4/17/24

Music for April 2024: Otava Yo, Steve Martin, Robby Hecht, Afro-Semitic Experience and more


 

 


I avoided Russian music in protest against the war in Ukraine until I came upon the St. Petersburg-based Otava Yo whose spearhead, Alexey Belkin, also opposes the war; he has a Ukrainian mother and a Latvian wife. Otava Yo has suspended concerts in Russia because of the war, a gutsy move given Putin’s iron hand and a reduced opportunity to shop its new recording Loud and Clear. I don’t speak a word of Russian, but I can tell you it’s one it’s an exciting record. The band is often called a folk rock band because of its emphasis on traditional music. In Belkin’s words, “[in] turbulent times … [when] everything we know literally crumbles before our eyes,” a return to heritage reinvigorates. (They also add modern touches.)

 

Otava Yo display an array of expected instruments–fiddles, guitar, bass, drums–but also those less familiar: glockenspiel, fife, gusli (a psaltery in the zither family), zhaleika (a type of hornpipe), and volynka (Russian bagpipes). Add the female vocal ensemble Vasilisa and the result is something that sounds like a hybrid of Swedish folk/grunge band Garmarna and the high-octane vocals of Finland’s Värttinä. Try “Don’t You Fly, Nightingale” for robust singing. Though it’s one of the more “subdued” pieces on the album you can see and hear what Belkin means about leaning on tradition during trying times. “This One” gives insight into their goofy sense of humor and how a gusli integrates into a tune. For crashing sounds, lusty voices, bagpipes and psychedelic fiddles, “Good Evening” will get you energized. “Timonia” reminds me of Quebeçois music when the performers decide to go full-scale insouciant. It’s over the top, but in a good way! I love Otava Yo and Loud and Clear is my album of the month.

 

 


I vividly recall when Steve Martin did a standup act at my Pennsylvania college before  he was a big star He was so funny that we rolled out thinking, “Who is this guy?” Back then, he had a banjo as comic prop. It’s no longer a secret that he really knows how to play it. If you’ve not gotten the word, listen to him exchange licks with Grammy Award bluegrass banjo artist Alison Brown, mandolin wizard Sam Bush, and Grammy Award fiddler Stuart Duncan. Martin even handles the vocals on “Bluegrass Radio” on a new Compass Records release.

 

 


New Haven-based Afro-Semitic Experience began as the meeting of two jazz-infused minds, African-American pianist Warren Byrd and bass player David Chevan, a white Jew. It grew into a movable feast of up to eight musicians in a mixed-race ensemble that ventures into jazz, funk, world music, swing, group singing, and social justice offerings. You’ll hear most of them on My Feet Began to Pray, words attributed to the late Representative John Lewis when he was a young man on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery. The band commemorates that episode, all so traumatic back then but now a pivotal moment that justifies the group’s sunny  treatment. Check out Byrd leading the band in “Unity in the Community,” which has a decided Black church feel. Then duck into the synagogue for “Rakhmones Nign,” rakhmones being Yiddish for mercy or empathy. “Moanin’” opens with some scat and sways into bebop-influenced jazz with sizzling horns and swinging keys. Get the picture?

 



Anandi is the one-name handle for Portland, Oregon-based jazz singer Anandi Gefroh. A Better Way is jazz-based but contains message music, some rock instrumentation, and tinges of pop. Anandi is Sanskrit for bliss and she brings that, her yoga practices, and her devotion to social justice to the fore. The title track, for instance, probes homelessness and poverty. Producer/keyboardist Greg Goebel lays down solid hooks that add drama to Anandi’s simple-yet-profound condemnation of the status quo: There’s got to be a better way. She gives a big-vocal bluesy soul treatment to “Truth, Peace, and Solitude,” a call to balance body, soul, and mind. Other songs are reverential (“Mandela”), reminders that love can be like Kahlil Gibran’s A Tear and a Smile (“Pleasure With the Pain”), and pleading with a scintilla of common sense (“Please Don’t Go to Bed Angry”). She also does a jazz cover of Jim Pepper’s “Witchi Tai To,” widely regarded to as the first Native American hit single back in 1969. You can decide what you think of a non-Native woman covering a peyote ritual chant. 

  


Robby Hecht
titled his new release Not a Number. It’s the title track as well, his attempt to put faces on the Covid’s human toll. His echoey guitar is designed to haunt and hurt. In numerous ways, the same sentiments are personalized elsewhere. This album deals with other forms of misfortune, disappointment, and struggle: divorce, sadness, recovery…. Hecht’s voice is perfect for conveying poignancy–sweet, but with a hint of pain. Note the content and video visuals of “Someone to Dance With.” He sings: I’m trying as hard as I can/To follow the steps of my well-rehearsed plan/To keep my wingtips on the ground/But up in my head I’m spinning around. The vid ends with dog adoption, but I’m pretty sure that’s not the dance he envisioned whilst acting as the proverbial third wheel. “Old Radio” is surface nostalgia, but its folk-styled wistfulness suggests both memory and yearning. As a transition Hecht offers a mirthful homage to “Tattoos.” That’s not my thing, but if it’s yours it’s show-and-tell time. I’m always a fan of well-crafted songs, though, and Hecht delivers.

 



If you don’t know the difference between bluegrass and “old-time” music, the first is recently composed and slicker, whereas the second is traditional and more raw. Listen to Molsky’s Mountain Drifters for a clinic in the latter. Bruce Molsky plays banjo, guitar, and fiddler but it’s the last of these in which he’s in the upper crust. Hence,  in his trio work Molsky leaves the banjo and guitar in the capable hands of Allison de Groot and Stash Wyslouch respectively. All of their recordings are wonderful but I recently took advantage of a two-for-one offer to score Closing the Gap and the eponymously titled Molsky’s Mountain Drifters. Theirs is Appalachian music stripped to its basics, yet filled with verve, energy, and expert musicianship. “There’s a Bright Side Somewhere” ought to get you sashaying. If you know the folk standard “Stewball,” “Old Kimball” is closer to its root. “Old Jawbone” is pure infectious hills music and “Cumberland Gap” is a classic Americana tune.  There’s lots more you can find online to whet your appetite.   

