Monday, August 29, 2016

Bad Moms (2016)

I didn't love The Hangover but I didn't hate it either, and I thought there might be a reasonable chance of transposing the frat boy party hearty stunt over to MILFs, more or less, and make it maybe even more funny. A reasonable chance, I say. More or less. And it does develop at least that much. The thing is, the trademark scene of co-directors and cowriters Jon Lucas and Scott Moore basically works no matter what the movie is about—or doesn't work, depending on your view. Crank up the soundtrack, use lots of fast cuts, close-ups, odd angles, and slo-mo, with riotous scenes of drinking, dancing, and debauchery, and you're pretty much good to go. Bad Moms has that, for some highly rousing moments, and maybe a little more beyond as well. Mila Kunis is Amy, a suburban Mom in Chicagoland, who is doing her best, driving her kids around in an SUV, holding down a job, and making the PTA meetings as required. After a marriage crisis leads to the breakdowns of impending divorce 30something style, she breaks, lets go, lets loose, and lets it all hang out. She picks up a couple of sidekicks in the angelic, meek, and Christian housewife Kiki (Kristen Bell) and the much more bawdy Carla (Katherine Hahn, who is the funny one here, as an unbridled appetite set perpetually on consume). Add mean girls style catfights in a run for the PTA president, and it's mostly decent rollicking diversion. Mostly predictable, of course, going nostalgic and sentimental about motherhood at least as often as it deliberately crosses lines of taste, but capable of little surprises. In the modern frenetic style, a lot of things are thrown at the wall and some are bound to stick. It's much closer to teen comedy than liberated woman story though it seems to be trying to do both. I think Mila Kunis is probably better in small parts, as in Black Swan. Underneath it all, Bad Moms is mostly a male dynamic, which at least has the virtue of being what I expected. A better movie is Bridesmaids, with more actual women contributing to the story. As it happens, one of the writers of Bridesmaids has a role as a dim bulb in Bad Moms (Annie Mumolo). I'm not at all sure that's the right direction. This is probably a good one for late-night cable-TV. If you happen to be in a hotel room, stay out of the minibar.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"A Vintage Thunderbird" (1978)

Story by Ann Beattie not available online.

Ann Beattie explores lifestyles of the young, urban, and sexually active in this chilly story of the summertime of life. They are all in their late 20s or 30s. The fact that it's a little dated helps to blunt the assault, but not by much. It's appalling the way these friends treat each other. That's the point, of course, and it works. It's strong medicine, in fact. Nick is in love with Karen, who is a few years older, with whom he's had a poorly defined sexual relationship for seven years. "Open" seems to cover it, but nothing so blatant is ever discussed. Now she mostly sees older men and does a bit of treasure hunting. Nick is seeing a woman named Petra but they don't appear to like one another. But Petra gets mad, understandably, when Karen lures Nick away from one of their dates. A married couple, Sammy and Stephanie, have relocated to Virginia, but their disagreements about having a child moved with them. Suddenly Stephanie is pregnant, an accident. She's going to keep the child. Then she isn't. She needs to come up to New York to see Nick. It's a sad parade. These people can't sustain long-term friendships, and they tend to want instead to sexualize them. What they don't have is what they must have. What they do have is devalued by their having it. Everything is always a mess in their lives, though they are privileged enough that necessities of survival rarely impinge on their fugue states. They can throw fits of pique and disappear to the Bahamas for a week or two. At one point Nick tells Karen she is his oldest friend, which shocks her because they've only known each other seven years. So it goes. Even with total inabilities to make commitments, the people in this story are continually making commitments, usually to others they don't know well. They fail. They fail again. They keep trying because it's easier than trying to understand their own self-sabotage. They are not friends to one another so much as witnesses, who wish very much that they didn't have to look. It's dated, but as I say that's also a mercy.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Back to Black (2006)

