His Paul is a tetched evangelical Don Quixote, but he’s also a lovable, kind Korean War vet trying to live his faith as he understands it.

 

Not much happens in Minari that’s out of the ordinary. It was undoubtedly Chung’s intention to spin a yarn about an “American” family that simply happens to be Korean. The film is so much about everyday life–its triumphs, challenges, and tragedies–that instead of building to a dramatic conclusion, it simply ends with the Yi family opting to take root where they are. Minari is overhyped, but there’s no harm in partaking of a sweet slice-of life film, even if the portion is thinner than advertised.

 

Rob Weir

6/9/21

Don't Confuse Andrew Shaffer with a Poet

 

LOOK MOM I’M A POET (and so is my cat) (2021)

By Andrew Shaffer

Dime House Press, 146 pages.

 


 

 

The best thing about Andrew Shaffer’s chapbook is the cover. Seriously. It’s festooned with a (vaguely) Victorian man holding an opossum. It’s all downhill from there.

 

Let's start with the title. Shaffer is not a poet. There’s a difference between doggerel and a dog’s breakfast. These days everyone who puts words into a rap or fills a screen with unorthodox spacing fancies themselves the next Amanda Gordon or Billy Collins. That's utter nonsense. Gordon is the heir to Langston Hughes, who a century ago wrote of the dangers of a dream deferred. Her poetry moves with the grace and rhythm of music and challenges America to live up to its ideals. Shaffer’s PR machine cranks out comparisons to Collins, a risible analogy. Collins is a treasure because of his wondrous mix of humor and profundity. Collins makes you laugh, then cringe; he makes you want to suck the marrow from the smallest sublime moments because life is fleeting.

 

Snark is not the same thing as the depth. Shaffer is also billed as a humorist. Silly me, I thought that actual “humor” was a prerequisite for being a humorist. Shaffer’s is the look-over-the shoulder naughtiness that stops being funny about the time an adolescent boy graduates from junior high school. Consider these lines prompted by seeing a t-shirt that reads, “I Have a Pretty Granddaughter. I Also Have a Gun, a Shovel, and an Alibi.”

 

            I thought about telling him

            that I have a shovel, too,

            and that I was going to dig up his backyard looking for his granddaughter, because what the fuck, dude.

            What the fuck?”

 

Perhaps his words appeal to pop culture addicts who think that dropping a few memes and brand names confers cultural capital. In “I Read Your Chapbook” Shaffer writes,

 

            Oh, look, just what the world needs –

            another book from an Instagram poet

            filled with more derivative tripe

            about love, whiskey, and scars.

 

            Lord Byron would have drunk wine

             from your tattooed hipster skull

            while riding his pet bear

            into the House of Lords

            before making sweet, sweet love

            to his half-sister on the parliament floor.

 

            Really makes you wonder, though:

            When did he find the time to write?

 

It says it all to note this is his best work. As a poem it’s trite. It would, though, be a good standup routine.

 

In his (failed) efforts to write droll lines, Shaffer consistently goes for the cheap rather than transforming an inspired idea into a good poem. In “All Hands on Deck,” Shaffer discusses how numerous versifiers wrote submissions for The New Yorker after 9/11. He sets a melancholic tone that he ruins with: "Six months later, we received our rejections, our metaphors as unnecessary as another Ben Stiller movie…" This is the sort of line one utters at a party. Participants nod and give it the acknowledgment it deserves: "Good line dude.” Again, good standup material.

 

He does this throughout. In “Poetry Edgelord” he has an insightful moment in which he writes, “A poem is just a short story/without proper punctuation.” So why ruin it with childish references to Walt Shitman and William Turdsworth? Shaffer can’t even follow his own dictates. Later, he tries to pass off several children’s jokes about farts and witches as poems by arranging them as such. What do we wish to make of his observation after seeing the musical Hamilton:  "If Alexander Hamilton was such bomb- ass rapper, why did he ever bother with politics?" I will give Shaffer credit for at least knowing that imagining a cloud as penis-shaped deserves the title “Stupid.”

 

He has several repeating themes–“#SponsoredPost,” “Great Kentuckians of Kentucky,” and recurrent references to the Pittsburgh Steelers–that are so lightweight one expects them to fly away. They are akin to his “Carpe DM.” The entire offering reads: “Every day is a new/opportunity to say/”Fuck it all.” Ditto his observation in “Goodnight Moon” in which he offers this offbeat/off-color observation: “One person’s nightmare of being naked in public is another’s wet dream.”

 

It’s ironic that Shaffer skewers hipsters; Shaffer seeks to be one. If you don’t already hate hipsters, you will by the time you finish reading his work. Tell you what. Go ahead and preemptively hate them. I’ve saved you the trouble of reading this. Try Amanda Gordon and Billy Collins instead.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

 

6/7/21

Small Town Taxi Punks the Pioneer Valley

 

Small Town Taxi: Honey Walker Adventures Book I (2019)

By Harriet Rogers

Independently published, 317 pages.

