So-So About La La Land

La La Land is presented in Cinemascope, the definitive wide open, space-forever film format. It struck me as odd that the film opens on an LA freeway where the cars are bumper-to-bumper, with everyone stuck in their vehicles in the hot southern California sun. Instead of enjoying the sweep of the wide screen, I immediately felt claustrophobic. Then a young woman opens her car door and comes out singing, followed by several other women and men who join in the song—only I couldn’t understand what they were singing. These supposedly ordinary people begin dancing, but the dancing is only “okay” because, I think, the director doesn’t want them to break out of being ordinary commuters. Is this a musical or what? Mostly, it’s what.
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Emma Stone is an actress who’s working as a barista in a movie lot café, looking for her big break, Ryan Gosling is a jazz pianist who dreams of opening his own “pure” jazz club and earns his living playing standards in a supper club. I seem to like Ryan Gosling no matter what he does, and I like him in this. He has his moments as a dancer, but he’s not a dancer. Neither of our stars can sing. There were times when I felt like Rose in Gypsy, wanting to yell at Ryan and Emma – “Sing out, Louise!” There are no memorable songs or lyrics in this movie, no melodies you hum to yourself as you leave the theatre.

I blame the director. Musicals, real musicals, always make me want to sing and dance. They lift me out of the day-to-day into a world where the constraints of reality are cast off, and whatever the story, people have to sing about it, and dance, dance, dance. In La La Land, you recognize the set-up for the musical numbers, which is fine—but the numbers never quite deliver. Most have a promising start, but seldom have a definite close. The only number that really succeeds is at the end, a long fantasy sequence that has a sense of all-out joy and pays no attention to the “ordinary.” It also works because no one sings. There aren’t any voices that transport you in this movie.

When I heard the director Damien Chazelle interviewed by Terry Gross, I realized that Chazelle made this movie for people who don’t like musicals. He thought if he went full-out musical, the skeptics in the audience would get up and leave—he used the analogy of putting a frog in boiling water; it feels the heat and jumps out. But if you put the frog in cold water, and gradually warm the water, the frog won’t realize it’s boiling and will just stay there and die. Thanks a lot, Mr. Chazelle. For those of us who love musicals, there was nothing for it but to sit in lukewarm water, awash in pretty settings and perfect lighting, bored by the mediocre voices and barely acceptable choreography.

The film is pleasant, I’ll give it that. And this review matters not one whit, because Hollywood is in love with La La Land. It swept the Golden Globes and will no doubt outperform every other movie at the Oscars. To each their own. As for me, I’ll take Chicago and Singin’ in the Rain. I can watch them again and again. One is dark and sexy and cynical. The other is innocent, romantic, and exuberant. Both movies commit to the form and deliver in no uncertain terms. Still, the fact that La La Land is winning awards and praise may mean that people still want and need the escape that movie musicals give us. And if that inspires more musicals, thumbs up, La La.

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Coolest Cape Ever: Doctor Strange

Wanna get away? I doubt I’m the only one who feels the need for escape from our current political reality. Dear friends, for the price of a ticket, you can take a short trip to a superbly entertaining movie universe inhabited by one Doctor Strange.

In the opening minutes of Doctor Strange, we are in a dark library with books illumined by a dim amber gold, giving the scene a somber and shadowed aura. Within seconds a group of cowled monks appear, led by a ruthless man who imprisons the librarian in coils of light, murders him, and then rips a page from a tome the librarian was trying to protect. The prized page secure in his possession, the villain and his henchmen burst through a door into the bright daylight of a Manhattan street.

tilda-swintonThey are instantly pursued by a tall figure in a saffron robe. It is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. Swinton is one of the most unusual and striking screen actors of our time, and her shaved head in this role adds yet another facet to her strangely compelling beauty. The fight between her and the villains is an incredible, exciting, and dazzling sequence—turning the architecture of New York inside out and upside down, with the geometry of the buildings tumbling and folding in a breath-taking array of ever-changing images. It’s almost as if the director Scott Derrickson is saying, okay, now that I’ve got your attention, we can tell our story.

The story is about Stephen Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon at the top of his game. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he is arrogant, wealthy, and condescending to the merely capable surgeons and doctors around him. He pays a high price for his hubris: while speeding along a curving mountain highway in his Lamborghini Huracan, he sideswipes another car and crashes into a river far below the road.

