A blog formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, January 2, 2022


Movie: Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) (TCM).

Book: D.H. Lawrence, St. Mawr.

TV: Doctor Who: Eve of the Daleks (BBC America); Only Murders in the Building: To Protect and Serve; The Boy From 6B (Hulu). 

St. Mawr is a lumpy pudding of a novella, crammed with D.H. Lawrence's themes and obsessions. The title character is a handsome but temperamental stallion, threatened with being sold to a new owner, a woman who will geld him, before his current owner, also a woman, decides to take him to America, specifically to a ranch near Taos, New Mexico. It doesn't take much knowledge of Lawrence's biography to see the correspondence between the horse and the author. The latter wound up on a ranch near Taos owned by Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy American woman whose experiences developing the ranch are reflected in a narrative aside near the end of the story. But the bulk of the story deals with the acquisition of the horse by Lou Witt, an American woman, and her husband, Rico, who inhabit the bright but empty society of postwar England. St. Mawr becomes a flash point in their marriage, which has grown stale and sexless. The situation gives Lawrence ample excuse to explore conflicts familiar to his readers: nature and civilization, men and women, race, class, national identity, and the like. In addition to Lou and Rico, there's Lou's middle-aged mother, who serves as a kind of cynical chorus, commenting on their marriage. There are also two grooms for the horses owned by the others: the part-Mexican, part-Navajo known as Phoenix (Lawrence's personal symbol) and the Welshman Lewis, who comes as part of the deal when St. Mawr is acquired by Lou and Rico; both provide their own commentary on the story's themes and events. Truth be told, St. Mawr is kind of a mess, but like most Lawrence stories it's larded with some extraordinary descriptions and narrative turns. 

The last time I watched Blade Runner on TV, about six years ago, it was on HBO, which was still showing the version of the film with a voice-over narrative and a "happy ending" that Warner Bros. demanded after poor box office response to the initial release. TCM, I'm happy to report, is now showing the so-called "Final Edit," which was put together with the director's approval in 2007. It's a darker version, but a truer one -- even to the editing out of some brand names like Pan Am that were defunct in 2019, when the film's action takes place. (Atari still remains, but maybe it was too hard to cut.) I miss a little of the whimsy involving Sebastian's "toys" -- we seem to have lost what I remember as a teddy-bear figure that bumps into things -- but the ending has more power to haunt. It also sets up Denis Villeneuve's 2017 sequel, Blade Runner 2049, much better. 

Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Last night's Doctor Who was a fairly routine episode involving a time loop in which the Doctor and her companions keep getting exterminated by Daleks but coming back to life to figure out ways to survive, which of course they do at the final second. Time loop stories are irresistible to sci-fi writers, and there are some good ones like Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993), Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014), and Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, 2020). But too often they fall into the trap of being the same damn thing over and over. Doctor Who avoided that one, but didn't give us anything new either.

Only Murders in the Building did something interesting in the second episode, called The Boy From 6B, last night: Because it featured a deaf character who could communicate only in ASL, there was very little audible spoken dialogue throughout the episode, even when the scenes involved our usual protagonists. The plotting remains skillful on this series.  

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Slacking Off

Movie: Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1990) (Criterion Collection).

Book: D.H. Lawrence, St. Mawr

TV: Only Murders in the Building: Who Is Tim Kono?; How Well Do You Know Your Neighbors?; The Sting; Twist (Hulu). 

New Year's Eve in the age of Covid: What better time to stay in and watch stuff that's not too depressing but has a little edge? Slacker fits those criteria as well as any movie. It's a comic portrait of the Austin counterculture of its day, edged with a little violence. I'm a big Richard Linklater fan, and I'm surprised I've never seen his debut film before. It's a walk-and-talker like the Jesse-and-Céline trilogy, and a group portrait like Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, with some of the experimental élan of Boyhood. The tag-you're-it structure -- one character crosses paths with another, launching that person into their own episode -- is beautifully done: Austin becomes something like the Dublin of Ulysses, an inspiration that becomes obvious in the scene in which two guys toss a tent and a typewriter off a bridge as a third reads a passage from Joyce's book. The unknown performers mostly remained unknown, except for Linklater himself, the guy in the opening scene, listed in the credits as "Should Have Stayed at the Bus Station,"  and future director Athina Rachel Tsangari, the "Cousin From Greece" listed in the cast as Rachael Reinhardt. 

Richard Linklater and Rudy Basquez in Slacker (1990)

Only Murders in the Building was also a fortuitous choice for a low-key New Year's Eve. I can't binge-watch much more than the four episodes I saw last night, but the plot is ensnaring and I like wondering which guest star is going to turn up next after Nathan Lane, Sting, and Tina Fey. 

Friday, December 31, 2021

Evil Is as Evil Does

Movie: Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973) (TCM). 
Book: D.H. Lawrence, St. Mawr
TV: Station Eleven: Survival Is Insufficient; Goodbye My Damaged Home (HBO Max); Only Murders in the Building: True Crime (Hulu). 

