Friday, September 26, 2014

Blessings On -- and In -- This House




According to enough Internet sites that I am confident that I am not deceived by a renegade Internet editor, in Hawaii the residents believe that the "household gecko" brings good luck to the home.  If that is correct, The Memsahib and I are blessed several times over. 

When darkness falls, one, two, or three geckos – interestingly, never more than three – crawl out onto the underside of the eave that extends over our patio.  When I turn on the patio light, they're exposed and usually will hang around for awhile before they scurry – actually, more of a serpentine waddle – into the cracks where the eave meets the brick.  I read that they're looking for insects.  I've never seen one other insect within gobbling distance of one of these guys on the barren ceiling, but there they were, night after night.

Last night, for the first time, there were four:









They appear to be Mediterranean House Geckos, one of two species found in Texas that tend to make their homes in, well, homes.  I was delighted at first, but that fourth gecko  .  .  .  obviously, I was dealing here with more than a happy household of mama, papa, and baby gecko. 

In fact, they're prolific little reptiles.

Which inspired a vision of a growing, then teeming, colony of concupiscent little geckos with nothing better to do during the day than make lots more geckos.

When I was a lad, I was deeply influenced by the growing menace represented by the increasing number of "The Birds" in Hitchcock's classic.  Then, suddenly, I saw it.  I would be out on the patio, chewing on a stogie and reading a cheap mystery on my Nook.  A creak – a crack.  And the eave would open up and an avalanche of geckos, accompanied by untold tons of gecko poop would rain down on me.

But they are cute little fellas.

Wish me luck.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Noah," or You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat



That's what Roy Scheider said to Robert Shaw when he stumbled back into the cabin, frightened by his first look at the gigantic Great White.  It came instantly to mind in the scene where Noah (Russell Crowe) looks out from the ark, before the rains came, and sees a tsunami of a different sort, all the creatures of the world approaching two by two.

[No significant spoilers.]

"Noah" is big, dumb, fun.  I enjoyed it.

It is visually arresting.  The world of Noah and his family is a barren, forbidding place even before God destroys it.  It is mostly desert.  One wonders where all these animals lived, as there is almost no vegetation to eat or hide in.  I thought it was beautiful.

Where are all these animal couples going to come from?  Doesn't look like God
needs a flood to wipe wickedness from the face of the earth.

Of course, it bears only the most distant relationship to the Bible story.  Since I did not come to it with an understanding that I was going to see that story, and since that story is not foundational to what I believe, whatever that is, I didn't mind it a bit.  It was still a yarn that kept me watching for its running length of two hours and eighteen minutes.

The movie is, in fact, too long.  Things move along nicely until the rain comes and the ark is underway, at which point the narrative comes to a standstill while an subplot or two are played out.  I suppose those subplots were necessary to flesh out a movie, the basic plot of which will already be known to viewers.  But they were kind of dumb, with some obvious holes I won't disclose.  (The Biblical story itself has at least one of the same holes.)

Which leads to my biggest problem with the movie, which is that it was dumb.  Its "green" message is repeatedly delivered with sonorous speechifying by Noah.  (Does the director, Darren Aronofsky, intend to convey that the relative handful of humans on earth in those days – the exact era in which the film is to have taken place is unclear, despite the presence of Biblical characters – completely denuded the landscape?  And it didn't seem to hurt biodiversity any, as that ark was pretty full.)  It doesn't matter whether you agree with the message or not; its repeated and clumsy expression insults the moviegoer's ability to figure out for himself that the presence of humans will result in a world that is very different than a world lacking men and women.

It's odd in other ways.  The return of the ark to dry land – the entire reason for its existence – was completely omitted.  The people in the ark, who are having a spat at the time, feel a clunk.  The next thing you see is a few animals walking around on some barren ground, and Noah is having a conniption for some reason some distance off.  (Again, what on earth are these animals supposed to eat?)  No dramatic landing, no disembarkation of the animals. 

The acting?  Russell Crowe suffered appropriately, although, as noted, he was given some pretty preposterous things to say.  Anthony Hopkins had himself a ball playing Methuselah.  Jennifer Connelly had almost no lines at all, it seemed, until about two-thirds of the way through the film, but if you have to look at someone not talking, I'll take Jennifer Connelly.  Emma Watson gets knocked up, much to Noah's discomfiture, maybe thought God would change His mind that he was a suitable specimen to escort the two-by-two animals through the flood and himself be the sole patriarch to survive.  And keep an eye out for Nick Nolte. 

Look, when some geological formations exhibit a more impressive emotive range than do the cast, you know you're not dealing with Oscar material here.

