“I’m Baaaaack”: lists, reading, blogging, and Halloween

I'm Back

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It’s been 10 months tomorrow since I last posted on this blog, though it seems much longer than that. These are trying times, indeed.

I came back to this web site partly because of a column I read in the New York Times’ Book Review last Sunday.  In it,  the writer “reviewed” the web pages of the authors whose books currently sit on the fiction best seller list.

The first, Mitch Albom’s, dealt with lists… the 15 best movies, the 10 best songs, etc. This was a bit coincidental as I was to begin teaching Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity the very next day, which is a novel founded on the idea of “best of…” lists.  Hornby’s lists are amusing and fun, from the 5 best Dustin Hoffman movies to the 5 best songs to play on a rainy Monday (depending on whether you want to lift your spirits or wallow in the gloom.)

And speaking of coincidences, one the last pieces I had posted last year was a piece on Jess Kidd’s wonderful novel Himself,  which I have just finished teaching a week earlier. (Perhaps the pile of 60-plus essays that I am carrying around to grade is really what’s driving me back to the blog. Procrastination is a great inspiration for doing things other than the tasks at hand. As one writer once said, “My house is never cleaner than when I am working on a novel.”)

Himself book cover

Himself by Jess Kidd

Anyway, let me reach out to any and all readers to find a copy of Himself. (It came out in paperback this summer.) It is a wonderful, magical, and darkly comic read.

But back to the NYT Book Review, the number two best seller’s blog tracked the number of profanities in his novels (compiled by his son) and number three’s blog focuses on houses–both real and fictional–and their architecture. The deal is that most publishers want their authors to have some on-line presence and this is what is presented.

And so I re-examined my own blog. At one time I was posting four times a week: a post on books, one on movies, one on music and one of commentary. But I can’t promise that anymore. Either, I am too disorganized or there are less hours in a day these days.  But, I am, once again, going to take working on my postings as a serious venture.

And so it is that after 10 months I decide to post again and on Halloween no less which is why I featured the frightening picture of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Halloween is undoubtedly the greatest holiday in my neighborhood for both young and old. For example, last year between 5:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., we gave out over 800 pieces of candy. Four and five of our neighbors sit together on the sidewalk, sharing wine and

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My treat for this night of tricks and treats.

beer and catering to a constant stream of children that parade by. (I have two bottles of Witching Hour red blend and my wife has a six-pack of pumpkin beer for the occasion.)

Some of the costumes are wonderful and clever and imaginative, and some are pretty lame, but everyone is happy.

After we run out of candy—although there are still many people walking by and many people handing out treats—we head up the street to another neighbor’s who is hosting his annual Halloween party. His own costume is often the talk of the neighborhood for the next few days. (i.e. Walter White in his briefs with a pistol in the waist band, Jack Torrance himself with a full door framed around his head, a priest dressed as Elvis.)

The party—and the entire night—is festive, but more importantly it is communal.

And god knows we certainly need that these days.

Movie Review: The Little Hours written and directed by Jeff Baena

little-hours-movie-poster-aubrey-plaza-jemima-kirke-alison-brie-dave-franco

poster for the 2017 film “The Little Hours”

Plague is the new black

“Oh my goodness,” the dean said, looking stricken. Her office shelves were filled mostly with books about the Black Death, her walls decorated with old looking-illustrations of people suffering from boils or lesions or being piled into wheelbarrows, dead. Laura had not thought any wall art was more insufferable.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

I guess the plague is in vogue this summer. The above mentioned dean in Nathan Hill’s The Nix rose to her position by “knowing everything there was to know about…literature written during the plague, about the plague.”

And Jeff Baena’s new film, The Little Hours, is based on Boccaccio’s Decamaron, a series of one hundred tales written in the early 1300s and told by ten characters who have left Florence to try to escape the Black Death that is ravaging the city.

Actually, Baena’s film is an amalgamation of just three of Boccaccio’s hundred tales.

On the third day of the Decamaron, the first story is about a man who feigns to be a mute and is hired as a gardener for a convent of nuns, many of whom rush “to lie with him.” The second story of the day is about a servant who sleeps with the wife of a king. When the king discovers the affair, he cuts the servant’s hair when he sleeps so he’ll recognize him in the light of day. The servant foils the king’s plans by cutting the hair of all his fellow servants.

These two tales are combined and make up the main plot of The Little Hours, with Dave Franco as the shorn servant who then becomes the “mute” gardener to escape from the angry nobleman. And the convent he lands in is a roiling and randy world populated by Sister Alessandra, Sister Ginerva , and Sister Fernanda (Alison Brie, Kate Micucci, and Aubrey Plaza respectively) and led by Father Tommasseo (John C. Reiley) and Sister Marea (Molly Shannon).

