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Washtenaw Flaneurade
22 August 2010
The Worlds of Michael Ripper
Now Playing: Super Furry Animals--"Sarn Helen"

The Shrieking Sixties: British Horror Films 1960-1969 (2010):

"When I was a child my mother used to own a cat--a seal point Siamese. Whenever he was found to have done something wrong--shred my father's books, unravel toilet rolls, shit in the washing basket--he would be carried out, glaring malevolently over my mother's shoulder with an expression that clearly said 'The world shall hear from me again.' People who have seen the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films [not that you should, if you've got any sense, at least the two by Jess Franco, which are fucking wretched--Ed.] may see the connection.

"It has to be said that none of these films features Christopher Lee shitting in a washing basket. We can be reasonably sure that had this appeared in the script, he would have refused to do it. Or alternatively, he would still be complaining forty years later about the fact, stating that it was not something that Sax Rohmer had ever written about and insisting that he had not appeared in a film featuring a laundry/faeces interface since 1968 and why was it all that anyone ever asked him about?"

--James Brough, review of The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) in The Shrieking Sixties.

"The British made horror films?" I still remember the frisson of, yes, horror on hearing my ex-roommate say those words. My ongoing love of Doctor Who and the much beloved 80s cable TV staple Commander USA's Groovie Movies more or less condemned me to an eternal fondness for British horror both cinematic and literary, much of it more nuanced and layered, especially in terms of class, than its American equivalent. My love for The Wicker Man (1973), Horror Express (1972), and Quatermass and the Pit (1967) first led me to Chris Wood's British Horror Films site in the summer of 2003, and I've been commenting there ever since. Many of the comments involve, as one might imagine, reviews and criticism, sometimes lengthy, of British horror films. After Chris' 2006 success with The First BHF Book of Horror Stories (in which I had a couple of pieces), board maven and film expert Darrell Buxton got the idea to create a sort of companion piece to the Harvey Fenton's FAB Books classic Ten Years of Terror. The latter was a collection of reviews of British horror films of the 1970s, making the provocative claim that such films (for instance, the ones I mentioned earlier and some of Pete Walker's grungy, socially biting classics like 1973's House of Whipcord and 1974's Frightmare) could be seen as part of a genuine cinematic movement, the same way many French films of the 1950s and 1960s comprised the Nouvelle Vague. Darrell's idea was to do a similar job on British horror films of the 1960s. The 1970s had already been covered (though are still considered somewhat controversial in this respect) and the 1950s have become perhaps a little too celebrated for their role as the decade that saw Hammer Films rise to become a global icon. The intervening years have, it seems, seen surprisingly little systematic criticism, and it's to fill this deficit that The Shrieking Sixties came about. Darrell solicited reviews for a set amount of films per year, and sundry BHFers rose to the occasion (I've got several in there myself, and forced myself through Jess Franco's spectacularly terrible Fu Manchu films--following The Face of Fu Manchu--starring Christopher Lee to write them).

Looking through the films themselves, it's not all that surprising that they haven't really attracted the kind of sustained cult attention that their companions of the bookend decades did, as there's no one "house specialty" along the lines of the cozy yet increasingly erotic Gothic horrors of the late 1950s or the scabrous, gory, full-on sexual suburban horrors of the 1970s. The 1960s was such a wildly experimental decade in so many artistic arenas that perhaps it's little wonder that there seems too much to take in. Michael Armstrong, wunderkind director of 1969's Haunted House of Horror (featuring Frankie Avalon as the "epitome of Swinging London"--that would have been a hefty typo--and nearly featuring a young David Bowie as a psycho killer), pens an affectionate foreword that vividly evokes the era's kaleidoscopic qualities. When it came to British horror, films of every kind proliferated, from (to name two flicks I reviewed that pretty much conform to the 1950s and 1970s types I mentioned) 1960's countryside-in-peril classic chiller Village of the Damned to 1969's genetically-enhanced-psycho-on-the-loose freakout Scream and Scream Again*. The same goes for the review styles on offer in The Shrieking Sixties, from the militant joviality of Jed Raven to the affectionate, slightly mocking pieces by Chris Wood himself, to Fangoria writer Mike Hodges' brisk professionalism to a hilariously creative take on The Body Stealers by David Dent to the expert analysis of IMDB sleaze cinema guru Gavin Whitaker (whose excellent reviews on said site could make their own book) to James Brough's afore-quoted piece on The Face of Fu Manchu, my single favorite review in the book. And that's not to mention the great Neil Pike's authoritative rundown of 1965's controversial The War Game--Peter Watkins forever! The 1960s saw the apotheosis of Hammer and the glory days of American International Pictures' prestige Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, but it wasn't all casks of Amontillado and increasingly delusional and complicated plans to reanimate dead flesh. To give an example of some of The Shrieking Sixties' far-reaching and eclectic nature, the 1967 section features (adjacently, no less) Paul Higson's review of The Return of Dracula, a low-budget 8-mm curio filmed, performed, and exhibited entirely in British Sign Language, and Darrell's review of Ruddigore, a "Halas/Batchelor animated version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta." Exciting as it was to see my own stuff in print, more exciting by far was the prospect of getting to read that of others. The book really does capture the essence of the British Horror Films board, one of the nicest (with the occasional tussle, to be sure) and most erudite on the web, and it's a real kick to see people wax hilarious and thoughtful on some of their favorite films. As if that weren't enough, there are appendices on "borderline" titles, censorship, short films, an afterword by noted film historian and English Gothic author Jonathan Rigby, and illustrations throughout by Sam Trafford and Jed Raven (the former does a particularly ravishing Barbara Shelley in his rendition of Quatermass and the Pit).

The Shrieking Sixties was pre-released for the Southend Film Festival in May (a rollicking event, I hear, featuring stars Hilary Dwyer and Nicky Henson of Michael Reeves' 1968 classic The Witchfinder General, one of the commonly agreed highlights of British horror cinema of the decade), and is now available in the United States from Amazon or from Midnight Marquee Press--the latter offering, I understand, a discount if one orders directly from their site (some ways down the page). It's gratifying to learn that there's already been a bit of positive comment.

*Both of which I review in the book, by the way.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:05 AM EDT
Updated: 24 August 2010 9:18 AM EDT
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31 July 2010
Untaken Words
Now Playing: Sarah McLachlan--"Loving You Is Easy"

On the 27th of November, 1992, I started keeping a reading log, marking down the titles and authors of books I'd read, their dates, and completion times. I kept it for nearly the next decade, stopping midway through grad school. It starts with Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon and ends with K.N. Chaudhuri's Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean (finished the 14th of August, 2000). Allegedly, in the interim I read over seven hundred books, with, you can be sure, varying degrees of intensity and interest. Sometimes I'd become so passionate about a book that I'd devour it in an afternoon. Others I'd have on the backburner for months, putting several out of their misery in a single day (by reading the few chapters of each I had left). At one time, this possession of such an artifact might have seemed embarrassing; it's definitely redolent of a time when I set great store in ideas I view skeptically nowadays--the importance of a core group of "Western" authors ("Dead White Males," to use the hoary terminology of the much-ballyhooed 90s "culture wars")* and the importance of quantifying what one had read, as if whatever wisdom there was to be gleaned automatically settled itself in the personal consciousness once one had finished the book. Needless to say, I don't even think of doing that anymore, except for the occasional blog post. I'm very glad I don't, but I'm also glad I kept the beat-up old green folder around.

It was a pretty central part of my personality in young adulthood, and as such should probably be given a place of honor among my stuff just for that. It's also fun to go back and track my reading habits. I'd been a little worried that some of these works wouldn't ring the slightest bell, but that's only true of a cople--Patti Waldmeir's Anatomy of a Miracle (2 August 1997) and Valentina Cilescu's Mistress Mine (23 April 1998).** There were likes and fascinations for which I'd never have time today--seriously, Richard Brautigan??? It also appears that I had a fondness (half-remembered) for the eighties writer John Calvin Batchelor (whose brand of geopolitically-tinged, slightly magical realist thrillers I don't see today--maybe it's a good thing, and I'm not surprised to find he's become a right-wing radio host). When the years end up in grad school, it's nice to see that I was able to fit in a little John Buchan and Andrew Vachss (whose stuff I really need to revisit) and even Ernest Tidyman (Goodbye, Mr. Shaft--basically "Shaft in London") among some of the weightier tomes assigned for class (all of them recorded, of course). The roll call characteristically stops in summer 2000 at Chaudhuri's classic history of the world economy's navel before the global rise of Europe, a book I didn't actually have to read but which I did anyway as I thought it would give me a better handle on some of the background issues.

Probably the best thing about the reading log is how many memories it almost instantly calls up. Reading's always been important to me (beginning in pre-school with blacklistee--not that I obviously knew that at the time--Crockett Johnson's classic Harold and the Purple Crayon) and adding dates to titles reinforces these automatic impressions. Michael Moorcock's The Laughter of Carthage (11 April 1994) provoked a near-half-hour conversation on the Punic Wars with an old guy who used to hang out outside the Salem, Virginia, Public Library and looked like a clean-shaven Solzhenitsyn (himself well-represented earlier in the log). Roddy Doyle's The Snapper and The Van (14 and 18 July 1996) struck a painful chord with me at a time when I was completely at sea about life and semi-employed just after college. Jake Page's Apacheria (13 July 1998) led to some sadly truncated flirting with a girl at the Thirsty Tiger bar in downtown Baton Rouge (Josephus' The Jewish Wars of 22 June 1998 provoked similar memories of M's Fine and Mellow Cafe--now the lackluster Roux House). And so on. It's comforting to know that books have always been there to engross me or buck me up when I was feeling too self-absorbed (as opposed to normal) or depressed. There were a few stretches where things were so horrible that I just stopped recording or reading, but only a few. With the onset of grad school and the growing desire to create rather than consume (I figured I'd read enough books and ought to try writing some), it seemed less and less important to keep a record. I stopped reading so obsessively, which on balance was a good thing, and started writing more, becoming more interested and proactive with films and music. Reading's still important to me, but there's not as much self-imposed pressure to do it, and my life feels freer as a result, even if there are still a few atavistic moments where I don't think I'm reading enough.

