Friday, July 31, 2015

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life

99% of readers and reviewers 
love her, but here’s the 1%

     I loved Kate Atkinson’s first novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1995) because it was a funny, intelligent, biting family saga covering the 1950s through the 1990s in York, England.  The main character was the same age as Atkinson over those years, but I never felt she was a stand-in for the author or that the story was autobiographical.  Instead, the details of middle-class England at that time both resonated and reverberated.  There’s a hilarious sequence when the family goes on a car vacation and things go wrong, both logistically and emotionally.  I also enjoyed her second novel Human Croquet (1997), though it was almost too inventive with its time travel armature.  Everything about Shakespeare, however, was excellent.

Kate Atkinson
     What I noticed about Atkinson was that her novels always had a tricky resolution plot-wise.  In mysteries and thrillers, writers employ what I’ll call ‘shadow plotting.’  What I mean is that the reader is being led down one path by the author, who is creating a completely different pathway that will result in the climax and be explained in a denouement.  For instance, Agatha Christie created a different path for each of her suspects and either Poirot or Miss Marple or Tommy and Tuppence explained who had done what from before the beginning.  Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler practiced this technique, usually through the set up of what seemed to be a simple case, but which was really the lead into something far more treacherous, dangerous, and complex.  Edmund Wilson’s problem with Chandler’s writing was the weakness of the resolution in comparison to the degree of depravity or decadence suggested by the mystery.  In Wilson’s opinion, the resolution would never live up to the intrigue.

     Atkinson would throw in an element that didn’t really add anything to what she had brilliantly created:  penetrating, witty portraits of petit bourgeois Britain.  She’d reveal something at the end that instead of seeming like a Joycean epiphany, just felt peculiar and unnecessary.  I ignored her next couple of books until Stephen King went wild about Case Histories (2004) in Entertainment Weekly.  This was back when his column “The Pop of King” was probably the best all-around accessible popular criticism since Pauline Kael’s 1970s movie criticism.  The difference is that King acknowledged his preferences upfront before critiquing works.  I wish a collection of “The Pop of King” would be published as a book, especially since EW is pretty much dead in the water and has been ever since Jess Cagle left as the editor.

From the BBC Series Case History
with Jason Isaacs and Millie Innes
     Case Histories was extremely well written, but Atkinson juggled four different cases (twice what most of the classic mystery authors generally presented in books) and, though Ian Rankin does the same in his Rebus series, Atkinson creates more complex characters than Rankin so the connections between the cases were more tenuous or indirect than in contemporary mysteries that are more seriously focused on the genre.  I skipped the next three, though I wondered why she was so intent upon writing private eye books, rather than the tragicomic family sagas with which she started.  By the way, the PBS series starring Jason Isaacs as Jackson Brodie, the private eye, was highly entertaining, though I still didn’t think there was a strong connection between many of the characters (primarily the suspects in the multiple simultaneous cases).

         Life After Life (2013) received adulation on both sides of the Atlantic.  It showcases Atkinson’s elegant, funny style while trumpeting her ‘shadow plotting’ to the nth degree.  In this case, the main character keeps getting killed off and we return to the basic premise – upper-middle class English family from 1910 – 1968 trying to survive and thrive during the tumultuous 20th century, though primarily during World War II.  The English stiff upper lip and genteelly fighting spirit provides the undertow throughout the novel.  The one constant (besides Ursula – named for the little bear star, the protagonist that’s killed off more times than Bill Murray in 1993’s Groundhog Day, but finds herself in a different situation somewhere in Europe during the period every time she’s resurrected) is the family house.  This is no accident.  ‘An Englishman’s house is his castle’ is the old saying and it’s as culturally endemic as ‘American as Mom, the flag,  and apple pie.’  

