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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Patton Oswalt

The Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album went to Patton Oswalt for Talking for Clapping. The album itself doesn't seem to be available in CD form, but the performance was also taped for Netflix, which now seems to have replaced HBO as the go to place for comedy shows.

Oswalt is a versatile performer--an actor (he was the voice of Remy in Ratatouille) and is now filling in as TV's Son of TV's Frank on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But he's been doing stand-up for almost thirty years. I found him amusing if not hilarious.

Dressing heavily in what looks like a blue serge suit over several layers (and he did a lot of sweating, which he made jokes about), the portly Oswalt did not tell one-liners, but instead illustrated points by telling stories. Watching him was kind of chatting with him at a party, the guy who tells great stories and collects a group. Some of his stories have no particular point--he describes the worst set of his life, when he tried to MC a show with the stomach flu but a heckler through him off his game by calling him a faggot and he ended up shitting his pants on stage.

His set is also fairly political. He wonders why anyone would be against gay marriage or transgender people, but he's preaching to the choir. He makes other observations, such as on cell phone ringtones, how radio jingles remain in his head years later but he can't remember his CPR training, and parenting--did you know that boys are different than girls? Much of this is not terribly original and he overkills the punchline. Sometimes I liked throwaway lines that weren't necessarily funny but were great set-ups, like "I went to the DMV and the post office on the same day." He really didn't have to say anything after that, because that sounds so horribly funny. The follow-up didn't meet the promise of the premise.

Probably his best bit was the closer, a story about a kid's birthday party and a strange birthday clown, who came out of the woods and was dressed in very little clown apparel. Oswalt tells it well, and the last line of his show is "a clown with a knife in his chest."

Oswalt comes across as a great guy, rather than the typical neurotic comedian. But his stuff needs to be tightened. I smiled a lot, but I never laughed out loud.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Le Cercle Rouge

Here we have another crime movie from Jean-Pierre Melville, from 1970 and titled Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle). It ranks right up there with The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi as one of the great heist films.

The title refers to an epigraph that is a quote from the Buddha, but Melville made it up. The idea is that when two strangers meet, they meet in a red circle, the place they were destined to meet. In the case of the film, we are talking about two criminals.

First we see a car trying to make a train. It runs a red light--are these all crooks? No, when they get on the train we see one man (Gian Maria Volente) handcuffed to another (Andre Bourvil). The latter is a police detective, escorting his prisoner to jail.

The other man we meet is Alain Delon, who is getting out of prison. But before he goes a guard has an offer of a job for him--that will be the heist. Delon immediately heads to a former associate of his, some ranking member of the syndicate (who also has stolen his girlfriend) and cleans out his safe. He has goons after him, which he kills, so he works up some huger when he stops to grab a bite at a grill.

Volente, the man on the train, manages to escape through a broken window (I'm afraid the windows would have been too strong today, but then there's no movie). Bourvil chases him, but he gets away. Volente ends up climbing into the trunk of a car belong to, wait for it, Delon.

Delon brings Volente into the job and the latter tells him about an ex-cop who is he marksman they need. He's Yves Montand, who we first see in alcoholic delirium. He straightens himself up and joins the team.

The job is a jewelry store, and the heist itself owes a great debt to Rafifi, as the men carry it out in about a thirty-minute scene with no dialogue. But it turns out that the gangster Delon stole from is still very angry.

Le Cercle Rouge is now my favorite Melville film (it seems that every new one I see takes that honor). I love heist films, and this one is great. Montand is needed because a button behind locked but chain doors needs to be pressed, so he shoots it. But the goods have to be fenced (always a big problem in heist movies--see The Asphalt Jungle) and things go awry.

The film was shot in color but when I think of it now I see it in black and white. There are no bright colors and, interestingly, given the title, very few instances of red. Just a few billiard balls (shot from above) and at the end a rose, which sort of predicts death the way oranges predict it in Coppola's Godfather films. It is also full of American noir details, such as men in fedoras and trenchcoats.