I didn't much go for last year's documentary about Amy Winehouse, Amy, which I suppose I went to out of some sense of duty. The truth is I had always kind of avoided the topic—scoring a hit called "Rehab" and then dying at the age of 27 of problems related to substance abuse never struck me as a winning formula. Honestly, self-destruction, tragic death, and that kind of thing have had diminishing interest for me since approximately turning 40. But Winehouse obviously had a faithful following, and if the documentary may be altogether too thrilled with celebrity for my taste, it still offered a primer on her career and a basic insight that helped me turn a corner, certainly with the most famous of her two albums, which opens on her one and only hit. She says it herself in the documentary at one point, but it really took the visuals to drive it home for me: with this album, at least, she is drawing on sources from Brill Building New York in the early '60s, the era of girl groups and megalomaniacal producers—Phil Spector, Shadow Morton, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and the Shangri-Las are all obvious starting points on some of the best songs here (and on "Rehab" too), with horn charts, backing singers, purring organ keyboards, clanking piano chords, and sultry grooves. There are real glories in the dense wallop of these tracks, and whether produced by Salaam Remi or Mark Ronson they are completely up to making a context for Winehouse's greatest weapon, her croaking, searching, warbling, and offhandedly powerful voice. She uses that to create a perfectly charming New Jersey persona here—"What kind of fuckery is this?" she demands as one song drops in. I don't know jazz singing, because I'm not that interested in it, but even I can pick out the chops she has. And I didn't need Tony Bennett to confirm it for me in the picture, but it was nice to see. The focus of her music often revolves around the imposing presence of her voice, but she is never a mere technician, often leaping into instinct, and she was also getting better at writing songs too (though unfortunately less so perhaps at actually applying herself to it, and yes, we all know why). So, right, this is a pretty great album, complete with its own style, mood, moxie, and impact, part beehive hairdo, part smoky nightclub, part grabby insistent hooks and rhythms, and all heart. A real beauty, for the ages.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Before Midnight (2013)

USA / Greece, 109 minutes
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Kim Krizan
Photography: Christos Voudouris
Music: Graham Reynolds
Editor: Sandra Adair
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

The third installment of the Before series, which has increasingly become a collaboration by director and cowriter Richard Linklater and its two stars, Ethan Hawke as Jesse and Julie Delpy as Celine, is probably the weakest. Thirds in sequels usually do poorly as movies, but that's not exactly the problem, partly because this is not a typical series. Before Midnight certainly has some of the strongest scenes of any of them. But the ending is hard to believe, flipping an unlikely switch out of the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? territory it has wandered at deepest levels and into sparkly upbeat, in order, one suspects, to help guarantee another installment (providing everyone makes it another nine years). It's a bit of a fairy tale, in other words, and not in a good way or one that really works with the title. Jesse and Celine are more like pumpkins until midnight, at which point they become a prince and a beautiful love relationship with glass slipper, etc. Maybe—it's also ambiguous, as all the endings are.

I should say I've never liked Before Sunrise that much, which possibly leaves me with just the second, Before Sunset. I had to check it out again this week just to be sure it's as good as I remember. It is. The strength of the later movies is that they look like real relationships. Before Sunset has a good deal of hope and an ingenious way to make it believable, with a relationship renewed before our eyes. In Before Midnight, Jesse and Celine are married, with twin girls, and settled after nine years into a comfortable life—conventional bohemian bourgeois, more or less, on vacation in the summer in Greece. Dig the scenery.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

I hardly know every nook and cranny of the Star Trek fan base, but I'm starting to get the impression—that is, getting it through my thick noggin—that many, perhaps a majority, truly believe it begins and ends with the original TV series from the '60s. It begins there, I'm willing to concede that, but now three movies into the reboot I see less sign than ever that it's going to connect dots beyond that. I know they are separated two centuries and more from the rest, but when has something like that ever been a problem? Q alone could take care of it with a snap of his fingers. So that's the bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that they're doing a real swell job reviving the vibe of the old show. Zachary Quinto as Mr. Spock and Karl Urban as Doctor "Bones" McCoy are developing an amazing simulacrum of the old chemistry. Chris Pine is a fine James T. Kirk hard-on from the manly commanding class of figures who fuck aliens,. Simon Pegg is wonderful as Scotty—really. And I was sad every time Anton Yelchin as Chekov was on the screen. He will be missed, and hardly for just this role. The story of Star Trek Beyond? Well, it's OK. I mean, it's excellent if you're comparing the action pyrotechnics with the TV show. That's what we have here, a solid action picture set in space with lots of familiar nostalgic notes. It mixes in some strange and interesting new characters, including a real hot babe, but always the deepest love of all is reserved for the proud ship Enterprise. "In brightest day, in blackest night"—wait, no, that's wrong. It's "Space.... The final frontier." And yes, they unroll the whole frakking speech right in the middle of the movie just because they think they can (the degenderized version, by the way, one element anyway picked up from the later versions). This franchise is probably not going to be enough for me without things like the developed Klingons, or robots who feel therefore they are, or even the blasted Borg if they must, and above all the Federation mission of exploration and peace—you know, those Thoreau space hippies we love to see working out skits of ethical dilemmas. In the recent reboot run, I think Beyond is generally better than Into Darkness but not up to the brawny, bravura highs of the original 2009 reboot. (Who's in charge of these ridiculous titles anyway?) I'm not sure everyone sees it my way—I've seen where this one is rated over the first, about which there seems to be a settled if generalized dubious sense ("it's OK"). Check it out. I guess we could do worse than another decade of Spock and McCoy sparring. Wait, are we so sure about that? But again, not to begrudge anything, and struggling as always with my general skepticism about sequels, this is solid if what you're looking for is a great big honking nostalgia wallow. Oh hell, they even pull out pictures of Leonard Nimoy. Who am I to quibble in the face of a great franchise?