     For a sense of Atkinson’s style, here are two sequences involving the parents Hugh and Sylvie and their first attachment to the house:

     ‘Lottie (Sylvie’s mother) died with less fuss than was expected and Hugh and Sylvie married quietly on Sylvie’s eighteenth birthday.  (“There,” Hugh said, “now you will never forget the anniversary of our marriage.”)  They spent their honeymoon in France, a delightful quinzaine in Deauville, before settling in semirural bliss near Beaconsfield in a house that was vaguely Lutyens in style.  It had everything one could ask for – a large kitchen, a drawing room with French windows onto the lawn, a pretty morning room and several bedrooms waiting to be filled with children.  There was even a little room at the back of the house for Hugh to use as a study.  “Ah, my growlery,” he laughed.’

And a little later (and, yes, the English love to name their homes):

Fox Cubs
     ‘”Look,” Sylvie whispered.  Two small cubs sprang out onto the grass and tumbled over each other in play.  “Oh, they’re such handsome little creatures!”
     “Some might say vermin.”
     “Perhaps they see us as verminous,” Sylvie said.  “Fox Corner – that’s what we should call the house.  No one else has a house with that name and shouldn’t that be the point?”
     “Really?”  Hugh said doubtfully.  “It’s a little whimsical, isn’t it?  It sounds like a children’s story.  The House at Fox Corner.”     
     “A little whimsy never hurt anyone.”
     “Strictly speaking though,” Hugh said, “can a house be a corner?  Isn’t it at one?”
     So this is marriage, Sylvie thought.

     Though I think that Atkinson is an excellent writer and Life After Life is the best book I’ve read by her, I don’t think she’s great.  The London Blitz sequence, while incredibly detailed and graphic, is not as memorable for me as the one in Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch.  Part of this may be that Atkinson ambitiously takes on most of the 20th century in this book, while Waters presents only a few characters in London during and immediately after the Blitz.  In her latest, Atkinson revives Teddy, Ursula’s younger brother and an RAF pilot during the War, as her protagonist.  I hope she focuses her plot centrally.  I look forward to it.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Food and service deserve plaudits, 
but hopefully the business model 
doesn’t stumble

The Bar at Sotto
     We went to Sotto for our anniversary because a number of friends had said how much they liked it since the opening over a year and a half ago.   We decided to make a reservation because we had a gift card to Nada, another restaurant owned by David Falk.  The card said it could be used at Falk’s three restaurants (the other being Boca).  

Sotto Dining Area
     Sotto is a basement restaurant and the space has been completely re-worked since it housed La Normandie over a decade ago.  Though shadowy, it’s easy to see other guests and the food you’re eating.  It’s also been described as loud, but we didn’t think it was a din, unlike many other restaurants downtown and in the Gateway Quarter.  We were able to take in the friendly and efficient service by all of the staff.  Our waiter was excellent and dealt quickly with a communication hiccup over part of our order.  As he pointed out, portions are meant to be shared and, fortunately, since the menu is not extensive, a party of four could cover most of the selections.  We followed his suggestions for dishes.

Chicken Liver Mousse
with Pistachio Bruchetta
     We started with the Chicken Liver Mousse with Pistachio Bruschetta (there are six choices) and it was excellent.  The mousse was buttery and glossy, but held its texture when spread on the toast.  The nuts lent both a bright color and piquant sweetness to the dish.  We had the grilled bread (yes, you pay for bread at a Falk establishment) and it was a great way to mop up the sauces of our two Primi choices.  
Semolina "Gnocchi"
These were the Semolina “Gnocchi” and the Short Rib Capellacci.  The gnocchi are semolina – not potato – based and they were like a lighter, warm polenta with a tomato sausage sauce topped with pecorino.  It was filling, but the sauce had light citrus notes.  The capellacci is a must order.  
Short Rib Capellacci
I realized later that it was what Judy and Karen and Tom had ordered on different visits and all had enjoyed it.  The pasta is parchment thin holding a pillow of the meat, which was slow-cooked to perfection.  The sauce is a delicate butter, highlighted by thyme.  

Buttermilk Panna Cotta
     We decided against a Secondi because we didn’t want to stuff ourselves, though all three choices sounded very attractive.  Instead, we ordered the Panna Cotta for dessert.  It’s buttermilk vanilla with a few macerated chopped strawberries.  It was also a delicate dish and simply presented.  It was very good, though my gold standard is Zula’s version.

