Monday, May 30, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)

Rather than some reprisal of Dazed and Confused, as often reported, this felt to me more like director and writer Richard Linklater in a Damsels in Distress mood. Although I see the point. Baseball is involved in both, and all the characters in Everybody Wants Some!! are dazed and confused. But then, everybody in Dazed and Confused also wants some. The new one, at any rate, takes place over a few days in the late summer of 1980 as students gather on a small campus for the fall term. It's focused specifically on a group of baseball players—jocks, not to put too fine a point on it. By day they furiously compete at games of all kinds. At night, they careen from one subculture of the time to the next, from a disco, to a honkytonk inspired by Urban Cowboy (did I mention this is set in Texas?), to a punk-rock show. These scenes are animated by the soundtrack and are very exciting. They're the best part, but it's also pretty funny. As comedies go, you're likely to laugh, as long as you're OK with a bunch of adolescent horseplay. Linklater chases the mindset down with a look at the bunch of them constantly competing: playing ping pong, video games, gambling on stunts, and more. There's even a game that involves abusing one another's knuckles. It's all high-spirited with a sweet late-summer romance theme playing out as well. It switches up on expectations by going off in such unexpected directions. What does a bunch of post-adolescent baseball players at a small college in Texas have to do with anything? That's the beauty part of it, or one of them. It's more focused on getting certain period details right, exactly right, such as the state of men's facial hair, which ranged a bit but focused mostly on mustaches. The music is perfect, all of it, and things like the punk-rock show are unexpectedly vivid (and right). I don't know much about any of the players—they're young and fresh-faced and often very good, at least as an ensemble. Justin Street takes it right over the top as a Napoleon Dynamite style social maladapt who thinks a flaming fastball is going to be his ticket to everything he's ever dreamed of. He is otherwise randomly spastic and out of control. The group stoner turns out to have a totally unexpected secret, though it somehow seems familiar to Linklater, or perhaps that is Texas. Everybody Wants Some!! is mostly awkward male bonding, falling all over one another like colts. It's a poignant historical moment, just months before Ronald Reagan's first election, about which it wisely has nothing to say. I think this movie is counting on you to bring your own baggage, although it's possible this is aimed at a youth market? I don't know. Somehow I doubt that. It feels more like late baby boomer nostalgia, but it's done effectively and is fully entertaining surprisingly often.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

"Sonny's Blues" (1957)

Read story by James Baldwin online.

James Baldwin's classic meditation is made up of equal parts brooding memoir, artful fictional devices, and, perhaps most surprising, a turn toward music criticism. Sonny is the younger brother of the first-person narrator by seven years, a jazz musician and on-and-off heroin addict. Their parents died before either was 25. They were raised in Harlem. The carefully unnamed narrator is a judgmental moralist, a high school algebra teacher embarrassed by indigenous African-American culture such as jazz. Interestingly, Sonny, who is a Charlie Parker follower, is embarrassed by the mention of Louis Armstrong, in one conversation where the narrator tries to connect with and understand him. "No. I'm not talking about none of that old-time, down home crap," Sonny retorts about Armstrong. The relationship between the two brothers is complicated as all family relationships are, with the additional burden of the African-American context. Here is where Baldwin is at his best in this story. He has concocted a voice for his narrator that balances delicately between stuffy erudition, reflexive contempt, and rage, dictating his words with an icy clinical precision. He's ashamed of Sonny's heroin addiction and legal troubles, but he made a promise to their mother the last time he saw her alive (a promise he hasn't kept very well) that he would look out and be there for Sonny when Sonny needed him. To the narrator, it's one more aggravating responsibility in a life of drudgery and frustration. Though he has a happy and good marriage, the narrator and his wife recently lost their 4-year-old daughter to polio. In the end, however, grudgingly and mostly against his will, he agrees to step into the nightclubs he detests to see Sonny perform. That performance is a revelation for the narrator and reader alike, as the music connects with the narrator in extraordinary ways. It's a wonderful voice in that moment, full of its own intelligence but with barely a vocabulary for the way the music moves and plays and develops. As he describes what the musicians are doing and the various elements of the song and arrangement, it evolves into as effective a description of real-time jazz as I've encountered anywhere. It's shorn particularly of Mezz Mezzrow hipsterism, because that is exactly the kind of thing the narrator loathes. In turn, that leads him to understand Sonny and fully see him for the first time. Really good stuff.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ax (1964)