It also reminds me of the days when I used to own far too many books. Perhaps even more than reading them, buying them or owning them was a poisoned comfort, and inevitably led to me giving away or selling most of my "stock." I now try and follow a system wherein I'll cull my collection if it rises above a certain limit (I think I've got about a hundred books now, maybe less, and it should stay that way). One of my favorite haunts in adolescence and young adulthood was Elliott's Books in Baton Rouge, where many of my attitudes towards reading were formed and molded. There was a sticker on one of the cash registers which said something along the lines of "if you still have book space (or even if you don't), you don't have enough books." I was really happy to eventually realize what bullshit that was. Still, that hasn't prevented me from winding up over the past couple of months with a number of books I own that I haven't read. It's okay; some time back the pile would have been ten times the size. So, for the next month or thereabouts...

Murasaki Shikibu's eleventh-century Heian classic The Tale of Genji (which I've probably been meaning to read throughout the whole time I kept the reading log), Marion Zimmer Bradley's Stormqueen! (part of her "Darkover" series, the first novel of which, 1972's Darkover Landfall, I read some time back and then left alone), Samuel Eliot Morison's Christopher Columbus, Mariner (one of the books I often wish I hadn't given away was Morison's classic Maritime History of Massachusetts--but it went to a scholar specializing in the maritime history of the Great Lakes, so hopefully it's being put to good use), George Kennedy's Murder on Location ("Actor George Kennedy stars in a new role as sleuth--when murder on the set turns the cast into corpses!"--why I didn't instantly read this the day I picked it off the fifty-cent rack at Dawn Treader will forever be a mystery to me), Charles Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle (in keeping with my newfound half-interest in biology--it's supposed to be good on nineteenth-century South America, too), Colin Wilson's The Space Vampires (basis for the inexplicably beloved 1985 Tobe Hooper cinematic turkey Lifeforce), and Laurie Notaro's Spooky Little Girl (the second novel from one of my favorite contemporary writers, mainly known as a comic essayist). If I can lay off the bird and gardening books and travel guides for a couple of weeks at some point, I might be able to finally out those away, and try to remember that finishing them isn't the point.

* Although these days I have a little more time for that idea, but it's more a case that one doesn't have to devalue "classic" authors in order to make room for a more inclusive canon. Considering how fragmented and kaleidoscopic pop culture has become (and how negatively I can react to it sometimes, especially when it comes to the internet), it's nice to have a kind of conceptual anchor.

**Waldmeir's book, apparently, was a journalistic account of the end of apartheid in South Africa, while Cilescu's was a work of erotica. I vaguely remember George Alec Effinger's The Wolves of Memory (13 March 1994) as a scifi novel that involved interplanetary travel, but that's all that comes to mind.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:50 AM EDT
Updated: 31 July 2010 6:14 PM EDT
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19 July 2010
Tickled By Onions
Now Playing: Brasstronaut--"Lo Hi Hopes"

A mid-life crisis, I would expect, is a very personalized phenomenon, and I think mine may well have finally struck. One might think it would have been something dramatic and attention-getting (my favorite portrayal in pop culture terms is probably Matthew's reverting to an English punk at turning thirty on NewsRadio). I suppose I should be thankful that it isn't (and that I'm not trolling Conor O'Neill's Friday and Saturday nights or out buying a sports car--not that I could), but mine might be a little more alarming, if I weren't convinced it was a mere passing phase.

I'm not interested in anything anymore. Or at least I haven't been, in staggered phases over the past few weeks. Part of this may well be down to the fact that I've been taking on a number of extra duties at work (or, more to the point, worrying about taking on a number of extra duties at work), and that I've been staying inside to avoid the heat after an ostensibly harmless birdwatching trip out to Barton Park (before noon!) wound up in a mild case of possible heat-stroke (or whatever's a lot milder). Part may be to down to my increasing alienation from pop culture. It's not just getting older, either--I haven't seen a movie in the theater since Star Trek (unless you count the Cinematic Titanic presentation of 1972's The Oozing Skull at the Michigan*) and after I lost the return envelope to my Netflix delivery of The Hurt Locker, it took me almost three months to send it back; I just couldn't be bothered. There are hardly any new bands that inspire me (yet) and even my fondness for the "Long Tail" (movies, music, TV made before the "present moment") has dissipated to some extent. It doesn't help that I can hardly go to a site on the Internet without seeing all that dopey slang that hits me like nails on a chalkboard (FTW! I'm looking at you, [insert noun or verb or whatever], FAILFAILFAIL, etc.) and have, for various reasons, cooled on some of my favorite sites, even ones that were second online "homes". My writing's been stalling for the past couple of months, and though I know you can't force it, it's been a little irritating. And then, of course, there's the lack of blogging (which may be the longest I've gone without since I started this thing five years ago).

Conversations at work suggest that disillusionments with each are just natural phases, but it's a little unnerving that they've all struck at the same time. Ever since I can remember, I've always loved watching movies. I've always loved reading. I started writing at a fairly early age, and though it took me a while to become in any way savvy regarding music, I caught up with a vengeance during grad school and after (maybe too much). These have been constants for practically my entire life, and it's a little chilling to think that one or more can just wink out, however temporarily, like a guttering candle. As I write this, I'm listening to Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras on BBC 3. It's wonderful and I love it, but I've gone some time without listening to a single uninterrupted stretch of orchestral or indeed any other music at home until I put on Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe a few hours ago. I just can't be bothered. I'll read a few articles online, surf a few sites, maybe read through a book or two or watch a soccer match (I have gotten into Major League Soccer and SuperLiga 2010 after the conclusion of the World Cup, and that's been a lot of fun) before I go to bed, but there's no application, and that's really something I have to get back. I started trying today. There's only so long I can go before blaming the weather sounds even more ridiculous.

Hoosiers (1986): As with so many great 80s classics, I managed to make it for decades without seeing this one. Gene Hackman is characteristically exceptional (he was even the best thing about Superman, which admittedly wasn't hard--sorry, Jon, if you're reading), but the movie as a whole seemed a little light to me. Some of it's refreshing, as apart from Barbara Hershey and Dennis Hopper (who was nominated for an Oscar, at about the same time as his classic Saturday Night Live hosting gig), there aren't any "name" actors in it. The closest I came to recognizing offhand was Chelcie Ross, the guy who played Harris in Major League, as a local who feels threatened by the appearance of Norman Dale (Hackman) as a high school basketball coach in 1951 rural Indiana. Dale's got a "troubled loner with a past" thing going on, but he uses it in the service of his team and their slow but steady progress to the state championship. This was actually a pretty good choice to try and break out of this grinding ennui, as not a lot seems to actually happen. Basketball-crazed locals try to thwart Dale and his crazy newfangled ideas about coaching, Dale falls in love with teacher Myra Fleener (Hershey), town drunk Shooter (Hopper) finds redemption and respect from his basketball-player son as an assistant coach, and it's all very laid-back and weirdly soothing. David Anspaugh's no-frills direction fill out the countryside nicely--there are several scenes that I might have biked through earlier in the summer (if they weren't in Indiana). Hackman's introspective masculinity works brilliantly, but I can't help feeling that he and the film are a little mismatched. Still, it was a pleasant way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Ossessione (1943): A rather more bracing way to spend it was by watching Luchino Visconti's spectacular debut, one of the most important forbears of the Italian neo-realist movement later in the decade and the source of major controversy in then-Fascist Italy (the authorities believed they were about to see a simple love story and then banned it near-instantly and nearly destroyed it forever). Visconti would later be famous for some of the more sumptuous and opulent entries in Italian cinema (1963's The Leopard is still probably the most perfect match of cinematic style and substance I've seen), but started his career off with a bang by adapting James M. Cain's classic The Postman Always Rings Twice to northern Italy. Gino (Massimo Girotti) happens along a roadside trattoria run by a grotesque buffoon and his sexy wife Giovanna (Clara Calamai). Gino and Giovanna immediately start and affair and decide to do away with the husband. Of course, things aren't that simple, and the two lovers find themselves in hotter water than planned. It starts off slowly, but quickly builds up speed, like the cars along the autostrada who figure so prominently in the story. Visconti's revolutionary, sweaty, realistic treatment of characters and setting was worlds away from the "white telephone" melodramas so popular during Mussolini's regime; there seems little doubt in hindsight about the success of the new way of doing things. Girotti is hugely charismatic (the start of another long story in Italian film) and the ravishing Calamai (never more alluring when she threatens Girotti with blackmail or exposure) would finish her career in Dario Argento's 1975 classic Deep Red, bookending two enormously influential Italian contributions to world cinema. Great stuff and well worth a look.

* Cinematic Titanic, for those who don't know, is a troupe composed of Mystery Science Theater 3000 creators and writers Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Josh Weinstein, and especially Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, who travel the country riffing on the kind of film fare MST3K made famous. I was a little worried that the act, love it though I did, wouldn't translate to the stage. I couldn't have been more wrong, especially after seeing 90s TV fixture Dave "Gruber" Allen take the stage as a warm-up act. He wasn't that great, to be honest, but anyone who's been on NewsRadio twice... well, words fail me. Being in the same theater with that assemblage, especially Conniff and Pehl, was like--actually, vastly better than--meeting the Pope.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 11:47 PM EDT
Updated: 20 July 2010 12:06 AM EDT
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25 May 2010
Tears of Pomona
Now Playing: Deerhunter--"VHS Dream"

The garden is planted, "garden" maybe a rather pompous term for a planter box with one sorrel plant and four peppers (two Anaheim, two habanero). Nevertheless, garden it is. The planter box I'm using is called an "Earthbox" and works on the water table system; a plastic box gets filled with potting mix, but with a screen at the bottom to create a water reservoir, fed through a pipe in the corner. The top gets covered with a plastic cover that operates as mulch, with holes cut for the plants. I started almost a week ago, and it seems to be doing pretty well. I had a brief scare towards the end of the first day, when the sorrel had deflated like a popped balloon, but it seems that it was only getting used to the new conditions, for the next day it perked back up admirably. The mulch is getting a little frayed and torn; I'm not sure if that's due to the natural effect of the elements (it rained a lot early last weekend) or the nocturnal visits of raccoons. The plants show a bit of insect damage and blight on a couple of leaves, but overall appear to be right on course. The box is on casters, so I can roll it back and forth, and I'd planned to move it all around the house as the most consistent sunlight is in the northeast (the driveway) and the southwest (where it's broken up by pretty thick tree cover). Fortunately, I found a sweet spot just east of the driveway where there's pretty decent light for most of the day; I expect any movement will just be for the sake of the grass underneath.

