Saturday, December 29, 2012

Movie Reviews-Django Unchained, Curse of The Golden Flower

Django Unchained
directed by Quentin Tarantino
Django Unchained is a great movie. A black man seeking  to rescue his wife is the hero. As Marv said in Sin City, this woman is worth dying for, worth killing for, worth going to hell for. Amen. Black heroes like this haven't been widely seen in American movies since the early seventies during the brief "blaxploitation" craze. For whatever reasons, and some people have written essays on this, in successful large budget movies aimed at mainstream white audiences, many black actors have often been relegated to comedic or sidekick roles. Getting the girl is usually out of the question. Heroes get the girl. Heck even if you're the hero, like Wesley Snipes in the Blade series, chances are 50/50 you won't get the girl, as Blade indeed did not. Three movies and Blade never got the girl. Weird that. Things HAVE changed of course, but not as much as I would like. I think everyone likes to see themselves reflected positively on the screen in a lead or important role. How do you do that when the historical and cultural narratives are so different? Francis Marion is a hero to some but not to me. My ideal movie about him probably wouldn't have looked like The Patriot.

Anyway, Django Unchained throws out the usual conventions about race and heroics. The hero kills many white people. Or rather I should write that he kills many slave owners and their supporters. Their whiteness is less important than their moral depravity. White people and black people die in many of Tarantino's movies. This film should be different? Django Unchained rejects the normal American slavery frame. In this film the slave owners and their minions are the bad guys. How many movies have been made where the hero is that supposedly common ex-Confederate soldier who owned no slaves and didn't believe in white supremacy? How many movies have been made where the slaves were all well fed, happy, and loyal to their white owners? How many movies have been made where slavery is kept off screen while the "true" tragedy of the (white) nation tearing itself apart or some southern belle being unable to find the the right man to accompany her to the soiree is put front and center?

Far too many.
Well Tarantino didn't make that film. His film still understates slavery's ugliness. It's not a documentary. But I don't think that in modern times, say last 20 years, there have been too many other films that show slavery's casual and essentially capricious brutality. Black people were property. Whites barely considered Blacks human. Whatever an owner wanted to do with or to his or her property was pretty much fair game. Anything that hinted at Black equality, from looking a white person in the eyes to speaking in a non-servile tone of voice, could be and was punished. Degradation was a key factor of enslavement. Slavery required violence and the constant threat of violence. The film shows some torture implements used.
Tarantino has an eye for cinematic mayhem so it's not surprising that he would make a film set during this time. I was surprised that he made one that was so darkly humorous and ultimately touching. I don't think that Tarantino does "message" films. So this is not some profound deeply moving serious film with slow reveals, silent screams and classical music that ponderously swells at just the right moment to bring audience tears. There are no long speeches aimed at the mentally slow explaining why slavery is bad. I think Tarantino considers that far too obvious to mention. There are other people who could make serious sober searing introspective films on American slavery and I hope they do just that. I'll certainly watch those movies.
In 1858, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a rebellious slave that has been sold for attempting to escape. Along with other slaves, he is being transported thru Texas by the Speck Brothers (James Remar and James Russo). An eccentric, linguistically precise and extremely polite German dentist named King Schultze (Christopf Waltz) stops to inquire if any of the slaves have seen three white overseers known as the Brittle Brothers. When Django replies in the affirmative, Waltz offers to purchase him. But the Speck Brothers don't like Schultze's easy way of speaking to black men and warn the dentist off.
But Schultze is not really a dentist. He kills one brother, incapacitates another and frees Django. The other freed slaves kill the other slave trader. Schultze is a bounty hunter with legal authority to retrieve the Brittle Brothers dead or alive. He prefers dead but he doesn't know what the Brittle Brothers look like. But Django will always remember what the Brittle Brothers look like. Django has personal history with them.
This starts a partnership that will see both men journey across America, killing criminal fugitives. Django hones his gun fighting and tracking skills and sartorial sense. But this isn't a road trip movie. Django is haunted by a quest. Django must find and rescue his wife Broomhilda (named incorrectly after the Valkyrie from the Ring Cycle). In flashback we see that Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) and Django were both captured trying to flee their plantation. Django was forced to watch and beg as his wife was stripped and beaten by the Brittle Brothers (whom Django has since sent to hell). Broomhilda was sold to the hellish Mississippi plantation known as Candieland. Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his sister Lara Candie (Laura Cayouette) rule here. They mix sadistic brutality with a classy facade. Calvin's hobby and side business is slave fights. Black men fight to the death while white men watch and wager. There are black women around to attend to a white man's more intimate needs. This latter is implied, not shown.
Django and Schultze decide to pretend interest in the fighting game, overpay for a few fighters and then purchase Broomhilda as a seeming extra. Django's cover is of a free black man who is a slaver, a role he finds unpleasant to play. One black man who is not playing a role is Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) an odious house slave whose loyalty to the Candies and hatred for all things black is exponentially greater than his minimal self-respect. He resents (as do all of the whites in the film) seeing Django ride a horse. He swiftly intuits that there is something off about Django's and Schultze's stated mission. Stephen is, as Malcolm X once joked, a black man who so thoroughly identifies with his oppressors that if the master gets a cough, Stephen will ask "What's the matter boss, we sick?" Stephen is very proud to be a slave.
There is a tremendous amount of violence in this film and some brief nudity. Obviously, racial slurs and profanity abound. This is not a film for children. Blood spurts and flows. There are a few broadly comedic killings. You really have to see the film to understand what I mean by this last statement. You kinda had to be there and I wouldn't care to spoil it for you.
This movie touches the same core American cinematic themes of stylized violence, protecting your family, standing up for yourself and getting some righteous payback that animated such movies as Shane, Death Wish, True Grit, The Brave One, Rambo, Taken, Braveheart, Death Sentence, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Sons of Katie Elder, and virtually any 80s Steven Seagal flick. The only difference in Django Unchained is that the good guy (well the main good guy anyway) is black while almost all the bad guys are white.  It is, as this blogger and this writer pointed out, unusual for American cinema. Will whites support this film? Well the initial returns suggest they will. We'll see how it looks in a week. Some racists conservatives are already sniping at people like Toure for applauding the deaths of slaveowners.  /Sarcasm on/ How dare he??? /Sarcasm off/ Obviously some people never read their Fanon. That's a pity. Everyone has the right to defend themselves, even black slaves then and black people today.
Besides explicitly pro-Nazi writers I simply can't recall too many people criticizing the deaths of Nazis in Inglorious Basterds or the depiction of Nazis as bad guys in most WW2 movies or claiming that Schindler's List was anti-German. But there are some people who are arguing that this movie is "anti-white". And THAT remains the central problem in American film and society. There is too often an inability or unwillingness by the majority to imagine itself temporarily in the minority's place, and so identify and understand every one's common humanity. If you're a minority, you must do this if you intend to enjoy more than a small sliver of artistic creations. Some Black folks loved Scarface despite no black leads and some regressive messages. Other Black people are crazy about A Song of Ice and Fire or The Lord of the Rings regardless of a paucity of black characters. I could love a film like 300, even though the conservative writer was rather obviously race baiting (Persians that look like West Africans???) because I could appreciate the deeper message of fighting without hope of victory because it's the right thing to do. So if I can enjoy those movies there is absolutely no reason why any white person who's not a member of Sons or Daughters of the Confederacy couldn't enjoy Django Unchained if they are normally a genre fan. If you're a white conservative watching this film and identifying with slave owners, well, that's a personal problem, friend. Get help.

