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Saturday, May 27, 2017

Too Late

Wow, Too Late is a terrible film. Yet, as terrible films go, it's eminently watchable. Written and directed by Dennis Hauck, this 2015 film is a mixture of Raymond Chandler and Quentin Tarantino, without approaching the brilliance of either, but Hauck does have some directing chops. He just can't write.

The film has a gimmick: there are four scenes, and each one is shot in a single take, a la Hitchcock's Rope. This calls for some ingenuity. In the opening scene, a young woman on a hill in L.A. calls someone. The camera zooms in on the person she is talking to (they are probably a few miles apart). In a hotel scene, the camera follows a character out of a room, down a hall, into the elevator, out to the pool, and into a parking lot. It doesn't have the snap of Scorsese's Copacabana scene from Goodfellas, but technically it's quite accomplished.

Too Late is L.A. noir. That girl on the hill is a stripper (Crystal Reed) who has seen too much. She is calling a private eye (John Hawkes), who arrives, well, too late. She has been murdered. He investigates and exacts revenge, and along the way we find out his connection to the girl.

The film is non-linear, as the four scenes are not in chronological order, a la Tarantino. The set-ups are very nice, too. In addition to the scene on Radio Hill and the hotel, one scene is in a strip club and a bar next door, and another exquisitely lit scene is at a drive-in movie theater. But here's the problem with Too Late--the dialogue.

Hauck may imagine himself a Raymond Chandler, but he's not. Not even close. I don't know what he was intending, perhaps this is an homage and not meant to be authentic, but none of the characters speak like real people do. The patter is wincingly pretentious, the kind of dialogue I might have written in college. And Hauck makes a mistake first-time screenwriters often make--everyone sounds the same, with the same smart-ass sense of humor and ability to speak without saying, "um."

In another bit of Tarantinoism, Hauck uses actors such as Robert Forster and Jeff Fahey. There is also a scene that got it the dubious award of Mr. Skin's Nude Scene of the Year. An actress named Vail Bloom does her entire scene, perhaps close to ten minutes, bottomless. Bloom, of interest to me, is a Princeton grad who was part of a controversy when I lived there. An alt Princeton newspaper ran a feature on the top ten best looking girls of Princeton, and this caused howls from all quarters. Bloom was one of them. She also went to be a Maxim Top Ten Hottie, so presumably she had no issues with this objectification.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Teach the Children

Everything is a political issue today, it seems. Some of them are bewildering. When did conservative Republicans become so hostile to public education? I suppose the core belief of the Republican is that money is not the answer, even when, as it comes to education, this is disproved over and over again.

The Trump budget, scarier than any Stephen King novel, came out this week, and there's something for every right-thinking person to hate. I'll just focus on education. The simple numbers are: 9.2 billion dollars, or a 13.5 percent cut. Just on its face that's bad enough, when the U.S. has fallen behind in the brain race with other countries.

But here are a few particulars: stopping the subsidization of student loans, which makes college more expensive. This is fine for kids who have parents who can write checks to Princeton, but for those who can't, you will spend the rest of your life in crippling debt. The Democrats have it right--make tuition free for community and state schools, which will enable poor students to get a leg up. So many Republicans whine about people not pulling themselves up by their boot straps--what if they can't afford boot straps?

Cuts to Medicaid would impact special needs students. These kids always get the short end of the stick, whether it's the short bus or getting shoved in the worst classrooms. Lest we forget, there is a law (the IDEA, passed in 1990) that ensures every child with a free, public education that best fits their needs.

Proposed is a 2.3 billion dollar cut in a teacher training program that would help reduce class size. Believe me, the smaller the class, the better the education. You can't reach everyone in a class full of fifty kids. And lack of teacher training means poorer teachers. If you don't pay teachers well, no matter how devoted they are they will eventually suffer from burnout and feeling unappreciated, and will have to move on to other careers to feed their families.

