Friday, January 24, 2020

Margaret (2011)

USA, 187 minutes
Director / writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Photography: Ryszard Lenczewski
Music: Nico Muhly
Editors: Mike Fay, Anne McCabe
Cast: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Kenneth Lonergan, Jeannie Berlin, Mark Ruffalo, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin

Margaret is more than just another chapter in the strange and wide-ranging career of precocious Anna Paquin though it's all of that, perhaps her best performance ever, appearing years late in what became one of those legendary cursed and lost movie projects. Paquin previously showed up as a 10-year-old in The Piano, a fraught tween in Fly Away Home, a jaded college student in her experimental phase in The Squid and the Whale, and Rogue of the X-Men, a superhero who siphons away the powers of others. She always seemed to be playing a lost soul who feels like a mutant outsider, and she is deployed well here at the head of a remarkable class of players collected by director and writer Kenneth Lonergan. The casting, indeed, is one of the strong points in Margaret, a movie with many of them.

Lonergan hasn't made a movie yet that is less than extraordinary, though there are only three of them, with You Can Count on Me (still his best) and Manchester by the Sea. It's not clear exactly why Margaret became one of Hollywood's great lost projects. Mostly shot in 2005, it languished for years in post-production. Lonergan had rights to the final cut, reportedly, but the studio would take nothing over 150 minutes and Lonergan could not get it under three hours. Eventually relations became acrimonious and then there were lawsuits, with the film released in 2011 as a bitter afterthought and to meet legal obligations. It had a brief theatrical run in truncated form (149 minutes, which can still be seen for four bucks on Amazon) and then a bare-bones "extended cut" DVD, bearing the burden of its expectations—and meeting them. But the delays and PR disaster took their toll. Few seem to know that Margaret is actually one of the best American movies of this century so far.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Watchmen, s1 (2019)

I feel dutybound to note that this latest take on the Watchmen comic book franchise continues to screw an original creator, writer Alan Moore, who was promised in the mid-'80s that the rights to it would revert to him when it went out of print. But it turned out to be too successful and never went out of print. DC Comics, honoring the letter rather than the spirit of the agreement, licensed it first about 10 years ago (against Moore's wishes) to a bloated film project headed by director Zack Snyder, who predictably took it way over the top. And DC remains free now to license it again to Damon Lindelof (Lost, The Leftovers) for this HBO production. Lindelof has obviously been given free range to do whatever he likes with it. Alan Moore has nothing to say and has already washed his hands of it, though his collaborator, illustrator Dave Gibbons, is involved as a producer and consultant. It's no adaptation but starts its first formal season much closer to fan fiction, riffing on the fundamentals and concepts of the original. I'm OK with that in theory because Lindelof brings a lot of obvious affection and some interesting ideas to it, plus he's established as a certain level of TV savant who can do this kind of story. I worry he is in over his head with the heavy racial themes. He has recast at least this first season as a racial drama set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, rooting the story in the historical events of the 1921 Black Wall Street Massacre, nearly a century ago, one of the most violent race riots in US history and an incident still largely whitewashed from general knowledge. I'm worried it will turn out to be more woke puzzle-box than insightful but we'll see. In a general way I was convinced by these episodes when not distracted by sympathies for Moore. It's decades after the original story, more or less in the present time, and, while lots of familiar characters, heroes, and ideas from the graphic novel show up like so much flotsam and easter egg debris, this first season seems to be mainly about rules of the road. The big kahuna as usual remains Dr. Manhattan, the only figure in the whole thing with actual superpowers, who has a strange fate that will obviously play large in the next season and probably across the whole thing. This Watchmen also has a lot of preoccupations with masks and police abuse—police in certain regions (such as Oklahoma) wear masks "for their protection," which seems metaphorically strained to me in the same way that firemen in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 burn books instead of putting out fires. I'm not convinced the arguments in Lindelof's Watchmen for policemen wearing masks make any sense at all or are particularly believable, but they work the point by brute force of how scary it looks actually in operation. With the race themes alone, this Watchmen clearly intends to make itself relevant to present political currents, nor is it oblivious to Donald Trump and Trumpism. Lindelof is capable of good TV and the show could find some good places to go for the next several years or whatever he has in mind. I appreciate some of the high points here—some neat plot twists and a bunch of good performances—but I suspect it's fatally misconceived as a TV series. And, for the record, come what may, I still think Alan Moore deserves better.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