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Sister Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza) testing Massetto’s (Dave Franco) deafness

Towards the end of the Decameron, on the ninth day, there is a tale of an abbess who is roused from her bed, with the intention of catching a nun in bed with her lover. In the dark, however, instead of her veil, she puts on the pants of her own lover, which deflates much of her authority.

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This scene is nodded at towards the end of the film, and when Sister Marea (Molly Shannon) comes out of her cell to find out what is going on, she is indeed wearing her lover’s pants on her head. But there is whole lot more going on than merely a lovers’ tryst.

The Little Hours is broad in its comedy–much as Boccaccio and, later, Chaucer had presented. Primarily the presence of nuns who incongruously swear more lustily than Anthony Scaramucci and who are riddled with all kinds of lusts and desires provides the major thrust of the humor. But it seems slight and repetitive.

John C. Reilly as the priest who serves the convent is marvelous, and Fred Armisen’s turn as Bishop Bartolemeo towards the end of the film who must try to corral these wild colts into order is full of incredulous, eye-popping, double-takes. There are also amusing minor roles filled in by by Paul Reiser, Nick Offerman, Jemima Kirke and Lauren Weedman.

But the entire piece feels thin–almost like an extended SNL skit. And to be fair, after all, its intent is to capture only about 23% of Boccaccio’s masterpiece.

But–to its credit–The Little Hours has caused me to pull the Decameron off my shelf again.

Movie Review: Another Woman by Woody Allen–claiming a masterpiece

Poster for Woody Allen's 1988 film Another Woman

Poster for Woody Allen’s 1988 film Another Woman

In Woody Allen’s film Stardust Memories, a Martian invader gives Woody Allen’s character, Sandy Bates, the following advice: “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.”  At the time, one didn’t have to talk to aliens  to hear some people saying the same thing about Allen’s movies. They wanted funny, funnier, funniest.  Raised on Take the Money and a Run, Bananas, and Sleeper,  his fans wanted more of the sameantic, bumbling, wise-cracking Woody Allen.

And instead he created some dramatic masterpieces, which will long be remembered after Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.. has faded into irrelevance.

Another Woman appeared in 1988. In the eleven years between Annie Hall (1977) and Another Woman, Allen had written and directed eleven films (and starred in eight of them) Two years earlier in 1986, he had had great success–both critically and with the public–with Hannah and Sisters. 

However, there seemed to be a pattern with the public’s acceptance of these films at the time. Generally, fewer people went to his movies in which he did not act. (They needed their clown.) And the films in which he did not appear were usually his more serious work. Or at least, his “heavier” work. And thus, Another Woman failed to attract the audiences that most of his previous work had been garnering.

All of which is a shame, because Another Woman is a masterpiece.

Gena Rowlands in Another Woman

Gena Rowlands in Another Woman

Geena Rowlands plays Marion, chairman of the philosophy department, successful author, and a woman who believes she is better off not examining her own life and choices. (An odd choice in itself for a philosopher.) She is married to an eminent cardiologist and has a close relationship with his sixteen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He relationship with her brother, her father, and even with herself is not as close nor honest.

In order to write undisturbed, Marion rents an apartment. (New York cardiologists must do very well because Marion and his apartment is gorgeous, as is her “get-away” apartment where she writes. Apartment prices in NYC must have been quite cheaper in 1988 than they are today!)

The building has a quirk in the ventilation and unless she puts sofa cushions up against the ventilators, she can hear everything in the psychiatrist’s office next door.  Which she soon begins to do purposefully. Removing the cushions, sends Marion down a rabbit-hole, a path which she is not sure she wants to pursue.

She becomes obsessed with one of the psychiatrist’s patients, a frail, pregnant, unhappy woman named Hope (Mia Farrow). From what she says, Hope is certainly unhappy, quite insecure and perhaps, even, suicidal. After a while, Hope’s overheard questioning of the choices she has made in life, leads Marion on a journey of her own self-discovery. And it is revelatory.

That Woody Allen reveres and has been influenced by the great European film-makers, especially of Ingmar Bergman is well known. (Ten years earlier in 1978 Allen made Interiors, a particular homage to the films of Bergman.) Another Woman is again inspired by Bergman, particularly his film Wild Strawberries. There are similarities in plot–the main characters must examine the coldness with which they have lived their lives–and technique–there are similar surreal dream sequences and scenes where the main characters are able to enter the scenes of their childhood.