I finally caved and bought a camera, too, which still feels a little weird, as I haven't owned one since I was about fifteen. Once people stopped making film for the Kodak Instamatic, there didn't seem much point. Even during the past decade or so, when everyone's public personae depended more and more on the constant snapping of photos, there didn't seem much urgency (I didn't have a car, the internet or--by and large--TV either, so one more nonconformity, however partially voluntary, didn't make much difference, I thought). I did get a really cheap one at an office supply store which turned out to be a damp squib; I took a few crappy pictures with it and then the sheer uselessness of the thing hit me. It correspondingly took a while for me to get used to the notion again. The idea for this one occurred when I realized I was going to be spending a lot more purposeful time outside this spring and summer--riding the bike outside the city, gardening at home or at work, and other possible projects I'm considering. It'd be nice to have a pictorial record of that and be able to share it with others, especially friends of mine elsewhere in the States or abroad, as, infuriating as Ann Arbor can frequently become, it's a pretty good-looking town (downtown, anyway) and the natural areas can be quite breathtaking. I ended up getting a Canon PowerShot SX120, and it's worked magnificently so far. My standard ride down Bandemer and Argo Parks before work has now been exhaustively documented, and I was able to break it out, too, for my friend Sara's birthday, where we again congregated at a local area to pull invasive weeds, mainly dame's rocket and garlic mustard.* It takes really good shots, and I'm starting to be able to handle the "manual" setting--where you can specifically control things like exposure and focus and such--rather well. The pictures have so far been too big to comfortably fit on the blog (too many pixels and such), but I may be able to fix that soon. In the meantime, no event or occurrence, however small, will go unphotographed (said the man who spent a good five minutes trying to line up a shot of turtles mating at Gallup Park**).

The Rules of the Game (1939): Jean Renoir was probably the most famous and prestigious French film director of the early sound era, and for me he came highly recommended through the classic Grand Illusion (1937), the renowned World War I prisoner-of-war drama, and his superb La Marseillaise (1938), a rousing Popular Front-era celebration of the ideals and events of the French Revolution (and a snarky corrective to more negative portrayals of the period by Hollywood films of the decade such as 1935's The Scarlet Pimpernel). The Rules of the Game (or Le Regle de Jeu) is somewhat in the same vein, and is one of those movies that critics often praise as one of the greatest of all time. I quite enjoyed it myself. It's essentially an extended bedroom farce set in contemporary France with a light examination of the class differences between workers, the bourgeoisie, and the still surviving aristocracy (intriguingly depicted in this specific instance as being Jewish--a telling nod to the relative diversity of French society even in that era and in hindsight a grim foreshadowing of the next six years). Transatlantic aviator Jurieu (Roland Toutain) flies into Paris to find his lover Christine (Nora Gregor) absent, and bitches her out on national radio. Christine's husband, the aristocratic La Chesnaye (Marcel Dalio), encourages her to invite the pilot out to their country house for the weekend. A riotous series of events quickly ensues, as the pilot and lover make up and fall out and La Chesnaye's own lover starts to undergo what looks like a nervous breakdown. As if that weren't enough, the local poacher (Julien Carette) has been hired on La Chesnaye's whim, much to the chagrin of his arch-enemy, La Chesnaye's gamekeeper (Gaston Modot, whose wife, played by Paulette Dubost, the poacher instantly tries to seduce). Indulgently enjoying the whole mess is Octave, friend to all, whose portrayal by Renoir himself places the director squarely in the center of things and probably gave the architects of the auteur theory plenty of meat twenty years later. It all ends in a somewhat understated tragedy, as life carries on as it did before (the last shot is of the haute monde going back inside the house), but with the prospect of future trouble ominously present (the servants make catty remarks about La Chesnaye's Jewish ancestry, and his wife is herself a refugee from Nazi Austria). I can see why it's such a cinematic icon--Renoir somehow manages to ably satirize all classes and people without losing sight of a common vision of humanity and cooperation. The film was banned in France for being "defeatist," and wasn't released again until the late 1950s, by which time Renoir had become widely respected as one of the great titans of French cinema. The Criterion DVD comes with a feisty intro from Renoir himself done about the time of the film's rerelease--well worth watching.

Avanti! (1972): One of Billy Wilder's last great comedies is an entertaining yet tonally weird romp through southern Italy (murder is involved at one point) in the company of a free-spirited young British woman and a middle-aged American businessman who have come to bury their respective parents, the latter having perished, to the businessman's surprise, in a car crash and in each other's arms. Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Jack Lemmon), has only a few days before his father's funeral is scheduled to take place in Baltimore and is shocked not only at the thicket of red tape that suddenly obstruct his path but also at the fresh revelations concerning his father's life, particularly a decade-long liaison with "Kate." Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), Kate's daughter, finds it all rather less surprising, and positively blossoms under the cumulative effect of Italy (much unlike Wendell). The two soon lock horns regarding the ultimate destinations of their parents' remains and things get tricky when, not only do the bodies mysteriously vanish, but Wendell and Pamela start to fall in love. The wily hotel manger Sr. Carlucci (Clive Revill) is thankfully on hand to speed things up--or slow them down, as need be. Avanti! is a fun film, but it doesn't cruise along quite as nimbly as Wilder's inimitable classics. The script, from a stage play by Samuel A. Taylor (and helped along by the legendary Richard Rodgers), is often extremely funny but frequently laden with one too many "rimshot" moments and the many topical references, though cutting-edge and current for the time, help to date the film a little more obviously than many others of its ilk. There's a fair amount of nudity, which is, of course, rarely a bad thing (even Lemmon bares all, though no full-frontal), but seems, in the context of a classic Golden Age director like Wilder making a film in the more ostensibly permissive early 1970s, like college-age playwrights filling their script with variations on "fuck" because they aren't in high school anymore (the University of Michigan's Basement Arts is a prime example, or at least it was when I had the misfortune to see one of their shows a few years back; Arthur Miller went to Michigan, you know). It may be an unjust criticism on my part, but I couldn't help feeling that the man who gave us Double Indemnity could have been a little more artful.*** The film's attitude to relationships seems a little off; Wendell would obviously benefit tremendously from a relationship with Pamela, but it seems a little hard on his wife Emily, only experienced as an unheard voice on the telephone. The sexual politics on offer appear to be those of the Rotary Club weekend (I'd say something about Mad Men, but I've never seen it). Considering the people involved, it's almost as if C.C. Baxter married Fran Kubelik after the end of The Apartment, won big on the company ladder, and then decided to start cheating on her. It may just be my relative hindsight, but I think Wilder's a little too accommodating of our hero in the matter. Fortunately, the whole thing is brilliantly sold by the cast, especially the leads. Lemmon does his usual sterling job, falling ever so slightly under Pamela's and Italy's spell yet retaining his smartass sense of self. As for Mills, I don't remember her having any other major film lead roles (she'd just come off the cult American TV show Nanny and the Professor and would later win notoriety as witch Tabitha, in the gloriously batshit NBC soap of the aughties, Passions), and she's divine in Avanti! The script saddles her with a weird hangup on her being "fat" (she apparently put on twenty-five pounds to play the role), another unwelcome indication (as in other films like I Am Curious: Yellow) of the long pedigree of the current obsession with thinness. Mills not only manages to transcend the potential degradation of such a fixation but also deftly sidesteps sliding into the dreaded "manic pixie dream-girl" mode thirty years before Natalie Portman failed to do so (if she even tried) in Garden State. Revill (who would deliver a memorable turn the following year as a snarly parapsych debunker in the Brit horror classic The Legend of Hell House) is great as the film's comic enabler and a host of little-seen (by me, anyway) Italian actors round out the local cast. While a little off in places, Avanti! is well worth a look, as a generally fun film and an interesting juncture between the cinematic worlds of Golden Age Hollywood and some of the romantic comedies--better romantic comedies, anyway--of the next four decades. Nice, too, to see a film about people discovering themselves in Italy that doesn't involve Tuscany at all.

Eliana, Eliana (2002): "Now on DVD, the film that revolutionized the Indonesian film industry!" Says the back cover, at any rate. I wish I'd known there was one readily available when this rather compelling little flick came out, the same year I was teaching classes on the history and culture of Southeast Asia at the University of Akron. The best remotely indigenous title I could rustle up to show students was John Woo's Bullet in the Head (1990), a turgid piece of work involving Hong Kong Chinese caught up in the Vietnam War. We ended up watching The Killing Fields, which is a fantastic film (even if Julian Sands shows up for a bit), but I would have liked something that actually came from Southeast Asia.**** If only I had access to Eliana, Eliana then... Written (with Prima Rusdi) and directed by Riri Riza, Eliana, Eliana tells a rather universal story within the framework of the Jakarta slums, where Eliana (Rachel Maryam Sayidina) lives with her roommate Heni (Hemidar Amru), after having fled to Java from her Padang home when confronted with the possibility of an arranged marriage by her mother (referred to as "Bunda," which I understand is a common maternal term, and played by Jajang C. Noer). Eliana ekes out a life of crappy jobs and returns one day to find her roommate nowhere to be found on rent day and her mother basically waiting on her doorstep. Eliana spends the rest of the film in the supremely unenviable position of wandering around Jakarta--the biggest city in Southeast Asia--looking for Heni and some rent money while being nagged by Bunda all along. There's some respite in aid and moral support from friendly taxi driver Jamu (Arswendi Nasution), and it becomes clear as mother and daughter navigate the treacherous, sexual harassment-clogged streets of Jakarta that they may have more in common than they realize. Eliana, Eliana is maybe most striking, at least to me, for being filmed on live-action video, and it seems to make a difference as far as the somewhat overheated performances are concerned. Where if they were on film I might take them a little less seriously, the acting, and its air of slightly heightened reality, seems much more appropriate and powerful in this filming medium, and maintained my interest throughout (as did the relatively--visually, anyway--unfamiliar locations). It's almost like a soap opera with important things genuinely at stake. The highlight of the movie is probably Jajang Noer, whose west Sumatran matron, confronted with the uncertainties of the big city, responds with a pluck that might seem cloyingly and smotheringly manipulative of the audience were it not for her obvious and unjust dismissal of her daughter's abilities. The comments on IMDB are usually only slightly more useful than those on YouTube (that is to say, not at all), but the notes on Eliana, Eliana point towards an Indonesian film industry (heavily Javanese, I'd suspect) whose surface may have yet to be really scratched by American film distributors. This is an area I'll definitely have to revisit, if only to find more unlikely gems like Eliana, Eliana.

