Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The end of time

Well, at least the end of chronological time in mainstream fiction. I exaggerate, of course, but I found it interesting that in three recent novels, the narrative chronology is fractured and not always effectively. Modern readers have become used to reading timelines that are not straightforward. The concept of flashbacks in narratives has been around as long as there have been storytellers, I imagine, but the more complicated use of time--flash-forwards, moving in time without obvious signals to the reader or viewer--I think of as a 20th century device. The movie Citizen Kane may be a good early example of use of a more complicated timeline; there is a present-day throughline in which the reporter tracks down details of Kane's life which are presented as flashbacks in a more-or-less direct progression from youth to maturity to death, though there are a couple of stray moments presented out of order. Now we are used to having to keep track of movement from narrative present to flashback past.

But these three books don't actually make us guess. The last three current novels I've read (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, Maplecroft) consist of chapters of journal entries or first-person interior monologues which are clearly dated, so theoretically there's no confusion. The first chapter might be August 29, 2012, told from Character #1's viewpoint, and the second chapter might be April 3, 2010, told from Character #2's viewpoint, and so on. This allows the author to spin her narrative threads out and delay certain revelations until later in the book to build suspense--two of the books are mysteries and the third, Maplecroft, is a horror/fantasy story that relies on plot ambiguities to provide tension.

While this can be effective, it can also feel like a lazy way to hide information from the reader. The technique works best in Gone Girl, as the chapters written by the wife actually are diary entries. In Girl on the Train, they don't seem to be written entries as much as dated interior thoughts, and in
Maplecroft, they are all written documents of one kind of another. But in the last two books, the bouncing back and forth feels contrived and gets a little confusing, so I found myself having to go back and check the chapter headings to figure out what was past and what was present, especially in Maplecroft with its many narrators.

But mostly the technique has come to feel lazy. I think the reader is supposed to gasp in awe and admiration when the narrative traps snap in place--think of the first time you saw The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects--but sometimes I wind up so on my guard that I either see through the trick or I am actually let down by the final revelations. All three of these books are enjoyable, but I can't help but wish that, especially with Train and Maplecroft, the authors had found other ways to keep us baffled.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Time and space and meaning

Interstellar is 2001 as remade by Frank Capra. That is to say, it's half hard sci-fi with a philosophical/mystical element and half sentimental family melodrama. Like many a dystopian story, not a lot of time is spent on explaining how we got where we are; suffice to say that at some point in the future, Earth is dying due to something called the Blight. Food stuffs no longer grow (corn is the last viable crop) and people are starving. The current generation sees themselves not as explorers or innovators but as caretakers of what few resources are left, to the point where children are being taught that the great breakthroughs of the past, like the Apollo moon landing, were faked so they don't dare dream of doing great things themselves.

That plot is interesting enough to sustain an entire movie, but Christopher Nolan uses it as story #1, a mere backdrop for story #2, of how a group of NASA scientists go underground (literally) to work on a life-saving mission. They have discovered a wormhole near Saturn that leads to a part of the universe with several planets that might be able to sustain life. Exploratory missions have found three strong possibilities, and through a long and convoluted storyline 2.5, NASA pilot turned farmer Matthew McConaughey winds up heading a trip through the wormhole to investigate the three worlds where we might send humanity to survive. There is a second plan, to launch mankind on an artificial satellite, and this is where the plotholes begin to creep in, at least for me, so I won't comment further on this development. At any rate, story #3 is about McConaughey's family, specifically his tie to his young daughter, and this is where the sentimentality gets distracting, so again, I won’t dwell on this.

At nearly three hours, this is both too long and too short. It's too long for one sitting—the plotline (story #2.75?) involving Matt Damon as an explorer from a previous mission felt especially extraneous even though Damon was very good. It's too short from the point of view of narrative. As I noted above, an entire movie could have been devoted to the backstory, so maybe this would have worked best as a TV miniseries. The screenplay was bloated with interesting ideas that never really got explained or worked out, and another couple of hours might have helped that.