As I said, lots of holes.  But it was an outsized cartoon, and I like cartoons.  Some cool effects, I wasn't bored, my faith wasn't shaken or even offended.  Couldn't hurt to stream it if you've got a couple of movie hours banked up.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Wherein I Derive an Important Truth About Our Mortal Existence from a Child's Car Seat


As you read this, I want you to know that I love and adore and want to see all the time my little step-grandsons, three of the six of which presently require car seats, by both law and good sense.

And I also want you to know that I know that car seats for children have saved countless young lives and avoided terrible injuries to their occupants.

This weekend, the Memsahib and I were visited by one of our darling grandsons while his parents spent an enjoyable weekend downtown Dallas, attending a wedding and to their own toddler-free fun.

This car seat  .  .  .

It is enormous.

It weighs more than some roadworthy vehicles.

It is so big that I could barely get it in the back door of one of the largest, roomiest sedans manufactured in the modern age.

It is incredibly plush, robustly bolstered from thigh to shoulder with upholstery that securely cushions his tiny buns from any horizontal movement.  It is so luxurious that Donald Trump could nap in the thing.

And this was not even the entire car seat.  This was only the part of the car seat that was designed to click into a docking device that is presently secured to the back seat of the automobile in which the delightful tyke takes most of his rides.

It has buttons on it.  The kind you push and things happen.  Or are supposed to.

And, of course, it has the usual belts and snaps and things that are supposed to click into place to keep the child secure, if not almost completely motionless.

Not the car seat in question.  But it did have a cupholder.

In preparing the child for his ride, I found the use of these appliances  .  .  .  challenging.

Since it was lacking the base to which it would customarily be attached, there were no passageways in its back through which the backseat belting could be threaded to secure it.  The only alternative being to strap the entire piece of furniture into the back seat by treating it as person and bringing the seatbelt mechanism across its front and securing the tongue to one of the female pieces buried in the seat which had to be dug out.

In itself not such a challenge, in theory.  But this particular carseat was so wide that it covered that female element, and it was only with the greatest exertion and topological problem-solving that I was able to get the tongue of the seatbelt to click into the receptacle.  All of this performed, mind you, whilst twisting this my body, now in its seventh decade, into configurations the local boot camp would not countenance.

Fortunately, we were not on a schedule, and we proceeded to our destination, your driver somewhat exhausted but only slightly injured, and the lad had a marvelous time riding a pony and swinging on a swing and petting some very cute goat-kids, which made it all worthwhile.

But as I was wrestling with this Shetland Barcalounger, and, for the longest time, losing, I did have a thought.  Not a charitable thought, not one of which I am proud, but one that did cross my mind, and more than once:

Human life is not that precious.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Sects, Lies, and Photographs; or, He's No Saint!

[NOTE:  This book review appeared in slightly different form in the comments section for the book on Amazon.]



BOOK REVIEW:  Why Did the Vatican Honor the Swastika:  A Catholic Couple's Five-Year Search for Understanding by Stephen and Diane Galebach

[For more details on this subject, see my previous articles:  

http://cool-hot-center.blogspot.com/2010/10/was-vatican-soft-on-nazism-exclusive.html

http://cool-hot-center.blogspot.com/2011/10/breaking-news-new-evidence-on-catholic.html ]

Declaration of interest: Steve and Diane Galebach are friends of mine. Steve was a roommate at Yale, and I was honored to attend their Full Wedding Mass. (The most intriguing aspect of which was that, moving as it was, as a non-Catholic I was unable to determine the exact moment of matrimony. Had an earthquake sent everyone scrambling three-quarters of the way through it, I'm not sure the happy couple would have known exactly where matters stood, wedded-bliss wise.) I also read and commented on Steve's earliest drafts recounting his work. The present book bears almost no resemblance to the manuscripts I reviewed.

No matter. This is an extraordinary book that earns five stars on its merits. It is a book of serious, deep – and, most important, original -- research into the relationship between pre-World War II antisemitism in Germany, Argentina, and elsewhere, and the Roman Catholic Church, personified in its Vatican leaders and local cardinals and archbishops. Its structure is unconventional, and the title doesn't hide the ball. Scholarly as it is, it is not presented as a scholarly history. Instead, it discloses its evidence chronologically as the Galebachs and their extraordinary brood uncovered it. University historians may roll their eyes, but shame on them. This book is dense with meaty new discoveries and astonishing connections. And the prose is pellucid.

