“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.

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

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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: Savages directed by Oliver Stone

There are three important times when someone refers to someone else as “savages” in Oliver Stone’s film of the same name. The movie begins with a computer/video of a Mexican drug cartel beheading six men. The video has been sent as a warning to a young veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who with his partner has built an extraordinarily successful pot growing business in Southern California. After he sees the video, he mutters “savages.”

When his idealistic partner returns from global activisim, they have two very different responses to the cartel’s offer. The vet wants to go in hard; the idealistic partner wants to give them everything and get out of the dope industry–they have enough money to last several lifetimes.

They also share the love and favors of one girl, O (for Ophelia). As the cartel stalks the trio, the cruelest of the Mexican cartel (Benicio Del Toro) notices the sexual arrangement of the three and calls them “savages.”

And finally, while walking on a beach in Indonesia, O notes that they have returned to nature, that they have become “savages.”

So the movie offers three definitions of the word “savage”:

1. utter cruelty
2. perceived perversion
3. stripped of civilization’s “refinements”

One knows what one is getting with an Oliver Stone film. Edgy cutting, great story, conspiracy, violence, magnificent cinematography and award winning performances. From JFK to Platoon to Born on the Fourth of July, his films have also had a political bent, examining modern society–sometimes controversially–with all its warts exposed and its naked emperors revealed.

The story, based on the novel by Don Winslow, pits the two independent pot growers Ben and Chon against a powerful Mexican cartel led by Selma Hayek. There are betrayals, murders, kidnappings, and thefts–and there are conversations about love and parenting and trust. There is corrupt law enforcement (what would an Oliver Stone film be without it), horrible violence, and magnificent scenery.

In the end, what we have is an enjoyable film where the loveable “bad guys” have to outwit both the despicable “bad guys” and the corrupted “good guys.” We have seen this before but that doesn’t detract from the film at all. It is a plot that always seems to work for me. In fact, after seeing the film one might make a favorable reference to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid–a film about two other loveable outlaws. Except the comparison is ruined because Ophelia herself makes the analogy early in the film. That is my only complaint–Oliver Stone should be more subtle than that.

Movie Review: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel…meh

A handful of retirees move to India because elder-care is cheaper there and recent events have altered their vision of what their lives would be like back home in England.  And so separately they move to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, advertised for the beautiful and the elderly… a hotel which is still in the early stages of reconstruction.

I wanted to like this film very much.

Afterall, there were magnificent actors:

 Judi Dench
Bill Nighy
Maggie Smith
Tom Wilkerson
Dev Patel
Celie Imrie
Penelope Wilton
Ronald Pickup

There were touching and interesting stories:

• A gay man returning to find an ex-love he believed he had ruined
• A widowed woman trying to be responsible for herself for the first time in forty years
• Young lovers being thwarted by a mother’s demand on arranged marriage
• A decent husband battered by an over-demanding, narrow-minded wife
• A woman wanting one last try at romance
• A man wanting one last try at romance
• Another woman wanting one last try at romance
• A bigoted woman going to India for a hip replacement because she can’t wait for the NHS
• A couple who lost everything in bad investments

And there was extraordinary photography and marvelous settings.

And yet, it all seemed too much…it all seemed to run together.  The film couldn’t seem to decide whether it wanted to be a mad-cap comedy, a fish-out-of-water study, a sentimental love story, a heart-breaking love story, a droll study of old imperialists visiting a once held colony, a humorous clash of cultures. It seem to need a tighter focus.

There is a point made in the film that India is a barrage on the senses; sounds, smells, tastes, sights, textures all come crashing upon the visitor in a way that is often overwhelming.  This seems to describe The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel as well. There was just much too much.

Did I enjoy it?  Yes, it was enjoyable.

Will I forget it? Yes, it is forgettable.

