Sunday, June 23, 2019

Solved! (1987)

Richard Glyn Jones is a busy anthologist who might be best known for "Mammoth Book" collections: The Mammoth Book of True Murder, The Mammoth Book of Killer Women, and The Mammoth Book of Women Who Kill are three of his. I don't know them—the only place it seemed like I ever saw those Mammoth Books was at Half Price Books and I haven't been there in a while. I found out about Solved! in Bill James's book on true-crime literature. It's a sequel of sorts to another Jones collection (Unsolved!, natch). The idea is famous writers writing about famous crime cases, with or without conjecture about whodunit. It's a bit misleading that way—the last piece here, for example, is Harlan Ellison's short story about Jack the Ripper set in the future. Jack the Ripper is not a solved case and we don't know that he was transported to the future. Still, for the most part they are interesting cases, interesting treatments, or both. In his introduction Jones says the collection is built around the three longest pieces, by Arthur Conan Doyle, Damon Runyon, and Erle Stanley Gardner: "the tripartite core of this collection and [showing] the writer as detective, reporter and judge." Again, yes and no. Doyle's piece does more to clarify the gap between mystery fiction writers and crime investigation. He might have guessed right about the solution to an open case, but he doesn't seem that credible and the police ignored him completely, though at least that was likely self-serving. Doyle's piece is best at showing how police have been self-serving for a long time. Damon Runyon's series of newspaper reports on a sensational murder of the 1920s has some intrinsic interest, but reads like someone typing in a hurry. Erle Stanley Gardner's treatment of Argosy magazine's so-called "Court of Last Resort"—a kind of early Innocence Project—is good stuff, though the case itself doesn't hold that much interest, alas. Robert Graves writes about the poisoning of the Roman emperor Claudius. Other writers appearing here include Ellery Queen, John D. MacDonald, and Edgar Wallace. Jones shows up with excited headnotes for some of the pieces, not all. The book has more than its share of typos and other printing errors. The result is that it feels like a hurry-up job rushed to market. A lot like those Mammoth Books at Half Price Books always looked, in fact. But I like the scope of this and its literary ambitions, however misplaced. And as true-crime, it's perfectly adequate for the most part. As each writer settles into relating the facts of a case, or most of them, I soon feel the reveries of reading true-crime overcome me. Not bad.

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fundamental (2006)

Fundamental exists at a certain point for me of perfect indifference toward the Pet Shop Boys, a lost album between when I started seriously losing interest with Release and before my retrospective interest revived  in a second-chapter kind of way with Yes. I couldn't connect with the 2005 Battleship Potemkin project for a long time—I think now it's a worthy if somewhat anemic effort, anemic perhaps by design or necessity as a formal soundtrack—and then I had instinctive animus against the pointless, witless "Sodom and Gomorrah Show" and "I'm With Stupid," which seemed to me much worse than any of the others might have been good enough, making the album not even worth hearing (my problems with the skip button are an issue for another time). I haven't changed my position there much. Note to b-side naysayers: all of Alternative is better than either. They are real all-career lows, stupid songs that act as if we are as stupid as they are pretending to be, so to speak. The album opener, "Psychological," is pro forma. "I Made My Excuses and Left" is one of their typically great titles but the song is only overdone recycled effects. "Minimal" is a reasonable rouser, though it sags some. The Diane Warren song "Numb," big and purple as it is, may be the best song here. Indulging their penchant for theatrical drama (albeit growing alarmingly sentimental), with Neil Tennant in the spotlight putting it all out there (yet also keyword "numb"), it is easier to forgive given how affecting this song somehow is on its face. That means I just plain like it, though I may not understand why, as with the original "MacArthur Park"—something so ineffably sad about that cake. The shorty "God Willing" and "Luna Park," more of a two-part suite, follow in a similar vein with more certain syrupy attractions. "Casanova in Hell" is even more of same, in an acoustic vein, but now it's not working, "Twentieth Century" is back to more like it, with a groove, a hypnotic melody, and the sweet hope of love. "Sometimes the solution is worse than the problem" speaks to its big ambitious title as well as its intimate romantic comedy lyric. "Indefinite Leave to Remain" feels recycled but more or less lives up to the nice title—another torchy one for Tennant. And "Integral" finishes the way the album starts—pro forma. A perfectly professional product, delivered approximately on time. It's Fundamental.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

