All posts by Stephen_Murray

San Franciscan from rural southern Minnesota

Love does not conquer all in rural 1980s Kentucky in Fenton Johnson’s new novel

The Man Who Loved BirdsMan-Who-Loved-Birds-cover


Pros: characterizaton, evocation of place

Cons: ending

Fenton Johnson is an award-winning Kentucky-born writer whose third novel, The Man Who Loves Bird, follows by 22 years his second, Scissors, Paper, Rock (1994) (which appeared three years after his first, Crossing the River). He writes lush prose, somteimes bordering on the overwritten. I was interested in and convinced by his portrayal of charismatic marijuana grower, Johnny Faye, an illiterate veteran of the Vietname misadventure and of two people who become very enamored of him, Cistercians (Trappist) monk Brother Flavian, who has become restive with his increasingly capitalist community, and. Dr. Meena Chatterjee, a Bengali woman whose residence in the US is dependent on service in an underserved area. Her office/residence is in what was a (gas) filling station in what is presumably Bardstown, in the Kentucky Knobs, near the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.

Johnny Faye, the title character, is comfortable in his own skin and content despite being the target of ambitious local prosecutor Vetch (rhymes with retch) who has failed to secure a conviction from juries of Johnny Faye’s peers. Johnny Faye is more concerned that Officer Smith (the generic violent policeman with the bland family name) is going to kill or do permanent damage to his squirrely son, Matthew Mark.

Dr. Chaterjee (and Brother Flavian who is present and turns the boy over for the doctor) notices the welts on his back and knows that the vicious policeman also beats his wife. Her tentative status makes her afraid to buck local authorities, though she has a legal obligation to report the abuse. Johnny Faye urges her to protect the child, while dating Vetch and contemplating marrying her to cement her legal status. She is a more sympathetic character than I have made it sound, having fled the violence of Bangladesh’s formation, during which her parents were killed.

In that the novel is firmly based on a real case of licensed murder of a Kentucky marijuana grower, there is less suspense than there might be for a novel less tied to real events. The Reagan administration’s war on drugs, with a special focus on seizing the assets (land) of the Kentucky “cornbread mafia” is also firmly based on history, including the impunity of the side warring on drugs (the government). Other than what this reader knew before beginning reading the book, the endings are open (though one can easily plug in the later history of the “lawman” who got away with murder from the same historical records).

(©2016, Stephen O, Murray)

At a San Francisco Books Inc. appearance, Johnson said that he conceived the novel in 1971, when he was a seventeen-year-old Kentuckian looking forward to going to Stanford. He also said that he drew on speeches by Reagan, Cheney, and W for Vetch’s speechifying. He wrote about the 1971 murder in a New Yorker article, spent time (and interviewed monks) in the Abbey of Gethsemani (a basis for his book Keeping the Faith [2004], which also included interviews with Buddhist monks)i, and spent six months in Kolkata (Calcutta) getting the feel for Bengali desperation.

(The University of Kentucky Press has reissued Johnson’s first two novels along with publishing The Man Who Loved Birds.)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Spying on Bertolt Brecht in East Germany

Brecht’s Lover by Jaques-Pierre Amette


Die Archivbilder zeigen den deutschen Dramatiker Bertolt Brecht als 20jŠhrigen (l) im Jahr 1918 sowie eine undatierte Aufnahme des Dichters (r) aus spŠteren Jahren. Brecht wurde am 10. Februar 1898 in Augsburg geboren. FŸr seine ersten StŸcke "Trommeln in der Nacht" und "Baal", die beide 1922 zur ErstauffŸhrung kamen, wurde er mit dem Kleist-Preis ausgezeichnet. Die mit dem Komponisten Kurt Weill verfasste "Dreigroschenoper" wurde 1929 in Berlin mehr als 250mal aufgefŸhrt und machte ihn international bekannt. 1933 flŸchtete Brecht vor den Nationalsozialisten ins Ausland. 1949 RŸckkehr nach Ost-Berlin, wo er mit seiner Frau Helene Weigel das "Berliner Ensemble" grŸndete. Bertolt Brecht starb am 14. August 1956 in Berlin an den Folgen eines Herzinfarkts. dpa (zu dpa-Themenpaket "100 Jahre Brecht" vom 2.2.1998 - nur sw)


