31 December 2013

Reflections on My Recent Cinema Binge

I saw as many films in theaters in the past two months of 2013 as I did in the first ten months of the year. This is directly attributable to Hollywood timing the release of their best films to qualify for awards season and so that the films are fresh in the minds’ of award voters. What it means is that American cinema can generate barely two month’s worth of decent films a year.

Here are some reflections following my recent binge.

One of my favorite memories comes from my most recent trip to the cinema. I was in the ticket buyer line of Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas. This line is in the lobby and roped off. Two women were outside the ropes checking the movie times. There was a very old man behind me (I think he worked in the Coolidge administration). With him was his equally old -- I wanna say -- wife although it could have been his partner or lover or paramour or even his sister. Anyhoo the old man suddenly barks at the two women: “get in line! get in line!” They were either oblivious to him or rightly ignored the old codger. His -- I’m going to go with -- wife scolded him saying “you can’t tell people what to do.” He insisted that he could in fact tell people what to do and she contradicted him again. This went on for a bit until they finally both ran out of steam. Was I looking into my own future?

Previews. Oh boy previews! Coming attractions! Trailers! Some theaters give you a taste of what’s coming others drown you with endless clips from endless movies and do so for -- I timed it once -- 27 minutes. Enough already. I saw the trailer -- the same exact one -- for something called August: Osage Country with an all star cast featuring Meryl Streep six times -- that I counted. I’ve got parts of the movie memorized. I didn’t want to see the damn thing after the first time I saw a preview now I hope this is the last time I ever have to think about it. Twice I saw a preview for a film called Lone Survivor. I can guarantee you this is bad cinema. Anytime you have the director talking about it and the man whose experiences the film is based on talking about it you know its not only not an art film but that its propaganda. One reviewer tweeted that it is a jingoistic snuff film.  The director most recently did Battleship which also tells you plenty. I twice watched (read: sat through) a trailer for a Jack Ryan film (he’s a spy character who’s to James Bond what Arby’s is to fine dining). Chris Pine (oh boy Chris Pine) plays a slick handsome spy. There’s a beautiful woman an evil villain a wise mentor explosions high rises and hand-to-hand combat. I bethcya it makes a bunch of assholes a lot of money.

What makes sitting through an abundance of trailers even worse is that they are often preceded by advertisements. I already paid to get into the damn theater I thought that bought me the privilege of avoiding commercials. Yeah I get it movie theaters couldn’t survive without them. Maybe if people starring in and producing films didn’t have to own five houses two yachts and a goddamned island we could be spared ads. Movies and sports are classic examples of how regular working folk are being gouged by the already rich. No wonder there’s a huge income gap in the US. Don’t get me started here....

I have the privilege of living walking distance from the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley where I can see reasonably priced films with no ads or trailers and no one eating popcorn or candy or sandwiches or three course meals at their seats. Do you see what people spend half their paycheck on at movie theaters? Huge tubs of artery clogging buttered pop corn and barrels of diet coke a substance which is just this side of battery acid. Small wonder we have an obesity epidemic in this country. No food or drinks allowed in the PFA which means patrons are spared the sound of loud pop corn chewers or people rummaging through a grocery bag to find a sandwich the wrapper of which they have to rip off. Sometimes other people are the worst.

I saw The Wolf of Wall Street the day after Christmas in the middle of the afternoon in a multiplex and the theater was packed. Within my line of vision four different people got our their cell phones at one point or another during the film. It’s not as bad as talking but it still detracts from the movie going experience. But then being aware and considerate of others is so passé.

Fortunately amidst all this nonsense I saw some really good films. I am so particular about what I see that I rarely end up sitting through a film that I don’t end up liking. (The same can not be said of what I rent where the stakes aren't as high.) If I’m going to I shell out $8 or more for a movie I want to be damn sure I’ll like it. As noted in my annual top ten I especially enjoyed Nebraska Inside Llewyn David and Frances Ha (which I saw via Netflix instant). This was a very good year for very good films but not a great year for great films. Few are. Frankly there are already enough great films out there for me to discover or re-watch that I don’t desperately need more. That said I’m more than happy to see something to add to the pantheon of greats. Also it is often upon the second viewing of a very good film that I elevate to a loftier status. One can’t always know which film will really resonate after a second viewing. We spend so much of a first viewing dealing with what happens that we don’t always notice how its told or the subtler messages of the film. There are several from this year that I look forward to re-visiting.

The movie-going experience has changed significantly since I was a lad. You used to get a double feature in a theater with one huge screen. Ushers might help you find seats especially if the film was playing and it often was when you entered. People would come in during the middle of one feature -- you got two movies -- and watch the rest of it the other offerings (there were a few trailers cartoons and a short often in the form of a travelogue) the next film and when they reached the point in the film that was playing when they walked in they'd utter those oft repeated words:  "this is where we came in" or the variant in question form: "is this where we came in?" Looking back coming in the middle was not an ideal way to watch a film so I'm glad that died out. Everything has gone up so movies cost more but the increase is not out of line with inflation (the same can't be said for sports tickets which are ridiculously expensive).

Of course a lot of movie watching is done from the comfort of one's own home. When I was growing up and even into college if you wanted to watch The Maltese Falcon (1941) you had to wait until it showed up on TV and then watch it interrupted by commercials. Today you might own your own copy or rent it from Netflix or record it from TCM or watch it on your computer. But then you miss the experience of some centenarian barking commands. The guy was a hoot I tell ya....

28 December 2013

My Top Ten Films for 2013

1. Nebraska (Payne)
2. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coens)
3. Frances Ha (Baumbach)
4. Blue Jasmine (Allen)
5. Kill Your Darlings (Krokidas)
6. La Grande Belleza (Sorrentino)
7. Her (Jonze)
8. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen)
9. Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche)
10. Reality (Garrone)

Honorable Mention: Gravity (Cuaron); American Hustle (Russell); The Way Way Back (Faxon/Rash); Blancanieves (Berger); Dallas Buyers Club (Vallee); The Wolf of Wall Street. (Scorsese).

Best Actress: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) With Nods to Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) and Amy Adams (American Hustle).
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) With nods to Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Joaquin Phoenix (Her).
Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) With a nod to June Squibb (Nebraska).
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Foster (Kill Your Darlings) With a nod to Jonah Hill (Wolf of Wall Street).

27 December 2013

My Doctor's Appointment Yields Expected Non News and So I Write About it and Life

Yours truly...not recently.
"Actually we're going to use this room." The very short stout nurse directed me to one of the examining rooms in the urologist's office. I "actually" entered the room and sat down. Upon greeting me she'd asked "how are you today?" Now that she'd successfully  directed me to a room and seen that I "had a seat" she posed the question a second time "how are you today?" I gave the same response both times: "Fine." I wanted to be consistent lest she thinks that perhaps I was trying to deceive her. One supposes it's a clever way to trip a spy.

The very short stout nurse then took my blood pressure. No matter what you see a doctor for even if its just to settle a bill a nurse will take your blood pressure. I was then informed that the doctor would be in to see me in a moment. I settled in for the long wait that is customary when sitting in an examination room. The doctor (a urologist) broke with custom and entered within a minute.

The urologist greeted me warmly commenting on how nice it was to see me again after so long a time. I'd only been in his office once before and that four or five year ago so I had my doubts that he really remembered me. I didn't remember him.

I'd been referred because during my annual physical something seemed a little off during my prostrate exam. It was better safe than sorry and I shouldn't worry but let's have an expert check it out. I was 98% sure that my prostate was just fine. The urologist quickly informed me that the blood work taken after the physical had shown no signs of anything. Now I was 99% sure. We also went over the symptoms list and found that I had none. I knew that going in. This was all waste of a copay.

