Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reading in 2009

I started reading fairly young. I think it had to do with spending so much time in hospital waiting rooms. All growing up, I read quite a bit. I remember in 6th grade reading Stephen King books while the other kids were reading R.L. Stein books (if they read at all). I have since spoke with many people who say similar things, so I know that I am far from unique in this. I’m not in 6th grade anymore, but some things stay the same. In the last week or so, I’ve read 3 books. I read Push by Sapphire (it’s the novel that the new movie ‘Precious’ is based on), The Godfather of Poker by Doyle Brunson (an autobiography), and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (I’d already read this one once or twice, but I love it).

After finishing the 3rd book this week, I started wondering how many books I’d read this year. I thought back and listed just the books I read completely. Even if I read ¾ of a book I didn’t consider it. Off the top of my head, I came up with 23 books so far this year. That seemed pretty high to me, so I figured they must mostly be small books. Looking back at each book and making a note of how many pages each one was, I realized that these weren’t small books. While the smallest of the books (Push) was only 150 pages, the largest (The Stand by Stephen King) was 1149. The average number of pages for all the books I read this year came up to 446 pages. That’s a pretty decent average. After breaking it down, though, it only comes up to 31 pages a day. For the pace I read at, it averages out to about 52 minutes a day spent reading. Just numbers….

Here are a couple of the books I’ve really enjoyed this year:

Push by Sapphire – At 150 pages, this is the shortest book I read this year. Despite it’s brevity, it has to be one of the best. This book is powerful. If the movie is anything like it, it is going to be amazing. The style of the narrative is the uneducated first person. What I mean is that it is written like ‘I did this’ ‘I thought that’. The first person. The ‘I’. The uneducated is just like it sounds. I really enjoy when an author can adopt the tone of someone they are so clearly not like. In doing so, you can empathize with the narrator of the story (In this case a poor, uneducated, overweight black girl living in Queens that has a life that must be hell on earth), but also see past their view to see things that the narrator clearly doesn’t see or grasp. Think of To Kill A Mockingbird or even Forrest Gump. In fact, after finishing this book I had to reread Mockingbird. The themes and styles of the two books are not so far off.

Dean & Me by Jerry Lewis – This book by Jerry Lewis is about Dean Martin and the relationship they had together during the 10 years they spent in the Martin and Lewis act. I actually listened to this audio book. The reader was so good at the voices of Martin and Lewis, I think it was probably even better listening to it than reading it from pages might have been. I really like Dean Martin. He’s my favorite of the Rat Pack and his greatest hits album has to be in my top 10 of all time. I laughed so hard at times that I had to rewind the audio book to catch what I missed (no small feat on an iPod). I originally listened to it because I liked Dean Martin, but this book influenced me to further my education on classic films and read about other Hollywood actors from the 40’s and 50’s. I went on to read ‘By Myself and Then Some’ - Lauren Bacall’s autobiography; ‘In Black and White’ about Sammy Davis Jr; and Sinatra: The Life. It takes quite a book to make me get interested enough in a subject to read several more books and watch even more movies. This is certainly quite a book.

Angela’s Ashes, ‘Tis, and Teacher Man by Frank McCourt – When Frank McCourt died this year, I took the opportunity to reread a few of his books that I really liked. Angela’s Ashes won a Pulitzer Prize back in the 90’s for nonfiction. It is the story of Frank’s life from when he was born until he was about 20 and came back to the US. Much has been written about this book, and I don’t have much to add other than it is a great book. It is written well without any of the bitterness you might expect given the subject matter. In fact, Frank is able to look back with some humor at some pretty appalling things. ‘Tis and Teacher Man continue the story of his life in New York working his way through the military and school before beginning his teaching career. Any of these 3 books are worth reading. If I had to pick just one, though, I’d have to go with Angela’s Ashes. Frank – I hope you are enjoying a pint in the everlasting pub in the sky.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

RIP Michael

I don't care what anybody says about you. I'm a child of the 80's and you'll always be the king of pop to me.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

East of Eden (1955)

John Steinbeck's books have made some great films. The Grapes of Wrath was made into a fantastic movie by director John Ford and starring actor Henry Fonda. There have been a few versions of his novella Of Mice And Men. East of Eden continued this tradition. Director Elia Kazan (On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Gentleman's Agreement) directed this version which gave James Dean his first leading role.