Perhaps movies like Django Unchained will cause us to rethink why people like Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest are still considered revered heroes in some circles while people like Nat Turner and John Brown are considered murderers and terrorists. 
I think the film limits itself by making Django's quest so personal. Django can only rely on himself and Schultze. Django isn't leading an anti-slavery crusade. The movie plays with dynamite by interrogating exactly how whites are able to maintain black submission. It's easy to look back and say what Jews/Blacks needed to do in death camps/plantations and dismiss them as unworthy if they didn't survive or avoid enslavement. Candie does just that. Real life is different. Most people aren't heroic. They will try to stay alive. Death before dishonor is rare in reality. You don't know what you would do to survive if someone has a gun to your head (or your husband's, your wife's, your brother's, your sister's, etc) You might like to think that you'd toss off a pithy one liner, defy the bad guy(s) and go down fighting, leaving a mound of dead scumbags behind. You might. But I wouldn't bet money on it. This could be one area where a black director would have done things differently. 

There are a few familiar names here, including but not limited to Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, Jonah Hill, Michael Parks, Walton Goggins, Franco Nero, Tom Savini and Robert Carradine. The film is just under 3 hours but never dragged. Tarantino is far too hyperactive for that. But cutting 15-20 minutes wouldn't have hurt. Visually this is a spaghetti western so it was nice that genre star Franco Nero had a role. It's paced like those old school Saturday afternoon kung-fu movies.
Should or could a black director have made this movie? Arguably one did already. John Singleton's 1997 Rosewood, about the 1923 real life racist white attack on a black Florida community, did poorly at the box office. But as the electorate has changed since 1997, perchance so has the ticket buying public. Maybe Django Unchained's success will help Danny Glover's Haitian Revolution project get greenlit. Maybe we'll see epic tales about real life black tough guys like Bass Reeves, General Maceo, or General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.  Or maybe a white director can go places a black one can't. Time will tell...

100 Black Coffins (from soundtrack)

Curse of The Golden Flower
directed by Zhang Yimou
I saw this movie because of the two leads. Chow Yun-Fat is one of the coolest actors alive while Gong Li remains one of the world's most beautiful women and a skilled actress. But even these top thespians are almost lost in the visual lushness of Curse of The Golden Flower (COGF). Make no mistake, this movie looks like American epics of the fifties and sixties before the studio system broke down and a more realistic grittier style took over. Even if you watch this without subtitles/dubbing and don't understand a word of Mandarin, this is a MUST see. I'm not kidding about this. If you're any sort of movie fan get this flick. See it. It has the majesty of every extravaganza you've ever seen or heard about. The colors literally drip off the screen. You're pulled into a majestic tapestry of the T'ang period of Chinese history. Well it's a fictionalized story set during that time. And even though it's an EPIC it still clocks in at less than two hours. Imagine that. Someone actually made a complex film full of drama, intrigue, backstabbing, and hidden love stories and did so without bloating to three or four hours.

It's hard to share much of the story with you because there are some very critical plot twists and surprises that you must not know about before watching. So this will be a very bare bones description. As I mentioned upthread we are all humans who should be able to put ourselves in each other's places from time to time. No matter where you go on this planet the dance is going to be the more or less same around power, relationships between men and women, relationships between parents and children, etc. We all have love, lust, hatred, honor and revenge and several other emotions both base and noble twirling around in our heads as Herman Cain might put it.

COGF is a story about a very dysfunctional royal family and the internal and external struggles for power and revenge. Obviously although everyone involved and depicted is Chinese, this is a universal tale that reminded me of such stories as King Lear, Ran (itself an adaptation of King Lear)Hamlet, Sundiata, A Game of Thrones, Elizabeth, Macbeth, and The Tudors.
Without giving too many spoilers the basic plot is as follows. The Chinese Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) comes home from his latest military campaign with his second son and top general, Prince Jai (Jay Chou). There is a holiday to celebrate and the Emperor intends for everyone to party and enjoy themselves, whether they want to or not. One person who doesn't want to celebrate and is not overly fond of the Emperor (the feeling is definitely mutual and that's all I can say here) is the sickly Empress (Gong Li) in a role that is equally stunning for its layers of deceit and pathos and its decolletage. The Empress has taken a lover. But whether from laziness or pure spite she hasn't looked outside the family tree. She is the Emperor's second wife. She's rolling and tumbling with the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), the Emperor's heir and oldest son by his first, now deceased wife. Both Wan and the Empress have other secrets and plans they aren't sharing with each other. The Emperor's youngest son Prince Yu (Qin Junjie) probably knows more than people realize but like his mother and half-brother he keeps his own counsel. A court doctor and his daughter serve both as a Greek chorus and a way to link various subplots together.

The trailer is sort of a bait and switch. I wouldn't call this an action movie though such elements come to the forefront at the film's conclusion. If you like classic drama you must see this film. It has a good story and truly sublime visuals. If the film has a weakness it's that the visuals and set pieces are so stunning and attractive that you might overlook a few misfires in the storyline. But I didn't care. Glorious. People are both pits of vindictiveness and mountains of selflessness.