It's bloody murder in this edition of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain. And no surprise, the murder weapon of interest features a blade, as anyone reading the entire series should know well what a fetish knives grew to be for McBain. This is not the first he's used them, but the lumberjack's tool of the trade takes the story well beyond the pale. It's another shorty, under 200 pages, so it mostly focuses on the one case, a tenement janitor found in the basement of his building brutally slain (yes, there are details). Of more interest to me are the civil rights undertones to the action, which fit with the time frame. But it's still dated. The novelty is manifest in the attempt to view Negro characters as fully equal and deserving of respect, which slides over too easily into displays of patience and indulgence. The characters mean well but I'm less sure about the author, who somehow conveys the idea it's all a bit ridiculous. This made me wonder if McBain, like his and my hero Jack Webb, wasn't at bottom a right-wing crank. I suspect it's so, based on his treatment here of civil rights as vaguely comical and other factors across the series. But a cursory Internet search didn't turn up much and in a way I don't want to know. With an uneducated Negro in Ax as one of the "obvious" suspects, and his treatment that way by characters such as Steve Carella (as usual, the main detective), attempting to show equality, it's too often slightly wince-worthy. The story is ridiculous too, with shady hoods and crap games, a family of extreme eccentrics for the victim's family, and some sort of scam involving firewood (and fireplaces?!) for tenants in the tenement. Carella is out front, with Cotton Hawes loose-limbed at his side. For as silly as it is, it's a reasonably tight story. It's #18 overall in the series, a point at which McBain and everyone was beyond counting, but I thought I'd mention it. A lot of what makes McBain good is there in place. The month is January—he knows how to elaborate and use the moods of the weather. The case is brutal, and hard to solve ("hard to solve"). And the detectives are good men—actually, there is a bad cop in this one. Carella can't stand him, of course. On the personal side, we get a scene or two in the warm Carella household, with Teddy and the twins. A good man, a good home, but a cold and brutish world, into which he must go. Careful with that ax, Eugene.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Empty Hours (1962)

The Empty Hours is a collection of three long stories (or novellas)—one of the things I like best about Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, is a kind of restless, experimenting, creative energy that drives his work. These stories feel churned out in some kind of frenzy, chasing down the spasms of ideas. The first, "The Empty Hours," is a smoke-and-mirrors mystery story involving insurance claims and mistaken identities, featuring Steve Carella and the usual gang of detectives. It probably could have been woven into more typical 87th Precinct novels, as either a main case in its own right or one of the smaller ongoing side cases, a strategy that became more common as the novels became fatter in the '70s and especially the '80s. There's not a lot to it but it's done efficiently. (It also seemed familiar, which means either I read it before, or it was incorporated somewhere else in the series, maybe even ported over to the Matthew Hope series, the other main McBain series, which I'm probably not going to deal with.) The second story, "'J,'" could also have been integrated into a typical 87th Precinct novel, though it might not have been so easy to work with. It seems better designed to be a stand-alone. Also, the mystery-story aspect in this one turns out to be a bit of a cheat. But it has particular resonance for the character Meyer Meyer about his Jewish identity. Meyer Meyer is known in the series for being bald, Jewish, and with a father with a strange sense of humor. The third story, "Storm," focuses on Cotton Hawes on a skiing vacation, and is probably the most obvious stand-alone of the three. In many ways it strikes me as emerging from character sketches on Hawes, who remember was intended as a late addition, insisted on by the publisher—a swinging bachelor type to replace Carella after Carella got married. Hawes was always one of the weakest characters in the series, largely because McBain's heart may never have been in it, and he's even weaker going solo without the others (babe in arms or no, and of course there is a babe in arms—he's a swinging bachelor on a ski vacation). The mystery story is not bad, however, and I like the ski resort setting pretty well too. The Empty Hours is a bit of a change of pace for the series, but also deeply characteristic and interesting in many little ways.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Lady, Lady I Did It (1961)