When he wakes up, he is a badly battered and broken man. The worst injuries of all are to his hands. He spends his fortune on experimental surgeries, all to no avail. Fearing he’ll never be able to work again, he sinks into a state of despair. He learns about a man whose injuries made him a paraplegic; after dropping out of sight for a long time, he was seen again on the streets of New York, walking without so much as a crutch or cane. Impossible, says Strange. He goes to see this man, who is playing basketball with friends. Strange is told that if he wants to heal his trembling hands, he must find a place called Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu.

Once admitted to the hidden sanctum of Kamar-Taj, Strange at first mocks the Ancient One. She shows him, in a matter of moments, that nothing is impossible. He becomes her pupil and devotes himself to the study of the mystic arts. Just as he was a brilliant surgeon, Strange is a gifted sorcerer. And in the course of becoming a sorcerer, he learns something about being a decent human being.

benedict-as-dr-strangeWhen he accepts his new identity, Stephen Strange trims his beard and takes on the look of the magician Doctor Strange. It’s a great look, with a touch of silver at the temples that sets off his thick dark hair. But the look is not really complete until his “relic” comes to him—a deep burgundy cape that Cumberbatch wears beautifully. It gives him the power to levitate and fly, and it sometimes moves entirely free of Strange in order to protect and defend him in ways that are downright funny. For my money, it’s the coolest cape ever, and Cumberbatch wears it with verve and style.

Cumberbatch fits into his Doctor Strange role as perfectly as his cape fits him, and the movie is well cast, with fine performances from Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Benedict Wong. There’s a great blend of humor, metaphysics, philosophy, and the inevitable battle between good and evil, all set in a film realm of astonishing special effects. Doctor Strange is fun and visually beautiful – transporting us easily and often between our own world and other realities. The movie plays with film as masterfully as Doctor Strange commands the sorcerer’s art.

I got hooked once again into believing, at least for two hours, that it is possible to become one with the mysterious energy of the multiverse, and wield the mystic power that enables us to fight and defeat evil. Sure could use some of that magic power now.

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The Secret Chord

Saturday Night Live: Kate McKinnon is sitting at a grand piano, in a white jacket. Those of us who have tuned in tonight see her as Hillary, because we’ve been watching McKinnon and Alec Baldwin skew Hillary and Trump for the last several weeks, serving up brilliant comedy out of a pre-election season that was often its own version of ultra-strange satire. And we want to know: what is SNL going to do on this post-election night? The unthinkable has happened. Donald J. Trump is our President-Elect. What kind of comedy can they make out of November 8, 2016?

What they do is tell the truth. They bypass comedy, and go straight to the center and soul of what millions of us are feeling. Kate’s hands press down on the keys, the music begins, and she sings.

kate-mckinnon-as-hillary
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah…

leonard-cohenThe great Leonard Cohen left this earth one day before the election, and our sadness at his passing was interwoven with the misery and shock more than half the nation was experiencing the day after the election. Kate is singing Hallelujah, his signature song. In this song, we hear Leonard’s compassion, and the depth of mourning in him. It is music that breaks the heart, and Kate’s voice, the feeling she brings to these words, moves me to tears.

As she comes to the last verse, Kate is transformed. She is herself, and she is Hillary, singing lyrics that seem to have been written for Hillary, written for this moment.

I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah…

And then she turns to us and says, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”

In that single sentence, Kate McKinnon-as-Hillary has struck the secret chord. It was two days before I first heard it. It happened while I appeared to be walking upright, getting on with life, while inside I was stumbling, wounded, grieving, with my sense of safety ripped away. As a part of the LGBT community, I felt ice in my veins, the same icy cold sent to steal the breath from minorities, immigrants, muslims, women, the disabled, progressives, liberals, and all those who care about the fate of our good earth. I felt under threat in a way I could not have fathomed before this new reality, the reality of Trump-Pence.

Thrown back on my heels, the air knocked out of me, I called friends who were at a distance, and spoke to a few that were nearby. I checked in with my internet tribe. Scanning my Facebook wall, I came across a photo of Trump and Pence with the headline, “Trump will roll back Obama’s LGBT rights, protections, Mike Pence confirms.” A surge of anger and rebellion welled up in me, and I added my own voice to the string of comments posted there: “They can try. We’re not going to let them. Believe me. We won the popular vote. And we will not be silenced. Nor give up the rights we have and deserve to have as American citizens.”

