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Sunday, January 21, 2018

Call Me By Your Name

When I think back on Call Me By Your Name years from now, I think the thing that will stick with me is that everyone should have a house in northern Italy. As directed by Luco Guadagnino and photographed by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, summers there are idyllic. An epilogue showing the same house as if it were in a snow globe is equally appealing.

That's the travel porn aspect of Call Be Your Name, which is a "coming of age" story about a teenage boy and an older grad student finding love one summer. That's lovely and all, but it's also kind of wan. That they are two men makes it a bit radical, but not as much as it would have thirty-four years ago, in 1983, when the film is set. There is so much lounging in this film that it may want you to take a nap.

Timothee Chalamet is Elio, a seventeen-year-old son of an archeology professor and his Italian wife. Every summer the professor gives a residency to a student to help him with his paperwork (it's odd that he chooses students he does not know--I'm not sure where the professor teaches). This summer the assistant comes in the big, blond form of Armie Hammer. He is self-assured, and at first Chalamet finds him arrogant, particularly in his use of the word "later" as a goodbye. But eventually they grow closer and closer, and Chalamet is sexually attracted to him. Hammer resists, but finally they spend a night together.

The film, I think, is about young love and the sadness involved when it has to end. There have been a lot of films like this about heterosexual love, such as The Summer of '42. But I wonder if this is really a "gay film," as the two characters may not actually be gay, or even bisexual. Chalamet, during the same summer, is losing his virginity to a local girl (Esther Garrel, the kind of girl every guy would love to lose his virginity to), so in some respects this is his awesome summer. Hammer has conquered the heart of another local girl, but we're not sure if he consummates this relationship. In any event, the inclusion of references and pictures of Greek statuary suggests that the two may have a man-man relationship in the manner of the ancient Greeks. Pederasty was an acceptable form of social relationship, and sexual orientation was not an identifier. It was acceptable for two men to have a relationship without any of the stigma that the modern West has attached to it.

In any event, Call Be Your Name is a sweet love story but hardly a great one. The film moves at a very leisurely pace. It seems nobody ever has anything to do (Hammer is hardly ever shown working, so I'm not exactly sure why he is there). They bicycle into town, go swimming, and do a lot of reading. This is what it was like for teenagers before texting.

Call Be Your Name is well acted. I've never seen Homeland, so I had no idea who Chalamet was (he did have a supporting role in Lady Bird) but he's great, perfectly capturing what it's like to be seventeen and horny, all limbs and hair. There's a scene in the film that will do for peaches what American Pie did for apple pie, and Chalamet handles the eroticism and the shame perfectly. Hammer kind of takes charge of the film when he arrives, and is dashing, a word you don't hear much anymore. The way he gets off his bicycle reminds me how cowboy actors used to get off their horses--you can look manly doing that or not, and Hammer is definitely manly.

Michael Stuhlbarg, who may well be in three of the Best Picture nominees this year (the iffy one is The Post, the slam dunk is The Shape of Water, and this one is in the middle) plays the professor as a kind of Jewish mother (he is more enthusiastic about good news at the end of the film than his wife, and he says "Happy Hanukkah!" one too many times). But he nails a speech at the end when he reveals what he knows about his son's relationship with Hammer, and how he wishes he had that kind of relationship when he was young.

With so much idiocy in the world, I enjoy films with intelligent people. There's a wonderful scene when a statue by Praxiteles is pulled out of a lake, and the excitement of the archaeologists is catching. There is also a dizzying conversation around the etymology of the word apricot, with words being batted around like shuttlecocks.

I give Call Me By Your Name a mild thumbs up. I didn't hate it, but I wouldn't be interested in seeing it again, except for the images of Italy.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Trip to Spain

I love Michael Winterbottom's Trip movies, but it's conditional: as long as it's just Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan riffing, it's hysterically funny. I would love to invite these guys over for dinner every night. But when they add plot to movies, as if they were trying to make them meet the requirements of drama, they weigh the thing down. Guys in mid-life crisis are funny, but not when they have to face depressing news.

Coogan and Brydon are in Spain this time, both writing restaurant reviews. Brydon has a new baby, so is eager to get out of the house. Coogan intends to meet his son, Joe, and is back in a relationship with a woman, but the catch is she married someone else.