It's hard to imagine the 1950's without thinking of James Dean, and yet for all of his smaller roles he really only had 2 or 3 movies as a lead actor. He had just started getting lead roles in the year before he died. East of Eden was his first lead actor role in a film. He was only 24 when the movie was released, but man(!) does he nail this role! It's not so far off from his role in A Rebel Without A Cause, so it's easy to see how he developed his public image.

The movie version of East of Eden is the story of the Trask family in Salinas, California right before and during World War I. Adam is the father to Aron and Cal (played by Dean). The movie starts off with James Dean following a lady running a 'house of ill repute' from the bank to her home. She gets spooked by him and when she gets home sends a man out to talk to him. After being roughed up a little, Cal tells the man to tell his boss that he hates her. From there, the movie moves to a house and we are introduced to Adam, Aron, and Aron's girlfriend Abra. We can see right off that Aron seems to be the golden child. He can do no harm in the eyes of his father. Cal, on the other hand, can't seem to do anything right. As the movie progresses, Adam invests all of his money into a business venture that would provide ice to keep lettuce cold during transportation - allowing it to be sold to more locations further away. For some reason the venture fails and Adam is left broke. After losing his fortune, Adam is forced to take a job a the draft board sending young men off to war. Cal eventually goes back to the house of ill repute and confronts the woman - Kate. We learn that Kate is Cal's mother and that she doesn't want her other son Aron to know of her existence. Kate is really well off. Cal comes up with an idea to make money to give his father back the money he lost in his venture by borrowing money from his mother and investing in beans - an industry suddenly thriving during the war. As the movie progresses, Cal gets close to his brothers girlfriend and things seem to be improving for Cal. Eventually Cal's investment pays off and he arranges to give the money he makes to his father at a birthday party. At the birthday party, as he his about to give his gift his brother interrupts him to announce that his gift to his father is that he is engaged. Adam is very happy and says it was the best gift he could have imagined. When Cal makes a gift of the money, Adam is not happy at all. He refuses the money saying he couldn't profit off of sending young men to war. All Cal ever really wanted was for his father to accept him and all the work he put into getting his father's money back was his last ditch attempt to save the relationship. From there all hell breaks loose. In anger, Cal takes Aron to meet his mother. Upon his father finding out, he has a stroke and is bed ridden. The final scene, Abra begs Adam to tell Cal that he loves him saying it is the only way he could be a man. In an emotional scene, Cal visits his father and his father whispers something in his ear. The viewer is left hoping that Adam professed his love for his son, but hopes are dashed when it turns out his father told him to stop fighting. And with that the movie ends.

This movie is fantastic. The story is interesting - darker than you'd ever expect from a movie in the 1950's. John Steinbeck had a genius for instilling strong emotions into his readers (viewers). You honestly want things to work out for Cal and are really bummed out when they don't. Rebel Without A Cause is the work that James Dean is most known for, but I'd have to say that his acting here is a little better. If you haven't seen this film, you should!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Nowadays, you see a lot of movies built around 1 person. As in 'the new Bruce Willis movie', or 'the Tarantino flick', etc... If you look at the names included in this movie, it's pretty impressive. You take Ray Milland, who won an Academy Award for his role as a drunk hitting bottom in The Lost Weekend. There's Grace Kelly - a beautiful actress renowned for her sense of style and beauty, who would also go on to marry a Prince and become a Princess. And then there's Alfred Hitchcock. He practically invented the term 'psychological thriller'. You don't see that mixture of talent too often these days. (The newer remake of Ocean's 11 is a good example of an exception)

1954 was a great year for movies. Besides Dial M For Murder, there was White Christmas (the Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye holiday movie), The Seven Samurai (Kurosawa's classic), Rear Window (Hitchcock's other big hit that year), and eventual Academy Award Winner On The Waterfront - which starred a young Marlon Brando and included his famous line 'I coulda been a contender'. Brando had paid his dues acting in theater and it wasn't uncommon to see crossover actors and films. Dial M For Murder was one of those. The movie approaches 2 hours and only takes place it 2 or 3 locations. Not that it's a bad thing, either. What it lacks in set diversity, it makes up for in plot.