The acting is all tough-guy solid (this is a film full of testosterone) and even a little poignant, as Montand doesn't even wants his cut--he's just grateful to be useful.

Le Cercle Rouge is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

A Sailor's Guide to Earth

The Grammy for Best Country Album went to Sturgill Simpson for A Sailor's Guide to Earth, which I found unremarkable. It's not a terrible record, but after listening to it in the car for a week (since it's short I probably heard it 20 times) only a few songs stuck with me. Ordinarily, I might chalk this up to my general disdain for country music, but this album really isn't all that country.

For one thing, the album's theme, as indicated by its title, is the sea. Not too many guys with cowboy hats and pickup trucks have boats. There's some steel guitar in some of the songs and Simpson's voice has an Appalachian twang but this isn't the kind of music that used to played on Hee-Haw.

That being said, I'd be all in for an intelligent album about sailors and the sea, but this one didn't speak to me. As I mentioned, I only liked two songs, and one is cover of Nirvana's "In Bloom," which is very well done.

The other is the opening track, which gave me hope when I first started listening to it. It's called "Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)" and is about the birth of a man's first child:

"Hello, my son
Welcome to Earth
You may not be my last
But you'll always be my first.
Wish I'd done this ten years ago
But how could I know that the answer would be so easy?"

This might make father's cry as much as "Cat's in the Cradle."

One of these days I'm determined to like country music that doesn't involve Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, but my search continues.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Cop Car

There's an interesting trend in Hollywood to hand over mega-budget films, usually of the comic book variety, to directors who have previously only made low budget independent films. This has worked--see Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman--but has also failed spectacularly, as with Josh Trank and a reboot of Fantastic Four. I see that Trank is attached to another film, but certainly will never be given the keys to Dad's car again.

The recent Spider-Man: Homecoming was directed by Jon Watts, who had two minuscule films under his belt: a horror moved called Clown (which I hope to see soon) and Cop Car, a nifty little western noir. Cop Car is a very good small film, and I have to give credit to whomever at Sony or Columbia thought Watts would be able to handle the reboot of Marvel's greatest property.

Cop Car is about two boys, about ten or eleven, who have run away from home. They are in the middle of nowhere (I suspect it's Texas, but it's somewhere in the plains) when they find a sheriff's cruiser. It is empty. And in the logic that only ten-year-old boys could have, once they find the keys they take it for a joy ride.

Turns out the car belongs to the Sheriff, Kevin Bacon, who was busy burying a body he had in the trunk. He comes back to find his car gone, and he does some quick thinking to try to get his car back without anyone else in the force knowing about it, because I imagine he would have a lot of explaining to do.

What's great about Cop Car is what the movie doesn't tell us, such as why the boys are running away (just a few clues), and why Bacon killed the man. There will be a further surprise in the trunk that the boys find to ratchet up the film a few degrees, and this only makes the film more wacky and pleasurable.

Bacon, one of our consummate unsung actors, is terrific as a guy caught between a rock and a hard place. He sports a great porn-stache and you can always see him thinking, but nothing he does is predictable. It was written by Watts and Christopher Ford.

The actors playing the two boys are very good, and seem like typical boys (the movie begins with them thinking of all the swear words they and eating a Slim Jim). They are James Freedson-Jackson as the more adventurous of the two, and Hays Wellford as the follower.

I think, when it comes to it, that studios want directors who can tell stories. The special effects and CGI and all that other stuff can be handled by other people. Just tell a good story. Cop Car is a great story.

Friday, July 21, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

This century's Planet of the Apes trilogy is unique among film franchises--each film is better than the last. After an excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which followed a so-so Rise of the Planet of the Apes, War of the Planet of Apes is top-notch, a thrilling summer movie that is also extremely though-provoking.