Movie Review: The Footnote: fathers and sons, parents and children

Juliet being bullied by her father

I have always been fascinated by the importance of parent/child relationships in Shakespeare. As school children, one of the first plays we read is Romeo and Juliet and aside from the love story, the second major story is Juliet’s relationship with her parents. The mother is cold and aloof and the father, while seemingly sensible in the beginning, shows himself an insensitive brute. Then there is Hamlet–a psychiatrist’s field-guide to dysfunctional parenting. In the histories, there is Henry IV, parts 1 and 2; the tragedies also give us King Lear–a tragedy of parenting if ever there were one; the romances give us The Tempest with the sorcerer Prospero manipulating his daughter’s–and everyone else’s–life. Throughout the canon, there are lovers blocked by parents, young nobles obeying the edicts of  fathers, and even a childless woman declaring what violence she would wreak on her children if she had them.

Hamlet berating his mother

And then I thought how much all of literature is tied in with this theme. From the earliest fairy-tales like Snow White, Cinderella, and Rumpelstiltskin to the Greek plays–where does one begin with Oedipus?–the dynamic between parent and child is in the foreground. As for the great epics: The Odyssey is really a tale of a son trying to find his father, as is its modern counterpoint, Ulysses,where “fatherless” Stephen is cared for by Bloom who mourns the death of his own infant son; and what is Paradise Lost but a father punishing his errant children?  In Great Expectations Pip is orphaned and raised by a beastly sister and her kind and understanding husband. In Huck Finn, Huck is trying to survive in spite of the obstacles that the disreputable Pap has put in his way. And even a modern potboiler like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy is founded on several perverse father/child relationships.

Lisbeth Salander and her father from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

So I thought of all of this as I left the theater Sunday after watching The Footnote. An Israeli film, The Footnote follows a father and son, both Talmudic scholars through their strained relationship. The father’s career–rightly or wrongly–stalled early in its course. The son, on the other hand, is immensely successful. The film opens with an award ceremony where the son is being inducted into the Academy of Sciences. In his thank-you speech, the son focuses on what an inspiration and model his father was, but the father is so filled with envy, anger, and bile that he walks out of the theater.

Son and father from The Footnote

Later, the father receives a telephone call informing him that he has won the prestigious Israeli Prize, an award given by the President of Israel to an important scholar. The call is actually a mistake and was intended for the son who naturally has the same last name.  The son is informed of the mistake and told that he must be the one to tell his father. What ensues is riveting, heartwrenching, and sad.

The soured relationship between the two is echoed with the son’s strained relationship with his own adolescent child. At times, it seems the women are holding things in place, but I am not completely sure. There is a lot of dishonesty, a terrible lack of communication, and an underlying egoism that is poisoning the family dynamic.

The film is very good.  It is one of those films that you talk about long after, and think about much longer than that.

Friday Film Review–Manhattan

My sister is flying to Edinburgh today and I happened to be searching for a particular clip from the movie Manhattan.

You know the opening of Manhattan where Woody Allen is doing a voice over, purportedly writing a book about his love for the city? The gorgeous photography–Woody had the legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis as his cameraman–the pulsating Gershwin music, the edgy decision to film in black and white, all work to make this perhaps Allen’s most beautiful film and certainly his greatest paean to the energy, diversity, pulse of New York City.

If you don’t know what I am referring to, check out the opening clip here:

The simplicity is its beauty.  There are no screen credits, no rolling text, just this gorgeous black-and-white montage of Manhattan.  The title of the movie itself appears as a vertical, flashing neon sign, one that you might not notice because it is so incorporated within the segment.

Quickly, the plot of the story is this: Isaac (Woody Allen), a writer whose ex-wife is publishing a tell-all memoir of their marriage, is dating a high-school girl (Mariel Hemingway).  Granted that in hind-sight this relationship feels a bit uncomfortable, but Isaac is in fact the moral center of the film (and his high-school girl-friend perhaps the most mature and un-jaded of all the characters). His dating the young girl pales as an issue when juxtaposed against the shallownesss, the deceit and the disloyalty of the other main characters.  Isaac’s friend, Yale, is having an affair with Mary, played by Diane Keaton, in what seems to be a reprise of her Annie Hall role–all intellectual charm and goofiness. (Manhattan came out two years after Annie Hall.)  She is endearing here as well, but it is basically the same character. Anyway, Isaac is attracted to Mary and Mary to him, but he will not act on it because she is having an affair/relationship with his best friend. The fact that his best friend is cheating on his wife who is also Isaac’s friend is also troubling to him.  Not until the affair between Yale and Mary ends, does Isaac allow himself to act on his feelings towards her.