Title I, a program that aids high-poverty schools, would remain flat. I teach at at a Title 1 school, and believe me, we need the money. My kids are lucky if they have a pencil, and I end up buying school supplies out of my own pocket. My old principal, who knows a thing or two about high-poverty education, was blunt: throwing money at schools is the solution, not the problem. Of course it has to be spent right, but leave that to people who know what they're doing, not politicians.

Of course, the Republican answer is school choice. Let students from struggling school districts get vouchers to attend private schools (even religious ones). All this does is remove money from public schools, and will lead to the ultimate destruction of public education in the inner cities. Instead, why not give that money to public schools, so they can better themselves?

The villain in all this is Betsy DeVos. It's a crap shoot on who Trump's worse cabinet appointment was--it's hard to top Ben Carson or Jeff Sessions--but DeVos was the one who made me, an educator, the angriest. She has never attended a public school, nor have her children. She got the job by taking Amway money (those annoying people who badger you to join their pyramid scheme) and donating it to Trump. She believes that public education is a "dead end," and that charter schools are the way to go.

I have nothing against charter schools. Las Vegas is full of them, and many of them are tuition-free. Parents of students who have discipline problems would be well to send their children to them, because the atmosphere is much tougher and the education more rigorous (I remember the fear of being sent to military school). But charter schools should be an alternative, not a replacement. For one thing, they have no higher a success rate than public schools. Second, if they don't accept federal money, they do not have to obey anti-discrimination laws. But DeVos wants to change that.

In recent questioning by Congresswoman Katherine Clark, one of my new heroes, DeVos indicated that states had control over who could go to the schools and who couldn't. Clark zeroed in and asked point-blank: could schools deny rights to LGBT students. DeVos, indirectly, indicated that they could. Clark, appalled, asked if a school could receive federal money and discriminate against blacks. DeVos, amazingly, gave the same answer, and it didn't seem to bother her a bit. I wish Clark would have gone a step further and asked if a school could keep out white children.

Caring about education involves caring about the greater good. I used to hear old people whine about school taxes when they didn't have kids in the system anymore--implying, "Fuck it, my kids are out, I've paid my dues." This is the Republican way of thinking--"If it doesn't affect me, I don't give a shit." Unfortunately, this short-sightedness leads to a withering of society. Our civilization depends on our people being well-educated. We don't all need to be geniuses, but it certainly helps when everyone has basic literacy levels, which we don't. My students, who are sixth-graders, come in on average with a third-grade reading level. They are already behind the eight ball, and Trump and DeVos are just going to sink them into the pocket.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A Teacher

Being a teacher now I pay special attention to movies about teachers. It used to be that teachers were depicted in TV and movies as heroes (Glenn Ford in The Blackboard Jungle, Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love, the TV series Lucas Tanner, Room 222, and The White Shadow) but for the last generation they've been depicted as losers and bunglers, or worse, sexual predators. In Hannah Fidell's A Teacher, it's the latter.

Of course, this is a woman teacher. Somehow we tend to give them more of a pass. A film about a male teacher having sex with a female student is automatically about a monster, as it should be. But female teachers and schoolboys are presented as more complicated, perhaps because most males would have loved to have had sex with their hot teacher.

In this film, Lindsay Burdge is the teacher. She's about thirty, single, and besotted with a senior boy (Will Brittain). We don't know how they got together--it would have been interesting to know who made the first move. They meet discreetly, because she's got a roommate and he has parents, so they fuck in her car, go to his brother's house when he's away, and then to his father's ranch. She can't get enough of him, even though she is fully aware of the career consequences should she be caught.

In many ways Brittain acts like the mature one, and I'm wondering if this isn't a bit sexist. Fidell wrote and directed the movie, but Burdge plays a character who is torn between not getting caught but also being unable to leave him alone. We wait the whole film (a slim 75 minutes) for the other shoe to drop, and it does, through her actions. We've gone on from feeling sorry about her and realize that she's a nut, while Brittain is never portrayed as anything but a hunk who makes eggs for her his older conquest after sex.

This is an extremely low-budget film, but much of it is shot in the dark. This was either for verisimilitude or to save on the electric bill. Nevertheless, I'd like to see people's faces in big scenes, not just hear them fumbling in the pitch black.