*Unfortunately, we hit the garlic mustard this year after it had gone to seed, and it tastes quite bitter as a result. I found out, though, that it works rather well if you pair it with a strong dressing or other accompaniment in a salad, in order to cancel or alleviate some of the bitterness. It also seems to do okay used in lieu of parsley in meatballs, which I made for the subsequent picnic.

**That's what I was told, anyway, by the couple next to me when I was trying to take the picture. They had been to the Galapagos and seen sea turtles getting jiggy in that fashion (I didn't know if they meant regular turtles or the specifically awe-inspiring variety for which the Islas Encantadas are world-renowned). There were so many, though, and the one definite shot I caught showed a flash of what looked like pink flesh, that it may simply have been a mass of overactive fish--which bodes well for one of the other projects I'm considering.

***Wilder fled to the States after the Nazis took over Austria in 1938; I'm not terribly familiar with his early career in Austria and Hungary, but he may well have been involved with more risque material than was acceptable in Golden Age Hollywood. 

****There was a longstanding and mystifying attachment (on the literary as opposed to cinematic front) to the novel The Ugly American, by Lederer and Burdick, on the part of the World Civilizations Program's Southeast Asia subsection, which was basically a clunky fictional blueprint for the Kennedy Administration's policy towards Vietnam, as well as an endorsement for some of the more perniciously imperialistic tendencies of the Peace Corps. I thought of offering Pramoedya Ananta Toer's This Earth of Mankind, but went instead for his shorter but less accessible The Fugitive, about a returning anti-Japanese partisan after the Second World War. I sometimes wonder what they're doing now, or if the World Civilizations program is even still around.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 8:25 AM EDT
Updated: 25 May 2010 11:04 PM EDT
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15 May 2010
Porter Shorts
Now Playing: Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention--"Hungry Freaks, Daddy"

The 12th of May, 2010, was one of the strangest days I've had for a while. The weirdness mainly came down to the way in which it started. I woke up around five in the morning to the sound of people screaming at each other outside. I thought it might have just been the standard din of "America's future leaders" rolling down the sidewalk on the way home from whatever afterhours beer pong bacchanalia was going on over on Walnut or Linden. Sadly, the screaming continued, and I managed to shoehorn myself out of bed and stagger down to the front door. Looking between the slats of the front door blinds, I saw a guy and a girl yelling and gesticulating, the girl threatening to call the cops, and the guy sarcastically encouraging her to do so. In between all this, I reckoned that much of their disagreement must have been down to someone named "Kelly." There wasn't much else I could glean, save that the girl thought she was being kicked out of the guy's house and that the guy's yelling back (if she had started it at all) wasn't helping. As their behavior obviously indicated that they wanted the entire neighborhood to know their business, I tried my damnedest to eavesdrop on the whole story. It was the least I could do, really, especially after being woken up. The whole nature of my morning changed, though, when he started moving towards her rather aggressively (the best spin I could put on that was that he may have been trying to take her cell phone off her). I then threw the door open and said, "If you hit her, I'll call the cops." This sounds sillier or more melodramatic than it actually was, believe me; it must have looked a lot more like a "you damn kids better get off my lawn" reaction than anything else. The guy protested that they were just having a "spat," and the girl ran off. It suddenly hit me that these two had been through a similar deal a few months back, as she had headed down Geddes in the exact same way--presumably she lived over that way. We live in a very student-"rich" area, so it's a little hard to keep track of these things. The guy snarks at me the same way he did at the girl, and nearly made a move to gain the porch. He stopped and apparently thought better of it (which, though a relief, was a little odd, as I'm not the most threatening physical specimen), going back inside his house (which is hideously ugly, by the way--not that ours is relatively unsightly, but his makes our place look like the Alhambra). I went back inside, thinking (a) I'd gotten them apart for a possible cooling-off period, (b) I'd also gotten them off our driveway, which the guy mistakenly identified as "his property," and (c) I'd be able to go back to sleep. It was only as I later failed at (c) that I realized how odd I felt. I am not a confrontational person. It almost certainly derives, like most things, from childhood issues, but it's also been rather beneficial for me in many ways--being able to see two sides to every issue, etc. It certainly doesn't sound like much, but I felt like I'd stepped over a threshold of sorts (I suppose literally). I was a trifle off-kilter for the rest of the morning. I went in to work to help with gardening, though the miserable weather has once again postponed planting my own garden (see below). I had a decent chat with our garden coordinator over the possibility of gardening on a more formal basis (essentially taking over her position after she moves to North Carolina this summer), and, after cruising the farmer's market, had a delicious lunch of grilled mackerel and rice on the new noodle bar at Liberty and Thompson. After getting home and starting some chicken stock (I've been meaning to make a new batch for a while), I noticed a police car outside and saw the girl talking with a cop in our yard (I suppose she didn't want to be in the guy's "property"). No idea what happened, although that she went ahead and called the cops suggests something a little more serious. I don't know whether to feel pleased that I was able to stop things before they might have gotten really ugly (however relatively inadvertently) or just creeped out at being in such proximity to such a sketchy situation.

This week in general has been unusually productive. I finally decided to take the leap and plant a garden, though the strange repelling effect my house seems to have on the sun has forced me to get creative. On a work supply visit to Downtown Home and Garden, an estimable Ann Arbor institution, I noticed the existence of "Earthboxes," mobile mini-gardens that work on the water-table system. They seemed like just the thing, and I picked one up and later got potting soil for it. Hopefully today I'll be getting leeks, peppers, and fennel from the farmer's market, and probably plant tomorrow morning. The weather over the past few weeks has been strangely cool; every time I got ready to bite the bullet and grab some seedlings, it's either dropped to fifty or started raining (I suppose it's better than getting a last blast of snow). Now it finally looks like I'm in with a chance. I think I might still get a pot for a tomato plant and some basil, to be a little more traditional; there's a place on our front walk that would be perfect for it. I don't think there'll be a yield big enough for more than one or two dishes, but if I can prove to myself that I can do it, I might actually splurge for a plot at one of the community gardens next season.

I also sent off a story. One of my colleagues on the BHF drew my attention to Pill Hill Press, which puts out themed anthologies every few months, and is publishing one on werewolves entitled Silver Moon, Bloody Bullets, due out this summer. I've been discussing with work chums the growing stylistic bankruptcy of vampires and zombies, and the idea of exploring lycanthropy appealed to me, as did the short notice on the anthology, the deadline for which was Saturday. I knocked out a piece that I maybe think could use a little more flesh on its bones, but which stands alone pretty well, formatted it to the guidelines, and sent it off. It'll be only over the next few days, I think, that it truly sinks in what a big step this has been for me. I've been published before in the BHF anthologies, but that was originally by invitation for the first, and so submitting two more for the third didn't seem as forbidding as it might have. Ever since I started writing, I've only submitted "blind" twice, both in situations where the stories were quite unsuited to their destinations. I doubt this one will make it, but the threshold I've crossed (this has been the week for them, apparently) will make it easier for me to do this in the future, I think, and there are a few more themed anthologies coming out that might be more up my alley if this one doesn't work out. This year, while not as eventful, maybe, as last year's, is really shaping up to be a formative one.

The Witches and the Grinnygog (1983): The personally influential Nickelodeon series The Third Eye, which I've mentioned earlier on this screen in connection with Children of the Stones, delivered one more intriguing entry of children's supernatural fare before going off the air, apparently as a result of Nickelodeon's decision to retool around 1984, a decision that would lead to shows like the deeply loathsome Double Dare. Having already introduced malleable American viewers to a number of British series involving kids mixed up with the supernatural (and one New Zealander program, 1981's Under the Mountain), The Third Eye gave us this offbeat 1983 tale of cuddly tea-cozy witchcraft and then lamentably skeddadled. I vividly remember as a kid Nickelodeon starting to go down the tubes around this time, and it was probably for that reason. I didn't get to see all of The Witches and the Grinnygog back then. I was hooked for something like the first and second episodes, and then the combination of the titular unnerving stone idol and what I thought was a creepy scene with a disembodied voice coming from an attic scared me shitless and actually gave me nightmares. I'd like to report a surfeit of embarrassment on finally righting an almost thirty-year-old wrong (i.e. finally seeing the whole thing, fittingly enough given the story's subject matter) at the very idea of The Witches and the Grinnygog being scary. The Witches and the Grinnygog was based on the Whitbread-shortlisted children's book by Dorothy Edwards, and put out by TV South, an upstart independent station in southeast England that had a brief run of success in the 1980s, co-producing Fraggle Rock, among other things. A small village in southern England (interesting to compare this contemporary portrayal of the Thatcherite era with more northerly examples like Billy Elliot and Shane Meadows' compelling This Is England) suddenly finds itself beset with all manner of strange doings as the local vicar (Robert Swann, most famous in my house for the elegantly cruel Rowntree of Lindsay Anderson's if...) tries to stop the redevelopment of his church and everyone prepares for the village fete. It all revolves around the appearance of a mysterious gargoyle-like statue and three strange old women, one of whom apparently has a mannequin for a daughter. A band of kids--the vicar's and their more working-class friends--try to figure out what's going on, with the occasional help of the mysterious Dr. Alabaster (Olu Jacobs), an African academic who knows more than he's telling. The whole thing's supremely weird, and that I ever had trouble getting to sleep on its account will henceforth rank as one of my chief childhood shames. That's not to say it's bad at all. Its weirdness and relative lack of tension make for a refreshingly offbeat feel, as does the portrayal of village life. This isn't a Miss Marple story with the dates changed; the kids and the vicar are all seen listening to what clearly sounds like New Order and the Human League on the radio (interestingly, the YouTube upload for the finale of Part One features, on the side, the video for Real Life's "Send Me An Angel") and Mrs. Firkettle, the working-class kids' mother, has very realistic worries about losing her job in a department store. The appearance of Mr. Alabaster (and a bus driver of Asian descent) gives a refreshingly diverse twist for the time. The story revolves around an ancient injustice needing to be put right, but the tension never really quite results in the payoff one might expect. The title idol has its moments of creepiness, but none that really justify, even in retrospect, robbing me of sleep. Even so, it's a pleasantly offbeat trip down memory lane, and a laid-back, pressure-free way to scratch off some long-neglected unfinished business.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:31 AM EDT
Updated: 15 May 2010 10:40 AM EDT
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18 April 2010
Hot Mess Makeover: The Final Chapter
Now Playing: The Skygreen Leopards--"Dixie Cups in the Dead Grass"