It begins with Steve's discovery of the cover photograph of Argentine Cardinal Copello blessing a Nazi flag at the Eucharistic Congress in Buenos Aires in 1934. He discovered it in an issue of the Nazis' chief organ of race hatred, Der Stűrmer. Stunned by this discovery, the Galebachs set out to determine whether this was a one-off, a rogue or addled cardinal straying off the reservation. Although they don't come right out and say it, the result of their extraordinary journey of discovery points powerfully to a conclusion that the Vatican rejects: At the very least, the role of the Church and, in particular, one Eugenio Pacelli, cardinal, nuncio to Bavaria/Munich, Vatican secretary of state, and soon Pius XII, in not just the rise, but the establishment of state antisemitism in Germany and elsewhere must be much more thoroughly examined before the elevation of Pius XII to sainthood is given any further consideration.

There is too much here to summarize. Catholic or not, Jewish or not, Third Reich buff or not, you will see things here that will astound you yet are absolutely rock-solid established by the source documentation. Pius supporters worried about some of the evidence of his dealings with the Nazis in previous histories claim that these apparent circumstances lack "context." No longer. I got your context right here.

Minor cavils:

I fear that the personal-journey and self-referential tone of this book will harm its acceptance by historians. It shouldn't; the research is massive and sound. But its topical Q&A-style of proceeding leads to repetition and some confusion ("is this the same article they wrote about a few chapters back?"). Following its somewhat topical, Q&A style of proceeding, there is a lengthy chronological presentation of the evidence. I might have urged them to flip this: present a history of the subject focusing on their new evidence, in which Pacelli's and Copello's actions were placed in this-follows-that context (or, if you will, the Nazis' actions placed in the context of the Church's position on the Jews), followed by a bibliographic essay where the travelogue and interview anecdotes could have been parked.

I would also have liked to see the book structured as evidence in support of a thesis, rather than as a historical whodunit. Indeed, the Galebachs lose interest in the photograph as they go along, and the book somewhat peters out right at the end without explicitly drawing all the threads together. The title asks a question – what is the Galebachs' answer? Perhaps the rather obvious conclusion, my conclusion from the book, anyway – that the Roman Catholic Church was deeply complicit in the rise of state antisemitism around the world in the pre-war years, and Pacelli was smack in the middle of it, rendering him, as Pius, unfit for sainthood – was too stark even for them. They write with great eloquence about holding Church leadership to account, but don't explicitly state to what that account sums. I think this choice bespeaks their admirable modesty -- but their work and perspicacity has earned them the right to speak their minds on what they have found.

These are minor points. It's their book, deeply and personally felt and astonishingly original, shot through with new documents, new actors, and new insights. Five years of their time and resources. I suspect new evidence will begin coming into their hands as historians of the Church and the pre-war years finally take notice, and I would expect some fascinating emendations in the near future.

The book is beautifully written, not strident, not crazy-devout, not flavored with special pleading. It is an important contribution to the understanding of the Holocaust. It deserves a mainstream publisher or university press – and a wide readership.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Amour," or, A Lot Not to Love

This review contains partial spoilers, but who cares?

This site tends to be rather behind the times when it comes to movie reviews.  Heck, I still have on my list to write about the results of the presidential election.  Still, if I can warn anyone away from this movie on DVD, Netflix, Redbox (doesn't seem a likely RedBox candidate, but I'll be damned if it isn't listed on the website), cable download, or even Blockbuster on Demand, I will have performed a public service.

You have probably already read something about this movie.  It was widely praised on release.  It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and was nominated for Best Picture, Direction (Michael Haneke), Screenplay (Haneke), and Actress in a Leading Role (Emmanuelle Riva).  I don't know why it didn't get a Best Actor nod as well, except that I have never heard anyone, anywhere, try to pronounce "Trintignant." (It's something like tron teen YONT.)  It got a stratospheric 93% rating on the notoriously harsh Rotten Tomatoes.  It won many international competitions in many categories.

A lot of people really, really liked this movie.

The Memsahib liked it.

I do not question the sincerity of the viewers who admired this show or the critics and judges who showered it with praise and prizes.

I just think they're wrong.

Pretty simple plot:  Elderly couple, Ann (Riva) and Georges (Trintignant).  Retired piano teachers, living in a quite large apartment (piano teaching apparently a lucrative profession in France).  She suffers a stroke, then another.  He takes care of her as best he can, but it is difficult.  She is not able to communicate, at least not well or often.  Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert, nice to see her again) comes to visit.  She wants to institutionalize Anne, but Georges wants to honor Anne's wishes to the contrary.  One day, while speaking to her at her bedside, reminiscing in a monologue, he suddenly grabs a pillow and suffocates her.  He then prepares her body to be found in an appealing setting, with flowers and a nice dress, and then commits suicide.

This is only a partial spoiler.  The movie begins with the arrival of firemen and paramedics to break in and find the two of them.  In fact, when I heard the title, and that it was about two elderly people, I assumed that this was going to be a murder-suicide thing because the murder was the "loving" thing to do, and his own suicide was emblematic of his feeling that he could not live with this "love."