Pasta Makers
     Everything was fine until we found out that Nada is being spun off into its own brand and they couldn’t take our gift card.  Thanks, David Falk, for deciding to become an empire builder and leaving customers in the dust.  After a few moments of awkwardness, the manager worked things out with exemplary skill.  It’s lucky that Falk hires such a good staff.  One thing to keep in mind:  the Commissar brothers also built an empire and it crumbled and Jean Robert has seen one partnership fall apart, but is currently building another.  Be careful with your business aspirations, mes chefs, when you’re known for your food.  Cameron Mitchell, out of Columbus, has been able to build and spin off ventures because he has always put the dining experience ahead of great, unique food, though it’s always been very good.

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Monday, July 27, 2015


And no one could save her

     Amy portrays singer-songwriter-guitarist Amy Winehouse from the age of fifteen until her death.  The media routinely use the word tragedy to refer to something that is actually a disaster such as an airline disaster or a terrorist mass killing.  Tragedy requires a hero or heroine who falls from the heights because of a flaw, usually pride.  Amy Winehouse was a tragic heroine because her extraordinary talent could not save her from those closest to her and from her need for boundaries that were never maintained.  She was a potentially great jazz singer (she acknowledged Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan as influences and Tony Bennett saw both Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald in her), who was flung into an international pop career that was bigger than anything she envisioned or really wanted because of her songs that were sad, edgy, and far more autobiographical than I originally realized.  Neil did understand that at the time (2007) she first became big in the U.S.  

Amy with Husband Blake

     Although she wanted to play in smaller venues, ‘the star-making machinery behind the popular song,’ as Joni Mitchell described it in “A Free Man in Paris,” wasn’t having any of that.  Simultaneously treating her as a commodity and as an artist in desperate need of help, music industry professionals tried to get a grip on her, while media representatives both lionized and ridiculed her.  Although she was both helped and hurt by family members (most significantly her drug addict husband and her exploitative father), her friends kept reaching out to her, but she was sporadic in her dealings with them once she catapulted to fame.  She was revealing both in her lyrics and her interviews, knowing that she was responsible, but she could not use that skill in permanently changing her life for the better.

     It’s a wrenching and suspenseful documentary, though we know how it will turn out.  There’s a continual current of ‘if only . . .’ as her life progresses and as we connect earlier events to later outcomes. Director Asif Kapadia employs a technique that he developed in his documentary Yenna (2010) about the late Brazilian auto racer whereby there is no spoken directorial voiceover and no current talking head interviews looking back to these events.  Instead, all of the visual narrative is found imagery, whether interviews with Winehouse during her life, paparazzi film, home movies, phone videos that are arranged to form a cohesive narrative.  The audio narrative includes interviews with those shown in the earlier pictures and scenes, Winehouse speaking and, more importantly, singing.  If Inside Out is about how joy and pain work together to develop a personality, Amy is about joy and pain working against each other and draining a smart, funny, enormous personality through alcohol and drugs. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Alreddy Coffee & Cafe

Alreddy enough…
don't wear out the welcome mat

The Front Dining Room
     We'd love to have a place like the Alreddy Café in our neighborhood.  It's quaint, vibrant, and adds some new twists to a menu that deals with basic café fare.  Service is laid back with the feel that this is a family owned and operated restaurant.  (That's just an assumption.)  I've been there 
Side Porch Dining
3 times in the past 9 days, which would lead one to believe that it's a pretty special place.  That's true, but I don't want to get tired of it early on so I must let up this week.