There is some travel and food porn going on here. Spain looks absolutely gorgeous (as Elton John sang, "Daniel says it's the best place he's ever been"). Each day the men have a fantastic lunch, stay the night in hotels that used to be castles, and improv their way through meals. Mostly they like to do impressions. They have some new ones this time, as well as old favorites like Roger Moore and Michael Caine (they love to say a line from Get Carter: "She was only fifteen years old.") Mick Jagger is mimicked, doing Shakespeare. David Bowie is conjured wondering whether to follow Brydon on Twitter or not. There's an extensive dream sequence with Brydon as Marlon Brando as Torquemada. And there's Anthony Hopkins playing Picasso. Each thinks their impersonation is better.

This is comedy gold. They also make up a scene in which Brydon tries to get a ride on a white water raft trip even though he's too old. Brydon also hectors Coogan with his Roger Moore impersonation while Coogan is trying to explain the magnificence of the Moors (Moore, Moor, get it?)

It's interesting what they include that's real as opposed to fictional. All the family stuff is fictional--Coogan has no son--but they do include real stuff, like Coogan getting Oscar nominations for Philomena. He's writing a new film, about a man looking for his lost daughter. Brydon notes this follows a movie about a woman looking for her son. He suggest the next movie could be about a man looking for his car.

Brydon is not a star in the U.S., except for these films. One of the threads of the film is Coogan learning that his agent has left the agency, but has not asked him along to his new place. That agent ends up calling Brydon and telling him he could be the new Ricky Gervais. But he has no interest in doing work in L.A., while Coogan desperately hungers for American acceptance.

The film uses "Windmills of My Mind" as a sort of theme song, which ties into Don Quixote, who is also mentioned a good deal in the film (the two are dressed up as Quixote and Sancho Panza for a photo shoot).

Though these two are playing fictional versions of themselves, it's interesting to see how their characters are formed. Coogan is a mass of anxiety and admits that he can be cruel. Brydon is completely easy going. They often don't seem to like each other, and needle each other mercilessly. Brydon asks Coogan if he would so Shakespeare. "I've always wanted to play Hamlet," Coogan answers. "That ship has sailed," Brydon tells him. "Olivier played him when he was 42," Coogan retorts. "Olivier was a better actor," Brydon points out. "A different actor," Coogan offers. Yet their bond seems unbreakable. When they part, Brydon says, "I'll see you in another country." Probably France, or maybe Greece. We can be sure there's another film because this one actually ends in a cliff-hanger. I can't wait.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Uberman

For those following my life story on this blog, you know that I ended the teaching experiment. I have to make some money, so I decided to try rideshare driving. I should have done this long ago, as I kind of love it. I'm working for Uber, since I figure this is the most popular one, despite their use of an Aryan's favorite word as their name.

Uber, if you don't know, and I really didn't until three weeks ago, is like a taxi service, except it's all cashless and riders arrange rides through their phones. Drivers, using their phones, are contacted (the closest driver is chosen) and they go to pick the person up, driving them where they want to go. Simple.

I live in Las Vegas, which may be the perfect Uber city, as there are so many tourists and so many people without cars (that also fits New York City, but I think driving an Uber there would be harrowing). I get all sorts of people, but the most common are the tourist going from their hotel to an attraction/restaurant, tourist going from hotel to the airport, and Vegas resident going to and from work (also Vegas residents going to the Strip, but not that many). I have so far worked three weeks and made over 150 trips, and I can only say that a few were unpleasant, but not overly so.

Here's the great things about Uber: you make your own hours, you don't need to deliver anything, and there is no interaction with a boss (I will be notified of my ratings, etc. but there is no personal supervision). So, this is better than delivering pizzas. I can also wear what I want, not those dorky pizza chain shirts and hats.

What I really like about Uber is that it becomes a sort of game. Many rides take me to different parts of the city (some are only a few blocks). So each ride leads to the next. I typically start at my apartment, and that rider may take me to Henderson, or to UNLV, or the Strip. I then pick up somewhere near there, and so on. The other day I went from one corner of the valley to the other. Tonight I went as far north as one can go. You don't know where the rider is going until they get in the car. Usually I hope for long rides, as they earn more money and there's less worrying about the next ride.