My dislike of this movie has nothing to do with any judgment about whether Georges's actions were right or wrong.  My objections focus entirely on the movie.

And I do not object that it was gloomy and tragic.  The plot I describe above is an entirely legitimate frame upon which to hang scenes of interest and discovery.

But this movie was an endless, dreary mess.   The Mem caught me checking my watch a couple of times.

Let me give you the most annoying example.  There is a scene in the movie of a maid vacuuming the carpet.  Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum.  No one else is in the room.  No speaking.  Just vacuuming.  I don't know how long it lasted.  Not long.  But I ask anyone:  What was the point of that scene?  Was it to show the dull, mundane lives that this afflicted couple was leading?  Was it something meant to show the passage of time?  Was there symbolism in the vacuuming?  I absolutely guarantee you that the dull passage of time is something that this movie expresses in spades in almost every scene, and that it is not a show that asks you to guess at what things might mean.

Another:  Georges's preparation for the scene to be found by the police -- selecting her clothes, cutting the flowers, taping up the doors, all in complete silence -- goes on forever.

And Ann and Georges -- even when Ann was entirely possessed of her faculties, and when she wasn't entirely incapacitated -- are not very interesting people.  They don't say anything interesting.  In fact, they're not really a very appealing couple.  They show no pleasure in the company of one another or their daughter.  They are gracious to the only appealing character in the movie, an up-and-coming young pianist whose performance they had admired and who they had invited for a visit.  He disappears, and one wonders how that scene advanced anything, either.  The pianist might as well have been vacuuming.

Things heat up in "Amour"

I don't doubt that this may be an extremely realistic portrait of a couple who find themselves in the circumstances the plot sets for them.   But would you find 127 minutes -- yes, this goes on for over two hours -- of watching apartment occupants sitting, sometimes talking, vacuuming, cutting flowers, walking around, looking out the window, preparing the death scene, a good use of your time?  Much of which is shot, by the way, in frigid high-contrast low-res cinematography, adding to the distance we feel from these characters and their plight.

It manages to be claustrophobic and detached, everything held at arm's-length, at the same time.

Ultimately, my reaction to this movie arises from how I feel about storytelling.  You don't have to have explosions or CGI -- Malle's My Dinner with Andre is two guys talking over dinner, but they're interesting guys talking about interesting things.    "Amour" has a plot -- pretty  much given away in its first few minutes -- but nothing about that plot illuminates these characters, and nothing about these characters touch anything in the viewer.  I keep thinking of that quote from "Patton," where the general is told about the rumor of German "wonder weapons":  "Wonder weapons?  My God, I don't see the wonder in them.  Killing without heroics.  Nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed.  No heroes, no cowards, no troops.  No generals.  Only those that are left alive and those that are left  .  .  .  dead."  This isn't a war movie, of course, but you get the point.  This is a movie without wonder, without catharsis, with nothing affirmed or even denied.

But it cannot be gainsaid that people absolutely loved this movie.  Me, it seemed to me to be the kind of self-consciously arty, cold, faux-sophisticated filmmaking that I thought had gone out of style in the Sixties.  I said above that I don't doubt the sincerity of people who like it.  I wonder, though, what percentage of those who do like it do so because they think they should.  Because it's about old people.  Because it's tough to be so excruciatingly bored struggling with a disabled person.  Because it's French.  It's OK with me to like a movie for these reasons.  They just don't add up to a story, and when I go to the flicks, I want a story.

When I see stuff like "Amour," though, I'm thinking that maybe I'm the one who went out of style in the Sixties.  So maybe I learned something after all.

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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Things Are Right Again in Frisco, Texas

Not so long ago – right up to the present, in fact – there was a decrepit Shell station at the corner of Lebanon and Preston Roads in Frisco, Texas.  It wanted to be a Quik Trip or a Race Trac, or some early version of them, but, after what was doubtless a consultant-heavy process in the inner sanctum of Royal Dutch Shell, they decided to subname it Food Mart.  You can see that brand proudly displayed in the photograph.



In the back of that shabby Shell, barely visible from the front door, there was a sad little counter that served as the portal for service of the only Popeye's Chicken for miles around.  It was very cramped and because the service area was only a yard or so from the food preparation area, customers could observe what Popeye's International would probably judge questionable quality assurance procedures.  From that counter, a rapidly-rotating service staff would serve up ambrosial Popeye's Cajun Chicken, and, of course, the powerfully addictive Red Bean and Rice. 

I have been partial to Popeye's Chicken since my Chicago days.  I would even travel into sketchy neighborhoods to secure its tasty offerings.  A friend and I thought about bringing Popeye's to San Diego when I lived out there.