The special effects, many of which were clearly inspired by Kubrick's 2001, are superb. In fact, in the last 20 minutes, the plot gets so twisted around, I would have lost interest and stopped the movie if the visuals hadn't been so compelling. The acting is generally solid. McConaughey is in practically every scene and I grew tired of his drawl and his intensity, but it's not really his fault that he's in too much of the movie. The two scenes of sentiment that worked on me both involved excellent performances by old pros Michael Caine (above with McConaughey) and Ellen Burstyn. Another vet, John Lithgow, in equally good in a less showy role. In my usual old curmudgeon way, I praise it by saying that this was not as disappointing as I was expecting it to be.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The trouble with Annie

When I saw Annie in the mid-80s, performed by a road show company here in Columbus, Ohio, I wasn't expecting much. After all, it was a sickly sweet and sentimental musical about an exploited orphan and her fairy-tale rescue by a rich benefactor, and the one hit song from the show, "Tomorrow," sounded simplistic and boring. Instead, I was absolutely charmed by the show from beginning to end (it must be said that the weaker songs are bundled together in the last half-hour, but there's also a big, shiny Christmas tree on stage as well!). The show ran for years on Broadway, has been revived at least once, and seems like it will live on forever in school and community productions.

So why has every filmed version of Annie been a disappointment? The 1982 movie suffered from the start with a mismatched director--John Huston, a great director (Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Dead), had far too heavy a hand for what should have been a frothy musical. Albert Finney turned out to be a very good Daddy Warbucks, the best so far, and Anne Reinking gets to kick her long legs to good effect. But the character of Miss Hannigan, such wicked fun on stage, is trickier on film when there's no longer that literal distance between her and us. Carol Burnett (above, with Aileen Quinn as Annie) is fun but a little too much in her close-ups. And that ending--instead of a sweet Christmas scene where the nasty would-be kidnappers get their comeuppance, we get a sprawling action sequence which climaxes with Annie dangling from the top of a bridge, her life in danger. The film took in a decent amount of money but because of the huge budget, actually lost money for its studio.

Annie was remade for television in 1999 with musical theater pros like Victor Garber, Audra McDonald (both pictured at right), Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming, and in general, it was an improvement, if only because it restored the lovely "NYC" number that Huston had cut out, and had an ending closer to that of the stage show. But Kathy Bates is a disappointment as Hannigan--if Burnett was a bit too high-energy, Bates is a bit too low-energy, and not very scary/funny. McDonald and Cumming fare best, but Chenoweth is not used to her full potential and Garber is a bit bland.

Now there's the new 2014 Annie movie, moved up from the depression past to the glittery present. The reviews on this were mostly terrible, but when I approached it with low expectations, I actually didn't hate it. But it's no better than either of the other two versions. It does some things right: 1) the time update mostly works, and I like the role that social networking plays in the plot, especially at the climax when folks use Instagram & Twitter to track the path that Annie's kidnappers take; 2) the clean, colorful look of the movie, even in the orphange--pardon me, the foster mom's dwelling, as the kids are now foster children; 3) some of the hip-hop arrangements of the songs, particularly "Hard Knock Life"; 4) Cameron Diaz took a little getting used to as Miss Hannigan, but she's ends up being a plus.

Now what doesn't work: 1) no one can sing; everyone is Auto-Tuned and they still don't sound good. Quvenzhané Wallis (in the red coat in the picture below) is generally fine as Annie, but her singing voice is especially thin. Jamie Foxx (as the Warbucks character), who moonlights as a singer in real life, is also disappointing; 2) no one can dance, or at least we can't tell if they can, because all the dance numbers consist of people jumping around and flailing; 3) there is zero chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne; 4) some flat-out amateurish direction that cuts away from people and scenes too soon, or lingers too long. The ending reverts back to the car chase trope of the Huston version but at least it's more fun than the original was.

Why can't they get Annie right? I think it's partly because the show is, at heart, not a gargantuan spectacle, but filmmakers think that all stage musicals must be made spectacular on the screen. This approach, however, flies in the face of what makes Annie fun: a relatively small-scale, sentimental story with musical numbers that have flair and style rather than bells and whistles. It almost doesn't matter who plays Annie--as long as she can sing and look cute, the part is practically foolproof. But in all three movie/TV versions, there is a lack of chemistry between Warbucks and his secretary. Each actor may be good on his or her own, but none of the pairs generate much heat, or even light. And I wish someone would film this with all the original songs intact. I love "NYC" and was glad to see it in the Victor Garber version, but I'm sorry that no filmed version has included "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover." Maybe the perfect version will be made... tomorrow.

Monday, February 23, 2015

American popular music, for better or worse

This book has a somewhat drab title (The B-Side) and a slightly misleading subtitle (The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song), and has Frank Sinatra on the front, but don't judge this book by its cover. If I used star ratings on this blog, I would have no qualms giving this book 5 stars--it is a fabulous read! Nothing in the title is indicative of the pleasures of the book, which is basically a history of American pop music from the 30s to the 60s, focusing on the songs and songwriters rather than the performers.