Despite the total lack of concern on anyone's part -- least of all mine -- I was to be probed. Down went my trousers and in went the doctor's finger. Into my own personal rectum. Let me say this with absolute certainty -- I received a thorough exam. That finger was twisting and turning and digging and poking. I think it made it half way up my stomach. If there was anything to find he'd have found it.

He found nothing. 100%. But wait let's check the urine too. Pee in the cup time. I remember the first time I peed in a cup for a doctor was when I was a young lad. Unclear on the concept and needing to wizz anyway I filled said cup to the brim. I forget the nurse's subsequent comment but do recall she commented. This time I gave them just a wee bit -- pun not originally intended but having been observed approved of.

Nothing in my urine. I was already at 100%. Doc wanted me to come back in six months for another probing. I said sure thing though may just give it a miss. I'm the first to call a doctor when something is amiss and never miss my annual but I don't go in for doctor appointments because well maybe even though now there's nothing better be sure who knows what can happen.

I have enjoyed remarkable health all my life (physical that is my mental and emotional states have been rather a mess as anyone who reads this blog is no doubt aware). This is a matter of good genes good habits and most importantly extraordinary luck. My poor brother  -- who was twice the man I'll ever be -- had absolutely rotten luck and suffered mightily for years before dying too young.

My 27 odd years as a teacher (some have been very odd indeed) have caused me to suffer innumerable colds and occasional bouts of the flu but that's been about the size of it. Teaching has in the past caused some stress but that has manifested not in physical ailments but in long periods of stark raving lunacy. Okay I exaggerate....A little.

So anyway I'm a lucky bastard but one learns in life that luck can turn against you rather quickly. So far so good. I really got a sense of how lucky I am on Christmas Eve as I held at various times two baby boys each a grand nephew courtesy of my nieces. I also got to chase and be chased by my four year old grand niece. I was surrounded by my two daughters the wife the two aforementioned nieces and two nephews my sister-in-law and three significant others one of whom is a full fledged husband. And a really cool dog. We had a visit from a jolly fat man from northern Finland too. There was much good food laughter song story telling and general joviality. Gifts were exchanged the best of which was the company. This is how it should be.

I hear people complain constantly about their families and their dread of family gatherings. I honestly do not know what this is like. That is not to suggest that the family experience has been entirely smooth. To the contrary. As I've mentioned here before my dear old mom went off her rocker and abused alcohol in the bargain. It took decades of therapy but I'm over it. Not really but I'm about as square with the whole deal as a person can expect to be. I've actually forgiven the old dame and can think fondly of her.

So I've had some knocks and at this stage in my life I'm grateful for each one. I have a friend who claims to have had no crisis no major health problems no bad times. He is highly successful man with a wonderful family and I've little doubt that he has lived an idyllic life. How boring. He is a fine fellow but I can't but wonder how a person grows and comes to understand life without experiencing some powerful adversity. It's like a high school sports team that never loses. Kind of nice but at some point you need to experience the sting of defeat as part of your learning process. Dealing with defeat is essential to developing character (god I hope that didn't sound too hokey). After all it is not what life does to you but how you handle it -- good bad or ambiguous -- that is important.

So I don't have prostate cancer and never seriously thought I did. Maybe some day. Maybe something worse like the pancreatic cancer that felled a good friend. Maybe an accident. By definition they can happen to anyone. Maybe not. Maybe I'll grow really really old. I think I'll stick around and find out.

24 December 2013

Say Hey Have a Merry Christmas

Not only is Santa black, he's Willie Mays.

21 December 2013

Portrait of an Artist as An Angry Man - Inside Llewyn Davis

I grew up with an image of folk singers as kind hearted people wise and noble singing of peace this land being made for you and me and the eternal hope of love. Folk singers were Pete Seeger Peter Paul and Mary and Joan Baez. They were sweetie pies who strummed guitars and slept under huge comforters with wild flowers on them. They weren't rich but they weren't poor and performed for charity and stood for equal rights and an end to war (where have all the flowers gone?). None of em were a wit like the titular character of the Coen Brothers' latest film Inside Lleywn Davis. So thank you Joel and Ethan Coen for shattering another one dimensional stereotype.

Oscar Isaac with a Jewish sounding name plays the half Italian half Welsh Davis and so of course Isaac is half Cuban and half Guatemalan. Welcome to the United Nations of Coen. Isaac had a few roles of little or no note until channeling the fictional 1961 folk singer struggling to....To what? Be famous? Rich? Pay the bills? Practice his art? Make it from one day to the next? What does he want anyway and what exactly will he do with it when he gets it? Anyone's guess. He  doesn't really think of the future -- a point made to him in no uncertain terms by a "friend" Jean (Carey Mulligan). This is a friend he may or may not have impregnated but certainly boinked. It's odd to think that they were intimate because the foul-mouthed Jean does little else then tear him up one side and down another. Maybe he deserves it. Jean lives and sings with Jim (Justin Timberlake) who plays it perfectly bland. Hats off and waving to Mulligan for taking such an unglamorous role and doing so well with it; she may be a star but she's an actress first.

So this Davis fellow is --  as they say -- down on his luck. Way down. He's got no home no winter coat no money and no partner. His former partner having taken a swan dive off a bridge. Demise met. Oh yeah and he's stuck with a cat. Or cats. There is an issue with one and its scrotum or the lack thereof (hey no spoilers here). The cat(s) is no superfluous character(s). We have a scene on a moving subway train from the subjective point of view of the feline (thanks to Germano for reminding me) that few others besides the Coens would attempt let alone pull off.

This is the Coen brothers and there are no throw away characters including those that are fur bearing creatures. Minor characters are fully realized individuals vivid and interesting or grotesque or amusing or wonderful but never just attached to the furniture. Certainly not Roland Turner (John Goodman) a rotund...what the hell is he anyway? The beauty of a lot of Coen brothers films is that there are so many characters that defy easy description. You can't just stick a word to them. Like Turner and his driver and oh by the way their drive to Chicago with Llewyn -- whatta trip man! Not to mention Llewyn's trip right the hell back to New York and what a short strange trip it was. But the point started out being characters that have well characters and that my friends is part of the richness of this film.

But when it comes to characters Llewyn Davis is in every scene. He carries his despondency and bitterness and anger and hopefulness with him. He's always moving forward maybe from crashing in this pad or the other but he's not idle. He is the quintessential struggling young artist. One without a day job. They are all over the world and have been for decades. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of them. They have dreams of success and for many success is requisite because it will allow them to practice their art. The true artist wants room and space and time to create. To sing to write to direct to paint to act to joke to play. Making a living at it is not an end to itself but the vehicle to allow that creativity to bloom over and over again. Alas it's a cruel world the competition fierce and that fire that keeps you going can burn out so easily. Perseverance baby it's the key ingredient in talent. So watch Llewyn struggle with life and art simultaneously. (Maybe they're the same thing. I dunno.)

Of course he's dealing with anger. Why shouldn't he? Why not heckle and berate and be surly and cuss like a sailor? How do people deal with rejection and subterfuge and disappointment without getting unholy pissed off? Plus in a narrative structure it makes him more interesting than the scrubbed public images of folk singers.

The Coens are nothing if not meticulous. They created the early '60s here just as they create the '80s in No Country For Old Men (2007) the '70s in A Serious Man (2009) the '50s in The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) the Old West in True Grit (2010) and so yeah they're versatile too no two films alike. But by god they're good. Inside Llewyn Davis is a case in point. You remember that tired ole review cliche: "I laughed I cried it became a part of me." Yeah I do too....

