Monday, March 30, 2009

Jesus and Harrison Ford

The last 2 books I've finished:

1) Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt by Anne Rice. I picked this up as airport and/or hotel room reading for my recent Chicago trip, and I'm not sure why. I loved Rice's first book, Interview with a Vampire, but have been unable to finish any of her other vampire stories, though I did like The Mummy, and I have a copy of The Witching Hour somewhere in the house. The premise of the book sounds like something that has never been done: a year in the life of Jesus (his seventh), told first-person in His voice. For the first 40 or 50 pages, it held my attention, but it quickly becomes boring. The style is very plain, almost all subject-verb-object sentences with few stylistic frills, and that actually works, but nothing of much import happens: Jesus's extended family leaves Egypt, heads to Jerusalem and Nazareth and gets caught up in a revolt against the excesses of Herod and his successors. Jesus knows he's different from his friends (the best scene is probably the opening one in which he accidentally kills a boy in a fight, then brings him back to life), but doesn't learn until the last half of the book that he is the Son of God.

It's sad that Rice has tackled something with such potential, but almost completely failed to bring her story to life. I don't think it's the style, but more the lack of meaningful personal conflict. The violence all around Jesus and his family rarely seems to mean anything to them, except for one very good moment when Jesus sees a man killed by a spear up close. Mary and Joseph come off as relative blanks, and a young relative named Salome who seems at times like she'll be important in the narrative is never fleshed out. There is a sequel, and more planned, but I'm not inclined to continue reading.

2) 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I don't like this trend of books telling us what to see/read/visit/do before we die. But the selection of this volume was interesting. I didn't read it word for word, but I did look at every film mentioned. Some of the mini-essays were maddeningly vague, rambling on for 3 or 4 paragraphs while giving me virtually no idea about the plot of the film. Of course, several of the picks are non-narrative, avant-garde movies, but at least a couple of plot summary sentences about narrative-driven films would seem to be necessary here. I was pleased at the width of selections: pop favorites like Casablanca, underground films like Scorpio Rising, avant-garde darlings like Dog Star Man by Stan Brakhage, and a strong selection of non-English langauge films. I was most pleased to see Pink Flamingos and Faster Pussycat Kill Kill, two low-budget films which, though often dismissed as trash by critics, have been quite influential (and are great fun to watch). I've seen over 600 of the movies in the book, and there are many in there I know I'll never watch (mostly John Ford westerns and many of the more obscure foreign films), but I did make a short list of 8 movies from the book that I'd like take a shot at, including Indiscretion of an American Wife and a Russian horror film called Viy. It was worth taking a spin through.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A rose and a brickbat

Caught up with two movies I wanted to see over the holidays which came out on DVD recently. The winner is Cadillac Records, based on the true story of Chess Records, its founder Leonard Chess, and its star performers (including blues singer Muddy Waters, harmonica player Little Walter, and rock legend Chuck Berry). The script could use some tightening, but this is one of those movies worth seeing for its excellent performances. I don't usually like Adrian Brody (I think he looks like a ferrety kind of animal that should stay underground), but he's fine here as Chess, a white Jewish club owner in Chicago who starts up a record label specializing in what was known then as "race music"; in other words, music by black performers. Chess is the focus of the film, and though he was criticized for cheating many of his artists out of money (the title of the film comes from the fact that he gave some of his stars new Cadillacs rather than cash), he is portrayed positively here. In the first half of the film, set in the early 50's, almost equal weight is given to Muddy Waters (Jeffrey Wright) who, according to the simplified backstory in the script, leaves his life as a sharecropper in Mississippi to forge a career as a singer in Chicago, first on the streets, then under Chess's wing.

But as Waters' star gets tarnished through the years, he drops out of the story, replaced by feisty Little Walter (Columbus Short), who becomes the movie's tragic figure, scowling singer Howlin' Wolf (Eamonn Walker), and Etta James (Beyoncé Knowles), who gets tangled up in drugs and what seems to be an affair with Chess--he "keeps" her in a nice house and clearly is madly in love with her, but how much she responds to him is unclear. Given the importance of Chuck Berry (Mos Def) to the beginnings of rock & roll, he is given surprisingly short shrift here. Still, this is a movie to be relished for the performances. All the actors do their own singing and for the most part are successful, though you'd never mistake their versions of songs like "Mannish Boy" or "No Particular Place to Go" for the originals. Brody is good and Knowles is very good, much better than she had a chance to be in Dreamgirls, but the real class act here is Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters (pictured above with Brody)--he doesn't look like Waters, but he disappears so deeply into the role that I didn't recognize him and had to go to IMDb halfway through the film to figure out who was playing the role. He should have been a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination, and he makes you sorry that he vanishes from the film for long stretches. See this movie.