Badlands is almost the only Terrence Malick movie I can watch without squirming (and sometimes snoozing). It was also his first, before he yielded to his inclination toward profundity and made movies like The Thin Red Line (1998) and The Tree of Life (2011), which take conventional genres like the war movie and the family drama and infuse them with metaphysics and cosmological speculation. In Badlands he stuck to the two main characters, the psychotic Kit (Martin Sheen) and his morally blank girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek), and left the philosophical import of their stories alone -- or better yet, left them for us to ponder. For the movie is in its essence a fable about the nature of evil. Kit is, in the cliché parlance, a "cold-blooded killer," one who doesn't reflect on his actions, whether it's picking up the girl he takes a fancy to, or casually gunning down anyone who stands in his way. There's mercifully little in the way of backstory psychology -- we take Kit and Holly for what they are. We can surmise about Holly's emotional blankness, since we see a little of her father (Warren Oates) who is an inept and even cruel parent (he kills her dog to punish her), but we see and learn almost nothing about what shaped Kit. The tendency of some would be to fault the environment in which the two grow up: the bleak, opportunity-starved small towns of the American heartland. But Malick lets his cinematographers -- Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, and Brian Probyn -- seek out the spare beauty of the region. We're left to surmise that perhaps this kind of evil -- the kind we see often in the cruel gun stories of our day -- can find its nourishment anywhere. 
Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973)

Two more Station Eleven episodes last night, one of them a continuation of the story of the Traveling Symphony, in which they meet up with the survivors of the Severn City airport and we learn that the Prophet (Daniel Zovatto) is Arthur Leander's son, Tyler, grown up. Whether he's good or bad is still up in the air. The more successful episode, to my mind, is the one that takes us back to the Chicago high-rise where the young Kirsten waited out the first months of the plague with Jeevan and his brother, Frank. Except that this time, the grownup Kirsten is present as a kind of interpreter of events, talking with her younger self, guiding her through her memories, which culminate in the young girl's putting on a play based on the Station Eleven graphic novel and with the death of Frank. This is a beautifully written and directed episode: I'd be surprised if it didn't win a lot of awards for  Kim Steele's adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel's novel and the direction by Hiro Murai and Lucy Tcherniak. 

I started Only Murders in the Building last night mainly because I was looking for something not overlong that would get me to my usual bedtime. A pleasant surprise: an intriguing story about three people (Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez) who discover they're all addicted to the same true crime podcast and wind up trying to solve a murder in their own Manhattan apartment building. I'll keep tuning in.  

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Catching Up

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Movie: Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973) (TCM).

Book: William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. Kenneth Palmer. 

TV: Station Eleven: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Aren't Dead; The Severn City Airport (Netflix).

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Movie: Mind Game (Masaayuki Yuasa, 2004) (Criterion Collection). 

Book: D.H. Lawrence, St. Mawr.

TV: Chopped: Pasta, Pasta, Pasta (Food Network); The Book of Boba Fett: Stranger in a Strange Land (Disney+); Death to 2021 (Netflix). 

In quick succession, Peter Bogdanovich made three terrific movies: The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972), and Paper Moon. And then ... who knows what happened? Some blame his abrupt career decline on his infatuation with Cybill Shepherd, whom he miscast in Daisy Miller (1974) and the musical At Long Last Love (1975), after which he never recovered his status as a director. Whatever the reason for Bogdanovich's decline, there's something valedictory about Paper Moon when we watch it today, and not only because it was the precipice from which he was to fall, but also because it launched the troubled career of Tatum O'Neal, who won an Oscar for her debut performance, but became fuel for gossip as she grew p. It also marked the peak of her father's career: Ryan O'Neal went from being a star of the magnitude of contemporaries like Robert Redford and Al Pacino to fodder for tabloids, winding up as a supporting player on TV series like Bones. But set aside all that, and appreciate the crispness of the black-and-white cinematography of László Kovács, the skill with which Bogdanovich brings Alvin Sargent's screenplay to life, the cherishable Trixie Delight of the great Madeline Kahn, the superb work of Polly Platt in recreating small-town Kansas in the 1930s, and the easy rapport of the two O'Neals. One quibble about the closed captioning on the movie: In the diner scene below, Moses orders what the captions call "a knee-high and a Coney Island" for Addie. The "knee-high" is actually a Nehi, a now-defunct soft drink, as you can see on the label in the film.

Tatum O'Neal and Ryan O'Neal in Paper Moon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1973)

After finishing Troilus and Cressida, I have to conclude that the only way it could be staged today is as a knockabout bitter comedy. Taking it seriously is to endorse either the antidemocratic politics of Ulysses's speech on order or the nihilism of Thersites. A problem play indeed. 

The two episodes of Station Eleven I watched Tuesday night brought me up to date, but left me still confused about where it's going. So far, the series has alternated scenes from the immediate outbreak of the virus and scenes from 20 years later, the group of survivors it has chosen to follow continue their journey as traveling players. The function of Station Eleven itself, the graphic novel created by Miranda Carroll and cherished by Kirsten, remains one of the more intriguing mysteries of the series. I'm beginning to glimpse how things connect: Kirsten and the Traveling Symphony, and Clark (David Wilmot), the Rosencrantz to Arthur Leander's Guildenstern, and his outpost at the Severn City airport, but there are so many characters that it's hard to keep them in mind. Thank god for IMDb. 

I've always been fascinated by the Japanese imagination, which seems to bridge surrealism and pop culture with ease. I'm no devotee of manga or anime, so I can't speak with any confidence on the subject other than to express my appreciation of what bits of it I encounter, usually filtered through the films of Hayao Miyazaki or the novels of Haruki Murakami. I stumbled last night on Mind Game, the 2004 animated film by Masaaki Yuasa which is somewhat about the afterlife, and was left grasping for stability. I can't say I enjoyed it -- the film induced eyestrain as I tried to keep the images whole -- but I can see where its cult status came from. It's certainly a barrage of styles of animation, so much so that I can't choose any one image to represent it. The one below is from a "realistic" moment in the film.