But, alas, Popeye's Chicken is not favored by the Memsahib, who controls most dining decisions at 7640 Red Clover Drive in Frisco.  Sometimes, however, she is out of town or dining with friends, and on those occasions I was able to procure those wonderful, grease-infused chicken parts fried up with that peppery, crispy shell protecting the doubtless contented flesh of their donors.  I would usually get an eight-piece all-dark special, which I would eat over the course of several days.  And Red Beans and Rice.

But one day, Popeye's Chicken went dark.  There was a great wailing and gnashing of teeth at 7640 Red Clover Drive and, I imagine, for miles around, for, as I said, there were no other Popeye's Chickens near about.

A sign went up at the poor Shell station.  It promised that a Golden Chick would be appearing.  Eventually, it did.




I like Golden Chick chicken.  But it is not Popeye's.  And it does not have Red Beans and Rice.

And lo, it came to pass that I was driving down Preston Road, home to an increasing number of delightful fast-food establishments.  I saw a new building, unlabeled, that looked like all of the others on that blessed strip.  There was construction equipment on the premises and the usual piles of dirt and rebar and packing materials.  It was located next to Randy White's BBQ.   In the window was a large sign that said NOW HIRING. 



Well, I thought, that's good. One can never have too many fast-food choices in Frisco.  Hey, maybe Mexican!  Someday I'm going to write an article on the incremental differences in the fare offered by Taco Bell, Taco Cabana, Del Taco, Cristina's, La Hacienda, Casa Rita, Posado's, Gloria's, Cantina Laredo, Blue Goose Cantina, Manny's Tex-Mex, Rosa's Café, Taco Bueno, and, in all likelihood, whatever was going into this new building.

I looked a little closer.  There, almost hidden, difficult to read through the reflections in the front glass, were some additional markings:
  



And there followed great rejoicing at 7640, and in the hearts of all Frisco bachelors, former bachelors, and male children with elevated tastes in fried poultry. 

"NOW HIRING."  You know, the Memsahib has been asking me what I'm going to do when I retire.

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*     *     *

For other articles on my adventures with fried chicken, see:


Sunday, March 2, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Nebraska," or, Why Couldn't Alexander Payne Have Been from Iowa?

I was born and raised in Nebraska.
If one is from Nebraska, about which few movies are made, one might be expected to be grateful and like movies about Nebraska and that are even named "Nebraska."
 Mm.  No.

The state has actually been featured in a couple of notable shows in the last few years.  One is the director's earlier "About Schmidt" (Jack Nicholson); the other is "Up in the Air" (George Clooney; directed by Jason Reitman; George works for a company based in The Big O).   I'll have more to say about "About" later.
Where the cinematography of the landscape of the Western Great Plains -- formerly known as "The Great American Desert" before the explorers got to the real deserts further on, now known more charitably as the High Plains --  is the best thing about the movie, you've got a problem.
Alexander Payne is from Nebraska.  He is active in the cultural life of Omaha, for which he deserves much credit.  I'll get back to him.

But now, "Nebraska," the flick.

I didn't look at my wa -- wait, I did once.  But only once.  I wasn't bored.  It wasn't a terrible movie.

Neither was it a terribly good one. 

Let's start with Bruce Dern's performance, much praised.  I like Bruce Dern a lot.  Being Laura's pop makes him aces in my book, but that's not important now.  I first saw him in what has become something of a minor cult classic, "Silent Running."  I saw it in a preview at the York Square Cinema in New Haven.  Such a cool movie, and even a major environmental theme.  He played the gardener in a gigantic orbiting greenhouse, trying to save some of the last growing things on an Earth suffering through an apocalyptic conflict back on the surface.  He was fine, which was difficult when your chief costars are three robots named Huey, Louie, and Dewey. 

And he's the first bad guy ever to kill John Wayne in a movie, in "The Cowboys."  He's one of those actors that is just flat watchable.

But was his performance in "Nebraska" really that good?  He plays Woody Grant, an elderly Montana man who receives an obviously misleading notification that he has won $1 million in some kind of magazine sweepstakes and heads off, on foot, to claim it in Lincoln, Nebraska.  He tries several times and is retrieved by his long-suffering, not terribly successful son David (Will Forte). (I've been through something like this -- I had to care for an elderly relative who would call me every day or so, having received an ad or something in the mail that would throw him into a complete tailspin -- insurance come-ons were particularly concerning to him.)

His character is old, quiet, slow.  Impaired, although not in a tragic advanced-Alzheiemery kind of way.  More in a  .  .  .  lifelong alcoholic kind of way.  He is called upon not to emote, and in that he is successful.  Does that make it a great performance, to speak little, shuffle about, and to want to go to Nebraska?  It's a one-note part, and Dern plays it well, but its pretty much 110 minutes of staring, silence, and the occasional snarl at people trying to help him.