 

Rob Weir

4/15/24

A Novel for Jackie Robinson Day

 


 

 Double Play (2004)

By Robert B. Parker

G. P. Putnam & Sons, 288 pages

★★★ ★

 

A few weeks ago I reviewed Mortal Stakes, an older Robert Parker Spenser mystery with baseball at its center. I noted that the late Parker was a baseball fan. Later he wrote Double Play, an unusual book that’s part memoir, part history, and part fiction. Its pivotal character is Jackie Robison who, in 1947, broke the color barrier that had been in place in Major League Baseball since the 1887.

 

Fact: When Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he received death threats. Just how credible they were versus demented posturing by cowardly White racists is a hotly contested topic, but they were enough of them that they could not be ignored. Fact: Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1932, and spent much of his life in Boston, but was devoted to the Dodgers. The memoir voice of “Bobby” in Double Play is a thinly disguised homage to his childhood memories. Fiction: Robinson never had a White bodyguard named Joseph Burke.

 

Double Play is as much about Burke as Robinson. Parker was nine when World War II began and filtered his memories of the 1940s through Burke, a young man who hastily marries an older woman before heading off to war. He survives Guadalcanal, though he took five machine gun bullets and nearly died. Burke musters out and returns home to find his wife has left him. Burke is hollowed out by all of it: war, the metal in his body, his father’s death, divorce…. He copes by feeling nothing, caring about nothing, and saying as little as possible. He (like Parker) does a stint as a boxer, though he’s more of a brawler than a ring artiste. Through all of the character development Parker gets the rhythms and moods of the period letter-perfect: the movies, how the Japanese are reconfigured as “Japs,” the music, the tough guys and celebs at Toots Shor’s New York restaurant, USO shows, clothing….

 

Burke becomes a tough guy for hire and has no moral qualms about who pays his meal ticket. He signs on to chauffer/babysit 18-year-old Lauren, the daughter of Julius Roach, who has a fondness for bad boys. Her current obsession is Louis Bouciault, the spoiled son of another gangster. This doesn’t work out according to script, but his demeanor and work ethic leads Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey to hire him as Jackie Robinson’s bodyguard. Although the book is titled Double Play–a double entendre of the baseball term and criminal double crosses–there is enough intrigue that it could have just as easily been called Triple Play and even that might not cover it. Niceties go out the window when thugs are embarrassed and word on the street is that one spurned wise guy wants to take out Robinson.

 

Parker presents the Burke/Robinson relationship as fraught by indifference on Burke’s part and prideful distrust on Robinson’s. Burke has one job: Keep Jackie safe and he couldn’t care less about what Robinson thinks. Robinson, a Black man, views Burke as just a piece of White muscle. Well, we kind of know how that is going to change. Parker wrote a piece of what we now call alt.history wrapped inside his remembrances and an imagined mystery. It’s filled with contrivances–a good kid ruined by war, a damaged man redeemed by love, turf battles, two gun men on opposite sides who bond, the don’t- mess-with-family rule of thugs–yet somehow Parker makes it work.

 

Double Play, like most of Parker’s books, is a quick read. It might have been his singular talent to make his tales so breezy that readers are spirited along and don’t dwell on the unlikely. Call it an impressionistic novel that evokes the time period and gives a sense of what Jackie Robinson endured before he became an American icon. Read it in that spirit.

 

I emphasize again that this is not a true story in any literal sense. If you want an actual Robinson biography, I recommend Jules Tygiel, Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy. If, on the other hand, you want a thrilling read and some insight into how a Springfield White kid was transfixed and transformed by a Black man wearing an MLB uniform, Double Play is your ticket.

 

Rob Weir

4/12/24

Phil Spector: Reasonable Doubt?

 

 

Phil Spector (2013)

Directed by David Mamet

HBO, 92 minutes, Not-rated (strong language, murder gore)

★★★ ½

 

I avoided Phil Spector when it came out in 2013. Like many people, Spector (1939-2021) struck me as a creep, independent of his two trials for the murder of actress Lana Clarkson. I wasn’t alone. In many ways, those who reviled Spector presaged how the public would later regard Harvey Weinstein–right down to the coincidence that Spector’s given first name (which he seldom used) was also Harvey.

 

A better way of considering Spector is whether he was his generation’s Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. If that fails to ring any bells, Arbuckle was a major movie personality in the silent era until he was accused of the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe. He was acquitted after three trials (1921-23), but Arbuckle’s reputation lay in tatters and he was informally blacklisted. David Mamet, who wrote and directed Phil Spector, asks viewers to consider whether Spector was indeed like Arbuckle–perhaps an innocent man. Sort of. Mamet hedged his bets by prefacing the film with the statement, “This is a work of fiction. It is not ‘based on a true story.’” That disclaimer alone helps explain why Phil Spector got reactions that ranged from okay or tepid to outrage that Mamet would deign to rewrite history.

 

I’d rate it PG, for Pretty Good. But make no mistake; Phil Spector was not a nice man. He was a bombastic egoist, a foul-mouthed jerk, an autocrat, a gun nut, abusive, a druggie, and as modest as Donald Trump. Though rich as Croesus, Spector quite possibly suffered from for-real delusions of grandeur. Yet, the unassailable fact is that he was a musical genius. From 1962 into the 21st century, Spector produced, played with, and wrote for a veritable who’s who of pop and rock n’ roll luminaries: The Beatles, Cher, Leonard Cohen, Dion, Ben E. King, The Plastic Ono Band, The Ramones, The Righteous Brothers, The Ronettes, Ike and Tina Turner…. The list goes on and on.