The loser was Baz Luhrmann's Australia. I loved his earlier Moulin Rouge; it was a badly flawed movie in some ways, but the sheer energy and inventiveness on display and the wild melange of music carried me through, to say nothing of the sweet Ewan McGregor. This would-be epic of two lovers, an adopted aboriginal boy, and their travails in 40's Australia falls flat in every department. There are moments of visual beauty, and the first half-hour, with Nicole Kidman as the snooty English lady out of her element in rough-and-tumble Australia forging a relationship with hunky cowboy Hugh Jackman, though predictable, shows promise, but at over 2-1/2 hours, the film becomes a bloated sack of pretension. Kidman and Jackman never quite gel as a combustible couple, despite a very sexy first kiss scene. David Wenham as the bad guy sets off some sparks, but he can't save the movie. Don't bother.

Monday, March 16, 2009

iPod Archives: "M"

Jefferson Starship's "Miracles," from the excellent album Red Octopus, is a little miracle. It's some kinda sexy, but it's also complex and a little dark. The song was a substantial hit back in 1975 and it's soft enough that it works as background muzak, but you can listen to it closely and get drawn in quickly. The song is famous for its naughty couplet, "I had a taste of the real world / When I went down on you, girl," which was edited out of the radio version back then, though most stations that play it now play the full, unedited 7 minute album version.

The melody simmers along with Marty Balin's lead vocal entwining effortlessly with Grace Slick's backing vocal, with Slick usually echoing Balin's lines a few steps behind, then catching up. The sexy words are what grab the listener's attention ("You ripple like a river when I touch you / When I pluck your body like a string / When I start dancin inside ya...") and the music builds nicely to a thumping climax with a noisy sax solo. But though the song is senusous and occasionally joyous, it's easy to overlook the darkness: the repeated chorus goes, "If only you'd believe like I believe, baby, we'd get by / If only you believed in miracles, baby / So would I." Clearly the two, though happy in bed, are not on the same wavelength out of it. The song climaxes, then ends with a sad "So would I" drawn out, in a minor key. A great song, which, thanks to being overplayed on "love song" radio, is easy to take for granted.

I also liked hearing Cowboy Junkies' "Misguided Angel," another sexy-sounding song which has a disturbing subtext, ... hell, text. Like most of their songs, it's very soft and slow, with a rustic back-porch-in-darkness sound. The vocalist is singing to her family about the man she's in love with, the "angel" of the title, who is obviously bad for her ("He's crazy and he scares me / But I want him by my side") but who wants to marry her. The pretty but creepy chorus goes:

"Misguided angel, hangin' over me
Heart like a Gabriel, pure and white as ivory
Soul like a Lucifer, black and cold like a piece of lead
Misguided angel, love you til I'm dead."

It's a crazy little thing we call love, isn't it?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Jon Stewart as Oprah Winfrey

I love The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but I've never been a big fan of Stewart's interviews. He never really gets around to letting anyone say much. However, I loved his public spanking of the Crossfire folks a few years ago and I was looking forward to his much-anticipated smackdown of CNBC's Jim Cramer, hyperactive host of a financial advice show. I never watch CNBC and I really don't understand what's happening with the economy right now (though I advise reading the latest Rolling Stone for an excellent article by Paul Krugman that gets me closer to understanding than I've ever been), so all I knew (and still know) about this comes from The Daily Show.

The heart of Stewart's beef with Cramer (and all the financial cable news networks and programs) is that he is trying to give financial advice and be entertaining at the same time, while also (possibly) being "in bed with" the very people who would benefit from folks who take his advice. Of course, all this came crashing down recently in the current economic meltdown, and many of the people who took Cramer's advice are now regretting it. Stewart showed examples of Cramer's bad advice, Cramer badmouthed Stewart in the press, and it all led to Thursday night's encounter. What undercut the whole thing is that Stewart forgot to be funny. Instead, he came off like Oprah Winfrey punishing James Frey in public for lying in his memoirs and abusing the trust of his readers. It was such a mismatch that I actually felt a little sorry for Cramer.