When I started, I was a bit flummoxed by some things. The only real aggravation is finding people. Uber is keyed to UPS (a guy told me today he took a cab and the cabbie got lost--I would have thought they'd all be equipped with GPS by now) and usually it's accurate, but sometimes goes wacky, and will take me around and around until I find where the person is (the app enables you to contact that person without knowing their phone number). Hotels on the strip have different places for pickup than cabs or limos, and sometimes finding them is like being a rat in a maze. For a while I didn't want to pick people up on the strip, but now I feel comfortable doing it.

I usually drive during the day, so I may be missing out. I usually can get $100 a day in about six-seven hours. But I've heard that driving from midnight to five AM can be lucrative, as the drunks are stumbling home and can give big tips. Tipping is not suggested, but I have gotten a few twenty dollar tips. One couple, already tipsy, tipped me to stop at a liquor store.

I've had a few of the things you'd expect in Vegas: women in for birthday parties (no bachelorettes yet), guys going to or from strip clubs (but I haven't picked up a stripper to take her home, which I'd love to do), and a car full of very drunk prison guards blowing off steam. Some people are chatty, others are as silent as the grave.

My most annoying fare were two women, though I did make good money off them. I drove them all the way across town to a salon, but it was closed. They changed their location to a marijuana dispensary, where I waited about twenty minutes while one bought dope. Then they changed their destination to a Wal-Mart, but the girl who bought the dope was carsick and threw up (at least she did it outside the car). I finally got rid of them after about an hour of driving them, and went to have lunch right near when I dropped them off. When I got back to the car, my first trip was--guess who? Those two again, having finished their shopping at Wal-Mart. The sick one wasn't there, she was in the restroom, so again I waited. Then she wanted to stop for cigarettes. I hope I never see them again.

I've been reading about some of the complaints about Uber, such as drivers sexually assaulting passengers (the only requirement to drive for them is to be over 18, a licensed driver, and passing a background check). This is in addition to the ire it has inspired cab drivers, who are not surprisingly angry about having new competition. It's turned violent in some countries. But geez, Uber has just built a better mousetrap. The pricing is upfront, and I would imagine that it's a nicer experience than some smelly old cab.

This is really a perfect part-time job for me. I'm pretty sedentary, so sitting in a car all day does not bother me. I can either read or listen to the radio when I'm between rides, and the one thing I was worried about, that I'm letting strangers into my car, has not been a problem. I've never felt in danger or gotten into a shouting match or anything like that. People have been nice.

I've done it every day now, and it almost goes the same way. I stress that I'm not getting rides (sometimes a half hour or more may go by without a nibble) but then they start coming and I'll get some long rides and I've made my self-imposed quota. I can still sleep in and have time for some recreation, which for me is watching movies.

I never knew how popular Uber was. It's been around for eight years, and now is like a major thing. The word has become a part of the language ("I'll just grab an Uber," has replaced "Call me a cab"). Hopefully writing this has not jinxed me.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Alphaville

Watching Cranberries videos, the one for "Linger" is shot in the style of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville. It's one of the key Godard films I hadn't seen, so I took care of that last night.

As usual with Godard, the concept is more interesting than the execution. He mashes two genres: film noir and science fiction. Eddie Constantine, an actor who had become a star in Europe playing a secret agent called Lemmy Caution, plays that role here, trapped in the manner of American noir heroes: hard-boiled, a cigarette frequently dangling from his lip, wearing a fedora and trench coat. It's as if a director had used Humphrey Bogart to play Philip Marlowe in a sci-fi film.

But the sci-fi angle is oblique. Alphaville is a city run by a computer, who speaks in a croaking voice that sounds as if it's on a respirator (I wonder if George Lucas remembered this when he created Darth Vader?). Emotions and original thought have been eliminated, along with poetry and art. Citizens are not to ask "why?" but only say "because." Those who express emotions, such as weeping for a dead wife, are considered illogical and executed (shot standing on a diving board, their bodies retrieved by synchronized swimmers).

Constantine comes from the "outer countries," where love and conscience are still allowed. Though there is no love in Alphaville, there is sex. When he checks into his hotel, he is escorted by a "Level 3 Seductress," who offers to share a bath with him. I'll admit that feature would get me to a hotel chain.