And yet what makes Another Woman a masterpiece is not the bows to Bergman that Allen deftly offered, but the extraordinary performance he had engendered in Gena Rowlands. In several very long takes, the camera focuses on Rowlands’ face at different times as she listens to the patients next door. There is more emotional revelation in those moments than most actors can depict in an entire movie.

In fact, this quiet intensity seems startling compared to the Oscar-nominated performances she gave for her director husband, John Cassavetes. In films such as A Woman Under the Influence and Gloria, Rowlands exploded her emotions onto the screen. For Woody Allen, there is a intense quietness to her acting, an interiority that she allows us to see. And which draws us in to her pain and her self-examination.

The title Another Woman can be though of as referencing various things: Marion is the “other woman” for whom her husband left his wife; there is “another woman” with whom her husband is now involved; Hope is “another woman” whose analysis seems to be applicable to Marion; she has spurned passion in the past for comfort and security, and now “another woman” is enjoying the spark of that zest for life; and Marion herself is, at the end of the film, “another woman” than what she had earlier believed.

The Martians in Stardust Memories might have wanted funnier jokes, but with Another Woman they couldn’t have wanted a better film.

Movie Review: Jules et Jim by Francois Truffaut

Poster for Jules et Jim

Poster for Jules et Jim

In many Woody Allen films, there is a scene where Allen’s characters enter a New York movie house to see an old film. In Annie Hall, it was Bergman’s Face to Face; in Manhattan Murder Mystery, it was Wilder’s Double Indemnity.

I have always envied that: going to a theater and watching a classic on the big screen. It doesn’t happen much where I am from.

Until recently, that is. One of the city’s major theaters began showing the newly mastered version of Carol Reed’s 1939 thriller The Third Man, and another theater was screening Truffaut’s Jules et Jim.  I saw The Third Man earlier in the summer (which, by the way, is the first film I ever recorded on VHS, a long time ago when the local PBS was airing classic films at midnight.)

This past weekend, I saw Jules et Jim for the first time.

Jeanne Moreau as

Jeanne Moreau as “Catherine” in Jules et Jim

Truffaut’s Jules et Jim is a primer for anyone wanting to understand the French Nouvelle Vague that blossomed in the 50s and 60s. The loose and fluid camera work, the montages, the freeze frames, the newsreels, the voice overs, the simple location sets (allowing for the breezy filming), these are the defining attributes of the New Wave, and they are used masterfully in this 1962 film.

And, as much as technical innovations defined the moment, so did the narratives. The films focused on youth, on iconoclastic characters outside the mainstream, and on ambiguity. One is never sure what to think at the end–and that is intentional.

Jules et Jim is basically the story of a love triangle. The film opens with a frenetic piece showing the carefree life of two friends, the French Jim and the Austrian, Jim. Jules is overly shy. Jim is a comfortable and adept womanizer.

The Love Triangle Jim, Catherine, and Jules (Serre, Moreau, and Werner)

Jim, Catherine, and Jules
(Serre, Moreau, and Werner)

Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) and Jim (Henri Serre) in Jules et Jim

Catherine and Jim
(Jeanne Moreau and Henri Serre)
in Jules et Jim

Their friendship is intense and true.

One day, another friend Albert introduces them to Catherine, a woman with a captivating smile and quirky personality.

When the normally shy Jules sees Catherine, he famously says to his playboy friend “Pas celle-là, Jim” (“Not this one, Jim”), asking that Jim does not use his charm to sweep this one away.

Jules (Oscar Werner) and Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) in ,i>Jules et Jim,/i.

Jules and Catherine
(Oscar Werner and Jeanne Moreau)
in Jules et Jim.

For this is the woman for him. And Jim, who is equally as attracted to her, acquiesces. The three have rollicking adventures together in the countryside, around Paris, and at the beach and they thoroughly enjoy each other’s company.

Soon after, Jules and Catherine marry, but then World War I breaks out. Jules and Jim find themselves in opposing armies and pray that they don’t kill each other.

But Truffaut focuses on more personal conflicts than the global cataclysm of World War I. After the war, Catherine is quite unhappy in her marriage and in her motherhood. She has several affairs, one of which is with Albert who originally introduced her to Jules and Jim and who now is recuperating in the village below. (There is a hint that her child is actually his and not Jules’)

When Jim comes to visit them, she seduces him (he is an easy seduction since he too is in love with her) and ultimately they plan to marry and have children. Jules is okay with this–he loves both Jim and Catherine– and the three live together in an odd but comfortable arrangement.