I totally agree with Stewart's low opinion of cable news--not just Fox but all the 24-hour operations who have largely switched from delivering news to screaming uninformed opinions--and I wish he would have used this example of CNBC to stand in for all the rest of the cable bunch. Watching Fox or CNN may not cause people to lose their life savings or their homes, but it does cause them to think that, because they've heard a blowhard on TV argue something, they now know it to be true without having to think any more about it, or, God forbid, actually listen to (or read) other opinions, let alone dig up some facts. The one funny moment: when Cramer said there was a market for what he does, Stewart replied that there's a market for cocaine and hookers, too. I think if Stewart was determined to be dead serious here, he missed a chance to present a larger-picture argument about the media. Still, I love ya, Jon, and I'll see you Monday.

Friday, March 13, 2009

B-movie librarian to the rescue!

Made-for-TV and direct-to-video films are the B-movies of our time. Way back when, theaters showed double features (2 movies for the price of 1); one of those films was usually a grade-A, big-budget Hollywood studio movie, and the other one was a shorter movie, made on the cheap, usually a scrappy little genre film (crime, Western, horror). Even into the 70's such movies were still being made for the theatrical market--often for showing at drive-ins, where double features continue being shown to the present day. Now, such cheaply made genre films are still getting made, but they're mostly shown on TV or sent straight to DVD.

The Librarian is a film series which airs on TNT. Not only is it reminiscent of B-films in terms of its budget, but also because the films play out like TV versions of Indiana Jones movies (which themselves were directly inspired by B-movie adventure serials of the 30's and 40's). Noah Wyle is Flynn Carsen, a cute nerdish guy who winds up as a "librarian" for a secret museum which collects and protects magical, mythic artifacts (the sword Excalibur, Noah's Ark, etc.). His bosses (Bob Newhart and Jane Curtin) send him on missions, sometimes drab, sometimes life-threatening, to bring back such artifacts.

There have been three such movies so far. In this most recent one, Curse of the Judas Chalice (now on DVD), Wyle is sent on vacation to relax. He goes to New Orleans, falls for an exotic singer (Stana Katic), finds out she's a vampire, though a benign one who drinks her blood from refrigerated pouches, and helps her to protect the fabled Judas Chalice, a cup Judas Iscariot drank from, which supposedly holds power over all the undead. [Sorry for all the commas in that sentence, but it just feels right.] The plot is not particularly tight, and the effects are about as good as you would expect from a made-for-TV movie, but Wyle makes an engaging hero, equal parts smartie, doofus, and cutie-pie. Katic's accent, which is part French, part Transylvanian, is good--she has no accent on Castle, the Nathan Filion cop show she's on (better catch it soon, because it won't last)--though she and he don't have much chemistry. Parts of the film appear to have actually been shot in on location, which adds to the atmosphere.

Ultimately, it was the vampire element that kept me with the movie to the end. These vampires, unlike most in today's pop culture, are much closer to what I think of as the "classic" vampire figure, as in the Universal movies of the 30's and 40's--Bela Lugosi, fog, crucifixes, can't stand sunshine, etc. The movie's positing of Judas as the very first vampire is not, I think, based on any authentic folklore (most critics trace the vampire figure back to Lilith, a folklorish figure from the non-canonical Garden of Eden), but is fairly ingenious just the same. The tone of the movie is appropriately light; I never laughed out loud or really felt like Wyle was in mortal danger, but overall it was satisfying. Wyle is a bit passive and insubstantial for a leading man, but he's cute and quite charming, and my work days would be a bit more fun if there was more eye candy like him working with me at my library.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mysteries, real and imagined

Though I used to call myself a mystery buff, I don't recognize the genre I used to like anymore. I enjoyed the "cozies" (usually set in a small town or village, without too much gore), the old-fashioned detective stories (similar to the cozies but with a bit more grit), and occasionally the hard-boiled works of Chandler and Hammett. Now the mystery shelves are full of serial killer adventures or grisly police procedurals that I just never took a shine to. So I tend to look to the past for my mystery fixes these days.