Saturday, December 22, 2012

Movie Reviews-The Hobbit, Supernatural: Season Four, Lust for a Vampire, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead

The Hobbit (An Unexpected Journey)
directed by Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is a very very very long movie. Interminable. And did I mention it was long. Look let's be honest here. If you are a Jackson or a Tolkien fan you're going to see this movie no matter what anybody writes. You're a Tolkien junkie and you need your fix. I am too so don't try to kid a kidder. If you're not a Tolkien fan, well just be aware that this is a lengthy film that simultaneously takes a lot of liberties with the source material but still attempts fidelity to its spirit.
I was a little worried when I read that Jackson's producing and writing partners, Phillippa Boyens and Fran Walsh, disapproved of the lack of any women characters in The Hobbit and changed things so that there would be some female energy. They added a few scenes with the elf Queen Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) that weren't in the book but I didn't mind that much. I didn't like the implication that Gandalf had to report to Galadriel. Saruman yes, but not Galadriel. Anyway that was minor. Blanchett IS Galadriel and Galadriel IS probably the most powerful elven leader still in Middle-Earth so it's all good.
J.R.R Tolkien's The Hobbit was mostly written for children. Tolkien had conceived of some back story but not all of it and wasn't sure if or how it would be connected to The Hobbit. So the book is a light short romp about a well fed, relatively incurious hobbit of The Shire (a virtual stand in for pastoral England) who is accidentally drawn into a quest to restore a dwarfish kingdom and defeat a dragon. During his adventure he encounters wizards, dwarves, elves, trolls, a lonely cave dweller with a magic ring, greedy merchants, evilly intelligent giant wolves, nasty giant spiders, human heroes, goblins, and of course a rather sarcastic dragon with an ego that matches his size. It's only at the end where there's a huge battle royale over gold and revenge that the book's tone briefly changes to something a bit more majestic and darker.

In paperback The Hobbit is maybe 300 pages. Maybe. It's shorter than any of the three separate books that make up The Lord of The Rings. So there was really no reason to make The Hobbit into a sprawling three movie series. But when you have consistently produced the creative and commercial success of Peter Jackson and his crew, much like another popular creator of mythic beauty I could mention, you probably enjoy a slightly different relationship with editors than your average artistic person.
If you liked Jackson's LOTR visual style you will definitely love what you see here. Pains have been taken to establish continuity. Initially the film stays faithful to the book's puckish nature. The film's Shire looks almost exactly like the edition shown in an illustrated version I read decades ago. We see Bilbo Baggins' (Martin Freeman) well fed and somewhat lazy sense of propriety. Left to his own devices he would be content to eat, drink and smoke pipe-weed all day long. This won't happen though. When the friendly but imposing wizard Gandalf The Gray (Ian McKellen) stops by to talk to Bilbo one morning, Bilbo realizes that Gandalf is trying to entice him into an adventure. So he tells Gandalf good morning and quickly retreats into his safe, comfortable, dry and clean home. But it's too late. Gandalf has left a mark upon Bilbo's door. 
Later that night, a number of dour, hungry and ready to party dwarves stop by Bilbo's home. They are all either kinsmen or countrymen of their leader, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), exiled King Under The Mountain. He's a rough but charismatic dwarf with an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, who yearns to lead his people to reclaim their kingdom, stolen by the dragon Smaug. For reasons that aren't exactly clear even to him, Gandalf has led the dwarves to believe that Bilbo is a skilled burglar and someone who will be of use to them in their quest. Once everyone meets it's very obvious that this isn't the case. The dwarves are getting very angry with both Bilbo and Gandalf, when Gandalf, showing flashes of annoyance and temper that really define his character, explains that he has reasons for his decisions and Bilbo will be useful in ways no one even knows yet. This is a really cool scene as simply by his vocal resonance it becomes apparent that Gandalf is not human. Strictly speaking, Gandalf is a lower level angelic being bound in human form, sworn to help and heal free peoples, but not to rule or dominate them like the Enemy. I imagine that a being of massively greater power and intelligence would occasionally get annoyed with so-called lower life forms. It happened a LOT in the books and I liked Jackson's take on it here. 
Obviously Bilbo does accompany the dwarves. This is where the film goes a bit off track. Everything is drawn out and the level of violence/action is increased immensely from the book. 2 hours and 49 minutes later, we are only about 1/3 to 1/2 way thru the book. Many scenes that were only referred to in the book or in The Lord of the Rings appendices are added. Other scenes are completely made up. I liked how the film depicted the Necromancer (Benedict Cumberbatch). That was honestly somewhat unnerving. The film doesn't really have a standout star but if it did it would be Richard Armitage, who's got the brooding bada$$ thing down pat. Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), a wizard who is more concerned with plants and animals than elves, dwarves or men, makes an appearance. He's more comic relief than I expected but it's ok. The film's other star is the land of New Zealand. 
Andy Serkis is back again as Gollum and if anything his characterization of the pathetic hobbit like creature is both more empathetic and more wicked. The Dragon Smaug is never shown completely. It's a more effective trick than you might think. I liked the flashback to the desperate battle that showed how Thorin Oakenshield got his name. I didn't care for the movie's invention of a nemesis for Thorin, one that in the books, had already been put down long ago by one of Thorin's cousins. I think the filmmakers wanted to make Thorin more personally heroic for people who hadn't read the books.

This is not Oscar material but again if you are any sort of Tolkien fan you will see it. Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving and Ian Holm reprise their roles from the LOTR movies.  The movie's music is almost the same as that in LOTR. Conan Stevens, who you may remember as The Mountain That Rides from S1 of HBO's Game of Thrones, was originally cast as one goblin leader but ended up playing another. I may have to watch the movie again (just kidding) to see if he was in this film or will show up in the sequels. Someone really needs to talk to Jackson about editing.


Supernatural Season Four
created by Eric Kripke
When last we left the Winchester Brothers, Sam (Jared Padalecki) was desperately seeking a way, moral or not, to save big brother Dean (Jensen Ackles) from going to Hell. But some things are beyond the abilities of even the Winchester Brothers. A deal is a deal. Sam could only watch in horror as invisible extradimensional hell hounds ripped Dean apart and carried his soul off to Hell. Season Three ended with Dean being tortured on meat hooks in Hell and calling out in utter desperation for Sam. Dean's nemesis, Lilith, tried to kill Sam too, but was shocked to find out her powers didn't work on him. She fled her host.