Pros: atmosphere, characterization

Cons: no solution for the enigma of Brecht

Jaques-Pierre Amette’s 2003 novel La maîtresse de Brecht became the hundredth book to win the Prix Goncourt. It was translated into British English in 2005 not as Brecht’s Mistress, but as Brecht’s Lover. The young and beautiful actress Maria Eich at no point in her assignment by the KGB (The German Democratic Republic’s Ministry of State Security [Stasi] was only officially formed in 1950, though continuing to co-ordinate with the KGB until 1990) to spy on Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), who has come to communist East Berlin after 15 years pereginations to Scandinavia and Hollywood is in love with Brecht, nor he with her. He uses her sexually and, for a time, promotes her career in the theater company, the Berliner Ensemble that he heads with his wife (used to his philandering with younger actresses) Helene Weigel. Maria’s KGB/Stasi handler, Hans Trow, is grateful for her zeal at copying every scrap of paper Brecht writes, including those he throws away. That Hans is in love with Maria is more plausible to me than that she is in love with him, but he is determined not to have sex with one of his agents, especially one whose assignment centers on keeping the sexual attraction of the most prominent cultural star of the East German state’s otherwise fairly dim firmament.

The novel opens with Brecht’s return to German soil in October of 1948. The “lovers” have little in common, including one-way (old to young) sexual attraction. “For Maria EIch, Germany was a new country, a series of green hills lined by birch forests, ruined motorways, clouds; for Brecht, it was a country to be rebuilt with money. A field for experimentation, a laboratory for an ideological revolution aimed at the younger generation. Neither of them had this country in common…. They would both eat at the same table, sleeping the same bed and never think the same thing at the same time.”

When that delight waned, by 1952, Hans Trow provided the forms for Maria to go to West Berlin, where her tubercular daughter and mother had been all along. She becomes a celibate teacher of German, most enamored of earlier German poets, Hölderlin and Heine, not paying much professional attention to the German poet she had lived with for four years. Brecht’s best-known plays other than the musicals with Kurt Weill were written in LA; he theorized and directed plays after returning to Germany, but wrote mostly poems and no major plays.

The novel captures the grayness of East Berlin and the dread of the whims of Stalin in his final years that even the secret police in far-away Berlin constantly felt. The title character is Maria, who is not an intellectual.

Though doubts have been cast (especially by ) on how much of Brecht’s oeuvre was actually written by him, he was a gruff intellectual and an avowed Marxist, though of the heterodox Karl Krosch variety rather than a communist subservient to Moscow. Brecht’s most notorious support for the German Democratic Republic’s suppression of dissent came after the period covered by the novel, the GDR crushing of 1953 rebellion using Soviet military force. (He praised the regime for “safeguarding the socialist achievements,” even while living a life of relative privilege that included subscription western publications generally banned in the GDR.)

The characters in Amette’s novel are attempting to understand what Brecht really thought, especially about Stalinist communism. He chose to live (in comfort denied most residents) in the Soviet zone, but had an Austrian passport and Swiss accounts accruing his royalties. Many have considered him a hypocrite. I think that in a bipolar world he managed to prosper as a heterodox (usually) Marxist capitalist, and if he was a sexual predator, much of the prey, including Soviet-sponsored spies was willing to work with and submit to sex with him.

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Christopher Rice’s debut coming-of-age of a bullied youth novel

A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice



Pros: narrative drive

Cons: Bell Tower is literally “over the top”, one-dimensional villains (with guilty secret)

The Bottom Line: Overly melodramatic ending to a chronicle of a queerbaited/-bashed youth in New Orleans of the 1990s

I was absorbed in Christopher Rice’s first novel Density of Souls, which was first published in 2000, when the author was 21 years old. The Gothic romance aspect of the book and the sinister and stifling New Orleans atmosphere (especially that of Lafayette Cemetery with its above-groud burials) bring his mother (that would be Anne Rice) to mind. The queerbaited protagonist, Stephen Conlin, is the son of a poet who committed suicide before Stephen was born (too fine for this world in the view of his touch lowborn Irish wife). I hope that Christopher’s elite high school (Cannon) experiences of ostracism by his former friends (stereotypically nasty homophobic jocks Greg Darby and Brandon Charbonnet) were not similar to Stephen’s during the 1990s. Christopher definitely came from an intact family, but the gay son of a poet who killed himself cannot avoid qualms about oedipal dramas in the Rice family in which mother is the success, father the vastly less-read and less-famous poet (Stan)! (In an interview, Christopher stated “I’ve never gone overboard because I have such a strong family life.”)
In addition to chronicling many sadistic rituals of adolescents and lots of “casual” cruelties, Rice whips up a hyper-melodramatic climax, set against a major hurricane. The pre-Katrina imaginings of evacuation and destruction has additional interest now. Although CR did not foresee the incompetence of government response, he did mention the dissatisfactions of those who took shelter in the Dome.