★★★

 

 

I love Northampton, the town in which I live. It does, however, lend itself to parody, as there's a tendency for people to take themselves too seriously. That applies across the board, from college professors to construction workers. You name ‘em–feminists, musicians, LGBTQ activists, liberals, neo-cons, panhandlers, poets, social workers–when they get up a good head of steam, they can suck the oxygen out of the room. I've often dreamt of hanging a banner across Main Street with the message, “C’mon folks, lighten up.” 

 

I don't have to; Harriet Rogers has it done so in novel form. Small Town Taxi is the first of her Honey Walker series. It's a gentle lampoon of life in the 413 and a sendup of hard-boiled detective novels. Call it pulp fiction for the Pioneer Valley. Rogers knows her subjects well; she is the former owner of Skera Gallery. When you work downtown, you see the entire panoply of town characters.

 

Her protagonist, Honey Walker, was a homeless, ditzy college dropout who drifted into town when she was 21. When police Lieutenant Jon Stevens found her sleeping on a park bench, he didn’t bust her; he introduced her to the Cool Ride Cab Company. Honey took to driving her Scion XB cab like an otter takes to raw fish, even though the owner is a cheapskate and the dispatcher redefines the adjective surly. Honey lives in a small apartment–commentary on Northampton’s inflated housing market–but she's a tomboy with simple needs whose only fashion vice is shoe lust. Her take on herself is, “I am the girl who makes the phrase ‘they all look alike’ a reality,” though Stevens doesn’t think that’s true.

 

She's also the girl who trouble finds, an occupational hazard for a cabbie. Without giving away any of the plot, Small Town Taxi sports quite a cast: a trigger-happy lawyer, a highly educated plus-size black woman who occasionally works as a hooker, a Springfield crime family, a cookie-baking older woman who used to work for the FBI, several Keystone Kop-like hoodlums, and an assortment of hipsters, scrape-by residents, privileged moralists, and weirdos.

 

Rogers playfully­– if not always skillfully–satirizes testosterone-fueled writers like Mickey Spillane. She frequently resorts to stereotypes, but in order to turn the tables. For instance, it's women who are the primary horndogs; they are also the ones who are snarky and kick butt. Honey is so tough and raw that we expect her to grab her crotch and spit. The women in Rogers’ book figure things out, but usually in a bumbling fashion in order to round out her send up of detective fiction. There's plenty of colorful language and gunplay, but the body count is low.

 

Readers who know the area well have fun pulling away the veils that scarcely disguise real things. (Cool Rides, for example, is clearly modeled on Cosmic Cabs.) Some readers might get their dander up. Hampshire Heights, a public housing complex comes off badly, but Holyoke and Springfield even more so. Rogers is an equal opportunity satirist. Her very title is a dig. In a town nicknamed “Noho” it's hard to refute her observation that, “Northampton residents think of themselves as only one step from the Big Apple.” I laughed aloud at various places in the novel, even though some of my chuckles could be seen as self-deprecation.

 

At the end of the day, though, I'm not pushing the other three books to the top of my reading list. Small Town Taxi is great fun but it's also a one-trick pony, a high concept that might not be tall enough to sustain interest. This, of course, is a matter of individual taste and I’d not debate those who think “Noho” could benefit from a few more metaphorical slaps at pretense. Start with Small Town Taxi. If it makes you laugh, you might wish to hail another ride or two.

 

Rob Weir

6/4/21

Night in the City an Underappreciated Noir Masterpiece

 

Night and the City (1950)

Directed by Jules Dassin

20th Century Fox, 96 minutes, Unrated

★★★★★

 

 

 

It's a film about wrestling, chiselers, and lowlife riverside dwellers. It was made in Britain and is in black and white. If this doesn't sound appealing, think again; Night and the City is one of the finest and most stylish film noir movies ever made by somebody not named Orson Welles.

 

Even its backstory is great. American Director Julius “Jules” Dassin was blacklisted for having joined the Communist Party in the 1930s as the movie was in production. Dassin had quit the party a decade earlier, but the Red Scare wasn’t fueled by reason.  Dassin worked around the problem by releasing the film in Britain and there was nothing zealots could do about it. Talented German cinematographer Max Greene was onboard, as was a legendary composer Franz Waxman. If you want to make something of the fact that all three of the persecuted were Jews, by all means do so.

 

Postwar London was as dire as the film’s deliberately gloomy backdrop. At the movie’s center is Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark), a cut-rate conman who scurries from one bad scheme to the next. His only good call is his relationship with good-hearted Mary Bristol (Gene Tierney). Harry cares about her, but he's such a louse that he plays her like a cheap fiddle for money, ego-stroking, and refuge from his creditors.