"Paycheck" (1953)

This long story by Philip K. Dick has a kind of fairy tale D&D aspect of quests, where the main character Jennings has multiple tasks to do, puzzles to solve, and dilemmas to resolve. Jennings is an engineer who works on projects so top secret that he must undergo memory wiping after each one. At the end of the latest, following the memory wipe, he finds that he has formally and legally declined payment in favor of an envelope full of trinkets, as he calls them—a code key, a ticket stub, a parcel receipt, etc. Before long he is in trouble with the police for his work on the project. But he can't remember anything about it and they've never heard of memory wiping. Then the trinkets start to come in handy, one at a time. By story's end we're learning of a machine that can see the future, which is how Jennings is ultimately able to save himself. In 2003, John Woo made a movie of it with the same name. It starred Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman, and typically Woo makes the stakes higher. In the movie Jennings is saving the world, has a beautiful faithful girlfriend, and the envelope contains 20 trinkets—or knickknacks, as he calls them in the movie. Don't ask me why that change was made. The movie got terrible reviews but I like John Woo in a general way and the picture is reasonably faithful to the story. The story is just less Phildickian enough that it can work as John Woo. The best effect in the story, the reveal of the device called a time scoop, is missing in the movie, where the concept is based on optics, explained early, with a lens that can see around the curve of the universe into the future (kind of like the way it's always tomorrow in Australia). It might even make sense, but I miss the nice way the story ends. Otherwise it's all about constructing set pieces around random everyday objects, such as a single paperclip in the movie. Woo and Dick are both good at set pieces but Woo might have the edge here. It certainly has some of that thing you find in puzzle movies (and stories all the way back to Sherlock Holmes at least) where convenience is remarkably persistent. Whereas one abstract clue—that paperclip, say—could suggest multiple potential uses our hero somehow always lands unerringly on the right one at the right time. Remarkable! It's arguable that it's not that bad in this case because the person providing Jennings with the clues after all is Jennings himself, who should know how he thinks. It was enough explanation for me to enjoy the action, but my complaint is that it is merely action. In the end neither story nor movie may be that good as Dick or Woo, respectively, but there's worse. Scanners and Impostor are much worse adaptations of Dick. You can pick your own poison with Woo. How about Broken Arrow?

The Philip K. Dick Reader

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Stage Fright (1970)