 

Like Arbuckle, though, Spector’s legacy is unlikely to recover fully from what did (or didn’t) happen the night of February 3, 2003, when Clarkson was inside of Spector’s mansion and died from a bullet to her head. Spector infamously remarked that Clarkson “kissed the gun.” The possibilities were an intentional suicide, an unintentional suicide, an intentional murder, or a night of drinking and drug-taking in which the facts were fungible. No wonder it took four years for the case to come to trial.

 

Mamet wrote a mix of a play, cinéma véritié, and alt-history that focuses on the first trial in 2007. Defense attorney Bruce Cutler (Jeffrey Tambor) has serious doubts about Spector’s guilt based on the path of the gunshot and blood splatter. He attempts to recruit his high-powered colleague Linda Kenney Baden (Helen Mirren) for his legal team. Two problems. First, she’s sick as a dog and second, she thinks Spector is guilty. That is, until she meets Spector (Al Pacino) and looks at the evidence. She’s not charmed–she knows he’s a sexist megalomaniac–but she’s savvy enough to realize that the case against Spector is riddled with reasonable doubt. Mamet’s script zeroes in on the cat-and-mouse relationship between Spector and Kenney Baden as they play intellectual games–neither of them willing to yield an inch.

 

Those who felt Mamet ignored prosecutor arguments and tried to whitewash Spector overlook the facts that Mamet based much of the script on actual court records and that Kenney Baden did raise enough reasonable doubt that the first trial ended in a hung jury. She was unavailable for the second trial in 2009 in which Spector was found guilty and sentenced to 19 years to life.

 

Did Mamet play fast and loose with facts? Check it out for yourself and decide, but do so with the mindset that under American law, a loathsome person is not necessarily a murderer. How would you define reasonable doubt? If you’re not buying it, enjoy cameo roles from Chitwel Ejiofor, Linda Miller (as Ronnie Spector), Rebecca Pidgeon, and Mamet’s daughter Clara. Not to mention riveting and intense lead performances from Mirren and Pacino.

 

Rob Weir

4/10/24

Mudbound Deserves a Wider Audience


 

 

Mudbound (2017)

Directed by Dee Rees

Netflix, 134 minutes, R (violence, brief nudity, language)

★★★★★

 

Mudbound is a superb, well-reviewed film that was nominated for numerous awards. Too bad almost no one has seen it. It had a budget of over $10 million but earned just $117,000 in limited release. Ouch!

 

An obvious suspect for this is racism, but a few other factors were at play. In 2017, the only known star power was Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige, though the latter wasn’t known for her acting chops. A second factor is that wider release plans got scuttled when Covid hit. Third, it’s set right after World War II, which is ancient history for younger viewers and its 134-minute length (sadly) runs counter to audience attention spans.

 

Mudbound is a powerful look at the deep background of modern racial tension and resonates with recent trauma of African Americans being harassed and/or killed by police. The difference is that in the immediate postwar period, a lot of White authority figures wore Ku Klux Klan robes. The film revolves around two families. The McAllans are White. Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) uproots his family–wife Laura (Mulligan), his two daughters, and his father, “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks)–to rural Mississippi. When his first plan goes awry, Henry relocates a second time–to Delta cotton-growing land he claims as his, though a local Black family, the Jacksons, have been working it as theirs. Not that their deed meant a thing versus a White man’s claim.

 

Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Blige) know better than to push back in Klan-riven Mississippi where Black folks are routinely saddled with the N-word, especially by the bilious Pappy. For the sake of their children at home and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) who is fighting in Europe, they bite their tongues and say “Yes, sir” and “Yes, m’am” to all demands placed on them. Laura is a dutiful wife, though she’s often at odds with her unexciting, commanding, aloof, and racist husband. Yet even she makes demands upon Florence that are polite but unintentionally clueless.

 

As the McAllan/Jackson dynamic plays out at home, Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) is flying B-25 bombers and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) is driving tanks across Europe in advance of General Patton. By the time VE Day rolls around, Jamie shows symptoms of what we now call PTSD, which he proceeds to drown in booze. Ronsel, on the other hand, has taken up with a White German-speaking woman and has been treated well in Europe. He can’t adjust to the reality that his wartime gallantry means nothing in Mississippi, where he’s “boy,” not “Sergeant Jackson.” That immediately lands him into trouble with Pappy and local good ‘ole boys.

 

Against all odds, Jamie and Ronsel bond. Like many vets, their battle experiences transcend race­. Jamie’s life was saved by a Black pilot; Ronsel had White friendships. Ronsel realizes that theirs is dangerous camaraderie–he has to duck down when riding in Jamie’s truck–but he can talk to Jamie about things he can’t with his folks. Can a hard-drinking, devil-may-care White Southern kid from a racist family be a true friend to an articulate Black man who dreams of going back to Europe? It has long been said that racism damages racists and their targets alike. Both the McAllans and the Jacksons have their crosses to bear. Hubris will visit Henry; sorrows the Jacksons.

 

Mudbound is an apt title. There is a lot of actual sucking mud in the film, but the title also implies the mudsill theory. Among contractors the mudsill is the load-bearing first layer above a foundation; in society it’s the idea that some groups–people of color, recent immigrants, the poor, women–bear the social weight of all those above them. If you know your history, you recognize a long and ongoing civil rights struggle loomed on the horizon. So too did second-wave feminism. Mulligan foreshadows the latter.

 

Mudbound is an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 debut novel, not a real-life tale. Both Jordan and director Dee Rees did, however, have Depression-era photographs from Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein in mind in capturing the look of the Delta. Jordan also drew on a Life Magazine essay by African American photographer Gordon Parks, whose pen was as sharp as his eye. Maybe they, an English woman (Mulligan), and an Aussie (Clarke) can help Americans remove their remaining blinders.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

4/8/24

Godland is Slow, but Masterful

 


Godland (2022)

Directed by Hlynur Pálmason

Sena/Scanbox Entertainment, 142 minutes, Not rated

In Danish and Icelandic with subtitles

★★★★★

 

I recently reviewed Ordet, a classic film about religious fanaticism and mental instability in 1920s Denmark. Apparently the Danes are not quite done with the topic. Godland could be seen as a sequel set in Iceland and filmed in color. It’s an amazing film for those with patience.