 

After watching a wrestling exhibition, Henry has an idea he is certain will make him a big-time player. A famed Greek wrestler Gregorius (Stanislaus Zbyszko) is in London preparing a protégé, “Nikolas of Athens” (Ken Richmond) for an important match. Gregorius’ son Kristo (Herbert Lom) controls London’s “pro” wrestling scene, but if Harry can convince Gregorius to do battle with wrestling’s bad boy, “The Strangler” (Mike Mizurki), he can pocket a fortune from ticket sales. Gregorius will only do Graeco-Roman style, the legitimate stuff you see at the Olympics, and thus out of the purview of promoter/mobster Kristo.

 

Of course, Harry doesn’t have two pence to rub together, so he approaches Phil Nosteross (Francis L. Sullivan, looking like Sydney Greenstreet), the owner of the Silver Fox Club, who also runs lucrative low-level rackets. Phil jokingly offers to put up £200 if Harry can come up with two hundred more. He does so, but plays a dangerous game to get it. Phil's wife Helen (Googie Withers) offers to give Harry the dough if he can get her a license to operate her own club so she can leave Phil. Unbeknownst to Helen, Harry has one made by a two-bit forger. Helen’s classy joint is shut down before she can even open its doors.  

 

Phil and Kristo have already discussed ridding themselves of Harry the old-fashioned way: bumping him off. Harry’s big day expires in a puff of smoke. In a scuffle at Harry's gym–also an unauthorized operation–“The Strangler” taunts Gregorius. In a scuffle, Nikolas is thrown from the rink and breaks his wrist. An enraged Gregorius agrees on the spot to wrestle “The Strangler” by his rules. Oh-uh; that's Kristo's territory. Any big dreams Harry held vanish when Gregorius defeats “The Strangler,” but dies on a dressing room table moments later. After that, pretty much all of London except for Mary wants Harry’s hide, including Phil, Kristo, Helen, “The Strangler,” and the entire network of reward-seeking underworld rats. Henry will run, but odds are low that he can hide.

 

Much of the acting is melodramatic, but that’s how things were done in 1950. For what it’s worth, the three screen wrestlers also did so in real life (or unreal life, given that pro wrestling is no more authentic than a Nashville cowboy). On a more substantive level, the black-and-white used in the film is spectacular, especially Dassin’s use of contrast. Note the stripes of cool white slicing through murk like sunrays in a darkened cathedral. Dassin’s light palette compares with that used in Welles’ Touch of Evil, and that's quite a statement. Widmark is also brilliant. Viewers can tell he's a liar, but he has just enough off fast-talking smarm to hoodwink similarly edgy characters. When things go south, Widmark transforms into the equivalent of a wildebeest fleeing from a hungry lioness. Wanna bet on the outcome?

 

Rob Weir

6/2/21

The Mercies a Gripping Look at Witchcraft in 17th c. Norway

 

THE MERCIES (2020)

By Karen Millwood Hargrave

Little, Brown and Company, 352 pages.

★★★★★

 


 

 

Of all the books I read during the Covid lockdown, The Mercies might be my favorite. It would be best, though, to cast doubt on the book’s marketing. You will see it reviewed and advertised as a “feminist” novel. I can see how some would wish to label it as such, though it’s more akin to The Handmaiden’s Tale in that it probes the state-sanctioned subjugation of women.

 

At its core are a few historical facts. It is set in the island village of Vardø, which lies in the northern- and eastern-most extremes of Norway. In 1617, a sudden storm drowned most of the male population as they fished offshore. Meanwhile far to the south, in Denmark, King Christian IV–who ruled Norway, Denmark, and parts of Scotland–enacted laws the next year aimed at suppressing witchcraft. If you think that Salem was tragic, consider that the 1621 trials in Vardø and the nearby mainland town of Finnmark led to the deaths of 91 “witches,” 77 of whom were women.

 

Author Karen Millwood Hargrave divides The Mercies into three parts, beginning with “Storm.” In the 17th century, gender roles were prescribed not optional. Women were not legally allowed to fish, chop wood, or till fields, but what is to be done when the men are gone? Maren has lost her father, her brother, and her intended. She, her Sámi sister-in-law Diina, and villagers Sigfrid, Fru Olufsdatter, and Kirsten spearhead a move to do for themselves. This outrages traditionalist “kirke women” such as Toril who think that God and their local minister will provide until a new commissioner arrives. Most island women think, though, that when he finally arrives, “he will be like their minister, having as little impact as snow falling in the sea.” This is decidedly the most feminist section of the tale.