There are a lot of haunted characters, including the former grade-school friends who diverged radically in high school (the two football players savagely turning on Stephen, the bulimic young alcoholic Meredith also betraying their childhood friendship. She and a hard-to-believe compensatory character come through for him and not one but two star quarterbacks from Cannon fall in love with him.
Monica, Stephen’s mother, cannot protect him at high school, but seeks to be protective of her hypersensitive son. He does not use her to procure studs for himself, unlike Sebastian’s mother in a more melodramatic Garden District opus, Tennessee Williams’s “Suddenly, Last Summer.” There is less hysteria here, though in addition to the suicide in the background of the sensitive man, there is murder, hate crimes, alcoholism, bulimia, class bitchery, and even a touch of incest (though their shared bloodline is unknown to the pair).

Riace menThough sometimes feeling the prose was overripe (in the Southern Gothc tradition) I was carried along as I was once upon a time by Interview with a Vampire (and by Dreamboy).Though the narrative is very discontinuous in revealing various sins of the past, I did not think that the writing itself was “jerky” as some complained. (There are no vampires or witches, btw, though a questioning/gay teenager has a more difficult time than some of his mother’s aberrant creations have had.)


Police terrorism and poets’ narcissism in mid-1950s San Francisco

Robert Duncan in San Francisco by Michael Rumaker



Pros: third chapter to memoir, 2012 interview

Cons: letters (appended to memoir)

Though I have read and somewhere have Michael Rumaker’s overwritten (lyrical) A Day and a Night at the [Everard] Baths (1979) and was aware of My First Satyrnalia (1981), I’ve never considered Rumaker a writer, let alone an important gay prose writer. The copy of his Robert Duncan in San Francisco (written in 1976-77 about an 16-month stint in the City by the Bay two decades earlier) that I bought online has a title page defaced by an attack, headlined by “This book is AWEFUL” followed by changing the title to “Michael Rumaker in San Francisco, continuing “for only 16 months used Robert Duncan [1919-88] as an excuse tow rite about himself andhis not interesting life. As a writer he is marginally acceptable. City Lights Books [publisher of an edition supplements by a 2012 interview and some correspondence almost all of it from Rumaker to Duncan] is really groveling for material. It is BAD, BAD, BAD Duncan was also a dull, bore I’ve met him several times hard to look at — one eye off center” (punctuation and its lack from the original).

Surprisingly, this buyer went on to underline many sentences and to include a number of stars in the margin for points without challenging any of them.

rumakerThe 22-year-old Rumaker (born in 1932) blocked the 34-year-old Duncan’s sexual advances not from loyalty to Jess (né Burgess Collins, 1923-2004) the painter who was Duncan’s life partner, but because Rumaker was not attracted to Duncan. (He found the pictures of a younger Duncan attractive and felt sorry for the loss of youth/beauty Duncan had had). Rumaker admired Duncan’s poetry and his courage in coming out in print in 1944 in Politics (“The Homosexual in Society”). From Rumaker’s memories, Duncan seems to have like Rumaker’s writings, at least before the memoir, after which Duncan never again communicated with him.

Robert-Duncan-and-Jess-1959 Duncan and Jess in 1959 (in backyward of 1137 De Haro?)

Jack Spicer was nasty to Rumaker. Rumaker believes that part of this was Spicer’s alcoholism, but also fury that Rumaker was fucking (obscure poet) Ebbe Borregaard, who Spicer wanted and couldn’t get.