 

The film has religious subtexts, but the Danish title Vanskabte land means “malformed land,” an excellent way to approach a film with the externals of religion but with hidden motives at its core. Lucas (Elliott Crosset Hove), a pious young Lutheran priest, is on a mission to build a church in eastern Iceland where Christianity’s hold is tenuous.

 

Lucas insists on traveling overland through the sparsely-populated, glacier-filled treacherous middle of Iceland, ostensibly because he wants to get to know the land. In truth, he’s an amateur photographer looking for subject material. His eight plates are used as a ”hook,” often as film transitions. It is the 19th century, a time in which Iceland was still a Danish territory. Many Icelanders distrust the Danes, most of whom are like Lucas and don't bother to learn Icelandic.

Hardship akin to those in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) plague the trek eastward including the loss of Lucas’ translator. This puts him at the mercy of expedition leader Ragnar (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who thinks Lucas is a fool to insist on lugging a heavy box camera, glass plate negatives, and chemicals through snowmelt rivers and dangerous terrain. Ragnar also dislikes Danes, claims to speak no Danish, and sees Lucas as arrogant. He senses there’s something a bit off about Lucas.

The intrepid band make their way to their destination, a remote coastal outpost whose rawness is evocative of a frontier settlement. The only form of transportation is on the back of (smaller-framed) Icelandic horses and, of course, Lucas doesn’t know how to ride. The area is jaw-dropping awesome and contrasts with the austerity of the homes, fragile gardens, and close-to-the-vest lifestyles of local inhabitants. Remember that the Danish title refers to malformed land. It is beautiful enough to invoke divine creation, but is also unforgiving–as viewers will see in several stark examples. One could, if one wished, evoke divinity in the contrast between the largeness and power of the land versus the vulnerability of diminutive humans within it.

Lucas is greeted by Carl (Jacob  Lohmann), the father of two lovely daughters, Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne) and younger Ída (Ída Mekkin Hlynsdðttir). (Ída, the real-life offspring of director Hlynur Pálmason, is a spunky, blonde, pig-tailed delight.) Carl is glad to welcome a proper priest, but he too experiences nagging discomfort around him, especially when he realizes there is frisson between Lucas and Anna. Lucas is the very embodiment of presumption of moral and ethnic superiority. He’s a priest, not a minister, in the stern Protestant Lutheran hierarchy of the day. We see him refuse to perform a wedding because the church has not been finished. (No matter, we watch the villagers having a better time reverting to folk customs.) Lucas also tries to remain aloof, as if village life is somehow beneath him.  

On the micro level, Godland is about Lucas’ tortured soul, the gap between his outward beliefs and his not-so-righteous pride, desires, and anger. The film adds a macro perspective in that it is also about culture clash dressed in the garb of Lucas and Ragnar–each in his own way deceitful and stubborn. Observe the old proverb pride goeth before a fall come into play. Iceland was formed by volcanos and is home to active ones. Early on we see an eruption in the distance; it foreshadows the violence that ensues.

The cinematography of Maria Von Hausswolff is so stunning that she rightly won awards for it. What is particularly noteworthy about her work on Godland is that hers is a mix of grandeur–sweeping vistas, angled aerial shots, changes in lighting to evoke weather and moods–and of stillness. I implied that some will find the film slow of pace. In part that’s because Von Hausswolff often allows the camera to dwell on small things, such as vegetation, marshes, or the sea before panning ever so slowly. We wonder what will be revealed and that’s exactly why she did it! Take your time and appreciate this wondrous film.

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4/5/24

Out of the Past a Masterful Film Noir

 


 

 

Out of the Past (1947)

Directed by Jacques Tourneur

RKO Radio Pictures, 97 minutes, Not-rated

★★★★★

 

It's not exactly classified information that I’m a film noir fan. Somehow, though, I managed to overlook Out of the Past. Having now seen it, I wonder how it escaped previous notice. It's not merely good; it's one of the best film noir classics ever made–providing you let you let yourself roll with 1940s gender assumptions.

 

We come in on a small gas station in Bridgeport, California, a real hamlet south of Lake Tahoe near the Nevada border. Joe Stefanos (Paul Valentine) stops and asks if owner Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) is around. He doesn't get much information from the attendant (Dickie Moore) for the simple reason that he is suspicious, plus he’s deaf and mute. Jeff is actually fishing in a Sierra Nevada-fed river with his new squeeze Ann Miller (Virginia Houston). Her folks don't trust Jeff, but she's crazy about him, though he's a guy who doesn't say much about his past.

 

That past is about to catch up with him. When Stefanos finally locates Jeff he delivers the message that Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) wants to see him immediately. On the way to Whit’s spectacular cliff compound, Jeff spills the beans to Ann about his pre-Bridgeport life. Given that we are watching film noir, you know there a woman was involved. And how!

 

We learn that several years earlier Whit hired Jeff, whose real surname is Markham, to locate his girlfriend. Jeff is a private detective in partnership with another gumshoe named Jack Fisher (Steve Brody), but this time Jeff is going solo. Whit, a wealthy gambler–read a crooked one­–wants Jeff to locate Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer).

 

Jeff finds her in Acapulco and understands immediately why Whit wants her back even though she shot him four times and absconded with $40,000 of his money. Jeff violates rule number one of the private detective business, which is don’t fall for the dame you’re hired to find! Of course, it’s almost de rigueur he will in such films. Kathie is a va-va-voom knockout with a sob story that Jeff swallows like a hungry brook trout. Can you say femme fatale? Better say it twice as Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming), the secretary for corrupt lawyer Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), spins yarns of woe and entrapment just as well as Kathie.