Yagoda's thesis is that the flow of great songs of the 30s and 40s (the songs with fairly sophisticated melodies and clever lyrics that we know now as "standards" by writers like George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Frank Loesser, Carolyn Leigh, etc.) was stopped by the frivolous, unsophisticated, childlike music of the 50s ("How Much is that Doggie in the Window" is the subject of a lot of venom here), and the villain of this piece winds up being Mitch Miller, a powerful music executive at Columbia Records who was instrumental in influencing public taste in music. But obviously it wasn't just Miller. Yogoda notes that the run of Broadway musicals that produced so many great hits dried up--not that musicals vanished, but after Oklahoma, the musical from changed; the songs that could stand alone outside the context of the musicals (almost all of the Gershwin songs, for example) became songs that were plot-driven or dependent on context, and so did not stand alone so well. The author also explains the importance of the song publishing licensee ASCAP and the later upstart BMI better than any other writer I've read on the subject.

The rebirth Yagoda writes about involves both the appreciation of the standards that singers like Ella Fitzgerald helped establish in the late 1950s, and the emergence of the new "Tin Pan Alley-ish" writers of the 60s like Burt Bacharach and Carole King. The book ends in the mid-60s with Brian Wilson and the Beatles about the change the course of pop music again, and the last 5 pages build beautifully almost like the climax of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life". Yagoda presents information that is not necessarily new, but the lens with which he views and interprets it is new, and that makes this is a fascinating and well-written read.

Friday, January 23, 2015


The two most recently released films I've seen are both adaptations, one of a stage musical and one of a book, and they highlight the strengths and weaknesses of screen versions of previous literary works. Into the Woods works best, possibly because it "only" a matter of moving the Stephen Sondheim musical from stage to screen. I use '"only" in jest, fully aware of how easy it is to mess up a stage musical (see Mame, Finian's Rainbow, Man of La Mancha, A Chorus Line...). But here, the filmmakers have largely trusted the stage version and, if memory serves me--it's been over 10 years since I've seen Into the Woods on stage--a minimum of changes have occurred. In fact, what charmed me most about the movie, aside from the fabulous Emily Blunt who apparently can do no wrong, was that much of it feels like it was live shot on a stage, a very elaborate stage, with a minimum of CGI fussing.

The plot, about fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel who get into more-or-less real life predicaments for which their fairy tale backgrounds have not prepared them, has always felt a little didactic to me, but the dark turn the story takes in the last half is interesting. Every actor is fine, and even better, they're all good singers. Standouts are Emily Blunt, James Corden (pictured with Blunt), and Chris Pine. I wish the wonderful Christine Barankski, as Cinderella's wicked stepmother had been given more to do. Anna Kendrick in the central role as Cinderella shined with a little less luster, but the strong cast and the fact that the director, Rob Marshall, resisted the urge to smother the film in special effects make this well worth seeing.

Gone Girl is based on a best-selling thriller by Gillian Flynn with a notorious twist that I don't need to reveal here. The book is a pulp thriller, cleverly written but without literary pretensions, about a wife who goes missing and the husband who the entire country comes to believe killed her even though her body isn't found. The movie has been directed by David Fincher who I wouldn't have thought would have been interested in material like this. The film doesn't completely work, and the main problem is that the book is, to some degree, about creation and writing, and much of the book is told through diary entries made by the wife. It's always difficult to translate the act or art of authorship to the movie screen; in this particular case, Fincher also needed to find a visual equivalent to equal the effect on the reader as certain hidden elements are revealed through the act of writing, and I don't think he succeeds.

However, as a melodramatic potboiler, this works well enough. Ben Affleck makes an almost prefect husband: handsome and charming on the surface, but with just enough hints of smarminess and artifice to make us think he could be a murderer. I was less enthused about Rosamund Pike as the wife, but it's a difficult role; she also has to seem like the perfect wife on the outside with hints of misbehavior just under the surface. The supporting cast is mostly bland, even Neil Patrick Harris in a somewhat farfetched role, though I very much liked Carrie Coon as Affleck's sister. This is a case in which I might have enjoyed the movie more if I hadn't read the book first, so if you like twisty thrillers and have somehow not read the book, by all means, go.

Friday, January 2, 2015


Even though I didn't write about any movies here last year, I did see several--54 to be precise, in theaters or on DVD, counting only current and recent films, not classic films of which I saw about 150. I'll try to spend the next few posts catching up some of those films, starting with the last few I saw in 2014. In Calvary, an priest (Brendan Gleeson) in a small Irish village is visited in the confessional by a man who was sexually molested in his youth by a priest (The first of the line is his: "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old."). The molester has died but the man can't find peace so he tells Gleeson that he will murder the priest next Sunday, on the beach. He says he knows Gleeson is a good man, but that will make his death all the more cleansing.