As an oldest brother myself, I might have missed out on more of the older-brother influence in music than many, though I did have friends with older brothers who made their impacts (as I doubtless made my own ... certainly I tried!). Stage Fright, the Band's third album and widely considered a drop-off from the first two, is one example. The Band has to stand as classic older-brother music. The critics in Rolling Stone went apeshit for them, which sounded to me, after I heard them, like merely falling for the pretensions of a rock band that called itself "the Band" or, more likely, falling for the broader legend of Bob Dylan even after 1966. As it happens, I seem to be mostly immune to the collaboration—I certainly don't consider the 1974 double-live Before the Flood even that good, for example, let alone one of the greatest live albums ever made, and Greil Marcus's chapter about them in Mystery Train seems more embarrassingly insistent to me now than insightful. Dare I say, re: the Band, OK boomer? No, I better not. I'm aware Stage Fright is the wrong Band album to like best, but it's the one I heard the most at the time, with my friend's older brother often blasting the second side from behind his closed door (alternating with either side or all of Bridge Over Troubled Water). It probably makes more sense when you count in that I don't really like the Band that much. Stage Fright came out just before I started 10th grade and high school and I had a kind of gut response to the title song, buried toward the back of side 2 but played on hippie radio, as it spoke to my feelings in that moment about what lay ahead. See the man, gathering up all his might. First verse: "Deep in the heart of a suffering kid / Who suffered so much for what he did / They gave this plowboy his fortune and fame / Since that day he ain't been the same." Those first two lines speak directly to my life experience and the next two directly to my problem with the Band. Like, plowboy? Who's a plowboy? It's possible Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song, may have met plowboys but I don't think he ever was one. It reads to me as more of the Band's bent toward co-opting older American country and folk music, admittedly often in surprisingly resonant ways. Neil Young, another Canadian (four of the five members of the Band are Canadian), can also be really good at it. On songs like "Stage Fright" or "Katie's Been Gone" on The Basement Tapes the Band are capable of big warm emotional moments. I understand their first two albums are better as American folk music in many ways, and I've come to appreciate them in moderation. But Stage Fright is what I like to play—with highlights beyond the title song that include "The Shape I'm In," "Time to Kill," and that lovely organ bit on "All La Glory"—for those unusual occasions when I'm in the mood for the Band. Oh hell, these days I can just put together a playlist. D'oh!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

"The Eyes of the Panther" (1897)

Ambrose Bierce had a way of getting in the grill of things to come in the 20th century. Here he's paying his respects to the werewolf strain of 19th-century horror (strictly speaking, the werecat, or more specifically the werepanther), acquitting himself competently as usual with ingenious twists of perception and expectation. In 1930 Val Lewton wrote a story inspired by it, "The Bagheeta," and a decade later produced the movie Cat People, which feels much like this story. A man wants to marry a woman but she won't have him because she says she is insane and it wouldn't be fair to him. She explains herself with a story about the accidental death of her older sister, smothered by her mother who was in a panic because of a panther stalking them from an open window. Nobody, including we the readers, understand why this makes her insane, but that's the story. Later, in the formal twist (heads up, spoiler-phobes), the man is menaced by a panther, or the eyes of a panther, in his window. Exercising his Second Amendment rights, he riddles it with bullets to death. Actually, he only fires once. It turns out to be the woman. The way I read the story first, blissfully unaware and unthinking of the "were" implications, I took her as insane to think she was insane. Stuff like that happens. People think weird ways, especially in horror stories. Then I thought, OK, well maybe the insanity is some paranoid compulsion thing that has turned her into a kind of stalker. I did catch all the foreshadowing of feline attributes, notably the glowing eyes, but took it literally, as descriptive. And it can be read that way! This is the real connection with Cat People. We don't know in either case that these haunted women actually turn into panthers (the specific feline in the movie too). They might just think they do, prowling the night as insomniacs. A further twist has been articulated by the critic S.T. Joshi, arguing the man knows it's her when he fires his gun. He kills her for spurning him. Hey, that works too. And don't forget it also works as a mystical story of a werepanther (as does the movie). There's something deceptively slight about Bierce, but the more you read him the more you can feel him operating at these deeper multiple levels with a good deal of skill. He was willing to be heartless (some called him "Bitter Bierce") and he often worked within the disciplines of the twist ending, which tempt gimmickry. But don't be fooled by the horror gewgaws. There's usually a lot more going on in Bierce.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Claudius the God (1935)