 

Out of the Past takes convoluted twists involving tax fraud, murder, an affidavit, and a veritable Russian roulette of who's playing whom. Can a hard broiled ex-P.I. redeem himself in a small town and in the arms of a wholesome lass that's everything Kathie isn't? I will reveal only that this well-scripted screenplay came from Daniel Mainwaring. He uses stock characters but builds a plot filled with surprises that make it much more than a schmaltzy vamp versus good girl saga. At one point there's an unusual line uttered by Jeff. Rather than saying he's caught between a rock and a hard place, he says, “Build my gallows high.” That's a wink and a nod to Mainwaring whose book of that title was adapted for Out of the Past.

 

The film is very well acted. The blocky Mitchum spends a lot of time filling out a trench coat that could have been rented from central casting. We see Mitchum hatted, wearing his belted calf-length coat, and through a haze of cigarette smoke that suggests he’s not telling us everything. Kirk Douglas is so oily we expect droplets to cascade from his dimple. Jane Greer and Rhonda Fleming wear exactly what you'd expect sexy glam gals to wear, whereas Virginia Huston is more the plaid shirt and overalls type. But don't get hung up on externals as each delivers compelling performances, even though Huston’s part is a bit underwritten.

 

Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca masters darkness, as one would expect in a noir film, but check out what he does with backlighting. This is especially the case of Greer as she floats in and out of dark Mexican bars and of Mitchum, who is often filmed from behind with his trench coat absorbing ambient light.

 

Post when you've seen it. I'd like to know what you think of the ending.

 

Rob Weir

4/3/24

Cleo from 5 to 7 Dated, but Has Virtues

 


 

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Directed by Agnès Varda

Athos Films, 90 minutes, Not-rated

In French with subtitles, Black and white

★★★

 

In its day, this Agnès Varda film was considered so pathbreaking that it was considered one of the greatest films ever made by a female director. Key phrase: in its day. It hasn’t weathered very well in all regards, though it still has its virtues.

 

This was Varda’s first full-length film and established her cred with the French New Wave movement. Like others of that genre it broke with traditional narratives, interjected social issues, and dealt more with the inner lives of its subjects. Cléo from 5 to 7 has the additional break from “movies” in that it is cinéma vérité, meaning in this case that it has the feel of a documentary. This is understandable as Varda had previously been a photojournalist.

 

The title has nothing to do with a young girl. The film looks at two hours in the life of Cléo Victoire (Corrine Marchand). She is a famous pop singer who keeps a boudoir to which men flock as if she were a high-class madam. Cléo is suffering from ennui for reasons her lover and hangers-on cannot cure. First of all, there is a possibility that she has stomach cancer–an eventuality made all-too-conceivable by a visit to a tarot card reader in which her cards pop up in succession as The Hangman and Death. Second, she is tired of being a commodity and has come to doubt her own identity. When she changes from her lounge clothing, takes off her wig, and scrubs her face a fresh-looking and beautiful young woman emerges, yet when she goes into a café and plays her own record on the juke box, no one recognizes her.

 

Cléo cannot deal with the very idea of having cancer. She seeks out her friend Dorothée, a nude model at an art studio, who tries to divert Cléo by driving through Paris–she’s a new driver, so that’s a thrill in itself–and by taking her to see a silly silent movie, one in which of all people, Jean-Luc Godard appears. Her friend tells her that all will be well, but Cléo sinks further into her anxieties and vows to kill herself if she has cancer.

 

A funny thing happens on the way to the clinic to get her test results. She wanders into a park and encounters a young man named Antoine who has no idea who she is and doesn’t care. He is on leave from the Algerian War, a very traumatic event in French history that collapsed the French Fourth Republic and led to Algerian independence the year Cléo from 5 to 7 came out. The irony of this would not have been lost on French viewers of the day, nor would the 30,000 French war dead be far from anyone’s mind. (Algerian casualties were approximately 10 times higher.)

 

In essence, both Cléo and Antoine have a profound sense they might be living on borrowed time. She has worked herself into a frenzy over the idea, but he is stoic and determined to enjoy the short time before he must report back to duty. Varda’s film takes on a sheen of a one-hour affair, but an intellectual and emotional one, not a sexual tryst. Amazingly, there is something very sensual about a joyful streetcar ride and walking together across the hospital grounds.

 

 Cléo from 5 to 7 is a mannered film, not an action movie. Varda would have dismissed the very thought of making the latter as banal. The more one ponders the film, the more it becomes subtly profound. It’s a macabre game we’ve all probably played at some point in our lives. If you knew you had two hours before a death sentence was announced, how would you spend them? Varda gives it a more profound twist in that neither principal knows if the Hangman is coming.

 

It must be said that today’s viewers will have trouble relating to 1962 gender dynamics. All I can say to that is different time/different values. But kudos to a bit of Varda sneakiness. She employs a documentary approach to Cléo’s two hours in a tidy 90 minutes!

 

Rob Weir

4/1/24

Are You Ready to Travel to... Medieval England?

 


 

How to Survive in Medieval England (2021)

By Toni Mount

Pen & Swords Books, 144 pages + end matter

★★★★

 

I first encountered Toni Mount via an Ashland Public Library online talk. I enjoyed it so much that I read her book How to Survive in Medieval England. Dr. Who fans know about his TARDIS phone booth/time machine. What if we had such a device and could travel back to medieval England? What would we need to know to survive? Where would we live? What would we wear? What would we eat? What other small things do we need to know lest we get in serious trouble? The TARDIS is a hokey hook, but it works because Mount has such fascinating tidbits to impart.