 

Hargave then cuts to Bergen in 1619, where Ursa tends to her twin sister, a consumptive, while their struggling shipbuilder father, a widower, worries that Ursa will be an old maid. He is ecstatic when he makes a match for her with Sir Absalom Cornet, a pious Scot, who will be the new commissioner in Vardø. Ursa is a city girl with no desire to head north and worries about her sister, but she has no voice in the matter. Cornet, though, is not–to allude to the quote above–the most impactful of men, especially in the bedroom. He’s not the top dog in Vardø; in old landowning systems, that role was filled by the lensmann, akin to a feudal lord. He too is stern Scotsman, John Cunningham, also known as Hans Koning.

 

“Arrival” details Ursa’s early days on Vardø and the campaign of Cornet–via Koning–to restore Christianity to the region, by breaking women’s self-sufficiency, obliterating Sámi symbols, and herding women back into church. And you can bet that notes are being kept on the six women who don’t attend, including Diina, whose steadfast refusal to step inside a kirke confirms Toril’s belief that all Sámi are witches. Ursa is at first socially isolated on Vardø, though hiring Maren as a housekeeper both gains her insight and a friend. Other revelations are both unsettling and imperiling.

 

“Hunt” is the novel’s most harrowing section, which is self-defining by the time it rolls around. It bears observing that these witch trials are at the hands of Lutherans–the state church in Norway­–not Catholics. It should also be noted that 17 of those who died were Sámi–formerly called Lapps–and that they remained second-class citizens into the 21st century and continue to battle for full equality.  

 

The Mercies is a nail-biting tale. As I suggested earlier, it’s a stretch to see it as feminist given its gruesome outcome. My sole critique of the book lies in a central relationship that tries too hard to be feminist and comes off as, at best, highly unlikely and, at worst, an anachronistic attempt to impose 21st century values upon the 17th. These matters are easy to overlook, though, given that Hargrave succeeds where too many fail. That is, she wraps long-ago historical events in homespun fictional yarn and makes them compelling.

 

Rob Weir

 

5/31/21

Judas and the Black Messiah: The Murder of Fred Hampton

 

 JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH (2021)

Directed by Shaka King

Warner Bros. Pictures, 126 minutes, R (language, violence)

★★★ ½ 

 


 
Observe as Republicans do everything they can to assure the assault on the US Capitol goes uninvestigated. See them pile onto the Blue Lives Matter bandwagon. Watch history repeat itself. In the 1960s, movements for social justice were routinely infiltrated by the FBI which, in turn, unleashed cops to make certain the power elite remained entrenched and threats to the status quo were eliminated.

 

The Black Panther Party (BPP) was among the compromised groups. The titular characters in Judas and the Black Messiah, are FBI informant Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and the target his puppet masters wish to put out of commission: Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the leader of the Illinois BPP. That task came to completion on December 4, 1969, when Chicago police broke into Hampton’s apartment, gunned down Mark Clark, and assassinated the sleeping Hampton. In 1982, the FBI and Chicago PD silenced their deeds via a $1.8 million settlement.

 

The film isn’t a Hampton biopic, rather a dramatic take on the days leading up to his death. He was a charismatic figure who built coalitions. We see Hampton cross barriers to ally the Panthers with rivals such as the Black Disciples, Latinos in the Young Lords, and the Young Patriots, transplanted white Southerners who flew Confederate flags. His biggest failure was with the territorial Blackstone Rangers, who are inexplicably called The Crowns in the film in a failed attempt to make them a composite of street gangs.

 

Hampton’s fall began with the car theft arrest of O’Neal, the details of which are altered in the film. O’Neal is handed a Hobbesian choice: go to the penitentiary, or infiltrate the Panthers and incriminate Hampton. O’Neal opted to stay on the street and accept payoffs from FBI contact Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). O’Neal rose in Black Panther ranks when Hampton was busted for allegedly mugging a Good Humor vendor. The presiding judge wanted to place Hampton on probation, but was pressured to impose a 2–5-year jail term at Hampton’s May 1969 sentencing. He made bail in August, was denied an appeal in November, and was assassinated weeks later. (O’Neal committed suicide in 1990.)

 

The film accurately reminds us that the BPP was also an effective grassroots social agency that distributed food and provided needed social services in poor areas. Much of what we see, though, is neither correct nor fanciful, but speculative. George Sams (Terayle Hill) is also pegged an FBI informant. He might have been, but that’s not certain. Likewise, director Shaka King and his crew backfilled Hampton’s relationship with Deborah Johnson–now Akua Njeri– (Dominique Fishback), who has steadfastly declined to comment on her relationship with Hampton, whom she married shortly after she became pregnant.

 

Some might accuse King of making the Panthers into justice-serving avengers by downplaying incidents in which they precipitated violence. In 1969, 14 police across the nation died in shootouts with the Black Panthers and in several instances, they were victims, not initiators. That was probably the case for two officers felled by BPP member Jake Winters (Algee Smith). Jimmy Palmer (Ashton Sanders) is a fictional character, but a total of 10 Panthers died during the period covered by the film, and Winters may have succumbed to blind rage as comrades died. The film also misleads in the mater of the Young Patriots. They come across as rednecks, but they were not exactly a 60s version of the Proud Boys; they leaned to the left, not the right.