But you know you just can't keep a good man down. When Season Four starts Dean is buried six feet underground. ALIVE! He breaks out. He is surprised to find himself alive and with his body whole and unmarked. Well almost unmarked. Dean finds a hand shaped burn mark on his left shoulder. He hears mutterings and high pitched noise that is enough to cause pain and break glass around him. Dean calls friend, mentor and substitute father figure Bobby Singer, (Jim Beaver) who thinks the call is a sick joke and hangs up.
Eventually however, Dean meets up with Bobby and Sam. After he's convinced them that he's real, they are of course relieved and happily surprised. But as Bobby Singer would say let's not just stand around giving each other love wedgies, ladies. There's work to do. And this season things are different.
In Dean's absence, Sam has become close, really close, with the demon Ruby (Genevieve Cortese-Padalecki's real life wife). Ruby wants to help Sam develop his hellborn powers in order to exorcise and kill demons. Ruby says she's not like other demons. Dean despises and distrusts Ruby. But Dean and Sam put aside this disagreement long enough to visit Pamela (Traci Dinwiddie), a psychic, to learn what broke Dean out of Hell. There is one class of being powerful enough to rescue Dean from the Pit. This being is so magnificent that glimpses of its true form blind Pamela. Undeterred Dean and Bobby summon this creature. It turns out they didn't summon it so much as it wanted to come. It's an angel. The angel Castiel (Misha Collins), manifesting in a nondescript devout man, casually informs Dean that he saved Dean from eternal damnation because God has plans for him.
And the series enters a new level of awesomeness and strangeness. The religiously minded Sam is delighted to learn God exists. But Dean is upset both by Castiel's seeming callousness about having blinded Pamela and the fact that Castiel, although nice enough as angels go, makes it crystal clear that humans should obey angels and not ask questions. Dean is offended that the world is as messed up as it is, given that God exists. Dean also has a well hidden sense of self-loathing that he tries to dull via alcohol and other earthly pleasures. He can't quite believe that God actually cared enough about him to send Castiel to rescue him from Hell. Castiel's orders are to get Sam and Dean's assistance to prevent Lilith from breaking 66 seals and thus bringing about the Apocalypse and Lucifer's release from Hell. If need be, Castiel and the angel Uriel (Robert Wisdom -Bunny Colvin from The Wire) are prepared to sacrifice many humans in this fight. The angels may be the "good guys" but kind and cuddly they're not. Following orders is their highest good. Whether that means saving someone from Hell, healing the sick, raining fire and brimstone down on a city, or killing all the firstborn, it is all the same to them. No one is going to mistake them for Gandalf. 

So Season Four has five major themes:
A) The Winchester Brothers grow increasingly distant from each other. Dean is unnerved by Sam's growing psychic abilities and Sam's bond with Ruby. Sam is curious about Dean's time in hell and later hurt and angry that Dean won't share what happened in Hell. The Angels know but they aren't talking.
B) Sam's powers are growing immensely but he also has ugly secrets that he keeps from Dean.
C) The War between Heaven and Hell is growing closer as more seals are broken.
D) The lines between good and evil aren't as clear as the Winchester Brothers thought they were. Humanity's interests don't necessarily align with Heaven's. Light is not always good.
E) Dean's gotta get some. Frequently. As often as possible.
This was a much darker season but there were still some hijinks and laughs. There is a campy episode shot in black and white in which the brothers confront monsters drawn straight from the Universal and Warner Bros. classics. Chuckles are also had when macho Dean gets infected with a disease that causes him to have excessive paralyzing fears of almost everything. He won't stay in a second story motel room for fear of falling and runs in terror from a shih-tzu. Dean remains a chauvinistic horndog with heart. He knows exactly what women need and is eager to give it to them. His brother Sam cautions him that women may not like being called a certain name. Dean raises an eyebrow, calls a woman he's flirting with that certain name, receives a very positive response and smirks at Sam. In fact Dean's got so much game that even female angels are curious about the Dean machine. Although Dean may be a sex freak, he's otherwise a relatively moral and ethical man, much more so than Sam this season. Sam is breaking all the rules. As Dean tells Sam in one confrontation, "If I didn't know you, I'd be hunting you." Sam's behavior and relationship with Ruby have not gone unnoticed by the angels, who order him to stop or else. Dean runs into a few demons who remember him from Hell, especially the smug, smarmy, and incredibly self satisfied Alastair (Mark Royston), Hell's chief torturer. Alastair looks like a boss I used to have.
Season Four also shows in flashback that Sam and Dean may have been cursed even before they were born. They thought that their father was the first supernatural hunter in the family, drawn into it by their mother's untimely death. But that wasn't the case. Ever wished you could change the past or meet your parents before you were born? In the world of Supernatural that might not be such a good idea. This season has more of rage filled Sam than emo Sam. The actor gets to show more range. Although he's the younger brother, Sam is bigger and stronger than Dean and not someone you want to upset. In some respects Season Four was a chess match between Heaven and Hell in which the Winchester Brothers were just pawns. But their Daddy didn't raise them to be anyone's pawns...

Season Four Intro

Lust for a Vampire
directed by Jimmy Sangster
I've discussed previously how Hammer Films, once the paragon of British Gothic Horror, eventually deteriorated into virtual softcore nonsense, that didn't really scare anyone. There's a fine line between using revealing dress and/or nudity in an artistic way that makes sense for the story and using such tools only to appeal to the lowest common denominator of obvious prurient interest.
Lust for a Vampire doesn't even try to do the former. Almost everyone involved understood that this movie was by definition exploitative and aimed at the cheap thrills crowd. Everyone understood that with the unfortunate exception of the movie's lead actress, Yutte Stensgaard. Stensgaard was a young Danish actress who was still naive and ambitious enough to believe that she had been hired primarily for her acting abilities and not her more obvious attributes. There is one story of the guileless Stensgaard asking the director what was her character's motivation for getting out of a carriage.