Robert duncan by Jess, 19591959 Jess portrait of Duncan

Rumaker celebrates Duncan as a role model of self-acceptance and of making a home with a lover (a mere two blocks above where I live, at 1137 De Haro), albeit not monogamous. Rumaker himself was petrified by fear of the San Francisco Police. Rumaker makes a point of Duncan’s slight frustration that Charles Olson (Rumaker’s Black Mountain mentor, 1910-70) seemed more interested in men who had, like himself, been raised Catholic, including Rumaker than in non-Catholics however ex-. I find it a bit odd that Rumaker does not mention how Irish (Catholic) the San Francisco police force of the 1950s (and later) was.

SM@1137 De Haro(1137 De Haro is the middle units of  a vertical triplex, built in 1900, on Potrero Hill; that’s me in front of it)

The most vivid and, I think, valuable part of the memoir of San Francisco of the mid-1950s is Rumaker’s account of being picked up along with two dozen other men while he was walking home from hearing Miles Davis, going up Polk Street. He was charged with “vagrancy” in a doorway with another man. Alone of the 24 or 25 guilt-ridden and frightened arrestees, Rumaker pled “not guilty” and the case was dismissed by Clayton W. Horn, the same judge who presided over the 1956 obscenity trial of City Lights Books for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL (which Rumaker criticized in the Black Mountain Review, after R’s alma mater, Black Mountain College had folded). Rumaker was able to go back to work and his name was not published in the daily papers, as was the norm for those pleading no contest or guilty of vagrancy (which could be applied to anyone not carrying a thousand dollars—a thousand 1956 dollars!), loitering, public indecency (a legal category with elastic boundaries).

The documentation of what was too well-founded to count as “paranoia,” and of the mindset of “being not quite permissible affected our own feelings for each other,” with no feelings of solidarity or any positive identity, is more important than any insights into Robert Duncan’s character or persona or importance on the San Francisco poetry scene. “The Morals Squad was everywhere and the entrapment of gay males in the streets, the parks and inn numerous public places was a constant fear and a common occurrence.” The police abuse of surveillance and harassment of suspected homosexuals was only curtailed after various clergymen got a taste of the police modus operandi around Calfornia Hall (also on Polk Street) at a 1964 New Year’s Eve Ball. As Deborah Wolf wrote, “The police pursued a policy of deliberate harassment by taking photographs of each person entering California Hall, by parking a paddy wagon and several police cars outside the entrance to the building, and by entering the hall themselves. During the evening three attorneys and a [straight] woman council-member were arrested for ‘obstructing an officer in the course of his duties’ as they argued with the police at the entry to the hall…. The outrage felt by heterosexuals who had attended the ball, including clergymen and their wives, at this show of harassment led to a politicalization and a strengthening of their commitment to fight for the rights of the homophile community, once they themselves had experienced similar repressive actions at first hand.” (Lesbian Community, 1979:55).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


Unsettling fiction-making

In the House (2012)

bed (4.5/5)

Pros: strong script, strong performances

Cons: ending is less arresting than buildup to it

Adapted by prolific French auteur François Ozon from a play by Juan Mayorga, “In the House” (Dans la maison, 2012) is a Pirnadellian dark comedy about writing, invasion of privacy, expropriation and manipulation of the lives of others.

A failed writer turned teacher (Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach) Germain Germain (Fabrice Luchini [Bicylcing with Molière]) is surprised and delighted to find a boy with talent in his literature class, Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer). Even what Claude writes for the first assignment in unsettling in subject matter: c

hronicling his success at getting into the house of what seems to Claude (whose mother long ago left his crippled father) a normal family. Claude is helping Rapha Artole (fils—the son) with trigonometry problems, while spying on the mother, Esther Artole (Roman Polanski’s wife and lead in his “Venus in Furs,” Emmanuelle Seigner) and, to a lesser extent the father, hearty Rapha Artole père (Denis Ménochet).

In the House by François Ozon

Claude’s serial stories entrance while troubling both his teacher and the teacher’s wife Jeanne Germain (Kristin Scott Thomas, who not only speaks perfect French but has the look and body language down). The teacher advocates Flaubertian detachment, though the unfolding story is about forming or counterfeiting attachment (from all three Garcias). Jeanne, even more than her husband, assumes that everything Claude writes is reportage of what he does and sees. There are scenes in which Germain scolds Claude within the scenes Claude is writing. Germain presses Claude to find an ending that is unexpected yet after being read feels both satisfying and inevitable.