I won't spoil the ending of Llewyn Davis because then I'd be spoiling the beginning and I don't know what that means but it all comes out to something and if you ever figure it out let me know.

Anyway I enjoyed the hell out of the movie.

17 December 2013

Way Way Back with Dallas Buyer's Big Parade in Nebraska -- Another Four Films I've Seen Recently One of Which is Quite Old

The Way Way Back. Caught this one via my friends at Netflix who keep sending me DVDs to watch. This film centers around a young teen and we are all familiar with how badly these types of movies can go. They are often riddled with cliches one dimensional stereotypes and toilet humor. TWWB manages to almost completely avoid all of these pitfalls. Duncan (Liam James) is a fairly typical 14 year old who is absent easy charm athletic ability or dashing good looks. His parents are divorced and he's off for a Summer with mom (Toni Collette) her obnoxious boyfriend (Steve Carrell) and boyfriend's older teen daughter (Zoe Levin). He's not thrilled about the excursion doesn't like the boyfriend and is disliked by the daughter. Duncan -- one could say --  is not a happy camper. There is a comely girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb) who doesn't run with the usual crowd and is intrigued by the sullen Duncan. Eventually Duncan befriends a waterpark employee (Sam Rockwell) and gets a job at the park and matures and exposes the philandering boyfriend and befriends the girl and parities and wins mom's attention. There are a couple of plot contrivances and a few empty characters but there is much to admire in a film that neither over reaches nor settles for easy laughs. Rockwell makes every movie he's in better for his appearance and is a main selling point to a film that I can warmly recommend.

Dallas Buyers Club. We are now relieved of any doubts -- Matthew McConaughey is a terrific actor. He gives a transcendent performance as Ron Woodruff a hard partying good ole boy who contracts AIDS in 1985 when the disease is just becoming part of the public consciousness. He is like all his cronies a raging homophobe and faces immediate "accusations" from his "friends" about how he contracted the virus. Woodruff angrily fights back both against the questioning of his "manhood" and against the disease that a doctor tells him well end his life in 30 days. DBC is the true story of courage about one man's transformation and also about the evils of big pharmaceutical companies and their long time partner the US FDA. Jared Leto is also magnificent playing the cross dressing gay man who is in league with Woodruff's efforts to not just supply himself but other AIDS victims with the proper -- though non FDA approved -- meds. DBC is a powerful reminder of the early days of the AIDS crisis and the fear and homophobia it inspired along with the inept response of the government.

The Big Parade (1925).  Unlike the other films mentioned in my recent posts this one is not a recent release. I suppose in geological time it is being a mere 88 years old. It finally finally finally finally came out in DVD a few months ago and I finally got around to watching my copy yesterday. Masterpiece. King Vidor is one of the best directors many of you have never heard of and The Big Parade alone is proof. The Big Parade is an epic World War I love story which is like saying The Godfather is a gangster film. If I were to write a post listing my favorite all time film scenes the parting lovers scene from The Big Parade would certainly make the cut. The American soldier Jim (John Gilbert) along with the rest of the battalion has been called to the front. His French country girl lover Melisande (Renee Adoree) desperately searches for her Jim as the trucks roll down the road. They meet and their extended parting kisses bespeak all the longing fear and desperation that war brings crashing into romance. And there is always about them movement the forward march of the men and machinery of war. We see the long line of vehicles and troops making its way to battle and the lone figure of Melisande left behind so vulnerable and alone in the middle of the frame. Dropping at last to her knees. This is the central magic of a magnificent film.

Nebraska. The great middle of America. The flat lonesome plains. Small bars with sad men in tractor caps chugging long necked buds. Families in cheap old furniture staring numbly at TV screens trying to recall what sort of car Uncle Ray drives. Economic monotony trucks bad restaurants long highways and simple values. (Fittingly Nebraska was shot in black and white.) Not fertile ground for cinema unless a prehistoric monster emerges from a prairie dog's hole or a spaceship lands in Topeka. But director Alexander Payne combines dashes of the sensibilities of the Coen brothers Ingmar Bergman and Aki Kuarismaki to create one of the best films of the year. Bruce Dern plays Woody Grant a most senior citizen determined to go from his home in Billings Montana to Lincoln Nebraska to claim a million dollar prize that everyone else can see he has not really won. Will Forte was the inspired choice to play Woody's son David who gets sucked into his dad's quixotic journey. Best known for his tenure at Saturday Night Live Forte is just the right amount of dead pan and just the right amount of exasperated. But June Squibb as the long suffering wife is an absolute scene stealer. Nebraska is about aging its about family it's about father-son relationships it's about the heartland it's about how we love or fail to. 

09 December 2013

The Great Frances 12 Years the Warmest Color -- Four New Films I've Seen Recently

La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty).  Garish blaring and color and richness and middle aged sensuality and decadence not so divine. Oh yes and Rome Rome Rome. The madness the sadness and the heavy duty gladness of good living. Paolo Sorrentino's film is full of stunning audacious visuals. It is full of ideas. It is full of nods to Fellini -- especially to La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 1/2 (1963).  It is full. A rich parade of delights. Wild party nights. Watching this film is like bathing in chocolate while reading Camus. The protagonist is Jep (Toni Servillo) a 60 plus year old journalist who knows and is known by everyone. He is forever hosting parties or going to them. Great meals great dances great discussions and women always women. This is Fellini for the 21st century and the good news is that while it is an homage The Great Beauty is clearly its own film with its own vision -- whatta vision! -- and its own ideas. There's not much more one could ask for from a film. Also it is important to note that you should definitely make a point of staying for the closing credits which are accompanied by a beautiful boat ride. I suppose that's fitting because this is as much as journey as it is anything else. A journey it should be noted through Rome which is as much a star of the film as is Servillo.

12 Years a Slave. Slavery in North America is a difficult subject to wrap one's mind around. I know this from having taught it for many years and studied it for many more than that. It was a brutal utterly heartless savaging of human rights and amazingly it was carried out for the first eight decades of that grand experiment in democracy called the United States. 12 Years does an admirable job of shining a lot on this horror particularly in light of how Hollywood has steered clear of the subject. This film serves as an antidote to the odious sanitization of chattel slavery done by the likes of Gone With the Wind. Whippings rapes horrendous working conditions the selling of children from parents are all part of this story as they are to the story of slavery itself. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northrup a free and successful family man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s. The movie is truth. It is a true story that tells some great truths about the peculiar institution and some peculiarities of the human condition. There is a horrible sadness pervasive throughout the film but the storytelling is so rich and powerful and the characters so fully realized that it is never depressing. Especially as one remembers that Northrup's servitude lasted the 12 years the title suggests.

Frances Ha. I loved this movie despite an overwhelming desire to call it quirky (films that rely solely on their quirkiness end up looking cheap or silly or both). Perhaps more than anything else it can be lauded  for its realism. Frances is 27 years old struggling with friendship romance career and paying the rent in modern day New York city. She is bright and at least moderately talented but makes questionable choices (don't we all?) as she bounces from one situation and one address to another. If Hollywood had had its way this would have been turned into a romantic comedy. It didn't  and it isn't. Noah Baumbach directed. According to IMDb he "shot the movie in black and white to 'boil it down to its barest bones' and create an immediate 'history' and 'a kind of instant nostalgia.'" Good choice well done. Greta Gerwig is Frances and she is in every scene. Suffice to say that Ms. Gerwig is fully capable of carrying a movie on her back if need be. There is an endearing quality to her that stems largely from her being so natural and interesting a person. Easy to root for and identify with. Frances Ha nimbly steers from the choppy waters of quirky and settles into a combination of charming and authentic.