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Basketball Diaries (1978)

Here's a good one for the shelf where you keep your disaffected beatnik literature. Based on diary entries Jim Carroll made from 1963 to 1966, it chronicles the life of a ne'er-do-well midcentury juvenile delinquent living off the streets of New York City. He was age 13 to 16 at the time of all these adventures, and even if they have been heavily edited he is still obviously a precociously gifted youth. I was figuratively still picking my nose and rubbing it on my pants leg at the same age he was doing heroin, making it with chicks, and winning basketball championships. Sometimes the callow youth you would expect shows up—in the early sections he's still not clear on whether it's heroin or marijuana that is dangerously addictive (that's all straightened out by the end of the book). I was struck by how there is no mention of either the JFK assassination or the coming of the Beatles, though Malcolm X (and his assassination) comes up more than once. It sprawls across great swaths of the city, starting on the Lower East Side and moving north, to the Bronx and environs. Carroll and his comrades live wild and free, laughing and winning basketball games and taking what they please. Not without consequence. Late in the book Carroll serves 31 days in jail, about which he says little, but seems to be brooding over a bad experience. Even later than that he is living the life of a heroin addict. The literary ambitions are there; he talks about them in places, mostly in terms of poetry. In some ways I'm sorry I came to him so late. He died in 2009 at the age of 60. At some point, in the late '70s, I acquired the single "People Who Died" by his Jim Carroll Band. I loved it for the nervous way it surged and spat out the name-checking. But I was never moved to go further than that (I don't even remember the B-side) until I thought of him again and was happy to find that my paperback edition of this (with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover) had survived the purges of the past 10 years. Is it essential? I don't know. It's a memoir with great anecdotal storytelling and vivid detail of a most unusual life in a time and place that holds a good deal of interest for me. The language has little to recommend it beyond its clarity, but I'll take clarity on a bet over beauty any day—it just surprises me a little, given he evidently considered himself a poet more than any of the many other roles he played: sports star, rock star, and heroin addict. Not bad.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, August 19, 2016

East of Eden (1955)

USA, 115 minutes
Director: Elia Kazan
Writers: John Steinbeck, Paul Osborn
Photography: Ted D. McCord
Music: Leonard Rosenman
Editor: Owen Marks
Cast: James Dean, Raymond Massey, Jo Van Fleet, Julie Harris, Dick Davalos, Burl Ives, Albert Dekker, Barbara Baxley, Harold Gordon

It's probably not possible to overstate the self-importance of East of Eden. It's less than two hours, with no intermission, but somehow merits an overture, pounding away on Leonard Rosenman's swelling theme, which appears throughout the picture, including characters randomly humming it. The story makes heavy-handed and obvious references to the Bible, Freud, and Marx, occasionally juggling all three at once like a circus clown. And the humor is sparing, if it's there at all. It's also the debut of James Dean, pushing method acting front and center in this hothouse Oedipal tale of fraught family relations.