USA, 138 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Steven Spielberg, Hal Barwood, Jerry Belson, John Hill, Matthew Robbins
Photography: Vilmos Zsigmond
Music: John Williams
Editor: Michael Kahn
Cast: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon, Francois Truffaut, Bob Balaban, Cary Guffey, J. Allen Hynek

Director Steven Spielberg's first (and best) movie about aliens from outer space is a curious mixture of the arty and the boffo. A good argument can be made that it's a movie about religion, faith, and/or obsession (sort of like Ordet). As with many visionary art films first the middle is too long and then the ending is way too long. But Close Encounters also has a global perspective right out of Hollywood pictures like Casablanca, traveling (or pretending to travel) to such far-flung exotic points as the Sonora Desert in Mexico, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, Dharmsala in Northern India, and Alabama as Indiana, looking expensive for the sake of a few intriguing narrative details. Plus the special effects, of course. And it's juiced constantly with theatrical movie alarm and/or juvenile humor. Bob Balaban as an interpreter is given regular freak-out scenes as things develop, and at one of the headiest moments in the formal encounter with the aliens a man is shown running desperately for the porta-potty. Diarrhea, I presume. Or maybe cognitive dissonance.

Close Encounters has long been a favorite of mine, for good reasons and weird (where the RUCK are those aliens?! we really need them now). It's one of those movies I've seen enough that I can recite lines as they are coming. In fact, in some cases ("Don't you think I'm taking this really well?" ... "Who are you people?") I'm down to working on specific intonations. I said a lot of what I have to say about this fascination affair several years ago in a rundown of favorite movies I did with Phil Dellio and Steven Rubio—about the suburbs, the obsessions, the higher truths out there. Now I feel like I'm starting to just burnish the same points. Let’s say I'm being overly completist about getting to all those titles from the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Although, at the same time, it is interesting how Close Encounters of the Third Kind (a real mouthful of a title!) continues to reveal itself even at this level of familiarity.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

"The Monkey's Paw" (1902)

Proceeding now to the unassailable classics, spoilers blazing, this story by W.W. Jacobs is rightly considered one of the best horror short stories. It has been widely anthologized to the point where it is generally groaned over in places like Amazon reviews as an obvious choice when it shows up in another collection. The prolific Jacobs was more of a humorist by inclination, and perhaps even more a spinner of seagoing yarns. He only wrote a dozen or two horror stories and the others I've looked at are more rote, straining for effects they can't quite muster, or that other stories by other writers did much better. In a way, that makes Jacobs an example, for me anyway, of a writer who wrote only one spectacular story.

Among other things "The Monkey's Paw" is one of the best uses of the "three wishes" device, which dates back of course at least to the Arabian Nights into antiquity out of folk fairy tales. This story, in fact, is ridiculously simple in structure. It feels 19th-century in the language and the way it is divided into chapters—indeed, it's often compared to Dickens—but it's a model of compression compared to much 19th-century horror, which often prefers to pile detail teeteringly high in monolithic paragraphs (a mode that continued with H.P. Lovecraft and continues still). In many ways the publication date of "The Monkey's Paw" in the early 20th century feels auspicious.

The story includes a familiar figure of all eras of horror, the worried man of authority, in this case a British Army veteran who served in India, where he acquired the foul object of the story's title. Sergeant-Major Morris is paying a visit to the Whites, an elderly couple with a grown son, Herbert, who still lives with them. They are a ridiculously happy and complacent family. After a few drinks the grizzled veteran tells them the story of the monkey's paw, setting off one of the most artful pieces of the story. Everyone always talks about the knocking in this story, and we'll get to that, but I think this is the really important piece of it.