The past few days have been an interesting barrage of inconveniences which have left me strangely and happily unperturbed. The most jarring came Thursday morning, a gorgeous day of near eighty which brought everyone out onto the streets and had me anxious to get some riding in before work. Right as I was about to leave, my housemate Ari intercepted me to say that our other housemate Patrick was moving out, and taking our internet with him. I was less irritated by that than by Ari's annoying insistence that I do something about it. I planned to, just not at that moment, and Ari's apparent disappointment that I was headed for work was a little irritating. I had Saturday night plans that heavily involved the internet (not what you're thinking) and I wasn't getting bent out of shape. In any event, the guy on the phone said they'd get it Monday, and so I'm typing this from Amer's. I have a laptop, so I fit in--up to a point. Sadly, everyone else appears to have Netbooks or MacBooks, but there's the slightest chance that I can get into an overcompensation tussle as mine's bigger. 


5 tbsp peanut oil, 1 whole mackerel cut into fillets, 2 tbsp water, 1/2 tsp double-black soy sauce, 1 tsp soy sauce, 1/2 tsp sugar, 1/4 tsp pepper, 6 cloves garlic (sliced lengthwise), 1 piece fresh ginger (peeled and cut into matchsticks), 1-2 fresh red chiles (cut into matchsticks), 1 medium red onion (halfed and thinly sliced), 1 tsp palm, rice or cider vinegar.

Heat oil in 12-in. skillet over medium heat. Add fish and saute until golden brown, approx. 5-6 min. on each side. When finished, set aside and pour off half of oil from skillet. In bowl, combine water, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and pepper. Stir well, set aside. Return skillet to medium heat and heat oil. When hot, add garlic, ginger, onion, and chiles, then saute 5-7 mins. Add soy mix to skillet and bring back to bubble. Once it bubbles, add vinegar and warm through. Remove pan, spoon sauce mix over fish and serve.

My friend in Iowa has recently encouraged me to try some Southeast Asian cooking. My own home cooking has been heavily European, and I'd never really tried anything outside the western subcontinent. Chuan-chuan (as described in James Oselan's excellent Cradle of Flavor) intrigued me especially as it involved mackerel, of which I've grown extremely fond. It's such a rich, flavorful fish that it really needs strong accents to counteract the taste, and chuan-chuan, a long-established Portuguese Malay recipe, delivered admirably, with ginger and soy ably balancing the powerful fishiness of the main ingredient. This time, I decided to get the whole fish and butcher it myselef. It was something I'd never done before, although I had some experience in butchering salmon fillets during my high-end prep job a couple of years back. Mackerel just looks marvelous--dark, shiny, compact, and substantial. It's a relatively easy fish to work with, as it has no scales, any my knife proved very effective in halving it and cutting away the skin, although I hope to get more proficient in reducing the waste (they say the parts are too strong for fish stock, but I may try something with them anyway). I came away with about four decent fillets, and prepared them accordingly. There were some expected problems with ingredients. Many of the recipes I found needed hard-to-find stuff like lemongrass stalks and galangal. With chuan-chuan, my major hurdle was the lack of double-black soy sauce, which I (probably ineffectively) surmounted by using two different kinds of regular soy. If I make this again, I might try fish sauce; I expect it'd lead to a richer taste, and I love the fishy taste of fish so long as it doesn't indicate spoliage. I couldn't find the right kind of chile either, but just substituted Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning--probably not as hot, but probably more delicious. Along with the actual dish, I cooked down a couple of cups of paella rice my Spanish housemate had left behind when she returned to Murcia. The recipe's ancestry raised a couple of questions; I wondered how the Portuguese familiarity with mackerel (a fine, upstanding Atlantic fish of long distinction) had been responsible for the idea in the first place as the first colonists arrived in conquered Melaka during the early sixteenth century. Along with the rice, I sliced up a nice, plump tomato and mixed the rice with a little more soy. I thought it was terrific, a nice, filling meal with plenty of good stuff for both nutrition and taste. Apparently mackerel's disdained in certain quarters, not only for the strong taste but also for the fattiness. The latter is pretty much a textbook case for "good" fat--very low in cholesterol and rich in omega-3. It's definitely a dish that could stand an encore, with any number of creative additions and substitutions.

Dance of the Dead (2008): The fifteen or so previews I sat through before I got to reach the menu for this DVD (my DVD player's down, too, so I'm watching movies on the laptop and all until I get around to grabbing a new one) really underlined the a quietly impressive achievement Dance of the Dead presented--glimpse after glimpse of grimy, faux-industrial horror and hokey supernatural chills with overbaked gore (in fairness, one of them was Saw V) and interchangeable characters. Somehow Dance of the Dead--written and directed as a labor of love by, respectively, Joe Ballarini and Gregg Bishop--manages to get away with being a refreshingly original horror film at the terminus of two pretty overplayed subgenres--the teen and zombie flicks. Prom night's just around the corner, and the students at Cosa High School are at fever pitch. Jimmy (Jared Kudnitz) and Lindsey (Greyson Chadwick--who, on top of being a lovely, talented actress, ought to get roles on that name alone) have just broken up as she's tired of his treating life as a joke. Steve (Chandler Darby), a sci-fi geek, is anxious to ask out cheerleader Gwen (Carissa Campobianco), but finds her too infatuated with rocker Nash (Blair Redford) to notice. Add to that assorted preppies, geeks, psychos, and gun-crazed gym teachers, and then throw in a power plant that might have been lifted straight from the opening title scenes of The Simpsons. On prom night, the dead rise, and its up to the misfits, outcasts, and their fellow travelers to fight off the zombie menace and save the town. Dance of the Dead, to a certain extent, is much ado about nothing--the reasons for the undead assault are treated almost as an aside--but in terms of character development and dialogue, it's probably one of the best and most realistic films about high school since at least the 90s, and perhaps before. Part of this authenticity is down to the startling realization that these kids actually look like high schoolers. It's been a running joke at least since Reefer Madness (or even Sternberg's Die Blaue Angel) that films portraying high school routinely cast actors generally a decade in advance of their onscreen age. I don't know how old the actors in Dance of the Dead are, but they're very convincing in their late teens, and their naturalistic performances and the light, witty dialogue really help put Dance of the Dead over the edge, as does the location filming in Rome, Georgia--which does an admirable job of standing in for the U.S. east of Pasadena and west of Newark. Every time it looks like the comedy might overbalance the horror, the film subtly shifts course until all's right again. Dance of the Dead attracted around-the-block lines at its premiere at SXSW a couple of years ago, and little wonder, as it breathes new (if probably brief) life into a couple of (deservedly?) burnt-out genres.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 2:38 PM EDT
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30 March 2010
Medium Brutal
Now Playing: Stereolab--"The Emergency Kisses"

It's time to start cooking regularly again, and I really can't figure out where to start. There's just so much information out there, and so many different cuisines, that I suffer serious overload just trying to think about it. One thing I definitely want to do is become more familiar with my own "native cuisine," which, as it's that of southern Louisiana, fortunately happens to be one of the most famous and celebrated in America, if not the world. My own personal culinary history, certainly as reported on this blog over the years, has ranged from Italian fish dishes (merluzzo livornese) to standard French classics (vichysoisse), offbeat Basque fish stews (marmitako), Hungarian work castoffs (paprikasz), intriguing Caribbean variations (habanero and lime black bean chili), disappointing Caucasian misfires (Circassian chicken), versatile Mexican dressings (green mole sauce) and West African-influenced comfort food (sweet potato and peanut stew). From reading that back, I haven't really ventured "east of Suez" and it's a pity, though a friend's encouragement has recently inspired me to investigate the culinary traditions of maritime Southeast Asia and combine my love of cooking with some of my bygone academic interests. I also need to get a serrated knife and a grill, and then I'll be ready for summer. Watch this space!