A quiet moment in Mind Game (Masaaki Yuasa, 2004)

From Shakespeare to D.H. Lawrence. St. Mawr is a short novel (or a long short story) about Lou Witt, one of Lawrence's sexually frustrated women, who buys a beautiful but high-spirited stallion named St. Mawr. There doesn't seem to be any canonical saint by that name, and Wikipedia tells me that mawr just means "large" in Welsh. I've only just begun the story, so no reliable opinions yet, other than it seems to be following the author's familiar pattern of conflict between the civilized and the wild. 

The first episode of The Book of Boba Fett was promising, setting up the characters of the bounty hunter (Temuera Morrison) and his sidekick Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen), but not giving us much clue as to the direction of the story. I also watched Death to 2021, a spoof of year-in-review shows featuring some very funny performances by actors like Lucy Liu, Stockard Channing, and William Jackson Harper playing commentators, the standouts being Hugh Grant as an über-Tory Brit outraged by what he sees as the decline of everything that made Britain great, and Tracey Ullman as a Fox News-style personality. 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

This Is the Way the World Ends

Movie: Don't Look Up (Adam McKay, 2021) (Netflix).

Book: William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. Kenneth Palmer. 

TV: Holiday Wars: Champion Cake Off (Food Network); Landscapers: Episode Four (HBO Max); Station Eleven: Hurricane (HBO Max). 

If a couple of friends whose taste I trust hadn't praised Don't Look Up I might not have watched it. My local newspaper critic gave it a rave and even put it on his top ten list for the year, but he and I don't always see eye to eye, and his opinion of Adam McKay's film was out of the mainstream. Don't Look Up currently has a 55% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the negative critics used words like "leaden," "sluggish," "slapdash," "smug," "bombastic," "frantic," "laborious," "toothless," "messy," "smarmy," and even "disastrous" to describe it. Several compared it unfavorably to Stanley Kubrick's 1964 similarly apocalyptic satire Dr. Strangelove. But this time audiences seem to be out of step with the critics: Not only did my friends praise it, but negative reviews like Peter Bradshaw's in The Guardian have been met with a barrage of online comments from people who thought the movie was brilliantly effective in its satire on the Trump era, social media, capitalistic excess, and journalistic ineptness. The movie also made the top position in viewership on Netflix, contradicting George S. Kaufman's observation that "satire is what closes on Saturday night" -- i.e., after opening on Friday. Okay, I enjoyed it, too, especially Meryl Streep's take on what Donald Trump would be like if he were a woman, and Jonah Hill's merciless parody of Donald Jr. I don't think it's the best film of this or any other year, but it hits the mark more often than not. I'm one who doesn't wholeheartedly worship Dr. Strangelove, for the reason I set forth on this blog: "It may be that reality has outstripped satire. Who could have invented Donald Trump?" All too often, our public figures, our politicians, our business leaders, our media darlings seem to be satirizing themselves. Who could have invented Marjorie Taylor Greene, Elon Musk, or Tucker Carlson, either? Who could have foreseen a time when people would be taking horse dewormer for a viral plague and calling for the head of Dr. Fauci? I credit McKay with a lot of insight and wit in even daring to take our common plight and sink his teeth into it.

Jonah Hill, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Jennifer Lawrence in Don't Look Up (Adam McKay, 2021)

Landscapers ended last night with its characteristic surreal embroidery on the crime of Susan and Christopher Edwards, imagining the two, as they sat on trial for murdering her parents, as characters in a Western movie -- an echo of their love of films like High Noon. I appreciated the series' attempt to go beyond a mere restaging of the crime and the trial, and the work of Olivia Colman and David Thewlis in portraying the couple, but I'm not sure the story demanded four hour-long episodes.

Station Eleven made another switch in time and place to tell the story of Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler) and her affair with Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) at the onset of the pandemic. I don't know how the episode links with the first two (except for Arthur's death in the first one), or what Miranda's graphic novel has to do with anything (I expect a lot), or even why the episode is called "Hurricane," but I intend to stay tuned to find out. 

Monday, December 27, 2021

Memory Lapse

Movie: Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960) (TCM).

Book: William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed Kenneth Palmer. 

TV: The Witcher: Dear Friend ... ; Voleth Meir; Family (Netflix). 

I don't usually binge-watch, but when you're down to the last three episodes of a season of a show as entertaining and complicated as The Witcher, it's hard not to sit through all of them at once. I still don't have the backstories of the characters as well sorted out as I might, but I don't have the kind of devotion to the series that its die-hard fans have. Suffice it to say that there's a whole lot about Ciri and Yennefer (and even Geralt) that I don't fully understand, but I'd rather go with the flow of the action than spend my life digging into source material. At least I'm glad that they and my boy Jaskier (who gets a shirtless scene in a season when Geralt mostly stays clad) survived for another season. Too bad about Roach, however. 

Charles Aznavour in Shoot the Piano Player (François Truffaut, 1960)

I watched Shoot the Piano Player almost five years ago, according to this blog, and I'm surprised how much of it I had forgotten. Usually I get an occasional déjà vu when I'm rewatching a movie after several years, but there were only a few moments when that happened this time. Is it a sign of age? I like to think instead that it's because this loosey-goosey tragicomedy never quite goes where you're expecting it to, so it's hard to keep its plot turns and unpredictable characters (other than Charles Aznavour's Charlie/Edouard) in mind.   

I'm trying to give Troilus and Cressida its due attention, so I'm making my way through the play slowly, stopping to read the notes in the Arden edition when I feel the need. It's a better play than I remembered, with well-delineated secondary characters. I'm finding its bitter comedy rather bracing, and wonder why it isn't performed more often. The play's cynicism seems like it would have a lot of appeal to contemporary audiences.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Happy Boxing Day!