Blue is the Warmest Color. Anyone with a passing interest in current cinema is no doubt aware that this provocative French film from Abdellatif Kechiche includes several graphic sex scenes between co stars Lea Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos. I am unambiguous about my appreciation for the comely nude female form. And yes of course I mean when presented tastefully. There is a risk that such scenes can be a distraction. Here they are not gratuitous. After all the two women are lovers for much of the film and showing them acting our their love is only fitting. I found myself admitting that the scenes were erotic and enjoyed them for themselves as well as how they helped the narration. Blue focuses on Adele who at the start of the film is but 16. She is struggling with sexual identity which is part of the mad brew of the late teen years. She meets the older more experienced Emma and it is virtually love -- not to mention passion -- at first sight. We follow Adele for several years through the ups and downs of this and other relationships. It is a rewarding journey with or without frolicking naked women.

28 November 2013

The Ice Storm a Brilliant Look at the the 1970s Suburbia and When the Twain Did Meet

Joyless. Numbly going through the motions of suburban life in the 1970s. Barely understanding or caring about events shaping the country or the world. Not thinking not feeling and in fact avoiding the chore of exploring the self the act of being.

Plastic existence with the numbing drone of the television or of the softening effect of cocktails. Huge houses with too many rooms and too few ideas. Surrounded by nature outside and things -- so many things -- inside.

But it was comfortable. There was money and creature comforts so one could survive it all. There were also other people and the empty interactions that were supposed to bring community but only highlighted the isolation.

No film has ever captured the Seventies or suburban living and certainly not the meeting of the two as well as Ang Lee's brilliant The Ice Storm (1997). You will see the best minds of your generation destroyed by ennui.

The Ice Storm is set over a Thanksgiving in 1973 in a Connecticut suburb of New York. Kevin Kline and Joan Allen portray the principle mom and dad. With Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci playing their children. Other young actors in the film include Elijah Wood and Katie Holmes in her film debut.

Richard Nixon is a sort of featured player appearing in archival footage as Watergate is starting to sink his presidency. Only the 14 year old Wendy (Ricci) seems interested in his web of lies. Her older brother Paul (Maguire) is in prep school and is more interested in a beautiful classmate (Holmes) and getting high and reading comic books.

Part of the brilliance of The Ice Storm is how utterly nonjudgmental it is. Lee's camera captures the stark beauty of the homes and landscapes and of the ice storm itself but it is otherwise objective in following the characters. We thus have neither sympathy nor antipathy for anyone. We merely observe. Having been around in the Seventies and having spent some time (thankfully not very much) in the suburbia of that time I can attest to the accuracy of what we see. Not just the physical look -- which is spot on right down to the tacky clothes -- but the feel of the time and place. Looking back it seems a sort of faux modernism. It was a prosperous time in which one working parent could support a family with a house and two cars. There was a comfortable sort of intellectualism that was more focused on the superficiality of reforming government and weeding out corruption than with challenging conventions or producing great art. The conformity of the 1950s was dead but so too was the spirit of rebellion of the 1960s. Shlock was in whether it was trashy disco music garish clothes bushy sideburns obnoxious game shows or prefab sports stadiums.

Kline and Allen play Ben and Elena Hood. Whatever passion that their marriage once had is long gone so Ben is having an affair with the wife (Sigourney Weaver) of a good friend and neighbor. Elena feels purposeless which perhaps explains why she shoplifts at the local drugstore. Their precious daughter stares numbly at the TV and willingly allows the neighbor boys to see her vagina. Their forever bemused son comes home for Thanksgiving though he leaves the following night for an unsuccessful  date with the girl of his dreams.

That night there is a terrible ice storm a huge cocktail party that morphs into the saddest key party you'll ever see and a tragic death. Even in death there is no great wave of emotion. There is more an emptiness of a person lost which is odd given the emptiness of the lives we see. There is also a lack of desperation almost an acceptance of going through the motions. Taking the next step doing the next thing. A death of conscience and consciousness. The children at once detect the meaninglessness of it all and participate in it. The easy affluence has sucked everyone into its vortex.

Yet this is a remarkably watchable film. The characters are still engaging and the settings striking. Lee created a world that is familiar accessible and in its own way entertaining.

In The Ice Storm no one gets what she or he wants. Whether everyone gets what they deserve is entirely the viewer's call. I don't know exactly how "rated" The Ice Storm is but it can't be rated high enough.

16 November 2013

Another Saturday Night of Musing and Mentions of Dustin in Straight Time and Mitchum as Eddie Coyle

Listening to Bill Evans Time Remembered. Sweetest piano music. Keys caressed and from this soft beautiful sounds that go well on a Saturday.

It’s cold out but Bay Area cold. Not Finland or Canada cold. Warm inside. Heater on. Comfortable.

Columbia University. Watched a bit of their football team’s loss to Cornell on the telly this morning. The Lions are winless. I care because mom went there. So did Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg’s mom suffered from insanity just as mine did though presumably my mother’s mental illness didn’t strike until after her time at Columbia. I don’t know I wasn’t there. I came along later. Kerouac’s mother was not insane but he himself was an alcoholic. Like my mom. Poor ma. Made much of my childhood and teen years hell and I hated her for it for decades. Took a long time to realize that she meant no harm. Not her fault. Hard to assign blame in such situations. Best not to.

We wish for things that never could be. Like a sane and sober mother. So that happens and there it is. Tugging at us and all the wishing doesn’t change anything. I can wish many things had been different (and often do). Many of those wishes are about mistakes I made. There were some lulus. But here I am today in a warm house with nice music playing a wife I adore in the other room. I love my job and my children and as I type these words I enjoy good health. Not bad.

Happiness is an indulgence many people feel they can’t afford. I myself sometimes shoo contentment away thinking it unearned and liable to set me up for a big fall. Stupid I know. One must embrace happiness. Wrap your arms around it and hold tight lest it flit away. Oh it will escape for a bit eventually but....

Peppy. A faster tempo to this song. My head bobs.

Last Saturday I watched a film called Straight Time (1978) starring Dustin Hoffman as a man just released prison after doing seven years. He tries to go straight. But circumstances conspire as they are want to do and he’s quickly off the straight and narrow. It’s another gem from one of the most productive periods of film ever. The ‘70s. It’s damn near like they didn’t make any bad ones back then.

Straight Time also features M. Emmet Walsh Harry Dean Stanton Gary Busey Kathy Bates and Theresa Russell then a gorgeous 20 year old. The shame of the film is that we see Walsh’s naked ass and not Russell’s. Let me be clear that I do not watch films for purposes of seeing naked people. But if there is to be someone in the nude I much prefer it....Anyway you get the idea and I’ve been sidetracked.

What Straight Time does so well is explore how events beyond our control can send our lives hurtling in other directions. We like to think we are in charge of our lives and certainly we often are. But we often aren't.

Hoffman’s character is easy to root for. No we don’t want him robbing banks or shooting people but we sympathize with him and his earnest efforts. Besides it's goddamned Dustin Hoffman who almost always has played likable sorts. The movie is gritty and real as is often the case from Seventies American cinema. Straight Time was written by a con who was an ex con by the time the film was made. His understanding of the life shows. Its an effective film on numerous levels one of which being that it doesn't make judgments and leaves us room to think particularly with the manner it ends.

Tonight I had my second viewing of The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) another crime film from the Seventies. This one starring Robert Mitchum as the titular character in a most effective performance. He’s done time. He’s had his knuckles busted in a drawer for letting some people down. He’s in the know. And he’s facing another stretch in the can which doesn’t sit well with him given that he has a wife and kids. His friends are what I will call working class crooks. They are connected to the bosses who rake in the big bucks but we never see them. Instead we meet a cast of characters who work long tense pressure packed hours breaking various laws. They have to fear cops and one another. A slip up can result in broken knuckles a trip to prison or a bullet in the head. With friends like that....