In stating that, I felt the blood begin to course through my veins again, my breath move more evenly in and out, my muscles flex.

That is the chord that must hum in all of us now, that we must stay tuned to in ourselves and in each other. We must band together and raise our voices against the forces that want to strip us of our rights and our love for all that is decent and fair and good. All together now: Hallelujah.

hallelujah

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Let me echo that…

Michael Moore made the rounds of TV talk shows last week, promoting “Trumpland,” his new movie. It turns out that Trumpland is not about Trump. It is, Mr. Moore said, about Hillary. He was for Bernie, now he’s for Hillary, and he’s making a case for why it’s so important to elect Hillary as our next President.

Michael Moore in Trumpland

Michael Moore in Trumpland


What impressed me most about Michael Moore’s message was his wholehearted concern that people would not bother to vote. Before Mr. Comey went all-out partisan and used his position as FBI Director to help Donald Trump, most of the polls put Hillary comfortably ahead of Trump. Now those polls are tightening. If there are still people out there who think it doesn’t matter if they vote, we are screwed. Not voting will give us President Donald J. Trump.

The stats vary, but at least forty percent of Americans are for Trump. Forty percent! And if they’re for Trump, they are generally die-hard Trumpettes. They are undeterred by his misogyny, his racism, his lies, his bullying, his bankruptcies and bad business deals. People voting for Trump generally either love him fanatically or hate Hillary intensely, or both. Believe me, they will turn out to vote.

So, wherever you are, whoever you are, vote. Encourage everyone you know to vote. Especially if you’re a Democrat, vote. After all, it’s really the Democrats who didn’t turn out to vote in 2010 who gave us our current do nothing, dysfunctional, defeat-Obama-first and country-comes-last Congress. If you were for Bernie, vote for Hillary. She’s incorporated many of the ideas and issues that made you love Bernie. She’ll continue to work with him and be accountable to the people who were a key part of his campaign. If you’re a Republican who cares for country first, vote for Hillary. Many Republicans are doing just that, and it’s renewed my faith that we who are on opposite sides of the aisle can work together again to solve problems and make the country work for all of us.

Hillary is an intelligent, incredibly competent, strong and capable woman who has worked with Republicans in the past and who has what it takes to get to solutions and get things done.

Hugh Laurie on Trump: "He's... unspeakable."

Hugh Laurie on Trump: “He’s… unspeakable.”

As for Trump, he’s shown us who he is, and I need add no more. I can only repeat what Hugh Laurie said about Trump. “He’s…unspeakable.” If he were in the White House, the consequences are unthinkable. If you don’t want him to be your President, only you have the power to send him back to being a rich private citizen. Let me please echo Michael Moore: Vote. Vote for Hillary. Vote.

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Kilchurn Castle, Scotland

For your Tolkien fantasies…

Wanderlust Pic

Kilchurn Castle, Scotland

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昼下がりの散歩から #067

While I’m on hiatus from blogging, here’s another striking photo from Flaneur. The hat says it all, don’t you think?

Flaneur

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丸の内, 東京
Marunouchi, Tokyo

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Narrow Street, Burano, Italy

I’m not blogging these days, because nearly all my time and writing energy is being given to completing the revision of my mystery novel, The Last Question. Meanwhile, for those of you checking in, here’s a wonderful photo from Wanderlustpic.

Wanderlust Pic

Narrow Street, Burano, Italy

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Civility, Civil Rights, Civilization

“We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

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Carol: The Price of Salt

There is an undeniable aura about Carol, an elegance and mystery that wafts around her like the perfume she wears. Sitting in a darkened movie house, watching Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird, I was never able to inhale the fragrance she applies so lightly to her wrists. But she evoked the memory of a lovely woman who passed by me years ago—she was wearing a rare perfume, and I wanted to follow her, just to breathe in her scent once more.

It is easy to see why the shop girl Therese, played by Rooney Mara, is so immediately intrigued by the well-dressed woman who walks into the toy department of the store where Therese works. Therese is transfixed, and the woman returns her look. In that moment, for both of them, there is no one else in the room. But then Therese must turn her attention to another shopper, and when she looks again for the woman in the luxurious fur, she is gone. Alone once more with the dolls on display for Christmas, Therese turns back to the ordinary tasks that fill all the week days of her life. At first she doesn’t see that the woman has reappeared—Carol is there, deliberately placing her suede gloves on the counter as she waits for Therese to notice her.