This sets a high demand on the screenplay, and for me the ending was inevitable enough but expected (and less than satisfying, anticlimactic). Still, I found the movie more interesting and less repellant than some other Ozon movies (See the Sea, Criminal Lovers, Water Drops on Burning Rocks), though not as good as some others (5×2, 8 Women, Time to Leave), in the league with Ozon’s previous (2010) “Potiche” (in which Luchini played a major part).

In addition to uncertainty about what is fictional in what Claude writes about his embededness (eventually literal) in the Artole house, the viewer cannot be certain what the Germains are reading into the installments they both read and discuss, with Mme. Germain judging the characters while her husband attempts to hold onto judging the writing.

Besides being Rapha’s math tutor, Claude also helps Rapha write an attack on Germain for humiliating Rapha in class (making him read his essay about his best friend, Claude, and then tearing it apart, sentence by sentence). And to ensure Claude’s success in raising Rapha’s math grade, Germain has stolen a math exam and supplied it to Claude.

Yes, Claude has bewitched two households and eventually gets into the apartment of the Germains, where he is not surprised that Jeanne knows the story he has been writing for her husband. Or that she has been disturbed by her husband’s fascination with the sixteen year-old boy, even as she also hangs on the cliff of expectation while waiting for the next installment of his serial (all of which end with “to be continued”).

The other voyeur, the viewer of the movie, does not know if the movie s/he is watching is going to veer into thriller violence or remain a bitter comedy (both Germain Germain and Claude are bitter as well as being aspiring and once-aspiring writers). Teacher tells student he must have more conflict to make an interesting story and then (along with the viewer) wonders how much of the conflict that then occurs in the serial is reportage, how much imagination. That is, how much is writing, how much living the story Claude is telling?


The Blu-Ray has an hour making-of feature and twelve minutes of deleted scenes, a poster gallery, and a trailer. The trailer may be viewed at

It was a dark and stormy 19th century

“The Woodlanders” (1997the-woodlanders



Pros: Rufus Sewell, Emily Woof

Cons: predictable

Although I have never read a novel by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), from having watched the screen adaptations of his novels Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the d’Ubervilles, I was pretty much able to anticipate the plot of “The Woodlanders” (1997) from very early on. I knew that Grace Melbury (Emily Woof) was going to let her social-climbing father (Tony Haygarth) push her into a disastrous match and that the soulful, yearning Giles Winterbourne (Rufus Sewell) would have his heart broken. Grace was his childhood sweetheart (five years younger than he) and when she returned from school (finishing school?), he expected she would wed him.

Successful timber-merchant Melbury had had his only child polished for a husband of higher status. Dr. Ftizpiers (Cal Macaninch) does not exude Giles’s virility and the emotionally (not to mention sexually!) inexperienced Grace weds him more from a sense of duty to obey her father than any feelings for him.

Giles continues to ignore Marti South (Jodhi May) a young woman whose feelings for him are as strong, if not quite so obvious, as his for Grace, and everyone (even Mr. Melbury) ends up heartbroken. I think this includes the rich widow, Mrs. Charmond (Polly Walker) who seduces Dr. Fitzpiers, though she is not seen after a meeting in the woods with Grace in which Grace refuses to pressure her husband to give up his mistress, more or less cursing Mrs. Charmond “See him as much as you want — until you wish you had never known him.”

Despite her husband’s desertion of her, the new divorce laws do not allow a divorce without physical cruelty, thwarting Mr. Melbury’s efforts to undo some of the damage his social-climbing has done his only child.

Giles manages to die preserving Grace’s honor in highly melodramatic fashion. And despite the timber business, the woods and green hills endure human follies and heartbreaks.

the-woodlanders-2üSewell who often played rascals (Cold Comfort Farm, Carrington) before being typecast as a villain (A Knight’s Tale, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) can also do stolid, like the sometimes flamboyant Alan Bates in John Schleisinger’s version of “Far from the Maddening Crowd” (though that character’s patience is better rewarded than Giles’s is!). Though not a great beauty (indeed, arguable less beautiful than Sewell ca. 1997), Woof delivered a solid performance as the young woman deferential to male authority (however misguided). Macaninch was suitably feckless (and lost in a rural setting) and Haygarth was suitably insensitive to his daughter’s feelings (and, indeed, nature!).

The Woodlanders13

Production values were BBC/Masterpiece Theater solid, effectively shot by Ashley Rowe (Calender Girls, Hot Fuzz). Producer/director Phil Agland has mostly directed documentaries (including five cinematographer credits along with six other directing ones), most recently (2012) “Baka: A Cry from the Rainforest” (of Cameroon).