Coyle is a low level crook respected but not admired. A stand up guy but pretty old for criminal middle management. TFOEC is meticulous and realistic and endlessly interesting and eschews gratuitous violence and artificial action scenes. I admire the hell out of it.

Wouldn’t you know it I’m getting too tired to write anymore which is to say I’m too tired to do much of anything other than hitting the sack. So I reckon I will.

04 November 2013

Kill Your Darlings But Gently as You Howl You Holy Holy Reader You Treasured and Precious Film Goer

Rhyme and meter in poetry. The taming of the mind the boxing in -- the repetition of form. The death of

How important is it to make an effort. To try. To persist. To fight through gas pain and constipation and physical exhaustion and that ornery ole cuss called laziness. And for what? To write to express to say something anything because without the writing without the effort I am left in the void killing time so carelessly as sure as it is killing me. The head aches. The pulsating pain in the belly rages. The body cries out to lay down lie down be down to drown helplessly in sleep. If it comes. What a wicked bastard sleep can be. Begging to be employed then staying at arm’s length. Teasing taunting. For that is what awaits. That and more gastrointestinal discomfort. Doubts too. Damned doubts crowding into a brain desperate for reassurance for comfort for the soothing balm of righteous certainty. Accursed pride and flimsy wisdom. Where art thou? Surety? But do doubts want to be assured? I think not because then they will cease to be. Doubts want to live to be so they fend off hope and optimism. Bastards.

So the words are forced from the source. Wherever whatever that may be. The combative man struggles to tame his own impulses and loses nothing but his mind. And still the awful pain wrenches. The eyelids grow heavier and the fingers tire. Tire. My ire. Cue the choir. Hallelujah I will stop now.

But for what?

We shall see,;.:

Kill Your Darlings brings to life the epic meetings of fabled legendary and wondrous writers Allen Ginsberg Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs with Lucien Carr mixed in for very good measure. To some of us their time together in New York is the stuff of great history stories which alert the muse. There was of course a murder thrown into the mix committed by Carr against his constant stalker David Kammerer. The film concerns itself with these men and that tragedy (for which Carr received a figurative slap on the wrist having successfully claimed that Kammerer was making unwanted homosexual advances).

It’s risky business depicting characters and events well known and beloved. Others have failed as in the recent screen rendition of Kerouac’s On the Road. But first time director John Krokidas hits his marks and then soars beyond. While KYD is not an unqualified stand on your seat and applaud success its a bloody good movie that I am still pondering 24 hours after seeing it. Huzzah!

First we start with our central character a personal hero of mine Allen Ginsberg. Here he is portrayed by -- what’s this? Harry Potter you say? -- Daniel Radcliffe. Young master Radcliffe does not disappoint. He resembles the young Ginsberg enough and beyond that does nothing to suggest he is not him incarnate. However Ben Foster as William Burroughs does convince us that he is in fact the man come back to life. Foster doesn’t just have the look of Burroughs but the voice and his every action is suggestive of what I know of the writer. I’ve seen Foster knock a role out of the park before and am of the strong opinion that he is a helluva an actor.

Jack Huston is among three actors to portray Kerouac in the past year and does an admirable job. Huston only vaguely resembles my favorite all time novelist -- something he cannot be blamed for -- but sounds and acts enough like him that the story is not interrupted by his presence.

Finally we have the relative neophyte Dane DeHaan as Carr. Carr is less familiar to us then the others so this actor has more leeway. But I have to say they got a ringer for Carr with piercing blue eyes that one imagines would drive the girls and some of the guys wild. DeHaan is excellent as the troubled but exciting and excitable Carr. (While we’re on the subject of actors and characters a special nod to David Cross as Ginsberg father, Louis.)

The opening sequence of Kill Your Darlings will be considered perplexing to some messy to others and inspired to still another group. I agree with all three which is to say I liked it. A story like this of these sort of people birthing the Beat Generation demands innovation. Krokidas frequently lets out most if not all the stops as in a benzedrine fueled scene in which the principals are all in a bar where everything and everyone else freezes and they cavort about them.

Krokidas never lets the story lag the pacing is crisp the camera work and surrealism muted enough not to detract from the story but prevalent enough to do proper justice to the goings-on. Which by god did go on.

Ginsberg is a freshman at Columbia University (at the same time my mother was a grad student there -- did they meet? -- doubt it). First he meets Carr who is the type of bloke some of us are lucky enough to meet at the right times of our lives. The charismatic exciting inspirational ultra cool bohemian who can shake the dust of our lives and getting us up about and thrilled about it all. All of it. Here is adventure here is excitement here is grabbing life and making it your own.

For young men this means parties booze drugs opening your mind to other possibilities to all possibilities and it also means meeting people. Lots of different people with different ideas. Ginsberg was so damn lucky he met no less than William Burroughs. Then tops that off with Jack fucking Kerouac. None of three had yet published anything and were far from famous. But there they were about to kick literature in the ass.

For Ginsberg school and poetry and life did not mix. School would have to give way. Meter and rhyme were eschewed by Walt Whitman so they had no chance with him. In Carr and co. he had inspirations aiders and abetters. Kill Your Darlings captures all this as it does the strange case of Kammerer the professor who gave up all to be with his beloved Carr who in turn grew increasingly annoyed with this obsessed and almost certainly mentally ill man. Killing him is of course far too harsh but it is a crime of passion and did happen and that is as they say that.

Kill Your Darlings portrays Carr as the catalyst he was having played the crucial role of getting Ginsberg out and about and introduced to Burroughs and Kerouac. It does not let him off easily. This is not his story and we are not left feeling great sympathy for him. We are left excited about Ginsberg and the amazing poetry he was to create and the transcendent life he was to lead.

For those of us familiar with the characters and the story KYD will not disappoint in fact it will send us back to books and novels and poems and videos and photos that we have seen before and now need to see again in a new light. Others? Can’t really say. I’m not an other I’m me. But me liked. Maybe others will too.

03 November 2013

I Am No George Clooney But I Do Write About Finally Seeing and Loving Terrance Malick's Badlands

I want to be smart and interesting and a good storyteller like George Clooney. Was just watching him in some You Tube clips. Him and other actors in a roundtable discussion slash interview. I do not look like George Clooney. Never have. Never will. I am and always have been a reasonably attractive male in good physical condition -- excellent as a matter of fact. I am short but not so you could step on me short. More the absence of great or medium height. I'm pretty sure that George Clooney is not short. Anyway he's got lots of money and talent and fame and women think he's really handsome and even men admit to the fact. He's also charming. I can be charming but rarely choose to be. Sometimes I'm downright grumpy. I have talents of my own and many have been appreciated over the years. So maybe I shouldn't complain. I guess what's really bugging me is that I can't sit around with a bunch of famous actors and swap acting stories with them. I surely could sit around with them and listen. I'd be really good at that. But it would hardly be the same. Oh well.

I got on to You Tube after watching Terrance Malick's Badlands (1973) a film I'd somehow never seen before even though it's been around for 40 years now. I really really really enjoyed it. I want to see it again. Maybe own the Criterion Collection edition of it. Screw the maybe part from that last sentence. I definitely want to.