 Friday, December 24, 2021

Movie: Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967).

Book: William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. Kenneth Palmer. 

TV: Holiday Baking Championship: Ultimate Holiday Party (Food Network); The Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World (Amazon Prime); The Witcher: What Is Lost (Netflix).

Thursday, December 25, 2021

Movie: Trouble in Mind (Alan Rudolph, 1985).

Book: William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. Kenneth Palmer. 

TV: Money Hungry (Food Network); The Witcher: Redanian Intelligence, Turn Your Back (Netflix).

Jaskier (Joey Batey) is back! The snarky, motormouth bard is just what The Witcher needs to liven it up. One of the things that set The Witcher apart from the other current fantasy streamer The Wheel of Time, whose season-ending episode I watched on Christmas Eve, is the former's occasional lightness of tone. Imagine The Lord of the Rings without the antics of Merry and Pippin, or Game of Thrones without the sarcastic wit of Tyrion and you get something like the heaviness that often makes Wheel a bit of a slog. I will probably tune in to the next season of that series, but I hope its producers find a way to lighten up. Mat (Barney Harris -- the role has been recast for the next season) provided some darkly irreverent humor in the earlier part of the series before he got left behind, and there's some mild comedy inherent in the character of the Ogier Loial (Hammed Animashaun), but the show has mostly focused on establishing its places and characters and the nature of the central quest. 

The Witcher did much of the expository work in its first season, so perhaps it can afford to get a little looser in tone, although there was humor even then, much of it centered on the role of Jaskier as sidekick to Geralt. In this season so far he's paired with Yennefer (Anya Chalotra) instead, which is even more of a mismatch than that of bard and witcher. Even before Jaskier turned up, however, there was some humor evident in the tensions of the relationship between Geralt and Ciri (Freya Allan). Henry Cavill is wonderful at showing Geralt's exasperation with her, as he did with Jaskier. 

I complained about not being able follow the Yennefer plot in the first few episodes, but I'm getting the hang of it now.

Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)

As for the movies I watched, Cool Hand Luke is one of Paul Newman's signature roles. Looking back at my comments on the movie in Oscar A to Z, I see that I regarded the film as somewhat pretentious in its treatment of Luke as a "Christ figure." I was less bothered by that on this viewing, although there is a shot of the beaten half-naked Luke with arms outstretched and feet crossed that's clearly a crucifixion pose, and a whiff of a suggestion at the end that Luke dies for his fellow prisoners' sins. But what one really remembers about the movie are its raucous moments like the egg-eating wager and of course Strother Martin's "failure to communicate" line. 

Kris Kristofferson and Divine in Trouble in Mind (Alan Rudolph, 1985)

Trouble in Mind is "stoner noir," a subset of neo-noir that also includes The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973). It's not quite as good as the Altman film, partly because it doesn't have the underpinning of Raymond Chandler's novel. Alan Rudolph, who also wrote the screenplay, tries a little too hard to be cleverly off-beat. Still, it has Divine (out of drag) as its villain, managing to accomplish the film's eccentric aims more fully than its stars do. Kris Kristofferson and Geneviève Bujold sometimes seem like they don't get the joke; on the other hand, Keith Carradine does, maybe because he had worked with Altman and is used to this sort of thing.  

Friday, December 24, 2021

Beginnings and Endings

Movie: The Long Good Friday (John Mackendrick, 1980) (Criterion Collection).

Book: William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. Kenneth Palmer. 

TV: Holiday Baking Championship: Ultimate Holiday Party (Food Network); The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC); Maid: Sky Blue (Netflix); Station Eleven: A Hawk From a Handsaw (HBO Max). 

Every actor has to start somewhere, so it's fun to see Pierce Brosnan as "1st Irishman" in The Long Good Friday, a role that gives him no lines but a couple of key moments in the unfolding of the plot. It was only his second screen appearance and his first in a theatrical film, but it's clear to see that the camera loves him. He's cast as a killer, seducing and stabbing a gay henchman of London mob boss Harold (Bob Hoskins). The plot of The Long Good Friday is complicated in the manner of such noir thriller writers as Raymond Chandler: Harold wants to go semi-straight with a property development that he bloviates will make London the capital of a new Europe, but he needs funding, so he invites a New Jersey mafioso, Charlie (Eddie Constantine), to attend a big presentation of his plans for the project. Somehow, however, things don't go as he hoped. In addition to the murder of his man Colin (Paul Freeman), Harold's mother narrowly escapes death when her Rolls-Royce is blown up, killing the chauffeur. And when he tries to take Charlie out to dinner at a pub Harold owns, it blows up just before they arrive. There's no Philip Marlowe on hand to figure out who's out to get Harold, so he has to do it on his own, with the help of his mobsters, one of whom, of course, is disloyal. The plot twists eventually involve the IRA, some stolen money, and a corrupt cop, among others. Hoskins is wonderful in the role, and the ending, in which he finds himself hoist with his own petard, is a tour de force: an extended closeup in which Hoskins's face reveals the range of emotions he's experiencing, from fear to frustration to desperation. Helen Mirren is cast as his ... I suppose "mistress" is the word, a role that doesn't give her enough to do, but she does that little bit brilliantly. 

Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren in The Long Good Friday (John Mackendrick, 1980)
Maid's conclusion was as much of a happy ending as the series could properly allow: Thanks to a somewhat unconvincing change of heart on Sean's part, Alex and Maddy are able to leave for Montana and their new life. For a bit it looks like Mama is going to join them, but as usual nothing she decides is set in stone. I liked the series -- it kept me coming back for more. But it needed a little more grit to offset the sentiment. Maddy (Rylea Nevaeh Whittet in earlier episodes, Angelina Pepper in the last three) is a little too winsomely precocious to be entirely credible as a child tossed around in a dysfunctional marriage. 

Station Eleven jumps 20 years ahead in its second episode, with Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis) grown up and touring the pandemic-blighted landscape with a touring group of Shakespeare players. But the series keeps jumping back to the days of the outbreak, with young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler) living in the high-rise apartment of Jeevan (Himesh Patel) and his brother, Frank (Nabhan Rizwan). There's a stunning sequence in which Kirsten plays Hamlet with the company, her lines triggering flashbacks to the moment when she learned of the death of her family. This is shaping up to be a rich and often weird series. 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

In the Pink

Movie: Ma Vie en Rose (Alain Berliner, 1997) (TCM).

TV: Holiday Wars: Santa's New Ride (Food Network); The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC); Hawkeye: So This Is Christmas? (Disney+); Maid: Sky Blue (Netflix). 

Gender dysfunction has become such a familiar topic that Ma Vie en Rose (aka My Life in Pink, mainly to keep American audiences from confusing it with the 2007 Edith Piaf biopic) sometimes seems tonally off-base, frequently taking a humorous view of matters that we now commonly regard more seriously -- particularly the treatment of young Ludovic Fabre (Georges Du Fresne) by his parents. Would any movie made today, for example, treat Ludovic's suicide attempt as casually as this film does -- i.e., more as misbehavior than as a lacerating cry for help? The ending, in which Ludovic, the boy who wants to be a girl, meets a girl who wants to be a boy, and his family unites behind him after moving to a less pretentiously affluent neighborhood, seems a little cooked-up. Still, Ma Vie en Rose mostly succeeds as satire on bourgeois convention and homophobia because of its exaggerated characterizations and its pop-culture fantasy sequences. And there are often some funny-sad moments, as when Alex decides he must really be a girl because he has a stomach ache, which he has learned is something that girls have when they get their periods.

Georges Du Fresne in Ma Vie en Rose (Alain Berliner, 1997)

About the only thing Ma Vie en Rose has in common with Maid is the sometimes uneasy balance of substance and style. The ninth and penultimate episode, titled "Sky Blue," is not so wildly eventful or soap operatic as the previous one. It begins with Alex back where she began: a captive of Sean. What follows is a recapitulation of the beginning of the series: flight, refuge, rehabilitation. While the episode is mostly a triumph for Alex, it ends with a disturbing note, as Alex, rejoicing in her anticipated escape from Sean and move to the writing program in Montana, discovers that her mother is apparently living in her truck. Tune in tomorrow.

I liked Hawkeye, the latest Marvel miniseries on Disney+, though not as much as I did WandaVision or Loki, with their fantastical and often wacky settings. I find that some of my own fun is spoiled by all of the series catering to the fanboys, the Marvel mavens, with in-jokes, Easter eggs, and surprise characters that I don't get because I'm not steeped in the lore of the movies and the comic books. When did pop culture become so esoteric? 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Fighting Vainly the Old Ennui

Movie: La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1989) (Criterion Channel).

Book: William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, ed. Kenneth Palmer. 

TV: Buddy vs. Duff, Holiday: Winter Wonderland (Food Network); The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC); Maid: Bear Hunt.

Jean-Paul (Alain Delon) and Marianne (Romy Schneider) are types familiar to viewers of French films: lovers with too much time on their hands and not enough to occupy them. He's a failed novelist who has tried to get his life back on track by giving up alcohol and going to work for an advertising agency, and the two of them have been together for two years -- or two and a half, as he insists, perhaps a little touchily, when they're asked. Now they're on vacation in a villa on the Riviera, where they don't seem to do much but lounge around the titular swimming pool, make love, and occasionally quarrel a bit. But then they're visited by Harry (Maurice Ronet) and his 18-year-old daughter, Pénélope (Jane Birkin). Harry was a kind of mentor to the younger Jean-Paul and he was also Marianne's lover for a while. in this leisurely sun-drenched paradise they don't have much to do other than pick at one another. Pénélope is the image of boredom as she slinks around the pool, never going in. When she picks up a book, it's a mystery novel she's read before. (Jean-Paul tells her who did it. She replies, "I know.") The sexual tension relieves itself with Harry and Marianne reigniting their relationship and Jean-Paul hooking up with Pénélope, a state of things that eventuates in murder. But the murder is backgrounded to the exploration of the principal characters in a kind of morality tale about the dangers of dolce far niente. A less skillful director than Jacques Deray or a screenwriter other than Jean-Claude Carrière might have begun with the murder and based the plot on discovering the killer, but La Piscine is more about why this particular killing took place -- what led Jean-Paul to drown Harry in the pool. The bit of detective work that's shown almost outs him, but the complexity of motivation is up for the viewer to piece together. The film ends with Jean-Paul and Marianne ambiguously together. 

It has to be said that a lot of the film's effect has to do with its stars and their own pasts: Delon and Schneider had been lovers, the delight of the French gossip press, some time before they reunited for this film. Birkin had come to prominence as a model in the Carnaby Street era of Swinging London. And Ronet was known for his performances as haunted men in Louis Malle's Elevator to the Gallows (1958) and The Fire Within (1963), not to mention the previous film in which he was offed by Delon, Purple Noon (René Clément). 

Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in La Piscine (Jacques Deray, 1969)
Then I turned from a tale of the bored and the beautiful to the further tribulations of Alex (Margaret Qualley) in Maid, a story which still treads lightly above the pit of soap opera. Things look up for a bit in Bear Hunt as Mama (Andie MacDowell), gets committed to a mental facility. But she has made a disastrous choice by sleeping with her ex, Sean (Nick Robinson), which angers the kindly but also horny Nate (Raymond Ablack), who essentially forces her to move out of his house. And then she not only loses her job with the maid service but also the car that Nate had loaned her when Sean, who has fallen off the wagon, returns it to Nate in a jealous snit. Meanwhile, she's offered a scholarship in the creative writing program at the University of Montana, but Sean protests about her leaving the state with Matty. Moreover, Mama is sprung from the hospital by her ne'er-do-well husband, Basil (Toby Levins). If all of this weren't so sensitively told and finely acted, it might have been called The Agonies of Alex instead of Maid

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Vivat Academia!

Movie: Wonder Boys (Curtis Hanson, 2000) (Cinemax).

Book: William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, edited by Kenneth Palmer. 

TV: Holiday Baking Championship: Behind the Buttercream (Food Network); The Rachel Maddow Show (MSNBC); Landscapers: Episode Three (HBO Max); The Witcher: Kaer Morhen (Netflix). 

I've been having flashbacks to my days in academia lately. I mentioned a couple of days ago that some of them had been triggered by reading Anthony Trollope's The Warden, with its somewhat snarky allusions to the Pre-Raphaelites and mild satire on Thomas Carlyle and Charles Dickens. I might have missed those if I hadn't spent so many years long ago trying to become a specialist in Victorian literature and culture. But I really think the nostalgia for the old university scene was touched off a few months ago by the Netflix series The Chair, which had fun with the tempest-in-a-teapot quarrels of a college English department. It brought to mind what's known as "Sayre's law," that academic politics are especially bitter because the stakes are so low. 

My latest surge of academic memories comes from having finished The Warden and turned my attention to re-reading Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. I had a heavy dose of that story in graduate school not only from a course in Renaissance literature, but also from the earlier version I read in my Chaucer course. But what tugs at my memory is what happened at my Ph.D. orals: One of my inquisitors was the professor from that Renaissance course, for who I wrote a paper about Shakespeare's Troilus. I don't remember much about the paper except that it was something about the self-consciousness of the title characters of the play. But then, a couple of years later, as I stumbled my way through my orals, the professor (who had given me an A, or maybe an A-, on the paper), thought he was doing me a favor by asking me questions about the play. At least I think he did it out of kindness -- I hadn't slept for two nights before the exam, and it must have shown -- but I couldn't remember a thing about Troilus and Cressida. It was agonizing, but somehow I passed anyway. 

Granted, T&C is one of Shakespeare's stranger plays, often rhetorically difficult, with ambiguous, dislikable characters and lots of classical allusions that go over the heads of contemporary readers or viewers of the play's comparatively infrequent performances. But I feel it my duty to bone up on the play once again, which means reading the academic prose of the Arden edition's introduction. I haven't gotten to the play itself yet; I'm still plodding through Prof. Kenneth Palmer's discussion of its parallel structure and other features of interest mainly to scholars -- of which I am no longer one. 

My other dip into academia lately was watching Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys last night. It's set in a college in Pittsburgh, where Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas), a novelist teaching in the English department's creative writing program, goes through a variety of improbable but funny trials and tribulations, some of which pivot on his affair with the college's chancellor, who happens to be the wife of the English department chairman. The movie was well-received by the critics, especially Douglas's performance, but it bombed at the box office. I had seen it before and remembered being amused by it, but I have to say it feels a little dated. For one thing, the sexually predatory edge to the gay editor played by Robert Downey Jr. looms a bit larger than it might have 21 years, and our ability to respond with laughter to his "transvestite" girlfriend has shifted a bit toward discomfort. Still, it features some good performances by Douglas, Downey, Frances McDormand, and Tobey Maguire, as well as Bob Dylan's Oscar-winning song "Things Have Changed." They have indeed. 

Tobey Maguire and Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys (Michael Chabon, 2000)

I also watched the latest installment of HBO's beautifully performed "true crime" drama, Landscapers, which is being eked out slowly with a new installment every Monday. I don't understand why it's being released this way, as it's not a particularly suspenseful drama. Maybe HBO is just counting on our waiting eagerly for another chance to watch Olivia Colman and David Thewlis create fascinatingly complicated characters. 

On The Witcher, Geralt (Henry Cavill) and Ciri (Freya Allan) make their way to his home, which is full of other witchers who wind up fighting this week's monster, which has possessed one of their own. Great special effects, but I haven't quite figured out what's going on in the other plot of the series that involves Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), who falls in with a bunch of elves.  

Monday, December 20, 2021

Guilt-free Pleasures

Movie: Walking a Tightrope (Nikos Papatakis, 1991) (The Criterion Channel).

Book: Anthony Trollope, The Warden

TV: Guy's Grocery Games: Fieri Family Holiday Showdown (Food Network); Station Eleven: Wheel of Fire (HBO Max); Maid: String Cheese (Netflix).

I don't care for sports. There's too much noise and hype surrounding the efforts of people to move a ball from one place to another. But I do like competitions if they involve doing something constructive: designing a dress, decorating a room, even making tchotchkes with glue guns and papier-mâché (i.e., Making It.) And food competitions are the best, which is why my DVR fills up with the latest episodes of shows like Chopped and Top Chef, among many others. I even learn something from them about ingredients and techniques in my own piddly efforts in the kitchen.