Here's another example, in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, that highlights McBain's ability to work within conventional mystery story structures, serving up the clues fair and square and still managing to surprise with the resolution. It takes a few shortcuts along the way, such as a police hunch paying off. A bookstore is shot up and four people die. The police hunch—Steve Carella, as ever, with Bert Kling and Meyer Meyer mainly—is that only one of the four victims was the actual target. The rest are there to confuse the investigation. Well, OK. Interesting hunch. The case is further complicated by the fact that Bert Kling's girlfriend is one of the victims. Which is also convenient, because when it comes to Bert Kling and women, well, he just can't catch a break. This is a shorty, under 200 pages in mass market, so I'm willing to forgive some of this for the sake of getting on with it. There's blessed little dwelling on Kling's grief, though it's there. The victims and the case produce a number of interesting characters and situations. For the most part it's people just making their way in the big city, where it's well known that shit will happen. So some shit happens, and soon enough someone has an inspiration and the case is solved. But I love how scrupulously fair it is. The second-to-last chapter even lingers over the telltale clue, trying to help us see the course of things. But we don't, or I didn't, and so it's a pleasant flash of insight when it comes. The asides about the detectives' personal lives are running in place, especially if you're prone like me to read Kling's bad luck with women as ultimately an element of black humor on the part of McBain. Here it's early enough—though I believe Claire Townsend is already the second girlfriend Kling loses to violence—that it's less comic and more ham-fisted tragic. With Lady, Lady I Did It as #14 in the overall series, McBain has been at it long enough that he knows what he's doing and is comfortable with it: writing mystery-story police procedurals with a continuing cast of characters, some of whom are occasionally killed off. I think many of these short ones from the '50s and '60s can be effective and I'd call this one of them. There's a detective I don't remember seeing before—Di Maeo. Also Arthur Brown, Hal Willis, and Bob O'Brien, briefly. I haven't entirely made up my mind about the fairness of the title, in terms of the mystery story, but mostly I think it works and even gets away with the self-conscious tricksiness.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

See Them Die (1960)

This short novel in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain offers up a one-day tick-tock of a simmering ethnic situation and a view of the precinct as a Puerto Rican slum, or barrio. We are also given to know, very early on, that on this day "two people will die on this street." Overall, this is a pretty good book from the series, focused on police procedures of community relations and managing explosive scenes of violence. McBain is on his game with a bunch of slices of life around the barrio: the cops, the kids, the gangs, the hookers, people passing through that day. It all takes place on a very hot summer Sunday, so church is peripherally involved as well. It also features Andy Parker more prominently than usual, though the attention is ultimately spent mostly on making him a caricature, which is a little unfortunate. Steve Carella is hanging heroically around as usual. These earlier novels in the series often seemed to dwell more on precinct brass, a captain and a lieutenant. Mostly I'm impressed with the pleasure McBain seems to take in identifying and sorting out the pieces, and telling stories. It's interesting to know two people will die, it adds an element of suspense and tension as a dozen and more characters wheel by. It's a hot kind of Do the Right Thing situation he gets going pretty effectively. I was reading this as news came in of the murder of Walter Scott in South Carolina, shot in the back eight times by a policeman. There was a lag between reports of the incident and release of a video of it, so we had an unusual opportunity to see the level of deceit practiced by police now, and the brutality, both of which have no doubt existed for as long as police authority has. I was outraged, of course, but I was also struck by how much I can still feel for the cops in this fictional 87th Precinct, who seem realistic enough. There's probably even more police brutality going on than McBain allows, but he doesn't shy away from what he acknowledges of it, and See Them Die is one place where he is particularly effective. But as usual what I like best about McBain when he's got it going on, as here, are all the small observations and everyday events, working themselves out as we all try to get along. He's hit and miss with this, make no mistake. McBain is fully capable of egregious cliché. The reports of a 20th-century New York Balzac were overstated. But he's often very good in surprising ways.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Give the Boys a Great Big Hand (1960)