Picking up from where Dawn ended, Koba is dead and Caesar (Andy Serkis) wants peace. If humans will leave the apes alone in the forest, he is content. But that is not to be. Scouts, including Caesar's son Rocket, talk of an area beyond the forest and into the desert where they could relocate. But a force of humans, led by the mysterious Colonel (Woody Harrelson) attack, leaving Rocket and Caesar's wife Cornelia dead.

Caesar now wants revenge, and wants to go it alone, but three other apes, including Maurice, the thoughtful orangutan, come with him. Along the way they pick up a human child, who has lost the ability to speak (that will be important, but I will say no more now). They also find a chimp, who calls himself Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) who was in a zoo but has lived by himself a long time. He is comic relief, as he is clumsy and wears human clothes.

This film reminded me a of a lot of things. It reminded me of other movies, like Apocalypse Now (Harrelson brings some of Brando and some of Duvall), The Great Escape, and there's a shot of the heads of three apes poking over a rock ledge that took me right to the scene in the Wizard of Oz of Dorothy's three friends outside the Witch's castle. Given that some apes are crucified, there are also Biblical overtones.

The movie's themes are even broader. One of the aspects that is very disturbing are the "donkeys," apes that are working with the humans on the promise that they will be spared. This could make you think of black men who fought for the Confederacy (or Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen in Django Unchained). What would it take to make you fight against your own kind?

War of the Planet of the Apes is ably directed by Matthew Reeves, who handles full scale war scenes as well as intimate scenes. He is helped by the exquisite acting of Serkis, and also Karin Konoval as Maurice. The special effects and the acting combine to make it easy to see what these apes are thinking just by their facial expressions (Caesar is usually looking very intense and determined, and pissed off)/ I would have no trouble at all if Serkis is nominated for an acting award for his work--acting is acting.

My only quibble is there are a couple of coincidences at the end that lead to an otherwise satisfying close to the trilogy. You might find yourself wiping away a tear by the end.

War of the Planet of the Apes is first-class entertainment.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Bang the Drum Slowly

Robert De Niro has been all over the place lately. Now 73 years old, he has been showing up for panel discussions on important anniversaries of his films (last year it was the 40th for Taxi Driver, this year it was the 45th for The Godfather, though he was the only cast member on the panel who was not in it, he was only in The Godfather, Part II). He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama last year (that would not be a likely award from President Trump, whom De Niro said he wanted to punch in the face) and was this year’s recipient of The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award (and thus is on the cover of this month’s Film Comment). He has already won the AFI Life Achievement Award, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award. He has won two Academy Awards, with a total of seven nominations.

In the coming weeks I’ll be having my own retrospective of his career, as I haven’t had a chance to write about many of his films. The only major films I've covered are Taxi Driver and The Deerhunter, along with his recent David O. Russell renaissance of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy. So there's a lot to look at, including some films that I haven't seen.

This is my second time seeing Bang the Drum Slowly, which was De Niro's first major film, an adaptation of a novel by Mark Harris (which I read when I was about 12, I think after I saw the movie) about a dying baseball player, a catcher, and his relationship with a star pitcher. It was a well-received film, and earned an Oscar nomination for Vincent Gardenia as the team's blustery manager. But I think it hasn't aged well, and seems to be missing pieces of the plot. It's only 97 minutes long, but it could have used some extra scenes to provide more context.

De Niro is Bruce Pearson, a second- or even third-string catcher. When the film begins Henry Wiggen (called "Arthur" because he wrote a book--instead of "author") is driving with De Niro from the Mayo Clinic to De Niro's home in Georgia. He has Hodgkin's disease, but the two play it very close to the vest, not even telling his parents.

Pearson is a rube; not very smart, and he knows it, while Moriarty is a city slicker that wears purple suits and likes to obfuscate. For a baseball movie, there is a lot of talking. There's a long scene in which Moriarty negotiates his contract (to show hold old this movie is--1973--Moriarty is asking for $120,000 a year. I think Alex Rodriguez probably made that in one game). He takes less money, but insists that he and Pearson have to be a package--whether traded or sent down, they have to be together.