I discovered a wonderful author named Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, who wrote 18 mystery or suspense novels between 1929 and 1952. I'd never heard her name before (most of her books are out of print), though it turns out that I've seen a movie based on one her books, The Deep End, in which Tilda Swinton, assuming her son has committed a murder, tries to cover up for him--and the same book provided the basis for an acclaimed but little-seen film from 1949 called The Reckless Moment.

The volume I read, a recent reissue from Stark House, has two novels. The Strange Crime in Bermuda is a wonderful exercise in the literature of the unreliable narrator. Young Hamish is called to Bermuda to visit an older friend who seems to need his help in some important matter, but the friend disappears mysteriously and is assumed dead. Hamish sets out to solve the crime, but we quickly realize he is misinterpreting all the clues and trusting (mostly) the wrong people. The story and the telling seem quite modern, though the ending is perhaps more pat than it would be if written today. The second story, Too Many Bottles, is a novelette which also has misunderstandings at its root. A woman dies after a dinner party and her husband, through whom we see the mystery unfold, falls under suspicion. This one is brisker but a little sloppier, and the title is a giveaway to where the solution lies, though it doesn't give away the identity of the killer. These were both great fun, and I'll be hunting for more of her works.

Those are the imagined mysteries. The "real" mystery I refer to in the title of this post is that of Adolf Hitler. We keep looking for clues or keys to the mystery of what made this strange little man the overseer of the greatest crime against mankind of the 20th century. The book I read is called Hitler's Private Library by Timothy Ryback. Its subtitle, The Books That Shaped His Life, implies that Ryback, like many other authors and historians, thinks that Hitler is like a mystery novel villain, and all we need are the right clues to fall into place to figure him out. The book, after a slow start, is interesting; however, after a few stabs at trying to show some correspondence between what Hitler read and what he thought and did, it becomes essentially a librarian's guide to the books that Hitler seems to have found important or interesting, as the author only discusses volumes that have clear evidence of having been read by Hitler (worn pages, written marginalia, etc.). It's a unique perch for observation, but I don't think it yields much of solid interest. Still, librarians and WWII buffs will want to read this one.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Horror Movie Night: Quarantine

The Blair Witch Project is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, maybe my #1 (though who would bother to make such lists...). Unfortunately, it seems to have inspired a genre which I have seen referred to as "reality horror," which means that the film is presented as a realistic, often real-time, chronicle of events, filmed or taped by the characters. This is perfect for a low-budget film like Blair Witch or the earlier The Last Broadcast, but the two others I've seen recently of the genre, Cloverfield and Quarantine, have medium-range budgets, mostly, I assume, eaten up with digital effects, which would seem to go against the aesthetic of reality horror. Cloverfield was clever and watchable (though showing too much of the monster was a flaw), but Quarantine makes me wonder if the limit of this kind of filmmaking has already been reached.

A young TV reporter is taping a "cute news" story in which she and a cameraman are shadowing a group of night shift firemen--as with Cloverfield, this opening set-up sequence is dreadfully slow, and ultimately almost totally unnecessary as further characterization is non-existent. When they're called out to an apartment building for an unspecified medical emergency, they find an old lady with blood all over her nightgown, foaming at the mouth. When they try to help, she attacks them, biting some of them and throwing one fireman over the stairs (the best effect of the movie). Then they find that they and the other tenants have been locked in the building by the police; all they're told is that help will be forthcoming. It's not

Given the title, it's not really a spoiler to say that the police and the CDC have put the building under quarantine; apparently, the old lady had some kind of super-duper mutant strain of rabies which is, of course, spread by biting. From here on in, the movie is a variation on any slasher film as the characters get bitten and killed off one by one. Yes, the hunky fireman (Jay Hernandez) and the pretty reporter (Jennifer Carpenter) are among the last left alive. There is one other good stunt, also involving someone plummeting down the stairs, a couple of grisly flesh-eating scenes, including one directly inspired by the original Night of the Living Dead, and a pointless nihilistic ending which feels lazy rather than earned.