I like to think this entry in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter, which wasn't his real name either) started originally as an outrageously bad pun and from there McBain made up a case. It may be the first time for him but it wouldn't be the last—there's a Matthew Hope novel from 1996, for example, called Gladly the Cross-Eyed Bear. Attend now closely: McBain is more heavy-handed than usual referring to the detectives of the 87th precinct squad as "the boys," awkwardly calling attention to it through repetitiveness. The case starts out with the grisly discovery of a dismembered human hand in a travel bag left at a bus stop. The fingertips have been severed to prevent fingerprint analysis. But the lab soon determines that it is the hand of a very large man, being great and big itself, and so, you see. Er, yes. There you have it. Steve Carella is our main dude, with Cotton Hawes riding shotgun. It's a pretty good procedural in terms of developing suspects and trailing down the leads. It has sailors, sob sisters, and strippers. On the personal side, an interesting conflict develops among Carella, the ever-repugnant Andy Parker, and a Puerto Rican officer. Parker is not offensively racist here—or I didn't loathe him as often, put it that way—so maybe the issue is considered sufficiently raised at this point in the series. Actually, in all my reading so far, Parker seems more a kind of cipher, not even there in many of the books. There's a little more here on Carella's wife Teddy too. This is very much of its time, with some racial awareness but less so on gender issues. Women are taken for granted as sexual objects, and chiefly judged and treated that way. It's equally important, for example, that Teddy copes with her loss of hearing well, that she looks good and has a healthy sexual appetite, that she's a capable and loving mother, and that the nanny regards her highly. The nanny, yes. Never mind. I mean, what do you expect? It's about a bad pun. It's 1960. The story is pretty good, the characters are in motion, and it's 1960.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, May 23, 2016

King's Ransom (1959)

In 1959 and 1960, Ed McBain published six novels in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals. Approximately third in that run, King's Ransom is a short novel about a big case—a kidnapping, which you better believe it, the 87th Precinct cops and detectives take more seriously than anything but murder, the way we see them swing into action. As someone who never had children, my mystification over the urgency, even the occurrence, of kidnapping is probably explained that way. A lot of juice from scene to scene is taken for granted because a boy is in peril, invoked routinely. There's a neat twist to this one: the kid that the bad guys have snatched is actually the son of the chauffeur who works for the business tycoon targeted, Douglas King ("King," get it?). There's some nice Dreiser-style big business shenanigans going on before the kidnapping goes down, which continue to exert influence on the action. Really, this is probably one of McBain's better stories, and stories are what he's good at. Unfortunately, the motivations and outcomes go somewhat murky in the end, but it's a pretty good ride getting there. There's some overly researched business about radio communications worked up by the bad guys. It's a good plot point, just overly explained, and already dated and weird in a world concerned about things like texting while driving. There's very little of the personal stuff in this one. Steve Carella is front and center as usual, with Cotton Hawes and Meyer Meyer just behind over his shoulders. Andy Parker is his usual lout and gets an ugly episode. If I was relatively unaffected by the drama of the kidnapping, I was more intrigued by the developing dynamic between the tycoon and his chauffeur as decisions are made, and actions taken. Interesting issues of class play out there, with varying degrees of success. A knife—a switchblade—makes an appearance in this McBain tale, to the surprise of no one, I'm sure. This is a popcorn novel—chews up nice, goes down well, and you want more. A good place to see McBain as a straight-up writer of thrillers, which he does quite well here. The police are key, of course, but play a slightly different role than usual, which also recommends it on McBain's range.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Killer's Wedge (1959)