This should have been a better movie, but outside of seeing the delectable Stensgaard in various states of undress, there's not much here. The movie was born under a bad sign. Ingrid Pitt turned down the lead role. The original director quit. And Hammer icon Peter Cushing, who brought several films undeserved gravitas, left production to attend his dying wife. 
The story is a rewrite of Hammer's previous Karnstein movies. Mircalla Karnstein (Stensgaard) a vampire immune to daylight, arrives at a Styrian finishing school to enroll as a student. Of course a vampire's gotta do what a vampire's gotta do and before long young girls are dying. Two different male teachers both have the hots for Mircalla. This is evidently before sexual harassment law was enforced. There is the creepy Giles Barton (Ralph Bates) who is known by his students to sneak around outside their rooms spying on them. Barton knows all about the Karnstein history and aches to serve a real Karnstein. The other male teacher is the dashing Richard Lestrange (Michael Johnson). The girls generally like this younger, liberal man. Johnson doesn't believe in vampires. Mircalla gives the strong impression that men are not her first choice for love or food but there's something about Richard.
Stensgaard likely did the best she could but her acting abilities were less than her beauty.  And even if she had been Meryl Streep she could not have done much with the script. Bates hams it up as he tries to play Renfield to Stensgaard's vampire queen but that makes things worse. And Johnson gives the impression that he wandered in from a Pride and Prejudice outtake. He's just in the wrong film. A subplot with a corrupt greedy headmistress and a female teacher (Suzanna Leigh) who suspects odd events goes nowhere.
Bates once said that Lust for a Vampire was among the worst films ever made and he regretted having anything to do with it. I don't know if I'd say it's quite that bad but that's only because Stensgaard was easy on the eyes. An honest unbiased appraisal must indicate that this was an unambiguously horrid film. A cheesy pop song was dubbed over a key scene between Stensgaard and Johnson. What should be intense or at least erotic becomes laughable.The director is accidentally seen on camera near the end. This film should only be watched late night if there's nothing else on or by obsessive completists who want to watch and possess every single Hammer film ever made. The trailer was trying for fear and shock but it just seemed schlocky to me. 


Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead
directed by Gary Fleder
Why is it that in so many movies, especially crime movies, that there's always One Last Job that never goes as it seems? I mean does anyone ever do One Last Job with no problems and waltz away into the sunset? Usually not. Although the One Last Job is a cliche or trope, what is true is that there is no story without some conflict. One Last Job is just a useful technique to introduce that conflict. The characters can then either grow, mature and improve their lives OR they can falter and in crime movies, be forced to move off the planet. Maybe that's because in real life there is also no growth without conflict.

So you've definitely seen this movie before with slightly different actors and actresses. The only reason to watch it is that you like the setting or the particular actors involved. I did. YMMV of course.

Denver is not usually considered an organized crime setting but in point of fact Denver did and does have criminals like any other major city. One former criminal is Jimmy The Saint (Andy Garcia) -presumably playing a made Mafia member though it's not really clear. In real life once you're in the Mafia you don't get to retire but showing that in the movie, just like not having One Last Job, would mean there wouldn't be a movie.
Jimmy The Saint is a man who's put a few people underground in his day but he's retired from crime. He's moved into a rather macabre business, in which terminally ill people record messages and advice for their loved ones. This business isn't doing very well. Jimmy is in debt to loan sharks. It's nothing he can't handle but it's not a small amount either. Jimmy is adamant about paying his debts, playing by the rules and keeping to the straight and narrow. He looks out for the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold Lucinda (Fairuza Balk), who has a serious crush on Jimmy. He also is pursuing a serious relationship with a beautiful classy woman Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar). So Jimmy is very surprised when he is picked up by his former boss' goons and taken to the boss' home. The boss, only known as The Man With The Plan, (Christoper Walken) is a quadriplegic who was made so in an assassination attempt. 
Since he can no longer do anything physically his only joy comes in spoiling his creepy pedophile son, Bernard (Michael Nicosoli) or ordering pain for other people. He has a job for Jimmy. Jimmy refuses but The Man With The Plan reveals that he's bought up Jimmy's debt. So this isn't really a request. Bernard is despondent because a college co-ed rejected him for a new boyfriend. Jimmy is to arrange a minor beating of this boyfriend. The boyfriend is not to be killed or hurt too badly. The girl is not to be harmed or see any violence.
Jimmy puts together his old crew, Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), Franchise (William Forsythe), Pieces (Christopher Lloyd) and Critical Bill (Treat Williams). Critical Bill got his nickname because anyone that ever went up against him wound up in critical condition. These men don't all like each other but they respect each other and are 100% loyal to Jimmy. Of course something goes wrong with the job. 

Much of the story is told in flashback by Joe Heff (Jack Warden), a grizzled truly retired old gangster who was a friend of Jimmy's. Joe explains the criminal lingo. This was a good drama with a bittersweet ending. Steve Buscemi, Jenny McCarthy, Don Cheadle, Tiny Lister, Glenn Plummer, and Bill Cobbs also have roles.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Office Christmas Lunch/Party

This is the time of year when many corporate offices/teams have the annual Christmas party or lunch.

I hate this.

It's nothing personal of course but I would just as soon not go to lunch with most of the people I work with. And I have even less desire to attend an official "FUN" event with them. My basic outlook on work is "Let's just keep it arm's distance shall we? Mmmmm-okay". I've been told on and off the record countless times that this attitude is a personal failing that limits my upward mobility. Well that's tough. Even if I wanted to I'm not changing primal personality traits at this point in my life.

There are a number of reasons I dislike the Christmas lunch/party. I usually attend out of a baseline sense of politesse and career protection but honestly I'd rather not. Why do I feel that way?

1) People are nasty. Yes it's true. We all have just oodles of bacteria, viruses and parasites living meaningful lives (or in the case of viruses semi-lives) on/inside us right this moment. This can't be altered. It's part of human life. But I'd rather have a choice as to whose invisible little nasties I'm exposed to instead of being forced to share eating space and a table with someone whom I know for a fact does not wash their hands after using the bathroom, or furtively picks their nose/teeth/ears in status meetings, or like a cat or dog, thinks that their saliva is nature's WD-40 and can be used for just about any daily problem they encounter. No don't pass me the breadsticks, Typhoid Mary. I'll get them myself.