Claudius the God is at least as good as its forerunner published the year before, I, Claudius, and they are probably most usefully considered as a single long work. This second historical novel focuses on Claudius's time as a Roman emperor and his ultimate deification. In one way it might be inferior to the first in that it feels like it has one eye cocked on Jesus and the Christians, which were unknown to most Romans in the time of Claudius but likely of greater interest to Robert Graves and his publisher's target market in the 1930s. But the story of Herod Agrippa and Claudius and their friendship is compelling. In fact, generally I enjoyed this even more than the first. Graves feels more comfortable with the material, just rearing back and letting it fly, with broad themes of Claudius's political reforms, his engineering projects, and his taking of Britain, with more backstories of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and others. Claudius is always interesting, realized extraordinarily well by Derek Jacobi in the PBS production. He is intellectually formidable yet physically disabled and the butt of Roman society for most of his life until he became emperor (and even then). Yet the way he wields power is remarkable. He is a transformed character from the first book, with confidence and a fierce sense of justice. Some of his actions are positively alarming. He orders many, many casual executions. But he is also paradoxically a humanitarian with sincere compassion and ideals. At least, that is, until the story of his wife Messalina reaches its conclusions, when he becomes almost unrecognizable. I know Graves is grounding everything in historical fact, but the change is shocking. So is Messalina's behavior. "You can't make this stuff up." The ways of the Romans are deeply human and recognizable, but don't always fit well with our sense of what a civilization is and is not. Are there lessons for our age here? Perhaps—it does feel like extreme times now, but they may have been even more so when Graves wrote, with democracy besieged by fascism and communism. Mostly what I like is the rolling anecdotal way Graves unlocks Claudius and lets him tell his story.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

USA, 102 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde
Photography: Russell Metty
Music: Roy Webb
Editor: George Hively
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Fritz Feld, Ward Bond

I have never adored this movie the way I think I should, the way people do. Watching it recently I noted all the impressive points again: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, director Howard Hawks, a leopard (make that two leopards), the Tin Pan Alley standard "I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby," and screwball comedy itself for crying out loud, that early contribution of sound, a fast-talking freewheeling way to indulge slapstick and improv while letting studio stars play loose and wild as they can. Screwball comedy usually depends on the charisma of its principles. Fortunately for Bringing Up Baby Hepburn and Grant have a considerable amount of that.

Grant always tended to be generally better at comedy, his affable sophisticated persona a little clownish yet somehow more everyman and vulnerable, uniquely suited to baffling sinister problems, such as he encounters here or in North by Northwest or in another screwball comedy by Hawks, the 1952 Monkey Business. Hepburn by contrast was more suited to the intensities of big theatrical drama and sometimes seems overwhelmed by—but always game for—the nonsense unspooling here. Among other things, almost all of Mary Tyler Moore (both 20something and 30something Mary) can be seen in her performance here. The result is often high-spirited, spurred by a joyful feel to the production (the Hawks brand, let's call it, as it's also a main feature of The Big Sleep). But Bringing Up Baby also lapses into flat aimless patches where it becomes merely a 1930s picture. It's a star vehicle first and mainly, and Hawks keeps those stars in front of the cameras as much as possible. It obviously doesn't matter what they do or don't do once there.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Leaving Neverland (2019)