 

Other such liberties are taken. None negate the fact that Hampton was executed, though the exact identity of his assassins remains so murky that script writers invented names for the badged killers. Hampton got it right when he said, “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.” But who’s your money on, ideological street warriors, or better-armed forces commanded by autocrats like J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen in a cameo) and Donald Trump?

 

Judas and the Black Messiah got six Academy Award nominations. Kaluuya deservedly won for his portrayal of Hampton, but it’s strange to get supporting actor hardware for what is obviously a lead role. (The film’s other Oscar win was for “Fight for You” as best original song.) Overall, Black Messiah is a good-but-uneven firm. Still, you should see it, learn about Fred Hampton, and understand how injustice festers like an open wound. Aside from Hampton’s demise, the saddest thing about the movie is that it feels more like today’s news than yesterday’s history.

 

Rob Weir

 

5/26/21

Run Katie Run: May 2021 Artist of the Month

Run Katie Run May 2021 Artist of the Month

 

RUN KATIE RUN

Running on Love

 


Among the things I admire about the band Run Katie Run is that their tunes never quite turn out the way you think they will. This Atlanta-based quintet consists of Kate Coleman (vocals), husband Corey Coleman (guitar), Adam Pendlington (guitar, banjo), Stephen Quinn (bass), and Ian Pendlington (drums). They often get classified as an Americana outfit, but that has a lot to do with not being able to find a peg with their name on it.

 

Kate Coleman–a Buffalo native–is the “Katie” at the center of things. “15 Minutes” opens like it’s a little folk ditty with Coleman playing the role of dainty chanteuse. Then you notice the lyrics are a bit skewed. Is this a song about how warmup groups only get 15 minutes to shine, a metaphor for a stale relationship, or both? Coleman’s voice shifts from fragile to probing and challenging. It’s not quite a boot in the backside, but the toe is arching upward. Coleman’s voice rises, jumps, and the emotions swell. And what do we make of the brief jam band-like electric guitar lines? Then we come full circle. Is Coleman having us on, or is something deeper unfolding? It’s a delight whatever else it might be. 

 

Coleman’s staccato cadences on “No Way Out,” an exploration of how the USA is on the fast track to nowhere, presages sprays of guitar notes and segues to ominous screams and near cacophony. But again, those big swells are followed by an amble back to a calmer place. “Stolen Time” is much gentler in theme–wanting to stay in that “stolen moment” that’s more certain than whether a couple is on a “staircase to the stars of freefall to Hell”­–but the arrangement is equal parts Dixie Chicks, nouveau punk, and indie rock.

 

The Run Katie Run is another opportunity for Coleman to air out her lungs. Its tune, like most on the six-track EP, is a pastiche that sometimes feels more San Fran than Nashville or Atlanta. Coleman lists Dolly Parton and Janis Joplin among her influences. She manages to capture a bit of each without sounding like either. Or maybe you’d prefer the funk/soul groove of “Stay or Leave,” or the uber-catchy hooks of “Kinda Hoping.” Your toes will tap to the latter no matter how hard you resist. And that’s another thing I like about Run Katie Run. They didn’t hook me at first, but they sure reeled me in.

 

Rob Weir

5/24/21

The Darkness Knows a Gripping Icelandic Mystery

 

THE DARKNESS KNOWS (2021)

By Arnaldur Indridason

Minotaur Books/St. Martin’s Press, 352 pages.

★★★★

 

 

Arnaldur Indridason is one of Iceland’s top crime fiction writers, and his newest novel, The Darkness Knows demonstrates why. Some readers might know his protagonist, Konrád, from Indridason’s The Shadow District (2017).

 

Konrád is retired, but he has trouble staying that way. To say that Konrád has issues is an understatement. Before his criminal father was murdered in an unsolved case, he sometimes used young Konrád as a foil in his schemes. With a background such as that, Konrád wasn’t always trusted by his colleagues when he became a cop and, given that he has a withered arm, he wasn’t exactly the usual physical candidate either. Konrád quit the force to care for his wife Erne, who died of cancer, but he’s still haunted from having cheated on her when she was ill. He also has a terse relationship with son Húgo, who is a cold fish, and is married to a woman Konrád finds overbearing, though he loves his twin grandkids. The latter are pretty much his sole joy.