That the arrangement and the plans fail is the descending path of Truffaut’s narrative arc. How they fail–spectacularly–is the thrill of the movie (and which I won’t reveal here.) Nevertheless, I can say that Jeanne Moreau as Catherine is wonderful and is the anchor of the film. Oddly, a young Oscar Werner resembles a young William F. Buckley, though his shyness and awkwardness is painful to watch. And Henri Serre makes a charming partner–both for Jules and for Catherine.

*     *     *     *     *

Francois Truffaut

Francois Truffaut

In the first paragraph of this post, I mentioned Woody Allen’s films, Bergman’s films, Wilder’s films. It is largely because of Truffaut that we identify films in this way. Before he directed films, Truffaut was a writer–and then editor–for the famous Cahiers du cinema (“Notebooks on Cinema”), a seminal journal that helped bring film into the realm of serious study.  In the journal, Truffaut often argued his point that a director is the true author of the film, as much as a Picasso or a Hemingway is the creator of his work.

It is only fitting then that when discussing the classics of twentieth century cinema, the phrase “a Truffaut film” is a necessary component of the conversation.

Mother’s advice: “if you have nothing nice to say…”

motherson

I went to the movies on Monday afternoon to see a film that I had been wanting to see for the past month or so. But I left the theater greatly disappointed. And as I walked up 3rd street, I thought to myself, I am not even going to write about this one.

And I think I am right.

I am not a critic–of film, books or music–I simply enjoy these things. And I enjoy writing about them and sharing my enthusiasms about them. But, I don’t feel comfortable bad-mouthing the ones I don’t like. On Wednesday I posted a piece about a book I didn’t like and I feel more than a little discomforted about it.

In this vast “blogosphere” where everyone so easily can send out his or her opinions, I want to rein myself in. Of course, BAD ART exists–there are books that are dreadful, movies that are deadening, music that irks me, but they will find their own levels of acceptance, they will find their own audiences (or not) without my weighing in.

And besides, I don’t have the time to waste on negativity.

After all, all creativity is risk…risk of missing the mark, of being misunderstood, of being ripped apart. But one has to put it out there and let it find its own life. (As Woody Allen says, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”)

coffeeshopSo, I’m sitting in a shop having a coffee after the movie and am asked what I thought. “I didn’t like it,” I say, and I give my reasons, listen to counter-positions, discuss the pluses and minuses. This is good, this is what Art should engender–conversation, dialogue, thought, and, yes, even judgment.

But is there really a need for me to blast it on the internet? I’m not so sure, but I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong; I will point out inconsistencies in the things that I like, choices and perspectives I disagree with, differences and surprises that throw me, things I see as flaws or would have wished the artist had done differently.

But with things that I don’t like…?  Well, as my mother would say, “if I have NOTHING nice to say, I’m not going to say it.”

Movie Review: To Rome with Love, written and directed by Woody Allen

With an over-sized brace on my knee, a bottle of Vicodin in my pocket and a set of “just-a-bit-too-tall” crutches, I limped down to the corner, grabbed the 57 Bus on 4th street, and rode it to Walnut where I hobbled over to the theater to see Woody Allen’s latest film, To Rome with Love.

I used the word “hobble” intentionally because that was what Woody Allen seemed to have done with this collection of slight stories set in Rome, the eternal city. He took several disparate tales and hobbled them into some sort of unity– a whimsical investigation of fame and celebrity, set under the bright Roman sun. (It is noteworthy, that very few scenes take place after sunset–there is the finale on the Spanish steps and a cheesy storm-scene in the Roman Baths. The rest is filmed beautifully in the bright Italian sun.)

There are four basic stories:

♦ a young architect with dreams of greatness and confused romanticism is being advised by the pedestrian man he will become.

♦ a funeral director with a magnificent operatic voice can only sing in the shower.

♦ a newly wedded bride is seduced by a celebrated actor, an incompetent hotel thief, and her newly educated husband.

♦ a middle-class man becomes famous for no reason at all.

Each story is successful to varying degrees.  And each has its own charm…to varying degrees.

Alec Baldwin plays the elder architect watching his younger self stumble through a risky affair. Woody Allen himself plays a retired opera impresario trying to get the shy mortician to sing on stage. The Italian actress, Alessandra Mastronardi,  plays the timid newlywed who is bedazzled by her favorite actor. And Roberto Benigni plays the hapless man who becomes–for no reason at all–the most famous man in Rome.  The stories are not connected but move from one to another easily.