This is an ultra-shorty novel in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain. It's short even for the times, well under 200 pages in mass market size. But there's still room for both an A story and a B, and some pretty fancy whodunit plotting as well. In the A story, a woman shows up at the precinct station and takes all available detectives hostage with a gun and (maybe) a bottle of nitroglycerin. I know—it's unbelievable—you have to move through the skepticism. She's there to kill Steve Carella, who is out investigating the B story, which is nothing less than a classic locked-room mystery. A rich man has hanged himself in a room with no windows and a door that can only be locked and unlocked from the inside. Even so, Carella has a hunch that it's murder. Meanwhile, back at the police station, the detectives try to outwit the woman holding them. They tend to come up short a lot. The real point of these scenes is the chance to see how the squad works together (doggedly) and also to show the events that happen in a typical day around the 87th Precinct headquarters. Even though it's an extraordinary situation the detectives are still capable of easygoing banter. The hostage-taker does what she has to in the face of the various attempts by the detectives to foil her. At one point she guns one of them down, and he's on the floor awaiting the end of the siege and medical attention from then on. As an exercise, it's pretty neatly done, balancing the two stories off one another. High marks for the juxtapositions. Still, the hostage scene is just a little too Andy of Mayberry in terms of how easily the detectives are taken control of. As for the locked-room mystery ... wut? It's just crazy. There's even a butler—it's in the wealthy section of the 87th Precinct, you see. Honestly, as mystery fiction goes, these puzzle box situations can try my patience. At the same time, as mystery fiction, they're pretty well done. I can't quite follow along with the technical aspects of the crime as committed—because, yes, Carella's hunch about the locked-room is on the money. A man found hanged in a room locked from the inside was not actually a suicide. Who knew? Steve Carella, that's who. Yes, as always, he is the hero. On the personal side, this is the one when Steve and his wife Teddy first learn of her pregnancy. It's such a good marriage, the one that they have.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

"A Passionate Pilgrim" (1871)

This longish story bears interest because it's a very early example of one of the themes Henry James is known for, the contrasts between Old World and New. It focuses on an impoverished American, an elderly gentleman, who has traveled to London to seek claim to an estate for which he may be legally entitled. It's told in the first-person by another American, who intuitively believes in the justice of his cause. Fortified by this support, our hero, Clement Searle, pays a visit to the site in question, with a fine old mansion on spacious grounds. He meets the brother and sister who presently occupy it and are distant relatives. The sister is unmarried and immediately falls in love with Clement somehow, but the brother furiously resents Clement's legal actions. At first he is polite and almost friendly, but finally erupts with his grudges. Then, because it's a bad scene around the mansion after that, Clement and the narrator travel to Oxford for a visit, which they find so wonderful they decide it must be the very epicenter of the known universe. I suspect that's James. This overwhelming response to England adds up to the "passionate" of the title. The "pilgrim" should be self-explanatory. I enjoyed this but rarely believed any of the action—I will let you find the ludicrous resolution for yourself, on grounds it would be "a spoiler." In many ways it's fun to find the theme of worlds in collision in early form. It almost feels like an accident, as if James were working out the setting and character as he went, and ended up with this strange American in London. Clement Searle is not the kind of American Christopher Newman would be (in The American), but more of a loyalist in sympathy with the crown, etc. That makes him less interesting, which is something James appeared to figure out relatively quickly. Also interesting in this story is that for once it's barely at all about marrying. The element of the chemistry between Clement and the sister is just weird and feels forced in more than anything, perhaps for commercial reasons or maybe just because James often had the impulse to turn things in that direction. It's a strange and interesting piece, with a real sense of discovery propelling it.

"interlocutor" count = 0 / 40 pages

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

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Silence Yourself (2013)

I found out about the latest update on Siouxsie & the Banshees via the rock critic Everett True, who was quite evidently smitten with them (and/or working PR for them) when this came out a few years ago. They've put out another album since, Adore Life, but so far I like this debut better, and I like it quite a bit. Among other things, these four women are perfectly upfront about their art-damaged instincts, starting with dropping the definite article in their name. They are Savages, not the Savages or even thee Savages. You almost feel by osmosis before you know by looking it up in Wikipedia that they are French, at least in part. That part is the singer, Jehnny Beth. How important is she? The rest are Londoners and all song credits go to the band as a whole, so hard to tell. What's easier to make out is the churning, melodic attack, decked out with dramatic production dynamics and a reasonably ferocious rock band piling it on from the rear. It grabs from first listen, and it's no joke. The main appeal for me is the electric charge of the music itself, which is undeniable. I admit I'm not paying much attention to the lyrics and themes, but they're obviously there, with the album title itself and song titles such as "Shut Up," "Hit Me," and "Husbands." It's dark and angry music but it's pulsing with life. The best part for me is the drama. I like how on my favorite song, "Strife" (yes, "Strife"), Gemma Thompson's moody electric guitar is often in charge, tracked by bottoms suddenly dropping and swelling and big artful squeals of feedback. In fact, feedback is one of the things they do best on every song here. Jehnny Beth appears more or less to be the face of Savages, as the lyricist, Frenchman, and chief label honcho, but don't miss how well guitarist Gemma Thompson is working to effect here. She's got a big set of riffs and hooks which are often the centerpieces of these songs. And the rhythm section is solid. It's a team effort generally, as signaled by the songwriting credits, and it's pretty much one of the biggest blasts I've had listening to an album for a while.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Rio Bravo (1959)