 

To further complicate matters, a cold case–the disappearance of a man named Sigurvin in 1985–heats up when, courtesy of global warming, Sigurvin’s preserved body emerges from the melt on Langjökull glacier. This is especially unsettling as Konrád was part of the team that arrested Hjaltalín for Sigurvin’s murder 30 years earlier, though without a corpse, they couldn’t make the charges stick. Now Hjaltalín is back in jail and insists on speaking with Konrád. All the evidence then and now points to Hjaltalín, and though and he and Konrád don’t particularly like each other, Hjaltalín trusts him more than any other cop. Hjaltalín is dying from throat cancer, but he’s confessing to nothing. He wants Konrád to promise he will clear his name, though Konrád refuses as he’s sure the right man is in jail.

 

That last point is a Chekhov’s gun, of course. Against his better judgment, Konrád is sucked back into a case he wishes had stayed frozen. So how does a guy who has been off the force for six years even have the authority to investigate? He doesn’t, actually, though he calls upon a few favors. Even those are fraught: the pathologist with whom he had his affair, Reykjavik chief inspector Marta who puts him on a short leash, and several surly lower-level functionaries. Major obstacles remain. The lead investigator in 1985 despises Konrád and others on the force find him a nuisance. Plus, he’s an ex-cop so anyone who wishes to can simply slam the door on him and proceed to do exactly that. All the signs say that Konrád should walk away and if that’s not another Chekhov’s gun, old Anton was from Iowa.

 

Of course, Konrád doesn’t slink away, or this would be a 25-page novel. Things get messier when Konrád encounters a woman named Herdís who wants him to look into her brother Villi’s hit-and-run death in 2009. Herdís remembers that Villi met a man on the night Sigurvin disappeared and thinks something untoward occurred. If that’s not labyrinthine enough for you, Konrád imagines that perhaps his father’s murder in 1963 somehow connects to all of this. You might wonder how three killings spread over 46 can possibly be part of a pattern. Maybe they’re not. One of the intriguing things about the novel is that Konrád is the opposite pole from preternaturally prescient investigators. A big part of him still thinks that Hjaltalín is a guilty as an Icelandic summer is long. But it boils down a question of how he can possibly stay retired with three mysteries lying on the table like crack awaiting an addict’s nose.

 

By now you probably realize that Indridson favors complexity and damaged psyches over cookie cutter potboilers. Before The Darkness Knows wraps, it takes us many places. Hjaltalín’s dying refusal to provide an alibi for his whereabouts on the evening that Sigurvin was dumped into his glacial grave is evocative of the trial of the American labor troubadour Joe Hill. Indridson also steers us into fake spiritualism, seedy bars, the Boy Scouts, suicide, infidelity, and the Icelandic financial crash (2008-10). On that journey, Konrád encounters a gaggle of characters that range from the down-and-out and remorseful to the ominous and amoral. Like readers, Konrád is never sure what’s a real clue and what’s a red herring.

 

The Darkness Knows does employ several Chekhov’s guns that fire blanks. It stretches credulity that the mere discovery of Sigurvin’s body triggers memories that they did not 30 years earlier and with implausible vividness. As much as I appreciated the complexity of Indridson’s plotting, there is also a palpable sense that snipping several threads would have made for a tidier book. But I’ll take an intelligent mystery over one stuffed with clichés any day of the week.

 

 

Rob Weir

5/19/21

Despite Script Issues, The Big Sleep is Essential Film Noir

 

 

THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

Directed by Howard Hawks

Warner Brothers, 114 minutes, Not-rated.

★★★★

 

 

Raymond Chandler is among the most famous hardboiled detective fiction authors in American history. It was either his good fortune or curse–depending on your point of view–to have his 1939 debut novel made into a Hollywood movie. From the moment The Big Sleep hit the screen, Humphrey Bogart owned the role of private detective Philip Marlowe. This film is now regarded as both a film noir classic and one of the very best within that genre.

 

I’m not sure that I buy that assessment–the film version of Chandler’s novel was both tamed to comply with Hays Office censors and is often hard to follow–but there’s no denying its grit or the chemistry between Bogart and Lauren Bacall, who plays the role of Vivian Sternwood Rutledge. Speaking of the Hays Office, her sister and father bear the surname Sternwood. Vivian is divorced, but that’s scarcely mentioned as the subject was semi-taboo, so Hawks and a scriptwriting crew that included William Faulkner, simply wrote around it.

 

The Big Sleep is labyrinthian at times in part because it’s as much a pastiche of character studies as a murder mystery. Marlowe first appears at the Sternwood mansion to visit General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), who wants Marlowe to intervene in a mess involving his younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers). She has racked up considerable gambling debts with a bookseller named Geiger and there are also some incriminating photos of her being used by another lowlife, Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) to extort money from the general. (In the novel, Brody’s a porn dealer and Carmen has been photographed nude.) Oddly, though, General Sternwood seems more interested in the whereabouts of Sean Regan, a missing associate he’s been grooming. (Regan’s storyline lacks depth in the movie.)