 

First of all, brush up on Middle English and local dialects. If you are learned or of noble blood (both of which are unlikely) you’ll need Latin and maybe some Old French. Learn the proper terms for things. Ask for the “bill  (of fayre) when you arrive and the “reckoning” to pay. Have the proper money—silver pence and marks mostly–because modern money is no good there and for sure your credit isn’t either. Make sure you are dressed properly for a person of your station. Do not wear blue or purple unless you can prove your elite status or are ready to relinquish liberty or life. Wear a proper cap and be prepared to doff it, lower your eyes, and bend you knees early and often. If you’re not sure if you must, do it anyhow; you can’t be too careful. Don’t expect friendly locals to help you; they are suspicious of all strangers and you will surely be considered as such. Do not say, “I swear...” as you are in danger of being blasphemous.

 

You will be expected to be a good Christian; there is no such thing as opting out of religion. Assuming you are accepted into a community you can rest assured you will be noticed if you skip services. You will probably be poor so be prepared to live in a one-room hovel with an open fire and a hole in the roof through which some of the smoke escapes. You will sleep on a sack stuffed with something soft if you’re lucky, but it will probably be husks. You will share your hovel with various insects and, in cold weather, livestock. That’s not too bad, as their dung will help fertilize your garden. Know your plants; some will help toothaches and cuts; some will poison you. 

 

Keep up with fashion, as it changes. Ladies will be surprised to find that, in addition to outward layers, you will also wear bras and panties. You need layers by the way, because the only garments you will wash with regularity are those worn closest to the skin. Lots of women wear aprons to protect clothing from pills, dirt, and splashes. You will wash your hands, face, and neck regularly but you will stink. You’ll get used to it because everyone else, including nobles, are rank as well.

 

Have you worked up an appetite? Bread and ale will be your staples. Your bread will certainly be burnt on the bottom, but you’ll eat it. Only the “upper crust” get unburnt bread. You will likely take your turn brewing ale for the village, as it only lasts for a fortnight. It will be weak. That’s a good thing as you’ll drink a lot of it; water is untreated and can make your sick. You will also consume a lot of pottage, basically a grain gruel with some salt and whatever vegetables and pulses you can throw in. You’d be surprised at how yummy properly done stinging nettles can be. You’ll probably keep a pig for some protein and perhaps get some rabbits, fowl, and fish. Be sure they’re not from some lord’s land or you won’t need to worry about your diet. Use everything, including the blood from your pig. And, no, there’s no place to plug in your microwave or digital devices.

 

Get the picture? Mount’s book is both informative and cheekily written, which makes it a joy to read. I could have done without her over-the-top faux interviews, but this is a rare book that will educate you without making you aware your mind is being filled. Plus, you can always jump into your TARDIS and come home.

 

Rob Weir

3/29/24

A Robert Parker Novel for Baseball Season


 

 

Mortal Stakes (1975)

By Robert B. Parker

Dell Books, 329 pp.

★★★

 

Robert B. Parker became one of the best-selling crime/mystery writers of his time (1932-2010) but until he published his first Spenser novel in 1973, he was just another writing professor with a few books under his belt hoping for a break. Two years later he still had to write a few more Spensers before he could hang up his tweed sports coat and write full time.

 

Parker was also a big baseball fan and the start of a new season is a good reason to revisit his third novel, Mortal Stakes. I caution that Parker had not yet reached his full stride and that his private detective Spenser was still more of a cocky urban cowboy than the urbane master of the bon mot he later became. Nor was he yet a one-woman man; he shared bedroom quality time with both Brenda Loring and Susan Silverman, and ogled other possibilities. 

 

Mortal Stakes is a readable 1975 novel with the Boston Red Sox at its center. Spenser is approached by team president Harold Erskine to make discrete queries into a whispered rumor that he picked up. Despite the fact that star hurler Mary Rabb almost never loses, Erskine wants to know if Rabb has occasionally thrown a game or shaved the vig(orish) so that bookies avoided payouts. With that task in hand, Spenser gains access to the team, management, and broadcast booth under the guise that he’s writing a book about the Red Sox. He takes an instant dislike to play by play man Bucky Maynard, a rotund Southerner who comes off as a cross between Dizzy Dean and Ned Martin. Nor is he very fond Lester Floyd, who passes as his driver but is rather obviously Maynard’s muscle. Nonetheless, Spenser is wise enough to know that a modicum of thuggery doesn’t mean much in the Back Bay of the 1970s.

 

The real puzzler is that everyone tells Spenser that Marty Rabb is “the nicest guy” you’ll ever meet. While still posing as a writer, Spenser meets Marty and he thinks so too. Rabb loves baseball and lives in a neat apartment with his wife Linda and a three-year-old. The only thing that seems a bit funny is that Linda claims to not pay much attention to baseball, but says she met Marty at a game in Chicago. Since he has no other clues and Erskine is paying him $100 a day plus expenses, Spenser decides to go to Chicago to see if he can dig up something that leads him elsewhere.

 

He does, but what he finds is not what he expected. Before the case is resolved, Spenser finds himself in New York City where he encounters a pimp named Violet and a woman who runs a high-class escort service and porn film distribution network. Back in Boston he is threatened by Frank Doerr, a mobster posing as a funeral director, and his gunsel Wally Hogg. It’s not the best idea to humiliate company such Doerr and Hoggg, but that seldom deters Spenser.

 

 As Spenser developed as a character he became a man willing to use violence, but also one with a very strict code about the circumstances under which he would resort to it. In Mortal Stakes we observe that he has definite ideas of who the good and bad guys are, but is less constrained about how to be on the side of justice. If you go on to read a lot more Spenser novels, you might come to see Mortal Stakes as a pivotal book in which Spenser’s methods and personality start to change. It ends with a warning to Spenser from homicide commander Martin Quirk about what he can’t do in his city. Parker wasn’t shy about bringing down the baddies in his next 37 Spenser books, but the plots became more intricate and subtle.

 

Was Marty Rabb one the take? I’m not a Sox fan so I’m tempted to be a wise guy like Spenser and say that anytime the Red Sox win someone is on the take. But what kind of a person would reveal the mystery of a mystery?

 

Play ball!

 

Rob Weir

3/27/24

It Ain't Over: Perfect for MLB Opening Day

 

 

It Ain't Over (2022)

Written and directed by Sean Mullin

Sony Pictures Classic, 98 minutes, PG.