Monday, June 17, 2019

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019)

If you go by IMDb ratings, the movies in the John Wick franchise just keep getting better and better, with scores of 7.4 for the first one, 7.9 for the second, and early returns showing an even 8.0 for this new one. I wouldn't actually know because, as much as I liked the first one, I have a policy about sequels so I never saw the second. Then people seemed to like this new one and I found myself in the mood for it. The popcorn guy told me he'd heard it was the greatest action movie ever made of all time, and thought I should have seen the second one because something happens in it (he didn't want to give it away) that is important in this one. Yeah, right, I think I can guess—something about a dog and/or hit man Wick (Keanu Reeves) getting out of line with this crazy Assassins Bureau thing. Look, really, plot is the least thing you need to be worried about in Parabellum (which comes from the Latin phrase Si vis pacem, para bellum, "if you want peace, prepare for war," and is also a brand name for a semiautomatic pistol or machine gun). What's important are the fights and the techno music, though there may not be enough techno music in this one. They're brutal, and some can be grotesque, though actually there's not much gore or torture. Instead, most are more like choreography, real popping slopping things of beauty in kinetic motion and coordination, ranging across wide fields of hand-to-hand combat disciplines with or without an equally wide variety of deadly instruments. In fact, as a conceit, the comparison is made explicitly here with ballet. As with the best action pictures, a lot depends on the setups and execution. In this movie the narrative setups may be lame but the execution is excellent. The action can be positively witty. For example, an early fight takes place in a knife store. Hey, why not? Smash the cases as you go, then rapidly hurl knives, what could go wrong? One guy dies with about seven of them stuck in his skull. Then there's one more thing with an ax. In another fight, in a room of all glass, Wick sets a land speed record for smashing through cases, and every burst of shattering glass, no matter how unlikely, is explosive and satisfying. My favorite might be another early one, with Wick on horseback in Manhattan. Horseback! The movie has a waxy metallic kind of look, with super-saturated nighttime colors and a kind of high-contrast glowing texture that's a little off-putting. Is that a film stock choice or something required for high-speed shooting at night? Too often it looks like a Guy Ritchie picture. I'm no expert on action movies but I will say Parabellum had a lot of the look and feel of the Raid movies. Maybe most action movies do now? Popcorn guy sources notwithstanding, I would still put them a little ahead of the two John Wicks I have seen (the third, or rather second, is on its way to me now from Netflix). Keanu Reeves is starting to show his age a little, 55 this year, but that doesn't matter much either. He's going to be doing this for a long time. Consider Liam Neeson. Meanwhile, Parabellum: for when you're in a kinetic mood.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)

The first novel by James Joyce took over 10 years to write. Published when Joyce was 34, it's not a big book. The time was occupied with poverty, drinking, revising, and drafting, not necessarily in that order. At one point it was giant. I read it in my 20s and reread it recently and both times I loved the first half and then felt this autobiographical artist-coming-of-age tale bog down as the main character Stephen Dedalus reaches his mid-teens, when religion swamps his education and fuels a provocative resentment. My favorite sections might be the transcriptions of their lessons on hell, which are vivid and just a little sick: "The blood seethes and boils in the veins, the brains are boiling in the skull, the heart in the breast glowing and bursting, the bowels a red-hot mass of burning pulp, the tender eyes flaming like molten balls." The lesson goes on like that for quite some time. Joyce's language all through is singing, vibrant, and concrete, not just on hell, but the narrative is often elliptical, forcing us to construct context and setting from clues. It lands hard on specific points in time, but then skips ahead with little warning beyond new chapters and line breaks. In a general way I share Joyce's resentments about the church, but I certainly don't share his experience. That's mainly what mires me down in the second half, as religion marks and distorts every aspect of his life and especially his education. No wonder he's so pissed off. I would also like to register another complaint about the Modern Library list, which ranks this as third-best novel in the 20th century behind only Ulysses and The Great Gatsby. In other words, two of the top three on the list are by Joyce. As it happens, Joyce is one of the few writers on this list who I think deserves two titles, as opposed to, say, Joseph Conrad (4), Evelyn Waugh (3), Ford Madox Ford (2), and other lapses. For that matter, Joyce doesn't deserve the three he gets—down at #77 we find Finnegans Wake of all things. Did all the voters really reread it to make sure it was as good as they remembered? That position, about #77, is where I think Portrait should go, a worthy and valuable book but not nearly as good as many it's ranked over (The Sound and the Fury, Catch-22, and The Grapes of Wrath, to name three in the top 10). Well, file all that under the agony of making lists. The religion aspect of Portrait might make it less interesting to me—in terms of liberating oneself from that particular morass I think Samuel Butler's Way of All Flesh is the better novel (or memoir), if decidedly 19th-century and not modern. But Joyce is such a good writer, and so modern, he can obscure things like that.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