BTW, -The Woodlanders_ was first published in 1887, between the more famous Thomas Hardy novels The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) and Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1891).

Robert Altman increased the length and perhaps upped the ante of “Persona”

3 Women (1977)



Pros: Shelly Duvall, Gerald Busby soundtrack

Cons: too long and slow and wince-inducing

I find Robert Altman’s 1977 “3 Women” excruciating watching—excruciatingly slow and wince-inducing for all three of the women. The hearty, gauche vision in yellow, Millie Lammoreaux (big-eyed, buckteethed and otherwise gawky Shelly Duvall) does not seem to me to deserve the scorn with which everyone except the new hire whom she shows the ropes and takes on as a roommate, Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek, 27 when the movie was shot and seeming even younger) treats her. Millie is pretty unflappable and/or oblivious. Pinky is naïve and more than a little oblivious. There is little indication what the pregnant painter/barmaid Willie Hart (Janice Rule) notices or feels. She does not say a single word for considerably more than an hour into the movie. Her husband, Edgar (Robert Fortier) is a horndog cad, whom Millie unwisely beds, evicting Pinky from the other bed in the bedroom.


90-year-old long-time director John Cromwell (father of Jason), who also appeared in Altman’s “The Wedding”, was too old to be Pinkie’s father, so her denying it has some plausibility (perhaps her grandfather?). The 72-year-old Ruth Nelson was also (if not as much) too old to be Pinkie’s mother.

Duvall was the only set decorator listed for the film in IMDB, and presumably improvised more than a few of her lines. An uncredited Patricia Resnick (credited for story and screenplay of the later (1979) Altman debacle, “Quintet”) prepared a treatment based on a dream (complete with the two leads) dreamt by Robert Altman, who acknowledged being influenced by Bergman’s “Persona” with its famed mysterious personality switch between two women, the care-supplier and the taken-care-of woman).3Women2

Mildred (Pinky) and Millie may be aspects of a single person, though I don’t see Willie as part of a unity, except the quasi-family at the ambiguous end (I don’t see her as having absorbed the other two).

Altman himself said: “I’m trying to reach toward a picture that’s totally emotional—not narrative or intellectual—where an audience walks out and they can’t say anything about it except what they feel.” And counterpoised to Pinky absorbing Millie, there is a pair of twins at the geriatric facility where Pinky has just been hired at the start of the movie. She speculated that they switch back and forth who they are, though no personality differences between them registers. Sometimes a twin is just a twin

Gerald Busby contributed an atonal, rather ominous-sounding score. And as a pitiable worm who turns, Spacek had just played the title role in “Carrie” the previous year. Duvall was nominated for a BAFT best actress award and won best actress awards at Cannes and from the Los Angeles Critics Association, while Spacek (whom I think is the protagonist of the movie) won a best supporting actress award from the New York Film Critics for her performance. Duvall was runner-up to Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall for the New York film critics.


More than a chance of precipitation

The Weather Man (2005)

“Who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.”       —Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat



[Rating: 3.4/5]

Pros: Phedon Papamichael ‘s cinematography

Cons: piling on frustrations

I found it very hard to get into “The Weather Man,” a 2005 box-office bomb written by Steve Conrad for Nicolas Cage, who plays the title role (with the “stage name” Dave Spritz) and directed by “Pirates of the Caribbean” money-maker Gore Verbinski (who went on to another commercial disaster that was also a critical disaster in “The Lone Ranger” in 2013). Dave is frustrated by the silliness/meaninglessness of his job as a Chicago tv weather announcer with no meteorology education. People in passing cars keep hurling fast food products at him, perhaps not liking the weather or frustrated at its unpredictability or not liking him. Analyzing it, he concludes that food is thrown at clowns and that that is how he is seen.