Armide (1777): Christoph Willibald Gluck was one of the most successful and well-known composers of the mid-eighteenth century, laying the foundations for the transformation of orchestral music--opera in particular--that contemporaries and successors like Haydn and especially Mozart and Beethoven would carry to the next level (Mozart took Gluck as something of a mentor during his years in Paris). An immigrant to France from the Austrian Empire, he became the toast of the ancien regime and the focus of a famously bitter struggle between his supporters and those of the more conservative Italian opera composer Niccolo Piccinni during the 1780s (there's a great writeup on the tussle in Claude Manceron's hugely entertaining micro-history of pre-Revolutionary France--I think it's in Twilight of the Old Order). His most famous operas were probably Orfeo ed Euridice (1762) and Iphigenia en Aulide (1774), but he considered Armide one of his best, and it today remains a relatively little-known work, all the more remarkable as it took some stones to produce. An earlier version of Armide (based on events and characters in the sixteenth century Italian poet Torquato Tasso's epic Gerusalemme Liberata) had been produced in the reign of Louis XIV by Jean-Baptiste Lully, one of the great exemplars, along with playwrights like Racine, of the Sun King's rigidly classical approach to the arts. As such, it was considered a national treasure by the French intelligentsia. I don't know what a modern equivalent might be--filming Catcher In The Rye, maybe? At any rate, Armide is rarely produced, from what I know. This made it an all the more intriguing destination for a Friday evening, as the University of Michigan Opera Theatre was producing it as their winter opera (they did Il Nozze di Figaro in the fall). I was pretty stoked, as they usually do the old chestnuts (understandably enough, as you're likely to get a bigger audience)--the year before they did La Traviata (which I got to see) and La Boheme (which is hardly one of my favorites anyway). Armide was as likely a choice as John Adams' Nixon in China. I was fairly unfamiliar with this period of opera--Mozart's stuff isn't quite in the same category--and it would definitely be interesting to check it out. As it happened, it was pretty fabulous, with something for everyone. Armide (Kristin Eder), a warrior-sorceress, is constantly frustrated by the bravery of Christian paladin Renaud (Willis Berne D. Bote) and decides to ensorcel him once and for all so that his defenses will be lowered and she can close in for the kill. Unfortunately, she falls in love with him and can't follow through. Renaud's posse shows up and frees him from Armide's porntastic witchery (the near-balletic moments as Renaud's beset by the welcome eye-candy of "the pleasures" fairly typical of opera during this period, from what I remember), as Armide meditates on the tragic nature of her exposure to love. There's more to the plot than that, but that's the basic structure, with generous dollops of comedy and drama. The occasionally sinister plot gets a wonderful counterpoint in the sprightly, high-Classical music (Gluck was pretty much at the mid-point between Baroque and Romantic). Some fantastically simplistic set design was enhanced by brilliant lighting, conveying mood along with the music and acting. The moments when Armide gets ready to cast a spell were superb, especially in Act 3 when she summons demons to get rid of Renaud--the whole thing's a perfect riot of music, color, and atmosphere, and the tension between Armide and "Hate" is gorgeously erotic. The cast is great, but Eder's especially good in the lead role, and some of this two-and-a-half-centuries-old extravaganza can seem amusingly modern--some of the translated libretto (when Armide and company cajole the powers of Hell) sounds like it would have fit on my co-worker's metal CDs. It was a great night out, and hopefully its success will encourage the Opera Theatre to program some more lesser-known works!

Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (2007): The Oxford History of the United States, originally planned out by the late, great C. Vann Woodward and carried on by David M. Kennedy, has now swelled to several volumes, at present covering 1763-1865 and 1929-2000. My first exposure to it was James M. McPherson's magnificent Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988), certainly the best single-volume history of the Civil War and, for my money, one of the best non-fiction books ever written (as history, Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 comes close in its unusual chronological sweep). Since then, I've read the other volumes in the series, none of which really come close to the first, though they're all excellent in their own way. Howe's entry was the last on my list, and it's probably the most engaging since McPherson's, thanks to some sprightly writing and interesting idiosyncrasies. It also helps, surprisingly, that this period of U.S. history has, westward expansion aside, always bored me. I never knew that anyone could make stuff like the "transportation revolution" and the Second Great Awakening interesting, but Howe manages and then some (his background as a cultural historian helps especially with the latter). What Hath God Wrought treats one of the most important eras in our history in a near binary opposite manner to the chronologically similar The Rise of American Democracy, by Sean Wilentz, which covers the Election of 1800 to the Civil War. Whereas Wilentz is a mostly unabashed partisan of Andrew Jackson (with understandable scolding for policies like the barbaric "Indian Removal"--also known as the "Trail of Tears"--during the 1830s), Howe focuses his admiration on Jackson's frequent foe, the presidentially hapless John Quincy Adams, who bracketed his rather lackluster presidency (1825-29) on both sides with immense achievements, first as James Monroe's Secretary of State (1817-25) and then as a Massachusetts Congressman and national conscience (1831-48), promoting civil liberties, moderate abolitionism, and minority rights, famously assisting the legal case of the Amistad mutineers in 1841. Howe sees Adams--and the "National Republicans" and Whigs he represented--as the prophet of an American future devoted to reasoned political participation, commerce, and self-improvement, rather than the mass Jeffersonian Republicanism largely espoused by Jackson. As for the latter, our seventh president (whose presence on the $20 bill, as Howe wryly observes, is rather ironic as he abhorred paper money) built much of his career on being a rough diamond, and Howe takes that image and runs with it in terms of negative criticism (in opposition, it must be stressed, to much of the American historical consensus, which saw--and sees--"Jacksonian democracy" as an unalloyed good), especially in terms of white supremacy being a fundamental pillar of his political beliefs. Howe juggles all the explosive trends and developments of the period admirably, devoting equal time to politics, economics, and culture (with interesting emphases--he makes an explicitly and personally religious statement late in the book that doesn't seem inappropriate in the context of religion's importance in that period of American history*). Many of the reviews I've read focus on the similarities between the 1830s and 2000s, with Jackson offering more than a few parallels with Bush in terms of executive lawlessness and character flaws (acknowledged by Howe, who gets one bit of snark in about nineteenth-century "weapons of mass destruction"). At the end of the aughties, though, I found myself much more interested in the contrast between Jacksonian economic lassitude and the "internal improvements" (mostly in terms of transportation and infrastructure--canals, roads, and later railways) generally espoused by the Whigs. That's instantly relevant; what else is a bill like the Affordable Care Act than an updated internal improvement? An ambitious, government-assisted policy to better the lives of all citizens through an improvement in infrastructure? Sounds pretty familiar. It's interesting to note--implicitly in Howe, and I unsurprisingly agree--that the Democratic Party in the early twenty-first century have essentially assumed the mantle of the Whigs, and the Republicans (initially made up--in their inspiring and now wholly forsaken infancy--of politically homeless Whigs, renegade antislavery Democrats, and abolitionists) have inherited all the worst aspects of Jacksonian "Democracy." The debates in print and in Congress demonstrate further similarities. On the one hand, it's comforting to know that little really changes; but on the other, it's also a little depressing (my own previous historical parallel to the present situation, especially in the media, was the 1790s, but I'm starting to think the war between Jackson and the Whigs fits it better). For my money, Howe does an exemplary job at one of history's most important duties--fulfilling and enriching our knowledge  while sparking critical thought about the present and future.

Predator (1987): The popularity of Austrian Death Machine at work has generated a whole new level of glory--that will presumably seem delusional to California residents--for the former Terminator, one that finally inspired me to see his work alongside that of another future governor in John McTiernan's storied action-horror-scifi flick. Dutch (Ahnuld) leads a team of U.S. Green Berets or Special Forces (it was unclear, at least to me) into a dangerous rescue mission in an unnamed Latin American country (given the time of the movie's release, "Shmicaragua" sounds pretty apt), including the monstrous, MTV-T-shirted Blain (Jesse Ventura)--it struck me later that Blain could be the "cool uncle" of Andrew McCarthy's character in Pretty In Pink. Dutch's old pal Dillon (Carl Weathers) tags along, and it quickly becomes clear that things aren't as they seem, especially when the team is targeted by a mysterious assailant who proves more than a match for the Free World's frontline. I wasn't expecting it to be bad, exactly, but it was quite a gripping little film, actually more akin to Aliens than Rambo, although a number of similarities with the latter kept surfacing (especially the "dying extras filmed lovingly flying through the air in slow motion" and "in the big battle, show every single hut in the village exploding in closeup" motifs). John McTiernan, at the start of a career that would include Die Hard and The Hunt For Red October--arguably ushering in the next big era in blockbuster movies that Star Wars started a decade earlier--has a much surer grasp of things than Rambo's George P. Cosmatos, and parts of the film are almost contemplative at times (he also makes excellent use of the gorgeous Mexican locations). Some of the lines are pretty cringeworthy--Ventura actually says "it's payback time"--but, as an Amazon reviewer also pointed out, Predator--like Rambo--was one of those films that basically enshrined many of the action film cliches later movies (like, I'm told, McTiernan's own The Last Action Hero) would so mercilessly parody. Schwarzenegger probably had one of his best roles here--there are lots of action shots and face-acting closeups, and limited dialogue, although in the latter he does pretty much hold his own with Weathers. The final third of the film essentially consists of his private war with the Predator, the latter superbly realized both in the story and with Stan Winston's creature design. The parallel between the Predator's lifestyle and that of Dutch's men is made somewhat clumsily but effectively, and it's refreshing to see R.G. Armstrong still going strong by the late 1980s as the American military advisor to the "Shmicaraguans." Best of all, the closing credits start out with a sidesplittingly jokey series of comedy "bows" from the supporting cast, agreeable proof that Predator is an action flick that doesn't take itself too seriously; I have a surprising amount of defensive goodwill for this movie, and make no apologies.

*That is, it's not ethically inappropriate; the specific argument, on the other hand, struck me as pretty bizarre. He essentially makes the point that "God works in mysterious ways," and that California's falling prey to American expansionism in the Mexican War, though the result of greed and near-piracy, resulted in a greater good by enabling the United States to defeat Japanese aggression in the Pacific during the Second World War. The conquest of California certainly ensured a greater American presence in the Pacific, but then it's arguable that said greater American presence helped to drive the development of imperial Japan into an expansionist power in the first place. Still, in context, it's a fairly microscopic quibble in an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking work.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 10:36 PM EDT
Updated: 30 March 2010 11:48 PM EDT
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21 March 2010
Mayonnaise Surfing
Now Playing: The Four Tops--"Still Water (Love)"

It somehow escaped my notice in the last entry that my blog turned five years old on the eleventh of March.

I started blogging after happening on Ann Arbor Is Overrated during the "dark days" of my Washtenaw County existence and noticing how many people had blogs. I followed suit, and it's interesting to ponder how many things have changed and how many have stayed the same in the half-decade since. At the start, I still worked at Chateau Fluffy, and most of the friends I'd made on my initial move to Ann Arbor (the vast majority of which were work colleagues) had moved away themselves. I enjoyed my work, if not my job, and had just started making a habit of actually finishing stories I began. Within a couple of months, I started going to shows at the Madison House, made an avalanche of friends and acquaintances, and much of the blog became devoted to the local music scene. After a couple of years, the scene began to fragment (at least from my perspective), and the overwhelming dominance of folk and alt-country was getting a trifle wearisome, however much I enjoyed many of the individual acts. I stopped seeing the crowd as much, but am profoundly thankful and grateful to keep the comradeship of some greatly cherished friends, who I'd like to thank once again for being there (and for reading!).