I won’t spoil it, but there is more  treachery and disloyalty to come, and towards the end of the film, Isaac bursts into the classroom where Yale is teaching and makes an impassioned speech for morality. It is one of those movie moments when the action, the story, the jokes stop and someone makes an intelligent plea for humanity and for decency.

But the story, in many ways, is secondary for me with the film.  It is simply beautiful. The black-and-white photography mixed with George Gershwin’s exhilarating music is majestic, perfect.  It might not be far off to say that no one can make a city look better than Woody Allen.  Consider his recent efforts outside New York:  Paris in Midnight in Paris, Barcelona in Vicki Christina Barcelona, and London in Match Point.  In each film, the particular city seems a character in itself–a beautiful, energetic, lively character. A city’s tourist bureau would love to have Woody Allen film their promotional releases. He has a certain means of capturing the magic, the gestalt of a place. (Rome is next in his upcoming film, To Rome with Love.)

I used to pop Manhattan in the VCR/DVD whenever I was feeling particularly blue, for watching it somehow made me feel better.  I don’t know why–it really is rather depressing on the whole–but Isaac’s last speech to Yale is something special. Or perhaps the energy of Manhattan itself is what affects me, and my personal malaise at the time proves to be no match for that vigor and life pulse.

Anyway, as I said, my sister is flying to Edinburgh today and I stumbled upon this wonderful video by accident. Someone has taken the opening scene of Manhattan, and substituted black and white photos of Edinburgh.  Woody Allen’s voice over–where he praises Manhattan–is taken up verbatim except instead of Woody’s unmistakeable New York accent it is a strong Scottish voice and the word “New York” is replaced with the word “Edinburgh.”  Here it is below. Enjoy it.


20 Greatest Irish Movies from the past 25 years

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to one and all.  It is glorious here–70 degrees and sunny when we usually have grey skies and sleet.

Here’s something to get you talking.

Twenty Greatest Irish Movies from the past 25 years:

20. Cal (1984) –young IRA man falls in love with older woman (Helen Mirren) whose husband , a Protestant cop, had been killed by IRA.   Good movie. Better novel.

19. Once (2006) — sweet story, sweet players, sweet music. And the ending is perfect.

18. The Secret of Roan Inish (1994)–Beautiful story and a hauntingly beautiful Eileen Colgan

17. The General (1998)–Brendan Gleeson as Dublin crime boss

16. The Guard (2011)–Brendan Gleeson/Don Cheadle

15. Hunger (2008) — Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands

14. The Snapper (1993)–Colm Meany in the 2nd of the Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle

13. The Boxer (1997)–Daniel Day-Lewis

12. The Butcher Boy (1997)–Good film of a great novel.  And Sinead O’Connor as the Virgin Mary!

11. The Dead (1987) — Angelica Huston’s greatest moment.

10. Breakfast on Pluto (2005) — Cillian Murphy’s breakout role…as a transvestite in war-torn Belfast and London.

9. The Van (1996) –Colm Meany and the Irish World Cup victory. Last of the Barrytown Trilogy.

8. The Field (1990) — Richard Harris.  Powerful and tragic.

7.   Some Mother’s Son (1996)–Helen Mirren in a story of the hunger strikers

6. Waking Ned Devine (1998)–Ian Bannen/David Kelly

5. Into the West (1992) — Two boys and a horse.  Gabriel Byrne, David Kelly

4. In the Name of the Father–Daniel Day Lewis/Peter Postlethwaite

3. Michael Collins (1996) –Liam Neeson/Alan Rickman

2. The Commitments (1991)–Hardest Working Band in the World! 1st of the Barrytown Trilogy.  Great music, fun story.

1. My Left Foot (1989) –Daniel Day-Lewis. Simply wonderful. Beautiful, funny, inspiring..