2) People have different standards of propriety. I was raised that you don't double dip. That's even among family for goodness' sake.Your food is your food. My food is my food. Unless we are intimate that's just the way it's gonna be. And even then chances are I'll prefer some level of separation when it comes to eating. So you can imagine my horror at one Christmas luncheon, when having declined the dishes ordered by my co-workers and ordered myself a platter of steak fries, I saw the fellow next to me reach his grubby little hands into my meal, pour ketchup on the fries and start eating. In the ensuing "discussion" I learned that in his country it was usual for people to share such items and he learned that in my country you better not touch my food unless you like having your hand forked to the table.

3) People get a little too festive. Hey you made it another year without getting terminated. You might have some alcohol in you. You're probably about to be off for Christmas break and may even have some bonus money coming your way. So you're feeling good. Now MUST be the time to make your clumsy but long planned move on that flirtatious married blonde in legal who wears the tight sweaters. Right? Wrong. There is nothing worse than seeing people do or say things that they otherwise wouldn't dream of just because they're buzzed and/or it's Christmas. Now is not the time to sidle up to me and ask me what do black people really think about topic x or how come I never asked you out. In either case, if I wanted you to WOULD know. 

4) People over share. At one Christmas luncheon a co-worker ordered a particular type of meat. The co-worker's boss was sitting next to that person and started a long diatribe about how bad that meat smelled, why they never liked it and how could anyone eat it. Now if your boss does that once, ok. But I wasn't surprised when after ten minutes of this nonsense the co-worker gave up trying to eat in peace and called for a doggie bag. What is really bad for me is being trapped next to a talkative person who simply won't stop droning on. When you're at the same table there really is no place to run. It's pure torture. Short of telling someone "Why won't you shut the f*** up?!!!", there's not much you can do. At another holiday party a boss decided it would be the perfect time to let me know how lazy their spouse was and if they didn't straighten up and fly right divorce would be imminent. Ok. Now that I know that what do I do? Yet another boss thought that all of her direct reports attending the Christmas lunch had to be informed (repeatedly) that she really really really hated her boss. Unsurprisingly, that information got passed on to said boss and blabbermouth was shortly removed from her position. Co-workers should know that if I didn't ask I probably don't care about your personal problems. This goes double if you are a boss. Too much personal information can only make things uncomfortable for both of us. ARM'S DISTANCE folks.

5) People state the obvious. If I had ten dollars for every time I've gone to some Christmas lunch or party and some mensa member has told me "You're quiet", I'd be retired already. "Yes, Sherlock I'm quiet. Incredible discovery. How long did it take you to ferret that out? Next you'll be telling me that the sun rises in the East!!!" I don't really do small talk well. I've learned the hard way that discussing things like politics, religion and other sensitive topics with people who sign your checks or evaluate your work is not really an intelligent thing to do. So sports, traffic, cars and weather are about the only things I discuss at work. Once those subjects are exhausted I'm pretty much tapped out. I don't talk for the sake of talking which from my pov appears to be about what 99% of the discussions at office parties/lunches really are. about those Detroit Lions eh?

Does your organization have Christmas parties/lunches?
Do you always attend?
Did you ever embarrass yourself?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Book Reviews-The Racketeer, Grimm Reapings, The Don is Dead, Detroit: Then and Now, When I left home: my story

The Racketeer
by John Grisham
It's been a while since I read a John Grisham book. There were mixed reviews on The Racketeer but I'm usually willing to give a familiar writer a chance. I liked this book. It set a pretty fast pace but it wasn't difficult reading. Like many of Grisham's previous works the protagonist is a lawyer.

In The Racketeer the hero is a black man. This is not critical to the story. People are people. IMO, Grisham gets a few very minor things wrong, like the protagonist calling/referring to his father by his first name. I've never known any black person who did that, even as an adult. Possible? Sure. Just not very likely in my neck of the woods. No sir.

Anyway, the hero, Malcolm Bannister, narrates most of the story. There are occasional switches back to third person so that the reader can learn things Bannister doesn't know yet or see events take place in Bannister's absence. Bannister is a federal convict with about five years left on his sentence. Previously he was an up and coming lawyer at a small black owned law firm. Bannister briefly did some arms length work for a shady lobbyist and was, according to him, wrongfully convicted of money laundering. Insisting on his innocence, he refused to plead to a lesser charge and was as surprised as anyone when he was convicted, given a sentence that exceeded guidelines and ultimately sent to federal prison. Bannister's wife has divorced him and remarried. His son is learning to call another man father. His own strict father visits him infrequently and seems to believe that Malcolm must be guilty because otherwise he wouldn't be in prison. He is a source of shame to his previous partners who hired him when racist white law firms threw his resumes in the trash. 

Though the ex-military Bannister is still buff enough to have avoided any unpleasant physical incidents with other inmates during brief stints in higher security jails or prisons, the fiercely intelligent man must show deference and submissiveness to dim bigoted white prison guards and wardens. This grates on Bannister. But he still has one card left to play.

When a right-wing federal judge is murdered, Bannister is confident that he knows who did it and why. And for the reward money, release from prison, wiping of his record and entry into the Witness Protection Program, Bannister will tell the authorities everything that they need to know.
The FBI is desperate to make a deal to solve the case. The federal prosecutors are confident that they know the law better than any convicted former attorney and see no issue with making a deal. Of course getting out of prison is only the first part of Bannister's plan. He has plans within plans and nothing but a cold contempt for the system that ruined his life. Although Bannister maintains his innocence the book plays with this for a while. You may come to your own conclusions about this before the story gives the definitive answer. That is IF the story gives the definitive answer. I'm not telling. Bannister behaves like an innocent man..most of the time.

Grisham obviously knows a lot about the law. That's evident in the casual references to all sorts of laws and precedents (many real, some fictional) in the story. He also doesn't like bullies, the insane proliferation of federal crimes and the awesome ability of federal prosecutors to convert just about any activity they don't like into a crime, given time and motivation. That comes across loud and clear in the book. Grisham has a lot of criticism of prosecutors and the legal system as it actually works in practice, not in theory. One character muses it's surprising that more federal judges aren't murdered. You don't have to be a legal eagle to appreciate this story.