Guy Fieri has gotten a bad rap from a lot of critics: His restaurants, they say, aren't very good. He hasn't really distinguished himself as a chef. And his personality is somewhat over the top. I'm not much interested in his explorations of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, reruns of which seem to take up a heft portion of the Food Network's real estate. But I think he's good at heart, and he's done a lot of charitable work assisting restaurants hit by the pandemic and/or burned-out by California wildfires. And like DDD, as he abbreviates it, Guy's Grocery Games is a showcase for chefs around the country who often haven't made a big name for themselves except in their own towns. 

On GGG, they compete in goofy games that test their skills by limiting the ingredients or techniques they can use in preparing food for a panel of "celebrity chefs" -- usually best known for their appearances on the Food Network or Top Chef -- like Antonia Lofaso and Alex Guarnaschelli. The most recent show, which I watched last night, was a special competition centered on the Fieri family: The competitors were Fieri's sons, Hunter and Ryder, and his nephew Jules, each of them assisted by one of the frequent judges on the show, Lofaso (Hunter), Michael Voltaggio (Ryder), and Aaron May (Jules). The judges were Guy's wife and his parents. The winner got $10,000 to donate to charity. (It was Ryder, who donated it to his high school -- not, I think, the most needy of charities.)

This sort of thing is not to everyone's taste (dubious pun intended), I know, but I find it the perfect unwinding mechanism, the sort of thing people call a "guilty pleasure." I reject that term. I feel no guilt at all watching such shows -- which I do most nights after dinner, as I drink a mug of tea, and before I submit myself to heavier fare on television. The heavier fare last night included Nikos Papatakis's Walking a Tightrope, a 1991 French drama starring Michel Piccoli as a character based on Jean Genet: a successful and famous writer who likes to pick up handsome young men, not only for sex, but also to meddle in their lives. In the film, he takes on an impoverished youth (Lilah Dadi) who works for a circus scooping up elephant dung and tries to make him a star tightrope walker. Things don't go well, as you might suspect. Much of the film is quite good, but it falls apart at the end when the complications are resolved with a suicide that feels less like a sufficiently motivated act than one that fits the themes and symbols of Papatakis's screenplay. 

Maid last night continued Alex's woes, as she struggled with her attraction to Nate (Raymond Ablack), the good Samaritan who has taken in not only Alex and Maddy, but also Alex's maddening mother, who has a spectacular breakdown at the end of the episode. It's all very well-played, but I still think the series teeters on the edge of soap opera too often. I also watched the first episode of Station Eleven, a series that has gotten good reviews, partially because it begins with a pandemic that echoes our current plight, but which was scripted and partially filmed before the Covid outbreak. Patrick Somerville, its writer-producer, made one of the most intriguing TV dramas of recent years, The Leftovers (2015-2017), so I look forward to following this one. 

Sunday, December 19, 2021

Miss Me?

 So on Christmas Eve last year, I gave up movie blogging. A lot of effort for not much return, it seemed to me at the time. But with Christmas looming again, it feels right to re-enter the blogosphere, maybe this time with a wider scope. 

Last night, I watched Death at a Funeral (Frank Oz, 2007), a sometimes amusing, sometimes stupid British farce with some performers I like, namely Matthew Macfadyen, Peter Dinklage, and Rupert Graves. It was remade in 2011, and that version lies somewhere in the queue of movies on my DVR that I've recorded. Dinklage apparently plays the same role -- a gay man who crashes the funeral of his lover after being cut out of the man's will -- in the remake. On the whole, not a total waste of his and the other actors' talents, but not a movie I'd urge upon anyone who hasn't seen the classic Brit farces like Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Lavender Hill Mob or The Ladykillers, all of which do this sort of comic larceny and mayhem with greater finesse.

Matthew Macfadyen and Peter Dinklage in Death at a Funeral

On TV I started the second season of The Witcher, a well-made Netflix fantasy series starring Henry Cavill as some kind of fantasyland soldier of fortune dedicated to killing monsters. The first episode of the season opened with highlights supposedly recapping the first season, which started two years ago. I watched that season and enjoyed it, but I have to admit that the recap didn't really refresh me on what happened then, much of which I've forgotten. No matter, the new season started off very well on its own, and I didn't really need to be au fait with the backstory to enjoy it. 

I also watched the sixth episode of Maid, an often depressing Netflix series about the struggle of a young woman, played well by Margaret Qualley, to make it on her own with her 3-year-old daughter after leaving her emotionally abusive alcoholic husband. The series focuses on the complications and contradictions of the American welfare system, as the heroine, Alex, tries to keep her head above water despite the snares of its red tape. Andie MacDowell is wonderful as Alex's air-headed, gray-haired hippie mother, who hinders more than she helps. The series often seems to be on the verge of sinking into sentimental mush, but it hasn't done that yet. 

I'm also reading Anthony Trollope's The Warden, which takes me back to my days as a Victorian literature scholar. More on that later, maybe.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Bad Seed (Mervyn LeRoy, 1956)

Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed

Cast: Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Evelyn Varden, Eileen Heckart, William Hopper, Henry Jones, Paul Fix, Joan Croydon, Gage Clarke, Jesse White, Frank Cady. Screenplay: John Lee Mahin, based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and a novel by William March. Cinematography: Harold Rosson. Art direction: John Beckman. Film editing: Warren Low. Music: Alex North. 