This long documentary sets out to answer once again the key questions regarding Michael Jackson as a pedophile: Was he one, and why does it matter now after his death? At this point, a definitive answer is as futile in its way as deciding how JFK died, but Leaving Neverland is not a useless stop for anyone with lingering curiosity. It hasn't convinced true believers, and it's likely to spoil your mood, as it did mine, but it has its merits. It's one of the quicker four-hour documentaries you'll ever see, engrossing and credible. Perhaps the single most affecting aspect of this sad story, one of the saddest in all popular culture, is not so much the evidence it offers for sex abuse as its clearsighted understanding of the damage done by it, which continues long after the abuse and indeed is quite apparently still going on for the two telling their stories in full for the first time here. These two—Wade Robson, who later became a choreographer for NSYNC and Britney Spears, and James Safechuck—are articulate and believable. Inevitably celebrity and the vast amounts of money at stake cloud the issues. When you are rich and powerful your lies carry outsize weight, as we know from present-day American politics (the Supreme Court refers to it as "freedom of speech"). Safechuck declined to participate in the second round of Jackson's legal troubles in the 2000s, but both supported him the first time in the '90s and Robson testified for him in 2005. Jackson paid a huge sum to the first complainants in the '90s and then won an acquittal in the 2000s case. But over the years, especially now with people like Robson and Safechuck coming forward, it's hard to escape the sense that Jackson was pretty much what he looked like, a pedophile, damaged emotionally in his own youth and indulged for his wealth and celebrity. I always wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt—and for the usual reasons, because I appreciated his music and legacy—but the size of the settlements, the fact that he did settle, his own ever-worsening bizarre behavior, and the pattern of constant credible accusations that followed him for most of his adult life (he died at age 50) perpetually undermined any faith I could put in him. By "credible," I suppose I should say, I mean the internal consistencies of most of these stories, particularly now Robson's and Safechuck's, as well as their consistencies with known behavior of pedophiles. Among the most chilling aspects of Leaving Neverland are the stories of Jackson's grooming behavior, which is sophisticated and about as far from child-like as it's possible to be. The mothers of both Robson and Safechuck also appear with extensive interviews—they have often been hotly assaulted in the public discourse as much and sometimes more than Jackson. Obviously they made huge errors in judgment—they allowed the sleepovers, and they believed their sons when their sons lied to protect Jackson. I have my own issues with these mothers, more related to the seductions of celebrity, but I'm not sure how many people judging them so harshly would have behaved that much differently if they had been in the strange situation. We'll probably never know the absolute truth of Michael Jackson's life and whether or not he did all the things he's accused of. But Leaving Neverland is already an important part of any judgment.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Appointment in Samarra (1934)

According to Wikipedia, a cranky John O'Hara late in life denied licensing rights to his stories for anthologies—especially literary collections intended to be taught in college—which may account for his relative obscurity since his death in 1970. Or, anyway, I barely knew him and only read this novel recently. I think I mixed him up with some other writer (for some reason I want to say John Hersey) and thought Appointment in Samarra was some kind of war novel. It is not. It is the kind of novel for which John Updike writes a warm introduction. O'Hara is the kind of writer Fran Lebowitz can call "the real F. Scott Fitzgerald." And Fitzgerald (and Ernest Hemingway too) liked O'Hara or at least this novel real well. I like it a lot too. Not very much happens in it and yet it is almost perfectly mesmerizing. It is set among the country club claque of a small city in Pennsylvania in 1930. The Great Depression has arrived but not yet FDR, and it's still Prohibition. Julian English is the town Cadillac dealer and a drunk. On Christmas Eve he tosses a drink in the face of a man with powerful connections in the town, including its organized crime underworld. It's all in a day's work for the reckless English, who is cynical, embittered, and self-destructive. O'Hara has caught a unique moment in American history here, the widespread economic collapse as seen through the eyes of the wealthy and relatively unaffected. Organized crime is accepted by them as a way to do business. Most people seem to be relatively comfortable acquiring alcohol from the black market, for example. Perhaps the strongest point of the novel is O'Hara's candid and realistic treatment of sexuality in marriages, the natural connubial blisses as well as the philandering. Updike writes that "the Englishes have a heterosexual relationship beside which those in The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms are romantic and insubstantial." I also get some sense of Sherwood Anderson's writing in O'Hara—not just the focus on Midwestern-style grotesques, but the whole approach to writing as a process of corralling happy unconscious accidents. I suspect both O'Hara and Anderson may not have understood how they managed to create their best work. Appointment in Samarra was the first of O'Hara's 17 novels and 13 story collections (he also wrote nonfiction, plays, and screenplays) and it's widely considered his best, published before he was 30. The only one worth reading, according to some. I understood he has some reputation for short stories, a regular in The New Yorker for years, but this novel is the first and only thing by him I know. It is indeed a great and impressive novel, and should be read before anything by Hemingway (and never mind that Updike wrote a foreword and made some good points).

In case it's not at the library.