This was Malick before he fell into those long trance like states while directing in which he had tracking shots of molecules or whatever the fuck he was doing. In The New World (2005) he told the Pocahontas story as if she were leaf swaying in the breeze. You could fall asleep during the film and not miss a thing. Seriously. Before that was The Thin Red Line (1998) which a lot of people absolutely love. None of these people are me. I found it annoying irritating and confounding. The more recent The Tree of Life (2011) I greatly admired as it had a cohesion to it yet was not afraid to wonder all around the history of the universe and the meaning of life in telling its story. After Badlands was Days of Heaven (1978) which I thought was a terrific film and just to prove it to you I'm going to watch it again in the next week or so. Promise.

So Badlands tells the story of a young couple who go on a killing spree. Actually the guy (Martin Sheen) does all the killing. The bemused girl (Sissy Spacek) is just along for the ride. And what a ride. Movies can take a somber or ugly subject and make it palatable or interesting or beautiful. Malick did the latter in this case. The beauty of the film is such that we do not forgive the heinous crimes. They're more like a narrative tool. The deaths are not sad or shocking. Except when the girl's father (Warren Oates) kills her dog as a punishment. Somehow that's the cruel one. The five people we see getting killed are more like abstractions whose deaths in this case serve the function of driving the story forward. We can't contemplate them. We must just know that they happened. The killer certainly doesn't waste any tears on the dearly deceased.

Sheen is wonderfully understated as the James Dean lookalike who is forever saying "I don't care." And he doesn't. He takes what comes and does what he must or at least what he thinks he must. Consequences are for another time. Spacek excepts his actions because she is young and in love and unformed and curious. It's really a great screen pairing.

Malick's visual style is not bloated here as it later came to be. There are clouds and trees and animals and roads and dust but they are not lengthy diversions from the plot. They are part of it. Would that he'd stuck to that notion longer.  He also employs music to excellent effect. Instead of scenes that stretch like the Great Plains (my subtle reference to where the film takes place) there is a tightness to scenes. A length that respects the characters the story and the audience.

If you've never seen Badlands you must. It's like a mash up of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Moonrise Kingdom (2102). Those are two really good movies from a couple of very different directors (Arthur Penn and Wes Anderson). I'll go further and say that the Badlands reminds one of the great Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. Actors read lines hit their marks and move along. They do not pontificate they do not emote they function as part of the film. Yet there is a definite sizzle to the whole 90 minutes a drive a verve and a spirit. There is a lot to see and admire.  I give it many many stars.

26 October 2013

In A World Where Lake Bell Will be a Star...We are Very Lucky

Lake Bell the star writer and director of In a World... just has that look of the kind of woman lots of men love she's pretty not beautiful -- what some might call a handsome woman -- which makes her seem available or accessible and she's intelligent and not high maintenance and funny and fun like she's got a sophisticated sense of humor and is good at being clever and snarky and has a decent education ya know like not Harvard or Princeton but maybe a really good public university or a not too snooty small private fine arts college and she's read a few books and likes movies and is not what guys consider slutty but certainly no prude and probably even likes sports or at least a sport and maybe even played one like in high school probably lacrosse or field hockey so anyway guys with a modicum of intelligence (of which there are a few) are attracted to such women because they seem like someone you could marry and really guys for the most part are way more interested in getting married then they let on and usually it's the woman in the relationship who's reticent about the big step and oh yeah she looks like she'd be a good mother although she's the type who'll make noise about not wanting to have children but she'll definitely change her mind certainly by the time the biological clock starts ticking down if not sooner oh yeah and this woman also knows her own mind and won't get pushed around by any guy and there's another thing that's attractive to men because men are mostly post feminist or at least should be.

So that's my take on Lake Bell.

She looks kinda like that.

So she's a natural to appeal to audiences because she's non-threatening to other women -- I imagine they see her as potential friend maybe even a confidant. Ms. Bell is not age specific in her appeal either. Younger people would like up to her as a big sister type and older people would see in her a favorite niece or daughter or in some instances I suppose a younger lover though I don't get that vibe from her especially as I am blissfully married (my marriage is the kind where people think: what the hell does she see in him she's so nice -- I know cause I think that myself).

As a film star Lake Bell has a niche and is good to go. As a writer she's pretty good and boasts a future and as a director she's got some work to do.

I liked In a World... although I'd hoped to love it (full disclosure I never pay coin of the realm to see a film unless I believe I'm going to go gaga over said movie). There was a messiness to the editing that bothered me. It looked like one of the movies that are edited down to the standard 90 to 100 minute run time without respect to the fact that some of said editing would hurt the film. At one point we jump one from one night to the next in an instant and it's confusing as hell. There are also subplots and characters that could have used a little fleshing out. Some of the casting was questionable but I'll not name names as its not a huge deal and I come to praise Lake Bell not to nitpick her film.

Ms. Bell plays Carol Solomon who wants to break into the exclusive and exclusively male voice over business. Her father (Fred Melamed) is one of the members of said club and he's a selfish prick. Which is to say an interesting film character. Carol also has a an admirer (Demetri Martin) who's also in the biz and a married sister (Michaela Watkins) who she has to stay with when dad boots her because dad's very young girlfriend (Alexandra Holden) is moving in. There is also one of dad's rivals who Carol sleeps with after a party and it really doesn't make sense anymore than her sister's sort of cheating on her hubby...and well there's a lot going on very quickly and its too much. Plus I'm not sure how we're supposed to feel about the manner in which Carol does or does not land a huge job (no spoilers from me) or the direction of her romance or much of anything else.

There were problems with this movie.

But there was no problem with its star who we can happily expect to see more of in the years to come certainly as an actress and if she gets it together as a director/screenwriter too.  Ms. Bell is fun to watch and listen to and root for. The combination of acting chops, comedy and charm will serve her well as we see in abundance in this film. Indeed more of her and less of the side stuff would have improved the movie immeasurably.

In a World.... did not live up to my expectations but Ms. Bell surpassed them which makes for a good enough day at the cinema.

25 October 2013

On the Importance of Being Useful

I have found that people like to feel useful. I know I do. It's not just that we want to keep busy but we want what we are busy with to have a purpose. This is why some old people are horribly depressed wither away and die. They feel useless. If you spend too long watching mindless TV or aimlessly surfing the web you can and will get depressed. I know this from experience. But if you are doing something you feel good. I suppose humans are hard wired that way. We joke about being lazy and not wanting to have anything to do but we also want to earn that free time. Come about honestly if you will.

Even just washing the dishes doing the laundry taking out the trash and recycling can feel good. Purposeful actions as opposed to thumb twiddling. I feel this more acutely now then I did when I was younger (and by the way I've always been younger than this and have never been any older than I am now; in the future I shall be older in the past I was younger). I was recently asked when I might retire. Mind you I'm way to young to retire but old enough to think about it. Anyway I answered by saying that I would have to be mad to retire from teaching ESL to adults. Who would want to walk away from work that is so bloody much fun? Now it is true that I have done some crazy ass things in my life but I have assiduously been working on cutting down on oddball behavior. Retire? In a pig's eye.

Retirement is a frightening notion for a lot of people. Not because they love their work but because they fear the absence of it in their lives. How will they fill the time? My dear old dad faced the same dilemma and for a short time after retiring was depressed -- although he'd be the last to admit it. But he found satisfying ways to fill his days. Fulfilling.  My father grew one bad ass garden in his spacious backyard which he tended lovingly and unfailingly. He also became as devoted a grandfather as one would ever hope to meet. He continued fishing and I do not mean sitting on a dock with a beer in one hand and a fishing pole in the other waiting for some poor sucker to take the bait. He went on salmon fishing trips out into the goddamned Pacific Ocean is what he did. And came back with fish for his sons and grandkids to enjoy. On the days he didn't fish he would often go down to the wharf and see how the boats did and swap lies with a bunch of old cronies. He also stuck his nose into politics volunteering for the local branch of the Democratic Party. He kept busy and happy.