Allen has proven before that no one makes a location look as attractive as he can, and here again, he does for Rome what he has previously done for Paris, Barcelona, London, and–most readily–New York.  He also proves that he has the ability to get wonderful performances from his actors.  Alec Baldwin is all self-effacing and snarky wisdom; Penelope Cruz seems to be channeling those  mid-century Italian film stars–Sophia Loren and Gina Lollabrigida; Benigni is permitted to clown with little restraint; and even the young actors–Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, and Ellen Page–are given room to breathe into their roles.  On screen, Allen, reprises the role he has played forever–the neurotic, death-fearing, nebbish.  But perhaps the most extraordinary performance is that by the great, internationally-acclaimed tenor, Fabio Armilato, who plays a man who can only sing in the shower and who gamely lets Allen place him in several showers throughout the film.

Allen has long proclaimed his love of European movies–he famously dabbled in Bergman-esque type films in the late 1970s–and earlier this summer he listed four Italian movies that he felt influenced him profoundly. Two were by the director Vittorio de Sica (The Bicycle Thief and Shoeshine), one by Michelangelo Antonini (Blow-up) and one by Federico Fellini (Armacord). He stated that these films changed the way stories could be told, a narrative arc very similar to that which he would use in many of his own films.

He quipped about his love of European film: “I wanted nothing more than to be a foreign film director, but, of course, I was from Brooklyn which is not a foreign country.”

And yet, while To Rome with Love is an entertaining two hours, it is much less substantial than the four films he had referenced. Even as a comedy, it lacks a certain gravitas.

No, by no means is To Rome with Love a hearty, four-course Italian meal–and maybe it is not meant to be.

Simply, it is a lovely four-scoop of gelato. And sometimes that’s all you need to get you through a Saturday afternoon.

If you haven’t seen the trailer, here it is:

Movie Review: Moonrise Kingdom

There are some real heavy weights here:  Bill Murray (can there be a Wes Anderson movie without him?), Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Bruce Willis, Ed Norton, Bob Balabay, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel.  And yet Wes Anderson’s delightful, quirky, warm-hearted movie is completely stolen by the two young stars who play 12-year-old runaways.

Jared Gilman plays Sam, an iconoclastic, orphaned Khaki Scout who is not liked by any of the other scouts. Kara Hayward plays Suzie, the disturbed and angry daughter of Bill Murray and Frances McDormand.  For over a year, after Sam saw Suzie playing a raven in a local production of Benjamen Britten’s children’s opera Noye’s Fludde, the two have been planning to escape their unhappy lives.

When Sam escapes his Scout camp, the authorities are alerted.  When Suzie is discovered missing, everything goes into overdrive.

As the two twelve-year-olds make their way through rugged country–Sam is an extraordinary Scout–we get to witness one of the most beautiful, innocent, and real love stories.  Maybe the most intense love is that one that is first felt when you are twelve years old?  It certainly is for them.

Yet the real world, in the guise of hurricanes, adulterous unhappy parents, foster parents, social services, man-scouts, and a lonely policeman, comes crashing in on them.

This is a comedy, so everything ends well. But the journey towards that ending is filled with all the anguish and hope of being in love at 12 years old; it is defined by  that feeling of being too small against the world while believing that one’s unique love will protect you from everything.  In many ways, it is perfect. (One reviewer said that it was made by the 12-year old Wes Anderson, so perfect is the point of view.)

The two young stars are extraordinary. They are playing children who are precious, treading in the murk of real life, battered by injustices and misunderstandings that are too big for them to withstand, and roiled by all the passions of first love.  And they play it perfectly.

And aside from the two kids, and the A-list group of adults, the set designers, graphic artists, and cinematographers are also front and center in the film.

From the quirky credits and the Bishop’s  loopy house to the book covers on the adventure stories that Suzie reads and the watercolors that Sam paints, everything pops with an fresh palate of color and tone and liveliness.  You are aware of the filming–not in an obtrusive way but in a way that stuns and delights you. This is not cinema verite; it is very aware of its artfulness and it succeeds at it.

The natural setting is gorgeous–our two runaways have found Eden–and the sets are filled with color and eccentricity.  While the island New Penzance is based on Fishers’s Island, NY, I am not sure where it was actually filmed. But it is romantic–in the original sense of the word–and sublime.

I have enjoyed all of Wes Anderson’s films, but am often left with a sense of emptiness, with a sense that surfaces were barely scratched and characters hardly born. Moonrise Kingdom is different.  While not a character study, by any definition, it is a beautiful study of original love, love that is pure and scary and wonderful and all of that.