Fidell has made other films, and I'd be interested to see what their about. On an interesting side note, she is the daughter  of Linda Greenhouse, former Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times and one of my favorite writers.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Patience

I knew nothing about Patience before I bought it except that it was by Daniel Clowes, the creator of Ghost World, and it was named one of the best graphic novels of the year by Amazon. Turns out it's wild and fantastic, and while it travels well trod trails (time travel) it manages to be fresh and exciting.

Patience is the wife of Jack Barlow, a kind of loser who is reduced to handing out strip club leaflets on the street. She is pregnant, and he doesn't know how he's going to raise his family. He comes home to find her murdered. At first he's a suspect, but is let go when other DNA is found.

We then flash forward to the year 2029. Jack is old and bitter (and in 2029, there will be bright-blue women, something we can look forward to). A prostitute tells him about a guy who has invented a time travel formula. Jack must have it, as he wants to go back in time and save his baby.

That's the start, and there is all sorts of time travel paradoxes explored, some of which come close to Back to the Future and any number of sci-fi shows. But it's all driven by the desperation of Jack. He ends up four years before he met Patience, wondering if her psychotic ex-boyfriend is the killer. He watches as a "nice guy" goes out with her but lures into the woods, where his friends videotape him trying to get a blowjob. Jack, against his better judgment, beats them up. When he accidentally ends up in the year 1985, like the Terminator he decides he's going to kill the old boyfriend while he's a toddler.

The story is brisk and compelling. The artwork is not that great, at least not for this subject. Clowes is good at drawing the quotidian (after all, he wrote a book called David Boring). There are many splash pages of Jack having out of body experiences that don't do much and I kind of skipped over them.

What's great here is the story. I love a good time travel story, especially if all the loops are connected. When one goes back in time and interacts with someone, then that has always happened, right? This is sort of the rules of time travel, at least in works by Stephen King and the Star Trek canon.

I'd love to see this as a movie, too. I've already started casting in my head. Maybe Elisabeth Moss as Patience?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Two for the Road

Two for the Road is a 1967 film, directed by Stanley Donen, starring Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn as a long-married couple who are constantly at each other's throats. On a trip to the south of France we flashback to many other trips they made through the course of their relationship.

The film, written by Frederic Raphael, who also wrote Darling, was notable for its nonlinear structure, which was (and is still) pretty rare outside of art houses. The film goes from the present to when Finney and Hepburn first met--she was part of a choir group on holiday in France, he a young architecture student, and chicken pox threw them together on a hitchhiking trip that ended in a proposal of marriage.

We also seem them with a very stubborn MG, which ends up in flames, and another trip with his old American girlfriend, her fussy husband, and their impossible child. There's also a trip in which Hepburn has a dalliance with a French playboy.

Much of Two for the Road is darkly comic. We get some great cuts, such as when Finney tells Hepburn she's lucky she will never meet his old girlfriend--cut to them all in a station wagon together. Or when Finney, passed by a car, resolves to never pass a hitchhiker--cut to, well you know.

But the problem with the film is that this wears thin. I started losing interest in the couple halfway through, because I realized that the end would be them staying together (a more honest ending would have had them breaking up, because they were so unsuitable for each other). Finney, in particular, plays an unpleasant character (he creates a stink about room service being late and gets them kicked out of a hotel).

The best sequences are with the Americans, played by Eleanor Bron and William Daniels, playing his specialty--the uptight guy who calculates expenses. They have a spoiled rotten daughter, due perhaps to them observing the rules of Dr. Spock. Bron tells Hepburn that she needs to woo the child, while Daniels tells her that she resents their daughter because she wants one of her own. It's a nice send-up of the new way parents were raising their children, when a good spanking would have done the trick.

I don't know that Hepburn ever gave a bad performance, and she's lovely here, but deserving of a better guy than Finney or the French guy.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ty Segall

Although I had never heard of him before, the name Ty Segall popped up in a couple of different places that I frequent, so I took a chance on his self-titled album (the second in his career--why can't he come up with a title?). It's very good, but if you had told me it was recorded in 1968, I would have believed you.