The plot is a little fuzzy--Godard was never much interested in plot--but it appears Constantine was looking for a scientist (Akim Tamiroff, looking very out of shape) and then to dispose of the creator of the computer, Professor Von Braun (a nod to rocket science Werner Von Braun). The latter's picture is on the walls everywhere, like a Big Brother (there are several connections with 1984) and his daughter, Anna Karina, both assists and bedevils Constantine. He, of course, falls in love with her, even though she does not know what the word "love" means.

Though science fiction, the film is set in the present (1965 is when the film was released), as Constantine refers to himself as a veteran of Guadalcanal. There are no futuristic sets--it was all shot in Paris, though some of the buildings were modern architecture, full of cube shapes and glass. The photography is the chiaroscuro of noir--we even get the old swinging, naked light bulb effect.

Alphaville can be enjoyed in a meta way, seeing where Godard got his ideas (there are references to Borges and Celine, and other writers), plus the amusing use of cliches from private eye films. Constantine has a showdown with the computer, in a precursor to HAL 9000--Constantine trips it up with a poetic riddle.

Even though this film is weird (there are frequent jump cuts, and insertion of random images, along with scientific formul's such as E=MC2, Alphaville is the most accessible Godard film I've seen. If you've never seen a Godard, this might be a good place to start.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Cranberries

I was very saddened to hear of the passing of Dolores O'Riordan, only 46, best known as the lead singer of The Cranberries. Her cause of death is still unknown, but she was open about being bipolar and suffering from depression, so we can jump to some conclusions.

I hadn't thought much of The Cranberries these past years, and as I did some research I saw that they existed long past their peak, putting out seven albums, one as recently as last year, and that O'Riordan released two solo albums. But it is mostly their first three albums, released within a four-year span in the '90s, that they are best remembered for.

O'Riordan, who would write most of their material, was not part of the original band. It was founded by the Hogan brothers, Mike and Noel. When the lead singer quit, they put an ad in the paper for a lead singer, and O'Riordan answered it. She wrote the song "Linger," and they hired her. However, as much as that song is now an icon of the period, it didn't do much until MTV discovered it. That song, as well as "Dreams," established the group as a kind of mixture of jangle-pop, Celtic rock, and what was called "alternative rock."

I've read a lot of tributes to O'Riordan the past few days, many from girls who were teenagers and were caught up in O'Riordan's mixture of fragility and toughness. I was a guy in my early 30s who was buying a lot of CDs, trying to remain current (I have hopelessly given that up). I'm pretty sure I have the first couple of Cranberries CDs somewhere, and a handful of songs have been going through my head the last couple of days.

"Linger" and "Dreams" are lilting, soothing songs, but "Linger" has an edge to it, about a girl who has been spurned.

"So why were you holding her hand?
Is that the way we stand?
Were you lying all the time?
Was it just a game to you?
But I'm in so deep
You know I'm such a fool for you
You've got me wrapped around your finger
Do you have to let it linger?"

O'Riordan's voice has long been compared to her fellow Irish singer, Sinead O'Connor (who is only four years older), full of banshee-like yodeling. In the middle eight of "Dreams" she lets loose with some lovely vocalizing. Her voice is like her looks--both fragile and tough. The song I first thought of when I heard of her death was "Zombie," written in response to an IRA bomb that killed two English children.

"Another head hangs lowly
Child is slowly taken
And the violence, caused such silence
Who are we mistaken?"

When the band hits the chorus, O'Riordan draws out the long E sound of the word zombie like a woman possessed, giving the song a power that still resonates. As she ways in the song, "It's the same old theme, since 1916."

The Cranberries were very much part of the MTV of the '90s. I used to tape (it started at midnight on Sundays, and I worked) 120 Minutes, which showed "alternative" videos. As I peruse their stuff on YouTube, they made a lot of videos to songs I don't remember. One that I had forgotten but quickly remembered was "Salvation," which is a straight-ahead rocker that is anti-drug.

"To all the kids with heroin eyes
 Don't do it, don't do it
 'Cause it's not, not what it seems"

The video includes a clown with spikes coming out of his head.

I went to my share of concerts back then, but never got around to seeing The Cranberries live, which I regret. I've watched a few live versions of them doing "Zombie," and O'Riordan knows how to hold an audience in the palm of her hand. I think the best version is from Saturday Night Live.