I'm not sure we get quite enough information early on to really root for Bannister. Most of the bureaucrats and prosecutors Bannister deals with are unpleasant people who don't care about his innocence or guilt as long as they get a promotion and/or their department budget increases next year. There are a lot of twists so if you like the idea of the author (and protagonist) showing you that he's smarter than you, or at least was smart enough to fool you a few times, you may like this story. As mentioned, it can be read very quickly. This is something which could and should very easily be made into a movie starring Idris Elba or Michael Ealy.

Grimm Reapings
by R. Patrick Gates
Grimm Reapings is the sequel to the book Grimm Memorials. It's been years since I read Grimm Memorials but Grimm Reapings, which takes place thirteen years after the first book's events, provides just enough back story to jog a reader's memory if they've read the first book or satisfy their curiosity if they haven't.

In the first book, we learned that there really are wicked things that go bump in the night. Eleanor Grimm was a real life witch. And I don't mean "witch" as an euphemism for a gender slur or "witch" as some new age feminist who wears a lot of patchouli, avoids deodorant and has full moon consciousness raising sessions to commune with the Goddess. No, Eleanor Grimm was the real deal. She was straight out of Grimm Fairy tales. She was an old ugly hag who via very real magical and psychic powers and acts of great evil, had discovered what she believed to be the secret to immortality. This involved sacrifices of innocent children and various sexual perversions. At the height of this carnage she intended to place her soul in the unborn child of one Diane Nailer. Eleanor Grimm would have thus been able to live again in another body. She intended to sacrifice Diane Nailer's other children, Jen and Jackie. However, six year old Jackie proved to have powerful resistance to Grimm's mind control. In a scene deliberately lifted from Hansel and Gretel, with the unknowing assistance of ten year old Jen, Jackie was able to push Eleanor Grimm into her own oven and burn her alive.

Thirteen years have passed. Jackie Nailer is a somewhat disturbed college student. His mother tries to believe that Eleanor Grimm was a child molesting killer and tries not to listen to what her subconscious tells her. Jen has just married and doesn't remember anything of the events (she was under Grimm's domination). Jen has even gone so far as to have moved into Grimm's mortuary. She and her husband are turning it into what they hope will be a profitable bed-and-breakfast.

Jackie alone remembers everything and knows that the supernatural is real. Barbara Walters does a special retrospective on Eleanor Grimm and her occult claims and "serial killings". Walters interviews Diane and her two older children. Jen and Diane are mildly discomfited. Jackie is more upset initially but is rather mollified when his Goth girlfriend, Chalice, is turned on by Jackie's "bad boy" past and expresses this to Jackie in the usual way.

But Jackie and Jen's half brother, thirteen year old Stevie Nailer, is intrigued by the television special. He was the unborn baby that Eleanor Grimm tried to possess. Eleanor Grimm left all of her considerable wealth to him. Stevie has strange memories. He has effeminate ways and a girlish voice, something which confuses, irritates and embarrasses him greatly. Stevie resents that no one will tell him what happened to his father or what Eleanor Grimm intended to do. Stevie doesn't know it but when he was younger Jackie kept a sharp eye on him, looking for evidence of Eleanor Grimm's possession. Well Jackie didn't look deep enough because there is something of Eleanor Grimm still floating around. It's just awakened in Stevie and will soon control him. Eleanor Grimm has horrifying new plans for all of the Nailers, but ESPECIALLY for the young man she still calls Little Jackie, the only person who was immune to her power. There are rituals to perform, folks to kill, people to manipulate and possibly a new unborn child to possess as Jen is pregnant. Obviously Jackie becomes aware that all is not right with little brother and for that matter other people around him.

This book had a few more gross out scenes than I remember the previous book having but like I said it's been YEARS since I read the first book. There is a goodly amount of (often perverse) sex described within. YMMV. There are no post-modernist or relativist musings here. Even when we (rarely) see things from Grimm's viewpoint she is evil with a capital E. I can't overestimate the sheer malice of Eleanor Grimm.

The Don Is Dead
by Nick Quarry (Marvin Albert)
A truism of life is that anything that is done successfully invites other people to copy it. The Don is Dead was a dime store novel (original edition cost $.75) that was rushed out by Fawcett Publishing after the unlikely success they enjoyed with Mario Puzo's The Godfather. It is nowhere near as bloated as The Godfather. I don't know if you ever read that book but it was chock full of boring sideplots about feminine medical problems, Hollywood's mistreatment of writers, abortionists with hearts of gold and other dross which was fortunately dropped from the film adaptation.
The Don is Dead doesn't have all of that extraneous clutter so it doesn't hit The Godfather's lows but of course Marvin Albert (Quarry was a pen name) was not Mario Puzo so it also lacked The Godfather's high points. The characters aren't as well defined as those in Puzo's work so you don't care as much when they start to run into trouble. Albert doesn't depict any of the characters as relative good guys. There are some people you may dislike more than others but that will be about the extent of your involvement.
That said it's not a bad book. It's short, just 182 pages and moves VERY quickly. The stage is drawn and things start to happen almost immediately.  It reminded me of Mickey Spillane's work in some places.

In an unnamed Eastern city ruled by three Mafia kingpins and friends, the oldest and most powerful Mafia boss, Don Paolo Regalbuto, dies of a heart attack. The Mafia Commission must decide who will inherit Regalbuto's criminal kingdom or failing that split it between the other two organizations. Regalbuto's son Frank claims the right to rule but everyone else agrees that Frank is too hotheaded, not leadership material and far too young. The second Mafia kingpin Jimmy Bruno is in prison but has left his organization under the control of an ambitious man known as The Accountant. No one trusts or likes The Accountant and they are wise not to do so. The Accountant and his trampy power hungry wife Marie have their own plans about what comes next. Regalbuto's top enforcers, the violent Fargo Brothers (based on The Gallo Brothers) who are both mean and liberal minded in business matters (they use blacks and hispanics in their crew) decide they want to go independent, despite their friendship with Frank. Angelo DiMorra is the city's third and final Mafia boss. He wants to honor his friend's memory, avoid bloodshed and settle everything peacefully. But DiMorra didn't become boss by drinking tea and writing poetry either. These people search for a settlement that will satisfy everyone's interests. They briefly find one. But it wouldn't be a story if war didn't break out, sooner than everyone expected and over a pretext no one saw coming. This isn't great writing but it's entertaining genre prose. The film version starred a few of the same people who had been in The Godfather. You never know what you can find in dusty musty used bookstores.