I'm prone to short lived blue moods. I can only imagine what great sufferers of depression go through. Experiencing raging melancholia for even a quarter hour is truly awful. Days of it? No thanks and my heart goes out to people who endure it. Sometimes an attack of the miseries cannot be chased away and just must be outlasted. Other times there's a sure fire cure in the form of identifying a cause and addressing it post haste. Maybe there's an unpleasant errand that's been put off or a problem to be faced or a confrontation that can't be dodged. But other times it requires simply getting off one's derriere and doing something -- could maybe be anything -- useful. Writing always works for me. I feel like I'm feeding my soul. It's akin to the feeling after a run. Not only have I released endorphins but I feel damn good just for having done my body a huge favor.

I am reminded of the title song to the play and film Cabaret in which we are asked what good it is sitting all alone in our room and that as an alternative we should come hear the music play. This is of course figurative (although literally listening to music can be good for you too). Action activity movement purpose are all good for us.

I heard someone on the trolley in San Francisco today say that he could now cross seeing the Golden Gate Bridge off his bucket list. I find the very notion of bucket lists ridiculous. Really what does one do after crossing the last item of the bucket list? End it all? Maybe I'm taking it to seriously and literally but I would never want to have a finite number of tasks to complete before my life ended. There are places I want to see and things I want to do but they are endless and eternal even though I'm not.

Speaking of death. I have been reading James Agee's Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece A Death in the Family -- ironically the Pulitzer was won posthumously. It of course deals with the premature death of a young husband and father of two (based on the author's childhood) and thus concerns itself with death. It is beautifully realized and elegant and so very real. Thus one cannot turn away from the central fact of the book. It is not so much mortality that we ponder (although that we do) but the loss of loved ones. This is at the core of human experience. It is one thing to face our own limited time in this life we also must face the losses of many of those around us. Some will go in due time when they are old and have lived a full life. As happy as we may be for their lives their deaths still bring sorrow. But there is also the specter of others passing well before their time. I have endured the death of two great friends a brother and former students all of whom were gone much too soon. One learns that any time we see someone it could be for the last no matter their health or good fortune. A Death in the Family is proving a stark reminder. I think of putting the book aside for another time....But instead I read on. If slower than I would if the subject matter were something cheery and light.

I can hear the question: why fill your days with morbid thoughts? For one thing they often come uninvited and refuse to leave unless seriously pondered. Also there is something curative about contemplating the worst. On the one hand it allows us to prepare ourselves for the worst should it ever happen. On the other hand it can help illuminate how damn good we have it. In my case I am at the current moment in superior health enjoying my work loving my family and surrounded by the arts. All this can change in the blink of an eye I know (knocking on wood won't change matters one iota) and its good to know that but even better to appreciate the moment which is all one ever really has anyway.

My advice is to be ever useful. To yourself and others. Never stop growing and learning and pushing the boundaries. One of the worst things many of us do is settle. If there is more or better to be had we owe it to ourselves to pursue the more or the better. We also owe it to ourselves (and those who love us) to grow and learn and explore and make the most of whatever gifts and opportunities surround us. Try never to surrender to the negative. Don't be consumed by anger or sorrow or ennui. Go forth. Always. Go forth.

19 October 2013

The Incredible Story of a High School Teacher Who Fell in With a Bad Crowd -- Himself (AKA My Month With Breaking Bad)

Great white arcs. A fist crushing a sad face. The addict desperate and dying but unrelenting. Cold desert morning and men at work. The cough so ugly and hurting and persistent. Always the persistent and the unrelenting. The hardened American man of law obsessed with pursuit and capture but taking time for the poolside barbecue. Morning cereal or pancakes and consumers happy with normality. Craving it. The bored stone faced listening to the lecture. The magic man spinning his web and unknowingly caught in it. Twisted. Always twisted. The death of reason and the rise of the ego and the id and the superman and the victory over compassion. Cerebral Palsy. Cancer. Poison. Retching over toilets and outward appearances and blood everywhere. The innocent killed. As are we all innocent and dead. And you Walter White are in all of us. Heisenberg. Bang!

So the story goes of an American dream.

And so now its over. After watching 62 episodes in 30 days I am left on my own. The greatest TV show binging of my life the hungry consumption of every detail every raised eyebrow every nook every cranny every gunshot every threat every shocking turn of Breaking Bad. The best television drama I've ever seen. For the last two weeks it was twice a day. Sometimes three times. All that time with Walter White. With Jesse. With Hank. With Gus. With the murderous Uncle Jack. With poor Walter Junior who suffered so to see his hero his father exposed as a dirty no good skunk of a drug lord. I was enslaved by Breaking Bad. I was powerless over it. I was mainlining it. Breaking Bad coursing through my veins. I couldn't wait to finish it all. Now I miss it. God how I do.

It took me awhile -- longer then I care to admit -- but I finally figured it out. Walter White was a very very bad man. This is a great part of the genius of Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad which ended its six year run on the telly last month. We are witness to the devolvement of a human being from an earnest educator and family man diagnosed with cancer to a sadistic megalomaniacal drug boss and killer. It's as fascinating as anything that cinema has put forward and I include The Godfather's Michael Coreleone in the mix. No less a personage than Sir Anthony Hopkins called Bryan Cranston's portrayal of Walter White as the greatest acting performance of all time. Who am I to argue with the likes of Mr. Hopkins?

Walter. He is the one who knocks. But who will protect the family from the one who protects the family?

We can't help but root for Walter from the very beginning. What's so stunning is how long we stay with him and how subtlety he changes from accomplished chemist to evil genius. I remember watching him as he watched Jesse's girlfriend Jane choke on her own vomit after a night of heroin. It made rational sense for him to let her die but it was so callous so morally indefensible that I actually finally thought that this Walter fellow was an abhorrent character. But I stayed with him. Until the end. I often hated the way he treated poor Jesse. Walter was contemptuous and dismissive of his underling from the beginning. He ultimately used and abused him. But the most shocking moment was when Jesse was being led away seemingly to be executed and Walter just had to tell him that he had watched Jane die. Jesse looked back at him in wonder unable to believe that such a cold heart hadn't frozen. And so did we.

Jesse (Aaron Paul) was also a compelling character. Troubled and tortured by inner demons. Falling in love twice with tragic consequences. It seemed he could never find his purchase in life. No wonder he was beaten so often and so brutally. He was a small man a bit of pretty boy playing in a world with brutal criminals and hard-nosed cops. Jesse was everyone's whipping boy. But he was never pathetic. There was something totally redeemable about him. He was after all able to love -- though with tragic consequences -- was good with children and was young and vulnerable and resilient. We admired Walter but we liked Jesse. Liked. He was ultimately unbeatable. The kid could bounce off the canvas.

Was this a show about choices? The choices we make. The old bit about the road not taken? I dunno cause Walter took a lot of roads. Like a lot of great fictional characters he just kept going and his ego let him. Down the rabbit hole. It started out as small time stuff. Cooking meth in an RV to raise cash to fend of creditors with cancer treatment costs ready to mount. Really it was for the family. Hey somebody was going to supply the stuff. Why not Walter a man who could cook it damn near 100% pure. But you know these things have a way of just taking off and there you go. Thousands become millions. As in dollars. Then tens of millions. And when is it enough?  You hire people you have enemies you make deals you're working with people contemptuous of human life you make compromises and you strangle someone and shoot someone else and tell big bold lies and that stuff you make being so good and all that money coming in and you winning all these battles you go quickly from cancer victim to Mr. Invincible. Hell you've beaten the cancer. YOU CAN DO ANYTHING. Once you shoot one person it gets kind of easy. Power is as power does and all. You can't see the forrest for the trees when your the fucking forrest.