Upon finding that the doll she wanted for her daughter isn’t available, Carol asks Therese what she wanted for Christmas when she was a little girl. “A train set,” Therese answers. In their first encounter, the gap that separates these two women is obliterated. Their age difference, their social status, the counter between them, none of that matters. And as the scene plays out, we understand that the moment she saw Therese was decisive for Carol—she has recognized in this young woman someone she wants in her life. She orders a train set to be delivered to her home, writes out her address and pays for her purchase. Then, with one last smile and the adroit remark of a woman who knows how to flirt, Carol walks away without her gloves, leaving a trail for Therese to follow. There is a subtle trace of suspense throughout this film, and the first one we experience is in Therese’s hesitation upon discovering Carol’s gloves. Will she accept the invitation implied in those gloves?

It’s Cate Blanchett. What would you do?Cate Blanchett 400-300

Right.

The love story that unfolds between Carol and Therese is poignant, tender, and layered with all the complexities of a time characterized by constraint. The constraint bore down on both men and women, but that weighted leash certainly placed greater restraints on women. It was a man’s world, and women were expected to accept without question their secondary, supportive roles. Director Todd Haynes uses muted tones to create the mood of his movie. Set in New York in the 1950s, brightness is suppressed in the same way so many emotions were repressed in that ultra-conservative decade. But Carol’s defiance is the point of light in this beautiful film. She glows.

The counterpoint to the ease and self-assurance of Cate Blanchett’s Carol is Rooney Mara’s Therese. She is awkward, unformed, searching. When they first meet for lunch, Therese tells Carol that her boyfriend Richard wants to marry her. “Is that what you want?” Carol asks.

“I barely even know what to order for lunch,” Therese says. She doesn’t know what she wants, or what else life may have to offer, but she catches a glimpse of the possibilities in Carol. What is tenuous with others can take on substance in this relationship, one that is unlike any other Therese has known. And though there is something dangerous about her, Carol’s warmth and strength are irresistible.
Cate Blanchett in Carol
I saw Carol with Donna, my love and life-mate for the past 37 years. As we left the movie and stepped out into the small lobby of the Darkside Cinema, a woman seated on the comfortable old couch there asked, “Did you like it?”

“Yes,” I said. “Very much.” I could also have said, “It’s gorgeous, beautiful, exquisite.” All true, but I didn’t know this woman, and some of the fifties-era reserve that was once ingrained in me had reasserted itself.

The woman told us she had read The Price of Salt, the novel by Patricia Highsmith that Carol is based on. “Did you know Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train?” she asked. She spoke about seeing The Talented Mister Ripley, also written by Highsmith, and when she said “we,” she indicated the woman resting across the way on another sofa, to let us know she was there to see Carol with her partner.

On the street, lingering near the doorway to watch the sunset sky, two young women walked by us and we glanced at one another. I thought they were probably on their way to the next showing of Carol, just as they may have assumed (rightly) that we had just seen, or were about to see, the same movie.

These brief exchanges drove home the feeling that I am still part of a secret society. Gay marriage is now legal in all fifty states, and Donna and I live in a liberal town where our marriage is accepted. We have both been out of the closet for several decades. And yet, with all that, the sense that we are part of a closed circle lingers. It lingers because we know there are some countries where we could be stoned for loving someone of our own gender. It is stamped into our consciousness because it is a fact there are places in these United States where we are regularly vilified, demeaned, and ostracized.

On one level, this film served as a reminder that I am outside the norm, and that there are regions where gay people are still an endangered species. At the same time, the wondrous actress who plays the title role conveyed a gift as rare and mysterious as the imagined perfume Carol wears. As we walked along the street back to our car, I felt a difference in the way I carried myself, the way I stood at the corner waiting for the light to change. I realized that Cate Blanchett had left her imprint, caused a shift in my perspective and sense of self. For a while, I was Carol—beautiful, strong, decent, flawed, brave. And even after that sense of myself as someone else faded, a deeper affinity remained: Like Carol, I have chosen to be myself. With all its struggles and sorrows, no matter the cost, claiming your own identity is worth the price.

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夜の街から #11

I love the warmth of this photograph, as if these lamps are inviting you to spend a quiet hour with them.

Flaneur

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恵比寿, 東京
Ebisu, Tokyo

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