Detroit Then and Now
by Cherri Y. Gay
I like old things: antique music, vintage cars and archaic buildings. It seems like that there was a craftsmanship and panache in older creations that simply isn't found in our more hurried creations of today. I'm old school to the bone. That said, though like the song says, everything must change and nothing stays the same. No one gets to live in the past. The moving finger writes and having writ moves on...

This book is a photographic essay which contains a number of side by side pictures comparing Detroit landmarks from when they were first created, or at least relatively new and to how they look today, or more accurately how they looked when this book was published in 2001. Some of these buildings or areas no longer exist or have been so greatly altered as to be unrecognizable to anyone who saw them back in the day.There's a lot of hidden beauty in Detroit and I'm sure that's true of whatever city you happen to call home, as well.

The Michigan Theater

Fort Street Presbyterian Church

Wayne County Building
So in that aspect this book is about as close to time travel as you can get unless you happen to have a flux capacitor and a 81' DeLorean laying around. Detroit has a really fascinating mix of neo-gothic and neo-baroque architecture sprinkled with perhaps the Midwest's largest collection of Art Deco architecture. Okay maybe not the largest. But it's certainly among the nicest. This book was another gem I purchased when Border's Bookstore went out of business. I just now got around to reading it. I have literally hundreds of books I haven't read yet so I am trying to pick up the pace. This book isn't "ruin porn". Some of the places shown have definitely improved over the years. This shows the city at its best in modern times and in times long gone. Each photograph has some short blurbs explaining what you're looking at, what purpose it served in the past and how it's changed, or not, for modern times. The author is a librarian, photo archivist and treasurer of the Michigan Photographic Historical Society.

When I left home: My Story
by Buddy Guy
My brother gave me this book, for which I am quite thankful. George "Buddy" Guy was born in 1936 Lousiana. He was among the last of his generation of black American musicians to see blues as a commercially and personally viable musical option. Guy was among the final blues guitarists to have a truly original sound. He was only a few years older than famous rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and only a few years younger than rock-and-roll originators or avant-garde bluesmen like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and BB King. So he's the bridge between a lot of different musical formats. Buddy Guy could legitimately sing about such archetypes of black oppression as "one room country shacks". He lived it.

This (ghostwritten) book is just as Buddy Guy says his story. There aren't a lot of people left around to contradict Buddy Guy's version of events. There is some score settling. Buddy Guy arrived in Chicago in 1957 and was on the verge of starving to death before legendary blues singer and guitarist Muddy Waters gave him a sandwich, something to drink and ultimately his first job in the big city. Decades later you can still feel Guy's gratitude and respect leaping off the page.

In Chicago Buddy Guy was unusual because despite his youth he was intimately familiar with all of the more relaxed, slower and more intricate blues popular with the older generation of people like Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. Buddy Guy began a career as a session guitarist for labels like Chess and Cobra. He arrived promptly, played what he was told to play and didn't (at first) ask questions about shady accounting practices. Buddy Guy also had a completely different side when playing at clubs.

He was a wild live performer. He would use tricks, some of his own devising, others borrowed from people like Guitar Slim and T-Bone Walker. These included but were not limited to playing guitar behind his back, starting his set by playing outside and walking in, leaping into the audience at the solo's climax, using extreme volume and feedback, playing the guitar with his teeth or a handkerchief and so on. Compared to people like Albert King or BB King, Buddy Guy never played one note when ten would do. Buddy Guy was very attuned to the rock-n-roll and soul that of the late fifties and early sixties. When he finally got a chance to lead his own sessions, some of this pent up energy slipped out. Both his voice and guitar style could be described as impassioned and frantic. To hear Buddy Guy tell it he was playing Hendrix before Hendrix was. This may be slightly overstated but it is a matter of record that Hendrix was a Guy fan and would record Guy at clubs. Unfortunately none of this louder faster music impressed Leonard Chess very much and he usually insisted that Guy tone it down on vinyl. Guy tells the story that eventually Chess, upset that he hadn't exploited the heavier sounds, invited Guy to kick him in the a$$ for his stupidity. Guy has told this story before and plainly it is something that still vexes him. I was fascinated not by Guy's frustrations over career setbacks caused by racism or stupid label owners, but rather his descriptions of working the tough Chicago and national black club circuit.

It was not an overstatement to say that some venues Guy played were literally buckets of blood. Serious fights were common among the audience, among band members, and between musicians and occasionally mobbed up club owners who never seemed to pay in accordance with the original agreement. Guy tells a story of a musician relaxing between sets only to be approached by a drunk man who boasted that his wife would never bother him again because he had cut off her head and was carrying it around in a paper bag. I was struck by how much of the chaos and destructive lifestyles that Guy relates, the fights, the boozing, the prostitutes, the drug abuse, seems to fit right in with a lot of the rappers today. Blues, like rap today, was often considered to be very low class. Guy writes ruefully how those rare blues musicians who could read music often got better paying/classier/safer jazz gigs where reading music was mandatory and a much wider range of musical knowledge was expected.
Another powerful theme was Guy's touching detailing of his decades long love/hate partnership and friendship with gifted harmonica player Junior Wells. These two were so close if one of them had been a woman they would have been married. These were the original Blues Brothers. Unfortunately Wells had a rather serious alcohol problem. This increasingly caused erratic behavior, including fights, missed gigs and what would today be termed sexual harassment. Drunkenly pawing/chasing a white woman in Texas was probably not Wells' wisest career move. Ultimately Guy decided that he would be better off going solo. Guy was "rediscovered" in the eighties and nineties thanks to fans of people like Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Robert Cray. He seems thankful for this but remains proud enough to be somewhat upset that it was even necessary. Guy tells it like he sees it with no apologies. He is somewhat coy about his own relations with women before he married but that's how a gentleman should be I think. If you are curious about Muddy Waters' sick sense of humor, Willie Dixon's ability to gobble up songwriting credits faster than he gobbled up food or how Guy's venture into club ownership worked out read this book. It is despite everything a very optimistic story. I still can't help but think that he hasn't told the half of it. As you may notice Guy was and is one sharp dressed man. He never played into stereotypes about decrepit bluesmen. Unbent, unbroken and unbowed, Buddy Guy has an extremely healthy ego. And I'm glad to see that.