Skyler. The missus. (Anna Gunn.) She's a strong woman with a healthy independent streak. A damn good mom and devoted wife. You meet her type all the time all over this great land of ours. Salt of the earth and the modern wife/mother who knows and speaks her own mind. Can she believe what her Walt is up to? Can she countenance his means of supporting them? Can she turn a blind eye? Here's the thing: Skyler is not comfortable with any of this wants a divorce she can't get has an affair that she rather enjoys (its revenge you see) and next thing she's laundering money and in on the lie. Expands the lie. Happens.

The poor lady was trapped in an eddy reaching for a tree root. Took to smoking and staring off into space and wondering how the hell....

Ya ever notice in life how some of our choices are no choice at all. Decision points come to as disguised as choices we have to make but there's really no alternative and lord have mercy if that path we're stuck in flies in the face of proper morality law and the like. Poor Skyler. She was the ultimate combo of victim perpetrator.

Life happens fast sometimes. There's no time for contemplation until the deeds are done. The meth is cooked its sold Gus has been blown up others have been paid off or bumped off and we're left to live with the consequences of actions we had barely any time to consider or reconsider.  And one of our gang shoots an innocent kid because he was at the wrong place. At the wrong time. Aren't we all.

In the last episode Walter finally tells Skyler an important truth: he did all for himself. One reason being that he was so good at it. It's hard to keep from displaying our talents. If our skills lie in singing or architecture or teaching this is a good thing. If they are in producing meth and running a drug empire...not so much. But Walter was true to himself. At least give him credit for that.

I watched all 62 episodes of Breaking Bad and enjoyed each one. Not a clunker in the bunch. That falls under the category of AMAZING.

The writers stayed true to the characters and the reality they created never straying too far building from within. There was no supernatural or extended dream sequence or tedious back story or sidebars. It all fit. The characters were fully realized and allowed to develop without detracting from the momentum of the story line. Betsy Brandt as Skyler's sister Marie was dead on as the busy body kleptomaniac wife of DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). She seemed like so many people we have known or met in other words so goddamned real. So for that matter was Hank as the obsessed pursuer of Heisenberg -- Walter's non de plume -- and the jolly uncle and brother-in-law. Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman flirts with going over the top but because he doesn't is a masterfully colorful and interesting character who contrasts nicely with the uber serious personas of Walter and Jesse.

Walter and Jesse. There's a relationship worth studying. Father figure much? Son or student? Their's is the ultimate love hate relationship. A stunning fist fight. An awkward hug. Guns to the head. Business partners. The complexity of their reliance on one another and their coldness to one another and their constant battling is particularly compelling theater. What were they to each other?

More. Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) the wealthy philanthropist businessman who is really head of a drug cartel. Now there's a character and a story and an acting performance and a creepy depth and soul and an oh he got his just reward. Jonathan Banks as Mike is first his and then Walter's right hand man. Chews nails for breakfast this one. Streetwise and tough and a devoted granddad. He has Walter sussed out from early on. Trouble he sees and trouble het gets. And Laura Fraser as Lydia the uptight little business woman in heels adding the illegal meth business to her lengthy agenda. She is so vulnerable and fragile and yet not unwilling to order hits on a dozen men. Lydia seems more in the self preservation business than anything else.

Breaking Bad. One month. Binge watching. Consumed me as I devoured it. For many it was spread out over five years and nine months. I can't imagine a week let alone a month long wait between episodes. I hated waiting 24 hours. Now I'll wait a lifetime for  TV that's as good. What a ride.

(This post is dedicated to youngest daughter my fellow Breaking Bad lover. Even though she says I can't get the Heisenberg hat.)

12 October 2013

A Single Teardrop Floating

I had a dream last night in which I opened the door to the tree house of my childhood. In the dream I studied its four walls and tried to conjure memories. None were forthcoming. I moved on. I later in the dream was cleaning out the basement of the house I grew up in. My brother was helping me. It was all very melancholy. It felt slow and defeated and sad though purposeful and necessary. A lot of what we do in our waking hours is like that. There can be a great joylessness in completing certain tasks but then once they're done we're rewarded with a sense of accomplishment and perhaps some free time gaping in front of us.

Free time. It can be dangerous. If we misuse it. I have a large block of time in the middle of my work day. If if use a chunk of it to get caught up on and ahead of work and another chunk to walk and another chunk to maybe write or read I'm left unsatisfied. No matter how I use my free time its never good enough. I always could have done more or less better. Maybe it'll be that way at the end of my life too. So much misspent time so many things done too much or too little.

Blade of grass poking up from the dirt all alone. No other grass nearby. The solitude. The magnificence of being that lone piece of green around the brown. The life-force of the grass. The power and dignity. The grace of living proudly. Hold your head up. Always.

Today I got out of bed and it being Saturday enjoyed a shower unencumbered by thoughts of work and commuting and making lunch. It was long and lazy. Then daughter and I headed for the nearest cineplex where we were to see what would be my first 3D movie -- Gravity.

I had been reluctant. I'm very traditional about films and don't go in for new fangled things like 3D. But oldest daughter insisted we see it in 3D and I complied. Good thing too.

I flinched. I actually flinched when space debris came -- seemingly -- flying towards me. This should have been disconcerting and annoying and a distraction. But it wasn't. The whole thing worked. For this movie is set almost exclusively in outer space and the depth the dimensions added immeasurably to the cinematic experience. It's like when special effects are used to further the storytelling rather than to replace it. Hey it's been know to happen.

I've never had strong feelings one way or the other about Sandra Bullock before seeing this film but I was quite impressed with her here. She shares equal billing with 3D and the vastness of outer space. Oh and that teardrop. The one that starts from her face and -- because of the lack of gravity -- floats to the the corner of the screen but thanks to 3D we see so clearly and sharply. We are meant to it is insisted upon. Director Alfonso Cuaron has us focus on the little in the midst of the huge. He doesn't mean to dazzle but to invite. We are cordially invited to note the teardrop. And we do.

In its own way Gravity has the ambition of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Gravity does not have the same grand ambition in storytelling but does seek to explore new possibilities in films set in space. In her own way Bullock's Ryan Stone is reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien (1979). Both are vulnerable alone and game battlers in outer space. One faces a monster the other the reality of being stranded in space.

It has been pointed out that Gravity is not scientifically accurate. This is not uncommon in films. To be wrong. It happens a lot in movies that show historical events. That battle was in the winter not the summer or Lincoln never said that or that vase is from another century. If it bothers you it does and that's that and you may not like a movie because of it. But the fact that the Earth's orbit is something or the other that would have meant something or the other in Gravity couldn't have happened that way is of no never mind to me. I remember seeing a film set in the 1970s in which one could see a huge billboard with a web address on it. Ruined the whole damn picture for me which wasn't hard because it wasn't that great to begin with. I never fell head over heals for Field of Dreams because I loved the book upon which it was based -- Shoeless Joe -- so much and the film in my mind had mangled the book so badly. I wasn't too bothered but what the filmmakers did to another beloved book -- Cold Mountain -- just didn't care for the film on its own merits. Or lack thereof. These things happen. Gravity the film defies scientific logic or fact. I'm glad that was pointed out and it should be duly noted. But its not going to effect the way most of the view the thing. Movies -- after all -- often have the excuse of just being movies.

I appreciated Gravity because it took me seriously as a film goer and used 3D and outer space as a vehicle and a venue for telling a story and one where character was as important as that space debris that made me flinch.