Then much of the movie is Gardenia trying to figure out what they were doing in Minnesota. Moriarty comes up with several creative lies, thinking that Gardenia will get rid of Pearson once he finds out. But actually, once the team learns, they all come together as a team, stop ragging Pearson, and win the World Series.

The book, as they do, has much more information, but I don't remember it. Why, for example, is Moriarty drawn to Pearson? Were they friends before his illness? I suppose the spine of the film is friendship, and that does come across, as Moriarty is true blue, but I didn't feel the film offered any great truths. Compare it to Brian's Song, which came out a few years earlier, about Gale Sayers' friendship with his dying teammate, Brian Piccolo, and see the difference. The latter film had grown men crying. Bang the Drum Slowly seems purposely unsentimental.

It was directed by John Hancock, and has that grainy look that a lot of '70s movies have. The colors are subdued and muddy--even Moriarty's purple suits are toned down. The baseball scenes seem authentic, although De Niro was much too slight to be a catcher, but he seems to have learned how to swing a bat. Though called the New York Mammoths in the film, the team is wearing the uniform of the Yankees, and the film was shot in Yankee and Shea Stadiums.

As for De Niro, he wouldn't play a part like this again. Once he made Mean Streets, he for years played aggressive, even psychotic characters. Bruce Pearson is a happy-go-lucky guy, and though he knows he's dying, he has only really one bad moment, when he tells Moriarty he's scared. But his comic timing is evident, particularly in a scene in which he's part of a team singing group, and tries to keep up with the dance steps. De Niro has said he's always been more confident with comedy.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Christina's World

Andrew Wyeth was born 100 years ago this month. The son of illustrator N.C. Wyeth (and the father of Jamie, another artist), he was one of the most famous and successful American artists of the twentieth century, yet his place in the academy is not secure, most probably due to his being a realist painter in an age of abstract art. Realism as a form of painting died out after the invention of the camera, which provided all the realism anyone would need.

Wyeth's most famous painting is Christina's World, painted in 1948. It is one of the most famous American paintings; I would venture to guess it's the most famous of the twentieth century, and right up there with "Whistler's Mother" or the portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart that adorns the one-dollar bill as the most famous of all American paintings.

It is realistic, but the story it tells is open to interpretation. The facts are these: the model is Anna Christina Olson, who lived in Cushing, Maine. Wyeth saw her crawling across the field from a window and was inspired to paint her. The house still stands, and you can tour it if you'd like.

Why was she crawling? If you look very closely at her hands you can see that she is crippled. Olson suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a polyneuropathy that affects the muscles and is similar to muscular dystrophy (it was once sub-classified as form of MD).

At first glance, without that knowledge, I see a woman stranded. Some people may like to go and lay in the grass, but even though we don't see her face there seems to be some peril in the picture. She is a long way from the house and barn, and there is no indication that anyone is there to help her. How did she get there? She is heading toward the house, with a body language that suggests, to me at least, desperation, as if something were chasing her, or as if she was terribly late for something.

It appears from the reality that Olson, given her affliction and getting used to it, crawled easily and for great distances, and perhaps she was just on a simple jaunt. But Wyeth has made her seem stopped in movement--she wants to move, but can't. To me, it's a terrifying painting, something of a horror story.

When the painting was first exhibited it didn't cause much stir, and was bought by the Museum of Modern Art for $1,800, where it still is today. I'd say it's value now it is considerably higher. It is frequently parodied--Google Christina's World parodies and you'll see some good and bad. My favorite is of Montgomery Burns in Christina's position (it hangs on his wall). Most recently, I've seen Chris Christie in a beach chair in that field.

I could look at this picture for hours, even though it is only a girl, a field, a house, and a barn. So much could be told from it.