The movie starts out with a husband kissing her wife. The next shot is of that wife kissing another man. As her and her lover start talking, we soon learn that she and her lover were writing letters back and forth to each other. She had one stolen from her and started receiving letters demanding money in exchange for the letter. She paid the money, but never received the letter. We learn that the lover and the husband know each other and, in fact, are to attend an engagement together. When the time comes for the dinner engagement, the lover/friend of the couple shows up. Our hero lets his wife and her lover know he won't be able to make it due to some pressing work matter and with that the wife and lover leave. The hero makes a call to a gentleman inquiring about buying a car and talks him into coming over. From here, our hero proceeds to do some things that don't seem to make a lot of sense. He pulls out some gloves and lays them on the couch, walks around adjusting things, etc...

Knowing that this is a mystery film, I found myself trying to figure out why he was doing these strange things. That is one of the really strong points to this show: you are constantly having to think things over. Other than gratuitous explosions, there is nothing I dislike more in a movie than when the director explains things more than is necessary. A great movie leaves things up to the viewer. I should catch some things on a second viewing than I missed on the first. I won't miss subtle plot lines on a movie like Gone in 60 Seconds, you know? Anyways....

When the car salesman comes over, our hero slowly lets out that the car salesman is no car salesman and he isn't interested in buying a car. He is interested in blackmailing said car salesman into killing his wife. You see, despite the acting job, he's known that his wife was cheating all along. It was he who blackmailed his wife in the first place, and now he wants her dead. He explains how it is to be done and we move to the next scene. As the plan progresses, everything seems to be going fine. Then the whole 'murder' aspect goes awry and the attacker becomes the victim. Our hero is a quick thinking fellow who figures out a way to make it look like his wife knew the attacker and killed him for blackmailing her. And so it goes....

It would be difficult to understand a basic plot synopsis without seeing this film. There are enough twists and turns and explanations necessary to make it throughly confusing on paper. What Hitchcock did was make an engrossing movie with top notch talent while not losing itself in the plot details. I thought Ray Milland did a fantastic job. Grace Kelly was not bad herself, but I found myself not at all sympathetic to her plight. She cheats on him, he's mad and wants to kill her and he's the bad guy? It doesn't seem that easy to me. The bottom line is that this is classic Hitchcock and can be watched a second time through and still pick things up.

Double Indemnity (1944)

To truly appreciate this movie, we have to take it in context. This movie came out 3 months to the day after the US invasion of Normandy. Two and a half years after Pearl Harbor, World War II was in full effect with the US now in Europe going for Hitler. During the war, Americans were having to make sacrifices. They needed entertainment to escape more than any generation up to that point. 1944 was big band music. Sinatra was big, although some saw him as a draft-dodger. It was the era of the Hollywood studio films. Nowadays most movies are filmed on location, but that change was a few decades away at this point. Casablanca had come out the year before and cleaned up at the Oscars....

IMDB lists this as the plot to Double Indemnity: 'An insurance rep lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator's suspicions.' That's a pretty bare bones description of this movie, but it's a good starting point.This film is in a genre of films they call 'film noir'. Think of a lady walking into a private detective's office with a voice over saying something like 'She walked into my office on a Wednesday. She was quite a dame'. That is film noir. While this wasn't the first or last movie in the genre, it may be the best. The American Film Institute lists this film at #38 on the list of 100 greatest movies. Accolades aside, this movie is eminently watchable. From the beginning, I was sucked in.