I find it difficult to believe that a national broadcast could be considering hiring Dave. Nicolas Cage is undeniably a movie star despite his odd look, but a national tv weatherman?

the-weather-manAside from “professional” “success,” he doesn’t really have the tribulations of Job. He alienated the wife he wants back, Noreen (Hope Davis), feels rejected by his successful novelist father (Michael Caine), and his children are somewhat troubled: his overweight daughter Shelly (Gemmenne de la Peña) whose peers call her “Camel Foot” and insists on clothes that maker her look absurd and attempting ballet with a totally unballerina figure, and Mike (Nicholas Hoult between “About a Boy” and “A Single Man”) who is in some kind of rehab for some kind of antisocial behavior. One of his counselors (Gil Bellows) wants to bed Mike, who does not respond positively.

houltDave takes over the bow and arrow he bought for Shelly, when she expressed an interest in archery, which leads to some striking images of ice-encrusted targets. In the last half hour, there are a number of beautiful images and Dave’s father makes an attempt to reach out to the son who continues to disappoint him (not for his job, but for inappropriate behaviors of various kinds).

Dave is not likable, especially when he is recognized by autograph-seekers (I think he should be flattered, not least considering what a low opinion of his “profession” he has.) Nicolas Cage is good at puzzlement and at having difficulty keeping his temper; Michael Caine is capable of underplaying. I eventually had to sympathize some with Dave, if more with Noreen, whose irritations with him seem amply justified both before and after their divorce. The acting was good all-around, the writing less so, and the cinematography of Phedon Papamichael (The Descendants, Nebraska, 3:10 to Yuma) exceptionally good.

I think “Quiz Show” with similar father-son dynamics is better, but “The Weather Man” is better than many (probably most) Nicolas Cage movies.

Vivid horrrors of African child soldier life

Beasts of No Nation (2015)beasts-of-no-nation-Abraham-Attah


[Rating: 3.4/5]

Pros: location photography, child actors

Cons: piling on

“Beasts of No Country,” the high-profile Netflix theatrical and streaming release of Cary Joji Fukunaga’s adaptation of the novel of the same name by Nigerian-American writer Uzodinma Iweala filmed in Ghana is not for the squeamish. Probably its target audience is unfamiliar with the phenomenon of child soldiers in African civil wars (including Ghana’s neighbors, Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as the Sudan and the Congo and the Central African Republic). I can’t imagine a viewer not sympathizing with the boy Agu (Ghanian Abraham Attah) , who, after seeing his father and older brother shot (by government forces) and escaping into the forest is brainwashed by the Commandant. Though a quite scary and manipulative dude, the rebel (NDF) commandant (never given a personal name) as played by Idris Elba (Luther) does not seem to me to be psychotic enough (in comparison with Mizinga Mwinga’s rebel commander, “The Great Tiger,” in “War Witch” (2012). Both are megalomaniacs. Both persuade their child soldiers that they are magically protected from harm from bullets and both are masters of rhetoric, extending into frothy cheerleader mumbo-jumbo. Both are paternalistic opportunists with no clear ideological rationale for the mayhem their irregular troops commit (so is Michel “Daddy” Obese (Abby Malibu Knag) in “The Silent Army” (2009)).


And though Agu’s initiation to killing is horrific and very graphically displayed, it not quite as traumatic as that of Komono in “War Witch” or of Abu in “The Silent Army.” (Both of them had to kill parents or be killed themselves.)

Agu is befriended by an agemate, Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom), who also is fiercely loyal to the Commandant, who used both boys sexually. That (plus drugs) seems to be what has made Strika mute, and Agu is far from garrulous even when in safety and telling a counselor that if he recounted what he had seen and done, the counselor would think Agu a beast or a devil.

As the title indicated, neither book nor movie specifes the country/civil war into which Agu is embroiled (and smoked, which I thought was a Melanesian rather than an African initiation constituent). Good as “Beasts” looks and sounds, and as good as the acting on display in it is, the most one can feel for Agu and Strika is pity, rather than caring about what happens to the somewhat older leads, Komono and Magician, in “War Witch.” (Both movies have voiceover narration, Komono’s directed at the baby she is carrying inside her.)

I think that the delusional Commandant at the end was influenced by Kurtz from “Heart of Darkness,” or perhaps by Marlon Brando’s upcountry Cambodian incarnation of him as a renegade US Army colonel in “Apocalypse Now.” The conception of the dangerous boys was perhaps influenced by “Children of Men,” though those Rio favela boys operated more independently than the Commandant’s cadres did.