Hot Ham & Brie Sandwich
     Having been there several times for lunch, I feel like I can give it a pretty fair review.  On my first visit I picked the Choose Two from a wide choice of sandwiches, quiche, salads and sides.  I went with the Hot Ham & Brie half sandwich and Tortillas with Mango Salsa and Red Pepper Hummus.  I had asked the server for suggestions on a side, but he pointed to the Fruit Salad and Fried Pickles.  I'm sure they're good, but neither struck a cord with me.  The sandwich came with chopped cucumber, tomato and onion with a creamy Raspberry Dressing.  All was good except the dressing portion was a little overwhelming making the sandwich difficult to eat and masking some other flavors.  The tortillas were abundant and the homemade salsa was pleasing.  It was nice to mix it with the hummus.  Karen had 
Tuna Melt with
Funnel Veggies & Dip
the Choose Two with Tuna Melt and Funnel of Fresh Veggies & Dip.  Jeff went with my second choice: the French Dip.  Both were hits.  We were sitting next to the pastry case and I had my eye on the scones.  I eventually took a Mocha and Caramel one with me, but I found it on the dry side.  That may be more traditional, but I love my scones soft and creamy (thank you Jenny at Bluebird Bakery in Glendale). 

French Dip
with Alreddy House Salad

     Dominic accompanied me for my second visit.  He had the Trio Salad with two servings of Egg Salad and one of Chicken Salad.  He found the egg very tasty, but the chicken was a little on the dry side.  I did Choose Two again with the French Dip and Alreddy House Salad, a combination of greens, toasted pecans, craisins, feta, strawberries and cucumber with an apple cider vinaigrette dressing.  Very nice.  We topped it off with their Cherry Cheese Cobbler, which I found to be like a pound cake, rather than a traditionally crumbled pie.  

Quiche of the Day and Seafood Bisque

     For my third visit, Eric and I went together for a late brunch.  He had Choose Two (there's a trend here) with the Quiche and cup of Seafood Bisque.  The quiche was an individual serving made with asparagus that day.  The bisque sounded so good I had to have a cup also.  It was full of seafood pieces in a rich cream that made us lap up the entire cup.  My Broken Yoke Angus Sandwich was 
Broken Yoke Angus Sandwich and Seafood Bisque
more than I expected.  It was piled high with a "runny" egg, as I preferred.  I think the next time I'll order it with just one slice of bread as it would make it easier to eat with more emphasis on the egg and various fillings.  We ended with the Peaches & Cream Cake–a variation on the cobbler from a few days back.  
Peaches & Cream Cake
Served warm, this one was the 2009 winner of Best Dessert at The Taste of Northern CIncinnati.  And one should not forget that this is a coffee house too.  They serve excellent brews.

     I see another visit in my future…soon!

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Inside Out / The LEGO Movie

Pixar’s near classic 
and Lego’s identity crisis

     Inside Out takes a profound look at what a tween loses when she has to say goodbye to some elements of childhood in being able to move on in life.  Some of the imagery concerning Riley as a young child reminded me of Boo in Monsters, Inc. (2001), which Pete Docter also directed.  I doubt that there are any spoiler alerts possible since most of North America has seen it at least once and probably twice.  Most of the action takes place in Riley’s head briefly through her childhood and mostly during a challenging move across country because of her father’s work.   The emotions of Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust pretty much control Riley’s worldview.

Disgust, Anger, Joy, Sadness and Fear
     The plot hinges on Joy and Sadness getting accidentally sucked into Riley’s long-term memory and having to make their way back to headquarters before her core memories are forgotten.  The visual representation of stored memories colored by their primary emotions looks like a phone game application so it’s extremely current.  The representation of the islands that make up personality and the Train of Thought are dynamically intelligent without drawing attention to themselves.  Bing Bong, the imaginary friend that sacrifices himself to allow Joy to succeed in saving Riley’s personality looked and felt a little like a character that didn’t make it into the Toy Story series.  He also disappears in a pit that looked like it cooled down from the incinerator pit that almost destroyed the major characters in Toy Story 3 (2010).