 

Again, The Big Sleep is more about characters than linear plotlines, but what a collection of on-the-razor’s-edge toughs and wannabe toughs they are. Carmen is a piece of work to say the least. She cavorts with gangsters, parties hard, and is as moral as a rabbit in mating season. The first time she sees Marlowe she does everything except rip his pants off, though Marlowe sees her as the bad news she is and has eyes for her older sister Vivian. It seems our surly detective finds Vivian’s tart tongue and bad attitude a much more seductive form of foreplay than short skirts, home-hither glances, and sex kitten purring that would make Lolita blush.

 

What’s going on? Don’t ask the dame who runs Geiger’s bookstore/front (Dorothy Malone). She’s furtive, and she too likes the cut of Marlowe’s jib. The plot thickens when Geiger is murdered and Marlowe pulls a drugged Carmen from Geiger’s home just before the cops arrive. Liberties are taken with details, but in any Chandler novel the corpses tend to pile up. Carmen’s driver also meets him maker and it seems that all of the lowlife punks have connections to a bigger one, Eddie Mars (John Ridgely). Eddie has other axes to grind. His wife Mona (Peggy Knudsen) ran off with Regan. Somehow everything connects, though the only one that you can follow without your note cards is the connection forged between Marlowe and Vivian. As in all the best screen romances, though, theirs is a series of attract-repel dances.

 

Bogart and Bacall redeem what might otherwise have been a head-scratching film. As you might have inferred, the script is often muddier than a mutt rolling on a riverbank, but it’s easy to overlook in a film in which Bogart defined Philip Marlowe and Bacall embodied steaminess and exhaled cool air. As in most noir films, certain outcomes are dictated by the production code enforced by the Hays Office. Nonetheless, there is a rather surprise turnabout as the film draws to a close.

 

Even though I’d judge The Big Sleep as a cut below a masterpiece, it is essential viewing for anyone interested in film noir. It certainly looks the part in that it’s a lot more shadow than sunlight. You’ll also see how strong leads can compensate for script inconsistencies. And maybe you’ll learn that a big literary reputation (Faulkner) doesn’t always trump a great pulp writer (Chandler).

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

5/17/21

The Glass Kingdom: Intrigue in Bangkok

 

 

THE GLASS KINGDOM (2021)

By Lawrence Osborne

Random House, 304 pages

★★★

 


 
 

Tales of Westerners out of their depth in foreign climes spark comparisons to Graham Greene. That's unfair, given Greene’s exalted standing in the literary canon, but inevitable. The Glass Kingdom is a psychological mystery set in Thailand, presumably in recent times, though author Lawrence Osborne prefers inner histories to collective ones.

 

Because of its strategic importance during the Cold War, Westerners like to pretend that Thailand is a benevolent monarchy. That’s not true, but the romance of Bangkok and the pristine beaches of Phuket add to the tendency to ignore Thailand’s kleptocratic royals, the military’s iron grip upon the populace, and its seedy underbelly. The latter quality is why the novel’s thieving central character Sarah Mullins, finds it a good place to hide out as she plots her next move. The title derives its name from a once-posh-now-fading apartment tower complex. The fragility of glass is, of course, an obvious metaphor for things that easily shatter. Another is that what is seen clearly is often out of synch with what goes on behind drawn shades or in the shadows in the streets.

 

Sarah is a con artist who won the trust of April Laverty, an august but ageing novelist. Mullins forges documents, disguises herself, and absconds to Bangkok with a suitcase filled with an ill-begotten $200,000 from fake Laverty papers she sold to collectors. In Thailand, Sarah spends a lot of time on her own and it would have been better had she kept things that way. Instead, Sarah befriends several other women: Ximena, a Chilean-born chef; Mali, a Thai woman of uncertain virtue whose current beau is a Japanese businessman named Ryo; and Natalie, a British manager of Marriot properties married to Roland, a womanizer who might be some sort of diplomat. Several other characters come into Sarah’s orbit: the widowed Mrs. Lim, who owns the Glass Kingdom; Pop, the Kingdom’s Mr. Fix-it; a (maybe) blind woman who might or might not own a dog Mali claims is hers; and Goi, a local maid who also dabbles as a spy for anyone who wants to pay for information.

 

The strength of Osborne’s novel lies with his vivid descriptions of Thai society, Bangkok’s various pulses, and smoldering political intrigue. He also makes us see what Sarah, Ximena, and Natalie only glimpse: smiling exteriors of locals masking deep disdain for privileged, clueless Westerners who somehow believe money insulates them. I imagined parallels between Osborne’s Bangkok and Casablanca during World War II. Let us simply observe that morality, loyalty, and unimpeachable “official” reports were not the principal products of either locale.