I noticed a few trends reading back over the posts--the entries became a lot more focused (he laughed mirthlessly), dwelling less on the vicissitudes of my personal life and the goings-on at shows and more on recipes, films, and books. I'm pretty comfortable with that, as I hardly ever go to shows anymore and I figure people will find recipes and film reviews more interesting anyway. It parallels my life in a weird way--I used to live a lot more aimlessly, which wasn't surprising in that my idea for a career in academia had run into some nasty realities and I found myself needing to retool. I'm still retooling to some extent, but I've got a much better idea of what I need to do both in my professional and personal lives; I'm taking actual steps on one and making firm resolutions on the other, which is better than nothing. Life isn't so generally carefree as it was five years ago, but that's the nature of age and my "denial closet" (as it's been defined for humanity by a couple of colleagues) isn't nearly so stuffed as it used to be.

Remembering the proliferation of friends' blogs back in the day, I'm even proud in a little way that this one's still going relatively strong (even after three name changes--it's been "The Decline," "Clown's Death Rattle," and "Beat Them Gherkins" along the way). It's been a lot less coherent and specific than other blogs, but it's a reflection of my personality, and so I guess that's fitting. I'll be interested to see if it runs another five, or if I'll even be in Ann Arbor at that point (which certainly isn't the official plan). In any event, I feel pretty good, it's turning out to be a surprisingly nice day (hopefully not too nice, as I want a pleasant day at work), and the blog still provides me with an outlet that's occasionally interesting to others. It's done its job, and I'm grateful for it.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:34 PM EDT
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17 March 2010
The Final Latke
Now Playing: Django Django--"Storm"

"Every time Tony Blair says 'we,' I feel like Gary Glitter has suggested me as a character witness. Leave me out of it!"

--Graham Linehan, Twitter, 29 January 2010

After being sick on-and-off (which I'm convinced is a direct result of my getting used to riding a bike in the winter, as I don't remember it happening to such a degree last year) for much of early March, I was actually able to cook something at home on Monday. I always thought it an old wives' tale that professional (or at least working) cooks rarely cooked at home because they were so tired of handling food all the time. There's some truth to that, I now believe, but in my case I think there's also the time issue. When I worked at Cafe du Jour, I never worked evenings or weekends, and those times were a lot more convenient for me to really kick it in the kitchen. Now, I work five evenings a week, two of them almost always on weekends, and so the equation has changed. Hopefully I'll be able to keep this recent momentum going.

Mackerel made its debut in my kitchen on Monday, something I've been anticipating for a while. Apparently mackerel seems to have a mixed reputation (at least according to Mark Bittman) as its strong, fishy flavor and quick spoliage rate puts people off. I loved it. It looks good, the backflap cuts easy (as long as you don't mind chunks instead of slabs), even with my excuse for a serrated knife (I really need to get a decent one) and the finished flavor remains rich, robust, and above all fishy. Often cookbooks will warn against a fishy taste or smell, as that generally means that the fish has gone off to some extent, but I like the idea of your meal underlining the origin of your main dish, and mackerel preserves that authenticity even after you've cooked it. I had a Portuguese Malay recipe planned that I may still try eventually, but I'd never had mackerel before, and I figured I should get the taste down and figure out whether I'd like it again. So I made a kind of sauteed mackerel hash salad.

As mentioned before, cutting back flaps off the mackerel fillets (about a pound and a half) with my substandard knife yielded fish chunks instead of neat fish steaks, but all was good as I planned to saute it all anyway; I could get a comparison of the different tastes of a large and small piece. I heated up the skillet, dumped the fish in there, then added a little olive oil and a couple of cloves of crushed garlic (I'd probably try oil first next time, but I got carried away with the improvisatory nature of the "recipe"). I started cooking it, stirring all the while, and adding a little lemon juice and apple cider vinegar for good measure (most of the recipes I've read for mackerel recommend adding the latter, at least, to counter the intense flavor of the actual fish; as I figured--rightly--that I'd like the flavor anyway, that wasn't much of an issue). Saute's probably my favorite cooking method, simply because you have such a close connection to the actual cooking, and can see it happen all the while. The fish, already a pale pink, whitened and then browned in various places, and one of my favorite parts of the process was carving away the razor-thin strips of fried fish and juices that collected on the outside of the skillet, then pulling them back and mixing them with the fish. After about ten or fifteen minutes (I wasn't keeping track as you could tell from the skillet) I tried some of the fish and it was definitely done. It tasted fantastic--like real fish, but with none of the stigma that fishiness usually carries. It almost had a hint of rubber, but in a good way, if that makes any sense; it was definitely great change from the other kinds of fish I've done in the kitchen over the years (salmon, cod, tuna, and smelt). I dumped the fish onto a plate, and then mixed it with raw spinach (which, on reflection, I should have wilted or something as it would have been a more interesting taste), a diced roma tomato, and a little Parmigiano, adding more apple cider vinegar and some whole grain mustard for dressing. The result was a rich combination of flavors I enjoy, although the clash was occasionally a little more interesting than savory. I had it with a couple of bottles of Great Lakes Dortmunder Gold, and it made for a wonderful day off. I can easily see this becoming a personal household favorite of mine, but I'm much more enthusiastic about learning how to do more mackerel recipes.

Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (1985): It's awful, but pleasantly so, therefore I don't hold its wretchedness against it. I really don't know where to start; fortunately, it's all on YouTube. The warier can get a load of the trailer, I suppose. There's no other way to review this than to repeat my stream-of-consciousness comments from the BHF Forum... Wow. James Horner's score is frankly ripping off his stuff for the Star Trek movies. I love the half-assed fertility dance the maidens seem to be doing at the beginning. Not sure whether the enchanted gargoyle is creepy or hilarious. Schuyler Colfax was Ulysses S. Grant's first vice-president. I never knew he was a gigantic, grunting plush toy (or "creepy whatchamacallit" as onetime 70s character actor--e.g. The Great Waldo Pepper--Bo Svenson calls him). The gnomes fall in the same category as the gargoyle. The nymph/siren thing made me think I was watching some long-lost giallo. Now it's like a mix of The Devil's Men with The NeverEnding Story. "Princess Aura"--wonder where that came from? Some of this dialogue could go up against Hellraiser II. "I bid you, Clyde, raise up these warrior spirits." Eh??? Colfax is doing his job--I'm laughing my ass off every time he "says" something. No. No no no no no. Not more gnomes. I'm tired of this PC bullshit. They want our jobs and our women. Period. I could swear the blacksmith played one of the poachers ("Huzza!") in the MST3K classic Pod People. The Suicide Cavern? What is this, the novel of You Only Live Twice? I hate to say it, but Bo Svenson's way too good for this movie. "Whadur ya doin? You need training to use that sword"--that was actually pretty funny. I think we just had partial nudity. The music appears to be quoting Benjamin Britten. Svenson's literally Swedish-American accent serves the film surprisingly well. Mermaids and rainbows. This movie's got it all. Blatant Prokofiev ripoff from Alexander Nevsky. The ripoffs go both ways: Quest of the Delta Knights owes this thing so much. I love Svenson's OTT wink and the fact that everybody starts chasing him. To quote Joel Hodgson on Manos: The Hands of Fate: "Man, I wonder what this cast party was like." "Rule well, Simon. You'll be a good king. Now follow my instructions like a puppy." According to the YouTube info, the sequel "stars a (very drunk) David Carradine" along with Sid Haig and what appear to be lower-rent versions of Corey Feldman and Billy Zane. I am personally richer for my experience.

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2004): This celebrated homage to 50s B-movies made quite a splash on its release several years back, and I'd been meaning to see it ever since. Scientist Paul (Larry Blamire) plans to spend an idyllic weekend out at the Taylors' cabin with his lovely wife Betty (Fay Masterson), but is interrupted by the arrival of an errant meteorite loaded with "atmospherium," the most powerful element known to "man." Paul's delighted by the opportunities the atmopsherium offers him to "do science," but a number of interlopers threaten Paul and Betty's happiness. Power-hungry scientist Dr. Roger Fleming (Brian Howe) needs the atmospherium to awaken the "Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" and gain power over the Earth, while stranded aliens Kro-Bar (Andrew Parks) and Lattis (Susan McConnell) need it to power their spaceship and recover their missing mutant. Spicing things up is Fleming's servant Animala (Jennifer Blaire), a half-human, half-animal temptress created from four different forest animals who takes quite a shine to Paul. For someone who still runs classic Mystery Science Theater moments through his head near-daily, Cadavra's appeal would seem like a no-brainer, but it takes a while to really get going. Some of the gags, like the awkward silences or the too-long laughter, if they were ever funny, have since been befouled by the atrocious Family Guy. Fortunately, once all the pieces come together, the film's affectionately shabby charm becomes apparent, even if the film's a little long (there was a sketch on the 90s comedy show Exit 57, featuring Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris, that did pretty much the same thing in about five minutes*). Bonus points for filming in scenic Bronson Canyon, where so many of these pictures (e.g. Robot Monster, Teenage Caveman, and Eegah!) got their distinctive look.