Joy and Sadness Pointing to the "Personality" Islands
     I can’t think of another animated family movie that makes visual gags about Picasso and takes on literary theory to explain a splintering personality.  It’s a spectacular looking movie, but I think it would be overwhelming in 3D.  There were times when I couldn’t keep up with everything going on in the labyrinth of long-term memories.  However, the focus on the 
Joy and Sadness
characters is what drives the movie forward, especially Joy (voiced to the nth degree by Amy Poehler) and Sadness (voiced by Phyllis Smith in a devastating performance).  In learning that sadness is necessary to cope with a new reality and allow others to help, Inside Out moves into territory that moves viewers because it is basic to human existence.  On the Pixar scale, it’s up there with The Incredibles, Monsters, Inc., and Toy Story 2.  

     I missed The Lego Movie (2014) when it first came out, but fortunately our neighbor Ella Jane lent us her copy.  Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who did wonderful work with 21 Jump Street (2012), it’s an upbeat, colorful computer animated movie that looks like it was achieved through stop motion animation.  The basic plot goes all the way back to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1928) with a mad Big Business dictator deciding to destroy the world and the Everyman character trying to lead a revolt to stop him.

Destroying the Lego Set
     Neil thought it seemed like an advertisement for Lego and he’s pretty much on the mark.  It’s amazing the colors, characters, variety of brick shapes, and scenes that have been created by Lego (and are capable of being imagined and created).  Players follow the instructions for the pictured models; builders go ahead and do their own thing with the sets.  That’s also the point of the movie.  However, there’s a sense of hypocrisy or, rather, a sense that Lego is having its cake and eating it too with this movie.  Lego is a huge business, one of the best-known brands in the world, but the movie’s message is that big business wears blinders and wants to destroy anything that is individual and idiosyncratic.

Wyldstyle and Emmett
     The story turns out to be metaphysical with a boy and his father playing out an Oedipal conflict.  That was when the whole thing turned completely clunky.  A viewer can sense the mythic nature of the conflict in the animated part of the movie.  Bringing in human actors and turning over to live action kills what was imaginative and creative by making it ‘real.’  There’s even a moment of castration panic when the dad says he’ll let the little sister play as well and the boy is horrified.  Interestingly, Lego really increased its business when it began marketing specifically to girls.  However, the female characters in the movie suffer from the Hermione Complex, i.e. they have great ideas and are smarter than the male lead, but they’re only along for the ride, rather than vanquishing the antagonist (see The Harry Potter series).  After Katniss, I thought we’d left that behind, but not in the world of Lego, which has turned reactionary after being one of the most progressive brands of the past fifty years.

The Lego Movie Cast
     Where Inside Out presents an ordinary girl’s experience and makes it fresh and remarkable, The Lego Movie celebrates Emmet, a regular guy who’s believed by a prophecy to be special, though it’s all a fake.  He has an original idea, but the energy, vitality, and extraordinary ideas of the others (Wyldstyle/Lucy, Batman, Benny the astronaut, Princess Unikitty) are shunted aside for his mediocrity.  I find that chilling even as it is presented as upbeat and heroic.  

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Amy Schumer Triumphs

     Trainwreck directed by Judd Apatow, but more significantly written by Amy Schumer, examines the life of a single professional woman in her thirties who hasn’t shed her party girl proclivities.  We first saw Schumer on the Comedy Central Roast of Charlie Sheen in 2011 and Neil reminded me that I thought she was foul, though hilarious.  She’s still crude, but working with other performers, rather than going it alone, provides her the opportunity to develop a much more complex character both culturally and politically. Even with the dirty language and the hilarious sex scenes in which it is the male body that is objectified, Trainwreck is sensational.

Amy's Escapade with John Cena
     In her standup, Schumer has relayed her sexual exploits and simultaneously been delighted and disgusted by her partners and herself.  In Trainwreck, Amy as Amy encounters real love both for herself and through the relationships of others.  It doesn’t always run smoothly and sex messes it up, but Schumer presents characters and relationships that deserve a second look (and, therefore, live up to the definition of respect).  Women can be professionals and they can be wives and mothers; they can be square, though they’re also less fun or they can be hip without being completely soulless.  Female cheerleaders can bring a community together as one character puts it and support other women.  Men can be competent professionally, kind, and romantic partners.  Athletes can be smart and funny.  