 

All four women are imperiled, though not all realize it. Do we care? Not always. Sarah is very difficult to like. As if being a thief isn’t enough, she’s also vain and incredibly oblivious. On the last score, she’s an out-of-touch mammothrept that some readers may not find a credible character. That’s one reading; another is that she’s the Ugly American in heels; that is, an archetype of a Westerner who thinks she understands more than she does and desperately needs a weatherman to tell her which way the wind is blowing.

 

Osborne gives us numerous reminders that most of the book’s non-Thai characters are at sea, though their interactions with each are equally murky. In essence, Osborne surrounds shady people with shadier ones. The novel erodes with the monsoon floods when The Glass Kingdom ventures into things­ such as murder, disappearances, blackmail, multiple double crosses, and a gathering coup. As the Thai heat and sunshine begin to yield to torrential rain, are we to infer that glass kingdoms will be washed away? There is a stochastic quality to the last quarter of The Glass Kingdom because Osborne doesn’t close enough of the gap between the psychological interiority of his characters and the external capers, mysteries, and dangers into which they are immersed.

 

Call this one three-quarters Graham Greene. This makes it a very good effort, even though The Glass Kingdom doesn’t rise to penthouse level.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

5/14/21

Promising Young Woman: Mulligan is Great, the Film is Uneven

 

PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (2020)

Written and directed by Emerald Fennell

Focus Features, 113 minutes, R (sexual situations, drug use, violence)

★★★

 

 

 

This one could be subtitled “How Cassie Lost Her Mojo.” On paper, Cassandra Thomas (Carey Mulligan) has it all. She’s brainy, quick-thinking, beautiful, and comes from a good family. So why is she a 30-year-old medical school dropout, living at home, with no partner, and working in a dead-end job as a barista?

 

Promising Young Woman tackles the serious social problem of spirited girls and young women hollowed out by trauma. In Cassie’s case, it’s not she who was victimized, rather her best friend Nina. We never meet Nina, but we know that something bad happened to her that so scarred Cassie that she chucked her promise and withdrew into a cynical shell. Her parents (Clancy Brown and Jennifer Coolidge) can’t crack that shell, and even her boss Gail (Laverne Cox), the closest thing she has to a friend, finds her perplexing. Nor do they know about her extracurricular activities. Cassie goes to clubs and bars, feigns extreme drunkenness, goes home with strange men, and scares the crap out of them when they discover she’s stone-cold sober and psycho-like menacing.  

 

From this we infer that Cassie fancies herself an avenging angel. Promising Young Woman deals with a he said/she said situation in which “she” isn’t believed. Not by a female law school dean (Connie Britton), not by men Cassie once considered friends, not by her female colleagues, and certainly not by the attorney (Alfred Molina) who eviscerated the victim and made her look like the little girl who cried wolf. Some of you might recognize the name Cassandra from Greek mythology. She was the Trojan prophetess whose curse was that she always told the truth, but no one believed her. Cassie has a tale to tell, but no one wants to hear it.

 

Maybe Cassie should do as another character (Molly Shannon) tells her to do: move on. When she meets the quirky, take-it-slow Dr. Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham), she starts to do exactly that. But when she hears that Dr. Al Monroe (Chris Lowell) is getting married, things go very, very wrong. Cassandra morphs into Pandora and opens dangerous boxes filled with things that she would have been better off not knowing.

 

Mulligan was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role as Cassie. She didn’t win, but she certainly deserved to be considered. She strikes two contradictory chords. When she dons her nighttime warrior princess battle paints to haunt bars, she’s slutty and crazed; when she moves through the day, she is alluring and has just enough radiance peeking through that everyone wants to help her out of her rut. Maybe the real Cassie consists of both sides, but Mulligan keeps us guessing which part of her will prevail. Burnham also walks a thin line. In his case, we wonder if he’s an adorable goofball, or a man who is too good to be true. Promising Young Woman is essentially a two-person dance in which the rest of the cast contribute flesh-out-the-script cameos.

 

Would that the film matched its central performances. This is 35-year-year-old Emerald Fennell’s directorial debut and she has a good-but-not-great grasp on her task. Aspects of the story, central mystery, and lead performances are strong, but the total package is a neither fish nor fowl production that ultimately tantalizes but disappoints. I’m being literal about its essential lack of identity. You will see Promising Young Woman labeled as a feminist movie, a thriller, a drama, and a black comedy. It has dimensions of each, but let me ask this question. If you tried to make a mash of The Brave One, 9 to 5, Hard Candy, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, what would it look like? And what if I asked you to add elements of Thelma and Louise and Joker?

 

Promising Young Woman is too good to dismiss, but you’d have to stretch the definition to call it feminist, rachet the fear factor to label it a thriller, smooth out its tone for it to be a drama, and the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to laughter. I’d add that lord knows men have a lot to answer for, but I’m not convinced that replacing stereotypes against women with those directed against men is much more than polishing a different boilerplate.

 

Rob Weir