I really didn't like this movie. To be honest, the main reason is the lead, Jennifer Carpenter who, I'm guessing in the name of "realism," gives a grating, over-the-top performance as the traditional hysterical heroine. By the halfway mark, Don & I were both yelling at the TV things like "Dear Jesus, die already!" or "Will someone please bite this unpleasant creature and put her and us out of our misery?" The fault is probably with the director, who thought this would be a "realism" plus, but no matter what we say, we don't go to movies to see reality, we go to be entertained, and I can't imagine anyone who would find her irritating screaming and crazy hand gestures (which get absolutely laughable in the climax in which she's in the dark in a room with a monster and she can't see but we can see her) entertaining. Sadly, her hunky co-star (pictuerd) who is more low-key, never takes off his shirt, an act which might have added a half-a-star to my rating (if I used star ratings, which I don't).

I had a big problem with suspension of disbelief all through the film: Would the firemen really let the cameraman keep filming when the first rabies lady goes bananas? Would a reporter this ditzy and annoying really have a job at a big-city TV station (based on our local news, I guess the answer to this would actually be, yes)? Once they all figured out what was happening, would they really stay together in one room and risk infection rather than go back to their apartments?--this point is actually brought up by a character, but it's dismissed immediately, cuz otherwise there'd be no movie. The plot is serviceable, and I think this would have been a better movie with a more traditional filming style--there are almost no effective scare moments, because most of the sudden shocks are caught by the camera jerking around like crazy, blurring everything and ruining the jolt we might otherwise get. Obviously, I can't recommend this one. Watch Blair Witch again instead.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Grow up or die

Watched the Bill Maher documentary Religulous last night, and for the most part it was exactly what I was expecting: Bill humorously preaching to the converted (so to speak) about how silly organized religions are. He uses a milder version of Michael Moore's strategy of engaging folks from "the other side" in dialogue, poking and prodding and getting them to say things that might sound normal in other contexts, but which, in Maher's context, sound irrational, bizarre, and ridiculous. What I liked was that he subjected all religions to the method, not just the born-again creationists and the Mormons and Muslim extremists, but also mainstream Catholics and Jews. He ridicules Scientology, a pretty safe tactic, but then turns that around at those who are laughing and says, "Hey, your religion has tenets that are just as crazy!" One of my favorite bits was his ridiculing of a guy who has built a religion around smoking dope; you might expect Maher to be sympathetic to him, but his agenda here is clear: anyone who thinks they've found the answer to the meaning of life in an external force or thing is a little bit crazy, and maybe dangerous.

The bulk of the film is made up of these encounters from across the world, in churches, in sacred sites, at the Kentucky creation museum, and at a Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando (I'm a little scared that my partner Don was serious when he muttered something about wanting to go there--see Bill with Orlando Jesus at right). Maher uses humor to make the situations lighter than they would be under Michael Moore, and most of the interviews are short enough that they don't get too uncomfortable--I am not a fan of the Daily Show feature story interview style in which folks sometimes get roasted to the point of viewer discomfort. If Maher truly doesn't know the answers and is just asking questions, as he keeps proclaiming, than he's a glutton for punishment, as trying to get any religious people to enter the realm of rationality is doomed to failure (since the very definition of faith is belief in something without rational evidence, as I have faith that Woody Allen will again make a really good movie someday).

But even though the interviews get to feeling a little same-old, same-old, it's worth sticking around to the end, when Maher gets serious about the destructive role of religion in history and in society today. I believe that on an individual basis, religion can be a force for "good," but too often on a mass level, religion has been responsible for so much hatred and war and death. Maher has lots of quotable quotes in the harsh last minutes of the movie, but I got a chill when I heard the following: "Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith, and enable and elevate it, are our intellectual slaveholders--keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense that has spawned and justified so much lunacy and destruction. Religion is dangerous, because it allows human beings who don't have all the answers to think that they do." Maher says it's time to "grow up or die," and though I can't imagine he or anyone else really thinks that's going to happen, it's bracing to hear such words.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

OK, so you want the short version...

A friend who is a Less-Than-Faithful Reader, reading my blog only when boredom sets in and every DIY and reality show on cable is a rerun, tells me my previous post on long versions of songs vs. short versions is, well, too long. She wants the short version. As she would have known if she'd finished the post, so do I. Here goes: when I was young, I liked hearing the 5-minute album version of a song rather than the 3-minute single, or the 8-minute dance remix rather than the 4-minute radio version. Now, with practically the entire history of recorded music at my digital disposal, I generally want the short versions, except for "Layla" or "American Pie." That's it.