I've been expecting, for the last few years, the news of Sinead O'Connor dying, given her outbursts on social media, but O'Riordan leaves first, found in hotel bathroom. The only solace we have is the recordings still exist. Rest in peace.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction

After retiring a couple of years, David Letterman is back on television, er, well, on my television, when I stream My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. Letterman jokes that he needed to get out of the house, which is probably not far off the mark, but what I think he really wanted to do was something more serious than a late-night talk show.

In the first of six episodes, Letterman interviewed Barack Obama in his first television (or the equivalent) interview since leaving office. The two were very chummy during Obama's presidency, so Letterman scored the coup of getting him for his new show. Of course, Letterman admires Obama about as much as Sean Hannity loves Trump, so this was a very cozy affair.

Letterman is a terrific interviewer, but he's no Mike Wallace. There were no controversial questions about drones or gay marriage, the questions were mostly about Obama's life since leaving office (the first day he slept in), his wife, and his kids. There was no policy talk at all, and the only time things were serious was when Obama discussed how the democracy has been endangered by people living in bubbles of information. "The people who watch Fox News are on a different planet than those who listen to NPR," Obama said, which is surely true.

Letterman, having no fucks left to give, is sporting what Obama called a "Biblical" beard ("Do you have a staff?" he joked) and is as self-deprecating as ever, telling a story about how Malia Obama zinged him at a White House dinner, and almost tearily stating that he has been nothing but lucky in his life.

In addition to Obama, Letterman had an interview with John Lewis, civil rights hero and congressman, walking across the Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where Lewis was almost killed on the march to Montgomery. Lewis is always an eloquent man, and Letterman does not kid around.

There are five more episodes, with guest ranging from Malala Yousafzai to Howard Stern. I'm sure I'll tune in for all of them, because I could watch David Letterman do almost anything (and I did--like dropping things from a five-story building). And, as always, Obama, with his wit and charm, makes me miss him all the more. If there was anyone I would think about letting be king, it would be him.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Molly's Game

If you knew nothing about Molly's Game going in but knew the work of Aaron Sorkin, you'd put two and two together pretty soon and realize it had his fingerprints all over it. That's mostly a good thing--nobody writes dialogue like Sorkin, he must be paid by the word--though he can edge into sanctimony. Molly's Game is mostly free of that--no President Bartlet monologues outlining the progressive viewpoint--and has some terrific acting.

Jessica Chastain, one of our best actors right now, stars as Molly Bloom. For about the first five to ten minutes of the movie, or so it seemed, she contributes voiceover on who she is, a former skiing champion who is injured badly in a fall, who endured an overbearing father (Kevin Costner), and ended up rich running poker games. Some screenwriting books will tell you not to use voiceover, but Sorkin either did not read or ignored those books.

Molly's Game is Sorkin's directorial debut, and he has the same flair for that as he does for writing. This is a very busy film, requiring some deal of attention (there is no real spot to go to the bathroom, and it's a long movie), with all sorts of graphics showing poker hands and how a skier prepares. It's sometimes dizzyingly brilliant, if not tiring.

Chastain's Molly (who is a real person) gets a job with an obnoxious realtor (Jeremy Strong) who has a weekly poker game with high rollers (one of them is only known as Player X, played by Michael Cera, who is supposed to a composite of movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Toby Maguire. Which one said, "I like to destroy people?" Maguire, right?). Chastain is smart, smarter than most of them, and ends up stealing the players for her own game. It's all perfectly legal, as she takes no cut of the winnings, only buy-ins and tips. But she gets arrested anyway, and hires Idris Elba as her lawyer, who accepts the case reluctantly.

Sorkin must really love depositions (The Social Network had two) as there is one here, plus a lot of other legalese. But at its heart Molly's Game is the story of a woman with daddy issues. A scene late in the film, when she and Costner have it out on a park bench, is sharply written and tremendously acted. I kind of like what Costner has done with his career--he's taking roles that befit his age (62) and are not necessarily the lead. When he pops in one (I had no idea he was in this) he's a pleasure to watch. Other aging stars could follow his example.

But this is Chastain's show. She is both regal and vulnerable, a woman in the world of rich and powerful men who is ready to break. It's a crowded field for Oscar contenders this year; it will be interesting to see if Chastain can nudge her way in.