Amy Dealing with Mom Issues
     I don’t mean to make this sound like a cinematic ‘Kumbaya,’ but there’s a greater depth than can be displayed on a TV promo.  There’s a great joke about Woody Allen, for instance, and there’s a reversal of an older/younger physical relationship that turns dangerous.  How the older person could have avoided it without asking for I.D. is never underlined, though the slickest character cracks a dark joke about it.

The Romantic Leads—Schumer and Hader
     Gayle Keller (with Apatow’s and Schumer’s input, I’m certain) has cast the movie brilliantly.  I wouldn’t have thought of Bill Hader as a romantic lead, but he’s delightful as the grown up who’s looking for someone wild – the basis for screwball comedy since the ‘30s.  With this role after last year’s The Skeleton Twins, he proves he has a wide range.  Brie Larson plays the younger sister who’s both a loving (step)mother and a resentful daughter.  Colin Quinn has a wonderful scene at the very beginning explaining to his daughters the reasons for his divorce using a context they can understand that sets up all the family dynamics and then returns as a younger curmudgeon, who refuses to be 
Tilda Swinton
sentimental.  It took me a couple of minutes to realize that the hard-edged editor with the lower-middle class London accent and the Miami skin was Tilda Swinton.  She’s a satire (I hope) of Joanna Coles or Zanna Roberts Rassi.  Norman Lloyd plays Quinn’s table companion in the assisted living home and is lovely at 100, no less.  Vanessa Bayer’s dewy lipped naïveté contrasts beautifully with Schumer’s style and works 
LeBron James with Bill Hader
better here than on Saturday Night Live.  LeBron James is charming and intelligent as Schumer writes him; much more so than when he’s interviewed.  John Cena lampoons his image as Amy’s sensitive boyfriend, who unconsciously wrestles (pun intended) with complex, ambivalent attractions both dressed and nude.  There are cameos by a number of professional athletes and SNL veterans, both past and current, and all of them succeed.

     The only drawback for Schumer could be what she does next.  She leaps beyond her comic persona into a more profound place, but can she sustain it and will she be given the opportunity to fail?  Maybe it’s too early to consider Schumer’s magnitude, but Hollywood’s bean counters (or executives, though they’ve become the same thing) will start on Monday.  Going back a few years, Jane Curtin was allowed only limited film roles, but succeeded very well in sitcoms.  Janene Garafolo had a chance until she had a flop and that was it.  Bridesmaids placed Kristen Wiig front and center in Hollywood, but she hasn’t had another commercial success, mainly because she’s bravely taken on artistic challenges.  Instead, it was Melissa McCarthy who used that movie as a jumping off point for a major movie career.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Dream Cars & Fashion in Indianapolis

One excellent show, another so-so 

L'Oeuf Électrique, 1942
     We found out about the Dream Cars exhibition at The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) in January.  The time is limited since it ends in late August, but it’s worth seeing because these are one-of-a-kind automobiles that were designed and built as prototypes between 1934 and now.  
2010 Porsche 918 Spyder Concept Car
They weren’t put into production, though the final model, which is a Porsche doesn’t look that much different from some of their current models.  It seems more like a synthesis between a Porsche and the Batmobile.

1959 Cadillac and 1955 Buick
     The Big Three U.S. automakers are represented from the 1950s; the Buick and Chrysler models display elements that were utilized in later commercial models, which is 
1935 Bugatti
fascinating.  The European designers actually seemed more ahead of their time and pulled off some astonishing work, especially the spectacular Voisin and Bugatti cars.  There’s a Ferrari from 1966 that has a bench front seat that seats three with a centrally located steering wheel and a current BMW with a body made of fabric so that it can be adjusted continually, rather than having to build yet another prototype from scratch in metal.

1936 Scarab
     There are also examples of independent designers’ work such as the Scarab, which was the precursor to the van, the Airstream trailer, or an SUV, but was built in 1936.  It had a woven interior ceiling, sort of akin to a picnic basket, as well as seating that could be adjusted and turned around the way seating used to be on Southwestern Airlines.