USA, 108 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, Alma Reville, Gordon McDonell
Photography: Joseph A. Valentine
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editor: Milton Carruth
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Hume Cronyn, Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford, Edna May Wonacott

In my attempts to make the case that Fritz Lang's M is flawed and overrated, too much a propaganda exercise pushing for return of a death penalty in Germany in the early '30s—hey, we all have our blind spots—I used to counter claims it was the best serial killer movie of all time by calling attention to Shadow of a Doubt, director Alfred Hitchcock's first movie set exclusively in the US and also reportedly his own favorite of all the movies he made. In 1986, Henry made the whole argument moot, of course (though not all fans of M see it that way), and in hindsight I would have to say that Hitchcock's conception of a serial killer and his society is nearly as romanticized and off-key as M, though both movies also have many things right about the curious brutal phenomenon of modern life.

M focuses on the sexual perversion, general skulking pathetic qualities, and the heinousness of the crimes, preying on children, whereas Shadow of a Doubt makes Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, typically great even in an unusual role for him) more of a preening Nietzschean superman type, openly, almost compulsively scornful of social institutions such as banks and churches. A soul of darkness. He's the one you'd think more likely to send postcards to newspapers and police. But Uncle Charlie is actually a good deal more circumspect and ultimately perhaps rational, going to great pains to hide his identity and in many ways committing his crimes for the money. He's closer to Patricia Highsmith's Mr. Ripley than Jack the Ripper. The genius here is to set this serial killer down in the middle of California small-town Leave it to Beaver land.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Top 40

1. Blood Orange, "Charcoal Baby" (4:02)
2. Sons of Kemet, "My Queen Is Harriet Tubman" (5:38)
3. Wizkid, "Fever" (4:12)
4. Lizzo, "Boys" (2:52)
5. Lil Peep, "Life Is Beautiful" (3:27)
6. Elle Goulding, Diplo & Swae Lee, "Close to Me" (3:02)
7. A Boogie Wit da Hoodie, "Look Back at It" (2:59)
8. Lauren Daigle, "You Say (piano/vocal)" (4:36)
9. Janice and Bill Youngman, "Wings" (6:47, 2017)
10. Gary Clark Jr., "This Land" (5:41)
11. Ariana Grande, "Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored" (3:10)
12. Dean Lewis, "Be Alright" (3:16)
13. Freddie Gibbs, "Bandana" (3:21)
14. Gesaffelstein, "Blast Off" (3:36)
15. Avey Tare, "Taken Boy" (3:41)
16. Deafheaven, "Black Brick" (7:27)
17. Weezer, "High as a Kite" (3:47)
18. Weezer, "Living in L.A." (3:37)
19. Marissa Nadler, "If We Make It Through the Summer" (2:20)
20. Jay Som, "Simple" (3:41)
21. Kera, "Bright Future Ahead" (3:19)
22. Jessie Ware, "Adore You" (3:45)
23. Wye Oak, "Evergreen" (3:47)
24. Pet Shop Boys, "On Social Media" (3:33)
25. Sebastian Hagensen, "Hold Back the River" (2:20)
26. Jonas Brothers, "Sucker" (3:01)
27. Feed Me, "Sleepless" (5:33)
28. Fata Morgana, "La Atlantida" (4:53)
29. Raiki, "No More (Original Mix)" (5:03)
30. Karen O & Danger Mouse, "Turn the Light" (3:19)
31. Dream Syndicate, "Black Light" (4:40)
32. Dave, "Black" (3:48)
33. Nakhane feat. Anohin, "New Brighton" (3:19)
34. Lola Indigo, "Mujer Bruja" (3:23)
35. Unperfect, "Gots to Give the Girl" (4:05)
36. E-40, "Melt" (2:20)
37. Sky Ferreira, "Downhill Lullaby" (5:32)
38. Bad Religion, "Do the Paranoid Style" (1:46)
39. Tame Impala, "Patience" (4:52)
40. Ciara, "Thinkin Bout You" (3:48)