USA, 141 minutes
Director: Howard Hawks
Writers: Jules Furthman, Leigh Brackett, B.H. McCampbell
Photography: Russell Harlan
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Cast: John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Angie Dickinson, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, John Russell, Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez, Claude Akins, Harry Carey Jr., Bob Steele

Perhaps the most obvious point to make about Rio Bravo is that it's not much more (and certainly no less) than a big fat Hollywood production, engineered to precision points of glamour and entertainment. If there are serious themes to it they are drowned mercifully in the glitz. It's a Western more as a matter of convenience than conviction. It has nothing to say about individualism, family, pioneering, rugged nature, Indians, mining, the railroad, or any of the other things Westerns tie themselves in knots about when they reach for the gravitas. Yes, it's a small West Texas town under siege by outlaws presumably in the 19th century. Yes, there's a certain amount of frontier justice. Yes, John Wayne is here (and yes, even the famous shot from The Searchers of him walking away from an open door, shot from behind in dark interior, is mimicked). But it's John Wayne the venerable movie star who could woulda shoulda a Oscar, not John Wayne the blank screen creation of John Ford onto which every projection known to man (and women too!) is thrown. Though he is that too inevitably as always.

The intentions of Rio Bravo are made obvious with the casting of Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Angie Dickinson, who have nothing to say about Westerns in or out of this movie, except at some point in their lives they all probably (Martin almost certainly) got a kick out of sneaking away to catch matinees of them. I'm not exactly complaining. Rio Bravo is a grand blustering entertainment and there's nothing else quite like it. "After we finished we found we could have done it a lot better," director Howard Hawks has reportedly said, "and that's why we went ahead and made El Dorado." That's a good quote, and it might even be true, but El Dorado is never going to be celebrated the way Rio Bravo probably always will be.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Eye in the Sky (2015)

This spooky military paranoia thriller stitches together a lot of things we know with a lot of things we suspect for a reasonably gripping real-time ride. The "eye in the sky" is the satellite and other coverage that can see everything on the ground with spectacular clarity, interconnected with a communication system that can reach anywhere. In fact, Eye in the Sky felt like the first time I can recall getting such a strong sense for how much constant visual contact they can have, and what it looks like. "They"—the government, I mean, of course, the military, certain high-placed corporations, all the usual modern-day professional antiterrorist spooks. The setting of interest in this case is a building in Kenya where Islamic terrorist targets have gathered. The extraordinary spying technology includes flying mechanical birds and even insects, which can get inside buildings to transmit pictures. That's how we learn, along with the British military that is prosecuting this particular mission, that a suicide bombing is being prepared inside the building. With a genuinely imminent attack on their hands, they must change the mission from one of lawful capture to one of attack and contain. The two lower-level personnel in charge of actually firing the missile have never done so before. They are contract workers. Everyone involved—including very high-ranking British political figures—can see there is going to be lots of the famous collateral damage. The terms of this are debated in agonizing detail, notably all PR implications. If they stop the suicide bombers in the building, a little girl is almost certain to die. If they spare her and let the suicide bombers go, dozens of people likely would die in their attack. In many ways, this is what Eye in the Sky is best at, and it's very good—articulating the terms of our choices, setting the situation in motion, and following where it goes. It's a good story and script, with a lot to chew over. It's also got a stellar cast, with Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman in big roles (for Rickman, his last). Aaron Paul, late of Breaking Bad, distracted me a little playing so hard against Jesse Pinkman type. The Kenyan characters are well done too, notably Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) as a freelance spy-for-hire on the ground. In many ways the movie is at pains to refute every person's idea of how the mission should proceed. They all have opinions, and they are all wrong, because every way is wrong some way, from the bleeding-heart stand-in who gets a right telling off from the gruff realist, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Rickman), to the American monster in the form of a blonde woman who wants to know why the collateral damage reports are not on the news yet. There's altogether too much faith placed in militarized technology nowadays as an element of foreign policy, and I see that view affirmed here. It's possible, however, that someone with views opposed to mine could see their views affirmed here as well. I guess you'd have to call that a good thing? Gripping thriller, nicely done, at least.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