Though probably best known for the first season of “True Detective” (2014), biracial (Japanese and Northern European ancestry) Fukunaga who was born in Oakland in 1977, seems to have an affinity for showing children in extreme situations: those fleeing gang violence from El Salvador across Mexico (mostly on the top of freight trains) in “Sin Nombre” (2009), the abused child Jane Eyre (2011), and now Agu. Though himself suffering from malaria, Fukunaga had to undertake operating the camera when the cameraman was disabled at the start of production. Dan Romer provided atmospheric, sometimes electronic music.

I often question MPAA ratings of sexual suggestion (let alone content), but think “Beasts” should have an NC-17 rating for ultra-graphic violence.

Trailer at


(I discussed the earlier African child soldier movies in my Kindle book , the book War Child and documentary movie “Lost Boys of the Sudan” on epinions.

Tragicomic movie about a parody heist by disillusioned Jewish Romanian communists

Closer to the Moon



Pros: cast, music, gallows humor

Cons: the reality was not funny, making for uncertainty of mood in making and reacting to the movie

Set in Bucharest A.D. 1959, “Closer to the Moon” (2013, written and directed by Romanian Nae Caranfil; released in the US in the spring of 2015, now streaming on Netflix) is a Romanian, Polish, Italian, French, US co-production in English with handsome Brit Harry Lloyd (The Theory of Everything, Wolf Hall, Game of Thrones) as the innocent busboy, Virgil, who observes what is supposed to be a movie of a holdup of an armored car being shot. Except that it’s a real hold-up, and after its perpetrators, old-line (pre-WWII, wartime resisters of the Nazis) Jews, have been condemned to be executed, they are forced to appear in a propaganda film about the holdup they perpetrated. Yes, a movie about a robbery disguised as a movie. There are scenes from the 1960 Romanian black-and-white movie shown during the closing credits.

Before that, however, Virgil becomes a movie camera operator, and has a last-night fling with the woman of the group of disillusioned communists, Alice Berkovich (Vera Farmiga [Up in the Air]). The State Security official in charge of making the movie, who continues to investigate the crime even after five death sentences have been passed (Anton Lesser) has ordered Virgil to find out where Alice’s son is hidden and to find out why the robbers did it. The short answer to the second question is that they wanted to show that the state’s claim that crime had been eliminated in the worker’s paradise was false. Virgil goes with Alice when she escapes chaos on the movie set and visits her son, Mirel (very blond Marcin Walewski) but before Virgil can be pressed to provide answers to either questions, Holban is sacked by the minister (Darrell D’Silva).

The organizer of the heist, who becomes de facto director of the movie re-enactment, Max Rosenthal (Mark Strong, who reminds me of Jon Hamm; Strong played Jim Prideaux in the 2011 movie version of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) was married to the minister’s daughter, which led to an appointment as chief inspector of the Bucharest police. (The other conspirators to ridicule the Romanian state are history professor Yorgu (Christian McKay), newsman Razvan (Joe Armstrong), and astrophysicist Dumi (Tim Plester) who had been liaison to the Soviet space program in the Sputnik era, but had been replaced due to Russian/Soviet anti-Semitism. And Max is the father of Alice’s son.)

CloserToTheMoon4                                                  Lloyd and Strong

There is Pirandellian black comedy throughout the movie, especially in the re-enactment of the heist. The nominal director (Allan Corduner) is passed out drunk every day of the shoot (and, presumably, every day not of the shoot, too). Or, perhaps, it is Jewish gallows humor within a Pirandellian black comedy or is is Mittleuropa comedy?… The whole project is remarkably light-hearted a prelude to real execution, following a kangaroo court in which the defense attorney is barely allowed to complete a single statement or to question witnesses. The satiric comedy of the 2013 movie is definitely set within the tragedy of the Jewish communists disillusioned by the regime they were deeply involved in putting in power (tragedy both for them and for the people of the Socialist Republic of Romania, even before the predominance of Nicolae Ceausecu from 1965-89).

closer-to-the-moon-image02A gang that didn’t have to shoot straight (and re-enacment cameraman Virgil)

Noting that the Soviets had been able to launch a dog into orbit, but not bring him safely down, Max requested to be sent into space, rather than being shot by a firing squad, but his request is angrily rejected. (So none of them gets closer to the moon than Dumi observing Sputnik launches).

An effective soundtrak was composed by Laurent Couson, and Marius Panduru’s cinematography was top-nothc, as was the acting, with Anton Lesser especially standing out as an oddly tragic functionary of the Romanian communist government.