tx: Billboard, Spin, Skip D. Expense, The Stranger, The Singles Jukebox, social media at random, hearing the Ariana Grande song on the radio confirmed it for me

Monday, June 10, 2019

Rocketman (2019)

I first saw the preview for this movie at the same time I first saw the preview for Bohemian Rhapsody so the two movies have always seemed a little linked to me. Glad they finally put this one out, timed to coincide with Elton John's farewell (until the next one no doubt) tour. There are other connections, such as the obvious: '70s gay rock star lifestyle writing hits cocaine abuse consequences biopic, etc. The director of Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher, was listed as an executive producer on Bohemian Rhapsody after he stepped in to finish it when director Bryan Singer stepped out. That reminds me of the way Bill Pohlad, who directed the Brian Wilson / Beach Boys picture Love & Mercy, from 2014, has spent most of his career as a producer (Brokeback Mountain, The Tree of Life, 12 Years a Slave). Can producers just not resist the opportunity to direct these behemoth rock star exercises? Or are they that easy? Somehow it makes me think of Jann Wenner writing a record review. The movie that nagged at me most during Rocketman was the Beatles show from 2007, Across the Universe. They both basically combine history, biopic, old-fashioned musical, and newfangled music video modes into swirling demi-psychedelic demi-head-trip jukebox musicals, with valuable trivia. Lots of familiar Elton John faves for one and all are deployed to illustrate phases of his life: "The Bitch Is Back," "Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting)," "Honky Cat," "Your Song," "Tiny Dancer," more. They're not the originals but they're usually close enough (again like Across the Universe). "Crocodile Rock" notably gets a terrific treatment, asserting itself again as one of the great rock 'n' roll songs of the '70s. Never mind it's given as performed at the historic Troubador stand (another feature of Rocketman: all songs all out of sequence). And just when you think they're running out of them, along come "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," or the redoubtable "Bennie and the Jets."

But the other piece about Bohemian Rhapsody that occurred to me with Rocketman was the controversy about biopics and truth. Bohemian Rhapsody had a major whitewasher falsehood that profoundly disrespected Freddie Mercury and what he wanted to be to fans, for the sake of a big rousing finish. That doesn't happen in Rocketman, though obviously there are exaggerations, distortions, and the usual biopic problems related to moviemaker liberties (this one with a sense of history as if ripped to shreds by a slasher). But it does take the emotional travails of Elton John quite seriously, chasing down his issues with his father and his mother, his alcoholism and drug problems, his inability to sustain a relationship, and more than anything the sadness at the center of his life. As a conceit, the frame story is set in a group therapy session at a rehab clinic. Or maybe it was just a plain old AA meeting. Well, not exactly a plain old anything as Elton is in costume for much of it (and of course out of costume at the end of it). But there he is laying it all right out on us. The result is a much more honest picture but somehow with much fewer pure highs of pleasure. I'm wondering if that's really the terms of this trade-off, or maybe it just happened by accident here. It made me think of a spirited defense I read of Bohemian Rhapsody (by Christopher Frizzelle in the Seattle Stranger) which makes the argument that Freddie Mercury didn't want to be remembered as a casualty. He wanted to be remembered as an electrifying performer. I went to Rocketman with high expectations, so that might be part of the problem too. It's tremendous at many points. Elton's friendship with Bernie Taupin is wonderful, an unusual union and very touching. Also interesting to see Elton treated as an early musical prodigy—I hadn't known that. And it's probably honest, right?! Still, I would have appreciated a little higher quotient of electrifying performances in Rocketman. After all, it's what we know Elton John can do.