★★★★★

 


 

If I were to ask you what Major League Baseball player has the most World Series rings, who would you guess? Babe Ruth? Lou Gehrig? Joe DiMaggio? Mickey Mantle? Go back to the locker room, you're 0-4. The answer is Yogi Berra. He had 10 of them; 13 if you count the three he collected as a coach.

 

Mention his name and most people will think of two things: a cartoon bear created by Hanna-Barbera and a funny guy prone to malapropisms and garbled phrases. Who thinks of Berra as one of the game's greatest players? At 5'7” and a body shaped like a pear, he wouldn't even be drafted today. That would be baseball’s loss. Are you sick of guys with big contracts that strike out a lot and hit an occasional home run? In five of Yogi’s 19 years in uniform, he slammed more homers than he struck out and never fanned more than 38 times in a season. In 1950, he came to the plate 597 times and whiffed on just a dozen occasions. That's even more remarkable given that Berra often swung at pitches out of the strike zone. He had a knack for hitting pitches wherever they were hurled. That meant you couldn't defense him; Yogi used all of the park.

 

It Ain't Over is a documentary of a decent man, a veteran of D-Day, and a beloved family man. We often hear the voice of Lindsay Berra, who was royally peeved by how the media made her grandfather into a clown and ignored his accomplishments: three MVPs, 358 home runs, and 1,430 RBIs, a Hall of Famer, catching Don Larsen's World Series perfect game, and a .285 career average, which is rare for catchers, baseball's most physically demanding position. Like most biographical documentaries it contains a lot talking head testimonials. Family members weigh in—Lindsay; Yogi's children, Barbara, Dale, Larry, Tim, and video from his beloved wife Carmen. Ditto a veritable who's who of baseball: Hank Aaron, Roger Angel, Marty Appel, Allen Barra, Bobby Brown, Bob Costas, Larry Doby, Al Downing, Joe Girardi, Ron Guidry, Tony Kubeck, Don Mattingly, Willie Randolph, Bobby Richardson, Mariano Rivera, Ralph Terry, Joe Torre, Vin Scully... Derek Jeter first met Yogi when he was beginning his career and tells of swinging at a bad pitch. Yogi asked him why he swung at such a lousy pitch. When Jeter said, “But Yogi, you swung at that pitch all the time.” Yogi's retort, “Yeah, but I hit it!” 

 

It Ain't Over takes us back to The Hill in St. Louis where Berra was born Lorenzo Pietro Berra and lived across the street from his lifelong friend Joe Garagiola. It was a classic blue-collar immigrant neighborhood–not a ghetto, but not anybody's idea of posh either. It would be no exaggeration to say that Berra's parents were not crazy about his desire to play ball. He got his colorful nickname from a photo in which he and several other players in the front row were sitting cross-legged on the ground. One teammate remarked that the squat Berra looked like a yogi and it stuck. Years later the family tried to sue for Hanna-Barber for copyright infringement but lost; “Yogi” wasn't Berra's legal name.

 

Yogi was generally a portrait of calm, though he had moments of pique and stubbornness. He always insisted that Jackie Robinson should have been called “out” when he famously stole home in the 1955 World Series. When owner George Steinbrenner fired Yogi as manger after he took an aging Yankees team to the Series but lost to the Cardinals, Yogi refused to return to Yankee Stadium for 14 years until publicist Suzy Waldman convinced Steinbrenner to tell Yogi he made a mistake. That was a miracle on the line of Donald Trump admitting he was wrong! Yogi returned to his first post-apology Old Timers Game to deafening cheers.

 

This is an uplifting documentary about a man for whom no one had a disparaging word. It perhaps tries too hard to replace the clown image with one of a misunderstood “genius” and I could have done without the bombastic Nick Swisher, but Yogi Berra gets a long overdue tribute in It Ain't Over. It's such a touching film that Emily, who has zero interest in sports, declared it “excellent” and “moving.” Yep, we all love Yogi here.

 

Rob Weir

 

 

 

 

 

3/25/24

Sea of Grass Worth Reviving?

 


 

 

Sea of Grass (1947)

Directed by Elia Kazan

Lowe’s Inc. 127 minutes, Not-rated

★★★★

 

Sometimes it’s a good idea to “sit” with a film after you’ve seen it. I was fairly blasé after viewing Sea of Grass but the more I thought of it, the more I liked it. My reaction was apparently par for the course. Critics were lukewarm when it was released in 1947, yet audiences flocked to it and made it the most successful Hepburn-Tracy (H-T) film of all time.

 

I think I was initially hesitant because it was an H-T movie. It was hard to imagine Katharine Hepburn as a gal from St. Louis or Spencer Tracy as a New Mexico cattle rancher who loves waving fields of grass. Hepburn had the ultimate Connecticut Yankee blue-blood accent and Tracy–though born in Wisconsin–was a New York/Los Angeles sort of guy. In the film, Lutie Cameron (Hepburn) comes from a proper St. Louis family and is set to marry Col. Jim Brewton (Tracy) when she gets a telegram telling her to hop on a train to get hitched on Brewton’s Salt Fork ranch instead. To say that she’s less than impressed by Salt Fork is putting things mildly. She’s even more alarmed by Brewton’s brusque and imperious manner, and is shocked when she meets local Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas) who warns her that Brewton is a hard man. To prove his point he takes her to the local court house where Brewton is trying to run off a settler on government land he wants for grazing.

 

Lutie gains more insight into Brewton’s thinking when he takes her to gaze out upon the empty prairie and waxes rhapsodic about the power of the land and the need to conserve it. But make no mistake; Brewton is a cattle man, not Teddy Roosevelt reincarnated. He wants no part of homesteaders moving onto the grasslands and is unaffected by Lutie’s pleas that it will make Salt Fork more lively. Call it visions of St. Louis versus those of Petticoat Junction! Lutie errs badly when she convinces Brewton to allow a family to build a sod home on land he sees as his. Despite Lutie giving birth to a daughter, Sara Beth, the question arises: Can this marriage be saved?