The Bad Seed stands out today as one of the more muddle-headed products of Production Code censorship. In the play and novel on which the movie was based, Christine Penmark, the unwitting carrier of the gene that turns her daughter, Rhoda, into a serial killer, commits suicide after giving the child an overdose of sleeping pills. One of the shocks of the novel and play is that Rhoda survives to kill again. But suicide as a positive plot resolution and crimes that go unpunished were taboo under the Code, so John Lee Mahin's adaptation blunts the ending for both characters. And then, to add farce to bathos, someone thought it a good idea to add a "curtain call" sequence in which the actress playing Christine, Nancy Kelly, gives the actress playing Rhoda, Patty McCormack, a spanking. Since spanking is hardly a punishment for murder, you have to wonder if Kelly is punishing McCormack for upstaging her. (In any case, McCormack seems to be enjoying it a little too much.) Still, if you take the movie on its own terms, it has its creepy moments, most of them involving McCormack, whom we spot as a bad kid from the moment she shows up with her braids so tight it looks like they hurt and wearing a starchy, spotless outfit that no decent child would have tolerated for a moment. There's some entertaining overplaying by Evelyn Varden as the psychologizing landlady and Henry Jones as the nosy hired man. The production is stagy and the performances often overblown, with the exception of Kelly, who strives to make her character -- and the ridiculous premise that evil is inherited -- credible. It's a role that could easily have tipped over into camp -- as the rest of the film often does -- but Kelly balances right on the edge. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Spiritual Kung Fu (Lo Wei, 1978)

Cast: Jackie Chan, Kao Kuang, Dean Shek, James Tien, Yee Fat, Wang Yao, Jane Kwong, Hsu Hong, Chui Yuen, Peng Kang, Li Hai Lung, Li Chun Tung, Yuen Biao. Screenplay: Pan Lei. Cinematography: Chen Jung-Shu. Art direction: Chou Chih-Liang. Film editing: Liang Yung-Charn. Music: Frankie Chan. 

Ghosts in red fright wigs help Yi-Lang (Jackie Chan) develop the skills necessary to thwart a plot against the Shaolin temple where he's a martial arts student. The movie makes about as much sense as that sentence, but it's giddy fun. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Dead Ringers (David Cronenberg, 1988)

Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers
Cast: Jeremy Irons, Geneviève Bujold, Heidi von Palleske, Barbara Gordon, Shirley Douglas, Stephen Lack. Screenplay: David Cronenberg, Norman Snider, based on a  book by Bari Wood and Jack Geasland. Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky. Production design: Carol Spier. Film editing: Ronald Sanders. Music: Howard Shore. 

Jeremy Irons's performance as the twin gynecologists Beverly and Elliot Mantle is spectacular in its subtle differentiation between the two men. It's one of David Cronenberg's body-horror films, and is said to have given many viewers, especially women, nightmares. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Kid (Charles Chaplin, 1921)

Jackie Coogan and Charles Chaplin in The Kid
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, Henry Bergman, Lita Grey, Jules Hanft, Raymond Lee, Walter Lynch, John McKinnon, Granville Redmond, Charles Reiser, Edgar Sherrod, Minnie Stearns, S.D. Wilcox, Tom Wilson. Screenplay: Charles Chaplin. Cinematography: Roland Totheroh. Art direction: Charles D. Hall. Film editing: Charles Chaplin. Music: Charles Chaplin. 

Charles Chaplin's first feature film is not as mawkish as a story about the Little Tramp's raising a foundling might have been. It includes one of Chaplin's wackier fantasy sequences, in which he dreams that he and his fellow slum denizens have become angels and must fight it out with devils. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)

Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man
Cast: Edward Woodward, Christopher Lee, Diane Cilento, Britt Ekland, Ingrid Pitt, Lindsay Kemp, Russell Waters, Aubrey Morris, Irene Sunters. Screenplay: Anthony Shaffer, based on a novel by David Pinner. Cinematography: Harry Waxman. Art direction: Seamus Flannery. Film editing: Eric Boyd-Perkins. Music: Paul Giovanni. 

Edward Woodward plays a police officer from the mainland who goes to investigate the disappearance of a young girl on a remote Scottish island and falls into a terrible trap. This celebrated horror film benefits from some intelligent writing, particularly in the conflict of the bigoted Christian policeman and the carnally pagan islanders. Christopher Lee, who plays the island's sophisticated laird, called it one of his favorite roles, and he brings his usual suavely sinister presence to it.  

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Sidewalk Stories (Charles Lane, 1989)

Charles Lane and Nicole Alysia in Sidewalk Stories

Cast: Charles Lane, Nicole Alysia, Sandye Wilson, Trula Hoosier, Darnell Williams. Screenplay: Charles Lane. Cinematography: Bill Dill. Production design: Ina Mayhew. Film editing: Charles Lane, Ann Stein. Music: Marc Marder.  

A low-budget independent classic, with writer-director-producer-editor as a homeless man who, like Charles Chaplin's Tramp in The Kid (1921), gets encumbered with a small child. It's a smart blend of neorealism and sentiment that gets its impetus not only from Chaplin's movie but also from Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948). The movie is silent until the very end, when its message about homelessness is verbalized. 

Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932)

Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls
Cast: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, Bela Lugosi, Kathleen Burke, Arthur Hohl, Stanley Fields, Paul Hurst, Hans Steinke, Tetsu Komai, George Irving. Screenplay: Waldemar Young, Philip Wylie, based on a novel by H.G. Wells. Cinematography: Karl Struss.  Art direction: Hans Dreier.