The Armies of the Night (1968)

Norman Mailer’s account of the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War is a landmark of the burgeoning New Journalism, signaled in part by the ornate subtitle: History as a Novel / The Novel as History. This book may be his single greatest advertisement for himself, with teeming insights at once profound and absurd, much like the attempt by the Fugs at that very protest to levitate the Pentagon "300 feet in the air." It might even be Mailer's best book, and certainly it belongs on any short list, but I must leave it to you to parse the definitions of "history" and "novel." Much like Truman Capote's label for his 1966 true-crime book, In Cold Blood—the "nonfiction novel"—the terms are fungible and more suggestive than anything else. The first section of this one (History as a Novel) details Mailer's experience on the long weekend of the protest, which includes drunken speech-making, petty personality conflicts over position and status, hanging out with Robert Lowell and Dwight Macdonald, and, eventually, participating in the protest to the extent of getting arrested as quickly and efficiently as possible, the arrest itself, a night and day in jail, and an appearance in court for pleas and sentencing. The second section (The Novel as History) is much shorter, closer to the final third of the book, and recounts the brutalities of the scene at the Pentagon during Mailer's night in jail, when demonstrators were systematically beaten and abused. It's the more impressive section, with its straightforward reporting, whereas the first is more gossipy and, if I may say, fun. The depredations and horrors of 1968 and then Richard Nixon's feckless prosecution of the war for another five years were yet ahead. There's a kind of playful innocence to aspects such as the Fugs' attempt to levitate the massive building which disappeared quickly among the protesters—for good reason, as the confrontations and the war both become increasingly violent. Among other things, Mailer steps back to assess the reasons for fighting the war, considering answers to the question of the title of his previous novel (Why Are We in Vietnam?). Most of the answers are related to resisting communism. He's not unfair to the hawks' side, though ultimately he rejects it. With this strange book, Mailer affirms his role as buffoonish speaker of truth to power, a role at which he might have been one of the best among many during the permanently oversized '60s. Even people with a casual interest in the times and events should make a point of getting to this one. It's essential for anyone interested in Mailer.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)

USA, 104 minutes
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cast: Diane Keaton, Woody Allen, Jerry Adler, Lynn Cohen, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Joy Behar, Ron Rifkin, Melanie Norris, Aida Turturro, Wendell Pierce

After making a handful of movies with heavy philosophical themes and the word "and" in the late '80s and early '90s—Crimes and Misdemeanors, Shadows and Fog, Husbands and Wives, and Another Woman among them—Woody Allen turned toward lighter fare for a spell. It's possible it was related to his foundering relationship with Mia Farrow and the cloud of scandal descending on him. I see that some of those heavy movies, notably Crimes and Misdemeanors, are considered among his best now, but they looked to me like flailing then and for the most part they still seem to fit his long-term pattern of decline all too well.

But Manhattan Murder Mystery stands as an exception for me—a brief, fleeting, and patchy return to the heights of his comedies, which owes as much to Diane Keaton as anything. I'm not sure Keaton always gets her due in the comedies. She was a huge part of making them work—go take a look at Love and Death again. She's brilliant. She wasn't just Woody Allen's girlfriend, though it might be fair to say she's a protege. However it came about, she became an accomplished comic actress in her own right. And even though, if you think about it too much, there's something kind of funny-peculiar about the way she stepped in to take a role for which Mia Farrow had been cast before the troubles, it's still fair to say she is exactly what makes the movie work—not just her performance, not just her screen presence, but she obviously had an effect on Allen that's only for the better.