The Guild (2007-09): Not only do I not play World of Warcraft, I used to generate a certain amount of self-amusement poking gentle fun at those who did: "I'm sorry, but your HMO has been destroyed in a goblin attack." My limited access to the Internet for most of its existence would have prevented any addiction, as would my surprisingly lukewarm attachment to roleplaying games as a kid (I was more in love with the mechanics of character generation and world creation than the actual game, per se, and finding others to play was problematic--I think I only played two or three actual games with other people in my entire life).  It was probably just as well, as I noticed a certain amount of standoffishness when I told my Warcraft-playing co-worker about it; I thought he assumed that they would be making fun of his lifestyle, although this may be an automatic reaction. As a result, The Guild's setup wasn't entirely wasted on me, and in any event the deservedly popular web series becomes about so much (all right, slightly) more than the game itself. The Guild was the brainchild of Felicia Day, who played Penny in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and was one of the apprentice Slayers in the last season of Buffy. Ms. Day is an understandable hit among the online community, and there were moments when it would have been so much simpler for me to just veg out in front of the screen and drool the word "pretty" out as if I had just been put back together from the parts of corpses. Thankfully, this didn't happen (for the most part), and she's put together an extremely entertaining little phenomenon that's won several awards (YouTube, SXSW, the "Streamies") and has become (from what I can tell) something of a symbol of the kind of new media rightfully changing some of the rules of the American cultural landscape (strictly true, even if it sounds a little pompous). Inspired by Day's own video game addiction, The Guild follows a "guild" of online players (the specifics of Warcraft were discarded to avoid copyright complications, and the game comes across as a somewhat more generic Dungeons and Dragons-inspired variety) and the misadventures and obstacles they face in the game and (more often) in real life. Day plays a cleric named Codex, member of the "Knights of Good," led by Vork (Jeff Lewis) a fighter and in real life a taciturn, dronish chap who leads the Knights of Good, trying (and failing) to keep real-life resentments and complications from bubbling over and affecting the guild. Warlock Zaboo (Sandeep Parikh), thief Bladezz (Vincent Caso), mage Clara (Robin Thorsen) and ranger Tinkerballa (Amy Okuda) round out the gang--respectively a hapless mama's boy, a sleazy high schooler, a ditzy mother of three, and a savagely ruthless pre-med student. They all have real names that are mentioned occasionally throughout the show, but are usually referred to by their screen names when they're not online. All find themselves faced with an avalanche of batshittery that ensues when Zaboo starts stalking Codex and Bladezz is banned from the game for twenty-four hours for making an ass of himself. The plot gets deliciously convoluted over the three seasons (usually 10-12 episodes of around 5-8 minutes each), ending in the guild's conflict with the "Axis of Anarchy" (led by a hilarious Wil Wheaton as an Ayn Rand-quoting douchebag in a kilt) and Codex's determination to gain self-confidence in the game and in life. I first learned about The Guild on the extras to Dr. Horrible, and it works brilliantly as a web series. It doesn't last too long, you can watch whenever you want, and the length of the episodes makes it easy to dip in and out (not that I did--it's pretty easy to just watch each season in one sitting). This may seem old hat to many, but it's still something of a new thing for me, and the medium is perfect for what Day and company have done. The characters are a little broadly drawn, to be sure, and there's not a whole lot of room for development. As a result, the dialogue and situations become a little unrealistic even for the apparent parameters of the show, but the writing is almost always fresh and funny, sometimes in quite unexpected ways, and the actors' comic timing is outstanding (it didn't surprise me to learn that Parikh and Lewis are veterans of the L.A. improv scene). Codex is the de facto main character, and each episode starts with her making an entry on her vlog, but we learn enough about the others to appreciate the struggles they have to go through to live even vaguely normal lives. My favorite character, arguably, isn't even one of the guild but Bladezz' smartass younger sister Dena, who frequently violates the sanctity of the "Bladezz Pad" (his mom's basement). Describing the plot already looks weird enough on Wikipedia, so I'm not going to try and repeat the labor. Season 1 is up on YouTube, as is Season 2, and Season 3's at the official site. Day also put together this hilarious video which pretty much has the show down pat.

*"She's as brilliant as she is beautiful!!!"--one of Colbert's lines.

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 12:01 AM EDT
Updated: 17 March 2010 10:26 AM EDT
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2 March 2010
Claws of the Macrobiotic Werewolf
Now Playing: Black 47--"Banks of the Hudson"

The "dinner and several movies" plan hit yet another snag this week as I sickened once more. Thankfully, the illness comes in the middle of what looks to be a slim couple of months at work. The Midwestern weather has officially begun its perennially cruel (if you're sick) "spring fakeout" (which lasts from late February to around mid-May). My leaving early Monday didn't really inconvenience anyone, and I figured the following two days off could be used for recuperation. Sadly, all I'd be eating would be Sudafed and the occasional basic foodstuff, as I'd have little energy or desire to cook. I'm already slavering for the future, and the inevitable craving for sushi I'll probably have tomorrow or... all right, now. At present, it's a bittersweet affair, as the sun's been shining outside and I can hear the "chirping of birds" (once cited by my former spacey co-worker in a hilariously abortive attempt to cheer up my notoriously and relentlessly negative other co-worker). Within, my place has taken on the free-wheeling vibe of a medieval charnel house, as I can hear two of my housemates coughing and sneezing as well. I'm spending much of the first day in bed--catching up on some internet and listening to John Barry soundtracks--and plan to spend some of the second seasoning the Dutch oven my mom gave me for Christmas. Thankfully, I can still watch movies, and there are probably few more fitting for my present state of mind than those concerning the travails of American women on the fringes, portrayed by some fine actresses.

Wendy and Lucy (2008): Michelle Williams was my favorite part of the three or four episodes of Dawson's Creek I've seen in my lifetime, and it's been great to see her forge a respectable career out of what could easily have been teen-flick hell. I thought she was the best thing about the overrated Brokeback Mountain (Anne Hathaway being the most surprising), and she managed to shine through the majestic ruin that was Synecdoche, New York. In Wendy and Lucy, she's broke with a dog, Lucy, and a car in the Pacific Northwest en route to Alaska to work in the canneries (something I have to admit crossed my mind once or twice during college). The car breaks down and the viewer is treated to the kind of existence that far too many people face in this country every day. Wendy shoplifts out of desperation and gets caught, Lucy left waiting outside in the parking lot. When the police release her, Lucy has vanished and Wendy nearly loses her mind trying to find her over the course of the film, which ends on a somewhat bittersweet note (though I still look decidedly askance at all those "traveling" kids on the streets of Ann Arbor with dogs). Sometimes the setup seems a little too simple and clear-cut, with Wendy's good set against everyone else's lack of concern, but it all balances pretty well in the end, especially with a winning performance by actor and former Barney Miller writer Walter Dalton as a friendly security guard, and despite the appearance of Will Oldham as... one of those "traveling" kids, who's as annoying as you can probably imagine. Williams, to be sure, is superb, a number of scenes making me wonder why she wasn't nominated for an Oscar for this as well as for her turn in Brokeback Mountain. Forced to sleep on the streets for a night after she takes her car in to get fixed, she faces a unnerving encounter with a homeless man in which the top half of her face gives a performance in itself (you'd have to see it). Director Kelly Reichardt (working from a short story--"Night Choir"--and screenplay by Jonathan Raymond) really works to deliver these quiet scenes in a way that gives Wendy and Lucy a silent but overwhelming force throughout.

Frozen River (2008): Melissa Leo was nominated for an Oscar for Frozen River, and little surprise, as it's thoroughly excellent (best out of these three, and that's certainly a source for pride). Ray (Leo) works part-time in some sort of drug store in upstate New York, raising two children on her own and trying to pay off the new pre-fab home she's ordered so that the family can move out of their trailer. When work prospects don't look so hot, she runs into a Mohawk woman, Lila (Misty Upham), who offers to pay her for a ride across the border into Canada (I'm assuming the "frozen river" they're crossing is the St. Lawrence). Ray needs the money, and only starts asking serious questions once she sees a couple of burly-looking Quebecois hustle some people into her trunk. Ray becomes the northern version of a "coyote," ferrying illegal immigrants from Canada into the States ("free trade between nations," claims Lila, as they technically never leave Mohawk territory on either side of the international border), and she and Lila start to make a habit of their new sideline until the cops, led by Trooper Finnerty (Michael O'Keefe--it's a measure of this film's power that not once was I inspired to yell "Noonan!") start to catch on. Leo, who was so excellent on Homicide, is outstanding as Ray, sympathetic yet with a cold core that helps to inure her to the possible consequences of her deeds, one that fits very well with the bleak upstate woods and windswept terrain. Upham is just as good, parrying Ray's taunts and jibes and showing how much of Lila's toughness is dependent on the goodwill of her native community--the tribal police know they have to make an example of one of their own but act by and large as honest brokers. A number of (purposefully?) throwaway points are made about "homeland security," driving home how little these issues genuinely affect many people's daily lives. Writer-director Courtney Hunt gets the most out of her actors and especially the beautifully desolate landscape that surrounds them--yet another piece of America that appears on our screens too seldom.

Turn The River (2008): Famke Janssen was one of those actresses who'd never have the career I imagined; she was certainly the most striking performer in Pierce Brosnan's James Bond debut GoldenEye (1995) as lascivious villainess Xenia Onatopp. Since then she's been in a number of high- and low-profile flicks, of which I can only remember The Faculty (1998) and the thoroughly ridiculous Deep Rising (same)--I haven't seen her turn as Jean Grey in the X-Men films. Chris Eigeman was arguably the emblematic figure of Whit Stillman's supremely dull New York preppie films of the 90s--Metropolitan (1990; haven't seen it--actually, I think I did and have unsurprisingly forgotten it), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998)--as well as the best thing about them. That certainly wasn't hard, but Eigeman's snotty, arch charisma survived for other productions, especially Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming (1995--worth watching for Eric Stoltz's turn as an eternal college student and Eigeman calling someone a "jackanapes") and Malcolm in the Middle, where he played the "adult Krelboin" teacher Mr. Herkabe. Eigeman directs Janssen in a gritty little piece of the kind that makes you feel good about the lower-to-middle-class of the American film industry, the type of film you know has probably played on IFC at some point. Kaley (Janssen) is a poolshark and mother whose middle-class ex-husband David (Matt Ross) keeps a tight leash on their son Gulley (Jaymie Dornan), largely due to the terrifying emotional manipulation of his own mother Abby (Lois Smith), an oppressively devout Catholic. Kaley's friend and occasional benefactor, pool hall owner Teddy (Rip Torn, and looking both verbs in full) sets her up for a few games, and she gets the idea for a really big score that will enable her to take Gulley away and raise him with a sense of what it means to be free. Naturally, things don't go according to plan. Turn The River veers dangerously towards a cartoon at times. I once again half-regret not being raised Catholic, as it's sometimes hard to take Abby's incredibly domineering personality seriously, despite personal familiarity with my own equivalents. Fortunately, Smith's performance keeps us just this side of three dimensions, and Ross is haunting and terrifying as a grown man (whose career in the priesthood was derailed by his marriage and fatherhood)wholly under his mother's thumb, matched by Janssen's feral performance as a mother with nothing to lose and everything to gain. It doesn't light any fires, necessarily, but it's a good, solid piece of work with some near-noir New York sensibility (plus a small role for Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist's Ari Graynor).

Posted by Charles J. Microphone at 3:14 PM EST
Updated: 2 March 2010 4:20 PM EST
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