The story starts with a man stumbling into an office and beginning to record an intriguing message for his boss about the murder of a client. Cut to an earlier time, and our insurance rep hero is visiting the home of one of his clients to warn him that his car insurance has lapsed. (I couldn't even imagine that happening nowadays. You'll get a notice in the mail, but you're lucky if you get an automated phone message let alone your sales rep showing up at your home...) While waiting for his client, he sees a scantily clad beauty at the top of the stairs. He is instantly smitten and notices her bracelet. They start up a dialogue and then our beauty disappears to finish getting dressed. After some flirting and inquisitive questions as to the nature of our hero's job, they arrange for the main character to come back another day to meet with the client. When he does come back, the client is nowhere to be found and his beauty of a wife starts asking questions that make it more and more obvious she is looking to start an insurance policy on her husband without him knowing. Right around this point our hero realizes why she's asking and shuts down. He takes the moral high ground and opts not to help her get paid in case her husband dies of an 'accident'. He leaves, but eventually runs into our beauty again and changes his mind.

The title of the movie comes from a clause in the insurance policy that would allow for the beneficiary to be paid twice the amount if the insured were to die in an unusual way - say, a train accident. My favorite line in the movie is after our hero agrees to help Beauty kill her husband. He explains the clause and tells her they have to kill her husband and make it look like an accident. She asks him why and he says 'We're taking it for the limit, baby!' That line may come off as laughable today, but he pulled it off like a champ in 1944. Having insider information will help them commit the crime, but they have to make sure the hero's claims adjuster boss doesn't get wise to what's going on. I'm not going to get into anything else that happens in case someone out there wants to watch this. I'll just say that it's very suspenseful and held my attention the whole time. Despite the movie starting near the end chronologically, there are still a few surprises.

This movie was directed by Billy Wilder, who was to go on to direct Best Picture Winner 'The Lost Weekend' and comedy classic 'Some Like It Hot'. The main characters are played by Fred MacMurry and Barbara Stanwyck. Edward G Robinson - famous for playing a gangster in earlier films - does a fantastic job as the claims examiner boss of the hero. Seriously - this guy is to claims examiners as Patrick Swayze is to bouncers in the movie 'Roadhouse'. They ought to hang his picture in insurance offices everywhere. This movie has a surprising amount of innuendo with no actual blatant sexuality. Go 1940's. If I wanted softcore porn, I'd watch softcore porn. If I want a kick ass crime movie, I'll watch Double Indemnity.

Changing Directions....

So my life has been pretty steady lately. I'm staying sober and seem to be getting along with everyone pretty well. Maybe I'm getting a little bored with my life, but my sponsor says my idea of boredom is other peoples' idea of serenity. Because nothing major is going on, I guess like I've been feeling like there isn't a lot to write about.

I'm a pretty avid reader and I like to watch movies, too. A friend of mine and I were recently talking about a movie that was out. We'd both read the same review of the movie and were discussing it. I made some smart assed comment. My friend thought it to be pretty funny and told me I should review movies. So I think what I'm going to do for a while is to review a book or a movie. I have to be up front and let you know that I'm somewhat opinionated. As far as movies go, my tastes run more towards Scorsese or Billy Wilder than Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer.

To some extent, I think that the advancement of technology has been detrimental to the overall quality of a lot of movies. Think of it like the old 8 bit Nintendo. The graphics on that system are archaic by todays standards. They weren't all that great then. (They were good by the standards of the day, but we have to remember that this is shortly after Pac Man and Donkey Kong) Graphics aside, a lot of those old games were really fun to play. You find me a man between the ages of 25 and 35 that doesn't know the code to get 30 guys on Contra, and I'll show you a man that has been cheated. Movies from years ago don't have the special effects. They made up for it with plot, great direction, and fantastic acting. There is a reason there is only 1 movie made after 1982 in 50 of the American Film Institutes's top 100 films of all time. And the one movie that is up there (Schindler's List) was filmed in black and white with no real special effects. Today it seems like a contest to see who can make a movie that blows the most stuff up. Testosterone driven teenage boys may love their Vin Diesel movies, but how many times can you see the same car explode without needing some plot to keep you interested?

With that in mind, maybe I can turn you on to some movies or books you wouldn't normally see. I'm not going to try to review new books or movies, either, just older ones. Stay tuned...

Monday, April 20, 2009

Steve Perry

When I signed on today, I thought about writing something so profoundly awe inspiring that it would change the world. And then I saw this picture. Awe inspiring writing. This picture. It was an easy choice.