Yet it works—another masterpiece by director Elia Kazan and one of the most powerful movies made about all the very many issues it wants to get to, clutching at them furiously like some beast in a bathrobe bursting into Walmart at 5 a.m. for the sale: sin, redemption, father love, mother love, brother love, capital, labor relations, war and profiteering, immigration tension (against German-Americans, as this is set in World War I times), greed, honor, lust, and other mortal sins, plus the wages of corrosive bitterness. The real miracle is that it does work.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Brooksmith" (1891)

This short story by Henry James veers awfully close to tales of faithful pets, forever loyal and true blue, though the subject is technically a servant, a butler. That's Brooksmith, who spends most of his life as the head manservant for a certain diplomat. The story is told first-person by an anonymous regular visitor to the diplomat, who conducted a kind of salon after he retired. The diplomat was a popular fellow and all, but the narrator believes it's Brooksmith, as de facto gatekeeper of the house, who is responsible for the great success of his master in retirement. Brooksmith is described specifically as being five feet three inches in height, which is unusually short, especially for a butler. The implication is that a certain force of personality—or something ineffably powerful—attends Brooksmith, and thus somehow he is an extraordinary man. He's a servant but secretly the real master of the house. Well, maybe. The weakness of his position becomes evident when the diplomat dies, leaving only meager provision for Brooksmith. There are many small mysteries in this story: how or why Brooksmith was such a force in the household, why the diplomat left him so little, and ultimately what becomes of Brooksmith at all. Also why the narrator takes such an interest in him. There's a strange erotic tension to it, especially between Brooksmith and the diplomat (who is entirely offstage), but it's so subtle I worry I'm reading too much into it. Or perhaps answering some of my own questions. The narrator reports seeing Brooksmith a couple of times in fallen circumstances, and, when he doesn't see him for a long while, fears that the old butler is avoiding him. Brooksmith is last seen as a waiter at a banquet in a private home. He won't meet the narrator's eye. Not surprisingly, all things considered, in the end Brooksmith disappears altogether. No one seems to know what became of him, and death may be presumed, though the mysteries only multiply. The story is quite compact, especially for James—the ruminating memories of the narrator, with very little dialogue. The main dynamic is familiar, with the same kinds of tensions as Huck and Jim, or Ishmael and Queequeg, a disquietingly unconscious assumption of the subhuman told with affection and regard, but using them to make some obscure larger point. In a way, a fictionalized abstracted way, they are still treated as servants. Something very sad about this one.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 17 pages

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Space Guitar (1953-1963)

I don't have anything against Johnny "Guitar" Watson's disco period, it's just that I love his rhythm and blues stuff from earlier points in his career more. He adopted his nickname after seeing the 1954 Nicholas Ray movie with Joan Crawford, Johnny Guitar, so maybe there's some kind of natural progression there. He brings a certain level of manic flamboyance and showmanship that's hard to resist. At any rate, he was still going as Young John Watson for the original release of most of the songs on this nice 2004 collection on Varese. Watson loved him some T-Bone Walker, and sure enough, the electric guitar is often the most salient point song to song, as on "What's Goin' On," where he makes it sound like a buggy. On the title song, "Space Guitar," he takes a rock star turn, growing his guitar licks big, ripping away the reverb, making it squeal, moan, playing the Dragnet theme, etc., and with unruly feedback too. And there's an alternate version here that's even wilder. Pretty cool. That electric guitar is always a strong supporting element, but I think it's actually his songwriting here that wins me over so big. He goes back to jump blues for the nimble structures of many of these little delights, and he operates within the world that Louis Jordan outlined so well: drinking, gambling, house parties, and woman troubles are frequent themes. He's often exasperated by life's setbacks, but he's jubilant too when the victories come. There are horn charts and some real nice honkytonk piano too. "No I Can't," which comes early in the sequencing, is a good one to sing with—it's possible you get a feel for what it's like to be Johnny "Guitar" Watson there, which sets the mood and tone well. "Half Pint of Whiskey" and "Gettin' Drunk" are pretty much as described—he's counting on the alcohol, but it's not always delivering. The latest song here and the one that feels most like a hit is "Gangster of Love," from 1963. The title is more prescient than the sound, which is the chattering rhythm and blues style he establishes so well. But he's not that far off from what we associate with "gangster" now, with scenarios that would work for the Notorious B.I.G. himself: "I robbed the local beauty contest / For their first place winner / They found her with me out in Hollywood / Eating a big steak dinner / They tried to get her to go back / To pick up her prize / She stood up and told them / You just don't realize that he's a gangster of love." It might be a bit Rat Pack, but I like that picture of her saying "You just don't realize that he's a gangster of love" standing over a steak dinner, in 1963.