Segall, who vocally sounds a great deal like Marc Bolan of T-Rex, has a thing for 60s music, veering into psychedelia and flower power (you can't get much psychedelic than a song called "Orange Color Queen"). The songs are poppy and fresh, and may make you think of fur vests and platform boots, but they're also well produced and pleasing to the ear.

Segall even packages the CD likes it a vinyl record, with the lyrics on the back and "sides" (presumably this is exactly how the vinyl edition is package). He has nine songs, including one massive ten-minute epic in the middle, with the inscrutable title "Warm Hands (Freedom Returned)."

The songs vary from the harder rock sound of "The Only One" to the trippy "Thank You Mr. K" to the Donovan-flavored folk-rock of "Take Care (To Comb  Your Hair)." This song, which is very catchy, also has a lyric that sounds as if it were written under the influence:

"Take care to brush your long hair
When you can't brush it any longer
It may just disappear."

The track, "Papers," may be the first song I've ever heard about office supplies:

"But my papers they depend on tape
I stuck them to the wall
Yes the paper depend on tape
So they do not fall"

The makers of Scotch tape may just have a jingle.

I enjoyed this record for no other reason that it's nice to hear someone still making this kind of throwback sound. I may just check out other releases by Ty Segall.


Sunday, May 21, 2017

Alien: Covenant

In the first moments of Alien: Covenant, I had a sinking feeling. I saw Prometheus, as I've seen all of the Alien films, but I couldn't remember anything about it except that the fuel was plotted by scientists acting stupidly. But then the characters of Covenant started filling me in. Fear not if you haven't seen Prometheus, they will explain it all to you.

Once I got that out of the way, I hunkered down for a very scary thrill ride, even if it requires the use of the "idiot plot" and very old and moldy horror-film cliches (any character than has to go off on their own but "will be right back" is goner). Again, we have trained people, on an uncharted planet, seeing something they don't recognize, and tapping it just to see what happens. We also have characters trusting androids who are acting suspiciously like Bond villains.

But aside from all that, Alien: Covenant is gruesome fun. Ridley Scott is the director (as we was for the original Alien, now 38 years old, and Prometheus) and it forms a bridge between those two films (although if the box office is good enough, maybe they can wedge another film in there). A crew of fifteen is on a colonization mission, carrying 2,000 people to an Earth-like planet. They are in suspended animation (we see a lot of films like this, including the recent Passengers, and I have to wonder, why doesn't their hair grow while they are asleep?) but are awoken early due to a stellar flare. The captain, James Franco, is incinerated in his pod, so Billy Crudup takes command.

On a spacewalk, another crew member (Danny McBride) gets a rogue signal of someone singing a John Denver song. They track the origin to another planet that meets qualification for habitation. Crudup decides that instead of traveling another seven years to their original destination, they will go there and check it out. Katherine Waterston, second in command, thinks is a bad idea. Lesson: listen to Katherine Waterston.

This planet turns out to be the Prometheus planet. If you remember that film, only the android David (Michael Fassbender) "survived." He's still there, having reattached his head. I'll leave what he's up to for your surprise. The Covenant crew also has an android who is also played by Michael Fassbender, Walter (apparently Wayland Industries, the corporation behind all of this, liked Fassbender's face so much they made many more). This involves neat scenes where Fassbender acts with himself.

Anyhoo, suffice it to say that the planet is thick with the H. R. Giger-created aliens, which I see are referred to as xenomorphs, and they wreak havoc, as one by one the crew are killed off in horrible ways. These films have become a kind of And Then There Were None game, guessing who will live and who will die, That's fun, in a dumb kind of way. In addition to the idiot plot, there is a twist at the end that I saw way ahead of time, and I'm sure anyone who has ever seen a movie can figure out (but of course, the crew can't). It helps if you know your romantic poets.

So there is some eye-rolling involved with Alien: Covenant but also some really good scares and a nice sense of dread that permeates the film. A smarter script would have made this one of the best of the series.