It’s worth the drive to see this show.

2001 BMW Gina Light Visionary Model

The 20s Represented by Soeurs and Lanvin
     The Cutting-Edge Fashion: Recent Acquisitions exhibition pales in comparison to similarly themed or sized shows that we’ve seen at the Cincinnati Art Museum.  Covering the 1920s to the present, it includes pieces by major designers (Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Issey Miyake) as well as from the U.S., Europe, and Japan.  The Franco Moschino designs towards the end were wild, witty, and actually wearable.

Wedding Dress
in Need of an Iron 
     There were some problems with the exhibition, beginning with the fact that most of the pieces needed to be steamed since they were wrinkled.  The clothes needed to be fitted to the mannequins.  In a couple of cases, there wasn’t a foundation built on the mannequins properly so they looked as if a child were wearing her mother’s clothes.  One of the Westwood dresses featured cut outs, yet the curator put in backing cloth that looked wadded up and completely ruined the effect of the dichotomy between cloth and skin.  

Christian LaCroix
     The last time we visited the IMA, the guards and one of the docents could not have been friendlier and well informed.  This time, we encountered guards that corrected us every time Neil, Sue or I pointed at something because we might set off an alarm or touch a piece.  We’ve been to museums before.  We know not to touch anything; we were merely pointing out details.  One guard was so overly eager and officious that we felt like we were being followed from gallery to gallery on different floors.  When Neil expressed this opinion, he was told, “There’s a pattern where we change locations every fifteen minutes.”  Neil didn’t believe him.  I thought he was an asshole.

However, IMA is still a wonderful museum and many of the staff members are enthusiastic and friendly.

Dream Cars runs through August 23, 2015.
Cutting-Edge Fashion runs through january 3, 2016.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Shades of Neo-Noir

L.A. Confidential, Get Carter, 
and Mean Streets: Do they hold up?

     TCM has been playing examples of film noir, which are the ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood crime movies that hold up better than the prestige product of that period and neo-noir, which are the self-conscious, artistic movies of the ‘70s and later that, in part, refer back to those earlier works.  Some that have played recently are L.A. Confidential (1997), Get Carter (1971), and Mean Streets (1973).

     L.A. Confidential, directed by Curtis Hanson and co-written with Brian Helgeland from James Ellroy’s classic novel possesses one of
The Superb Art Direction of LA in the early 50s
the strongest plots of any crime movie.  There are no dangling plotlines in either the book or the movie, unlike many of such works from the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Amazingly, Hanson and Helgeland were able to cut out about two or three major plotlines from the book, including a bizarre one about a Walt Disney-type entertainment tycoon, without sacrificing Ellroy’s tone and worldview.   The most significant difference is that the book ends with the young white knight sharing responsibilities for the future of the LAPD with the avuncular figure of evil that has significantly corrupted the force; the movie ends with the white knight on his own, but in charge.  It’s more idealistic, but less pragmatic.

Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger
     As a movie, it holds up most significantly in the acting and the art direction, both of which were peerless at that time.  Why didn’t anyone cast Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger in another movie?  They were one of the great screen couples of the ‘90s and generated a deep connection between their characters.  They’re actually more persuasive than the book’s characters because we can see them and they seem more complex, which is probably because there is a stronger focus on them in the movie. Guy Pearce, Kevin Spacey, and Danny DeVito are excellent, but it’s James Crowell, who embodies the dual-faced sense of the book and of the L.A. Quartet.

     Get Carter, which was directed by Mike Hodges and adapted by him from Ted Lewis’ Jack’s Return Home, is probably considered a minor classic here, though it’s a pretty
Newcastle's Coal Mines
major classic in Britain.  Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography holds up beautifully, especially the cold, gray blue tones and the inky black.  Not only does it take place in Newcastle, famous for its coal; it’s also implacably grim.  A coal tip plays a significant part in the tough ending.  
     There’s no Hollywood hope since producer Michael Klinger and Hodges intended this to be a contemporary Revenge tragedy that would fit in with the embers of the Swinging Sixties and the crime underworld, made famous by the Kray twins.  Carter is a mob foot soldier, who returns to where he grew up in the north to investigate his brother’s death.  He suspects it wasn’t an accident and his journey to prove that is the plotline for the movie.