And this brings us to Woody's character as portrayed.  Payne doesn't know what this man is about.  Is he a dotty guy who just wants to buy a pickup truck (reasonable)?  Or is he, as he claims in one scene, and only one, someone who just wants to leave some money for his boys  (noble, high-minded)?  Or is he just batty (batty)?  Well, you say, he can be all these things.  No; it doesn't work.

This is the biggest false note in a movie that is full of them.  Let's take that letter from the sweepstakes people, the ignition for the entire plot.  Did anyone turn it over and read the back of it?  We find out that it explains exactly what is needed to win the million, and he didn't accomplish any of them.  When this is pointed out to him at the sweepstakes office in Lincoln, he seems to understand immediately.  An entire family uproots itself for this ridiculous quest, and everyone knows the notice is a come-on, but no one reads it out loud to the guy the day after he gets it and decides to walk to Nebraska? 

There's lots more:

The things that old people say to David about his father and mother and other family members, the sexual references -- no, wouldn't happen, and the words are wrong.

David's former girlfriend -- no.

Bob Odenkirk (Woody's other son Ross), a fine actor but one with one of the most unappealing speaking voices in modern entertainment and terrible hair, as a local network news anchor -- no.

Woody's wife Kate (June Squibb) -- a dreadful, coarse harridan who heaps abuse on Woody's unkempt head (the Memsahib said to me, "Didn't anyone ever think to comb his hair?").  As an old-timer who came out of nowhere to get this plump role, Squibb's performance has been praised and rewarded with an Oscar nomination, but I thought it was cartoonish and shrill and unbelievable.  (In fairness, the script called for it and so, I suspect, did the direction.)  The tenderness in the hospital -- no, not based on what has come before.  That coarse gesture at the cemetery -- no.   

Will Forte, Bob Odenkirk, June Squibb, Bruce Dern
And, like another movie set on a vast plain ("August:  Osage County"), there is some effort to market this movie as a comedy -- I just heard someone on the Oscar show describe it as such.  And, like that other movie, reviewed below, it is not.  Is it a funny premise that a senile old drunk wants to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska, for the stupidest of reasons?  It's OK to think so, but that premise is the only faintly amusing thing about this show.

Alexander Payne ("The Descendants," "Sideways"):  He is celebrated for his Nebraska settings but it is not clear to me that he doesn't hold the Midwest way of life in some contempt.  "About Schmidt" had the same problem.  Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) himself is stupid, doesn't seem to know how pay phones work, is fascinated by the garbage sold at souvenir traps.  The people he encounters on his trip west through the state are not flatteringly portrayed.  That's OK -- sneering at Plains people is a legitimate artistic pose, although not one I admire or that makes any sense.

But this movie wants it both ways.  You can see it in that silhouette of Woody/Dern on the movie posters.  You can see it in the magnificence of the cinematography.  You can see it in the choice of dramatic, artsy (in a good way) black-and-white.   Payne signals that he wants the moviegoer to view the movie as a celebration of the nobility, or at least the humanity, of this seldom-portrayed slice of American life, the hopes and dreams of the elderly.  OK, I'm on board.  But it is surpassing odd that there is not a single appealing character in this entire show.  Even Will Forte, the son who indulges his father (who shows no affection for him whatsoever, save in that one off-tone scene where he mumbles that he wanted to leave him and Ross some money), is weak and whiny and dim.  And pining for a very unattractive departed girlfriend.

Woody doesn't love his children.  Woody's wife doesn't love Woody.  (Really?  You think that deep down, she does?  What is your evidence for that?)  Woody's relatives who he and David visit along the way are either near-dead or grasping and even criminal.

Is western Nebraska an attractive place to live?  (When it is not being photographed by Phedon Papamichael, that is.)  Well, it's a tough place -- some have suggested turning it back to the buffalo and quit trying to save it as a place for people to live.  (See Buffalo Commons.) But people live there, probably in about the same proportions of good and bad, slender and obese, loving and bitter, as most other places.  And likable and unlikable, but I can't find any evidence that Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson have any affection for a single one of them.


Ultimately, as pretty as this picture is, I just didn't believe it.  Didn't believe it in its pieces, didn't believe the whole.

The Great Nebraska Movie, alas, has yet to be made.

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Anyone reading these last couple of reviews might think, oh, Steverino just thinks movies have to follow some kind of old-fashioned rules, and if they don't, then they're no good -- he doesn't like movies that are just about life, you know?  Stuff doesn't have to happen.

Could be, could be.  But let me explain myself a little.

There are certain elements to the enjoyment of storytelling that seem inherent to human nature.  Aristotle recorded them.  Critics have debated them for years.  But few deny them.    