Gleeson knows who the man is but takes no substantive action. Instead he goes about his week like normal and we see his day-today interactions with his troubled flock. In some ways, the movie plays out almost like the basis for a TV show about the trial and tribulations of a modern-day priest. This is not "Going My Way" territory; Gleeson was married and had a daughter before his wife died and he took Holy Orders, so he is worldly, and he is flawed--at one point in a fit of anger, he wrecks havoc in a bar. Director John Michael McDonagh has said his film was inspired by Robert Bresson's austere film Diary of a Country Priest, and both follow a priest through everyday events as he manages to keep faith in the face of the flawed secular world in which he lives and ministers.

As a lapsed Catholic, I have to say that neither film made me see why such faith should be sustained, but as character studies, they are both good films. Gleeson is excellent as a very human priest, and he is surrounded by a solid supporting cast including Chris O'Dowd as a possible wife-beater, M. Emmet Walsh (pictured above with Gleeson) as a dying American writer, Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, pictured below) as a doctor, and Dylan Moran as a rich man who delights in being a son-of-a-bitch to everyone. The tone of the film is serious though not really dark, with comic shadings, and the ending is a little surprising but satisfying. In an age of big-budget action and fantasy films, I feel hopeful that there is still room for something small, serious and semi-artsy at the multiplexes.

Friday, November 21, 2014

2 punks who don't quite get their due

To say that I've recently read two books about punk rockers is perhaps not quite accurate. One, Lou Reed, is generally accepted as the godfather of punk based largely on his early work with the Velvet Underground. The other, Brian Jones, was a founder of the Rolling Stones and died long before punk music was a genre, but I feel fairly confident in giving the early Stones some punk credentials. Both of these musicians were present at the creation of important bands but neither one really gets his due in these flawed biographies.

Certainly the legend of Brian Jones deserves a better book than Paul Trynka's Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones. Jones was, in the beginning, fully an equal to--and probably, as Trynka argues, musically superior to--Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and this book is fine for background information about Jones. It's very sad to see Jones sink into a mire of drugs and thwarted ambition; he was booted from the Stones in 1969, at the dawn of my own rock & roll coming of age, and I remember the headlines about his tragic death in his swimming pool, probably the result of years of drug abuse. 

The main problem with the book is that the author has an ax to grind--that Jones was ill-treated by Jagger and Richards for years before he was forced out, and that the living Stones have never given Jones his due. All that is certainly true, but Trynka can't be objective here; about every 10 pages, he blames the Stones for most of Jones' problems and doesn't seem to see that much of what he reports actually supports the opposite view, that Jones was, to a substantial degree, the author of his own misfortune. Trynka is sloppy with details here and there, though the last couple of chapters, as Jones' downfall seems inevitable, are well written. I like that he takes down the conspiracy theorists who believe that Jones was murdered: Trynka makes it sound like Jones' untimely death was almost inevitable. I liked some of this book, but I wish a more rigorous and objective writer would tackle this material.

The first two-thirds of Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story by Victor Bockris was written in the 90s and it's a fairly solid, well-researched look at Reed's life, from the shock treatments he received as a teenager to his falling in with John Cale, Andy Warhol, and the Velvet Underground (who in their short time together became one of the most influential rock bands of the 60s), to his solo career that pretty much peaked in the early 70s with the albums Transformer and Berlin. 

These were both seminal albums for me and I was disappointed when Reed seemed to lose interest in his career, producing slipshod work for years until he regained some footing in the 80s. Bockris explains some of that: Reed was, for much of the 70's, a speed addict and a heavy drinker, seemingly constantly high. But high or sober, Reed had two sides: he was either charming or a total prick to everyone he knew. The biggest fault in the first part of the book is that Bockris does zero analysis of the music. Even "Walk on the Wild Side" doesn't get any detailed look at its lyrics, and that would seem to be mandatory for a book on Lou Reed. He touches on the roots of Berlin in a past relationship of Reed's but delves no deeper. 

The last third of the book, covering the mid-90s to the present, was clearly slap-dashed together just after Reed's death in 2013, and its fault goes in the other direction: rather than doing any new research, he mostly writes only about the music Reed made during this time, with and in reaction to his wife Laurie Anderson. Overall, a sloppy book. If someone took the first half and added copious music annotations, we might have a good read.