 

Maybe not. Lutie decides to flee to Denver for a time. There she “bumps into” Brice. Nod, nod, wink, wink. Lutie will come back to Salt Fork where she gives birth to a son, Brock. Chamberlain returns as well, is elected a federal judge to settle land disputes, and in his own way is as intractable as Brewton. Acrimony sends Lutie back to St. Louis, where she consults a lawyer. Can she get out of her ill-advised match? Maybe, but there are attached strings. (Aren’t there always?)

 

Director Elia Kazan shows a deft hand by taking a proverbial tuck in the script. Instead of following Brewton and Lutie though their respective trials, triumphs, and tribulations, Kazan subtly shows us that years have passed. When we pick up the story, Sara Beth (Phyllis Thaxter) is a young woman and Brock (Robert Walker) is an angry reckless hellion. This lapse in a family saga was actually quite bold given the Hollywood Code of the day that had definite rules in place about the sanctity of the family. You’ll have to watch to see how Kazan extracts himself from the corner into which he has painted himself.

 

It's undoubtedly a personal matter whether you buy into the idea of a H-T Western. There are, though, several things to recommend giving it a try. First of all, not many actors have ever done stubborn as well as Tracy, so that part rings true even if you don’t think he belongs in cowboy boots or wearing a long string tie. Second, cinematographer Harry Stradling imbues the prairie with great majesty. Wide shots of winds rippling across vast expanses of grass indeed invoke the “sea,” and are enhanced by shooting in black and white. Note what Kazan and Stradling do with shadows, sky enhancements, and underlighting.

 

Finally, there is relevance in this 77-year-old film. Once we move away from the war of wills between Lutie and Brewton and ponder the core of their clashing worldviews–civilization versus the fragility of ecosystems–who is right, kind-hearted Lutie or hard-as-nails Brewton?

 

Rob Weir

3/22/24

All the Sinners Bleed: Grity Southern Noir

 


 

All the Sinners (2023)

By S. A. Crosby

Flatiron Books, 352 pages

★★★★

 

You could label the new novel from Shawn Andre Crosby “rednecks and black folks.” Titus Crowne is the black sheriff of the strangely named town of Charon, Virginia. Who on earth would honor a town for the ancient Greek ferrymen who took souls to Hades for judgment? Titus was once an FBI agent in Indiana traumatized by an unfortunate event during a raid. He decided to quit the Agency and return to his hometown. Much to the chagrin of town councilor Scott Cunningham and other white elites, Titus got elected sheriff.

 

Titus lives with his widowed father, has a girlfriend named Darlene, and a brother Marquise who is semi-estranged from the family. Crowne’s baptism of fire takes place when popular teacher Jeff Spearman is gunned down in the local school. Titus almost convinced gunman Latrelle Macdonald to surrender, but a sudden move leads two deputies to fatally shoot him.

 

This is the proverbial tip of the iceberg of Titus’s challenges. He finds shocking pictures on Latrelle's phone, not the least of which is that both he and Spearman were photographed wearing raised wolf masks, but a third person kept his lowered and could not be identified. Who is the so-called “Lone Wolf” who is key to both the shooting and other dark mysteries? Sheriff Crowe also stumbles upon patterns of grizzly deaths to young black kids who are buried under a willow tree on Tank Phillips’ land. Each has been tortured and clues such as “Cursed by Cain” are found. Soon, the Lone Wolf will be in frequent contact to taunt Titus.

 

Charon is a religious town­–even Titus's father Albert is a believer–but Titus sees veneer, not faith. He observes a Virginia county in which crack, fentanyl, crystal meth, and racism are like so many items in the Dollar General Store. Titus remarks to Charlene, one of his deputies, “Flannery O'Connor said the South is Christ-haunted. It's haunted all right. By the hypocrisy of Christianity.” Charon has so many demons that it’s, “where the poor are ostracized. Where girls are called whores if they report rape. Where I can't go into the [local bar] without wondering if the bartender done spit in my drink.”

 

As you can tell, Crosby's All the Sinners Bleed is one gritty murder mystery. The very title comes from a snake-handling local preacher's sign outside his remote church. His idea of Christianity is “praise the lord and pass the copperheads.”* He's a whack job made worse by being an avowed white nationalist. But is he also a mass murderer? As if Titus doesn't have enough problems, one of his deputies might be on the take, Cunningham thinks he runs the Sheriff's Office, and a reporter from Indiana who happens to be an old flame shows up in his office and wants access to the investigation. And people wonder why Titus is close lipped, no-nonsense, and cynical.

 

The very darkness of All of Sinners Bleed places it within a fiction genre called “Southern noir.” Noir is also characterized by damaged protagonists. By the time Cunningham tells Crowne he is working to make sure he won't be reelected, Titus hardly cares; he just wants to catch the Lone Wolf and avenge the murder of black children. He's so obsessed that even Darlene thinks she’s had enough.

 

Don't think the novel winds down as Titus gets close to the truth. Titus astutely remarks that, “no place was more confused by its past or terrified of the future than the South.” Before All the Sinners Bleed resolves completely, some dirty family secrets come to light, a few families begin the reconciliation process, white nationalists gather, a public showdown occurs, people die, a statue tumbles, and Titus is forced to do some needed self-analysis.

 

All the Sinners Bleed is both a taut mystery and a searing indictment of American racism. It confirms that the South is indeed terrified of the future. History has a lot to do with that nervousness, though it’s not the kind rednecks want to hear.  

 

Rob Weir

 

* If you don’t know, snake-handling churches are a thing. Adherents take a literal read of a passage from the Gospel of Mark that true believers can take up poisonous serpents– like rattlers and copperheads–and shall not be harmed. Let the record show that not all adherents have been true believers.