Michael Caine
    The matter of fact attitude surrounding the mob and its leaders’ determination to connect with legitimate business and political concerns is both cold and startling.  A number of scenes are still squirm worthy:  the black and white, amateurish porno movies that play at the edge of some shots; an attempted drowning in a bathtub; the final chase scene in which the viewer realizes there’s another unseen agent of destruction lurking outside the camera frame.  The violence succeeds in this because it’s meted out sparingly and is never intended to ‘entertain,’ unlike so much that takes place in current ‘action’ or comic book influenced movies that I find revolting.

Dorothy White with Michael Caine
     Michael Caine proves yet again his supremacy as a screen actor.  Except for Connery, was there a better British screen actor of that generation?  About halfway through, it registered that he never blinks and he never quite looks anyone in the eye.  He is implacable and, though he might seem like an avenging angel, he turns into a messenger of death.  The rest of the cast – some of whom I remember from TV series in England during the ‘70s – look like regular English people, though ones that can perform really well.  Playwright John Osborne (Look Back in Anger, The Entertainer) does some very elegant work as the northern mob king.  The only weak spots are Britt Ekland, who feels like she was dropped in to build international box office and a character thrown from a multi-story parking lot that obviously turns into a dummy.

     Mean Streets made Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro stars.  The title refers to Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” thereby placing its Neo-Noir ambitions squarely in the title.  Scorsese reveals New York’s Little Italy, where he was raised, in an intimate and self-aware way that hadn’t been seen before, resulting in critical hype at the time.  Looking at it
The Red-lit Bar Set
now, it’s amazing how much of it takes place in one set – a red-lit bar that one of the four friends owns.  Whenever the characters got into a car and drove away (only about three times), I sighed with relief that they were out of an area that seemed inbred by its transplanted Sicilian mores, obsession with though not a reflection of the values of the Catholic Church, and over-reliance on Hollywood gangster clichés.

Robert DeNiro in His Star-Making Role
     I know I’m being hard on what is considered a classic.  I admired it more when I saw it in college, though even then I thought half of it looked like it was lit as a photography dark room.  The casual racism, sexism, and hypocritical homophobia just grate after a while.  These guys haven’t the patience for dealing with a gay couple they give a ride to, but their bromance and emotional hijinks aren’t much different.  Of course, I also realize they aren’t supposed to be self-aware enough, unlike their creator, to understand this about themselves, but why is stupidity considered admirable?

The Pool Hall Scene
     Yes, it was a blast in 1973 because it looks grimy New York right in its face.  It also doesn’t pull many punches, though I don’t know how the three characters survive the final car/gun chase (Scorsese plays the gunman).  Although the cinematography is by Kent Wakeford, Scorsese planned the camera movement and it’s spectacular.  One sequence in a pool hall in which the major characters get into a fight with other patrons after unsuccessfully collecting protection money feels like something Max Ophuls or Luchino Visconti would have done if they’d directed this material.

DeNiro had his choice of playing one of the four friends and he shrewdly chose the star-making part, rather than the leading role.  Just try taking your eyes off him as Johnny Boy, the dopey/volcanic best friend that also seems like a modern day trickster or devil doll.  Harvey Keitel, a really good actor
Harvey Keitel
in the lead, gets stuck playing a lot of Catholic guilt as his character tries to fit into his forebears’ expectations for him.  He seems very relieved to play with Amy Robinson as the woman he loves, but his family doesn’t approve of because she’s epileptic (Robinson became a successful film producer later).  David Proval and Richard Romanus play the adult and the incompetent friends, respectively.  (Proval is probably familiar from The Sopranos).