"August:  Osage County" and "Nebraska" fail as good storytelling.  

They don't succeed as comedies because they are not funny.  

They don't succeed as dramas because they are not dramatic.  That is, there is no movement toward a dramatic climax, which can be any number of things -- self-realization, a plot resolution, the discovery of love, the change of a life.  That doesn't happen in either of these movies.  

In "Nebraska," there's built-in, literal movement upon which a journey of discovery could have been hung, but it doesn't happen.  We know to a certainty what is going to happen when Woody and David get to Lincoln.  And when they do, and Woody learns that he's not going to get the million he's been dreaming of, nothing changes for him.  He doesn't even seem disappointed.  (I have considered the possibility that Woody secretly knows this and that his voyage is for another hidden reason that is the real backbone of this film.  If so, it remains hidden.)    He accepts a hat (which plays a role in the final scene) from the sympathetic sweepstakes lady, and he and David leave.  David does something nice for Woody right after that, but Woody shows no appreciation whatsoever.  In fact, in that final scene, he visits a final humiliation on David, the only person in this movie who -- foolishly -- indulges Woody's silly demand.

One can enjoy a movie where the only merit is an amazing performance.  But you love the performance, not the movie.  Tell me a story.

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Friday, February 28, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "August: Osage County," or, Who Says There Aren't Any Juicy Roles For Women of a Certain Age? -- Part 2

[One minor spoiler -- happens early in the film.]

This movie gets a  thumb-up, which, in light of what I'm about to write, makes me wonder about my critical faculties.   That thumb is shaking -- I must need more magnesium.   There's a lot wrong with this show.  But I sat and watched it all the way through and I wasn't bored and I was interested to see what was going to happen next and I don't recall looking at my watch.  So if you ask me if you should go see it, I'd say sure, it was kind of interesting.  And it had lots of good actresses and actors in it, and I put them in that order advisedly.

There's a big cast here, and there are almost no minor characters.  Lots of relationships to keep track of and if I started I'd be giving too much of it away.  The basics can't be considered spoilers:  Famous poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) and wife Violet (Meryl Streep) live out on the Oklahoma plain.  He's a boozer; she has mouth cancer and is addicted to prescription drugs.  He leaves one day and commits suicide.  Their three daughters Barb (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and  Karen (Juliette Lewis) and their men (Ewan MacGregor and Dermot Mulroney) assemble at the house, along with Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and their son, the sisters' cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

They have quite a time.  Revelations, you know.  I will refrain from sharing them, in case you want to download it someday.



But there are some things you should know.

This Movie Has Been Misleadingly Marketed as a Comedy.  Even the trailers are edited to make it look like "Terms of Endearment."  It is nothing of the sort.  It is about as bleak a movie as you can imagine.  From the sere Oklahoma landscape to the unceasing unpleasantness with which these characters interact with one another, there's scarcely a chuckle in it.

It's an Adaptation of a Stage Play, and Man, Does It Show.  In fact, I was not aware that this was originally a play.  Which is embarrassing, since it won the Pulitzer.  It was written by Tracy Letts.  (He's also an actor -- he plays Andrew Lockhart in Season 3 of "Homeland.")  There's a lot of speech-giving in this movie; a lot of theatrical declaiming -- the scenes look like they're being played on a stage; as I say, I thought that before I knew it was adapted from a stage show.  The Memsahib had exactly the same impression -- it doesn't look like a movie.

Hold the Catharsis.  Not only is it not a comedy in the ha-ha sense, it's also not a comedy in the classic sense of having a non-tragic ending.  No one improves in this movie; other than those revelations I mentioned, no one seems to have learned anything emotionally.  These are all damaged souls and there is no healing, nothing the viewer takes away that makes the viewer a more learned person.  Other than maybe to watch the booze. .

What's With All These Solvent Poets?  This is the second movie I've seen in the last little while -- the other was "Say Anything" (Dreyfuss/Gandolfini), reviewed a post or two ago -- where a poet is portrayed as financially successful based solely on publishing poetry.  In this case, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is the blessed scribbler.  I'm here to tell you that not a single poet supports a house of that size and apparently some land, a wife that needs a lot of medical attention and meds, and three girls to have raised, on nothing but publishing poetry.  Oh, you may be able to exist on a rudimentary level as an archetypal starving artist, but the emphasis there is on the starving part.  Most working poets teach, speak, hold workshops, and the like.  The alcoholic Bev does none of these things.

Bad Guys.  The mom and sisters are bad enough, but the men in this movie -- the departed Beverly aside -- discredit the gender.  Weak, ignorant, faithless, fibbers.  To themselves and to their women.  I wonder how Letts thinks the species has survived.  If you believe this movie, the joys of love and sex and family can't possibly be worth the relentless misery.

There Is One Noble Character.  I won't spoil it by telling you who it is, but even that sympathetic portrayal is ultimately patronizing.

God Forgive Me.  God Forgive Me.   In considering the performance of Ms. Meryl Streep, one word cuts through the haze of the typical superlatives she is usually owed -- hammy.  Her rants and staggering about may be suited to the stage, where exaggeration of voice and gesture is called for to get the message past the footlights, but on film it's oppressive.  (She did not play it onstage; Deanna Dunagan originated it at Steppenwolf in Chicago and on Broadway, where she was succeeded by Estelle Parsons and Phylicia Rashad -- yes, the Cosby mom.)   Here she is exhausting her considerable bag of actorly tricks -- and they're great tricks, don't misunderstand me, like DeNiro's, who does the same things in the too-many roles he takes that are unworthy of his gifts -- in an effort to overcome the speechy script.

There is one scene in particular, one of those stagy ones, where she greets a police officer, a young man who used to date the Julia Roberts character.  Violet stumbles about uncertainly, mumbling and ranting in an extended monologue, and the other characters just stand there and watch her act.  OK, she's a seriously ill woman with various addictions and not at all a good Mommy, but the eye-rolling and mood shifts and lacerating speechifying in those claustrophobic sets simply overwhelms the narrative.  No Oscar for her this year.

So why the (tepid) recommendation?  I thought Julia Roberts was quite good in a very nonglamorous (and overwritten) role, and Sam Shepard is one of those actors who grabs the screen even in bad movies and won't let it go.  Julianne Nicholson underplayed quite attractively.   Maybe I was just waiting for it to get better, or for the Big Moment when something was affirmed, where the scales fell from these sad persons' eyes, but the truth of the matter is that, even after all of the foregoing, I was engaged.  Maybe it was the star power of all those stars and I'm a sucker.  Hey, it's up for some Academy Awards.  Someone must have thought it was really good.

And I'll always give the benefit of the doubt to any movie with a title containing a colon.

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Philomena" or Who Says There Aren't Any Juicy Roles for Women of a Certain Age? -- Part 1



The first time I ever saw Dame Judi Dench she was naked.



Or nearly so.  She appeared as a concupiscent Titainia, Queen of the Fairies, opposite Ian Richardson as King Oberon, in Peter Hall's shimmering, perfect 1968 film adaptation of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."    Now that was a movie.  Believe I first saw it in Alvin Kernan's Shakespeare course when I was a sophomore at Yale.

But today I am here to discuss her fine work in the first of our thumbs'-up films, "Philomena."  Her co-star, Steve Coogan, co-wrote and co-produced the film.  Dame Judi plays Philomena Lee, who enlists former Labour Government advisor Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) to assist in finding an illegitimate son, Anthony to whom she gave birth at a convent.  The nuns of the convent permitted his adoption -- for a handsome fee, it is suggested -- to a couple who had come in to adopt a little girl but ended up taking Anthony, the little girl's best friend, as well.

The movie is the story of their search, what they find, and, of course, there's the "getting to know you" angle between the buttoned-down and cynical Martin and the hopeful and spunky Philomena.  I won't say any more than that.  Needless to say, Martin finds something, and it is really all quite genuinely moving.



There has been some talk that the movie is anti-Catholic.  Mmm, not sure about that.  To be absolutely certain, those nuns of the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary in Roscrea, county Tipperary, Ireland, oh, they do not come across well at all.  In addition to selling kids out from under their unfortunate unwed mothers, they are terrible liars.  I have read that that Order says no, it didn't happen that way, and we're not going to settle it in this review.  At least one crucial scene was fabricated.  But yeah, you don't have a real good feeling about dogma when the movie is over.

But "Philomena" is not about whether the worldly punishment of sexual immorality is good or bad.  It is about the great undiminished love of a mother for her boy across the years and miles and choices.

Some minor misgivings:

Coogan's performance is understated almost to the point of invisibility.  He goes through the film with a faintly uncomfortable look on his face, perplexed by Philomena.  Never really snaps out of it, even as matters approach their climax.  While there's plainly supposed to be some kind of cathartic connection of this unlikely pair as the truth gradually emerges, it is not reflected in Coogan's performance.

Dench is one of those iconic actors who can barely be criticized ever about anything (although see next review).  And there's no fault to be found here, either.  The problem is that the film isn't quite sure who she is.  Sometimes she's a dotty, oblivious consumer of tacky romance novels; the next she's speaking knowledgeably about the range of contemporary sexual preferences.  Sometimes she's helpless, lost without Martin; other times she shows him up with her determination and spunk.  Not a dreadful fault -- just makes the thing seem just a little less than serious.

But, then and now -- what a Dame.

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